Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An overlooked potentially keystone species is disapprearing

Great op-ed in the New York Times today.

Do you take fish oil capsules? Lots of people do but I doubt many--if any at all--know what type of fish go into the capsules. The NYT article focuses on identifying the species and provides a lot of information on its importation to the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem.

What the piece doesn't tell you is the ultimate cause of the decline, which is of course our broken food system. The Nutritional-Industrial Complex grinds up the fish for corn-fed animals and our beloved pets, a practice that is depleting this fish, which is the food for most of the fish we like to it. Big Ag long ago abandoned grass-fed meat, which is usually two times or more higher in omega 3 content than grain-fed beef, so people now want to take fish oil supplements to get more Omega 3's. You're also seeing processed food on the shelves that has been enhanced with Omega 3's, which I'm sure probably comes from this "trash" fish as well. I'm sure fish oil plays a small part compared to what's ground up for animal feed, but our desire for Omega 3 fatty acids, caused by abandoning grass-fed animals is now taking a toll on the oceans.

“WHAT’S the deal with fish oil?”

by Stephen Savage

If you are someone who catches and eats a lot of fish, as I am, you get adept at answering questions about which fish are safe, which are sustainable and which should be avoided altogether. But when this fish oil question arrived in my inbox recently, I was stumped. I knew that concerns about overfishing had prompted many consumers to choose supplements as a guilt-free way of getting their omega-3 fatty acids, which studies show lower triglycerides and the risk of heart attack. But I had never looked into the fish behind the oil and whether it was fit, morally or environmentally speaking, to be consumed.

The deal with fish oil, I found out, is that a considerable portion of it comes from a creature upon which the entire Atlantic coastal ecosystem relies, a big-headed, smelly, foot-long member of the herring family called menhaden, which a recent book identifies in its title as “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”

The book’s author, H. Bruce Franklin, compares menhaden to the passenger pigeon and related to me recently how his research uncovered that populations were once so large that “the vanguard of the fish’s annual migration would reach Cape Cod while the rearguard was still in Maine.” Menhaden filter-feed nearly exclusively on algae, the most abundant forage in the world, and are prolifically good at converting that algae into omega-3 fatty acids and other important proteins and oils. They also form the basis of the Atlantic Coast’s marine food chain.

Nearly every fish a fish eater likes to eat eats menhaden. Bluefin tuna, striped bass, redfish and bluefish are just a few of the diners at the menhaden buffet. All of these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids but are unable themselves to synthesize them. The omega-3s they have come from menhaden.

But menhaden are entering the final losing phases of a century-and-a-half fight for survival that began when humans started turning huge schools into fertilizer and lamp oil. Once petroleum-based oils replaced menhaden oil in lamps, trillions of menhaden were ground into feed for hogs, chickens and pets. Today, hundreds of billions of pounds of them are converted into lipstick, salmon feed, paint, “buttery spread,” salad dressing and, yes, some of those omega-3 supplements you have been forcing on your children. All of these products can be made with more environmentally benign substitutes, but menhaden are still used in great (though declining) numbers because they can be caught and processed cheaply.

For the last decade, one company, Omega Protein of Houston, has been catching 90 percent of the nation’s menhaden. The perniciousness of menhaden removals has been widely enough recognized that 13 of the 15 Atlantic states have banned Omega Protein’s boats from their waters. But the company’s toehold in North Carolina and Virginia (where it has its largest processing plant), and its continued right to fish in federal waters, means a half-billion menhaden are still taken from the ecosystem every year.

For fish guys like me, this egregious privatization of what is essentially a public resource is shocking. But even if you are not interested in fish, there is an important reason for concern about menhaden’s decline.

Quite simply, menhaden keep the water clean. The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we “reduce” into oil every year.

So what is the seeker of omega-3 supplements to do? Bruce Franklin points out that there are 75 commercial products — including fish-oil pills made from fish discards — that don’t contribute directly to the depletion of a fishery. Flax oil also fits the bill and uses no fish at all.

But I’ve come to realize that, as with many issues surrounding fish, more powerful fulcrums than consumer choice need to be put in motion to fix things. President Obama and the Congressional leadership have repeatedly stressed their commitment to wresting the wealth of the nation from the hands of a few. A demonstration of this commitment would be to ban the fishing of menhaden in federal waters. The Virginia Legislature could enact a similar moratorium in the Chesapeake Bay (the largest menhaden nursery in the world).

The menhaden is a small fish that in its multitudes plays such a big role in our economy and environment that its fate shouldn’t be effectively controlled by a single company and its bottles of fish oil supplements. If our government is serious about standing up for the little guy, it should start by giving a little, but crucial, fish a fair deal.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why I never take out of town guests for seafood

In Birthplace of Local Food, Fish Imports Take Over the Menu
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Paul Johnson has worked at the Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco for 30 years and has witnessed a dramatic downward shift in the local supply of seafood.

Published: December 11, 2009

Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s oldest seafood restaurant, now serves farmed salmon flown in from Scotland. Sam’s Grill & Seafood, which also dates to the Gold Rush, features shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan halibut.

The San Francisco region is where the locavore movement got its name. And decades before restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley were recommending their local leeks, the establishments near San Francisco’s wharves took pride in their fresh, local sand dabs and petrale.

These days, fish flown in from around the world is more likely to be on offer. The change began gradually, but has recently sped up. Data from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal advisory group, reveal the cumulative effect: a 71 percent drop in commercial fishing revenue along the north-central California coast since 1990.

The effects are everywhere, seen in the number of idle fishermen or those who have left the profession altogether — membership in the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is down by two-thirds in 15 years — and the fish markets filled with Vietnamese catfish and Mexican spiny lobster.

Fish from local bays has been “one of the last local foods to go,” said Jessica Prentice, a Berkeley chef known for coining the word “locavore.” She added: “Seafood was one of the few things, well into the industrial age, that people associated with place. If you’re on a particular coast, or bay, or lake, you typically want to eat the seafood that’s fresh and local.” These days in the Bay Area, that means Dungeness crab in the winter and precious little else.

With beloved local petrale scarce for the past three months, Andrew Carvalho, the head chef at Sam’s, has had to make do with sea bream from Greece.

Not long ago, said Larry Collins, a San Francisco hook-and-line fisherman, “we fished salmon in the summertime, crab in the wintertime and rock cod whenever we needed to make the mortgage. Now we fish crab in the wintertime and scramble in the summertime.”

San Francisco’s situation is part of a national phenomenon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly China. Yet the trend has special resonance around San Francisco. Robert E. Ross, executive director of the California Fisheries and Seafood Institute, a trade group, estimated that Bay Area residents eat, on average, about double the amount of fish consumed annually by most other Americans.

Many diners recall when local seafood — salmon, red snapper, abalone — was abundant. “I think about it all the time,” said Paul Johnson, the chief executive of the Monterey Fish Market, which supplies up to five million pounds of fish a year to 150 regional restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the Googleplex in Mountain View.

“In the fall when crab season comes around, and the boilers are steaming and all the guys are coming around with the fresh crabs, it just makes you sad to realize that this is the last major fishery we have left,” he said.

The decline and fall of California’s fisheries is an intricate tale. Eighteenth-century Pacific Coast explorers described a paradise teeming with life. “No country is more abundant in fish and game of every description,” said the French naval officer Jean-Fran├žois de Galaup, who mapped the Pacific Coast in 1786. Two centuries of robust harvests followed, with occasional off-years.

Now off-years are the norm. Still, the drop in local harvests doesn’t precisely reflect the decline of fish in the sea. The confluence of expanding global markets and more assertive local controls has produced dramatic change. One fishery after another petered out in the wild, and regulators curtailed fishing to preserve species. As with other environmental problems, every person with a stake in the Bay Area’s seafood decline has a villain of choice.

