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How a Global Shortage of Pine Nuts Is Literally Leaving a Bad Taste in Consumers' Mouths

It started with pesto. It ended with “pine nut syndrome.”

The taste can be described as sort of metallic. Bitter. Medicinal. It forms in the back of the mouth a day or so after consuming pine nuts, and gets stronger when eating something. In fact, it completely overpowers whatever you’re eating. It is, in a word, gross.

The good news? “Pine Nut Mouth” seems to only affect a small percentage of people and there’s no evidence of lasting medical problems. The bad news? Effects can last up to four weeks, and so far, science and industry have no real explanation.

Over the past year or so, sufferers of this taste disturbance have flocked to Internet boards for answers and, as I discovered, the comfort of knowing you’re not alone. When I first noticed the odd taste, I did what any normal person might do. I drank a ton of water, ate some pretzels, had some gum, brushed my teeth, flossed, mouth washed, and then proceeded to repeat this process numerous time. When the taste only got worse, I knew something was wrong.

That’s when I took to the Internet. It didn’t take long to realize I was far from alone.

“I made a pine nut and pesto pasta with fresh Mozzerella [sic] and enjoyed it thouroughly [sic] until it hit! The nasty taste in the back of my throat like I had an aspirin sitting on my tongue! I love to eat so only being able to drink water without suffering is very annoying. Today is my 3rd day with 'pine mouth' and the headache has started,” writes one commentator on the popular food website Epicurious.com. “I'm experiencing this right now... it sucks. Obviously there are a bunch of other people going through the same thing based on these comments. I'm blown away that Trader Joe's (KR) (where I got mine from) or Whole Foods (WFMI) would still sell these, since this strange phenomenon apparently started last winter,” writes another.

And more succinctly: “I got the 'pine mouth'!!! This is horrible!”

Reports of the “pine mouth” are relatively new, popping up on Internet boards over the past year. But one of the first mentions of the taste disturbance appeared in an article in The European Journal of Emergency Medicine in March 2001. The findings weren’t exactly reassuring.

“Examination of the pine nuts [that caused taste disturbance] revealed they were oxidized and not fit for consumption. No fungal contamination was found. No explanation was found for the taste disturbances.”

So why the sudden surge in “pine mouth?" For starters, a lot more people are eating the nuts.

David Rosenthal, from Red River Foods, told the food blog Epicurean.com, “seven years ago, nobody knew what a pine nut was…Today, you can go to TGI Fridays and see pine nut pesto sauce." In January, Trendspooning, the New York Times’ food blog, pointed out that pine nuts were popping up in gourmet bakeries all over town.

So chances are, if you consider yourself a gourmand, you’ve sought out these tasty nuts to make some pesto or throw into a salad. And if you have, you’ve probably been somewhat shocked at how expensive pine nuts have become.

As fate would have it, the sudden boom in pine nut demand has coincided with a global pine nut shortage. The Chicago Tribune reported on the issue back in September. Poor crops and climate change are to blame.

“The price of pine nuts doubled between 2003 and 2005,” Penny Frazier, owner of Pinenut.com, a pine nut purveyor, tells Minyanville. “And then they doubled again over the last 18 months. That creates a tremendous pressure on the harvesters.”

And that’s where things can get dangerous.

“The rising demand for the product has forced the pickers into the forest prior to the pinecone maturing. When you have an immature seed, there can be rancidity issues. And if the foods from immature products mix with mature product, it would be really difficult to track it back to any particular harvester,” Frazier says.

Which brings us back to The European Journal of Emergency Medicine.

The study found that “in the following months [after the initial study], six similar cases were reported to the Poisons Centre. The pine nuts involved in those cases were imported from China.”

As it would happen, China experienced a severe crop shortage of pine nuts last year. David Braverman, co-owner of Nutsonline.com, told The Chicago Tribune that China “lost a significant amount of the crop. And in addition, the demand in China was higher than it has ever been. So they cut their exports. A poor crop coupled with the high demand, and there was very little to go around."

Care to guess who’s the number one exporter of pine nuts to the US?

Hint: It’s not Italy.

According to the University of Missouri’s Center of Agroforestry, the pine nut has a $100 million US market, with more than 80% of US pine nuts being imported, primarily from China.

