Tom Philpott

No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But…

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
An Indian cotton field, ready for the harvest

Since the mid-1990s, around 300,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves—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.

Some anti-GMO activists, including Indian scientist and organic-farming champion Vandana Shiva, have blamed the high suicide rates directly on biotech seeds—specifically, cotton tweaked by Monsanto to contain the Bt pesticide, now used on more than 90 percent of India's cotton acreage. Shiva has gone so far as to declare them "seeds of suicide," because, she claims, "suicides increased after Bt cotton was introduced."

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) argued.

India's shift to industrial farming left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and eventually high-tech seeds.

So which is it? According to a recent peer-reviewed paper 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.

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.

They found that on large farms with access to irrigation water, genetically modified cotton makes economic sense—paying up for the more expensive seeds helps control a voracious pest called the pink bollworm in a cost-effective way.  

But 65 percent of India's cotton crop comes from farmers who rely on rain, not irrigation pumps. For them, the situation is the opposite—reliance on pesticides and the higher cost of the seeds increase 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.)

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.  

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—the pest now targeted by Bt seeds—"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.

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."

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These Two Genius Tricks to Improve School Food Have Nothing to Do With What’s for Lunch

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Let's move it along there, kids. No dawdling—whatever you haven't eaten when the bell rings in 15 minutes is going into the trash.

As the Congressional battle over funding for school lunches lurches on, 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—more money (the federal government pays schools $3.07 for each free meal they serve, the bulk of which goes to overhead expenses)—we might do well to look beyond what's on the trays. A pair of new studies do just that.  

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.

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—as snacks, not during the lunch hour.

In their recent paper, they looked at a federal initiative called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (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.

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.

In a recent blog post, 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 $280 to $339 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.

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 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—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.

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 incredible shrinking school lunch period—how, nationwide, harried public school administrators—under ever-increasing pressure to prep kids for standardized tests—were chopping down the time allotted for eating.

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—here, for example, is a 2012 op-ed by Minnesota sixth graders complaining that "realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes" for the mid-day meal.

Students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat.

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.

In a new study, researchers from the  Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 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.

The results won't shock anyone. From the press release:

The researchers found that students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 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 entrée, milk, or vegetable selections, those with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44 percent versus 57 percent). 

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.  

The takeaway is that the trend of speeding up the lunch line is forcing kids to eat less fruit and vegetables—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 Centers for Disease Control. Extending the lunch period to at least 25 minutes seems a simple and cheap way to fairly dramatically improve school lunches.

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—giving kids a decent amount of time to eat, and enriching their day with a few extra fruits and vegetables—seem well worth making.

A Peek Inside an Industrial Chicken Slaughterhouse

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Most undercover videos shot behind the meat industry's closed doors depict conditions in the enclosed barns where animals are birthed and raised. The latest one, 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.

One worker's protective eyewear "failed to prevent the chicken feces, dirt, and chicken dander from getting into her eyes through the sides," ALDF claims.

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 letter 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." 

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 letter to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees slaughterhouses. "She was given no training, but was instructed to follow fellow live hang employees."

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  "allowed to work at their own pace until they become familiar with the job."

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.

Tyson's reaction: "We're still reviewing the video, but can tell you we’re absolutely committed to proper animal handling and workplace safety." The  spokesman added, "The safety of our Team Members is very important to us. We continuously monitor our facilities to make sure they're safe."

Federal Court to EPA: No, You Can’t Approve This Pesticide That Kills Bees

| Fri Sep. 11, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

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 growing weight of evidence in the global crisis in bee health. In a blunt opinion, 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.

"I am inclined to believe the EPA…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," said a circuit judge.

Before winning approval for sulfoxaflor back in 2013, the company hyped the product to investors, declaring that it "addresses [a] $2 billion market need currently unmet by biotech solutions," particularly for cotton and rice.

US beekeepers were less enthusiastic—a group of national beekeeping organizations, along with the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, 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."

