Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


July 2011, Volume 17, Number 3

Wine, Obesity, E. coli, Fish

California had 842,000 acres of grapes in 2010, down from a peak 955,000 acres in 2000. Most of the grapes removed over the past decade were Thompson seedless, the versatile variety that can be used for table grapes, raisins or wine. In 2010, California had 535,000 acres of wine-type grapes, led by Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, 213,000 acres of raisin-type grapes led by Thompson Seedless, and 94,000 acres of table-type grapes led by Flame Seedless.

US consumers bought 330 million cases of wine worth $30 billion in 2010, making the US the world's largest wine consumer, displacing France. However, American adults drink an average 2.6 gallons of wine a year, a tenth of per capita consumption in France (there are five standard bottles in a gallon).

Jess Jackson, a lawyer turned vintner who built Kendall-Jackson into a major California winery, died in April 2011. Kendall-Jackson began producing Chardonnay wine in the early 1980s when its grapes remained unsold. The popularity of K-J's sweeter tasting wines enabled Jackson to acquire 30 wineries and 14,000 acres of vineyard. Jackson wineries sold over 30 million cases of wine in 2010.

California wine growers petitioned the US government in spring 2011 to require that wine with US appellations, such as Napa wine, include 100 percent US-grown grapes. Current law allows up to 25 percent of the wine in an appellation-labeled wine to be produced outside the US, prompting many wineries to blend lower priced imported wines with US-produced wine.

Napa. Napa is one of the smallest but best-known California counties. There are fewer than 140,000 residents in the county, and they include about 30 percent Hispanics and a third who speak a language other than English at home. The labor force of almost 63,000 may exclude workers who live in other counties and commute to jobs in Napa.

Between 2005 and 2009, about 2,700 Napa workers had farming occupations, and 4,100 were employed in the industry agriculture. There is a significant gap between median ($68,000) and mean ($94,000) household income in Napa county, suggesting significant inequality linked to the retirement winery operations that rely on Mexican immigrant workers. The major employers in the county include government agencies providing health and education services. Wineries with more than 250 employees include Domaine Chandon, Stonebridge Cellars (Joseph Phelps), and Trinchero Family Estates; Treasury Wine Estates has more than 500 employees.

The New York Times profiled Napa county's farm worker housing on May 26, 2011, noting that vineyard owners pay $10 an acre to subsidize three farm worker centers that have 180 beds for which workers are charged $12 a day. Actual costs of providing room and board are more than $20 a day, and the $10 assessment helps to reduce the deficit.

In 2009, 270 Napa agricultural establishments hired an average 4,900 workers and paid them a median $620 a week. These included 180 grape vineyards with an average 2,700 employees and 75 farm management firms (including FLCs) with 2,100 employees. Between June and September, Napa agricultural employers reported over 6,000 employees to UI authorities; in December, there were only about 2,600 employees.

Obesity. USDA released a food plate to replace its food pyramid in June 2011. The food plate shows that half of a person's diet should be fruits and vegetables and the other half grains and proteins (meat). In 2008, less than 10 percent of the typical person's diet came from fruits and vegetables.

Obesity is a growing problem worldwide, and the stigma attached to being fat is also spreading rapidly. In industrial countries, obese people are less likely to get married and be promoted; in contrast, more weight has been associated with wealth in developing countries. Attitudes toward fat appear to be changing rapidly in some developing countries that previously did not stigmatize overweight people.

Arizona in 2011 proposed a $50 fee on childless adults on Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, who are either obese or who smoke. The state estimated that half of all Medicaid recipients smoke.

Some of the items sold in fast-food restaurants have 500 to 1,500 calories; adults typically need 2,000 calories a day. Beth Mansfield, spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants Inc (Carl's Jr. and Hardee's), said: "The bottom line is we're in the business of making money, and we make money off of what we sell. If we wanted to listen to the food police and sell nuts and berries and tofu burgers, we wouldn't make any money and we'd be out of business." Studies show that consumers seeking value often order combo meals and eat most of what they are served.

The New York Times on May 26, 2011 blamed rising obesity in industrial countries on less physical labor. In the US, where a third of adults are obese, only 20 percent of jobs require moderate physical activity, down from half of US jobs in 1960. Researchers say that changes in eating habits, more TV and less exercise, and less physical activity at work contribute to obesity.

A combination of improved greenhouses, hydroponics and increased demand for local and organic produce has encouraged micro farms on rooftops in urban areas. Lufa Farms in Montreal was profiled on May 19, 2011. Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier advocates vertical farming, growing food in skyscrapers or warehouses with artificial light; Despommier estimates that a 30-story, one-square block farm could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres.

New York City-based BrightFarms says it can build a one-acre or 43,560-square-foot rooftop farm for about $2 million that will generate fruit and vegetable sales of $1 million to $1.5 million a year.

E. Coli. E. coli bacteria initially linked to Spanish cucumbers and finally traced to German bean sprouts killed almost 40 people and sickened 3,500 around Hamburg in northern Germany in May and June 2011. Over 800 of those who got sick had acute kidney failure because these E. coli bacteria released a Shiga toxin into the body.

German authorities traced the E. coli outbreak in mid-June to contaminated bean sprouts from an organic farm near Hamburg. Sprouts are grown from seeds that are very difficult clean in a manner that destroys harmful bacteria like salmonella or the toxic forms of E. coli. In the US, many sprout farmers soak seeds in a concentrated chlorine solution before germination.

