The European Union has lifted its ban on oddly-shaped fruits and vegetables enacted 20 years ago. The move has overcome an obsession with perfection in efforts to lower the price of fresh produce and reduce agricultural waste. Bendy cucumbers and forked carrots are now welcome on supermarket shelves across the region, which is good news for British chains like Sainsbury's that launched a campaign against the strict EU regulations last November. Also surely rejoicing is the Prince of Wales whose home-grown carrots were deemed too "wibbly-wobbly" to sell.
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Eating seal is illegal in Europe. But a New York Times piece today says that's far from the case in Montreal:
Across town, at Les Îles en Ville, Andrée Garcia, an owner and chef, has elevated seal from an occasional specialty to a regular feature. The most frequent preparation there, Ms. Garcia said, is a filet-mignon-style cut of seal that is pan-seared, then roasted briefly in the oven and finished with a cranberry sauce.
Looks like the blubbery animal is becoming quite the anti-Europe symbol these days. A lot of French nationals are coming from far and wide to feast on charismatic megafauna, too. And nobody has yet managed to top the eating of a raw seal heart as a political statement.
"Silent killers" in Africa are usually malaria, malnutrition, river blindness, HIV/AIDs...and the list goes on. But recent reports suggest it might be time to add one more, and it's one you might not expect: obesity.
"A third of women in urban Kampala and a quarter of the women in more rural central and southwestern Uganda are overweight or obese, according to 2007 government statistics. It is a major paradox since 50 percent of children in southwestern Uganda are malnourished," Derrick Z. Jackson writes in a Boston Globe op-ed.
This does not come as a surprise to me. Go to the prominent markets in cities, or take a drive through the richer neighborhoods in Nigeria, Cameroon, or even Liberia for that matter, and obesity is visible -- if not as prevelant as in the United States, for example. There are no real reliable statistics on obesity in Africa yet (check out how nearly the whole continent lacks data here) but there is a general consensus that the epidemic is growing -- at least among the wealthier.
In my experience, "fatness" is not bemoaned much in the African countries I've visited... In fact, it's applauded. I'll never forget a church service I observed in which a preacher asked attendees to greet their neighbor joyously: "Today is your day of fatness!"
Fatness, in this context, means more than just physique. It's associated with wealth of all sorts. In a continent struck by poverty, being big in all things -- wallet, house, and belt size -- is a sign of success. I was often told to gain weight, and complimented on days when I apparently looked "bigger." It's an understandable mentality when poverty is all around; when one escapes such a fate, seeking all things non-poor is a prized goal. What is harder to justify is the way that the "big man" concept fits into corruption as well. Opportunities to get rich are often taken; and big men become exactly that in all senses of the word.
Obviously, this is a small subset, and certainly there are other reasons for obesity on the rise. (It doesn't help that African food is often rich -- for example in Sierra Leone: rice, palm oil, cassava, palm oil, meat, and more palm-oil fried plantains -- so workers moving from the fields to desk jobs are likely to take in more calories than a sedentary lifestyle allows).
But if I'm right, or if being big remains a big goal, then Africa's slow rise out of poverty could bring with it a rise of obesity. But perhaps being big won't be so special anymore -- and another fashion will fill its place.
The United Nations' tally for people around the world suffering from hunger will hit a new milestone this year: one billion, or fully one-sixth of the world's population.
The new data comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization, whose director-general believes hunger represents a grave threat to "world peace and security," the BBC reports:
The UN said almost all of the world's undernourished live in developing countries, with the most, some 642 million people, living in the Asia-Pacific region.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the next worst-hit region, the figure stands at 265 million.
Just 15 million people are left hungry in the developed world"
A combination of the global recession and rising food prices are largely to blame for the increase in world hunger, the UN says.
It has nothing to do with terrorism, nukes or Ahmadinejad. It's wheat fungus.
