MoJo Author Feeds: Tom Philpott | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en "Employees Are Bitter" as Whole Foods Chops Jobs and Wages <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. "Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them," he <a href="">told</a> my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the&nbsp;sentiment in an <a href="">interview</a> with Yahoo Finance's<em> t</em>he <em>Daily Ticker</em>. "Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of [<em><a href="">Fortune</a>'s</em>] 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We're not so much anti-union as beyond unions.&rdquo;</p> <p>On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder's argument. Whole Foods <a href="">announced</a> it was eliminating 1,500 jobs&mdash;about 1.6 percent of its American workforce&mdash;"as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure." The focus on cost-cutting isn't surprising&mdash;Whole Foods stock <a href="">has lost 40 percent of its value</a> since February, thanks to <a href="">lower-than-expected earnings</a> and an <a href="">overcharging scandal</a> in its New York City stores.</p> <p>Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store&nbsp;in the chain's <a href="">South region</a>, "all supervisors&nbsp;in&nbsp;all departments&nbsp;were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately," according to an employee who works there.</p> <p>I ran that claim past a spokesman at the company's Austin headquarters. "We appreciate you taking the time to reach out and help us to set the record straight," he responded, pointing to the press release quoted above. When I reminded him that my question was about wage cuts, not the announced job cuts, he declined to comment.</p> <p>Another source, from one of Whole Foods' regional offices, told me the corporate headquarters had ordered all <a href="">11 regional offices</a> to reduce expenses. "They've all done it differently," the source said. "In some regions, they've reduced the number of in-store buyers&mdash;people who order products for the shelves."</p> <p>I spoke with a buyer from the South region who learned on Saturday that,&nbsp;after more than 20 years with the company, his position had been eliminated. He and other laid-off colleagues received a <a href="" target="_blank">letter</a> listing their options: They could reapply for an open position or "leave Whole Foods immediately" with a severance package&mdash;which will be sweetened if they agree not to reapply for six months. If laid-off employees manage to snag a new position that pays less than the old one did, they are eligible for a temporary pay bump to match the old wage, but only for a limited time.</p> <p>Those fortunate enough to get rehired at the same pay rate may be signing up for more work and responsibility. At his store, the laid-off buyer told me, ex-workers are now vying for buyer positions that used to be handled by two people&mdash;who "can barely get their work done as it is."&nbsp;</p> <p>My regional office source told me that the layoffs and downscaling of wages for experienced staffers is part of a deliberate shift toward part-time employees. Whole Foods has "always&nbsp;been an 80/20 company," the source said, referring to it ratio of full- to part-time workers. Recently, a "mandate came down to go 70/30, and there are regions that are below that: 65/35 or 60/40." Store managers are "incentivized to bring down that ratio," the source added.</p> <p>Employees working more than 20 hours per week are eligible for benefits once they've "successfully completed a probationary period of employment," the Whole Foods <a href="">website</a> notes. But some key benefits are tied to hours worked. For example, employees get a "personal wellness account" to offset the "cost of deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket health care expenses not covered by insurance," but the amount is based on "service hours."</p> <p>And part-time employees tend not to stick around. My regional source said that annual turnover rates for part-timers at Whole Foods stores approach 80 percent in some regions. According to an internal document I obtained, the national annualized turnover rate for part-time Whole Foods team members was more than triple that of full-timers&mdash;66 percent versus about 18 percent&mdash;in the latest quarterly assessment. "Whole Foods has always been a high-touch, high-service model with dedicated, engaged, knowledgeable employees&acirc;&#128;&#139;,"&acirc;&#128;&#139; the source said. "How do you maintain that, having to [constantly] train a new batch of employees?"</p> <p>Of course, Whole Foods operates in a hypercompetitive industry. Long a dominant player in natural foods, it now has to vie with Walmart, Trader Joe's, and regional supermarket chains in the organic sector. Lower prices are key to staying competitive, and in order to maintain the same profit margins with lower prices, you have to cut your expenditures. Whole Foods' labor costs, according to my regional source, are equal to about 20 percent of sales&mdash;twice the industry standard.</p> <p>It's not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its <a href="" target="_blank">"core values,"</a> Whole Foods <a href="" target="_blank">claims</a> to "support team member [employee] happiness and excellence." Yet at a time when the company's share price is floundering and its <a href="" target="_blank">largest institutional shareholder</a> is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs&mdash;which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock&mdash;that value may be harder to uphold.