Winning the Future with Salmon

That line that got the most laughs during Obama's State of the Union actually raises an important issue about our broken food regulatory system.

Immediately after President Obama finished his State of the Union address last night, NPR asked listeners to summarize his speech in three words. In the word cloud they generated from the 4,000 responses received (below), the word "salmon" looms rather large—larger than "jobs," much larger than "innovation," and much, much larger than "Sputnik."

So what does salmon have to do with winning the future?

As it turns out, Obama was not referencing concerns that viral leukemia may be spreading from salmon farms to decimate wild sockeye or even encouraging his fellow Americans to eat more oily fish in order to improve our average Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio (4:1 in 1900; 30:1 today). Instead, in a line that got the most laughs of the night, he was making a point about bureaucratic inefficiency and the need for government reorganization:

Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.


In fact, this is just the tip of the federal fish madness. Here's another example: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees all seafood safety—except for catfish, which recently became the responsibility of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Unfortunately, these kind of regulatory anomalies are not confined to seafood. New York University professor and Safe Food author Marion Nestle's favorite example is pizza: Cheese pizza safety and packaging belongs to the FDA, while pepperoni pizza rests with the USDA. To compound the issue, the agencies don't use the same standards and definitions for terms like "low fat," which makes the task of the Federal Trade Commission, charged with approving advertising claims for all pizza, a little tricky.

These inconsistencies are not new: Nestle writes that the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, has been recommending the creation of a single food agency for more than 25 years, with no success. And food safety is not the only area where legislative structures hinder coordinated action. In the chapter on biotechnology in Safe Food, Nestle notes that while "the USDA regulates herbicide-resistant plants such as those that are Roundup Ready," the Environmental Protection Agency "regulates pesticides and, therefore, Roundup itself." Given the trouble these two agencies within the same government have in engaging in dialog about appropriate regulation, it's not hard to see why the public debate about the risks and benefits of biotechnology has been so unsatisfactory.

So, although salmon got the most laughs last night, Obama's throwaway line actually points to a much more serious issue about the difficulty of thinking about food holistically, in terms of its effect on human health, environmental health, international development, GDP, and energy use, from within the byzantine structure of the United States government. If we could figure out how to do that, we really could win the future—for the world, not just the United States.

image (cc) from Flickr user denn


In the category of "claims to fame nobody wants," the United States can now add "exporter of white supremacist ideology" to its repertoire. Super.

Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, made this claim in a briefing at The Washington Institute in Washington, D.C. "For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology," Travers said. "We are now being seen as the exporter of white supremacist ideology. That's a reality with which we are going to have to deal."

Keep Reading Show less

Since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, whale populations have been steadily recovering. However, whales in the wild still face other dangers. In the summer of 2018, four Russian companies that supply aquariums with marine animals captured almost 100 beluga whales and killer whales (aka orcas). After a public outcry, those whales are swimming free as the last of the captive whales have been released, the first time this many captured whales have been released back into the wild.

In late 2018 and early 2019, a drone captured footage of 11 orcas and 87 beluga whales crammed into holding pens in the Srednyaya Bay. The so-called "whale jail" made headlines, and authorities began to investigate their potentially illegal capture.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

An anonymous White House official claims President Trump cruelly limited Hispanic immigrants in their new book, "A Warning."

The book, to be released on November 19, gives an alleged insider account of the Trump White House and paints a picture of the president as a chaotic man who lacks the mental and moral acumen required for the job.

The anonymous staffer says that Trump once feigned a Hispanic accent and made fun of women attempting to immigrate to the U.S.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The 2020 election is a year away, but Donald Trump has some serious ground to cover if he doesn't want it to be a historical blowout.

A Washington Post- ABC News poll released Tuesday shows that Trump loses by double digits to the top Democratic contenders.

Vice President Joe Biden (56%-39%); Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (54%-39%); Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (56%-39%); South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (52%-41%); and Sen. Kamala Harris of California (52%-41%) all have big leads over the president.

Keep Reading Show less
Yad Vashem

Since 1992, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has been holding reunion ceremonies between Holocaust survivors and rescuers once a year. But the tradition is coming to an end, as many have died or are too frail to travel. What might be the last reunion of its kind took place when a 92-year-old woman met up with the two surviving family members that she helped hide during the Holocaust, and their descendants.

Sarah Yanai and Yossi Mor introduced Melpomeni Dina (nee Gianopoulou) to their almost 40 family members, all decedents of the Mordechai family, the family of seven that Dina and her two sisters hid during WWII. "There are no words to describe this feeling," Dina told the Jeruselum Post. "It is very emotional for us to be together again."

Keep Reading Show less