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Food for Thought: Food Safety and Wondrous Purim

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Despite the efforts of public-health organizations, environmental groups and activist, by a vote of 283 to 139, the US House of Repressentatives last night passed HR 4167, the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005. If the measure wins Senate approval and is signed by George Bush, it will in effect nullify any local or state food-safety law that is more stringent than federal regulations.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The vote was a victory for the food industry, which has lobbied for years for national standards for food labeling and contributed millions of dollars to lawmakers’ campaigns. But consumer groups and state regulators warned that the bill would undo more than 200 state laws, including California’s landmark Proposition 65, that protect public health.

“The purpose of this legislation is to keep the public from knowing about the harm they may be exposed to in food,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, a chief critic of the measure.

Several critics argued that the bill was rushed through the House without complete hearings as a favor to a specific industry — at the same time that members are talking about the evils of lobbying and proposing stricter ethical rules.

Under the bill, any state that wanted to keep its own tougher standards for food labeling would have to ask for approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which has been criticized by food safety groups as slow to issue consumer warnings.

The measure was approved after a debate in which House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco accused the Republican majority of “shredding the food safety net that we have built in this country.”

Pelosi’s accusation seems a bit specious to me. HR enjoyed bipartisan support from its introduction last year, numerous Democrats voted for it, and there was some Republican opposition to the legislation.

The resolution now moves to the US Senate, where it is expected to have a more difficult time.

California’s two Democratic senators are threatening to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor. A group of 39 state attorneys general, including many Republicans, has warned of the consequences of the measure. State food and drug regulators and agricultural officials also are urging the Senate to reject the bill.

Let’s hope the Senate has the sense to allow localities a say in protecting the health of their citizens.

In the meantime, there is time for action: I implore any Americans concerned about food safety and public health to contact senators via the Congressional Switchboard, 202-224-3121, and in writing (see the Contact Congress lookup service in All Facts and Opinions‘ Action Alert Center). Urge them to vote NO on the National Uniformity for Food Act.

A version of Britain's proposed food traffic-light label Food labeling is on the radar in the UK as well: The BBC reports that Britain’s Food Standards Agency is proposing a new, voluntary labeling plan. The system would affix a traffic-light graphic on to food packages; the colored lights would indicate whether an item contains high, medium or low levels of fat, saturates, sugar and salt. Additonally, packaging would denote the amount of each category per nutritional serving. The FSA would ensure that consistent nutritional criteria is used.

FSA Chair Deirdre Hutton says the simplicity of the system is its charm. “We all lead busy lives, so making healthier choices when shopping needs to be quick and easy,” she told the BBC. “Developing a consistent way of clearly highlighting how much fat, sugar and salt a food contains will make it simpler for people to put healthy eating advice into practice when shopping.”

The agency’s plan, again, is voluntary. Food firms Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Asda are already on board. But there is criticism of the FSA system – and competition too.

Just last month, a host of companies, among them Kraft, Danone, Kelloggs, Nestle and PepsiCo and a number of supermarkets, opted to use a labeling system based on “guideline daily amounts” (GDA), which is similar to the “recommended daily amounts” (RDA) used in the US. Critics of the FSA plan say it is too simplistic. GDA labels show the actual caloric count, the as they show what percentage of the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals are contained in an individual serving, and the percentage of sugar, fat, saturates and salt found in food items. This, they say, will allow consumers to make better, more informed choices about the foods they buy and eat.

It certainly should be possible for the two to coexist, but experts have varying views of the FSA plan and the GDA labeling.

Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said the FSA recommendations were a step in the right direction.

“We now need to work with the food manufacturers and retailers to ensure we have a consistent approach to food labelling to avoid confusion. The test will be which system works best for shoppers and for health.”

Professor Tim Lang of City University’s food policy department said the situation was a mess but would test whether the FSA “stands firm for the consumer or caves in to superior food industry forces”.

Peter Hollins, Director General of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Unilateral schemes recently announced by some in the industry will confuse consumers and undermine the FSA’s system. The FSA’s scheme will fail if industry does not fall into line.”

Seems to me – and UK consumer group Which? agrees – that there is room for both. As always, informed shoppers should be able to make use of the traffic light and the GDA information to help them make healthy choices. The more information that is available, the healthier we can all be – and that is what is at the heart of all of this labeling hoo-hah, right?

Food for Thought has focused on newsy items of late – a good thing, I think – but recipes have been promised. So, given the upcoming holiday of Purim (March 14 this year), I thought it appropriate and timely to share a healthy recipe that is a favorite of mine. First, however, let’s talk about the holiday.

For those who don’t know, Purim is a day of celebration and sharing. The occasion marks the victory of the Jewish people over the evil Haman, who was prime minister to Persian King Xerxes and who plotted to slay the Jews. Queen Esther, a closeted Jew, heard of Haman’s vile plot and, with her uncle Mordecai, turned the tables and saved her people. The biblical Book of Esther tells the whole tale and is worthwhile reading.

