Caution: hazardous material

Correction: In the original version of this post, I reported that a Consumer Reports' study found that chicken labeled organic and no-antibiotic had just as much antibiotic-resistant bacteria as conventional chicken. In fact, Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, has informed me, "We found slightly fewer multidrug-resistant bacteria in the no antibiotics/organic pool compared to conventional. That difference was even greater when we pulled Purdue out of the conventional pool. The issue was really that we didn't see the bigger difference we expected, not that it was exactly the same." I've corrected the text below.

As a student of the meat industry and its practices, I wasn't surprised by the recent Consumer Reports finding that nearly half of all the chicken samples it plucked from supermarket shelves nationwide carried "at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics." Factory-scale poultry facilities have relied on daily antibiotic doses for decades, contributing to a surge of life-threatening pathogens, and the Food and Drug Administration has only recently taken tentative steps to rein in the practice.

What got me was that chicken samples labeled "organic" or "no antibiotics" (list of all brands tested here) were almost as likely to contain these potentially deadly, drug-defying pathogens.* Notably, organic and antibiotic-free chicken both carry substantial premiums over conventional—at my local H-E-B supermarket in Austin, organic boneless chicken breast is fetching $7.97 per pound—vs. $4.99 for no-antibiotic and $1.97 for regular.

Over the weekend, listservs, blogs, and Twitter feeds lit up with reactions to Amy Harmon's New York Times deep dive into the politics behind a partial ban on growing genetically modified crops on Hawaii's main island. The fuss obscured a much more significant development that occurred with little fanfare (and no Times attention) on Friday, when the US Department of Agriculture took a giant step toward approving a controversial new crop promoted by Dow Agrosciences that could significantly ramp up the chemical war on weeds being waged in the Midwest's corn and soybean fields. Since the '90s, the widespread use of corn and soy crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup has led more weeds to resist that chemical. Farmers have responded by using even more chemicals, as this Food and Water Watch chart shows.

Food and Water Watch

Dow's new product promises to fix that problem. The company is peddling corn and soy seeds engineered to withstand not just Roundup, but also an older and much more toxic herbicide called 2,4-D. In a January 3 press release, the company noted that "an astonishing 86 percent of corn, soybean and cotton growers in the South have herbicide-resistant or hard-to-control weeds on their farms," as do more than 61 percent of farms in the Midwest. "Growers need new tools now to address this challenge," Dow insisted.

Use of 2,4-D—the less toxic half of the infamous Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange—had been dwindling for years, but the rise of Roundup-resistant superweeds has revived it.


Food and Water Watch

Farmers have been using it to "burn down" superweed-ridden fields before the spring planting of corn and soybeans. But if Dow gets its way, they'll be able to resort to it even after the crops emerge. Dow has downplayed the concern that the new products will lead weeds to develop resistance to 2,4-D. But in a 2011 paper (abstract here), weed experts from Penn State University—hardly a hotbed of anti-GMO activism—concluded that chances are "actually quite high" that Dow's new product will unleash a new plague of super-duper-weeds that resist both Roundup and 2,4-D. (I laid out the details of their argument in this post.) Here's their model for how the new product would affect herbicide application rates on soybeans. Note how they project that glyphosate (Roundup) use will hold steady, but that "other herbicides," mostly 2,4-D, will spike—meaning a windfall for Dow but nothing good for the environment.

From "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," by David A. Mortensen, et all, in Bioscience, January 2012.

The USDA, which oversees the introduction of new GMO crops, appeared set to green-light Dow's new wonderseeds at the end of 2012. But in May of last year, after a firestorm of criticism from environmental groups, the department slowed down the process, announcing in a press release it had decided that release of the novel products "may significantly affect the quality of the human environment," and that a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) was necessary before such a decision could be made.

Then on Friday, the USDA reversed itself—it released the draft of the promised EIS, and in it, the department recommended that Dow's 2,4-D-ready crops be unleashed upon the land. Once the draft is published in the Federal Register on January 10, there will be a 45-day public comment period, after which the USDA will make its final decision. At this point, approval seems imminent—probably in time for the 2015 growing season, as Dow suggested in its press release reacting to the news.

