Tom Philpott

Fast-Food Workers Protest Poverty McWages

| Sat Apr. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's shareholders, the past five years can be aptly summed up by the slogan "I'm lovin' it." According to Yahoo Finance, shares of the global fast-food giant are up 80 percent since April 2008—more than four times the gain of the S&P 500 over the same period. The company is robustly profitable—its profit margin hovers near 20 percent, and it's got $2.3 billion in cash on the books.

Other fast-food giants are doing well by their shareholders, too. Burger King shares are up 25 percent over the past year, while YUM! Brands—the holding company for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut—are up 10 percent. (Over the same period, the S&P 500 is up just 5 percent.)

For these companies' employees, it's been a much rougher road. The steep recession and glacial recovery have kept unemployment at high levels, meaning fewer opportunities to switch jobs and little leverage in wage negotiations. Even in ultra-expensive New York City—which has by far the nation's highest cost of living—many McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! workers draw the federal minimum wage, $7.25. The federal minimum wage translates to about $15,000 per year. This, in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment tops $3,000.

That's why it's so heartening that in New York City, workers from big-name  fast-food chains are walking off the job and taking to the streets to demand better wages. Here's the New York Times:

Thursday’s strike, sponsored by a labor-community coalition that calls itself Fast Food Forward, seeks to press the city’s fast-food restaurants to pay their employees $15 an hour. Many workers say they can barely get by on the $7.25, $8 or $9 an hour that many receive; $9 an hour translates to around $18,000 a year for a full-time worker. The current minimum wage in New York State is $7.25, though lawmakers agreed last month to raise it to $9 by 2016.        

For an excellent discussion of the situation, including interviews with workers having to support families on fast-food wages—check out this segment from Chris Hayes' new MSNBC show:

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Sen. Roy Blunt: Monsanto's Man in Washington

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, a recent Senate bill came with a nice bonus for the genetically modified seed industry: a rider, wholly unrelated to the underlying bill, that compels the USDA to ignore federal court decisions that block the agency's approvals of new GM crops. I explained in this post why such a provision, which the industry has been pushing for over a year, is so important to Monsanto and its few peers in the GMO seed industry. (You can also hear my talking about it on NPR's The Takeaway, along with the senator who tried to stop it, Montana's Jon Tester, and see me on Al Jazeera's Inside Story.)

Which senator pushed the rider into the bill? At the time, no one stepped forward to claim credit. But since then, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has revealed to Politico's ace reporter David Rogers that he's the responsible party. Blunt even told Rogers that he "worked with" GMO seed giant Monsanto to craft the rider.

The admission shines a light on Blunt's ties to Monsanto, whose office is located in the senator's home state. According to OpenSecrets, Monsanto first started contributing to Blunt back in 2008, when it handed him $10,000. At that point, Blunt was serving in the House of Representatives. In 2010, when Blunt successfully ran for the Senate, Monsanto upped its contribution to $44,250. And in 2012, the GMO seed/pesticide giant enriched Blunt's campaign war chest by $64,250.

Yes, Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs Can Jump from Animals to Humans

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For decades, the meat industry has denied any problem with its reliance on routine, everyday antibiotic use for the nation's chickens, cows, and pigs. But it's a bit like a drunk denying an alcohol problem while leaning on a barstool for support. Antibiotic use on livestock farms has surged in recent years—from 20 million pounds annually in 2003 to nearly 30 million pounds in 2011.

Over the same period, the entire US human population has consumed less than 8 million pounds per year, meaning that livestock farms now suck in around 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. Meanwhile, the industry routinely churns out meat containing an array of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

As former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler recently put it in a New York Times op-ed, "rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another's waste." And feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may "do the most harm," Kessler continued, because it provides a perfect incubation ground for the generation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The meat industry's retort to all of this is, essentially: And the problem is? The websites of the major industry trade groups—the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council—all insist current antibiotic practices are "safe." The main reason they can claim this with a straight face is that while scientists have long suspected that drug-resistant pathogens can jump from antibiotic-treated animals to humans, it's been notoriously difficult to prove. The obstacle is ethics: You wouldn't want to extract, say, antibiotic-resistant salmonella from a turkey and inject it into a person just to see what happens. The risk of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention politely calls "treatment failure," i.e., death, would be too great.