A lot of those Chinese pine nuts ended up in stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Costco (COST), and Sam’s Club (WMT), all of which have been blamed anecdotally by customers on the Internet. None of these companies issued a formal recall of pine nuts, but since the problem began they seem to be looking elsewhere for their supply.

Currently, the label on Trader Joe’s pine nuts says they’re from “Russia, Korea, or Vietnam.”

But not everyone is confident that it will make much of a difference.

Michael Park, on Epicurious, writes, “It's worth noting that the Russian-Chinese border can be extremely porous, and much of the Russian-grown pine nuts are processed by the Chinese anyway.”

“People who work with pine nuts on a global level don’t want to attribute their sources to China. Primarily because of the pine nut mouth,” says Frazier.

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco, and Sam’s Club were contacted for comment, but did not return our calls.

The FDA tells Minyanville: “There have been about 100 complaints from 2/22/2009 to the present. There were two with reports of GI illness and the rest were reported as taste disturbances, which we would not consider an illness. A complaint guidance was issued to our FDA field offices last September. It basically says that whenever possible, samples are to be collected and sent to a FDA laboratory for research. We are hoping the information obtained from consumers and the analytical results will help to determine what causes the problem and if additional action is necessary.”

Meanwhile, The International Nut and Dried Fruit Foundation is currently researching the problem. As is Grace Kim, a graduate student at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who urges people to check out her website.

In the meantime, what’s a pine nut sufferer to do? Pretty much just wait it out. And next time you make pesto, try using walnuts.

As for my “pine nut mouth?” It’s getting better.



A Run on (Sperm) Banks

Recessions are a time to look inward to find what’s really important in life. For many men, that means looking really inward (and southward), to their sperm.

Applications for sperm donation are way up across the country. And why shouldn’t they be? Selling sperm for cash has long been considered a get-rich-quick scheme of sorts for men during recessions.

Ty Kaliski, Director of Operations at Cryos International in New York told me that he’s seen an increase of 50-100 applicants a week.

Scott Brown, Communications Manager at California Cryo -- one of the nation’s oldest and largest sperm banks – told me that he’s seen a 15-20% increase in potential donors.

When asked why the applicants were interested in donating sperm, “the majority list an economic incentive,” Brown said. “But the majority also lists an altruistic interest.”

While it’s refreshing to think that thousands of young men are lining up to donate their DNA because it makes them feel good, the financial benefits of sperm donation are a more likely motivator.

At Biogenetics in Mountainside, New Jersey, men get paid $100 per sample. Donations are limited to a one-year window, but if you can manage two visits a week you could theoretically earn $10,400 (not to mention experiencing the rare, paternal joy of having fathered 104 kids).

Donors at Biogenetics can earn as much as $500 per sample if they enroll in a new program called Open ID that allows sperm recipients to meet the donors face to face.

So far only two individuals have participated in the new program.

But the surge in sperm donor applicants doesn’t mean more men are actually profiting. In this business, only the best and the brightest sperm ever make it to market.

When I asked Scott Brown at California Cryo about the basic requirements of being a sperm donor, it started off pretty basic. You have to live near the facility (you’ll be going there a lot), you have to be between 19 and 39, and you have to be in good general health.

But you also have to be 5’10 or taller, go through a series of interviews, take numerous semen and blood tests, submit a family history that goes back at least 3 generations, and have graduated from or be enrolled in a 4-year university. Oh, and the competition is stiff. Most of the accepted donors have gone to places like Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and UCLA.

“It’s easier to get into Harvard than Cryo,” Brown joked. “We have a lot of initial window shoppers.”

By the end of the screening process, only 1% of applicants ever see their sperm on Cryo’s sales rack.

At Biogenetics, the screening process is equally rigorous. During the interview process, expect to be asked questions like: How many days a week do you exercise? What kind of books do you like to read? Do you like eggs?

All of these answers will be shared with potential recipients.

Albert Anouna, Director and CEO of Biogenetics, told me that only 2% to 8% of applicants are ever accepted as donors at his facility.

It may seem eugenically unfair (after all, some apples do fall far from the trees), but sperm banks are like any other business, and competition has only gotten tougher in recent years. For starters, advances in technology have made it easier for couples who are reproductively challenged to conceive without hitting up the banks.