</p> <p>Workers join unions precisely to protect themselves from employers that see slashing labor costs as a way to please Wall Street. "There's a fear of unions coming in, because employees are bitter," the regional-office source said. "People talk about it in hushed tones." &nbsp;</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Sat, 03 Oct 2015 10:00:09 +0000 Tom Philpott 285796 at These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>For a <a href="" target="_blank">blockbuster recent piece</a>, the<em> New York Times'</em> Eric Lipton got a first look at a massive cache of private emails between prominent public university scientists and GMO industry executives and flacks. The emails came to light through a barrage of <a href="" target="_blank">controversial</a> Freedom of Information Act requests by <a href="" target="_blank">U.S. Right to Know</a>, which is <a href="">funded</a> by the scrappy, anti-corporate Organic Consumers Association.</p> <p>In addition to the correspondence uncovered by USRTK, Lipton used the FOIA to uncover <a href="" target="_blank">emails</a> showing close ties between former Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook and organic food companies like farmer-owned dairy company Organic Valley. Lipton paints a fascinating picture of the place occupied by public universities in the PR and lobbying war between the agrichemical/GM seed and organic food industries.</p> <p>But his piece, excellent as it is, may actually underplay the extent to which Monsanto, other ag-biotech companies, and their trade groups and hired PR guns <a href="http://" target="_blank">rely</a> on friendly professors as foot soldiers in the industry's battle against regulators and critics.</p> <p>Here are some highlights that didn't make it into the<em> Times.&nbsp;</em>Although there is no specific evidence to suggest that Monsanto paid professors for these activities, and many of the professors have said they reached their conclusions independently, the correspondence is nonetheless interesting:&nbsp;<em> </em></p> <p>&bull; In an <a href="" target="_blank">August 2013 email</a> to nine prominent academics, Monsanto's strategic engagement lead Eric Sachs broached a plan: that the group would pen "short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena," chosen "because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation, and consumer acceptance."</p> <p>Sachs assured the professors that the project would be handled discreetly. "I understand and appreciate that you need me to be completely transparent and I am keenly aware that your independence and reputations must be protected," he wrote. Two outside entities&mdash;an <a href="">industry-funded group</a> called the American Council on Science and Health and a PR outfit called <a href="">CMA</a>&mdash;would "manage the process of producing the policy briefs," "coordinate website posting and promotion," and "merchandize" the briefs by helping turn them into "op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc." This third-party management is "an important element," the Monsanto exec added, "because Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without involvement by Monsanto."</p> <p>In December of 2014, the zealously pro-biotech website Genetic Literacy Project ran a <a href="">package</a> of <a href="">professor-penned articles</a> that look remarkably like the ones proposed by Sachs, though no involvement with Monsanto is disclosed in any of them. For example, Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, was among the addressees on that August 2013 letter from Monsanto's Sachs. In it, Sachs laid out seven topics and suggested each to one or two of his correspondents. Here's what Sachs had in mind for Juma:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/juma.jpg"></div> <p>Entitled "Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology," <a href="">Juma's contribution</a>&mdash;which Juma says is based on a <a href="" target="_blank">book</a> that he wrote in 2011&mdash;closely resembles Sachs' request for a robust defense of GMOs as a bulwark against hunger in the developing world. (On Wednesday, <em>The Boston Globe</em> <a href="" target="_blank">noted</a> Juma's piece, describing it as a "widely disseminated policy paper last year in support of genetically modified organisms," written "at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection.")</p> <p>In his email, Sachs recommended that Peter Phillips, a policy professor at Canada's University of Saskatchewan, write about "over burdensome regulation of GMO crops and food." His <a href="">piece</a> on the Genetic Literacy Project website is called "Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops."</p> <p>For Mississippi State's Davis Shaw and Tony Shelton of Cornell, Sachs suggested a piece defending crops modified to kill insects and withstand herbicides. Their Genetic Literacy Project <a href="">article</a>, titled "Green Genes: Sustainability Advantages of Herbicide Tolerant and Insect Resistant Crops," does just that.</p> <p>For University of Florida professor Kevin Folta&mdash;a main focus of the<em> New York Times </em>article&mdash;Sachs envisioned a piece on "holding activists accountable" for their opposition to GMOs. In his <a href="">GLP piece</a>, Folta thundered against those who "wage aggressive campaigns against existing technologies that have demonstrated to be advantageous to the farmer, the environment, the consumer, and the poor locked in nutritional deficit."</p> <p>&bull; Another prominent academic who emerges with strong industry ties is Nina Fedoroff, an emeritus professor of biology at <a href="">Penn State</a>, a professor of biosciences at <a href="">King Abdullah University of Science and Technology</a> in Saudi Arabia, and the former chief science and technology adviser to secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The<em> Times</em> piece noted that University of Illinois professor emeritus Bruce Chassy led a "monthslong effort to persuade the&nbsp;<a href="">Environmental Protection Agency</a>&nbsp;to abandon its proposal<a href="" title="The proposed rule.">&nbsp;to tighten the regulation of pesticides</a>&nbsp;used on insect-resistant seeds."