Why did the USDA switch from "may significantly affect the quality of the human environment" to a meek call for deregulation? As the USDA itself admits in its Friday press release, the department ultimately assesses new GMO crops through an extremely narrow lens: whether or not they act as a "pest" to other plants—that is, they'll withhold approval only if the crops themselves, and not the herbicide tsunami and upsurge in resistant weeds they seem set to bring forth, pose a threat to other plants. And Dow's new corn and soy crops don't cross that line, the USDA claims. I explained the tortured history and logic behind the USDA's "plant pest" test in this 2011 post. Long story short: It's an antiquated, fictional standard that doesn't allow for much actual regulation.

US farmers planted about 170 million acres of corn and soy in 2013—a combined land mass roughly equal to the footprint of Texas. Every year, upwards of 80 percent of it is now engineered to resist Monsanto's Roundup. It's chilling to imagine that Dow's 2,4-D-ready products might soon enjoy a similar range.

Given the USDA's regulatory impotence in the face of such a specter, perhaps the Hawaiian activists who pushed for that ban aren't quite as daft as the New York Times portrayed them in its recent piece. The big biotech companies don't operate on the island that imposed the partial ban on GMOs. But as another New York Times piece, this one from 2011, shows, they do operate on other islands within the state—using them as a testing ground for novel crops and a place to grow out GMO seeds, taking advantage of the warm climate that allows several crops per year. According to the Times, GMO seeds are now bigger business in Hawaii than tropical staples like coffee, sugarcane, and pineapples—and the GMO/agrichemical giants have "have stepped into the leading, and sometimes domineering role, once played by the islands' sugar barons." As for Dow, it cops to having field-tested its 2,4-D-ready corn there.

Eugene Sergeev/Shutterstock

The food-politics beat took a carnivorous turn in 2013. It's not that all the year's biggest stories involved the meat industry, but most seemed to. Here they are, in no particular order.

We're emerging as the globe's factory farm.
First, Virginia-headquartered pork giant Smithfield Foods announced it was phasing out ractopamine, a growth-enhancing, stress-inducing drug banned in China, the European Union, and Russia. Then it shocked the world by announcing it had been bought out by Shuanghui International, a Chinese conglomerate. And then several huge beef processors announced they were dropping Zilmax, a ractopamine-like growth enhancer for cows, also banned in big foreign markets. Meanwhile, China's expanding industrial footprint is rapidly degrading its farmland even as its appetite for meat continues to grow. What do all these data points have in common? They signal a US meat industry increasingly looking to foreign markets for growth as America's meat appetite wanes. And that means that even as we eat less meat, American communities will have to deal with the consequences of ever-intensifying meat production: water pollution, hollowed-out local economies, "egregious" food safety violations, deplorable working conditions, and an ongoing explosive manure foam problem.

The USDA really, really wants to speed up poultry slaughterhouse kill lines while reducing its inspection responsibilities.
Shaking off fierce opposition from food safety and worker advocates and a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office, the Obama administration tenaciously clung to long-brewing plans to cut inspectors on poultry kill lines while simultaneously allowing those lines to speed up, a move that would save the poultry industry a cool quarter billion dollars per year. The gory details are here and here. Meanwhile, the Obama administration isn't alone in its eagerness for the change—this week, a bipartisan group of 13 US senators, mostly from chicken-heavy states like Arkansas, Missouri, and North Carolina, signed a letter to the USDA urging finalization of the speedup.

The FDA took tentative but important steps to curtail antibiotic abuse on meat farms. Finally. Sort of.
Way back in 1977, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the obvious: When you stuff animals together by the thousands and give them low daily doses of antibiotics, their bacteria will evolve to resist those drugs. Thirty-six years later—just this month—the administration finally did something about it. Kind of. True, most of the new rules curtailing antibiotics are voluntary. But as I noted, it rolled out a new proposal that would force meat producers to get a veterinarian's approval before treating animals with antibiotics that are commonly used to treat human infections—a potentially (depending on how it's enforced) significant reform.