The L.A. Times reports:
Crop scientists fear the Ug99 fungus could wipe out more than 80% of worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from eastern Africa. It has already jumped the Red Sea and traveled as far as Iran. Experts say it is poised to enter the breadbasket of northern India and Pakistan, and the wind will inevitably carry it to Russia, China and even North America -- if it doesn't hitch a ride with people first.
"It's a time bomb," said Jim Peterson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It moves in the air, it can move in clothing on an airplane. We know it's going to be here. It's a matter of how long it's going to take."
Though most Americans have never heard of it, Ug99 -- a type of fungus called stem rust because it produces reddish-brown flakes on plant stalks -- is the No. 1 threat to the world's most widely grown crop.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that 19% of the world's wheat, which provides food for 1 billion people in Asia and Africa, is in imminent danger. American plant breeders say $10 billion worth of wheat would be destroyed if the fungus suddenly made its way to U.S. fields.
If you were worried that Hugo Chavez's global reach would shrink right along with the oil prices, there good news for your today, as Lebanon inaugurates the Hugo Chavez shawarma spot. The Venezuelan ambassador was on site for the "emotional" opening of the restaurant, replete with great festivity all around.
The restaurant, it seems, is quite patriotic indeed -- decorated with flags and pictures of the Venezuelan president and, nearby as the press release from the Embassy put it (my translation), "instructions of our head of state relating to the fight for the sovereignty of the oppressed people of the world against the pretensions of potential imperialists."
What atmosphere! Add the waiters' red shirts and hats, clothes traditional to Venezuela, and you've go the whole deal. Now, I just wonder how good the shawarma is.
It's a very obvious overstatement to say that South Africa is becoming more like its delinquent neighbor, Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, an incident reported in South Africa's Business Today gave reason for the comparison: Last weekend, a mob overran a fruit and sugar cane farm, allegedly in frustration for the slow pace of long-promised land reform. It sparked memories of the public outcry in Zimbabwe that spawned a policy of "fast track" reallocation of land from white to black hands.
As South Africa approaches its fourth elections since the end of apartheid this weekend, this is a dismaying analogy. Both countries began independence with striking imbalances -- with some 80 to 90 percent of land in white hands. In South Africa, that persists today, and calls for a more rapid solution to reallocation are growing. Elections are likely to be won by the African National Congress Party's Jacob Zuma, known for a more populist stance on precisely these types of issues. The pressure on Zuma to move forward quickly could be quite intense.
So far, South Africa's approach has been more moderate than Zimbabwe's raid-and-reallocate approach: Pretoria has tried to encourage land owners to sell and private investment to revamp the productivity of failed plots. The government assures that Zimbabwe will not be the model to follow. But success is percieved to be mixed at best, and there is much transferring to be done before the promised 30 percent of land returns to majority black hands by 2014. And land is just one of the manifestations of the inequality that continues to plague South Africa. Patience is wearing thin.
Where South Africa goes after its Sunday vote is yet unclear. Former parliamentarian Raenette Taljaard has a few predictions in FP's Think Again: South Africa. But one can only hope that the answer to the title of this post is, "no."
AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA
I'll start with the bad news for anyone with a pet guinea pig: this blog post is not about pets. It's about food staples -- the guinea pig being a major one for Peru, with 65 million of the critters eaten each year. In addition to genetically engineering the perfect pig, Peru celebrates its culinary tradition in splendid a guinea pig festival.
Alas, despite a bull market at home, exporting the creature has proven difficult in a world where guinea-pigs are at times more associated with cages and hampster wheels than with fine cutlery. But now from the blogosphere a rather brilliant suggestion: export to China. No qualms about pet vs. platter there. And guinea pigs are remarkably economical -- at just $3.20 to feed half a dozen people. Sounds like guinea pigs are a recession proof (even countercyclical) market. I'm investing now.
Hat tip: Double Handshake.
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Kim's interest in gourmet food and drink is long-standing -- he's Hennessy cognac's biggest individual customer, for instance. The restaurant is the culmination of his decade-long investment in producing the perfect pies. In the 1990s, he hired an Italian pizza-maker to teach his staff the vital art of olive placement. And, after "trial and error" failed to bring the pizza up to snuff, he sent them to Italy last year.