E. coli lives in the guts of cows and can be transmitted to humans via ground beef or when manure gets on fresh produce. The USDA, which regulates meat, is considering regulations that would add six more strains of E. coli to the strain already regulated, O157:H7, the strain that killed four children who ate hamburgers at Jack in the Box in 1993. Bill Marler, who specializes in food safety cases, said that the new strain of E. coli in Europe should encourage USDA to speed up the issuance of regulations. FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which regulates produce, is expected to issue tougher regulations to prevent E. coli from contaminating fruits and vegetables.

Spain exports about 20,000 tons of fruits and vegetables daily to the rest of Europe during the winter and spring. Spanish farmers in Motril, Andalusia, in the middle of the so-called Costa del Polythene, accused the German government of damaging their reputation without solid proof that the E. coli in northern Germany was from Spanish cucumbers. German tests did not find the E. coli bacteria on Spanish cucumbers, but also could not rule out Spanish produce as the source of the E. coli bacteria. Many of the 30,000 Motril-area residents employed in farming lost their jobs because of the outbreak.

Dutch vegetable farmers were also adversely affected by the E. coli outbreak in Germany. There are over 100 square kilometers or 24,700 acres of greenhouses in the Netherlands growing tulips, ornamental shrubs and vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers. Dutch exports of fresh vegetables topped $2 billion in 2010, including a third to Germany. Dutch farmers say that their produce is safe because it is produced in containers filled by a sterile stone wool-type substance produced from crushed basalt. Workers wear hair nets and gloves, and farms are certified by GlobalGAP. However, Russia banned all produce imports from the EU in June 2011.

Food Justice. The 10-chapter book by Gottlieb and Joshi argues that the US is responsible for many of the world's food problems. They assert that US farm workers face difficult and hazardous conditions, low-income neighborhoods lack supermarkets but abound in fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, food products emphasize convenience rather than wholesomeness, and the international reach of American fast-food franchises has been a major contributor to an epidemic of "globesity."

Gottlieb and Joshi outline what they call food justice, a "framework that ensures the benefits and risks of how food is grown and processed, transported, distributed, and consumed are shared equitably." The food-justice movement claims success in eliminating soft drinks from schools and persuading the Obama White House to plant a vegetable garden. The book is far more about what the authors call "food injustice" than a plan to achieve a "food justice system."

Gottlieb and Joshi praise Cesar Chavez and the UFW, credit expos‚s at Coca Cola's Minute Maid subsidiary and a UFW contract with changing conditions for farm workers, and assert that Cargill, Tropicana, and Minute Maid are the three main buyers of Florida tomatoes (pp14-15). The book goes on to praise the CIW for exposing slavery in Florida agriculture and taking on industrial food firms.

The chapter on growing and producing food reviews mega dairies in Tulare county, cattle feedlots, and large pig and chicken production farms. Along the way, there are capsule summaries of the evolution of Tyson, the development of McDonald's McNuggets, and the merger that created Frito-Lay, bought by Pepsi-Cola in 1965.

Fish. Tests of fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants reveal that many are mislabeled, as when yellowtail is called mahi-mahi. Nile perch is labeled as shark, and tilapia can be almost anything, including snapper. A May 2011 Oceana report titled, "Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health," alleged that rates of fraud in some species are up to 70 percent.

Almost 85 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported. Exporters can disguise what they were selling by freezing it or covering it with sauce. Genetic testing allows samples of seafood to be tested cheaply. Cleanfish is experimenting with an electronic tagging system that involves each fisherman or processor entering a code onto a tag on each fish, an effort to make the journey from sea to plate fully transparent.

Tilapia has become the most popular farmed fish consumed in the US. About 475 million pounds were consumed in 2010, most produced in Latin America (fresh) or China (frozen). Farmed tilapia reaches its sales weight of about two pounds in roughly nine months of intensive feeding.

Tilapia, which may have been the fish used by Jesus to feed 5,000 people in the Biblical story, is sometimes called "aquatic chicken" because it breeds easily, eats pellets made largely of corn and soy, and tastes bland. Tilapia is native to Africa, and was spread around the world in the past half century to control weeds and mosquitoes in lakes and rivers, where it often squeezed out native fish species.

Tilapia and catfish provide protein but few of the omega-3 fatty acids that may protect against heart disease and stroke; unless fish meal or fish oil are added to their feed, farmed fish have few omega-3 fatty acids.

Pets. Americans spent a record $55 billion on their pets in 2010, as many owners ("parents") bought "human grade" pet food. The American Pet Products Association says that many consumers will spend less on their own food before reducing spending on pets. Indeed, natural and organic pet foods, which are currently less than 10 percent of pet food sales, are projected to increase faster than other categories of pet food. Pet food ranges in price from less than $0.50 a pound to more than $6 a pound.

About 62 percent of American households have a pet. Dogs are 40 percent of American pets and cats 34 percent, followed by birds, fresh-water fish and reptiles.

William Neuman, "Outbreak in Europe May Revive Stalled U.S. Effort to Tighten Rules on Food Safety, New York Times, June 4, 2011. Glenn Rifkin, "Cash Crops Under Glass and Up on the Roof," New York Times, May 19, 2011. Sharon Bernstein, "Eat less, U.S. says as fast-food chains super-size their offerings," Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2011. Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish," New York Times, May 2, 1011. Gottlieb. Robert and Anupama Joshi. 2010. Food Justice. MIT Press.