</p> <p>But it didn't mention that Fedoroff evidently played a key role in the campaign, which, as the <em>Times</em> reported, culminated when Chassy "eventually set up a meeting at the E.P.A., with the help of an industry lobbyist, and the agency ultimately dropped the proposal." Fedoroff, it turns out, attended that meeting, according to an <a href="" target="_blank">October 17 email.</a> According to Chassy's email, the pivotal confab with the EPA was set up by <a href="">Stanley Abramson</a>, a prominent industry lobbyist, and <a href="">Adrianne Massey</a>, who serves as managing director of science and regulatory affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a<a href="" target="_blank"> trade group to which Monsanto and other ag-biotech firms belong</a>.</p> <p>Fedoroff's role in the campaign to get the EPA to back off on GMO regulation wasn't confined to that one "surprisingly productive" meeting<em>. </em>Chassy reports in an August 19, 2011, <a href="" target="_blank">email</a> to Massey that he has been "working with Nina," for "a month and many revisions" on an <a href="">op-ed</a> that ran in the<em> New York Times </em>on August 2011<em>. </em>The piece, bylined solely by Fedoroff, complained that the EPA "wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops" and concluded that the "government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm."</p> <p>&bull; In a January 10, 2012 <a href="" target="_blank">email</a>, Karen Batra, communications director for the <a href="" target="_blank">Biotechnology Industry Organization</a>, asked Chassy for advice on how to respond to an <a href="">article</a> critical of GMOs published in <em>The Atlantic.</em> "For most of us communications folks, the science here is way over our heads, and an appropriate response would have some kind of scientific defense," she wrote. "In other words, BIO just writing a letter saying 'biotech foods are safe' isn't enough of a response here."</p> <p>She added that a group called IFIC&mdash;presumably the <a href="">industry-funded</a> International Food Information Council Foundation&mdash;had "also [sent] out a mass email asking folks to weigh in on the [<em>Atlantic</em> article's] comments page." Batra asked the scientists to "either post a comment yourself on the page or provide us with some top-line scientific points that we could use in a letter to the editor<em>.</em>" Chassy responded to Batra's email with detailed talking points on the article.&nbsp;</p> <p>&bull; Chassy "engaged on the Huffington Post blog at my request," a <a href="" target="_blank">2012 email from Monsanto's Sachs</a> reveals&mdash;engaging in a spirited back-and-forth with an anti-GMO commentor, for which he <a href="" target="_blank">sought input from Monsanto employees</a>.</p> <p>&bull; At one point, Chassy agreed to Monsanto's request to travel to China to speak at a seminar, without having any idea of the topic or the audience. Here's <a href="" target="_blank">Chassy</a> on January 24, 2012:</p> <blockquote> <p>You originally asked if I would go to China and do what I did in Korea. You wanted to know if I was available and said you would explain later. One thing led to another and I am now going but we never did speak about the actual mission on China. Where am I speaking? &nbsp;To whom? For how long? More importantly, what is the topic and is there an assigned title? What's really going on and what are the between the lines issues? Knowing the ansers [sic] to all of these questions would really help me plan a talk. Can we talk sometime before I start putting a talk together?</p> </blockquote> <p>Sachs <a href="" target="_blank">responded</a>:</p> <blockquote> <p>I apologize for the gaps in information. This opportunity came to my attention late in the process and I was narrowly focused on finding the best 3rd-party [i.e, non-Monsanto] expert that could speak on the topic of safety assessment of products employing RNAi [a topic I discuss <a href="">here</a>.]</p> </blockquote> <p>"Monsanto China is working with Chinese Agricultural Biotech Association to host the seminar," Sachs continues. "The goal is to pave the way for import approval for biotech products in China."</p> <p>Chassy later submitted a draft of his presentation to Monsanto officials ahead of the event. (See the exchange <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>). "Overall, everyone is pleased with how the presentation turned out," a Monsanto employee responded, adding that there "were some minor changes in text and they are indicated in red," as well as "some comments for you to address." Chassy responded seeking more input:</p> <blockquote> <p>Thanks to the reviewers. They picked up a number of good points. I have attached a word file which contains responses to the reviewers comments. There are a couple that remain unresolved or for which my new wording may or may not fully address the concern voiced by the reviewer. Please have each of the reviewers take a second look.</p> </blockquote> <p>&bull; In a January 15, 2015, <a href="" target="_blank">email</a> to the University of Florida's Kevin Folta, Monsanto's Lisa Drake&acirc;&#128;&uml; wrote that "over the past six months, we have worked hard through third parties"&mdash;ie, people not affiliated with Monsanto&mdash;to "insert fresh and current" material on GMOs to WebMD. The pitch: "I would appreciate your consideration of submitting a blog on the safety and health of biotech to Web MD, at all possible?" She added, "Please consider insert [sic] the word 'labeling' somewhere in the content in order to get search algorithms to pick it up." Folta responded, "I'm glad to do this and will bounce something off you soon." (Folta says he never ended up writing the post in question.)</p> <p>&bull; And on January 28, 2015, an employee of the PR firm Ketchum&mdash;writing "on behalf of the Council for Biotech Information," a group <a href="" target="_blank">funded by Monsanto and other biotech companies</a>&mdash;included Folta on a <a href="" target="_blank">group email</a> pointing to another burning controversy: A publisher had indicated it "will update a sixth-grade science textbook that presents some of the benefits of GM crops." Worse, "additional publishing companies are considering replacing content that could be considered pro-GMO."