Why do I recommend Purim to everyone? It’s an amazing day of family, community and unity: For one, we celebrate the resilience and survival of the Jewish people – undoubtedly a good thing. Additionally, the day’s traditions include doing mitzvot – good deeds – for others: giving Matanot L’evyonim, food gifts to the poor; and sharing Mishlo’ach Manot – gifts of food to friends and family. All are wonderfully loving and humane Purim customs. Of course there are religious aspects to this joyous day, such as the reading of the Megillat Esther, which tells the story behind Purim and gives props to an amazing woman of courage (just in time for Women’s History Month). And then there is the revelry, complete with groggers (noisemakers shaken to drown out any mention of Haman’s name), colorful costumes, the Purim Schpiel (a funny skit for the holiday) and a wonderful dinner – Mishteh – with lots of yummy dessert treats.

Among the day’s delicacies is the traditional three-cornered filled pastry Hamantaschen, which is supposed to resemble Haman’s hat. Now, on Purim, a day when participants are encouraged to drink wine and wallow in joy, watching calories and nutrition seems silly, but hey, I’m obsessed. So I found a vegan recipe for the Purim goodie that fits the occasion and keeps me guilt-free.

Vegan Hamantaschen


1-1/2 cups vegan margarine, at room temperature
1 cup evaporated cane juice or other unprocessed, sweetener
1/4 cup silken tofu, pureed
6 tbsps. orange juice
1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
2 tsps. baking powder
4-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
a variety of all-fruit preserves – apricot, strawberry, raspberry, whatever you like


In a large bowl, use an electric mixer at low speed to cream together the margarine and sugar. Beat in the puréed tofu, and then the orange juice and vanilla extract. Add the baking powder and flour; mix until the dough turns into a ball. Cover and place the bowl in the refrigerator for at least two hours.

Lightly flour a rolling pin and a large cutting board – I prefer a wooden surface. Place your chilled dough onto the board and roll the dough until it is very thin – between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Using a floured cookie cutter or glass, cut into 3-inch wide circles.

Here is where we start to have some real fun: Place about one teaspoon of the fruit preserves in the center of each round. Dip a pastry brush in water and wet the outside edge of each dough circle, then pinch the three sides together to form a triangle – Haman’s hat. Make sure that the filling is safely enveloped within the dough.

Place the cookies onto an ungreased baking sheet, and put the sheet into the refrigerator for an hour to allow the cookies to chill again in order to help them keep their shape.

Preheat oven to 375° F / 190° C. Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes or until they are a light golden brown. When you remove the cookies from the oven, be sure to allow them to rest on the hot baking sheet for a minute – then transfer the cookies — carefully — to a wire rack. Makes about three dozen little bits of celebration,

If you make Purim a special day in your house, I wish you a happy one. And though I am not usually a drinker, know that I will drink deeply of the grape at our family’s Mishteh to wish you joy.


Food for Thought ruminates on the world of food – news, recipes, dining out, health, trends and more – from a progressive, counterculture perspective. Wanna share recipes or tips? Send email!

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About NR Davis

  • More of us ought to be angry at our major food processing corporations who claim it would be too burdensome for them to know what goes into the food they sell, and too costly to openly identify the potentially dangerous genetically engineered ingredients on the label. Instead they have to spend their money paying off crooked legislators to protect corporations from the consequences of their carelessness with our health.

    Thank your for your coverage of this legislation.

  • US food labelling already seems pretty bad to me. Out of curiousity, in the UK I bought an imported can of mashed pumpkin (it seemed to me a very odd thing to put in a can since the natural packing keeps for a very long time). The can said “100 % natural ingredients”, but nowhere said what those ingredients were.

    I’d made a recipe for a pumpkin-pie like slice before with pumpkin I’d cooked myself, and the outcome from the canned version convinced me there must have been some pretty odd ingredients in there – certainly it was nothing like 100% pumpkin, but who knows what?

  • “Why do I recommend Purim to everyone? It’s an amazing day of family, community and unity: For one, we celebrate the resilience and survival of the Jewish people – undoubtedly a good thing. Additionally, the day’s traditions include doing mitzvot – good deeds – for others: giving Matanot L’evyonim, food gifts to the poor; and sharing Mishlo’ach Manot – gifts of food to friends and family. All are wonderfully loving and humane Purim customs.”

    Ms. Davis, it felt very good to read this. I’ll print up the recipe for my wife. There is one thing I wuld have added about Purim. It is one of two times during the year that we Jews are supposed to get drunk.

    Now, to a more serious issue. I see you included a link to find senators to nag about this travesty of a food bill you congress has seen fit to pass.

    Happy Purim! Yihyéh l’khém Hhag Purím Sameahh!

  • That’s the only reason I do allow myself to drink wine (and lots of it) that day – to free the senses so that I can celebrate fully and deeply without reservation. That point does bear mentioning, and I am pleased and grateful that you did. You’ll love the vegan hamantaschen, which really is in line with Jewish dietary principles.

    Re: the food-safety story. Yeah, the House decided to betray consumers, but the Senate has yet to consider it. The Contact Congress interface is on my site, but the direct link (one must include a postal or zip code to find specific senators) is here.

  • People looking for vegan Purim recipes, including hamantaschen, should check out the compilation at JewishVeg:

    The site is an incredible resource for anyone interested in Jewish vegetarianism.

  • Cool! Thanks.

  • I remember watching a documentary on France in high school for my French class, and in that documentary, they interviewed a 60 year old man who was looking like, and moving like a 35 year old. I specifically remembering him saying to the interviewer, “Americans can never understand this. How I can be this old and still feel this good…” He then went on to talk about their food, and how they don’t add so much to their foods. He also hit on them having a glass of wine at every meal, and I just thought it was interesting.