Apparently the trip was a success: the restaurant now serves pasta and pizza made with ingredients flown in from Europe to North Korea's elite. Though Kim allegedly "does not eat much, but enjoys picking at various kinds of food, as if just to taste" -- an irony that's got to be hard to stomach.
Photo: KNS/AFP/Getty Images
In an attempt to profit off Obamamania, a German company has created a new food: Obama-Fingers.
The packaging says the product is "tender, juicy pieces of chicken breast, coated and fried." A curry dip is included.
Putting the African-American president's name on fried chicken might not go over so well in the United States, but the company, Sprehe, said no racist overtones were intended. After the company's sales manager told Spiegel Online, "We noticed that American products and the American way of eating are trendy at the moment," she went on to say, "It was supposed to be a homage to the American lifestyle and the new U.S. president."
Finger-licking good, anyone?
Via Matthew Yglesias, it seems that there's at least one U.S. politician brave enough to fight for Americans' God-given right to enjoy fancy French cheese. Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar has written a letter to the president protesting the United States's relatiatory tariffs on Roquefort cheese:
“Freedom fries and “freedom toast” did serious damage to U.S.-French relaions. We both want to reestablish America’s moral authority in the world under your presidency; a very noble gesture toward that goal would be to remove or reduce this mean-spirited and unproductive punitive duty on Roquefort cheese.
Though I am a supporter of “buy American”, it is for unfairly subsidized foreign products when they are identical or comparable to ours. Roquefort cheese is not in this category. I know from my own experience that if such retaliatory action were taken on products produced in small communities in my district, as Roquefort cheese is in a small French town, it would have a serious adverse local economic impact.
Even here at Passport, we realize that the Roquefort controvery is not one of the more pressing issues Obama faces. But all the same, it's impressive when a congressman from an agricultural state is willing to come out against counterproductive protectionism, and for something French. Though a quick Getty Images search reveals that Oberstar is a longtime French sympathizer.
Cypriot asparagus harvesters are fuming over a U.N.-brokered peace settlement which has created a buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island. The U.N. is preventing the harvesters from entering the zone to pick up wild asparagus as they have done for years:
"This is unacceptable behaviour and I have demanded that action is taken," said Nicos Kotziambashis, leader of the Greek Cypriot village of Mammari which has been particularly hit by the U.N. ban. "The situation is explosive."
"It is not something we particularly like to do but unfortunately if the asparagus is found in the buffer zone the peacekeepers have to do their job, which is to regulate access to that part of the territory," a U.N. spokesman told Reuters.
The story reminds me a bit of a funny anecdote from my colleague Tom Ricks' excellent new book The Gamble, which I am working my way through right now: An American officer asks an Iraqi sheikh why he keeps smuggling sheep into Iraq from Syria. The sheikh replies, "Why did they put the Syrian border in the middle of my sheep?"
Hat tip: Sara Lipka
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However, an incident occured last week at a crossing into the Gaza Strip that gave a very different impression to a senior observer. When Senator John Kerry visited the Strip, he learned that many trucks loaded with pasta were not permitted in. When the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee inquired as to the reason for the delay, he was told by United Nations aid officials that "Israel does not define pasta as part of humanitarian aid - only rice shipments."
Kerry asked Barak about the logic behind this restriction, and only after the senior U.S. official's intervention did the defense minister allow the pasta into the Strip. The U.S. senator updated colleagues at the Senate and other senior officials in Washington of the details of his visit.
Kerry wasn't the only U.S. official to complain about the pasta ban. Representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison also toured Gaza last week and criticized Israel's "idiosyncratic and arbitrary" food aid policies. "When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?" asked Baird.
The IDF agreed to allow lentils and pasta into Gaza last weekend. Laird applauded the move but said it was only symbolic of a generally misguided sanctions system.
"You look stupid and petty and over-controlling when you do this."
