The Healthy Geezer
Q: Glaucoma runs in my family. Is there a cure for it yet?
A: Unfortunately, there is no cure for glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness in the United States. Any vision that glaucoma destroys cannot be restored. Early diagnosis of glaucoma is extremely important, because there are treatments that may save remaining vision.
Almost three million people in the U.S. have glaucoma. Those at highest risk are African-Americans, everyone over age sixty, and people with a family history of glaucoma. Glaucoma is defined as a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve, which carries images from the eye to the brain.
Here’s how glaucoma works: A clear fluid flows through a small space at the front of the eye called the “anterior chamber.” If you have glaucoma, the fluid drains too slowly out of the eye and pressure builds up. This pressure may damage the optic nerve.
However, increased eye pressure doesn’t necessarily mean you have glaucoma. It means you are at risk for glaucoma. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged.
Glaucoma can develop in one or both eyes. The most common type of glaucoma starts out with no symptoms. Without treatment, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral vision. Eventually, the middle of their vision field may decrease until they are blind.
Glaucoma is just one reason seniors should make regular visits to an eye doctor. Glaucoma is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes a visual acuity test, visual field test, dilated eye exam, tonometry, and pachymetry.
A visual acuity test measures vision at various distances. A visual field test measures peripheral vision. In a dilated eye exam, a special magnifying lens is used to examine the inside of the eye. In tonometry, an instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. With pachymetry, an instrument is used to measure the thickness of the cornea, the transparent part of the front of the eye.
The most common treatments for glaucoma are medication and surgery. Medications for glaucoma may come in eye drops or pills. For most people with glaucoma, regular use of medications will control the increased fluid pressure.
Laser surgery is another treatment for glaucoma. The laser is focused on the part of the anterior chamber where the fluid leaves the eye. This makes it easier for fluid to exit the eye. Over time, the effect of this surgery may wear off. Patients who have laser surgery may need to keep taking glaucoma drugs.
Studies have shown that early detection and treatment of glaucoma is the best way to control the disease. So, have your eyes examined thoroughly and regularly if you are in a high-risk category. And that includes all of us geezers.
If you have a question, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flash in the Pan
New food safety regulations hurt small farms
It's getting difficult to name a food that hasn't recently caused a pathogen outbreak. Bagged salad, peppers, beef, and peanuts are just some dietary staples that have been caught spreading E. coli, salmonella, and other diseases. These outbreaks have inspired a legislative push to make America's food safer, which sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, the effort has resulted in pending and proposed legislation that, as written, threatens to punish the people and businesses that produce the safest and healthiest food of all, while depriving consumers of the opportunity to eat it.
The disease outbreaks are all coming from the Big Ag side of our food system, and the new laws aim to regulate the factory farms, processors, and distributors that are creating the problem. But the legislation also exposes small family farms to the same regulations and fees.
Food produced on small farms and marketed locally hasn't been implicated in any of the recent outbreaks for several reasons. Small farms create fewer situations in which diseases can thrive; livestock confinement operations, for example, are swimming with E. coli, while the microbe is relatively scarce in smaller livestock operations. Food produced by large operations, already more likely to be contaminated, is fed into long supply chains where the contamination can spread during transport, storage, or processing.
Food that's grown on family farms and sold locally is usually sampled by the farmers and their families first -- a built-in first line of quality control. And if there is a problem with small, local farm food, the consumer population that might be exposed is small and localized, making the problem inherently traceable. Meanwhile, state and local public health and sanitation laws are already in place to regulate Small Ag.
Nonetheless, the recently passed House Resolution 2749 and the proposed Senate Bill 510 (aka the Food Safety Modernization Act) lump Small Ag and Big Ag together in the same regulatory framework.
S. 510 as written would require small producers and processors to submit to the same cumbersome Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, which would add an onerous burden of paperwork, record keeping and possibly infrastructure investments to companies that don't necessarily have the resources to handle it.
The House bill includes a fee system in which the small players subsidize the regulation of the big ones: all food processing facilities would have to pay the FDA a $500 annual fee to help cover the costs of enacting the law. This would be a drop in the bucket for large corporations like Dole - which would likely be more expensive to regulate - and disproportionately burdensome for mom-and-pop operations that sell to their neighbors. And while S. 510 currently contains no language regarding funding, if Obama's spending freeze gains any traction, then inspection and registration fees would likely be inserted into S. 510.
S. 510, as written, would authorize the FDA to establish "science-based" rules governing the growth and harvesting of crops that are deemed high risk. In the event that farmers have concerns about the FDA's designation of high-risk crops or the regulations regarding how they are grown, S. 510 mandates only three public forums during the one-year rulemaking period. Stakeholders would bear the expense of traveling great distances to one of these three meetings to voice concerns, and the FDA has a history of being insensitive to timing with regard to the realities of the farming season. Last year the agency scheduled a discussion on the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in the middle of the summer.