Salmon fishermen tend to blame the decline on inland water users, like farms and developers, who, they say, diverted water needed for spawning new generations of fish. Scientists suggest that a warming ocean has put the fishes’ food supply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others blame mismanagement. Similar finger-pointing is evident around other wounded fisheries.

Wild abalone was one of the first local seafoods to vanish, after state officials closed depleted fisheries in 1996. In 2002, trawling for rockfish — the bottom-dweller often called “red snapper” and used in the spicy stew cioppino — was barred on much of the Pacific Coast. In the past two years, fishing bans multiplied as salmon and herring grew scarce.

In all cases, the regulators responded to evidence of sharp declines in local species. But many local fishermen, who have sustained staggering economic losses, feel the actions of state and federal officials have been excessive.

“In California, we have the least exploited fisheries in the world, but the toughest regulations,” complained Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. At the Monterey Fish Market, Mr. Johnson’s 30-year career has spanned the most dramatic downward shift in local supply. When he began, he said, he was importing only about 30 percent of his fish from outside of California. Now, he said, the figure is closer to 80 percent.

While industry insiders are all too aware of the change in Bay Area menus, diners may have been slow to grasp it. “People still don’t get it,” said George Leonard, a marine biologist at the Santa Cruz office of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

“Restaurants will go to great lengths to make it seem like the fish is local,” he said. “They’ll advertise the ‘fresh catch of the day,’ and half the time, it’s farmed fish from halfway around the world.”

The illusion of fresh local fish became harder to maintain after a 2005 law obliged vendors to label wares by country of origin. This has combined with the trend to advertise the pedigree of foods, like the “Bolinas black cod” at Chez Panisse.

CleanFish, a San Francisco-based supplier of “sustainable seafood,” boasts its wild and “sustainably farmed” fish, like the “Carolina Mahi-Mahi” and the Loch Duarte salmon featured at Tadich Grill. Yet its use of air-shipped and farmed fish rankles some environmentalists. “When you put fresh fish in an airplane,” Mr. Leonard said, “all bets are off,”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium includes all farmed fish on its “red list” of fish to be avoided, citing concerns like the discharge of waste and parasites from farms. The founder of CleanFish, Tim O’Shea, said this ignored differences among the farmers.

A few chefs, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, vigorously advocate serving local seafood whenever possible — “We collected our own mussels from a legal zone recently. Divine!” Ms. Waters recounted in an e-mail message. Still, she occasionally resorts to “sustainable” shrimp from New Orleans.

While the globalization of fish may seem unstoppable, some dream of San Francisco seafood’s resurgence. Mr. Johnson of the Monterey Fish Market foresaw encouraging trends over the next few years, if federal strictures help rebuild rockfish populations.

Recently, environmental advocates took heart in the state’s decision in August to protect 155 square miles of ocean, permanently banning professional fishing in reserves covering 11 percent of California coastal waters.

The decision, to take effect early next year, has prompted complaints from struggling fishermen, yet it is meant to preserve habitat crucial in rebuilding species like rockfish and abalone.

“We can no longer treat the ocean and its fish and wildlife as an all-you-can eat buffet,” said Kaitilin Gaffney, the Pacific ecosystem program director for the Ocean Conservancy. “But the ocean is pretty resilient. If we allow nature to restore herself, she will.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

"I just wanted to say that I'm a hipster, and I'm here tonight to stand up for the rights of other hipsters. I mean uh, all our lives we've been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we're self-absorbed? Cause we look different? Well, we're not. I'm a hipster, and uh, I'm pretty proud of it."

"Hi, Kendall. I'm a hipster too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There's a lot more of us then there are of you. I know there's alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams you might've been called a scenester, or a douchebag, or a snob. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you're a hipster or not, why don't you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on."

"Just join us 'cause, uh, no-one's gonna really be free until hipster persecution ends."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The most interesting person I've heard about in a while

The pharmaceutical companies call him a pirate with no respect for the law because he sells HIV medicine at a discount in Africa.

I found out about him from this NPR story about how we might need to start importing his drugs to deal with the flu vaccine shortage.

But just remember, people, the key word in "swine flu" is "flu." If you're a non-immuno-compromised adult, it really is OK to get the flu every once in a while.

Monday, November 9, 2009

I'm always ahead of the trends

I've been a filthy bastard for years, but here is a great article from a year ago. I'd like to think it contains some info the soap companies don't want you to see.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Our national eating disorder's latest manifestation

Attack of the killer oysters!

Louisiana blasts new FDA rule requiring oysters to be sterilized to prevent rare bacterial illness
By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
October 28, 2009, 6:51AM

Oysters are a staple at Drago's restaurant in Metairie.
At the small warehouse tucked away in the back side of the French Quarter, the shuckers at P&J Oyster Co. have arrived before daybreak for 133 years.

Their in-shell and shucked oysters have been on the menus of generations of restaurateurs, from oysters on the halfshell at Acme Oyster House and Casemento’s to the seafood gumbo at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.

In less than two years, the tradition could become obsolete for seven months out of the year, based on newly announced oyster guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration.

In an effort to reduce cases of a rare, but potentially fatal, bacterial illness contracted from raw oysters, the FDA announced new rules this month that will require any oyster served from April through October to undergo a sterilization process before it can be sold in restaurants or on the market.

The rule will essentially eliminate raw oysters -- at least as Louisianans know them -- from restaurant menus for seven months of the year. Even oysters that will eventually be cooked during those months would have to go through the same cleansing process before being added to any dish, a move some say would undermine the culinary integrity of some of New Orleans’ most famous delicacies.

“It’s not only going to include raw oysters. You can’t fry oysters for a po-boy, you can’t put oysters in a gumbo and you can’t charbroil oysters unless they’re post-harvest processed,” said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s restaurant, a mainstay for oysters in the metro area. “That’s ludicrous.”
Than Nguyen shucks oysters at P&J Oysters in the French Quarter on Tuesday. New FDA regulations that could begin in 2011 would require that oysters, from March to November, go through an intense sanitation process before they could be served in restaurants or on the open market. The effects in Louisiana -- and nationwide -- will be tremendous, from oyster-loving consumers down to seafood dealers and fishers, industry representatives and state government officials say. Louisiana is by far the largest oyster-producing state in the country, responsible for more than a third of the oysters brought to market nationwide.

The vast majority of those oysters are sold out of state.

“You talk about an economic impact that keeps going and going,” said Al Sunseri, the general manager of P&J, which has operated at Rampart and Toulouse streets since 1876. “You’ll have a number of people that count of the Gulf states during those months that will no longer be able to provide product to their customers.”

Local industry representatives and state health officials are highly critical of the FDA plan, with one oyster processor, Mike Voisin, equating the new guidelines to a “nuclear bomb” on the industry.

Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said in a statement Tuesday that his agency has worked with the oyster industry for years to do biological tests and implement new guidelines requiring refrigeration of oysters less than five hours after they are harvested.

“What is particularly interesting is while the FDA seems focused on domestic oyster production, there is wide evidence that imported seafood is a far greater health threat, and there seems to be little movement by the FDA to get their arms around that problem,” Levine said in the statement.

Robert Barham, secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, added in a joint statement, “The effect of the proposed ban would greatly impact the Gulf Coast oyster industry and threaten thousands of jobs here in Louisiana and all along the coast.”

The vibrio vulnificus disease, the target of the FDA initiative, affects about 30 individuals per year nationwide who eat raw oysters from Gulf Coast. About half of those who get the disease, which invades the bloodstream and can cause a severe fever and skin lesions, eventually die.

But those most at risk from vibrio are people who already have immune system disorders, such as AIDS, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes or alcohol abuse.

The oyster industry and FDA have been working for more than a decade to inform consumers who are most susceptible to the disease. But this month the FDA changed course, instead announcing that the industry would have to institute the new technology by 2011 to eliminate any risk from the disease during the months of April through October.

“We no longer believe that measures which reduce the hazard, but fall well short of eliminating it, such as improvements in refrigeration, are sufficient to meet the purpose of the regulation, given the severity of the hazard,” Michael Taylor, a senior adviser to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, told an industry group earlier this month.