But this decades-old industry fig leaf is fraying fast. The latest: a gene-sequencing study from Denmark that documents two cases of the movement of MRSA, an often-deadly, antibiotic-resistant staph infection, from farm animals to people. The excellent "scary disease" reporter Maryn McKenna recently broke down the science in lucid detail:

Is Your Workout Gear Ruining Farm Fields?

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In a glittering example of industry setting its sights on solving the great problems of humankind, you can now buy workout clothes spiked with "moisture-wicking" nano silver—microscopically tiny silver particles that kill bacteria and (as one company puts it) "help counter the formation of unpleasant sweaty odours."

But what are the consequences of our allegedly stench-free gym sessions? Before the apparel industry started spiking socks and even underwear with silver bits, you might assume the Environmental Protection Agency had thoroughly vetted the technology for unintended ecological consequences. Turns out, not.

In a new report, the Natural Resources Defense Council looks at the EPA's system for vetting new pesticides, a category that includes nano silver, since it exists to kill pesky bacteria. Result of NRDC's analysis: About 65 percent of the 16,000 pesticides legally in use made their way through the EPA without undergoing rigorous vetting for potential human and environmental harm, as they are required to under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The always-ahead ETC Group first sounded the alarm about nanotechnology a decade ago, in a 2003 report titled "The Big Down."

Not Just the Bees: Bayer's Pesticide May Harm Birds, Too

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Geese in a corn field

Once again this spring, farmers will begin planting at least 140 million acres—a land mass roughly equal to the combined footprints of California and Washington state—with seeds (mainly corn and soy) treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Commercial landscapers and home gardeners will get into the act, too—neonics are common in lawn and garden products. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know all of that is probably bad news for honeybees and other pollinators, as a growing body of research shows—including three studies released just ahead of last year's planting season.

But bees aren't the only iconic springtime creature threatened by the ubiquitous pesticide, whose biggest makers are the European giants Bayer and Syngenta. It turns out that birds are too, according to an alarming analysis co-authored by Pierre Mineau, a retired senior research scientist at Environment Canada (Canada's EPA), published by the American Bird Conservancy. And not just birds themselves, but also the water-borne insect species that serve as a major food source for birds, fish, and amphibians.

Tom's Kitchen: Raw Root-Veggie Slaw

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In most areas of the country, late March is one of those awkward times to shop at the farmers market. Glamorous spring vegetables like asparagus and artichokes aren't in yet; winter staples like beets, carrots, and radishes are still coming out, but you're starting to get bored of them. That's the exact situation now playing out in Central Texas, with the added annoyance that my favorite veggies of all, leafy greens, are already on the way out, laid low by the fast-warming weather.

Even so, I was able to coax a fresh, fun dish out of what was abundant at the farmers market: beets, kohlrabi (a bulbous relative of broccoli, cabbage, and the rest of the brassica family), carrots, and spring onions. What inspired me was a gadget that has been stuck on a low shelf of my kitchen, unused, for years: a mandoline. I had always thought of mandolines as fancy devices that I would never be able to afford. When my mom gave me this inexpensive, plastic Japanese-brand model as a gift a few years ago, I never got around to trying it out. As an experiment, I decided to subject my market bounty to its razor-sharp blades, and came away impressed: a zippy, crunchy salad that tasted like spring on a salad plate, not winter warmed over.

You can make a very similar, slightly less attractive salad by simply grating the veggies, or slicing them as thinly as possible. Use any combo of winter veggies—except, of course, for ones that really need to be cooked to be enjoyed, like potatoes. The combo I used brought together sweet (carrots), earthiness (beets), and spice (kohlrabi), as well as a great clash of colors. A radish or two would also have been nice. It's also important to brighten the dish with plenty of herbs—parsley and mint work great—as well as a tart dressing.

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Hogwash: Big Ag's Ban on Caging Pregnant Pigs Is Just For Show

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Pregnant sows in gestastation crates at a Smithfield facility, 2010, documented by a Humane Society of the United States investigation.