"Everybody who participated in [the agreement] who was a farmer had to set aside what makes them their living in one of the most critical periods of the year -- and that's crap," Harry Hamil, a North Carolina farmer and activist, told Food Safety News. "There needs to be a statement about the timing of such things. You don't ask, in the middle of tomato planting season or tomato harvesting season, for somebody to review a tomato rule, you do that in the wintertime -- that should be specifically mandated."
Many small farmers and consumer groups, such as the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), are working to ensure S. 510 only targets companies marketing at a wholesale level for wide distribution, while exempting small farms and processors that market directly to consumers, restaurants, hospitals, schools, hotels and other local institutions. Other groups, like the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, want food safety legislation passed as soon as possible, with or without small farm exemptions.
While many are understandably frustrated that the government isn't doing enough to protect us from food-borne illness, we can't let the haste to make our food safer leads to crushing the producers that grow the safest food of all. It may create a short-term gain in food safety, but it would represent a long-term loss in health.
"By what extreme notion has it been decided that it's perfectly safe to feed our kids Coco Puffs, Twinkies and Mountain Dew but it's not safe to feed them compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk?" said Joel Salatin, a farmer and activist in Virginia, in a You Tube video. "This food safety is a very subjective thing. If there's one thing that stands between freedom and tyranny it's the choice of being able to decide what to feed our own bodies. If that isn't the most basic human freedom I don't know what is."
While making S. 510 more friendly to small farms is an uphill climb, it's not without precedent. Hamil points to the FDA's new egg rule to help minimize Salmonella enteritidis, finalized last summer, as an example of the kind of tiered regulation that could be applied to the rest of the food industry. The egg rule specifically applies only to egg producers with more than 3,000 laying hens.
Hopefully that kind of scaling can make its way into S. 510. And if it passes, hopefully such changes will remain after it's reconciled with HR 2749.
If Americans are going to eat food that's grown, processed, and combined with other ingredients in large facilities thousands of miles from where the food is ultimately consumed, enhanced supervision of all steps in that supply chain is warranted. What isn't warranted is the application of the same regulations to small producers and processors that are part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
So the pressure is on to make some common-sense changes quickly. Call or write your Senator.
Q: I want to know the best way to deal with crystallized honey. If I microwave it do I kill the good stuff in the honey? Or is it better to do it in hot water?
- Hard Honey
A: I'm not sure what you mean by the "good stuff" in honey. Honey is a potent antibiotic, making it unlikely that anything is living in your honey. It's been used as a wound dressing for thousands of years, and now you can evenfind highly filtered "medical grade" honey. So if anything is truly living in your honey, you might want to call your local microbiologist. You just might have discovered a bacteria with your name on it.
Honey will generally crystallize when stored below 70 degrees; warming your crystallized honey will reverse the process. Using a microwave is fine, as long as you use a microwave-safe dish. Be careful of plastic honey bottles with labels, because while the container may be microwave-safe, some labels contain metal, which will spark.
Q: I've been seeing a lot of organic honey in stores and on restaurant menus. Can you tell me how it's made?
- Show Me the Honey
A: Most honey that's labeled organic, including all domestic honey, is not certified organic. That's because the USDA doesn't even have a definition of what honey is, much less rules or inspectors for certifying honey as organic. Nonetheless, there is a problem with some honey being labeled USDA certified organic.
While a lot of honey on the market is cut with other sweeteners and additives, to date only the state of Florida has a codified definition of honey, which dictates that it must be completely pure and unadulterated.
But even Florida beekeepers can't stop their bees from patrolling a 2 to 3 mile radius, which could include stops in fields that have been treated with chemicals.
Honey from faraway lands where chemicals are sparsely used may in some cases truly qualify as organic. Indeed, there are several non-U.S. honey certifiers, each with their own standards and enforcement. So the question becomes: who's certifying the certifiers?
Ari LeVaux lives in Placitas where he writes his nationally syndicated column Flash in the Pan.
Flash in the Pan
Big Dairy Smackdown
Small-ag activists and organic watchdog groups found themselves in terra incognita recently: cheering the USDA for tightening the definitions of organic meat and dairy. On February 12, the agency published “Access to Pasture,“ a “final rule and request for comments” regarding organic standards for livestock. It’s been called the most sweeping rewrite of federal organic standards since their inception in 2002.
The rule closes several loopholes that mega-dairies have used to exploit the organic market with milk from farms that hardly resemble the farms that inspired the now $24.6 billion organic industry.
Access to Pasture mandates that meat and dairy cattle branded organic must graze for a minimum of 120 days on pasture. At least thirty percent of the animals’ total annual caloric intake must come from grazing.
While definitive with regard to dairy, the rule leaves one significant question open with regard to meat production: whether beef cows should be exempt from the above grazing requirements during a four-month fattening, or “finish feeding,” period, after which they are slaughtered. A sixty-day comment period closes April 19.