The primary complaint from industry is that the infrastructure is simply not in place to comply with the FDA’s 2011 timetable.

The months of April through October, identified as the time of risk for the vibrio vulnificus disease, make up about 60 percent of the state’s oyster production, based on average harvests over the past 10 years. But the technology needed to comply, known as post-harvest processing, can currently handle only about 10 percent of the total production during those months.

The result could be oysters priced twice, even three times as much as they are now, according to industry estimates.

“The oyster community is made up of mom-and-pop operations that are not capital-intensive,” said Voisin, the owner of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, who owns one of the three plants currently equipped to sterilize oysters under the upcoming FDA guidelines. “It would create a huge need for capital investment, at a time when huge capital investments into mom and pops are not being made.”

While there are sterilization processes that would allow consumers to still eat oysters from the shell, the technology in some cases actually would pry open the oyster itself. So the freshly shucked oysters at taverns across the city, dredged from the reefs less than a day earlier, would disappear for most of the year.

We produce one-third of the oysters in the whole country, and 4 million people in Louisiana can’t eat them all,' says John Tesvich, a local oyster processor.C.J. Casamento, the owner of Casamento’s restaurant on Magazine Street, said many chefs have tried the sterilized oysters in the past but have stopped because the flavor isn’t the same. His restaurant is already closed from June through August, but the guidelines would cut into one of his peak seasons: Jazz Fest. “People who come down here to eat raw oysters wouldn’t be coming down here to eat these things,” Casamento said of the sterilized oysters. “If they try to implement this, it will destroy all the raw oyster restaurants in the city.”

Because the guidelines have only recently been announced, it’s possible that the state could issue separate guidelines for oysters sold within Louisiana. FDA controls interstate commerce, but not business within individual states.

But the demand for Louisiana oysters nationwide would still put a crimp on the state’s industry, which employs more than 3,500 residents and is worth more than $300 million.

“Most of our oysters go out of state,” said John Tesvich, an oyster processor who owns one of the other plants capable of processing sterilized oysters. “We produce one-third of the oysters in the whole country, and 4 million people in Louisiana can’t eat them all.”

Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3321.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Food Democracy Now

Dear Friends,

Speak up to stop Big Ag.

President Obama has found himself with some strange bedfellows lately.

While on the campaign trail in Iowa, Barack Obama boasted, “We’ll tell ConAgra that it’s not the Department of Agribusiness. We’re going to put the people’s interests ahead of the special interests.”1 Despite that promise, it seems that ConAgra’s friends at Monsanto and CropLife are still finding their way into the USDA.

Last month, President Obama nominated two “Big Ag” power brokers--Roger Beachy and Islam Siddiqui--to key agency positions, putting agribusiness executives in charge of our country's agricultural research and trade policy. Please join us in telling the President that this isn't the change we voted for. We don't want Big Ag running the show any more.

Siddiqui's confirmation hearing is set for next week. Please help us reach our goal of 50,000 signatures to make a real impact.

Obama’s first agribusiness selection is Roger Beachy, to be head of the USDA’s newly created National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Beachy is the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO. It may sound innocuous, but the Danforth Center is essentially the non-profit arm of GMO seed giant Monsanto; Monsanto’s CEO sits on its board, and the company provides considerable funding for the Center’s operations.2

As the head of the USDA’s new research arm, formerly known as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CREES), Beachy is responsible for deciding how U.S. research dollars will be spent in agriculture.3 Translation: more research on biotech, less research on how to scale sustainable and organic agriculture.

Unfortunately, Beachy has already started work at the USDA, but the next nominee—Islam Siddiqui—still must be confirmed by the U.S.Senate. Siddiqui, the Vice President of Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America, was recently nominated to be the Chief Agricultural Negotiator at the Office of the US Trade Representative.4 Amazingly, when Michele Obama planted her “organic” garden on the White House lawn, Siddiqui’s CropLife MidAmerica sent the First Lady a letter saying that it made them “shudder”.5

During his career, Siddiqui spent over 3 years as a pesticide lobbyist, an Undersecretary at the USDA and a VP at CropLife. In defending Siddiqui, the White House has stated that he played a key role in helping establish the country’s first organic standards.6 What they neglect to mention, though, is that those original organic standards would have allowed irradiation, sewage sludge and GMOs to undermine organic integrity! The standards were so watered down that 230,000 people signed a petition for them to be changed, which they eventually were.7

Fortunately, the organic community stopped Siddiqui and his cronies then, and we need your help now to do it again. If Siddiqui’s nomination is allowed to go through, then agribusiness will continue to control the seeds, the science, and the distribution of global food and agriculture.

Please join Food Democracy Now! and a broad coalition of other groups, in calling on President Obama to keep his campaign promise of closing the revolving door between agribusiness and his administration.

Please click here to add your voice.

Thanks for standing with us and our coalition partners from across the country, including: The Pesticide Action Network (PAN), National Family Farm Coalition, Food & Water Watch, Farmworker's Association of Florida, Institute of Agriculture & Trade Policy, Greenpeace and the Center for Food Safety in calling for President Obama to live up to his promises to put people's interests ahead of special interests

Sustainably Yours,

Dave, Lisa and the Food Democracy Now! Team.

If you'd like to see Food Democracy Now!'s grassroots work continue, please consider donating. Your donation of $5 or more will help us continue our work. We appreciate your support!


1. Obama slams corporate agriculture, two Illinois firms, The Chicago Tribune, November 10, 2007

2. Another Monsanto man in a key USDA post?, Grist, September 24, 2009

3. A New Direction on Research at the USDA? The Experts Weigh In, The Huffington Post, October 15, 2009

4. Obama’s attempt to tap an agrichemical-industry flack runs into trouble, Grist, October 10, 2009

5. Michelle’s green garden upsets pesticide makers, The First Post, April 23, 2009

6. Agriculture nomination steams greens, Politico, October 10, 2009

7. USDA Enters Debate on Organic Label Law, The New York Times, February 23, 2003

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tort Reform Discussion

Person 1 (lawyer):

For obvious reasons, I'm vehemently against tort reform (the only real democratic leaning I have, besides being closer to pro-choice than I am pro-life). For those of you who are for tort reform, what you need is real stories of human tragedy to put a face on the issue. How's this for the worst thing you've ever heard:

17 year-old girl in rural Kansas. Father is abusive, mom an alcoholic. She goes to see a hack psychiatrist in rural Kansas for her emotional issues stemming from parents. Psychiatrist prescribes an anxiety drug that is extremely potent, and bears a warning on the box in big letters that strongly warns against exceeding max dosage, and says that if you see any sign of a rash to go to the doctor immediately. Problem is, he gives her the samples without the warnings, and while he's at it gives her double the max. dose. She takes it, ignores the rash that begins growing on her chest after a couple days, and finally is life-flighted to city hospital. after going into arrest. Turns out, she has Stevens-Johnson syndrome - the worst possible side effect from overdose of this drug. It literally burns your body from the inside-out. It burns up all your organs, then burns off all of your skin, burns your eyelids so you go blind, and burns off your scalp. Many organs are rendered essentially useless, and you spend your life in extreme pain as a complete vegetable, at constant risk of fatal organ failure. She is treated at KU Med. in the worst case of SJS they have ever seen, and racks up over $2 million in medical bills.

She is now at home, a complete vegetable, with little skin, no hair, is blind, and in immense pain every minute of the day. I have over 50 pictures that I can't show you, but believe me, you wouldn't want to eat after seeing them.

Who to sue? Well, the hack psychiatrist only has $200K in insurance, because that's all he's required to have under Kansas-law. He's judgment proof, as he's basically broke, because he's a sh*tty doctor. No case against the manufacturer, because the warnings were clearly there, had the doc. not given the samples only without a supplemental warning. Thus, the max she can collect is $200K. Medicaid paid all of her medical bills, and has a lien for the $2 million, so any of the $200K she collects goes straight to their pockets. Thus, what can she collect? 0.