</p> <p>She asked anyone interested in responding to the textbook crisis to reply. "I'm excited to torpedo this stupidity," Folta responded, to the delight of his Ketchum correspondent. "This is the best email I've gotten all day. [Smiley-face emoticon.] Thanks! I'll be in touch as we move forward on this."</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Fri, 02 Oct 2015 16:30:10 +0000 Tom Philpott 284816 at No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But… <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Since the mid-1990s, around <a href="">300,000 Indian farmers </a>have killed themselves&mdash;a rate of about one every 30 minutes, which is 47 percent higher than the national average. The tragedy has become entangled in the rhetorical war around genetically modified seeds.</p> <p>Some anti-GMO activists, including Indian scientist and organic-farming champion Vandana Shiva, have blamed the high suicide rates directly on biotech seeds&mdash;specifically, cotton tweaked by Monsanto to contain the Bt pesticide, now <a href="" target="_blank">used on more than 90 percent of India's cotton acreage</a>. Shiva has gone so far as to declare them "<a href="">seeds of suicide," </a>because, she claims, "suicides increased after Bt cotton was introduced."</p> <p>GMO enthusiasts, by contrast, counter that Monsanto's patented seeds are a boon to India's cotton farmers: They've boosted crop yields, driven down pesticide use, and alleviated rural poverty, a 2010 paper by the pro-industry International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) <a href=",%202002%20to%202010-11%20aug%20final.pdf">argued</a>.</p> <p>So which is it? According to a recent <a href="">peer-reviewed paper</a> from a team led by Andrew Gutierrez, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley's department of environmental policy, science, and management, the situation is way too complicated to be aptly described by sound bites in a rhetorical war.</p> <p>For their analysis, the team looked closely at yields, pesticide use, farmer incomes, and suicide rates in India's cotton regions, both before and after the debut of Bt seeds in 2002.</p> <p>They found that on large farms with access to irrigation water, genetically modified cotton makes economic sense&mdash;paying up for the more expensive seeds helps control a voracious pest called the pink bollworm in a cost-effective way. &nbsp;</p> <p>But <a href="">65 percent of India's cotton crop</a> comes from farmers who rely on rain, not irrigation pumps. For them, the situation is the opposite&mdash;reliance on pesticides and the higher cost of the seeds <em>increase</em> the risk of bankruptcy and thus suicide, the study finds. The smaller and more Bt-reliant the farm in these rain-fed cotton areas, the authors found, the higher the suicide rate. (An analysis that largely jibes with Shiva's, apart from her heated rhetoric.)</p> <p>Even so, the paper does not present Bt cotton as the trigger for India's farmer-suicide crisis. Rather, it provides crucial background for understanding how India's shift to industrial farming techniques starting in the 1960s left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, and eventually GM seeds, making them vulnerable to bankruptcy when the vagaries of rain and global cotton markets turned against them. &nbsp;</p> <p>The authors note that cotton has been cultivated in India for 5,000 years, and until the emergence of the slavery-dependent cotton empire in the southern United States in the early 1800s, "India was the center of world cotton innovation." In the 1970s, Indian cotton farmers turned to hybrid seeds that delivered higher yields as long as they were doused with sufficient fertilizer. Until then, the pink bollworm&mdash;the pest now targeted by Bt seeds&mdash;"was not a major pest in Indian cotton," they write. But higher-yielding plants draw more insect pests, and so the new hybrid seeds also triggered an increasing reliance on insecticides. Bollworms evolved to resist the chemical onslaught and many of their natural predators (other insects) saw their populations decline, giving the bollworms a niche. Hence when Monsanto's bollworm-targeting Bt seeds hit the market in the early 2000s, they were essentially an industrial-ag solution to a problem that had been caused by industrial agriculture.</p> <p>As an alternative to Bt seeds, the paper shows, small-scale farmers can successfully plant varieties of cotton that ripen quickly, before bollworm populations emerge. As for the irrigated cotton farms that are now successfully using the Bt trait, the authors note that India's large farms, like many of California's, are tapping underground water that's "unregulated and unpriced," at rates much higher than natural recharge. They're courting a problem that may make the feared bollworm look tame by comparison: "the impending collapse of ground water levels for irrigated cotton."</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Top Stories Wed, 30 Sep 2015 10:00:19 +0000 Tom Philpott 285641 at These Two Genius Tricks to Improve School Food Have Nothing to Do With What’s for Lunch <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>As the Congressional battle over funding for school lunches <a href="" target="_blank">lurches on</a>, there's a lot of debate about what gets served in the cafeteria. Given that the sausage-making process isn't likely to give the National School Lunch Program what it really needs&mdash;more money (the federal government pays schools <a href="">$3.07</a> for each free meal they serve, the <a href="">bulk of which goes to overhead expenses</a>)&mdash;we might do well to look beyond what's on the trays. A pair of new studies do just that.