When Food Guidelines Become Political Battlegrounds

It’s a paradox: most American citizens have no idea that the US administration is revising its dietary guidelines. In fact, they might not even be familiar with the current recommendations – and even if they are, they’d be hard-pressed to change their eating habits due to these publications. This reality however does not prevent industry organizations and lobbying groups from … Continue reading When Food Guidelines Become Political Battlegrounds

The History of Raw Milk and Pasteurization

Hello friends! We are getting more in the depth of 20th century agricultural happenings in my class now, and I found a topic that might be of interest to you as well – namely, the history of the concern about the pasteurization of raw milk which is still topical today. I had only heard about the issue in little bits and pieces, so I thought it would be great to inquire further!

A pasteurization machine in Queensland, Australia, in 1953. via Wikimedia Commons.
A pasteurization machine in Queensland, Australia, in 1953. via Wikimedia Commons.

The entire story starts with the guy who the entire procedure is named after: Louis Pasteur. According to HowStuffWorks, he is known as the ‘father of microbiology’, inventing not only the pasteurization procedure, but also developing the germ theory of fermentation and discovering the vaccines for rabies, chicken cholera and anthrax. Cool dude.
In 1856, Pasteur discovered that fermentation was caused by microbes, and that the results of that process – e.g. whether grape juice became wine or vinegar – depended on the microbe present. Later, he was employed by Napoleon III to save France’s wine industry from being taken over by the ‘bad’ vinegar microbe, and realized that heating up the wine to a specific temperature for a specific time would kill the microbe and preserve the wine. He patented the procedure and called it ‘pasteurization’.

This procedure was then rediscovered by the dairy industry in the late 1800s and around the turn of the century because tuberculosis was rampant and often spread through contaminated milk. Robert Koch discovered that tuberculosis was caused by a bacterium and infectious, and not – as widely believed – inheritable, in 1882.[He also got a Nobel Prize for that discovery. NBD.] Other milk-borne illnesses included fever, diptheria, scarlet fever, anthrax and foot and mouth disease. Once scientists realized that a low-temperature, long-time heating of the milk (also called batch pasteurization) could kill the TB bacterium, governments pushed for the spread of this practice, and in particular the subsequently developed high-temperature, short-time (HTST) process (This is a good explanation of how heat kills bacteria, if you are interested, by the way).

The first law requiring the pasteurization of milk was passed in Chicago in 1908. Yet, there was a broad spectrum of opposition across the population, to the point that some producers adopted the practice in secret! In Sweden and Denmark, pasteurization on a commercial scale started to happen in the 1880s, and spread as interest in food safety picked up in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, but farmers still opposed the practice of pasteurization, in particular because of the added costs they incurred. Furthermore, there were a huge variety of recommendations on how hot and for long you have to heat the milk in order to reliably kill bacteria.

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Every procedure will have consequences for the milk, though. Today, you can differentiate between different types of milk processing: pasteurization itself refers to heating it to 72 – 74 degrees Celsius for 15 to 30 seconds. In comparison, UHT (ultra-high temperature) treatment goes up to 134 – 140 Celsius for 3 to 5 seconds. The higher the temperature, the more microbes you kill, but also the more the proteins within the milk are changed. This is why you may notice that the taste of UHT milk is different (it tastes ‘cooked’); other changes include how the milk reacts when making cheese, the color (the Maillard reaction can caramelize the sugars, turning the milk browner), and how long it can last without spoilage (since some protective enzymes may be destroyed as well). This is why pasteurization is preferred, according to HowStuffWorks: it “kills off the most heat-sensitive pathogens but retains the qualities of milk that consumers expect: creamy texture, fresh flavor and milky-white color.”

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Do Trees Have Rights Too? Introducing the Crime of Ecocide

Hello hello, I hope you had a wonderful Easter break! Iceland is a-mazing, in case you wondered, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone. I’m planning a post on a peculiar Icelandic export soon, so there might be some pics in there as well, but today I want to talk about something different – namely, the concept of ecocide.

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Yesterday, I went to a presentation by Polly Higgins, a lawyer who submitted an amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – the document that defines what constitutes international crimes, such as genocide and crimes against humanity – asking that ecocide be considered an international criminal offence as well. What is ecocide, you ask? The definition is as follows:

Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.

Basically, Higgins argued as follows – in today’s world, especially in the corporate sector, the law obliges companies to prioritize their shareholder interests – i.e., profit maximization – which makes it hard for companies from a legal point of view to consider things like their impact on the environment in their decision-making process. Nowadays, if they do considerable harm (say, create an oil spill or pollute groundwater), the only avenue for communities to seek justice is to submit a civil case for every single offence – a process that can take years and is really expensive, as well as resulting in too little – too late compensation. If there were an international law deeming it a crime to destroy ecosystems in the name of economic progress, a whole number of things would change:

  • First, countries would have to incorporate that international mandate into their own legal system and in their decision-making process. That is, it would also be illegal for governments to hand out contracts for industrial activities with a hugely negative environmental impact, and heads of state could be held responsible in front of the International Criminal Court if they went ahead anyway. Similarly, laws would have to be adjusted, making it impossible for governments to pass legislation that protects and exempts industry from environmental regulations (as has happened with the fracking industry in the US, for example).
  • Therefore, there would be a massive incentive to subsidize and prioritize sustainable and green businesses and industries in order to keep competitiveness up in this new legal environment. Closing the door to dangerous industrial activity would also give more space to the niche companies that are currently trying to be sustainable, but are failing in a cut-throat marketplace, and encourage innovation.
  • Companies in turn would have to consider long and hard whether to go ahead with projects that could have a massive negative impact anyhow, knowing that their CEO could be held personally responsible in court if they did. Since the law would be based on strict liability, companies would be responsible for damages even if they claim they had no prior knowledge of what would happen (eliminating the ‘I knew nothing’ argumentation against recklessness claims). Furthermore, in a criminal law setting, it would be the responsibility of states to take action against companies, rather than it resting on the shoulders of individuals, so the balance of power would be rectified. Finally, the principle of superior responsibility would hold those at the very top of the ladder – CEOs, heads of banks, heads of governments – to justice rather than somebody that was just following orders, and thus the most powerful themselves would be personally interested in cleaning up their companies’ and institutions’ act.

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Video Times!

Hey peeps, how is your Tuesday? Are you looking for a reason to procrastinate and not feel bad about it? Well, you are in luck, because I have a list of informative and entertaining videos for your viewing pleasure today! Guaranteed to give you some food for thought… on the origins of agriculture (via CrashCourse … Continue reading Video Times!

Food Safety Law Face-Off

I know we have talked about this before, but I found this infographic made by Yes! Magazine a great means to dig down into what differences exist between food safety laws on both sides of the Atlantic. Especially since many of these laws could be on the table during international trade negotiations soon. Americans, Europeans, join … Continue reading Food Safety Law Face-Off