Tom Philpott

Check Out These New Emojis for Foodies

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Can you guess what these images mean? See below.

On a frigid Sunday morning in Manhattan this past March, several dozen people, many of them design students, gathered at the School of Visual Art's building in Chelsea. Their task: to perform a bit of pro-bono marketing for non-corporate food producers—the kind of small and mid-sized farms that grow produce without poisonous chemicals and tend their animals on pasture, not in fetid, polluting feedlots.

The meeting, organized by an innovative Los Angeles-based design firm called the Noun Project (whose founders my colleague Tasneem Raja interviewed here) and an accomplished New York-based sustainable-food advocacy group called the Grace Communications Foundation (the force behind the Meatrix video and Sustainable Table), was modeled on the techie concept of a "hackathon"—a bunch of people getting together to solve some problem. But whereas hackathons typically result in computer code, this "iconathon" would produce images, known as icons, that can wordlessly express concepts like "grass fed" and "heritage breed," free for anyone's use under a creative-commons license.

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Are Nanoparticles From Packaging Getting Into Your Food?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about the US regulatory system's strange attitude toward nanotechnology and food.

On the one hand, the Food and Drug Administration is on record stating that nanoparticles—which are microscopically tiny pieces of common materials like silver and clay—pose unique safety concerns. The particles, which measure in at a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, "can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts," the FDA wrote in a 2012 draft proposal for regulating nanoparticles in food. On the other hand, its solution—that the food industry conduct safety testing that is "as rigorous as possible" and geared specifically to nano-materials before releasing nano-containing products onto the market—will be voluntary.

But what about packaging—the wrappers and bags and whatnot that hold food to keep it fresh? Nano-sized silver has powerful antimicrobial properties and can be embedded in plastic to keep food fresh longer; and nanoparticles of clay can help bottles and other packaging block out air and moisture from penetrating, preventing spoilage. Yet research has suggested (see here and here) that nanoparticles can migrate from packaging to food, potentially exposing consumers.

One list of packaging that could contain nanoparticles includes beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

So how widely is nanotech used in the containers that contact our food? Back in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released a "State of the Science Literature Review" on nanosilver (PDF; warning: 221 pages). The report confirms that nano-materials, including silver, are being used in food packaging, but shows why it's hard to get a grip on how just widely. "Current labeling regulations do not require that the nanomaterial be listed as an ingredient," neither in food or in food packaging, the EPA report states. And "manufacture of nanosilver-containing products is shifting to the Far East, especially China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam," making it even harder to track nano-containing products that come in from abroad.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—keeps a running inventory of "nanotechnology-based consumer products introduced on the market." A PEN spokesperson stressed to me that its list isn't comprehensive—it by no means captures every nano-associated item, and some products on the list may no longer contain nanotech. That said, the database includes 20 products in the "food and beverage storage" category, including a couple of beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

Meanwhile, environmental watchdog groups warn that nanotech-imbued packaging will soon become ubiquitous. "Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and nanopackaging," Friends of the Earth stated in a 2014 report. Tom Neltner, a food additives researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me in an email that, "we believe nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

One researcher says that he believes that "nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

When I asked Neltner for specifics, he sent me to Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging and Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability at Michigan State University, and a close watcher of the food-packaging industry. Hotchkiss told me that while nano-materials are quite attractive to the food industry as a way to cheaply prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, they currently "aren't widely used" because "no one knows for sure what kinds of risks from ingesting exquisitely tiny amounts of nano-materials may or not represent." As a result, the food industry is "waiting on the sidelines" until more safety research emerges.

Indeed, the above-noted EPA report reveals significant health concerns around nanoparticles. They "can pass through biological membranes," the report states, including the blood-brain barrier. And they're "small enough to penetrate even very small capillaries throughout the body."

What harm nanoparticles cause when they move about our bodies remains murky, though. "There are very limited well controlled human studies on the potential toxicities of nanosilver," the EPA states; but animal studies have shown potential toxicity for the liver, kidneys, and the immune system.

Back in March, the EPA  moved to block a company called Pathway Investment from marketing plastic food storage containers laced with nano-silver to the public. But what ran the company afoul with the EPA wasn't its use of nano-silver per se; rather, it was the claim that its product would kill microbiota in stored food. "Claims that mold, fungus or bacteria are controlled or destroyed by a particular product must be backed up with testing so that consumers know that the products do what the labels say,” the EPA's press release states.

Meanwhile, no one seems to know for sure how widely nanotech is being used in packaging, or what the health consequences are. And that's potentially a big problem stemming from some very small stuff.

Over Easy: An Egg King Gets Dethroned

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

Remember the salmonella outbreak of 2010, the one that that sickened 2,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs?