The new rule is a major blow to certain mega-dairies that for years took advantage of the previous rule requiring only that organic cows have “access to pasture.” The real-life manifestation of this famously ambiguous phrase was often a warehouse door opening to a muddy side yard.
Clarifying “access to pasture” has been under discussion between the National Organic Program (NOP) and USDA since 1994, and a rule similar to the new rule was first proposed in 2005. It languished in Bush’s USDA for a variety of reasons, some of which are currently under investigation. When the draft was opened for public comment, 80,327 were lodged, of which a large majority—all but twenty-eight—favored clarifying the phrase “access to pasture.”
In addition to clarifying pasturing requirements for cattle, Access to Pasture tightens up several other cracks in the federal definition of organic. It expands and strengthens the language prohibiting antibiotics in organic feed, requires that any edible bedding (like straw and corn cobs) be certified organic, and mandates that pasture be managed as a crop—that is, to produce abundant forage.
Much of the new 160-page rule consists of comments, which are parsed and organized into arguments for or against the rule’s measures. Of the 26,970 public comments the USDA received, twenty-six thousand supported more pasture time for organic cattle. All but 130 of the comments arrived via three modified form letters.
Many small-ag types were skeptical of President Obama’s appointment of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack’s cozy relationship with corporate agribusiness earned him “Governor of the Year” kudos from the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
One of Secretary Vilsack’s first moves was to rip up the plaza in front of the USDA building in Washington and install a certified organic garden. He then recommended that all USDA facilities around the country do the same. Then Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan as deputy administrator, the USDA’s number-two spot. She’s credited with writing the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, in which Congress gave the USDA authority to oversee the organic industry.
While organic cheerleaders appear to have much to celebrate, some unfinished business will soon tell us more about which direction the USDA is really headed, and how much the public’s hands are guiding it.
Public comment just ended on the USDA’s December 2009 determination that Monsanto’s GE alfalfa seed meets USDA standards. The determination came despite the agency’s acknowledgement that the GE alfalfa is likely to cross-contaminate with non-GE alfalfa.
Not one comment in a brief online survey of the registered comments favored approving this contagious alfalfa for planting. If the pattern holds, the response to these comments could create a showdown between Vilsack’s biotech interests and the newly comment-friendly agency he leads.
Another looming question is what will replace the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) proposal, which was recently scrapped in another victory for small ag. NAIS would have forced all livestock farmers great and small to keep painstaking and expensive records of their animals.
And finally, the burning item of business that Access to Pasture leaves unresolved for another sixty days: “We are requesting comments on the exceptions for finish feeding of ruminant slaughter stock.”
As it stands, the USDA exempts beef cattle from the requirement that thirty percent of nutrition come from forage for a period of 120 days prior to slaughter. In practice, this exemption allows organic beef cattle to be confined and fed grain for four months prior to slaughter, a practice known as feedlot finishing.
Access to Pasture notes, “The sentiment among most of the commenters is that there is no place in organic agriculture for the confinement feeding of animals nor should there be any exception for ruminant slaughter stock.”
If that sentiment holds, the organic feedlot exception should end. But if the exception is upheld and “organic” beef is allowed to be “finished” in confinement, that would not only cast doubt on what appears to be a newly inclusive and democratic USDA, it would arguably violate several key aspects of organic livestock production. Confined feeding goes against the organic tenet that animals be allowed to express their true nature, and feeding grain to animals not only produces a different kind of meat that’s much less healthy, it’s also much more energy-intensive and environmentally destructive.
Perhaps the real discussion shouldn’t even be about whether organic beef cows can be confined and grain fed for the last 120 days of their lives. The discussion should be about whether organic cattle should be fed any grain at all.
The new rule can be found at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5082652&acct=noprulemaking.
Q: I am confused about which type of utensil to use while cooking. I have heard that plastics can leach cancer-causing chemicals into foods and liquids when heated and cooled. I have also heard that wood cannot be sterilized because it is porous. I know that metal can scratch up and ruin pots and pans. Where does that leave me when reaching for a spatula, ladle, or spoon? Any suggestions? Thanks! —Stir Crazy
A: I would definitely stay away from plastic. It’s true that some plastics can be toxic when heated, and even safe plastic utensils have poor feng shui, in my opinion (full disclosure: I am not a licensed feng shui practitioner).
I use a lot of wooden utensils, most of which were purchased at street markets in Thailand and Brazil. They’re made of very hard wood, making them somewhat impervious to bacteria, and, I don’t know, I’ve never had any problems with them and I’m not too worried about it. I really like the feel of wooden utensils and I don’t believe it’s possible or beneficial to live in a completely sterile environment, but if I were a little paranoid I’d probably soak my wooden utensils in a bleach solution.
Otherwise, metal utensils are a great option. Most pans that metal would harm are going to be the coated, no-stick variety, which are very non-feng shui and potentially toxic as well —who knows what pan coating will be declared safe today and poisonous tomorrow? So if germs are a high priority, ditch the coated pans and use metal utensils in cast-iron or stainless steel cookware.