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>First up: Researchers from the University of Arkansas have identified a low-cost way to improve the diets and health of public school youngsters, by spending just a little extra money to give them free fruits and vegetables&mdash;as snacks, not during the lunch hour.</p> <p>In their <a href="" target="_blank">recent paper</a>, they looked at a federal initiative called <a href="">the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program</a> (FFVP), which is currently available only for schools where at least half of students receive free and reduced-price lunches. The program gives the schools an extra $50 to $75 per kid each year to buy fruits and vegetables, which they distribute as they decide fit throughout the day, but not during meal times.</p> <p>That's pretty modest spending, but in the low-income schools where the Arkansas researchers studied it, it had a major impact. Comparing schools utilizing the program with socioeconomically similar schools that don't, the team calculated that the FFVP shaved 3 percentage points off schoolwide obesity rates, moving them from 20 percent to 17 percent.</p> <p>In a recent <a href="" target="_blank">blog post</a>, Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that other school initiatives designed to curb obesity rates cost between <a href="">$280 to $339</a>&nbsp;per student every year for just a 1 percent reduction in obesity rates. The total cost of making FFVP universal would be about $1.2 billion annually, or $6.1 billion over a kid's five years of elementary school, she calculates. That's a rounding error in the federal budget.</p> <p>And by cutting the obesity rate significantly, the program would more than pay for itself. About 18 percent of the nation's 24.7 million&nbsp;elementary school-aged children are obese, she notes, adding that the lifetime obesity-related medical cost for each obese child is $19,000, or $83 billion in "obesity-related healthcare costs over the lifetime for our current generation of children." If the program had the same impact nationwide that it had in those Arkansas schools, the obesity-related price tag would drop to $69 billion&mdash;meaning that "spending $6 billion to implement the program would save $14 billion in healthcare costs over the current elementary school generation's lifetime," she argues.</p> <p>Meanwhile, another recent study focuses not on food per se, but on the amount of time administrators allow for meal times. A few years ago, I wrote about the <a href="">incredible shrinking school lunch period</a>&mdash;how, nationwide, harried public school administrators&mdash;under ever-increasing pressure to prep kids for standardized tests&mdash;were chopping down the time allotted for eating.</p> <p>There are no federal regulations for how long the part of the day formerly known as the "lunch hour" should be, and there's little national data on how much time the average school devotes to lunch. Anecdotally, we know things are pretty bad&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">here</a>, for example, is a 2012 <a href="">op-ed</a> by Minnesota sixth graders complaining that "realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes" for the mid-day meal.</p> <p>But now we do have some hard data on what it means to hustle school kids through the chow line as if they were stoners eager to wolf down a late-night snack from Taco Bell.</p> <p>In a <a href="" target="_blank">new study</a>, researchers from the &nbsp;<a href="">Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health</a> looked at the menu choices and food consumption of three sets of public elementary and middle school kids from a low-income urban district in Massachusetts: One group got less than 20 minutes to eat, while another had at least 25 minutes, and a third had between 20 and 25 minutes.</p> <p>The results won't shock anyone. From the press release:</p> <blockquote> <p>The researchers found that students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entr&eacute;es, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. While there were no notable differences between the groups in terms of entr&eacute;e, milk, or vegetable selections, those with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44 percent versus 57 percent).&nbsp;</p> </blockquote> <p>Of course, by consuming less of their meals, the kids in the wolf-it-down-fast group were also depositing more food in the waste bin. &nbsp;</p> <p>The takeaway is that the trend of speeding up the lunch line is forcing kids to eat less fruit and vegetables&mdash;at a time when 60 percent of kids don't meet the US Department of Agriculture's recommendations for fruit consumption and more than 90 percent of them don't consume enough vegetables, according to the <a href="">Centers for Disease Control</a>. Extending the lunch period to at least 25 minutes seems a simple and cheap way to fairly dramatically improve school lunches.</p> <p>Of course, kids with enough resources can escape the rigors of the public school cafeteria, whether by opting for a private school or packing a lunch. But for kids from low-income families, school represents a vital source of a day's food. This pair of tweaks&mdash;giving kids a decent amount of time to eat, and enriching their day with a few extra fruits and vegetables&mdash;seem well worth making.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Top Stories Wed, 16 Sep 2015 10:00:08 +0000 Tom Philpott 284196 at A Peek Inside an Industrial Chicken Slaughterhouse <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>Most undercover videos shot behind the meat industry's closed doors depict conditions in the enclosed barns where animals are birthed and raised. The <a href="" target="_blank">latest one,</a> taken by an Animal Legal Defense Fund investigator posing as a worker for meat giant Tyson Foods, delivers a glimpse of what it's like at the other end of the meat-production chain: the slaughterhouse, specifically, Tyson's chicken plant in Carthage, Texas. Spoiler alert: It's not pretty.