2011 - %3, June

How the Meat Industry Turned Abuse into a Business Model

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
These little piggies went to the factory gestation facility.

As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion.

In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of US meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meat packing as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by corporatization, scaling up, plunging wages, and then, well, all manner of hell breaking loose, graphically documented by Genoways. All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.

In his story, Genoways reports that Quality Pork Processors sped up its kill line by 50 percent between 1989 and 2006, while the plant's workforce "barely increased." The strange malady acquired by those workers in Austin, Minn., makes for an eye-popping story; but the rough conditions they worked under aren't the exception—they're industry standard. By 2005, things had gotten so dire for meat-packing workers that Human Rights Watch—typically on the lookout for atrocities in war zones—saw fit to issue a scathing report on their plight. The report's title says it all: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."

WHAT drives such routine worker abuse? What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?

The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers, as Genoways demonstrates.

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New Brain-Boosting Chemicals Found in Breast Milk

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 5:50 PM PDT

Breastfeeding has been widely recommended by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC because of the health benefits to babies. Not only does breast milk seem to help babies' disease resistance, it has also been correlated with higher IQs and even higher test scores. But why is breast milk a "brain food"? Scientists have a variety of theories: for one, brains are made up of fats, and breast milk contains lots of DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Breastfeeding is also soothing to the infant, which reduces stress hormones that might disrupt or slow brain development. This week, a new study out of PLoS One has found some additional brain boosters: S100B, BDNF, and GDNF.

The S100B protein, found in high levels in breast milk, is linked to brain maturation and development.

The protein BDNF (Brain-Developing Neurotrophic Factor), called "Miracle-Gro for the brain" by one scientist, helps existing neurons thrive and stimulates the growth of new neurons in various areas of the brain. It's also tied to the development of long-term memory.

GDNF is short for Glial cell-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, and it's a small but punchy protein: it helps very specific neurons develop, AND keeps them running. It's so powerful that in adults, it's been pegged as a possible treatment for degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson's.

Together, the researchers say, these chemicals may "exert a stimulating effect on neurodevelopment during breastfeeding or long afterward" and that the substances have been shown to be "critical" in "neuronal growth, development, protection, and repair."

With an increasing list of benefits, it's no wonder human breast milk is a hot commodity.

Kansas Sued Over Abortion Clinic Guidelines

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 5:49 PM PDT

Two weeks ago, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a new set of stringent guidelines for abortion clinics. Under the new requirements, the three remaining clinics in the state would have to make enormous structural changes to their buildings and obtain new certifications in just two weeks or face possible closure. These types of laws are known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, and critics say they're intended to make it almost impossible for clinics to operate.

But despite the new rules, abortion rights activists aren't giving up: On Tuesday, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of one of the remaining Kansas clinics, the Center for Women's Health, which is run by a father/daughter duo who practice in Overland Park.

A Congressional Bailout for a Pharma Firm?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 4:45 PM PDT

The fate of the global economy hangs in the balance as Congress continues to haggle over tax cuts, revenue increases, and raising the debt ceiling. But at least they're taking care of big pharma.

On Thursday, the House passed a John Conyers (D-Mich.)-authored amendment to the massive bipartisan overhaul of the nation's patent system. Technically, the measure pushes back when the clock starts ticking on patent expirations, making it easier for companies to secure the rights to the products they create. But in practice, it seems to have allowed one drug company to maintain its patent on a single drug.

Roll Call reports that in 2000, the Medicines Co. (MDCO) missed the deadline on extending its patent on a blood-thinning drug called AngioMax—by one day. That extension would've kept generic versions of the drug off the market until 2014; missing the deadline meant that generics could flood the market by as early as 2010, costing MDCO anywhere between $500 million to $1 billion in profits.

MDCO sued the US Patent Office and WilmerHale, the firm that allegedly bungled the extension application. The stakes for WilmerHale are considerable: if a generic hits the shelves before June 15, 2015, the firm has to cough up $214 million to MDCO, according to a settlement reached earlier this year.

The two firms spent millions lobbying Congress to pass legislation overturning the rejection. And it paid off. Speaking in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers, the committee's senior Democrat, said the amendment would make a "technical—but important—revision" to federal patent law. "By eliminating confusion regarding the deadline… [it] provides the certainty necessary to encourage costly investments in lifesaving medical research."

Skeptics see the amendment as an earmarked bailout for MDCO and WilmerHale. And there's a case to be made that the amendment violates the House's anti-earmark stance:

Although the amendment does not obligate taxpayer funds be spent on a specific project, by virtue of its narrow scope it falls within the broad definition of an earmark and is a classic example of Congress taking pains to assist powerful interests, Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis said.

The language "really has no business in this bill," said Ellis, who called the amendment "almost a private law that helps one or two companies."

