The Political Science of Food Safety

It’s that magical time of year—after the big harvests and before the hard freezes—when apples at the farmers markets in my area burst with tangy goodness, when the last of the summer tomatoes and peppers mingle with luxurious piles of greens, roots, and winter squash, and when all seems right in the world.

So I admit I found it somewhat hard to believe, while admiring the overflowing stands at my local market last Sunday, that federal bureaucrats would want to make it harder for such enterprises to operate. But that is exactly what some small farmers and advocates are warning. They fear that food safety regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would impose onerous costs on small produce growers, potentially driving many out of business altogether.

An endangered scene?

An endangered scene?

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Operation Cat Drop: history or hoax?

Many accounts of Operation Cat Drop were accompanied by comics, so this seemed appropriate.(Sketch by HT)

Many accounts of Operation Cat Drop were accompanied by comics, so this seemed appropriate.(Sketch by HT)

Once upon a time in Borneo, everybody was dying of malaria, so they sprayed a lot of the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which killed the mosquitoes that transmitted the disease. Cases dropped, but inexplicably, peoples’ roofs started caving in. DDT had also killed wasps that kept the caterpillar population in check, so the caterpillars ate the roof thatch. Geckos ate the wasps, and cats ate the geckos. Cats started dropping dead, and the rat population flourished, which lead to an outbreak of the plague. So, to solve the problem, health officials parachuted cats into Borneo.

Or, at least that’s how the story goes.

I first heard of this ecological fable — nicknamed “Operation Cat Drop” — from a friend who liked to break it out at dinner parties. Frankly, it sounded a bit ridiculous. So, ridiculous in fact, that somebody could very well have made it up, and some have argued that the tale is just that: fiction. The cat story started popping up in print in the 1960s, making appearances in The New York Times, Time, and Natural History magazine. In the late 1960s and early 70s, biomagnification and the ecological impacts on avian species took center stage in the public debate over the safety of DDT. But, I’ve always wondered whether there was any truth to the cat story, which did come up in congressional hearings on DDT use. Turns out, there’s more than you’d think. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, an environmental engineer at the University of Iowa, did some digging and found kernels of truth from which the cat drop myth probably grew. His work was published in the American Journal of Public Health. Here’s what we know…

In the 1950s, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global effort to eradicate malaria, following successful campaigns in the United States, Europe, and Venezuela. Resistance to the insecticide had popped up in some mosquitoes, but they were very optimistic. Perhaps a little too optimistic. From 1952-55, in the Sarawak region of Borneo, malaria control teams sprayed DDT, benzene hexachloride, and briefly dieldrin twice a year inside local long houses with thatch roofs. At first, the program enjoyed some success. From 1953 to 1955, the fraction of local mosquitoes carrying the disease fell from 35.6% to 1.6%.

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Great Moments in Earth History: Antarctic Glaciation

Buried under thousands of feet of hard, ancient ice lies the solid earth of the Antarctic continent. For some 34 million years, vast glacial plains have ebbed and flowed over this rocky land. But the initiation of Antarctic glaciation—the point in time when conditions became right for snowfall to exceed snowmelt year after year—began suddenly and enigmatically.

satellite imagery of Antarctica

Antarctica today.

The growth of glaciers on Antarctica marks the end of the geologic epoch known as the Eocene—an epoch actually known for some of the hottest global temperatures in Earth’s geologically recent history. High CO2 punctuated by extreme bursts of even more CO2 caused significant warming for the early part of the Eocene’s 22 million year span. Fossil records show that the Antarctic continent was not only ice free then, but that it supported rainforests and crocodiles!

So the transition from a lush tropical landscape to a barren ice covered wasteland is a mystery that scientists have yet to fully explain. Cooling began gradually around the middle Eocene, and it made a pronounced and sudden shift at the Eocene’s conclusion 34 million years ago.

At that time, CO2 levels plummeted. In a geological instant—400,000 years—Antarctica was covered in ice. Some sort of threshold must have been passed, geologists reason. Cooling can beget more cooling because ice reflects incoming heat from the Sun back into space. This undoubtedly happened. But something else had to have occurred to cause the drop in CO2 that allowed the world to become cool enough to form glaciers in the first place.

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Keepers of the Oil: The Science of Fried

Freeze a Twinkie. Skewer it, batter it, and dip it in the fryer. Instantly, hot oil performs its chemical baptism. Water vaporizes. Starch gelatinizes. Crust caramelizes. Spongecake puffs into an airy pillow; cream filling melts to vanilla ooze.

The fried Twinkie, an ode to oily excess. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

The glory that is the fried Twinkie. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

Larry Fyfe will not wait in line. But for 45 years, he’s made his living off people willing to wait in his lines. Fyfe runs four concession stands at the Iowa State Fair, most of which specialize in deep-fried foods on sticks. In 1999, Fyfe introduced the hordes to fried Twinkies. This year he served up nearly 10,000 fried Oreos. “I’m glad people aren’t like me,” Fyfe says. “I won’t stand in line for anything.”

This August, more than a million Americans descended upon the fair. From 9 a.m. until midnight, they endured blazing Midwestern sun, barnyard smells, and Rihanna playing on a loop in order to obtain their prize: snack foods cloaked in greasy golden robes, held aloft for all to see. For a vendor as popular as Fyfe, such a situation demands complete efficiency. Deep-frying is “quick and quality, the most important things in this business,” Fyfe says. The reason? Science. Read the rest of this entry »