Fast-food workers push back against low wages.
One major way Americans access the meat industry's product is through fast-food chains, those $200 billion a year emporia of burgers, chicken nuggets, and the like. The industry profit model hinges on selling high volumes of cheap food while clamping down on costs, including labor. The nation's 2.9 million fast-food workers make a median wage of $8.69 an hour, a level that has risen by (literally) just a dime in real terms since 1999. Contrary to the industry's reputation as a benign source of mad money for moonlighting high schoolers, 70 percent of fast-food workers are 20 and older, and more than a third are 25 and older. Adults can't support themselves, much less their families, on such stingy wages, so taxpayer-funded safety nets pick up the industry's slack—to the tune of $7 billion per year, according to a 2013 University of California-Berkeley study. And 2013 marked year two of a high profile pushback, coordinated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and punctuated by a series of one-day walkouts. Maybe slaughterhouse workers—who make a median hourly wage of $12.03 in one of the nation's most hazardous jobs—will be next?

Europe says "no" to bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides.
What do pesticides have to do with meat? Well, US livestock farms rely heavily on abundant corn and soy crops for feed, and those crops in turn are largely grown from seeds treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. A growing weight of science links widespread neonicotinoid use with the declining health of honeybees and other pollinators—and birds, too. In response, the European Union issued a two-year moratorium on the use of the chemicals, enraging their makers, European agrichemical giants Bayer and Syngenta. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for its part, has no plans of changing its laissez-faire position on neonics.

It's an udder triumph.

The long-simmering debate over whether organically grown food packs more nutritional punch than conventional has a new data point. In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed PLOS-One, a research team led by Washington State University's Charles Benbrook found that organic milk delivers significantly healthier fats than its non-organic counterpart.

The team took samples of organic and non-organic whole milk taken from 14 commercial milk processors across the United States over the course of 18 months and analyzed their fat content. They found that organic milk delivered on average 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, and 25 percent fewer omega-6 fatty acids.

Almost 80 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go to livestock farms; antibiotic-resistant pathogens affecting people are on the rise; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made the connection between those two developments. So what's the Food and Drug Administration doing to curb overuse of these key drugs on animal farms?

On Wednesday, the FDA spelled it out by releasing recommendations (text [PDF]; press release) on how drugmakers should "voluntarily" modify the way they administer antibiotics to the meat industry. It also released a proposal that would require a veterinarian's signoff for antibiotics that are commonly used in human medicine—which would represent a major departure from the antibiotics free-for-all that holds sway today.

Some of these "medically important" antibiotics are widely used on livestock farms. Take tetracycline, a drug used in human medicine to treat urinary-tract infections, acne, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and other maladies. In 2009, for example, an analysis of FDA data by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that US livestock farms burned through more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline—compared to total human consumption of all antibiotics of just 7.3 million pounds. 

In 2009, US livestock farms burned through more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline—compared to total human consumption of all antibiotics of just 7.3 million pounds. 

The FDA will be taking comments on this proposal, known as the Veterinarian Feed Directive, for the next 90 days. 

Meanwhile, the new recommendations—also released Wednesday—narrows the "prevention" loophole, which I pointed out when the FDA first floated the new system in April 2012. Currently, factory livestock farms use antibiotics in three ways. The first is what the FDA calls "production": the livestock industry discovered in the 1950s that when animals get small daily antibiotic doses, they put on weight faster, and the practice has been embraced ever since. No. 2 is disease "prevention": when you concentrate animals together, they're prone to illness and pass diseases among themselves quickly. Daily antibiotic doses can boost their immune systems and keep them from coming down with bugs. The third use is disease treatment, the one we humans are familiar with: you come down with a bacterial bug and and treat it with antibiotics.

Of course, there's little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics "preventively," continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That's the loophole.

But the document released Wednesday delivers five pretty specific guidelines on how "prevention" should be defined, including that antibiotics prescribed preventively should be "targeted to animals at risk of developing a specific disease," i.e., not given willy-nilly to "prevent" the theoretical possibility of some hypothetical disease. It adds: "FDA would not consider the administration of a drug to apparently healthy animals in the absence of any information that such animals were at risk of a specific disease to be judicious." That's the strongest statement I've seen from the FDA on the prevention loophole.

Laura Rogers, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts' human health and industrial-farming campaign, calls that language "promising." She adds: "This is the first official FDA policy on disease prevention, acknowledging that it is a problem."

There does, of course, remain the whole "voluntary" problem, as Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, stressed. "We have urged that these changes be mandatory, given how urgent the problem of antibiotic resistance is," Halloran said in a statement.