Thursday's ruling, a response to that suit, took their side. It applies only to sulfoxaflor, which Dow markets 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  and imidacloprid, which are widely used as seed treatments on the two most prominent US crops: corn and soybeans.

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.

In its opinion, the court rebuked the EPA for approving sulfoxaflor despite "inconclusive or insufficient data on the effects…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, many independent studies have demonstrated just such effects—that low-level exposure to neonics is "sub-lethal" to individual bees but compromises long-term hive health.

"The EPA doesn't have that [hive-level] information on very many insecticides, if any," Loarie said.

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  registration—even though "the record reveals that Dow never completed the requested additional studies," the court opinion states.

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…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."

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 2010 piece on clothianidin, a widely marketed pesticide marketed by Dow's European rival, Bayer.

In 2013—the same year the EPA approved sulfoxaflor—the European Union placed a two-year moratorium on clothianidin and two other major neonics, citing pollinator health concerns. For a study 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 found.

Niman Ranch Pork: Now Brought to You by Perdue

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 1:29 PM EDT

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 beef, lamb, and egg markets. Eschewing the vast hog factories known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), Niman requires that its hogs "must be raised on pasture or in bedded pens."

The deal stunned the foodie Twittersphere, but it's really not surprising.

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 per capita basis, 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 cannibalizing competitors—combining operations in order to cut costs—and by focusing on exports 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 growing rapidly.

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, cut ties 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 told Business Insider 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 portfolio includes the restaurant chain Au Bon Pain as well as several fitness companies.

Niman isn't Perdue's first lunge into the alt-meat market. Back in 2011, the company bought 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. In 2014, Perdue announced 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 claimed that more than half its birds are raised completely without antibiotics. 

Perdue's Niman buy comes just months after pork giant Hormel, known mostly for down-market Spam, dropped $775 million to gobble up Applegate, Niman's antibiotic-free/organic competitor.

Your Lawn Is Giving Frogs a Sex Change

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

To paraphrase Kermit, it's not easy being a frog. These insect-chomping, sonorous creatures are under severe pressure, their populations plunging both nationally and globally. Evidence has mounted for years that agrichemicals commonly used on big corn and soybean farms are wreaking havoc on frogs, feminizing males and shifting sex ratios.

But what about the lawn, that great symbol of US suburbia? A 2005 NASA study estimated that lawns cover about 128,000 square kilometers, or 31 million acres, of our landmass. That's equal to about a third of the territory we devote to corn, our biggest crop. What's all that turf grass and ornamental shrubbery mean for frog life?

Nothing good, suggests a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, by Yale and US Geological Survey researchers. They compared frog populations in forest and suburban zones in Connecticut—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—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.

So what's the culprit? You might think it's all the chemicals 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—meaning that both of these human-dominated landscape types offer plenty of room for frogs to roam but may be subtly poisoning them.

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Undercover Video Exposes the Dark Side of Chicken McNuggets

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 4:44 PM EDT

Back in 2013, a proposed law that would have criminalized the act of secretly videotaping abuses on livestock farms—known by critics as an "ag gag" bill—failed in Tennessee. A least one of the state's chicken operations has reason to lament that defeat. An undercover investigator with the animal-welfare group Mercy For Animals managed to record the above footage at T&S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, which supplies chickens for slaughter to poultry-processing giant Tyson—which in turn supplies chicken meat for McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.

For those too squeamish to watch, the video opens with a worker saying, "You don't work for PETA, do you?," before proceeding to pummel a sickly bird to death with a long stick—which, for good measure, is outfitted with a nasty-looking spike attached to its business end. More beatings of sickly birds proceed from there. 

Both the poultry giant and the fast-food giant quickly cut ties with the exposed Tennessee poultry farm, The Wall Street Journal reports

Monsanto Halts Its Bid to Buy Rival Syngenta—For Now

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

After four months of hot pursuit, genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto formally ended its bid to buy rival Syngenta Wednesday—at least for now. Earlier in the week, Monsanto had sweetened its offer for the Swiss agrochemical behemoth—most famous for its controversial atrazine herbicide and neonicotinoid pesticides—to $47 billion, in an effort to convince Syngenta's management and shareholders to accept the merger. They balked, and Monsanto management opted to halt the effort, declaring in a press release that it would instead "focus on its growth opportunities built on its existing core business to deliver the next wave of transformational solutions for agriculture." 