Among all the various dodgy aspects of factory-style meat production, the use of tight cages to confine pregnant female pigs surely ranks among the most awful. The hog industry isn't keen on displaying this practice to the public, but in 2010, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) planted a camera-toting undercover investigator in a hog facility run by Smithfield Foods, the globe's largest hog producer and pork processor. You can read the report here, but you can't beat the video for sheer visceral effect:

In the wake of the exposé, Smithfield saw fit to recommit itself to phasing out the practice in its own hog-production facilities by 2017. (The company had made a similar pledge in 2007 and backed off from it in 2009, claiming that financial losses in its hog-production business made the capital investments necessary for the transition too expensive.) In 2012, its rival Hormel made a similar pledge; and Cargill, another massive pork processor and hog producer, says that it has already phased out gestation stalls in half of its hog facilities. A raft of high-profile companies that use pork in their products—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway, Oscar Mayer, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Denny's, Jack in the Box, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, Sodexo, Sysco, ARAMARK, and Bon Appétit Management—have promised to stop buying from suppliers who treat pigs in this fashion. And no fewer than nine states have banned the practice, HSUS reports.

The states that have banned gestation crates do not include the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs.

So, gestation crates are on the way out, right? Well, maybe not. Consider that the states that have banned the practice do not include Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, or Illinois—the four that produce 61 percent of US hogs*. The ban on gestation crates in Rhode Island is a nice gesture, but not likely to move the industry. Given the power the meat industry wields in these hog-heavy states, it's hard to imagine such a ban in, say, Iowa.

Now check out this column by Rick Berman, a notorious PR hired gun whose past clients include Big Tobacco, in the industry trade journal Pork Network. If the piece is any indication of the pork industry's commitment to banning sow crates, then the practice seems pretty entrenched for the long haul. Berman is a battle-scarred veteran of pork-industry battles. During its nasty and ultimately failed fight to stave off unionization at its vast Tar Heel pork-processing facility, Smithfield hired Berman to roll out TV commercials trashing union leaders, Bloomberg reported last year. And Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom even runs a website dedicated to "Keeping a watchful eye on the Humane Society of the US."

Will the Old Fulton Fish Market Become the Next Pike Place?

| Fri Mar. 22, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
One of two abandoned buildings that remain from the old Fulton Fish Market.

For nearly 200 years in Lower Manhattan, Fulton Fish Market served as a bustling, aromatic, and, late in its tenure, reportedly Mob-connected wholesaler linking the city's restaurants and food retailers to the eastern seaboard's fisheries. Long before its emergence as a covered market in the early 19th century, the site had been a place where people gathered to trade fish and other foodstuffs. The market's vendors moved to the Bronx in 2005, leaving behind two historic remnants, known as the Tin Building and the New Market Building.  

Now there's a battle afoot over what should become of those two abandoned city-owned edifices, which sit on the East River just south of Brooklyn Bridge at the edge of South Street Seaport, a once-vibrant commercial port that was transformed in the 1980s into a dismal mall. On the one side, there's the folks at New Amsterdam Market, who want to transform the two-building site into a grand food market, in the style of Seattle's Pike Place or Philadelphia's Reading Terminal. (New Amsterdam Market hosts weekly markets outside of the old Fulton buildings, with the hope of one day running a permanent, publicly owned indoor market at the site. ) On the other, there's Howard Hughes Corp. (a real estate holding firm spun off from a company originally started by the famous magnate Howard Hughes), which is in negotiations with the city to redevelop it and is already in the process of redeveloping South Street Seaport. The company's plans for the old fish-market sites remain murky, but aren't likely to include a vast, city-owned food emporium.

Yes, even LA has a proper central market. GoTo10/Flickr

Like all land-use issues in New York City, this one is complicated. But I agree with New Amsterdam: The two historic waterfront market buildings are a glittering municipal asset, and the city should move quickly to re-establish them as a place where people assemble to buy and sell food. Municipal food markets might seem like relics from a lost pre-supermarket past, but they're actually quite durable—and they're surging in popularity as Americans are thinking more critically about how and what they eat. Detroit is a city perennially down on its luck, but its Eastern Market, which dates to 1891, still thrives. Same with Cleveland's 100-year-old West Side Market, Seattle's Pike (1907), and Philly's Reading (1893). Even ultra-modern Los Angeles, land of highways and sprawl, has supported its downtown Grand Central Market since 1917 (and it's now getting a makeover).

Then there's Barcelona's La Boqueria, London's Borough Market, and Mexico City's La Merced, all occupying land on which food has been traded for hundreds of years, all now occupying structures built in the 19th century, and all bustling today, drawing locals and tourists alike. Meanwhile, what Zola called the "belly of Paris," Les Halles Market, lives on only in remnants. The 1970s-era decision to obliterate it, making way for a mall, will haunt the city forever.