I've seen dozens and dozens of cases of brain-dead infants, quadriplegics, people who died too young, crippling orthopedic injuries, strokes leaving people incapacitated with cognitive deficits, and nearly everything else you can imagine. I think this is the worst I've seen, which is why I felt compelled to share.

This isn't a direct product of tort reform, but is a product of the state allowing doctors to run around committing malpractice with too little insurance coverage, when they are otherwise judgment proof. What other recourse is there for this girl? None. Because some doctors who make well over $500K a year, which believe me, most do, whine that their coverage is too high. There are no easy answers, but believe me, if you saw cases like these everyday, you would not believe in tort reform.
Person 2 (lawyer):

Completely agree. Legal costs are expensive, yes, but that doesn't mean you punish victims to fix it. I think damage caps are unconstitutional and unconscionable because they take the power out of the courts' hands to make their own decisions on a case. Why would the legislature know how much a victim should be awarded more than the jury in the case?

So the newspapers pick up a story and run "Woman spills hot coffee and is awarded a billion dollars." People look at that and think, "god, I'd spill hot coffee on my crotch for that. Sh!t happens. We need to do something about tort judgments." But you never hear the full, gory details like what you just gave us.

Damage caps to me are like saying we need to fix the health care system so we're just going to allow doctors to perform $50,000 of treatment, no matter how much treatment is actually required to fix the person. We certainly would cut down on medical costs but I don't think people would actually be better off for it.
Person 3 (non-lawyer):

Interesting commentary. I know little of the subject and welcome the knowledge.

I guess I have the following questions:

- who ultimately finances the cost of justice-seeking?

- to what extent is there data available that categorizes the nature
(degree of frivolity - not that such a score is easily and unanimously
determined, but you know what I mean) of all cases. I require data.
Person 1:

Good questions. Here's the best I could answer:

(1) A doctor or R.N. typically pays (or has paid on his/her behalf) insurance premiums for "primary" coverage through a carrier of either his/hers or the hospital's choosing. Such primary policies are high in jurisdictions where there has been no tort reform (in Illinois, most docs. or nurses have at least $2 million in primary coverage) and abysmally low in jurisdictions where the insurance lobby has convinced the legislature to invoke caps on pain and suffering, wrongful death, etc. and/or doesn't require that doctors carry much by way of primary coverage (in Kansas, most docs. or nurses have $200,000 in primary coverage - which doesn't begin to cover damages in a catastrophic case).

Then, the doc. or nurse has excess coverage from a different carrier or state fund in the event that the primary coverage is satisfied by way of a jury verdict (verdict is 1.2 million, primary policy is only 200K, the excess policy comes into play), or settlement (primary carrier tenders their 200K, bringing the excess policy into play). Again, the extent of excess or "umbrella" coverage varies by state. Using IL and KS as examples, again, most excess policies are 4-6 million in IL, and 800K in Kansas.

The decision to settle or try a case to verdict is solely in the hands of the carrier. A doc. may pressure the carrier to settle on his/her behalf if it's a bad case, because he doesn't want the bad PR, but it is ultimately up to the carrier and the doc. has little to say about it. A carrier can be liable for bad faith if they refuse to settle in a case that is clearly very bad, because by refusing to settle within policy limits they are exposing their insured to a personal excess verdict. If they are found to be in bad faith, they will have to cover the excess. (This factors in in the case with the 17 year-old girl - there is no coverage at stake and a verdict in excess is of no value, because the psychiatrist has no assets).

Thus, insurance comes heavily, heavily into play here, and the state legislatures dictate how much coverage a health care professional must have, and whether damages are capped.

(2) Whether on the defense or the plaintiff's side, I have always been against tort reform, but in favor of getting rid of frivolous suits. The thing people don't realize, and why the issue gets muddled, is that the frivolous suits weed themselves out. It costs so much money for a plaintiff's attorney (who only gets paid on a contingency, if his client gets a settlement or verdict) to try a medical malpractice case these days (at least $100 - $150,000 for a big case) that he can't afford to go on a witch hunt and try cases of no merit. It simply doesn't happen. If it does, the insurance company refuses to settle, and the case goes to trial. Then, in 99% of frivolous cases, the jury will return the right verdict. The "McDonald's case" is representative of .0000000000001% of the cases that are filed. It simply doesn't happen. It's a freak occurrence, and is not representative in any way of the types of cases we see now. I can tell you personally that I never saw a "frivolous" suit, ever, as a defense attorney - only, at worst, ones that we would probably win, but that could reasonably be brought by a plaintiff. Now, on the plaintiff's side, we look for reasons to reject cases, not the other way around. It's fiscally irresponsible, and gives you a bad reputation. Thus, while I can't give you a percentage, I can tell you that anyone who supports tort reform because of "these frivolous lawsuits" has no idea what they're talking about.
Person 2:

Generally, the cost of justice seeking is financed by two parties: the injured person's attorney and the injurer's insurance company, which really gets passed along to everybody who pays for that type of insurance (med mal, etc.), which then gets passed along to the customers of that industry (patients in the med mal case). That's why the tort reform movement is so appealing to some people. It seeks to cut down on costs for everyone.

As for frivolity, you could try looking at jury verdicts but those almost always tend to be 50/50 for the plaintiffs and defendants. Going to trial is literally a coin flip's chance of getting a favorable result. Therefore, statistics are hard to measure because an overwhelming majority of cases are settled out of court. Nobody wants to spend the money to fully litigate something that is so uncertain. Even a lot of frivolous cases settle because it sometimes costs less to pay out a relatively small settlement than to litigate it fully. The settlement agreement is usually not public record either. I have a feeling that companies generally do a pretty good job of knowing which cases are frivolous and which are not, and they tend to act in their best financial interests when it comes to litigating or settling.

Legal costs are a problem, in my opinion, because of the lengthy discovery process. Much of this is set up to provide victims--especially poor ones--with as much access to the courts and to information in the control of the other party. As a country, we decided long ago (whether you agree or not) that it was good public policy to not deny injured people access to the court system because they couldn't afford it or because they couldn't get to the information. That is why we have contingency fee arrangements where a lawyer can provide services where he gets money only if he gets a favorable result*: people with no money can still hire a lawyer. For the same reason, we don't make the loser pay the other's costs. I don't necessarily agree with that policy, but that's the way it is. We have decided that nobody should ever be injured and not be able to be made whole again because he was too broke to sue. I think it comes down to America regarding the plight of one person as being more important than the health of our overall society. Same with criminal justice. We would rather see 99 guilty men walk free than incarcerate one innocent man.

Legal costs are ridiculously out of control, I think we could cut down on this by making the loser pay and encouraging mediation as much as possible.

*So lawyers are also gate keepers when it comes to frivolous lawsuits. Good lawyers don't take bad cases.
Person 3:

I would be interested to see numbers on the percentage of cases (or claimed failures) per "treatment" (or doctor-patient interaction)... The number of failures should have a positive correlation with the increase in the number of the patients and care-givers. The greater the number of treatments, the greater the number of failures. In theory, any deviation from this fixed % should be able to be explained... unless of course there was a boon in frivolity, which, as you say, is not the case.

Naturally, as treatments increase with technology and population, it reasons that the cost to fix malpractice will increase accordingly, along with all the other healthcare costs.

The answer to who pays for this is everybody.

And, quite simply, the only way to curb health care costs is to decrease treatments, which can only be achieved by improving the health of the population.

Tort-reform - upon cursory thought - therefore appears to be missing the point...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Food Democracy Now

Tell Tom Vilsack to stand up for family farmers.

It’s time to end the bureaucratic squabbling at the USDA and put beginning and minority farmers first.

What new and minority farmers need most is access to affordable land — unfortunately USDA officials are stalling a potential solution.