</p> <p>Granted, the business of systematically killing and processing thousands and thousands of birds in a factory setting is bound to look ugly on film. But this investigator shines a light on something that's rarely portrayed in these videos: what workers go through. Starting about the 0:35 mark, we get a look at her station: the "live hang department," where workers snatch live birds and hang them upside down by their feet. Employees are required to hang 35 birds per minute, she reports. In a <a href="" target="_blank">letter</a> to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the ALDF claims that the investigator "wore protective eyewear provided to her by Tyson, but the eyewear failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides." Within weeks, she "developed an infection, and puss discharged from her eyes."&nbsp;</p> <p>The investigator claims to have been thrust into the fray without much preparation. "After a two-day orientation covering company policies and health and safety topics, the investigator began hanging chickens," the ALDF claims in a complaint <a href="" target="_blank">letter</a> to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees slaughterhouses. "She was given no training, but was instructed to follow fellow live hang employees."</p> <p>Tyson, for its part, disputes that claim. "We don't believe this claim is true," a Tyson spokesman wrote in an email to me. "We can tell you employees who work with live animals in the plant must complete chicken animal welfare training and must sign a form acknowledging they have been trained and that they can face possible dismissal if they don't follow proper animal handling procedures." As for her claim that she was immediately tasked with a 35-birds-per-minute quota, the Tyson spokesperson claimed that new workers are&nbsp; "allowed to work at their own pace until they become familiar with the job."</p> <p>The investigator also raised animal-cruelty and food safety issues based on her experience. She "observed employees mis-hanging birds in their struggle to keep up with the extreme speed of the line, along with employees roughly slamming birds onto shackles on a regular basis," the ALDF claims in its letter to the USDA. Birds that arrive to the slaughterhouse dead aren't supposed to enter the food supply, but the investigator "observed dead, dying, and injured birds being hung on slaughter line, suggesting either [the USDA's] failure to conduct adequate ante-mortem inspection, the plant's failure to separate live from dead-on-arrival (DOA) birds, or both," the ALDF's letter to the USDA states.</p> <p>Tyson's reaction: "We're still reviewing the video, but can tell you we&rsquo;re absolutely committed to proper animal handling and workplace safety." The&nbsp; spokesman added, "The safety of our Team Members is very important to us. We continuously monitor our facilities to make sure they're safe."</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Tue, 15 Sep 2015 10:00:15 +0000 Tom Philpott 284116 at Federal Court to EPA: No, You Can’t Approve This Pesticide That Kills Bees <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>On Thursday, a federal appeals court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of a pesticide called sulfoxaflor. Marketed by agrichemical giant Dow AgroSciences, sulfoxaflor belongs to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which have been implicated by a <a href="">growing weight of evidence</a> in the global crisis in bee health. In a <a href="">blunt opinion</a>, the court cited the "precariousness of bee populations" and "flawed and limited data" submitted by Dow on the pesticide's effects on beleaguered pollinating insects.</p> <p>Before winning approval for sulfoxaflor back in 2013, the company <a>hyped the product to investors</a>, declaring that it "addresses [a] $2 billion market need currently unmet by biotech solutions," particularly for cotton and rice.</p> <p>US beekeepers were <a href="">less enthusiastic</a>&mdash;a group of national beekeeping organizations, along with the National Honey Bee Advisory Board,&nbsp;quickly sued the EPA to withdraw its registration of sulfoxaflor, claiming that the EPA itself had found sulfoxaflor to be "highly toxic to honey bees, and other insect pollinators."</p> <p>Thursday's ruling, a response to that suit, took their side. It applies only to sulfoxaflor, which Dow <a href="">markets </a>as a foliar spray on a variety of crops, including cotton, soybean, citrus, stone fruit, nuts, grapes, potatoes, vegetables, and strawberries. It has no bearing on the EPA's equally controversial approval of other neonics like clothianidin&nbsp; and imidacloprid, which are <a href="">widely used</a> as seed treatments on the two most prominent US crops: corn and soybeans.</p> <p>But Greg Loarie, an attorney for EarthJustice who argued the case for the beekeeper's coalition, told me that the decision has broad significance because the ruling "makes clear" that when the EPA is assessing new pesticides, it must assess robust data on the health impacts on the entire hive, not just on individual adult bees.</p> <p>In its opinion, the court rebuked the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor despite "inconclusive or insufficient data on the effects&hellip;on brood development and long-term colony health." That's a problem, the court added, because pesticides can cause subtle harm to bees that don't kill them but that "ripple through the hive," which is an "interdependent 'superorganism.'" Indeed, <a href="" target="_blank">many independent studies</a> have demonstrated just such effects&mdash;that low-level exposure to neonics is "sub-lethal" to individual bees but compromises long-term hive health.</p> <p>"The EPA doesn't have that [hive-level] information on very many insecticides, if any," Loarie said.