London's Borough Market, circa 1860—and still going strong today. Wikimedia Commons

In their odd status as both old-fashioned and anything-but-obsolete, city markets resemble trains and the venerable buildings where people alight to catch them. As the late historian Tony Judt put it in a gorgeous 2011 essay, trains "are perennially modern—even if they slip from sight for a while." They already represented "modern life incarnate by the 1840s — hence their appeal to 'modernist' painters," he writes. And yet, "the Japanese Shinkansen and the French TGV are the very icons of technological wizardry and high comfort at 190 mph today."

Judt also noted the magnificent durability of old train stations—when they haven't been sacrificed to the wrecking ball like Manhattan's original Penn Station. Mentioning Paris' Gare de l'Est (1852), London’s Paddington Station (1854), Bombay's Victoria Station (1887), and Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof (1893), Judt notes that "they work in ways fundamentally identical to the way they worked when they were first built. This is a testament to the quality of their design and construction, of course; but it also speaks to their perennial contemporaneity. They do not become 'out of date.' "

Judt's description captures both the romance and enduring utility of city markets. As the explosive growth of farmers markets—up more than fourfold since 1994—shows, more and more Americans want to eat food that's an expression of their surrounding landscape, processed, prepared, and vended when possible by people around them. The popularity of farmers markets also suggests that consumers want to buy food in interesting spaces that put them face-to-face with independent vendors. A covered, year-round market, teeming with purveyors and producers of  regionally sourced veggies, cheese, meat, and pickled foods, would fill that role even better than Manhattan's uncovered, four-days-per-week Union Square Greenmarket can.

Barcelona's La Boqueria, thronged as usual. Ulf Liljankoski/Flickr

And such a food market would leverage and showcase the city's food-manufacturing revival, which the New York City Economic Development Corp. calls a "key component of the City’s economy and one of the City’s industrial success stories." As of 2011, New York housed 1,000 food manufacturing businesses, employing 14,000 people and generating $2.9 billion in sales, NYCEDC claims. (In a 2010 post, I wrote about the economic possibilities and limits of the city's budding food-artisan movement.)

On Wednesday, a small breakthrough in the fight over Fulton emerged. Under pressure from supporters of the Fulton market idea, who had swarmed a hearing on the South Street Seaport redevelopment a week before, the New York City Council announced it had reached deal with the Howard Hughes Corp. on the redevelopment of one of the old Fulton market's historic buildings, the Tin Building. According to a Council press release, reprinted here, Howard Hughes agreed that "any proposal for a Mixed Use Project at the Tin Building must include a food market occupying at least 10,000 square feet of floor space that includes locally and regionally sourced food items that are sold by multiple vendors and is open to the public seven days a week."

That's a start, but it's not adequate. Robert LaValva, president of New Amsterdam Market, told me that the two remaining market buildings occupy a combined 50,000 square feet—versus 180,000 square feet for London's Borough Market, he added. Cutting down the remaining Fulton footprint to a fifth of its potential total is a cramped vision for what should be a grand market. LaValva vowed to me that the fight to restore the full market will continue. I hope it does.

Flies, Maggots, Rats, and Lots of Poop: What Big Ag Doesn't Want You To See

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Photo from a Mercy For Animals investigation of Quality Egg of New England, 2009.

What's it like inside a factory farm? If the livestock and meat industries have their way, what little view we have inside the walls of these animal-reviewing facilities may soon be obscured. For the second year in a row, the industry is backing bills in various statehouses that would criminalize undercover investigations of livestock farms. The Humane Society of the US, one of the animal-welfare groups most adept at conducting such hidden-camera operations, counts active "ag gag" bills in no fewer than nine states. Many of them are based on a model conjured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),  a corporate-funded group that generates industry-friendly legislation language for state legislatures, Associated Press reports.

To understand the stakes of this battle, consider this 2010 Food and Drug Administration report on conditions in several vast egg-producing facilities in Iowa owned by a man named Jack Decoster. I teased out some highlights at the time of its release; in short, it involves flies, maggots, rats, wild birds, tainted feed, workers ignoring sanitary rules, and lots and lots of chickenshit. The report portrays the facilities as a kind of fecal nightmare, with manure mounding up in eight-foot piles—providing perches for escaped hens to peck feed from teeming cages—overflowing in pits, and seeping through concrete foundations.