A new program created by sustainable agriculture advocates in the 2008 Farm Bill, called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Transition Option, offers incentives to land owners enrolled in the CRP to sell or lease the land to beginning and minority farmers using sustainable or organic practices at the end of CRP contracts.

Please sign this petition to help grow the next generation of sustainable and organic farmers by giving them access to the land.

Currently, 4.3 million acres enrolled in CRP are about to leave the program and this land is badly needed by the next generation of farmers to overcome the greatest obstacle to new farmers – affordable land.2

Unfortunately the USDA’s bureaucratic wrangling and fear of lawsuits is holding up implementation of this vital program. Rather than release the land as it should be under new Farm Bill rules, the USDA is holding it up with an unnecesary environmental impact study. Any further delay will deny beginning and minority farmers the opportunity to get access to the land they need in the next 2 years.3

Please join Food Democracy Now! by asking Secretary Vilsack to implement the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Option now.

Our beginning and minority farmers don’t have a moment to waste.

Please sign this petition to tell Secretary Vilsack to provide access to a new generation of beginning and minority farmers so they can create more sustainable and organic farms.

Sustainably yours,

Dave, Lisa and the Food Democracy Now! team.

If you'd like to see Food Democracy Now!'s grassroots work continue, please consider donating as little as $10 or $25. We appreciate your support!


1. 2008 U.S. Farm Bill Enhances Beginning Farmer Provisions

2. CRP Transition Option

3. USDA Delays Land Program that Enables Beginning Farmers

Monday, October 5, 2009

In honor of one of the best weekends in San Francisco

First, a big Thank You goes out to Warren Hellman, the billionaire investment banker who puts on the what is probably the best free music festival in the country, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It's in a forest (Golden Gate Park), there are top acts, and you're allowed to bring in whatever you want to the festival: chairs, coolers, beer, wine....anything.

Check out this quote from Hellman, who is also an amateur banjo player and puts on the festival as a gift to the city. I talked to a guy who said there is even a provision in his will that the festival should continue after his death.
Hellman says "it costs a lot -- bigger than a bread box, smaller than a house, one of those new billionaire homes, I guess." He tells how he was approached by someone who said he ran America's biggest (non-bluegrass) festival. "He wanted to buy mine. I said, 'Why? It's free.' He said, 'Well it wouldn't be if I owned it.' " Hellman said it wasn't for sale. "There's this famous Texas oil guy's remark about money: 'It's like manure -- if you spread it around, beautiful things grow. But if you leave it in a pile it smells like manure.' "


Thanks again, Warren, for paying for me to see Okkervil River, Dave Alvin, Boz Scaggs, The Old 97s, Steve Martin (comedian/banjo player), The Ferocious Few*, Richie Havens, Robert Earl Keene, Steve Earle, Elvis Perkins, Booker T and the Drive-By Truckers, Billy Bragg, Allen Toussaint, Galactic, Mavis Staples, Neko Case, Emmylou Harris, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Amadou and Mariam.

*Actually, you didn't pay for them. They just showed up.


This weekend was also LovEvolution*. I went this year and didn't feel the need to go hear obscenely loud electronic music in front of City Hall amidst sweaty spunions while Hardly Strictly was going on, no matter how many underage topless girls there were at Love Parade. But that orgy of late 20th Century chemical energy gives me the perfect excuse to post this all-time classic video, TECHNOVIKING:

*Formerly Love Parade and then Love Fest.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Part Three: The Relationship Between the Level of Regulation under the FDCA and the Health Status of a Product’s Targeted Population

[From BioLaw/AgLaw]

An Introduction to the History of Quack Medicine

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a remarkable growth in the marketing of sham products to treat and cure disease.

At that time, the rate at which quack medicines were being introduced into the market far outpaced the development of the science necessary to establish the efficacy and identify the risks associated with each new product. This scientific lag time created a period when there was an information void that
predatory commercial interests were quick to use to their advantage. As the FDA carried the burden of proof to show that a product did not work or was unsafe in order to remove the product from the market, during this lag time predatory commercial interests were able to profit from scientific uncertainty to the detriment of public health.

During this long period in U.S. history, the curative claims of the predatory sham medicine salesmen were limited only by the gullibility of their targets. In many cases, the degree of gullibility was proportional to the level of desperation of the individual for a cure. The more dire the condition, the more vulnerable an individual was to the ‘flim flam’ of the greedy snake oil salesman. And the more dire the condition, the greater the degree of harm when the sham medicine did not work, causing injury over and above the original illness and/or causing a delay in seeking effective medical treatment. Thus, this lag time between initial marketing of a sham product and the development of the science necessary to resolve uncertainties over the new product’s safety and effectiveness was very costly in terms of human suffering and loss of life. Slaying the Hydra: The History of Quack Medicines
In 1962, after a series of highly publicized public health crises, legislation was passed to close this ‘space between’ created by scientific uncertainty by switching the burden of proof for safety and effectiveness from the FDA and onto product manufacturers.

Read the rest here...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Great video on sustainability in the wine industry.

In particular, I really enjoyed the shot beginning at the 2:49 mark.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Part Two in AgLaw/BioLaw's series on the FDA

I tried to put up a comment last week asking the author what she thought about the rather tenuous link between high cholesterol and heart disease, but it wasn't approved. That's splitting hairs, though, because the point is not whether high cholesterol really does cause heart disease but whether products can claim that they can lower your cholesterol without subjecting themselves to FDA regulation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Post Two of a Series: The Relationship Between the Level of Regulation under the FDCA and the Health Status of a Product’s Targeted Population

The first post of this series began by asking whether functional foods should be regulated as drugs if they claim to treat abnormal health conditions. For example, was it appropriate for the FDA to characterize Cheerios as a drug as a result of its advertising claim that “you can Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks?” An abnormally high level cholesterol level is a serious risk factor for disease and those with high cholesterol levels are in an abnormal state of health. By virtue of its claims to help this group of unhealthy consumers with their struggle to return to a normal state of health, should the manufacturer of Cheerios be required to undergo the FDA's premarket approval process to show that eating Cheerios is effective in lowering cholesterol as claimed?

The answer to this question may become more apparent by looking at another category of products that claim to help unhealthy people return to a normal health status – weight loss products.

Click here to read the rest.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From BioLaw/AgLaw

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Post 1 in Series: The Relationship Between the Level of Government Regulation under the FDCA and the Health Status of a Product’s Targeted Population
Cheerios -- a Drug?

This past May, the FDA issued a warning letter to General Mills stating that the claim on Cheerios cereal that “you can Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks” turned the Cheerios from a food into an illegally marketed drug. When bloggers heard the news, posts ran from scolding the FDA to “grow-up,” to those which lauded the FDA’s action.

Who is correct? Is targeting a cereal one of those cases where, as one blogger suggested, the FDA has its priorities wrong? A look at one recent food trend may help answer this question.

By making its cholesterol lowering claims, Cheerios is entering the growing market for functional foods. In 2008, functional foods -- which are defined as foods that claim to have health benefits over and above the delivery of nutrients -– were a $30.7 billion dollar market. This market is predicted to grow by 40% over the next several years.

Examples include: probiotics in salsa and ketchup; omega-3 fatty acids in orange juice, eggs and peanut butter; pasta enriched with calcium; heart healthy ginger ale infused with green tea; ‘energy’ drinks with amino acids for joint health. The list goes on and on. One never knows what might pop up in a favorite food.

And now a new category of functional foods is cropping up which industry is calling cosmeceuticals -– foods that are being marketed to enhance appearance. (A bit confusing because that term is commonly used to describe drugs that are being marketed as cosmetics. Perhaps cosmefood would be better?). One example of a cosmeceutical for skin beauty is a product on the market that consists of marshmallows infused with allegedly skin-boosting collagen.

Fortified foods are not new. Iodine has been added to salt since 1924 to reduce the incidence of goiter. Grains have been fortified with niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and iron since 1943, a public health move that almost eliminated brain/skin degenerating pellagra within a decade. However, present day functional foods are flooding onto the market before the science exists on the effectiveness of many of their associated health claims.

