By Pam Linn

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Ben, Jerry make sense of national food fight

You wouldn’t think with a national election just weeks away and a financial meltdown of historic proportions that there’s anything else to talk about. But there is, and it concerns something that all of us do every day, with any luck at all- eating.

In the world of food production there also is a crisis. Conflicting regulations, meant to protect our food supply from contamination, and a dearth of inspections of imported food products are leaving consumers (that would be all of us) to sort things on their own.

Into this complicated mess is pumped an extraordinary amount of just plain silliness. More of this later.

First: California farmers are using guns, poisons and other measures to adhere to regulations put in place after the 2006 raw spinach contamination killed three and sickened hundreds of users of bagged salad greens. Even after much investigation, the source was never pinpointed. Scientists said they suspect that cattle, feral pigs and other wildlife may have spread the bacteria in their, well, poop.

The companies that buy fresh greens have exerted enormous pressure on farmers to take drastic action to protect crops from exposure to wildlife. Farmers are now carrying heat, shooting wild pigs, deer and any other wild thing that might spread disease to their fields.

One grower even poisoned his ponds with copper sulfate aimed at killing frogs that might carry salmonella on their feet. Never mind that farmers have coexisted peacefully with wildlife practically forever.

Even as large purveyors of bagged greens, like Fresh Express, demand a one-mile buffer between feedlots and farmland, nonprofits like the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County have called for balance. Their mission is to encourage landholders to sustain wildlife habitat and corridors. But, in a survey, 181 growers admitted they had caved to corporate food-safety auditors, subjecting 30,000 acres, mostly in the Salinas Valley, to habitat removal, fencing and trapping or poisoning wildlife.

Who speaks for the time-honored practice of planting trees and other noncrop vegetation alongside fields to reduce pollution of streams with pesticide-laden runoff and erosion that clogs running water with silt?

At the same time, a new food-labeling law is driving producers nuts. Under pressure from meatpackers and some grocery chains, many of which mix U.S. and Mexican beef, the USDA has agreed to a compromise on its new country of origin labeling law. The loophole would allow packers to label all beef and pork with multiple countries of origin. Obviously that would deny U.S. ranchers and farmers any competitive advantage. And it leaves consumers no opportunity to choose locally grown meat. Consumers already have to deal with produce, mostly fruit, bearing stickers that say Product of EU and USA. How are we supposed to know where that plum came from? We can only hope Congress makes this right before it’s too late.

And then there’s the weekly discovery that another food product from China is tainted with melamine or some other toxic substance. Discovered first in pet food, then recently in baby formula, the melamine contamination is being found in more products around the world; in just about anything containing dairy, including chocolate and just about any processed food with dry milk or protein on the label. The industrial chemical, found responsible for kidney stones in children (54,000 children have been sickened), is added to foil tests for protein levels. Have the Chinese learned nothing from all the recalls of last year?

So, in the midst of all these very real problems with the food supply, animal activists have joined the fray with the most ridiculous suggestion ever. PETA wrote a letter to ice cream company founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield telling them cow’s milk is hazardous and the act of milking cows constitutes cruelty.

The letter reads, in part: “If Ben & Jerry’s replaced the cow’s milk in its ice cream with breast milk, your customers-and cows-would reap the benefits.” And those benefits would be what exactly? And have they considered cruelty to humans? And the yuck factor?

The company deals exclusively with Vermont dairy farms that use no antibiotics or growth hormones in milk and cream production. Why not give them credit for avoiding the very real cruelty involved in giving cows the bovine growth hormone rBST to increase milk production. Ben & Jerry’s was the first to make this commitment, although this past year California Dairies, Inc., a Central Valley co-op, began phasing out its use of the hormone that causes mastitis and other very real problems for cows.

PETA representatives have admitted the suggestion had more publicity value than practical application. A spokesman for the company politely responded: “We applaud PETA’s novel approach to bringing attention to an issue, but we believe a mother’s milk is best used for her child.”

Finally, some common sense is injected into our national food fight. Bless you, Ben and Jerry. Let’s toast the lactating mothers of America, may they nurture only their own. And share a pint of Cherry Garcia.