In the 2010 cycle, health professionals and pharmaceutical companies clock in as Conyers' sixth and ninth-highest campaign contributors. Lawyers and law firms? #1. But Conyers isn't the only lawmaker who seems to be performing interest group-due diligence: from 2009 to 2010, lobbying, public relations, and pharmaceutical groups (combined) gave 60% more to House members that voted for his amendment than to those who voted against it, according to the folks at MapLight.org.

Anti-earmark pledge or no, it's not surprising that Conyers et. al, are taking care of those who take care of them. But bending over backwards to bail out specific corporate entities smacks of some pretty crafty lobbying by MDCO and WilmerHale. It also suggests that, with 2012 looming in the not-so-distant future, some members of Congress are in no position to risk upsetting their most generous donors.

Severe Weather: Act of Nature, or of Man?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 3:00 PM PDT

If you've noticed a flood of news about severe weather this year, don't chalk it up to coincidence, the Rapture, or your overactive imagination. What we're seeing is climate change at work, according to research released by the Pew Center today. The paper, titled "Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk," lays out the science plainly. From the paper's introduction: "Is global warming causing more extreme weather? The short and simple answer is yes." As our world warms (in 2010, more nations reported record high temperatures than ever before), the planet is at higher risk for deadly heat waves, extreme precipitation, and flooding. So far, the weather this year does not bode well for the future—if temperatures continue to rise, these events will only become more common.

Is this new information? Sort of. Scientists who used to hesitate to link individual incidents of severe weather to climate change are now arguing it is risky—nay, dangerous—not to do just that, especially considering the increasing frequency. Understanding these weather events—vast flooding as close as North Dakota and as far away as Australia, a violent tornado season, wildfires of unprecendented scope and size in Texas—might be the key to protecting ourselves and future generations, write the paper's authors, Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge. They wrote:

Individual weather events offer important lessons about social and economic vulnerabilities to climate change. Dismissing an individual event as happenstance because scientists did not link it individually to climate change fosters a dangerously passive attitude toward rising climate risk. The uncertainty about future weather conditions and the inability to attribute single events to global warming need not stand in the way of action to manage the rising risks associated with extreme weather.

Pawlenty Friend: He Told Me He's Pro-Choice

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 2:58 PM PDT

Is Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty secretly pro-choice? That's what a long-time acquaintance maintained today in an MinnPost op-ed. Shawn Lawrence Otto, a Hollywood filmmaker, writes that in the late 1990s he was considering a run for public office and Pawlenty, an occasional golfing buddy, sat him down to offer some friendly advice—and that's when the truth spilled out:

[Pawlenty's] first question was, "What's your position on choice?" I hadn't ever been asked the question quite so pointedly. "You've got to take a stand on that first," he said. "Well," I said, "OK. I don't like abortion; I think it's a really tough personal decision, but not something the government should be getting into one way or the other, so I guess I'm pro-choice."

He looked at me over his lunch and said, "Well personally, so am I, but here's the thing. You've got to find a way to get your mind around the language of saying 'pro-life.' It's in how you phrase it."

That's a sharp contrast to Pawlenty's current rhetoric. Pawlenty has taken a strong stance on the campaign trail against abortion rights, raising money for pro-life groups and suggesting, through a spokesman, that doctors who perform abortions ought to face criminal penalties. And when he was governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty pushed for and signed a controversial 2003 law mandating a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Last April, he issued a proclamation declaring a statewide "Abortion Recovery Month," to raise "awareness of the aftermath of abortion experienced by individuals and families."

But for Pawlenty, who is lagging in the polls in Iowa and struggling to shed a reputation as dull, the accusation that he's flip-flopped on abortion—or been covertly pro-choice all along—could place another road block on his already difficult path to the GOP nomination. It would also, crucially, undermine one of the key distinctions between Pawlenty and front-runner Mitt Romney, who supported abortion rights during his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign and has struggled to convince socially conservative voters he's one of them.

Romney's about-face on abortion (which paralleled reversals on gay rights and gun rights) has long caused social conservatives to be suspicious of his commitment to their causes, and in recent weeks he has received a poke or two from the right for not being a reliable abortion foe. (New-to-the-field contender Rep. Michele Bachmann, for one, has questioned Romney's anti-abortion credentials.)

Will Otto's article lead to similar problems for Pawlenty? Or will this be just a he-said/he-said matter that T-Paw can essentially ignore? Mother Jones contacted Pawlenty's campaign to ask for a response to Otto's piece. So far, there's no reaction.

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Obama: No Friend of Small Business?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:29 PM PDT
President Obama at a small business roundtable for youth in February.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama called small business growth key to the economic recovery. "We should start where most new jobs do—in small businesses, companies that begin when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, or a worker decides it's time she became her own boss," he said then.

Now the US Small Business Administration says that in fiscal year 2010 it doled out $98 billion in federal contract work to small businesses, just shy of its 23 percent of total federal contract funding goal (PDF).