Where should the FDA draw the line on regulation? Should the level of product regulation be linked with the health status of the product’s targeted population? While not stated explicitly, it appears that this is the strategy that the FDCA has followed since its inception. See Van Tassel, K., Slaying the Hydra: The History of Quack Medicine, The Obesity Epidemic and the FDA's Battle to Regulate Dietary Supplements, 6 Indiana Health L. J. 203-251 (2009).

Traditionally, the greatest amount of regulatory protection under the Food Drug & Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) has been applied when products are targeted at vulnerable, unhealthy populations and claim to aid in an individual’s struggle to return to normal health. Examples of products that fall into this category by making health remedy or recovery claims include drugs and devices. For these products, the modern FDCA establishes a premarket enforcement process that places the majority of the cost and burden on the product manufacturer to establish safety and efficacy through the clinical trial process prior to distribution to the public. Without premarket approval from the FDA, these products will be deemed both adulterated and misbranded as a matter of law.

Conversely, the FDCA requires less regulatory protection when products are targeted to healthy populations to maintain or improve a normal state of health. Examples of products that fall into this category are traditional foods, and (until recently) a very limited number of functional foods and (once again, until recently) a similarly narrow category of dietary supplements. For these products, the FDA carries the burden of removing an unsafe or ineffective product by proving that it is adulterated or misbranded.

Currently, far too many functional foods and dietary supplements are being marketed to the unhealthy and vulnerable by making health recovery or remedy claims without demonstrating through premarket approval that their products are both safe and effective. It appears that Cheerios is just one product of many that are making these claims.

An abnormally high cholesterol level is a serious risk factor for disease and those with high cholesterol levels are in an abnormal state of health. Cheerios is claiming to help this group of unhealthy consumers with their struggle to return to a normal state of health. As one commentator remarked, it is possible “that some people with high cholesterol will see eating breakfast as a clinical treatment, perhaps even offsetting a more pressing need to cut back on French fries.” Consequently, by sending its warning letter to Cheerios, it appears that the FDA is heading down the right path.

The merits of the FDA’s position on Cheerios specifically, and functional foods more generally, may become more apparent by looking at another category of products that claim to help unhealthy people return to a normal health status -– weight loss products.

The next in this series of blog posts will provide a general introduction of the current problems with the claims being made by weight loss products, particularly in the context of the obesity crisis. The focus on the example of weight loss products will provide a structure for the following posts which will take a look back through the history of the relationship between the FDCA, the FDA and predatory commercial interests. Through this exercise, regulatory patterns will be identified that appear to link the level of product regulation with the health status of the product’s targeted population.

The goal of this series is to take lessons from the past and apply them to assist in the analysis of current regulatory issues involving food, functional food and dietary supplements. This first series will provide the ground work for the second series which will delve into the use of nanaotechnology in consumer products for direct and indirect human consumption -- including food (directly and through the food production process), food supplements, cosmetics and sunscreens.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pollan on health care reform

Why forcing health insurance companies to stop denying coverage on the basis of chronic diseases or pre-existing conditions could help turn the tide on reforming the farm bill.

Big Food vs. Big Insurance

Published: September 9, 2009

Berkeley, Calif.

TO listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself — perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed.

No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained, as a study released last month says, by our being fatter. Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.

That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.

The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda.

But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

Why the disconnect? Probably because reforming the food system is politically even more difficult than reforming the health care system. At least in the health care battle, the administration can count some powerful corporate interests on its side — like the large segment of the Fortune 500 that has concluded the current system is unsustainable.

That is hardly the case when it comes to challenging agribusiness. Cheap food is going to be popular as long as the social and environmental costs of that food are charged to the future. There’s lots of money to be made selling fast food and then treating the diseases that fast food causes. One of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry.

The market for prescription drugs and medical devices to manage Type 2 diabetes, which the Centers for Disease Control estimates will afflict one in three Americans born after 2000, is one of the brighter spots in the American economy. As things stand, the health care industry finds it more profitable to treat chronic diseases than to prevent them. There’s more money in amputating the limbs of diabetics than in counseling them on diet and exercise.

As for the insurers, you would think preventing chronic diseases would be good business, but, at least under the current rules, it’s much better business simply to keep patients at risk for chronic disease out of your pool of customers, whether through lifetime caps on coverage or rules against pre-existing conditions or by figuring out ways to toss patients overboard when they become ill.

But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change.

The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.

When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.

AGRIBUSINESS dominates the agriculture committees of Congress, and has swatted away most efforts at reform. But what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.

In the same way much of the health insurance industry threw its weight behind the campaign against smoking, we can expect it to support, and perhaps even help pay for, public education efforts like New York City’s bold new ad campaign against drinking soda. At the moment, a federal campaign to discourage the consumption of sweetened soft drinks is a political nonstarter, but few things could do more to slow the rise of Type 2 diabetes among adolescents than to reduce their soda consumption, which represents 15 percent of their caloric intake.

That’s why it’s easy to imagine the industry throwing its weight behind a soda tax. School lunch reform would become its cause, too, and in time the industry would come to see that the development of regional food systems, which make fresh produce more available and reduce dependence on heavily processed food from far away, could help prevent chronic disease and reduce their costs.

Recently a team of designers from M.I.T. and Columbia was asked by the foundation of the insurer UnitedHealthcare to develop an innovative systems approach to tackling childhood obesity in America. Their conclusion surprised the designers as much as their sponsor: they determined that promoting the concept of a “foodshed” — a diversified, regional food economy — could be the key to improving the American diet.

All of which suggests that passing a health care reform bill, no matter how ambitious, is only the first step in solving our health care crisis. To keep from bankrupting ourselves, we will then have to get to work on improving our health — which means going to work on the American way of eating.

But even if we get a health care bill that does little more than require insurers to cover everyone on the same basis, it could put us on that course.

For it will force the industry, and the government, to take a good hard look at the elephant in the room and galvanize a movement to slim it down.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009



Recently I was reading last month’s Rolling Stone article about the Democrats caving on all the meaningful parts of health care reform. It paints a convincing picture that if they give up on the public option then the plan won’t help much, could even make things worse, will hurt the Democrats politically and hurt the chances of real reform happening any time soon. I thought jesus, what is wrong with these people, we elected them for “change” and now the opportunity to do what we asked them to do makes them run around in a panic, peeing on the floor like a dog on the 4th of July. (Another American reference for you there.) Are they really all in the pocket of insurance companies? They have the majority, they have the majority of the people. You really worried those dumb fuckers at the town hall meetings are gonna be mad if you give them cheaper health coverage? I don’t think that’s worth losing sleep over.

You flash back to a few years ago when the Republicans controlled everything, had everything they wanted, including two wars and all kinds of rampant butt play in their overseas prisons, and still saw themselves as victims. They overplayed their hand. The Democrats are doing the opposite, they have the chance to do something great for their country and their children and grandchildren, they would rather do nothing at all. They’re folding their cards too early. Fuck you motherfuckers. Why can’t somebody cut the shit and stand up for what is obviously right?

mp_bulworthAll that was on my mind but also I had recently watched SOUL MAN so my solution was to watch another well-meaning but racially questionable satire, BULWORTH. Starring and written and directed by Warren Beatty, BULWORTH speaks to alot of this anger I have, but it does it in a way that makes me cringe. And I don’t think this is supposed to be uncomfortable comedy like THE OFFICE or something.