And US Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who since 2007 has been heroically pushing legislation that would definitively crack down on antibiotic use on farms, issued the following lament:

The FDA's voluntary guidance is an inadequate response to the overuse of antibiotics on the farm with no mechanism for enforcement and no metric for success. Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the FDA has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.

The fate of Slaughter's antibiotic crackdown proposal, called the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act," illustrates the industry's power in shaping policy. Check out the roster of groups that lined up to lobby on the 2011 version of Slaughter's bill, courtesy of OpenSecrets—it reads like a meat/pharma industry trade convention floor show. The groups have lavished millions on the effort to defeat Slaughter's bill, which has thus far never come close to passing.

With congressional action looking impossible, the FDA's weak tea is all we have. But it could be weaker—at least the FDA gummed up that loophole with a few potentially substantial obstacles to agribusiness as usual.

Like a marvelous baguette half eaten and left out, the golden age of American cookbooks opened with a flourish—the 1962 publication of Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking—and then went stale over time. The impulse to create "authentic" versions of dishes from faraway lands turned into a mania. Then, celebrity chefs got into the act, churning out high-minded tomes that seemed to presume one had a brigade of prep cooks on hand. For me, the turning point came in 2004, when I left New York City and moved to a farm in rural North Carolina. I brought along my  copy of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's exacting and brilliant Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia, but my will—and ability—to chase down South Asian ingredients eventually waned (coriander root in Boone, N.C.?). Something similar happened with Daniel Boulud's Cooking With Daniel Boulud and its fussy techniques. Moreover, in the scrum of farm work, the patience to attack a tower of dirty pots for a single meal also dwindled. Simplicity and seasonality came to the fore. I grew tired of cookbooks, even though I had largely learned to cook from them.

Then, two years ago, I identified a new wave of the genre, one driven by writers who are tied to their surrounding foodsheds and dedicated to simple technique without sacrificing flavor. These writers have reenchanted the form for me, and 2013 was another banner year. Here are my favorites.


Vegetable Literacy

By Deborah Madison

Any chef will tell you that meat is easy: You sear the tender cuts and slow-cook the tough ones. Vegetables are where cooking gets tricky—and interesting. Deborah Madison, founding chef of the pioneering San Francisco vegetarian temple Greens (launched 1979), is our foremost authority on the topic. She has come out with a masterpiece, a gorgeously illustrated, recipe-laden cook's almanac of the vegetable kingdom. The book is structured like an encyclopedia—the 12 chapters span the entire vegetable kingdom, from the carrot family (which includes celery, parsnips, and parsley) to brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.) to grasses (grains) and legumes (peas and beans). Each opens with a brief, information-packed essay, including anecdotes from a life spent in the kitchen as well as gardening and cooking tips. And then it's recipes, the great majority of them dead-simple and illustrated with photos  that will send you clamoring out to the garden or the farmers market and back to the kitchen. This is the book I'll be reaching for when I've gone crazy at the market and wonder, what am I going to do with all these turnips?

Great gift for: Anyone who loves cooking, vegetarian or omnivore

Killer dish: Kale and potato mash with Romesco sauce

Dish I'm dying to try: A new-millennium carrot cake—one that's single-layered, bolstered with ground almonds, and adorned with ricotta cream instead of the "obligatory pavement of cream-cheese frosting."

River Cottage Veg

By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

UK chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has emerged as a classic-cookbook-generating machine—2013 marks the third straight year that his latest model has made my best-of-year list (see 2011 and 2012). He established his bona-fides with the magisterial River Cottage Meat Book, tattered copies of which have found a place in many an omnivore's kitchen since its 2007 US debut. But alongside his devotion to sustainably produced meat, Fearnley-Whittingstall has always insisted that the vegetable kingdom, not the animal one, should take precedence on the plate. And as he showed in the quirky, irresistible River Cottage Every Day (2011), he has a gift for coming up with practical recipes for harried home cooks. His new book delivers more of the same, this time strictly for vegetable-based dishes. It's set up for someone looking to plan a week's family meals—chapter headings include "Bready things" (pizzas, sandwiches, and wraps), "Hefty soups," and "Pantry suppers." Yet it has things to teach even a veteran cook like me—for example, to get a flavorful vegetable stock in just 10 minutes of simmering, grate the carrots, onion, and celery first.