However, Monsanto may just be pausing, not fully halting, its buyout push. The company's press release states that it's "no longer pursuing [the] current proposal" (emphasis added) to buy its rival, and quickly added that the combination "would have created tremendous value for shareowners of both companies and farmers." And as Dow Jones' Jacob Bunge notes, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant "has coveted Syngenta since at least 2011, and said in a June interview that he viewed the effort as 'a long game.'" 

The logic that has driven Monsanto's zeal for a deal remains in place: It wants to diversify away from its reliance on seeds by buying Syngenta, the world's biggest purveyor of pesticides (more on that here). 

Meanwhile, Monsanto has been actively hyping up a new generation of pesticides, still in the development stage, which work by killing crop-chomping pests by silencing certain genes. But the company doesn't expect the novel sprays to hit the market until 2020—a timeline that may be overly optimistic, as I show here

Salad Seems Really Virtuous, Right? It's Not.

| Tue Aug. 25, 2015 1:10 PM EDT
Dietary virtue in a clamshell—or just a bunch of expensive water?

Nothing quite promises dietary virtue like the wall of boxed salad greens you'll find in a typical supermarket produce section: plump, little plastic clamshells, often adorned with words like "superfood," or "antioxidants," stuffed with precut, chlorophyll-tinted leaves, and penance for that bag of chips or tub of ice cream lurking in the shopping cart.

By the time they're cut, washed, packaged, trucked, and stacked on the shelf, salad greens have likely surrendered the great bulk of their nutritional content.

Is it all just a mirage—is our devotion to salad really a vice?

In her latest Washington Post column, Tamar Haspel makes a provocative point: "Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table." Iceberg lettuce, she reports, is 96 percent water by weight. And the other 4 percent doesn't offer much in the way of nutrition—a whole salad's worth has just a gram of fiber (a fourth of what you'd get from a medium apple) and barely a tenth of a day's requirement of vitamin A and C.

Similar-sized servings of other salad greens, including red leaf lettuce, romaine, arugula, and spinach, deliver a much bigger nutritional punch. But the great bulk of these popular salad greens are grown in California and shipped across the country. By the time they're cut, washed, packaged, trucked, and stacked on that pious supermarket shelf in your hometown, they have surrendered the bulk of their nutritional content, strong evidence suggests.

And let's face it: Fancy marketing prose aside, what those bags too often offer is wan and bland, not the peppery jolt of, say, fresh-picked arugula. So what you're mainly buying are limp tissues of water, most likely shipped from one of two California growing regions (the Imperial or the Salinas valley) with severe long-term water issues.

Haspel adds that in addition to their dubious nutrient density and water economics, salad greens rank as our "top source of food waste" (she reports that 1 billion pounds of salad greens spoil before they're consumed each year) and also the "chief culprit for foodborne illnesses" (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says leafy greens are "responsible for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses from 1998-2008").

Parsley has nearly four times the vitamin A and eight times the vitamin C of arugula, which itself is no slouch compared with iceberg lettuce.

What, then, to make of the social expectation that no healthy meal is complete without a salad? Haspel suggests pulling back from it: "Maybe we should stop thinking about salad as a wholesome staple, and start thinking about it as a resource-hungry luxury."

I try to confine my fresh leafy-green consumption to those times of year when my own garden or farmers around me can readily churn out arugula, spinach, and other nutrient-dense greens. When good salad greens are scarce—as they are now in the infernal Texas summer—I often make a straight parsley salad; parsley has nearly four times the vitamin A and eight times the vitamin C of arugula, which itself is no slouch compared with iceberg lettuce. Or I mash up this bright-tasting herb with a raw seasonal vegetable, like cucumbers, along with heat-hardy basil and garlic chives. I've got my eye on this Bon Appetit recipe for a salad built entirely on scallions and cilantro. 