(Hat tip: Passport reader Sierra Millman. Check out her reporting on the Middle East here.)
Correction: This post originally misspelled Rep. Baird's last name.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
At the heart of the issue are new rules on nutritional information to be placed on food products.
Bakers would be free to make no health claims for their bread. If however they specify that it is 'high in fibre' then they would also be obliged to tell consumers that it is also 'high in salt'.
The rule was adopted in 2006 but discussions are still under way -- with input from the food industry -- on how they are going to be introduced and what levels would constitute a product being deemed 'low' or 'high' in anything.
A bit of a nanny state annoyance perhaps, but the German media went a bit overboard after the Association of German bakers claimed that German pretzel culture would be "hemmed in" by the sodium labelling rules since "there is more salt in bread in Germany compared with elsewhere in the EU."
"EU Wants to Spoil Our Pretzels!" screamed the tabloid Bild. An EU spokeswoman quickly reassured worried Germans that there was no intention of banning or regulating salty bread.
To be fair, given the EU's infamous fatwa on bendy cucumbers, the bakers' concerns are somewhat understandable.
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First George W. Bush tripled the duty on Roquefort cheese as a farewell gesture to France. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has doubled it for jamon iberico, a prized ham which comes with the leg bone still inside. What's more, the hams will have to be sold without a black hoof attached, their defining characteristic.
I won't pretend to understand why it's so important that the hoof be included, but apparently it's VERY important:
There was a scandal in Madrid 9 or 10 years ago when a company was caught painting the hooves on its white Serrano hams black in order to pass them off as the far more valuable Iberico Pata Negra. Apparently, some of the paint finally rubbed off on an unsuspecting shopper and there was public outrage.
The newspapers followed the story, chronicling the plight of the duped ham lovers and the evil doers who had sold them a faux Ibérico ham with a painted hoof. The government finally intervened, and the populace was calmed. Even today, you can spot the occasional ham shopper in Spain rubbing the hoof to make sure that its color is natural.
U.S. afficionados apparently paid up to $200 per ham and waited up to seven years for them to become available. Could this all be a massive government experiment to see how much Americans will pay for snooty European food products?
Financial tips aren't usually our thing here at Passport. But in today's wintry economic climate, stockpiling blood sausage, escargot, and Nutella is starting to seem like a sound strategy.
Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
Mr Khalil said Gaza used to export as many as 40 million flowers a year, so he dismissed the shipment of 25,000 carnations as "insignificant".
"We had to feed the flowers to the animals because we couldn't export them," he said.
"We are afraid of losing our reputation in Europe and are afraid to plan ahead."
For more on the miracle of globalization that is the international flower industry, check out Amy Stewart's 2007 FP article, "Flower Power."
SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
Attention D.C. residents: You know that bamboo plant livening up your office? It's needed for panda food.
The National Zoo has run critically low on bamboo and might run out before the winter ends. The zoo harvests bamboo on its premises and at other locations in the area, but for unknown reasons, the stands aren't regrowing normally.
The three furry balls of cuteness are on loan from China. Let's hope this bamboo shortage doesn't adversely affect U.S.-China relations. Fortunately, there are some promising signs: The zoo has received many offers since issuing its appeal. However, for the bamboo to be accepted, it must meet specific criteria:
By the way, check out the panda cam.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Someone in this nation of a quarter billion people needs to be sent out on a beer run.
Indonesia may soon be in danger of running out of alchohol. The Muslim country has only one legal importer and charges sin taxes of up to 400 percent. After a government crackdown on the thriving black market, many bars are on the verge of going dry. With young Indonesians increasingly acquring a taste for drinking, the BBC reports, that might be just what the government wants.
For more on the root of this problem, (and an explanation of the above photo) check out this Passport classic.
Update: The Freakonomics blog asks, "will higher liquor prices discourage Indonesians from drinking? Or, instead, will more expensive alcohol behave like a Giffen good, becoming that much more in demand?"
Photo: BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
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