Great gift for: A family of tentative cooks looking to eat healthier

Killer dish: Salad of red cabbage, parsnip, orange, and dates

Dish I'm dying to try: Pea and parsley soup

Notes From the Larder

By Nigel Slater

Masterful gardeners can come off as boastful and off-putting when they write about their home-grown kitchen exploits, flaunting their perfection and hinting that anything less just won't do. In his 2011 book Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch (which made my list in '11), UK food writer Nigel Slater avoids that trap—even though his London flat's backyard has one of the most gorgeous and charming culinary gardens I've ever seen (to judge from the photos of it included in the book). It's through his gentle, encouraging prose that Slater manages to make you want to get your hands dirty in garden and kitchen alike—that, and his simple, ingenious seasonal dinner ideas. His latest, a yearlong "kitchen diary with recipes," has won me over as well. I love it because it gives you a view into a master home cook's thinking process—how he goes from "what's on hand" to "what's for dinner," over the course of four seasons. Sometimes it's bluntly simple, like the November evening after Slater spent hours putting his garden to bed for winter: He describes whipping up a plain miso soup, and adds, "And then I attacked the cheese and wine." Most entries are more elaborate, but never too elaborate—like the late-summer night when he salvages what's left of his tomato crop, which is beginning to wither in the rain, in an easy baked dish with chicken thighs, olives, and garlic. Altogether, the entries sum up to a kind of meandering portrait of a well-lived London life—and a useful cookbook to boot.

Great gift for: That friend of yours who loves to cook and to read about it, too

Killer dish: Lentil and spinach pie with potato crust

Dish I'm dying to try: Beet fritters with gravlax

Manresa: An Edible Reflection

By David Kinch

I don't have much appetite for the classic chef's opus—a gaudily illustrated, absurdly oversized document of some wizard's culinary Xanadu. What's in it for me, when I'll never have the ambition to either attempt to cook the high-wire dishes at home, or the coin to experience them in person? David Kinch's tribute to his farm-to-table temple Manresa in Northern California's Santa Cruz Mountains bears all the hallmarks of the genre, but it won me over all the same. It did so after I had been idly leafing through the sumptuous photographs and marveling at the complexity of the recipes: the rhubarb foam that gilded a dish of rhubarb jam and mint granita, the black truffle (retail price: about $150) deemed necessary for an "old-fashioned omelet" for four. "Yum," I sighed, preparing to close the book and forget it.

Then I happened upon the preamble to a dish called "Into the vegetable garden…" Kinch introduces it as an homage to the celebrated French country chef Michel Bras, who, back in the 1970s, on his daily run through the countryside on a day when the hills were "in full bloom," decided to "try to translate the fields." And thus, Kinch reports, a "local dish of ham and potatoes" turned into "a garden's worth of herbs and vegetables—raw and cooked, cultivated and foraged—at all stages of growth, from stem to flower." Anyone, I think, who cooks passionately and has fallen in love with a piece of farmland has felt that stir, that ambition to "translate" the beauty of a field at the height of its fecundity onto the plate. I have. And so I read, rapt, Kinch's Bras-inspired recipe in tribute to the small farm that he collaborates with in California. The dish combines multiple elements: "dirt" of dehydrated, ground root vegetables; root-vegatable purees; gently cooked vegetables; shaved raw ones; a riot of edible flowers; and, as a final flourish, a "dew" of champagne vinegar emulsified with an elaborate vegetable broth. The preparation is utterly absurd and I doubt I'll ever try it, but  loved imagining it, and it drew me into Kinch's quirky project and made the rest of the book an irresistible read.

Great gift for: An aspiring young chef or a farm-loving aesthete of any age

Killer dish: I didn't have the guts to try a single one.

Dish I'm dying to try: "Into the vegetable garden…" (maybe someday).

Honorable mentions:

Roberta's Cookbook, by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Katherine Wheelock

An idiosyncratic, not-too-chefy guide to pizza, pasta, and vegetables from the creators of the instant-classic hipster canteen in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Spain, by Jeff Koehler

A brisk survey of the Iberian culinary landscape, with fresh takes on classic preparations.