Way back in 1988, the restaurant critic Jeffrey Steingarten penned a marvelous essay called "Salad: The Silent Killer" (you can read it here). In it, he deplored the habit of "tuck[ing] into the dreariest salad simply because it is raw and green. No matter that the arugula is edged with brown…[or] that it is the dead of winter and the salad chills us to the marrow." His real target was out-of-season, cross country-trucked, flavorless greens. The convention that no healthy dinner is complete without them has persisted, and it remains absurd. Like the little girl in the old New Yorker cartoon, "I say it's [limp] spinach, and I say, to hell with it."

There Is Poop in Basically All Hamburger Meat

| Mon Aug. 24, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

There's a "simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill," wrote Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. "There is shit in the meat.” 

A new Consumer Reports investigation suggests things haven't changed much since the publication of Schlosser's 2001 blockbuster. The team tested 300 packages of ground beef, bought from more than 100 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores in 26 cities nationwide. The result:

All 458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or non-toxin-producing E. coli), which can cause blood or urinary tract infections.

But not all burger meat is created equal. The researchers also compared the bacterial load of beef from conventionally raised cows (181 samples) to that of their no-antibiotic, grass fed, and organic peers (116 samples total), grouped under the heading "more sustainably produced." Here's what they found:

From "How Safe is Your Beef?," Consumer Reports

The bacterial implications of beef production practices really emerged when the researchers tested the bacterial strains for resistance to antibiotics. Nearly a fifth of conventional ground beef carried bacteria resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—more than double the number found in the "more sustainably produced" samples, and triple that found in samples from cows raised outdoors on grass.

From "How Safe is Your Beef?," Consumer Reports

The article offers plenty of information that could explain these differences. As for why essentially all ground beef carries fecal bacteria, the slaughter and processing of huge animals is messy—feces caked on the hide or trapped in intestines can easily move onto the carcass. That's not such a big deal in steaks and roasts, because the bacteria tend to stay on the surface, so "when you cook them, the outside is likely to get hot enough to kill any bugs." But with ground beef, "the bacteria get mixed throughout, contaminating all of the meat—including what’s in the middle of your hamburger."

"The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef."

Then there's this problem: "The meat and fat trimmings often come from multiple animals, so meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef."

As for why conventional production—the source of 97 percent of US burger meat, according to CR—is moderately more likely to contain certain bacteria like E. coli, and much more likely to contain multidrug-resistant strains, the report delivers a detailed look at the different production systems.

Conventionally raised cows start out on grass but spend the final months of their lives on feedlots, where they fatten on diets of corn and soybeans, even though "cows' digestive systems aren't designed to easily process high-starch foods such as corn and soy," creating an acidic environment in the cows' digestive tract that can "lead to ulcers and infections" and "shed more E. coli in their manure.

And corn and soy aren't the only delicacies feedlot cows feast on.

[Their feed can also include] include candy (such as gummy bears, lemon drops, and chocolate) to boost their sugar intake and plastic pellets to substitute for the fiber they would otherwise get from grass. Cattle feed can also contain parts of slaughtered hogs and chickens that are not used in food production, and dried manure and litter from chicken barns.

In addition, they can also receive regular low doses of antibiotics, both to prevent infections and promote faster growth, although the Food and Drug Administration has launched a voluntary program to limit the latter use. One common feedlot antibiotic, tylosin—used to ward off liver abscesses—is in "a class of antibiotics that the World Health Organization categorizes as 'critically important' for human medicine," CR reports.

The magazine recommends that consumers buy from the alternative supply chains "whenever possible," adding that "sustainable methods run the gamut from the very basic 'raised without antibiotics' to the most sustainable, which is grass-fed organic." (The article contains ample detail on each.) And when you get it home, handle it carefully and cook it to 160 degrees. After all, there's shit in pretty much all the ground beef.