A federal investigation has pulled the curtain back on the way the man at the center of the outbreak, Jack DeCoster, ran his massive egg empire. He and his son Peter DeCoster have pleaded guilty to the "distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce," resulting in the 2010 outbreak, the US Department of Justice reports.

And that's not all. One of DeCoster's companies, Quality Egg, also copped to attempting to bribe a USDA inspector, not once but twice in 2010, to allow it to send out eggs that didn't meet the agency's quality standards. The company also admitted to falsifying expiration dates on egg cartons "with the intent to mislead state regulators and retail egg customers regarding the true age of the eggs," between 2006 and 2010. 

Even before these revelations, the episode had revealed gaps in how the US regulatory system handles massive livestock operations. DeCoster's own company-run tests had found salmonella in its facilities before the outbreak, but it continued churning out eggs. Shortly before the outbreak, US Department of Agriculture inspectors had noted  filthy conditions but didn't act to halt them—they were there to inspect egg size, not cleanliness. The Food and Drug Administration, which does regulate food safety in large egg operations, filed a damning report on DeCoster's facilities—but only after those half-billion suspect eggs had been trucked out to supermarkets nationwide.

And though DeCoster ran no corporate empire along the lines of Tyson or Smithfield Foods, his egg fiefdom was quite large. My reporting at the time established that the companies he controlled accounted for more then 10 percent of US laying hens—more than any other egg producer.

DeCoster pere et fils face prison sentences of up to one year; fines of $100,000 each; and a "term of supervised release after any imprisonment for up to one year," the DOJ reports.

Thus, presumably, ends an illustrious career at the heights of industrial-scale agriculture. Previous highlights include:

 • In 2002, one of DeCoster's companies paid a $1.5 million settlement after women at one of his Iowa plants "alleged they were subjected to sexual harassment (including rape), abuse, and retaliation" by supervisory workers.

• In 2000 he got himself declared a "habitual offender" of Iowa's manure management laws by the state's attorney general.

• In 1996, Robert Reich, then the US labor secretary, slapped a $3.6 million fine on DeCoster's Maine egg operation for labor violations. Reich denounced the company as ''an agricultural sweatshop" where the workers are treated like ''animals."

This Video Shows What Happens to Baby Turkeys at the Butterball Plant

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 7:08 PM EDT

There's no particularly egregious act of cruelty in the above video exposé of a Butterball turkey hatchery in North Carolina—no one stomps a screeching bird, or whacks one with a rod as these videos from 2011 and 2012 show. What the latest undercover video investigation by the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals reveals is quite banal: the reduction of newborn turkey chicks to assembly-line widgets, material inputs whose result will fill millions of sandwiches. (Butterball raises a fifth of all US-grown turkeys).

We see just-hatched birds dumped onto conveyor belts and whisked along, occasionally getting a limb stuck in factory machinery. The severely injured ones get tossed unceremoniously into the hole of a machine, where, a voiceover informs us, "they'll be ground up alive." The surviving ones get lifted by workers into machines that cut off their toes and burn off their beaks. Then it's on to a truck and off to a factory farm, the voiceover declares.

The suffering we see can't be blamed on the viciousness of a rogue employee, as often happens after video-captured abuses. (Several Butterball employees were convicted of animal abuse in the wake of earlier Mercy for Animals investigations.) The scandal here lies in the routine practice, not spectacular violence.

It's something that meat eaters have a right to know about before they bite into a turkey sandwich. And it's something that the industry is fighting hard to keep out of sight and mind. Last year, the North Carolina legislature introduced a proposal that would criminalize the act of infiltrating a factory farm and documenting what goes on behind closed doors—a classic "ag-gag" bill of the type documented by Ted Genoways in Mother Jones last year. According to Mercy For Animals, the ag-gag provisions have generated major pushback within the state, but could still pass this year.

Your Vanilla Ice Cream Is About to Get Weirder

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Synthetic biology—or "synbio" for short—is the stuff of science fiction brought to life. Whereas standard-issue biotechnology involves inserting a gene from one organism into another, synbio entails stuff like inserting computer-generated DNA sequences into living cells: i.e, creating new organisms altogether. And the technology has made a major breakthrough: A company called Evolva has managed to create a compound called vanillin—the one that gives vanilla beans their distinctive and wildly popular flavor—grown not on a vine but rather in a culture of synthetic yeast.

Even though you'll likely soon be ingesting its products, synbio—like nanotechnology, which I looked at in two posts last week—is virtually unregulated and can show up in consumer products without any labeling requirements. But unlike nanotech, whose tiny particles already pervade more than 1600 consumer products (including 96 food ones), the industry around synthetic biology is only beginning its push its inventions into things we encounter daily.