“The biggest challenge for us is that the science is always improving,” says Brown. “People who would have been our clients 5 years ago aren’t anymore.”

The same holds true at Biogenetics.

“In 1985, I was sending out 11,000 vials a year. Today, we’re doing about 75% less than what we did in the 1980s,” says Anouna.

To compensate, sperm banks have upped their presence in other sectors of the sperm-preservation business. Men in high-risk jobs like the police, military, and at scary chemical plants often have their sperm frozen in the event of an accident that would disable their reproductive systems. Same goes for cancer patients who are about to undergo chemotherapy.

Also, sperm banks are seeing a spike in same-sex couples and single women looking for sperm. At California Cryo, Brown says that close to 60% of sperm recipients are same-sex couples, and he expects that number to increase. Sperm banks are also increasingly getting into the business of what’s called “directed donation,” wherein someone requests sperm from someone they already know.

So where does that leave our poor young man eager to make a quick buck in the economic storm? Not very far. Ultimately, if guys want to engage their entrepreneurial spirit, they’ll have to rely on their heads up north.



Behold the Power of Joe

Let’s talk about Joe. Everybody else is.

As the economy tanks, everybody seems hell-bent on stuffing as much money into Joe’s pockets as they can. I’d rather they show an interest in guys named Cory, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all. Plus, we’re right to focus on Joe.

In fact, the closer you look at our economy, the more Joes you see. They’re everywhere.

Like Joe the Plumber. At first, the story of Joe -- the Ohio man made famous by 23 mentions of his name in the final presidential debate -- was like a fairy-tale. A blue-collar, working American succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and is on deck to pick up a $200,000 small business. McCain used Joe to criticize Obama’s tax plan. Obama used Joe to defend it.

Who cares? The real story is that Joe, much like the American economy as a whole, turned out to be a whole lot of icing and not much cake.

For starters, Joe, real name Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, isn’t a licensed plumber. It wasn’t long before Ohio’s licensed plumbers -- who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn an average income of $47,930 -- were screaming foul. Second, there wasn’t any evidence that Joe -- er, Sam -- ever planned to buy a $200,000 business. Last but not least, Joe didn’t pay his taxes, so there’s a lien on his house.

Oh well. There’s always another Joe.

Like Joe Six-Pack. Here’s a guy we all love, and -- provided that he’s finished his six-pack -- he always loves us back.

The beautiful thing about Joe Six-Pack is that the worse the economy gets, the more loving he becomes. Notoriously recession-proof, cheap beer flows in direct proportion to our collective anxieties. Anheuser-Busch reported that beer shipments to wholesalers rose 2.3%, with revenue per barrel up by almost 4%. Who cares if the bailout works? Bud Light never fails.

Now, if you’ve recently found yourself in a smoke-filled bar, loosening your tie as nervous beads of sweat drip from your forehead into your drink, chances are you’ve heard Joe Six-Pack laughing it up in the back with his buddy Joe Camel. They’re laughing because you’re losing money, and they’re raking it in. R.J Reynolds, maker of Camels, posted earnings growth of 9.6%, up to $547 million. Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, saw a 6.6% increase in profits in the third quarter.

Of course, not everyone has the stomach for beer or the lungs for cancer; for those more health-conscious worriers, there’s always just plain joe. As in coffee.

Despite ill-omened reports from Starbucks (e.g. They’re opening their first store in Bulgaria!), coffee’s always been a recession-themed beverage. Haven’t you read The Grapes of Wrath? All the Joads do is drive, complain and drink coffee.

McDonald’s can thank Joe for its recent perkiness: Analysts say that coffee is largely responsible for the 7.1% uptick in Ronald’s global sales. Sales of iced coffee at fast-food restaurants were up 38% last year, according to the NPD Group.

But if we really want to understand Joe, we should go back to where it all began: the Bible. Joseph was the son of Jacob, and, unlike today’s Average Joe, Genesis Joe was sort of flashy. Best known for donning a magnificent Technicolor schmatte, Joseph ran a pretty successful business as a dream interpreter. Big-name clients. Pharaohs, viceroys, that sort of thing. Very successful.