Beatty plays Senator Jay Bulworth, a Democrat who’s on the eve of his re-election campaign and hasn’t eaten or slept in days. When an insurance lobbyist (Paul Sorvino, KNOCK OFF) bribes him to kill a reform bill, Bulworth takes out a huge life insurance policy and hires an assassin to kill himself. He’s stressed and has nothing to lose so he just starts Telling It Like It Is at his campaign stops. For example at a black church he tells them that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them because what are they gonna do, vote Republican? At a Hollywood industry party he says “my people aren’t stupid, they always put the big Jews on the schedule,” then starts flipping through his notes saying, “They must’ve put something bad about Farrakhan in here somewhere.”

bulworthIn South Central two young (very stereotypical) black women are so impressed by his candid statements that they volunteer for him, which means they follow him around cheering him on, snapping at people and gossiping. He goes to a club with them and, unfortunately, learns about rapping. And starts doing it. Throughout the rest of the movie.

Most of the ideas behind the movie are admirable, and there are other things I like about it, which I’ll get into. But there is no way to get around the rapping. He freestyles horrible nursery rhyme type lyrics and says them slowly, syllable by syllable, in a bizarre style that’s part out-of-touch-white-guy-attempting-to-co-opt-what-he-believes-to-be-black-slang, part speech impediment. He makes Vanilla Ice seem like Rakim or Slick Rick.

Late in the movie, after Bulworth rhymes to Don Cheadle and a gang of underage crack dealers in South Central, one of the kids asks, “Is that how white people rap?” It’s the movie’s only acknowledgment that he’s horrible at it. I mean, I never thought we were supposed to think he was good, but his entourage acts like he is, and nobody ever cringes or runs away like you want to do at home watching the fucking thing. The main joke, definitely, is that all these stuffy white people have to hear rap, and listen to The Truth from this guy, who by the way is on a spiritual quest assigned to him by a homeless street preacher played by the controversial poet Amiri Baraka.

But I guess if you look at ISHTAR (to be honest I’ve never seen the whole thing) it’s clear that Beatty finds something really funny in people performing awful songs. Still, I’m not sure he understands just how painful it is to watch this one.

I remember I read somewhere that Warren Beatty was hanging out with Suge Knight when he made this movie, as research. But I’m not sure he found the authenticity he was looking for. He kind of makes it seem like most black people are selling crack or working for crime lords, but have the potential to do good if only they would decide to get it together. Perhaps when nudged to do so by a white politician. And it’s a little painful to see Halle Berry trying to act “street,” saying “yo” and acting tough. She does look good with dreadlocks though. I can see why Bulworth goes for her. I would think the rapping would actually be a dealbreaker though. This was before Eminem raised people’s standards for white rappers, but I still don’t think anybody is gonna forgive how this guy raps. I sure won’t. Ever. Never forget.

What I do like about the movie is that it comes from a left wing point of view but criticizes the Democratic party as compromised and sold out. From my point of view most Democrats are too centrist, but the mainstream media usually doesn’t acknowledge that point of view. They offer Democrats as the furthest left you can get without being a communist (or sometimes they consider them actually to be communists). Senator Bulworth has sold out his values, promoting himself as more conservative to try to get votes. With Halle Berry he talks reverantly about the Black Panthers, but on TV he complains about welfare being “out of control.”

Usually in a political movie you’re either gonna have one side as the good guys and one side bad, or all politicians bad. In this one Republicans don’t even really figure into it. It’s not about the right wing at all. The blame is on the Democrats, arguing that they are the ones who believe in health care as a right, they’re the ones that should be doing something about it, but they never do because they’re more worried about campaign money than about their constituents and their country and the human race and things that are good. And that’s why BULWORTH is relevant now (despite the rapping), because we have the same thing going on now. Republicans just want to stop health care reform because they want to make Obama look bad, and as a bonus they get to cause the deaths of many poor people, which is a hobby many of them enjoy. But it’s not in their court, it’s up to the Democrats. They could and should do it and would do it if they weren’t mostly a bunch of dumb assholes.

The opening scene is actually a really good one. It’s a montage of Bulworth in his office watching all the different variations on his new TV spots, repeating the same bullshit about welfare and “the new millennium.” And then he just starts to cry. It’s a really effective scene because the commercials seem pretty real and you just have to hear the same phrases over and over and over, not only showing you what empty slogans they are but showing you how he must feel having to say the same shit every time. He just feels like a phony. Because he is a phony.

Believe it or not the movie is scored by the great Ennio Morricone. But then it also uses some great hip hop songs like “100 Miles and Runnin’” by NWA and “The N**** You Love To Hate” by Ice Cube. It’s a bizarre combination, but strangely appropriate. When I reviewed ORCA a few months ago I talked about how Morricone’s music seemed to infuse the whole thing with depth, make it seem profound and poetic. Here’s an even better example of how fucking good the guy is. At the end, Bulworth embraces gorgeous young Halle Berry. As a viewer I’m still thinking this movie is ridiculous and what the fuck would she see in him and no way would this ever happen and neither of them (especially her) are particularly three-dimensional characters, but somehow, with the music, it seems kind of touching, like we have watched these two teetering on the edge of falling in love and invested ourselves in them and now we are relieved to finally see it coming to fruition. Completely unearned by the movie, but collected in full by Morricone.

And the end credits are really cool – a suite of Morricone music with hip hop songs by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and others occasionally fading in and playing for a bit and then drifting away as the orchestra continues.

Yeah, I guess I mainly just like the opening scene and the end credits.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Djokovic v. McEnroe: How can you not love this?

I almost feel bad about all those times I called him Quitter or Chokovic.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Were The Sex Pistols the first modern hipsters?

First read this article in Adbusters entitled "Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization." I think it adequately sums up why hipsters are a bad thing and indirectly explains the difference between a true hipster and somebody who merely subscribes to modern fashions and wears tight pants. To summarize, it comes down to hipsters standing for nothing really except seeking authenticity through consumerism. Co-opting working class values and trends and spending lots of money doing it.

A lot of quote-unquote hipsters are really just artsy people who do cool things like sell street food in The Mission or make swimming pools out of dumpsters in Brooklyn. These people are not actually hipsters in my eyes. They are doing something and creating interesting things rather than buying something obscure and then ditching it when it isn't obscure or authentic enough for them anymore.

Again, great article, but I disagree with it where it draws a bright line between hipsters and punks...which brings me to the penultimate punk band, The Sex Pistols.

They declared their allegiance to the working classes and held mainstream society in contempt but really I think it's pretty safe to say they were just intellectually retarded nihilists consumed with image, self-indulgence and popularity. Sound familiar?

Sid Vicious was chosen for his attitude rather than his musical ability and they ended up becoming just as vacuous and rich as the ruling classes and cliched rockers they claimed to abhor.

Punk was sort of an interesting counter-culture moment and I see the value in bands like The Ramones and The Clash. I like the do-it-yourself attitude and the quesitoning of authority, but check out this quote from Johnny Rotten: "[The Ramones] were all long-haired and of no interest to me. I didn't like their image, what they stood for, or anything about them; They were hilarious but you can only go so far with 'duh-dur-dur-duh'. I've heard it. Next. Move on."

Newsflash...The Ramones were developing your sound while you were busy tearing holes in your Pink Floyd shirts and spending money on hair gel and red dye. Get over yourselves. Who cares how long their hair was?

Also, The Pistols (and pretty much all punks and hipsters) constantly talked about how much they hated hippies. The punk-hippie dichotomy really deserves to be explored fully in another post, but when you come down to it, they really weren't that different. The main difference I see is that at least hippies were trying to do something and change the world* while punks were consumed more with rebelling for the sake of rebelling and were ultimately a much more selfish group of blowhards. It's the same difference between a hiptser and somebody who isn't utterly worthless.

*That they failed and ended up becoming the big wigs they were rebelling against is irrelevant to me. At least they initially stood for something.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Monday, August 10, 2009

America's unjust DUI laws

Though the number of unjust laws in this country is staggering, the Economist zeroed in on one area recently and took on our Draconian sex offender laws. That's right, The Economist. This isn't coming from High Times or Harper's or Hustler or even the "liberal" (as right-wingers see it) New York Times. This is from a magazine that opposed the provision of aid to the Irish during the Great Famine.