Tom's Kitchen: Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble

| Sat May 31, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In the years I spent working on a small organic farm in North Carolina, we'd often spend the wee hours of the morning harvesting a variety of vegetables. One of my favorite crops to pick was potatoes, which required a kind of subterranean treasure hunt. One of us would plunge a pitchfork into the earth and upturn a potato plant, and another, on hands and knees, would quickly snatch the dirt-caked orbs dangling from the roots and place them in a bucket.

Occasionally, a potato would get "speared"—unintentionally stabbed by the fork—making it unmarketable. We'd separate them out, and march them into the kitchen for a post-harvest "second breakfast" of potatoes, just-laid eggs, and any other vegetables on hand. Early-morning harvests generated a fierce hunger, and nothing satisfied it quite like these just-dug treasures roasted in a hot oven—sweet, creamy, and sumptuous, justifying their name in French: pomme de terre, or apple of the earth.

Now when I go the the farmers market, I can never resist "new" potatoes, which are just potatoes that haven't been stored long. Recently, at the stand of an excellent Austin farm called Green Gate, I spied some purple potatoes—which are not only rich in health-giving phytochemicals, but also deliver an extra dose of earthy flavor.  I grabbed a couple handfuls, came home, and tried to recapture that farmhouse magic.

Note: You can omit the eggs and just use the below recipe as a guide for roasting potatoes.

Farmhouse-Style Roasted Potato and Egg Scramble
Serves two

Ingredients
About .75 pounds new potatoes, preferably blue or purple, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Olive oil
Sea salt
1-2 shallots, minced
3-4 eggs from pastured chickens
A few slices of decent cheese—I used Organic Valley "Grassmilk" raw cheddar
Some coarsely chopped herbs, for garnish. (I used cilantro, but parsley, chives, and even arugula would all work great.)

Adjust your oven's top rack to between 6-8 inches below the broiler (you'll be finishing the potatoes under the broiler). Turn the oven to 400 degrees F and insert a large cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed, over-proof skillet. Your going to want to cover it, so find an oven-proof cover that will work with the pan before proceeding.

Dab the chopped potatoes dry with a towel. When the oven comes to temperature, remove the skillet. Proceed with caution: It will be blisteringly hot. Add enough oil to cover the bottom, and drop in the potatoes along with a good pinch of salt. Using a spatula, toss the potatoes around in the pan until they are well-coated in oil. Cover the skillet and return it to the oven. The cover will help the potatoes cook faster by essentially steaming them in their own moisture.

While the potatoes are cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl, along with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper, and whisk them together with a fork until the yolks and whites are just combined.

Check the potatoes every ten minutes or so by plunging a fork into one of the larger pieces. When the fork penetrates easily, it's time to remove the skillet's cover, turn off the oven's bake function, and turn the broiler on to its highest setting. Place the skillet under the broiler and cooking, checking often, until they're brown and crisp on one side. Flip them with a spatula, and brown/crisp them on the other.  Remove the skillet, placing it on the stove top. Turn off the broiler and shut the oven door.

Add the chopped shallots to the pan along with a small glug of oil, tossing it all with a spatula. The pan will still be sizzling hot, and will cook the shallots. When the sizzling has calmed down, turn the heat to low and carefully pour the mixed eggs over the potatoes, covering the skillet bottom with the eggs. When the edges have set, flip the eggs with a spatula. Lay the cheese slices onto the eggs, and return the skillet to the still-hot oven until the cheese has just melted—a couple of minutes.

Serve with a green salad, toast, and white wine for dinner, or tortillas and coffee for breakfast.

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What If Nanoparticles Are Sickening American Workers Who Don't Even Know They're Being Exposed?

| Thu May 29, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

On Wednesday, I wrote about how nanotechnology—which involves microscopic particles of common substances—is rapidly pervading the food supply, despite health concerns raised by the Food and Drug Administration. But food is just one of the ways people interact with this ubiquitous and little-discussed technology. Another one is the workplace.

Nanoparticles are known to be used used in more than 1,600 consumer products, from athletic socks and bed sheets to toothpaste. Globally, the nanotech industry is worth about $20 billion per year. That's a lot of superfine particles that have to be manufactured, delivered, and added to the various end products by workers.

Big Dairy Is Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food

| Wed May 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

The rapid emergence of nanotechnology suggests that size does, indeed, matter. It turns out that if you break common substances like silver and nickel into really, really tiny particles—measured in nanometers, which are billionths of a meter—they behave in radically different ways. For example, regular silver, the stuff of fancy tableware, doesn't have any obvious place in sock production. But nano-size silver particles apparently do. According to boosters, when embedded in the fabric of socks, microscopic silver particles are "strongly antibacterial to a wide range of pathogens, absorb sweat, and by killing bacteria help eliminate unpleasant foot odor." (By most definitions, a particle qualifies as "nano" when it's 100 nanometers wide or less. By contrast, a human hair clocks in at about 80,000 nanometers in diameter.)