But don’t let the flamboyant coats and celebs scare you. Joseph -- or Yosef -- had his share of common-man troubles, too. His brother sold him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. Can’t you hear his masters call? “Yosef! Yosef! Yo!”

“Yo”: An exclamation made by many in Philly last week when the Philadelpha Fed announced that its manufacturing index was falling faster than it had in almost 20 years. While those of us from Philadelphia are accustomed to bad news, this has even stalwarts like us somewhat depressed.

Sure, sure, we’re thrilled that the Phillies are in the World Series, but we all remember what happened in 1993: A walk-off home run clinched the series for Toronto in Game 6. All thanks to a guy named Joe Carter.

But back to real bad news: Our economy’s on the skids, and the social mood is sour. With each new government bailout of private institutions, capitalists from all walks of life are seeing shadows of Joe Stalin everywhere. I haven’t heard the “S” word bandied about so much since I watched Dr. Zhivago on that commune. Frankly, it’s gettin’ a little Joe McCarthy up in here.

But I’m not too worried. You see, Joe can’t last forever. - not with 80% of all states reporting a major employment slowdown. If that keeps up, you can be sure we’ll all forget about Joe the Plumber, Joe Six-Pack, Joe Camel, Joe Coffee, and all the rest of them. Joe’s name will be wiped away like a mote of dust in a tornado. There’ll be a new kid in town.

His name is Job.



Not Made in the USA: The Chrysler Building

You can usually measure the cultural significance of a piece of architecture by how many times it’s been blown up in the movies. The Chrysler Building, for example, was struck by a meteor in Armageddon, ravaged by an enormous lizard monster in Godzilla, and consumed by a cataclysmic tidal wave in Deep Impact. For whatever reason, filmmakers have decided the best way to drive home just how awful the apocalypse will be is to show the complete and utter destruction of our national treasures. (It will always be the iconic Brooklyn Bridge falling down, never the Queensborough.)

All of which is to say, the Chrysler Building is a permanent fixture in the American mosaic -- one of those buildings we hold near and dear to our patriotic hearts.

Except, of course, for the small caveat that the Chrysler Building is actually owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Yes, it’s another sad-but-true reminder of how many of our national treasures are American in name only. On July 9, 2008, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, or ADIA, reported that it had purchased a 90% stake in the building for $800 million.

So, let’s settle in and meet the new owners.

ADIA is a sovereign wealth fund owned by Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. No one knows exactly how much money the fund has, but given that it manages approximately $1 trillion in excess oil reserves, we can assume it’s, well, a lot. And unlike most government-sponsored funds that usually stick to gold investments, ADIA invests heavily in international real estate and corporations. In 2007, the fund famously purchased a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup (C), becoming the bank’s second-largest shareholder.

Surely Walter Chrysler -- the original owner of the 77-story Art Deco masterpiece -- is rolling in his grave, right? Well, maybe. In reality, all things Chrysler-related have been going slowly international for years. From 1998 to 2007, Chrysler was part of the German company DaimlerChrysler AG. The Germans sold the majority of their stake back to the US-based private-equity firm Cerberus, but that arrangement didn’t last long. Chrysler went bankrupt in April 2009, and has since merged with the Italian automaker Fiat.

And to get technical about it, the Chrysler Building hasn’t been in exclusively American hands since 2001 when TMW, a German investment fund, purchased a 75% stake in the building from Tishman Speyer.

Foreign investors pouring money into New York City properties is nothing new. During the 1980s real estate boom, Japanese investors snapped up buildings with unsettling efficiency. Sure, they lost billions when property values sank by nearly 50% during the recession in the early 1990s, but still, it hurt American pride. When Mitsubishi purchased Rockefeller Center, there was downright outrage.

But today, there’s little indignation over the Chrysler Building purchase. No riots in the street. No organized protests. Nada. Maybe multi-million dollar real estate deals just don’t hold our attention like they used to. Maybe we’ve all become too cynical. Hell, maybe we’re just happy that anyone would invest in us at all, these days.

Or maybe we’re just of the opinion that some of the best stuff in the city has always had foreign fingerprints.

After all, even Lady Liberty was made by the French.