The magazine makes a great point that the system lumps all "sex" offenders together and makes it harder to differentiate who the truly dangerous deviants are.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for people who visit prostitutes, 29 require it for consensual sex between young teenagers and 32 require it for indecent exposure. Some prosecutors are now stretching the definition of “distributing child pornography” to include teens who text half-naked photos of themselves to their friends.

The Economist argues that watering down the sex offender registry makes it actually less effective in preventing child abuse. And the registry will most likely only continue to become further watered down because politicians will only continue to make the laws tougher and tougher in order to not appear soft on crime.

Few politicians dare to vote against such laws, [let alone propose to reduce the harsh penalties] because if they do, the attack ads practically write themselves.
This article seems to sum up about sex crimes what I have been thinking for a while now about drinking and driving laws.

It seems that our society insists on gravitating further and further back to the time of The Scarlet Letter. I wouldn't be surprised if sex offenders have to start identifying themselves with some sort of giant S on their clothing (we're almost there with their houses), nor would it shock me if people convicted of DUI soon have to brandish their car with some sort of giant warning. Many already have conspicuous breathalyzer boxes in the cars. Why not require giant pizza delivery-esque glowing signs that say "Hey, I like to drive drunk!"?

To be certain, driving drunk (and the key word is "drunk") and committing sex crimes are terrible acts that deserve to be punished. So many families have been permanently damaged by the stupid and often selfish acts of men and women who took their lives and the lives of other people on the road for granted when they tried to make it home after a serious bender.

I belive to correct this problem, it's not as simple as make the penalties increasingly harsher and make the threshold lower to prosecute. Laws of this type should be more about protecting the public and less about generating revenue for the state or allowing the politician to appear for photo ops and generate material for his reelection campaign TV ads.

As usual, the politicians have missed the mark on how to truly benefit the most people. According to MADD, "In 2002, 2.3% of Americans 18 and older surveyed reported alcohol-impaired driving, compared with only 2.1% in 1997." So as the penalties were getting stiffer and the threshold BAC has been reduced to where people can have only a couple drinks be over the limit, drunk driving has not really decreased at all. One study has suggested that lowering the BAC has had an ambiguous effect at best. The bottom line is that people are still getting behind the wheel and people are still dying from alcohol-related crashes. And if 2.3 percent is the number reported, then there are lots and lots of people who are also lying on their drinking and driving surveys.

So how many ways has the government tried to reduce the deadly effects of drunk driving on our society other than increasing the penalties and generating more revenue and political capital for campaign ads? If you ask me, the answer is zero unless you count meaningless public service announcements.

Aside from the most progressive of cities, how many places actually try to get cars off the road? To me, if you want to curb drunk driving, you have to get people to focus more on the driving part than the drinking part of the equation. Build more public transportation, encourage urban planning that allows for more walking or taxi rides, partially pay for people's taxi rides after midnight, instruct police officers to do more than lie in wait to nab drunk drivers and get them to proactively assist intoxicated people make it home without driving.

People who drink lots alcohol generate tremendous amounts of tax dollars for cities and help keep urban districts alive. It's hard to imagine a thriving city center where there were no bars or nightclubs. Drinkers deserve to be treated with more respect than gotcha policing and thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs and mandatory education. They also deserve more options than compete with the rest of the drunken hoards for an expensive taxi, find a sober driver to hang out in a loud and crowded bar all night, walk until dawn, or drive drunk.

I repeat, drunk driving is a terrible burden on public safety, but so is text messaging and talking on a cell phone while driving. Some studies have suggested texting is even more dangerous than drunk driving. But do you see texters losing their licenses for a year and having big black boxes installed in their cars to breathe in? When it comes to oncoming traffic, I would much rather see a responsible driver heading home after two or three drinks than somebody with his/her face in a Blackberry.

It's time to start examining our laws and what roles they really play in making society a better place*. Big problems need creative solutions, not the same old dog and pony shows that politicians have been using to get reelected for centuries. Let's stop treating streakers like child murderers and let's stop treating buzzed drivers like involuntary manslaughterists.

*I'll save drug laws for another blog post.

[Mostly] Spot-on San Francisco Take

Sorry for the lack of posting. I wish I could say that I've had better things to do than to transcribe my ramblings, but the truth is that I've caught a raging case of the lazies when it comes to writing.

To tide all three of you over, here are Anthony Bourdain's thoughts on my current home. For the most part, I think he does an excellent job of describing it. Tune into the Travel Channel tonight to see the SF No Reservations.

I'm Not Angry
By Anthony Bourdain on August 9, 2009 11:57 AM Permalink

Let me come right out and say it. I love San Francisco. I am helpless and unwavering in my affection--in spite of every effort over the years to find fault, to dismiss, to sneer. And there's surely lots to sneer at, San Francisco and the Bay being pretty much the epicenter of so many of my most cherished aversions: political correctness, veganism, rich hippies, sanctimoniousness about food, food fetishism, animal rights terrorists, gastro-dogma, and loud locavores who actually get their produce flown in from Chino Farms in San Diego.

But at this point, I bore even myself railing against the above. Hell, I'm not even bitter about San Francisco taking the lead in banning smoking anymore. They won that battle long ago. Game over.

I guess it's like any love that's true--sooner or later you learn to accept the good, bad and silly all together. It's all part of the package when you know, without any question, that you want the package. It doesn't even matter if one's love is returned.

Okay ... it does still drive me berserko watching a blissed out St. Alice, burning up a few cords of firewood (in Berkeley no less!) to cook two eggs for an unusually credulous Lesley Stahl.
But in general, I got it all wrong, didn't I?

It may be the town of Alice Waters but it's also home to Dirty Harry. The Grateful Dead? Yes. But also the Dead Kennedys. The excrutiating and treacherous lite FM sounds of the Jefferson Starship? True enough. But also Blue Cheer, the Count Five, Big Brother, Sly and Family Stone and the greatest band that never was: the Brian Jonestown Massacre. None of these entities could have come from--or taken root--anywhere else.

I don't think you could have one San Francisco without the other. If the San Francisco area weren't the perceived headquarters of anti-foie gras forces, I doubt very much there'd be an opposing force doing something as crazy as developing a foie gras vodka. I don't know that a less crunchy community would require a stuck-joyously-in-time museum of beef like House of Prime Rib. It's like a yin and yang thing ... a balance, man, one thing creates a need for another.

San Francisco, underneath a gossamer thin veneer of granola is in fact, a two-fisted drinking town, a place of oversized martinis, silver zeppelins overloaded with bleeding slabs of meat, restaurants you could call "institutions" that defiantly refuse to suck, and in an ever tidier, cleaner, Disneyfied world--where even New York's Times Square looks like a theme park, still, a delightfully nasty, dirty, beautiful, carnivorous, vice-filled town.

And you can, apparently, recklessly careen around town at high speed in a rented Mustang (from whom we received, by the way, absolutely no money, consideration or thing of value), shooting guerilla-style, possibly without appropriate permits or safety precautions--and the local constabulary can be remarkably understanding. I doubt they would have been as tolerant of the impromptu filming of a car chase where I'm from.

Oh ... and I'd like to mention that though Swan Oyster Depot does not appear in the show (because we shot a segment there for the previous series), I ate there almost every day while shooting in town. Mopping fat and roe out of those Dungeness crab backs with sourdough bread and washing it down with a cold beer? Perfect happiness.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pollan on the decline of cooking

Great essay in the New York Times from Michael Pollan on everything from how cooking has become a spectator sport to the new movie "Julie and Julia" to how a return to cooking could save your health. Like everything that Pollan has ever written, I highly recommend you set aside 20 minutes or so and take your time digesting what he has to say.

Ruhlman's post about Pollan's essay also makes a great point about the distinction between cooks and foodies, which is really quite a large distinction.

Nothing else really needs to be said. Read this stuff because it's a lot better than anything I've ever written. I'm not kidding, damn it. Read it.