According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—there are more than 1,600 nanotechnology-based consumer products on the market today. If SmartSilver Anti-Odor Nanotechnology Underwear sounds like a rather intimate application for this novel technology, consider that the PEN database lists 96 food items currently on US grocery shelves that contain unlabeled nano ingredients. Examples include Silk Original Soy Milk, Rice Dream Rice Drink, Hershey's Bliss Dark Chocolate, and Kraft's iconic American Cheese Singles, all of which now contain nano-size titanium dioxide*. As recently as 2008, only eight US food products were known to contain nanoparticles, according to a recent analysis from Friends of the Earth—a more than tenfold increase in just six years.

Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?

| Tue May 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

It's a hard-knock life, scouring the landscape for pollen to sustain a beehive. Alight upon the wrong field, and you might encounter fungicides, increasingly used on corn and soybean crops, and shown to harm honeybees at tiny levels. Get hauled in to pollinate California's vast almond groves, as 60 percent of US honeybees do, and you'll likely make contact with a group of chemicals called adjuvants—allegedly "inert" pesticide additives that have emerged as a prime suspect for a large bee die-off during this year's almond bloom.

Harvard researcher Lu believes that with this study, coming on the heels of a similar one he released in 2012, the colony collapse mystery has been solved.

The hardest-to-avoid menace of all might be the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, widely used not only on big Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans but also on cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes. They're even common in yard and landscaping products. I've written before about the growing weight of science linking these lucrative pesticides, marketed by European agrichemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, to declining bee health, including the annual die-offs known as colony collapse disorder, which began in the winter of 2005-06.

Climate Change Is Turning Your Produce Into Junk Food

| Wed May 14, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Climate skeptics like to point out that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth—suggesting that ever-growing fossil fuel consumption will lead to an era of bin-busting crop yields. But as I noted last week, the best science suggests that other effects of an over-heated planet—heat stress, drought, and floods—will likely overwhelm any bonus from CO2-rich air. Overall, it seems, crop yields will decline.

And here's more bad news: In a paper published in Nature this month, a global team has found that heightened levels of atmospheric carbon make key staple crops wheat, rice, peas, and soybeans less nutritious.

Higher CO2 levels caused a "significant decrease in the concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein" for wheat and rice.

The team, led by Samuel Myers, a research scientist at Harvard's Department of Environmental Health, grew a variety of grains and legumes in plots in the US, Japan, and Australia. They subjected one set to air enriched with CO2 at concentrations ranging from 546 and 586 parts per million—levels expected to be reached in around four decades; the other set got ambient air at today's CO2 level, which recently crossed the 400 parts per million threshold.

The results: a "significant decrease in the concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein" for wheat and rice, a Harvard press release on the study reports. For legumes like soybeans and peas, protein didn’t change much, but zinc and iron levels dropped. For wheat, the treated crops saw zinc, iron, and protein fall by 9.3 percent, 5.1 percent, and 6.3 percent, respectively.

These are potentially grave findings, because a large swath of humanity relies on rice, wheat, and legumes for these very nutrients, the authors note. They report that two billion people already suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies, "causing a loss of 63 million life-years annually." According to the Harvard press release, the "reduction in these nutrients represents the most significant health threat ever shown to be associated with climate change." Symptoms of zinc deficiency include stunted growth, appetite loss, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, impotence, hypogonadism (for males), and eye and skin lesions; while iron deficiency brings on fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headache.

Wheat, rice, soybeans, and peas are all what scientists call C3 crops, characterized by the way they use photosynthesis to trap carbon from the atmosphere. C4 crops, which use a different pathway, include staples like corn and sorghum. Fortunately, C4 crops showed much less sensitivity to higher CO2 levels, the study found.

Roundup "loses its efficacy on weeds grown at CO2 levels projected to occur in the coming decades."

Meanwhile, in my post last week about the big National Climate Assessment and its finding on agriculture, I left out a key point on weeds. The report's agriculture section notes that "several weed species benefit more than crops from higher temperatures and CO2 levels," meaning that climate change will likely intensify weed pressure on farmers. And then it adds a bombshell: glyphosate, the widely used herbicide marketed by Monsanto as Roundup, "loses its efficacy on weeds grown at CO2 levels projected to occur in the coming decades." And that means "higher concentrations of the chemical and more frequent sprayings thus will be needed, increasing economic and environmental costs associated with chemical use."

In short, the era of climate change will hardly be the paradise of carbon-enriched bounty envisioned by fossil fuel enthusiasts. For a look at how farmers probably should adapt to these unhappy developments, see my 2013 profile of Ohio farmer David Brandt.