Not so, counters the non-profit American Small Business League, which has hammered the SBA on this issue for years: It claims that 61 of the top 100 companies that received government small business contracts are actually big corporations, including subsidiaries of defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Rockwell Collins (PDF). In a statement, the group's president Lloyd Chapman called the government numbers "misleading smoke and mirrors" and said small business awards were closer to five percent of total funds.

Federal investigations dating back to 2003 suggest that billions of dollars in small business contracts have landed in the hands of big firms. In the 2010 fiscal year, according to the ASBL, those included AT&T, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and John Deere, among many others. (Remember when Bechtel-Bettis got an $128 million "small business" contract for managing the Department of Energy's Pittsburgh Naval Reactors Office?)

Last year, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who heads the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, predicted that increasing legitimate small business contracts by a single percent would create more than 100,000 new jobs for the fiscal year. The ASBL used her prediction to make one of its own: It believes that halting the flow of small business contracts to big businesses would create nearly 2 million jobs.

"Ending this abuse would be a more effective economic stimulus than anything proposed by the Obama Administration to date," Chapman said in the statement.

UPDATE: Part of the difference between the SBA's calculation of the percentage of contracts going to small businesses and the ASBL's calculation is the fact that the two groups are using different baselines. The ASBL says "the Obama Administration has dramatically inflated the percentage of contracts awarded to small businesses by under-reporting the actual federal acquisition budget," and argues that "the actual federal acquisition budget for foreign, domestic, classified and unclassified projects is roughly $1 trillion." The Obama Administration uses a number that is closer to $430 billion and is based on other agencies' self-reported acquisition budgets, which the SBA checks for anomalies.

Tom Petty Against the Machine

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:21 PM PDT

It's been over a decade since classic rocker Tom Petty sent a polite cease-and-desist to George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, asking the Texas governor to quit playing the 1989 tune "I Won’t Back Down" at rallies and events. The musician believed his song's inclusion created, "either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression [that the Bush campaign had been] endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true."

As they gear up for the 2012 fray, right-wingers still haven't gotten the message that the left-leaning singer/songwriter is just not that into them.

This time, the offending politico is tea party sweetheart Michele Bachmann, who played Petty's song "American Girl" at her official campaign kick-off in Waterloo, Iowa. Petty will ask the Bachmann campaign "not to use that song," NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell reported on Monday.

Another Round with F. Scott Fitzgerald

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:14 PM PDT

For Proust, it was madeleines. For Thoreau, a bean patch. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, literary inspiration came from—or after—a stiff drink. We've all read the drunken exploits of Nick Carraway and Gatsby's legion of vacuous partiers, and it's no secret that Fitzgerald himself was more than a casual imbiber. But what did the great American author make of his own drinking problem? On Booze, released this week by New Directions, is a collection of Fitzgerald's writings on drinks, drinking, and life as an alcoholic.

Like the wavering temperament of a gin-soaked booze hound, the book moves quickly between the hilarious and the tragic. In highlights from Fitzgerald's notebooks, we see the extent to which alcohol informed his observations of the world. "Debut" is defined as "the first time a young girl is seen drunk in public"; a favorite Thanksgiving recipe is Turkey Cocktail, prepared by adding "one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters" to a turkey (shaken, not stirred). But the joyous buzz starts to wear off when Fitzgerald turns to a deep and disturbing analysis of the years he spent as an alcoholic, a period he refers to as "the crack-up."

Let's Abolish the Most Effective Agency in the Country!

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 11:33 AM PDT

The Environmental Protection Agency is the prime target of a lot of right-wing conspiracy theories: some have suggested that the agency plans to regulate human respiration, while others worry that it's secretly plotting to infringe upon the right to bear arms. But as a new report from the White House Office of Management and Budget shows, the EPA actually has the best track record among the agencies when it comes to setting rules whose pluses outnumber the minuses. True, the EPA's rules do often come at higher costs than those of most agencies, but the benefits still far outweigh them:

It should be clear that the rules with the highest benefits and the highest costs, by far, come from the Environmental Protection Agency and in particular its Office of Air. More specifically, EPA rules account for 62 to 84 percent of the monetized benefits and 46 to 53 percent of the monetized costs. The rules that aim to improve air quality account for 95 to 97 percent of the benefits of EPA rules.

Of the 20 air rules that have come from the office in the last 10 years, the Clean Air Fine Particle Implementation Rule stands out as the most beneficial—it saves $19 billion to $167 billion every year because the public isn't being exposed to harmful air pollution. This came at a cost of just $7.3 billion per year. Overall, the report documented 32 major federal rules from the EPA in the past decade, which saved the economy up to $550.7 billion, at a cost of somewhere between $23.3 billion and $28.5 billion.

So while Republican presidential candidates are talking about abolishing the agency (see: Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich), it's a helpful reminder that the agency actually exists for a reason and is arguably the most economically beneficial of government entities. If you like breathing, that is.