</p> <p>And in the case of sulfoxaflor, the agency didn't try very hard to get that information. In January 2013, because of major gaps in research on the new chemical's effect on bees, the EPA decided to grant sulfoxaflor "conditional registration" and ordered Dow to provide more research. And then a few months later, the agency granted sulfoxaflor unconditional&nbsp; registration&mdash;even though "the record reveals that Dow never completed the requested additional studies," the court opinion states.</p> <p>In an even more scathing addendum to the court's main opinion, Circuit Judge N.R. Smith added, "I am inclined to believe the EPA&hellip;decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate." The judge added, "Such action seems capricious."</p> <p>Sulfoxaflor's twisted path through the EPA's approval process isn't the first time the agency has green-lighted a neonicotinoid pesticide under dodgy circumstances, as I showed in this <a href="" target="_blank">2010 piece on clothianidin</a>, a widely marketed pesticide marketed by Dow's European rival, Bayer.</p> <p>In 2013&mdash;the same year the EPA approved sulfoxaflor&mdash;the European Union <a href="">placed a two-year moratorium</a> on clothianidin and two other major neonics, citing pollinator health concerns. For a <a href="">study</a> released last year, the US Geological Survey found neonic traces in all the Midwestern rivers and streams it tested, declaring them to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment." In addition to harming bees, neonics may also harm birds and fish, Canadian researchers have <a href="">found</a>.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Science Top Stories Fri, 11 Sep 2015 10:00:07 +0000 Tom Philpott 283911 at Niman Ranch Pork: Now Brought to You by Perdue <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Late Tuesday afternoon, Perdue, the nation's fourth-largest chicken company, snapped up the famed niche meat producer Niman Ranch, best known for its pork grown without antibiotic or other pharmaceutical growth enhancers, and also a player in the alternative <a href="" target="_blank">beef</a>, lamb, and egg markets. Eschewing the vast hog factories known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), Niman <a href="" target="_blank">requires</a> that its hogs "must be raised on pasture or in bedded pens."</p> <p>The deal stunned the foodie Twittersphere, but it's really not surprising. The United States remains one of the globe's most carnivorous nations, but our appetite for meat has waned in recent years. On a <a href="" target="_blank">per capita basis</a>, we ate nearly 10 percent less meat in 2014 than we did in 2004. The huge companies that dominate the meat industry have strained to maintain profit growth amid this slowdown, mainly by <a href="" target="_blank">cannibalizing competitors</a>&mdash;combining operations in order to cut costs&mdash;and by <a href="" target="_blank">focusing on exports</a> to countries where meat demand is surging. In gobbling up Niman, Perdue is pursuing the other strategy for generating growth in a stagnant market: buying into a rare segment that's growing rapidly. Sales of meat that can be marketed as organic, pasture-based, antibiotic-free, etc., are bucking the overall trend and <a href="" target="_blank">growing rapidly</a>.</p> <p>Also, Perdue's move doesn't exactly count as a huge company moving a small, purist operation into the corporate maw. Nearly a decade ago, Niman's founder, the legendary California pasture-based rancher Bill Niman, <a href="" target="_blank">cut ties</a> with his namesake company after having sold a controlling interest in it to a private equity firm. "I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys," he <a href="" target="_blank">told</a> <em>Business Insider</em> last year. "You can't really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now]." Until its sale to Perdue, Niman Ranch was owned by a private equity firm called LNK Partners, whose <a href="" target="_blank">portfolio</a> includes the restaurant chain Au Bon Pain as well as several fitness companies.</p> <p>Niman isn't Perdue's first lunge into the alt-meat market. Back in 2011, the company <a href="" target="_blank">bought</a> the organic-poultry processor Coleman Natural. Perdue has also been steadily pushing its own massive chicken production away from reliance on routine antibiotic use, one of the meat industry's most reckless practices.&nbsp;In 2014, Perdue <a href="" target="_blank">announced</a> that it was raising 95 percent of its birds without antibiotics deemed important to human medicine by the Food and Drug Administration. This summer, the company <a href=";title=Antibiotics%20Position%20Statement" target="_blank">claimed</a> that more than half its birds are raised completely without antibiotics.&nbsp;</p> <p>Perdue's Niman buy comes just months after pork giant Hormel, known mostly for down-market Spam, <a href="" target="_blank">dropped $775 million</a> to gobble up Applegate, Niman's antibiotic-free/organic competitor.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Wed, 09 Sep 2015 18:29:52 +0000 Tom Philpott 283711 at Your Lawn Is Giving Frogs a Sex Change <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>To paraphrase Kermit, it's not easy being a frog. These insect-chomping, sonorous creatures are under severe pressure, their populations plunging both <a href="" target="_blank">nationally </a>and <a href="" target="_blank">globally</a>. Evidence has mounted for years that agrichemicals commonly used on big corn and soybean farms are <a href="" target="_blank">wreaking</a> <a href=";WT.ec_id=SREP-631-20130201" target="_blank">havoc</a> on frogs, <a href="" target="_blank">feminizing males and shifting sex ratios</a>.</p> <div class="sidebar-small-right"><strong>When biologist Tyrone Hayes discovered that a top-selling herbicide messes with sex hormones, the herbicide's manufacturer went into battle mode. Thus began one of the weirdest feuds in the history of science. <a href="" target="_blank">Read Dashka Slater's "The Frog of War" here</a>.