The Art of Simple Food II: Recipes, Flavor, and Inspiration from the New Kitchen Garden, by Alice Waters

In a follow-up to her 2007 compendium of home cooking (which I reviewed here), the Berkeley legend and doyenne of sustainable cooking delivers her wisdom on transforming the bounty of a well-tended garden into unfussy, delicious meals.

Deloitte Touche is one of the globe's "big four" auditing and consulting firms. It's a player in the Big Food/Ag space—Deloitte's clients include "75% of the Fortune 500 food production companies." The firm's US subsidiary, Deloitte & Touche LLP, has a shiny new asset to dangle before its agribusiness clients: It has hired the US Department of Agriculture's Undersecretary for Food Safety, Elisabeth Hagen. She will "join Deloitte's consumer products practice as a food safety senior advisor," the firm stated in a press release. The firm also trumpeted her USDA affiliation:

"Elisabeth will bring to Deloitte an impressive blend of regulatory level oversight and hands-on experience, stemming from her role as the highest ranking food safety official in the U.S.," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and Deloitte's U.S. consumer products practice leader.

Last month, Hagen announced her imminent resignation from her USDA post, declaring she would be "embarking in mid-December on a new challenge in the private sector." Now we know what that "challenge" is. It's impressive that Deloitte managed to bag a sitting USDA undersecretary—especially the one holding the food safety portfolio, charged with overseeing the nation's slaughterhouses. Awkwardly, Hagen is still "currently serving" her USDA role, the Deloitte press release states. I'm sure the challenge of watchdogging the meat industry while preparing to offer it consulting services won't last long. The USDA has not announced a time frame for replacing Hagen.

Hagen won't be the only member of Deloitte's US food-safety team with ties to the federal agencies charged with overseeing the food industry. You know those new poultry-slaughter rules that Hagen's erstwhile fiefdom, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, keeps touting, the ones that would save Big Poultry a quarter-billion dollars a year but likely endanger consumers and workers alike, as I laid out most recently here? Craig Henry, a director within Deloitte's food & product safety practice, served on the USDA-appointed National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection, which advised the FSIS on precisely those rules, as this 2012 Federal Register notice shows. 

Then there's Faye Feldstein, who serves Deloitte as a senior adviser for food safety issues, the latest post in what her Deloitte bio calls a "33-year career in senior positions in the food industry and in federal and state regulatory agencies." Before setting up shop as a consultant, Feldstein served a ten-year stint at the Food and Drug Administration in various food-safety roles. Before that, she worked for 12 years at W.R. Grace, a chemical conglomerate with interests in food additives and packaging.

Apart from Hagen's new career direction, some food-safety advocates have offered praise for her tenure at USDA. They point out that, under her leadership, the FSIS cracked down on certain strains of E. coli in ground beef, an important and long-overdue move explained in this post by the veteran journalist Maryn McKenna. On his blog, Bill Marler, a prominent litigator of food-borne illness cases on behalf of consumers, called Hagen "one of the very best who has ever held that position," adding that she'll be "sorely missed."

But if the USDA does make good on its oft-stated intention to finalize those awful new poultry rules, I think Hagen will be remembered most for pushing them ahead, to the delight of the poultry industry and the despair of worker and consumer-safety advocates.



Remember the proposal that Obama's US Department of Agriculture has been pushing since spring 2012, the one that would speed up kill lines in poultry slaughterhouses while simultaneously slashing the number of federal inspectors who oversee them? As I've reported before, the plan involves a unleashing a barrage of anti-microbial sprays onto chicken carcasses as they zip down the line.

The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy has shown that these sprays, whose use is already on the upswing, harm workers and may even mask, not decrease, salmonella contamination. As for the traces of them that remain on supermarket chicken, "government agencies have not conducted independent research into the possible side effects on consumers of using the chemicals," Kindy reported.

Back in April, as I reported at the time, USDA chief Tom Vilsack declared that the department would roll out the plan "very soon." The USDA claims that it would save taxpayers $30 million per year by laying off inspectors, and save the poultry industry "at least" $256 million annually. The chicken industry—dominated by Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Perdue, and Sanderson—strongly supports the proposal.

