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2011 In Food News

From food recalls to the great GMO debate to Michelle Obama's shifting focus, 2011 was a busy year for food news.

stack of newspapers

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2011 was a wacky year for food news.

Remember when some Alabama lawyers sued Taco Bell and then dropped the suit a few months later? How about when Maine took steps toward legalizing the sale of raw milk after three people were arrested for doing just that in California? There was Occupy Wall Street, which liked co-ops but wasn’t always sure how to work with small farmers. And the federal government launched new food safety campaign that, according to some critics, blamed consumers for production problems.

Here’s an overview of some of the biggest food news stories of the year.

Recalls and Outbreaks and Food-Borne Illnesses, Oh My!

2011 was a crazy year for food recalls and food-related disease outbreaks. There was salmonella in alfalfa and grape tomatoes. There was e. coli in nuts, and then in ground beef. And then more ground beef. And more. And more. And just when the ground beef started to get better, the ground turkey got sick, suffering two salmonella-related recalls in the final months of the year.

E. Coli Takes Over Germany (And Some Of The Rest Of Europe)

The year’s largest outbreak of food-borne illness came from Germany. A particularly virulent strain of e. coli infected more than 4,000 people, ultimately killing 51.

The outbreak began in May and was not curbed until July, when the source was finally traced to fenugreek seeds from Egypt.

Along the way it was falsely blamed on alfalfa sprouts and Spanish cucumbers .

United States’ Record-Breaking Listeria Outbreak

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Between July and September, cantaloupe contaminated with listeria were distributed throughout the country. The cantaloupe had originated on a Colorado farm.

In December, the CDC finally declared the outbreak over. Listeria can take up to two months to incubate before an infected person shows symptoms, and that window had finally passed since the cantaloupe recall went into effect.

In the end, 30 people died and 146 were sickened, making this the deadliest listeria epidemic in twenty-five years.

Weird, Wild Weather

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Hurricane Irene tore up the east coast of the United States in late August, flooding large swaths of farmland, drowning both crops and livestock. And even those farms that survived relatively intact had to watch produce and dairy go bad while they waited for roads to re-open.

An earthquake and tsunami devastated cities and farmland in the northeastern part of Honshu, the biggest island in Japan. As if that weren’t bad enough, it caused severe structural damage to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and workers were unable to fully contain the radiation.

Japanese officials are still struggling to monitor and contain the radiation in food sources.

Food Price Roller Coaster

Food prices rose to a 20-year high in January, due in large part to crazy weather worldwide.

In June, extreme weather conditions pushed food prices even higher. Flooding in the United States, heatwaves in Europe, and extreme weather in Russia conspired to force the price of wheat up from $3.20 a bushel in 2010 to $7.75 in 2011.

A poor corn harvest, due, this time, to late-summer drought in the United States, has drastically decreased the nation’s corn supply, causing fear that next year’s food prices may spike again.

But while food prices remain high at the end of 2011, they have begun to trend downward again. In November, the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that prices had dropped for the fifth consecutive month.

Experts suspect that food prices are “bottoming out” and are unlikely to drop further anytime soon.

Let’s Move! Keeps Moving Forward

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At the beginning of 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign shifted its focus on healthy eating from school lunches to restaurants.

Obama applauded grocery giant Wal-Mart when it announced that it would begin to market healthier foods, throwing the support of her campaign behind the company’s promise. The company has given itself a five-year period to effect the changes, so the jury’s still out regarding whether they’ll be able to succeed while keeping their shareholders happy.

Following Wal-Mart’s promise, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute released their own nutrition guide before the FDA could do it for them. They claimed to have the full support of the Let’s Move! campaign, but the Obama administration announced that their own experts would be carefully monitoring the new guide’s claims.

In December, the First Lady announced that her work on curbing the obesity epidemic among youth would shift from an emphasis on diet to an emphasis on exercise.

Still No Farm Bill

The Farm Bill must be rewritten every five years. At the end of 2011, legislators have failed to sign off on a new one.

Congress’s last-ditch attempt at passing a bill involved drafting it behind closed doors and attaching it to the budget drafted by the supercommittee tasked with passing a new federal budget.

This strategy unnerved farmers and food critics alike. In the end, neither the budget nor the bill passed.

Legislators are now saddled with the unprecedented task of trying to draft and pass a final version during an election year. They are expected to cut at least $23 billion from the Farm Bill’s budget.

Yes, No, GMOs

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American opponents of genetically-modified food protested the fact that GMO’s don’t always need to be labelled in this country.

Meanwhile, Congress and the FDA continue to deliberate whether genetically modified salmon should be made available for human consumption.

The EU announced that honey made from pollen from genetically-modified plants, especially corn, would need to undergo rigorous testing before being sold in European markets.

France, however, overturned a ban on Monsanto, potentially opening the door for GMO crops to be grown in that country.

In other respects, though, this was a less-than-stellar year for the corporate godfather of agricultural genetic engineering. Monsanto got a taste of its own medicine when it was sued by organic farmers. These farmers claimed that cross-pollination from neighboring Monsanto fields made their crops useless for sale on the organic market.

Mother Nature has found a way to stay a step ahead of the humans, as well: new strains of rootworm have become resistant to Monsanto’s Round-Up pesticides. The EPA has reprimanded Monsanto for, effectively, breeding superbugs, saying that the company needs to work harder to monitor this kind of resistance.

Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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