It was, in short, a blunt and damning portrayal, an example of a federal watchdog agency training the public gaze on the misdeeds of a powerful industry. The investigation led the FDA to ban the offending operations from selling fresh eggs for several months.

USDA inspectors repeatedly witnessed dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production.

Trouble is, the FDA's exposé came after those factory-like operations had been forced to recall nearly half a billion eggs potentially tainted with salmonella, and an outbreak that sickened nearly 2,000 people. It later turned out that the company's own tests had detected salmonella in the facilities, including egg-carrying conveyor belts, no fewer than 73 times in the two years before the outbreak; and that inspectors from the US Agriculture Department had repeatedly witnessed unsanitary conditions like dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production, because they were only there to "grade" the size of eggs, not monitor the potential for disease outbreaks (which falls to the FDA).

Given that the egg company itself (which turned out to be part of the nation's largest egg empire at the time) and federal watchdogs both failed to prevent the outbreak despite so many troubling signs, you have to wonder what would have happened if an animal-welfare group like Mercy For Animals or the Humane Society of the US had managed to sneak in cameras and record conditions before those half-billion suspect eggs made it onto supermarket shelves.

In fact, months before the outbreak, HSUS did get operatives to pose as a worker at several giant egg factories in Iowa, operated by Decoster rivals Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises. Here's some of what they found:

From the report:

• Trapped birds unable to reach food and water: Battery cages can trap hens by their wings, necks, legs, and feet in the wire, causing other birds to trample the weakened animals, usually resulting in a slow, painful death.
• High mortality in layer and pullet sheds: The HSUS investigator pulled dead young hens, some of them mummified (meaning they'd been rotting in the cages for weeks), from cages every day.
Failure to maintain manure pits: According to one worker, the manure pit under a pullet shed had not been cleaned in two years. Rose Acre workers claimed that some hens are blinded because of excessive ammonia levels.
• Abandoned hens: Some hens manage to escape from their cages and fall into the manure pits below.

The exposure prompted Rose Acre Farms to undergo "third-party audit" of the facilities in question, while Rembrandt publicly declared it would investigate its facilities, adding to a farm trade journal that "it would have been beneficial had the Humane Society come directly to us right after the alleged violations occurred." We'll never know if the HSUS investigation caused changes that saved consumers from exposure to salmonella or other pathogens.

Federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker.

And in 2011, a Mercy For Animals employee got inside yet another Iowa egg company called Sparboe Farms and released a video depicting dead birds being left to rot in tight cages also occupied by live birds and flies, among other sordid scenes. In a web posting after the release, the company's president wrote that the video had documented acts are "totally unacceptable and completely at odds with our values as egg farmers," adding that the employees responsible had been fired. Just before the MFA release, FDA came out with the results of its own investigation of the facility, which found several violations—again potentially saving the public from a pathogen outbreak.

Last year, of course, Iowa and its famously agribiz-aligned governor, Terry Branstad, passed the nation's first ag-gag law—meaning that any undercover investigator who exposes such abuses on one of the state's hundreds of factory-scale hog and egg facilities will now be subject to criminal prosecution. The triumph in Iowa marks a significant victory in Big Ag's push to keep its practices behind closed doors, because Iowa is the nation's number-one state in both hog and egg-laying hen production.

In a time of fiscal austerity, federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker. If the meat industry wins these ag-gag battles playing out in farm states nationwide, who will serve as the public's eyes on the factory farm floor? Answer: essentially, no one.

The USDA's Sustainable Food Champion Steps Down

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 2:45 PM EDT
Kathleen Merrigan, outgoing deputy secretary of agriculture.

Back in 2009, when President Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan as second in command at the US Department of Agriculture, celebration erupted in sustainable-food circles. Last Thursday afternoon, the USDA announced the imminent end of Merrigan's run as deputy secretary of ag with a terse note from USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It gave no reason for her departure, which is effective at the end of April. 

For generations, the message from the US Department of Agriculture to the nation's farmers could be summed up in the famous piece of advice offered by Ezra Taft Benson, President Dwight Eisenhower's USDA chief: "get big or get out." That's why Merrigan's tenure is so significant. Under her influence, the USDA suddenly began to urge consumers to "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," and made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems supplied by farms of varying scales: the opposite of the globalized, monolithic system envisioned by Benson and put into place with the consent of his successors.