</strong></div> <p>But what about the lawn, that great symbol of US suburbia? A <a href="" target="_blank">2005 NASA study</a> estimated that lawns cover about 128,000 square kilometers, or 31 million acres, of our landmass. That's equal to about a <a href="" target="_blank">third of the territory</a> we devote to corn, our biggest crop. What's all that turf grass and ornamental shrubbery mean for frog life?</p> <p>Nothing good, suggests a <a href="" target="_blank">new study </a>published in the <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, </em>by Yale and US Geological Survey researchers. They compared frog populations in forest and suburban zones in Connecticut&mdash;and found that frogs in the suburban areas had twice the ratio of females to males compared with frogs in the forested areas. Then they tested water from suburban and forest ponds for a particular class of chemicals&mdash;hormone-mimicking compounds that can disrupt the endocrine systems of frogs at very low levels. They found them in only one of six of the forested ponds, but in nearly every (11 of 13) of the suburban ones.</p> <p>So what's the culprit? You might think it's <a href="" target="_blank">all the chemicals</a> people tend to dump on their lawns. But the study's lead author, Yale researcher Max Lambert, told me that while he and his colleagues tested the suburban water for "a couple of" pesticides, they didn't find any. He said that while lawn chemicals couldn't be ruled out as a cause of the sex changes, the main driver may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals that occur naturally in some plants, known as phyto-estrogens. These compounds turn out to be rare in most forest plants but abundant in common lawn plants like clover (often added to lawn grass mixes) and various ornamental shrubs, he said. Whatever the cause, "our work shows that for frogs, the suburbs are similar to farm areas," he said&mdash;meaning that both of these human-dominated landscape types offer plenty of room for frogs to roam but may be subtly poisoning them.</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Science Top Stories Wed, 09 Sep 2015 10:00:07 +0000 Tom Philpott 283626 at Can This Genius Strategy Stop Big Ag from Dumping Fertilizer Into Drinking Water? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Iowa_630.jpg"><div class="caption">Gary Taxali</div> </div> <p>Corn is to Iowa what oil is to Texas&mdash;so it's not every day that an Iowa official takes on the state's biggest industry. But Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of <a href="" target="_blank">Des Moines Water Works</a>, has had it with Big Ag. It "rules the roost in this world," he says. "It's a nasty business."</p> <p>Stowe isn't just talking smack: Last March, in an unprecedented move, Des Moines Water Works <a href="" target="_blank">filed a lawsuit</a> in federal court against three upstream counties, charging that they violate the federal Clean Water Act by allowing fertilizer to flow into one of the rivers from which the city gets its drinking water. The suit will likely drag out for years, says Neil Hamilton, director of Drake University's <a href="" target="_blank">Agricultural Law Center</a>. But if it succeeds, it will not only force farmers upstream from Des Moines to limit their fertilizer runoff; it could also herald a new era for the <a href="" target="_blank">Clean Water Act</a>, the '70s-era legislation that severely limited pollution from heavy industry but left farms essentially unregulated.</p> <p>Not everyone is so keen on the changes that the lawsuit could bring about. Six-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, famously aligned with agribusiness, is fuming. "Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa," <a href="" target="_blank">he snarled</a> at a January press conference. And in May, a group affiliated with the Iowa Farm Bureau called <a href="" target="_blank">Iowa Partnership for Clean Water</a> began running <a href="" target="_blank">TV ads praising farmers</a> for their water stewardship and claiming the suit "threatens our land, home, and even your food."</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/environment/2015/07/des-moines-nitrate-water-lawsuit"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Environment Food and Ag Science Top Stories Wed, 02 Sep 2015 10:00:08 +0000 Tom Philpott 280381 at Undercover Video Exposes the Dark Side of Chicken McNuggets <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="354" src="" width="630"></iframe></p> <p>Back in 2013, a proposed law that would have criminalized the act of secretly videotaping&nbsp;abuses on livestock farms&mdash;known by critics as an "ag gag" bill&mdash;<a href="" target="_blank">failed in Tennessee</a>. A least one of the state's chicken operations has reason to lament that defeat. An undercover investigator with the animal-welfare group <a href="" target="_blank">Mercy For Animals</a> managed to record the above footage at T&amp;S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, which supplies chickens for slaughter to poultry-processing giant Tyson&mdash;which in turn supplies chicken meat for McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.</p> <p><span style="font-family: Verdana, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 2em;">For those too squeamish to watch, the video opens with a worker saying, "You don't work for </span>PETA<span style="font-family: Verdana, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 2em;">, do you?," before proceeding to pummel a sickly bird to death with a long stick&mdash;which, for good measure, is outfitted with a&nbsp;nasty-looking spike attached to its business end. More beatings of sickly birds proceed from there.&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Both the poultry giant and the fast-food giant quickly cut ties with the exposed Tennessee poultry farm, <em>The Wall Street Journal</em> <a href="" target="_blank">reports</a>.&nbsp;</p></body></html> Tom Philpott Food and Ag Thu, 27 Aug 2015 21:44:53 +0000 Tom Philpott 282851 at