But it caused an uproar among food safety and labor advocates—who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and line workers, sparking hopes the USDA might back away from it. A scathing Government Accountability Office assessment (my analysis here) bolstered those hopes.

The new plan involves a unleashing a barrage of anti-microbial sprays onto chicken carcasses as they zip down the line.

But over the past week, the administration has sent two signals indicating that it plans to move ahead with the rules. Just before Thanksgiving, the administration released its Fall 2013 Regulatory Agenda, including for the USDA, which states that in 2014, the department's meat inspection service "plans to finalize regulations to establish new systems for poultry slaughter inspection, which would improve food safety and save money for establishments and taxpayers."

And then, on Wednesday, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service released its action plan to reduce salmonella contamination of the meat supply. What's No. 1 on its 10-point list? "[M]odernization of poultry slaughter inspection," the USDA's preferred phrase for its speedup plan. What does firing inspectors and jacking up line speeds have to do with fighting salmonella?

The timeline on exactly when the administration plans to move on the plan remains cloudy—but its determination to do so seems as strong as ever.

Yes, you can make lots of money selling BPA.

Bisphenol A, a chemical used in can linings and plastic bottles, is pretty nasty stuff. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration banished it from baby bottles (at the behest of the chemical industry itself, after baby bottle producers had already phased it out under consumer pressure). BPA, as it's known, is an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it likely causes hormonal damage at extremely low levels. The packaging industry uses it to make plastics more flexible and to delay spoilage in canned foods.

You might think that such a substance would lose popularity as evidence of its likely harms piles up and up. Instead, however, the global market for it will boom over the next six years, according to a proprietary, paywall-protected report from the consultancy Transparency Market Research. The group expects global BPA sales to reach $18.8 billion by 2019, from $13.1 billion in 2012—about a 44 percent jump.

TMR researchers declined to be interviewed by me and wouldn't give me access to a full copy of their report. But they did send me a heavily redacted sample. One of the few trends I could glean from it is that the "steady growth" in global BPA consumption is driven by "increasing demand in the Asia-Pacific region." (According to this 2012 paper by Hong Kong researchers, Chinese BPA production and consumption have both "grown rapidly" in recent years, meaning "much more BPA contamination" for the nation's environment and citizens.) As for the United States, the report says that North America is the globe's "third largest regional market for BPA," behind Asia and Europe. North American BPA consumption is growing, but a "at a very slow rate," the report states. As a result, our share of the global BPA is expected to experience a "slight decline" by 2019. Not exactly comforting.

The sample that Transparency Market Research sent me blacked out its analysis of which companies have what share of the global BPA market. This 2012 US Department of Agriculture report claims that just two companies, German chemical giant Bayer and its US rival Dow, "produce the bulk of BPA in the world." Another major producer is Saudi Basic Industries Corp., or SABIC, a company 70 percent owned by the Saudi government. This charming corporate crew looks set to cash in on handsomely on the ongoing BPA boom.

I have a friend who claims to have stopped reading me because I ruin all of her favorite foods for her: rice, quinoa, chicken… After writing this post, I may boycott me as well. In a study (hat tip: LiveScience) apparently designed by my friend for revenge on me, Dartmouth researchers found an association between bodily arsenic loads and consumption of the following substances I have swooned over in print (and enjoy in really life pretty much every chance I get): white wine, beer, Brussels sprouts, and "dark meat fish," a category that includes my beloved sardines.

For people who drink 2.5 beers or glasses of white wine per day, they found, arsenic levels were 20 percent to 30 percent higher than for nondrinkers. Gulp. Or, perhaps better: Stop gulping.

LiveScience's Bahar Gholipour raises an important caveat: The researchers acknowledge that it's unclear whether the arsenic levels the researchers found in their subjects are high enough to trigger the compound's negative effects, which include, according to the study, "skin lesions; skin, lung, and bladder cancer; vascular diseases; low birth weight; and potentially diabetes mellitus and increased susceptibility to infection." More research, they say, is needed, and I'll be following closely.

As for rice, which has been shown in recent studies to have high arsenic loads, the researchers found "no clear relationship" between consumption and arsenic loads. So my friend can go back to eating her favorite staple—seasoned with a lashing of schadenfreude. Excuse me while I whip up my dinner: air-poached air, accompanied by well-filtered water.