Tom Philpott

The FDA Is Spying on Its Own Scientists

| Wed Aug. 1, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After I spoke at a pesticide industry confab a few months ago, an executive with the agrichemical/GMO seed giant Syngenta approached to politely challenge my assessment of the US regulatory agencies. I had charged that these federal watchdog groups kowtow to Big Food and Big Ag, regularly approving dodgy products or practices with little regard for how they may affect public health or the environment.

Au contraire, the Syngenta guy assured me. He insisted that the US regulatory system was full of rigorous scientists who vetted the industry's products carefully and would never let something through that might harm the public. We began a tense conversation about Syngenta's highly toxic and widely used atrazine herbicide, green-lighted by the Environmental Protection Agency despite growing evidence of harm to people and wildlife. We decided after a few minutes to agree to disagree.

The fellow's gentle assurances of regulatory rigor have been echoing through my mind as I follow the spectacle of the Food and Drug Administration's unfolding surveillance scandal, triggered by excellent reporting from the New York Times and Washington Post. The subject is off my beat—it involves the FDA's medical-oversight arm, not its food wing. But it reveals just how completely large, powerful industries have gained ownership over their federal watchdogs and taught them to sit, heel, and perform other submissive tricks. And it also reveals that FDA-employed scientists are not always the bland, quiet characters I imagine them to be. A front-page article in Tuesday's Times presents the saga's chief whistleblower as a prickly, aggressive figure with a history of challenging employers with lawsuits.

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BP Sends Gulf Chefs to Olympics on a PR Jaunt

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

Two years after the capping of BP's blown Macondo well, effects of the vast spill linger in the Gulf of Mexico. In a study released in April, scientists found heightened levels of heavy metals in the shells, gills, and muscle tissue of Gulf oysters, correlated with the spill. Another study found that BP's errant oil accelerated the loss of marshlands along the Gulf—a devastating blow to coastal ecosystems. Yet a third study found drastic changes in the microbiota that live between grains of sand along beaches, which could entail lasting negative impacts at the base of the Gulf's food chain.

In short, through its bungling and short-sightedness, BP delivered a mammoth and enduring insult to the Gulf of Mexico and the communities and ecosystems clustered along it. Our nation's greatest regional culinary culture is not the least among the spill's victims. Rooted in precisely the body of water BP polluted, Gulf cuisine endures in its glory but can ultimately only be as healthy as the ecosystems that sustain it.

Which is why I find this news item unspeakably sad:

Eight Louisiana and Gulf Coast chefs—including John Folse and Galatoire's executive chef Michael Sichel—are on their way to London. BP will send them to the 2012 Olympic Games host city to fill it with a "dash of spice."

In addition to Folse and Sichel, participating chefs include Chris Poplin (Biloxi's IP Casino Resort Spa), Calvin Coleman (Gulfport's Naomi's Catering), Chris Sherrill (from Orange Beach, Alabama's Eat! and catering company Staycations), and Alec Naman (from Mobile's Naman's Catering).

These chefs may think they're leveraging BP's cash to promote their region on a grand stage. "We wanted to feature the Gulf Coast on an international stage," BP director of Gulf coast media communications Ray Melick told the Montgomery Advertiser. "This was a good opportunity to bring these chefs’ seafood flavors to that stage, reminding everyone that the Gulf Coast is alive and well, and that the seafood is the most-tested and best-tasting anywhere." That last bit describes the real message BP is hiring Gulf chefs to convey: Everything's fine in the post-spill Gulf; the 2010 spill and any ill effects from it are dead and gone.

But as Mississippi's most famous novelist once wrote, "The past isn't dead; it's not even past."

4 of Obama's Worst Food and Ag Wimp-Outs

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Right-wing critics like to denounce President Obama's supposed penchant for "job-killing regulations." Just last month, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus complained on the conservative blog Red State that "instead of pursuing policies that would help job creators put Americans back to work, he's burdened them with ObamaCare, regulations, and continued threats of higher taxes."

Meanwhile, back here on Planet Earth, the government keeps making industry-friendly regulatory decisions, at least in the food and ag field that I cover. Here's a list of four recent Obama administration bows to the agrichemical and meat industries.

1. It allowed factory farms to remain on the DL.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its own proposed rules that would have required operators of factory-scale livestock operations to report basic information to the agency, such as the number of animals kept, whether manure from the facility is applied on surrounding land, and, if so, how much land is available for manure application.

Vaccines on Chicken Farms Create Supervirus

| Mon Jul. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The problem of routine antibiotic use on factory farms has generated a lot of ink lately—especially after this startling recent report on a possible link between industrial chicken farming and a spate of antibiotic-resistant urinary-tract infections among women.

But what about vaccine use? Concentrated animal feedlot operation (CAFO) operators use antibiotics to help prevent bacterial infections from raging through spaces densely packed with animals (as well as to make the animals grow faster). To address the problem of viral infections, against which antibiotics are ineffective, they turn to vaccines, which get considerably less press.

How Agribiz Bought the Farm Bill

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 12:50 PM EDT

So, how's the farm bill going? Well, the Senate's version of it "could have been worse," I concluded after it passed, straining for positive things to write about it. The House Agriculture Committee's, though, was a full-on disaster, offering harsh cuts to food aid at a time of high unemployment, fat handouts to big ag, and gratuitous gifts to the biotech/pesticide industry.

The bill is now stalled in the House, in danger of being buried by right-wing backbenchers intent on even deeper food-aid cuts. If the House doesn't vote on it before the August recess, the most likely outcome is an extension of the 2008 bill—and the 2013 Congress will have to start the farm bill process from scratch. Let's be blunt: If that scenario plays out, no matter how the November elections go, we're quite likely to see an equally or more dismal bill emerge next year.

This is tragic. The farm bill, a once-in-five-years piece of legislation, lays out federal food and agriculture policy. At a time of accelerating climate change and other ecosystem crisis, including agriculture-related dead zones in two of our most important fisheries (the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay) the time has come to reassess our food system. Meanwhile, a robust sustainable-agriculture has arisen over the past two decades, developing alternative styles of farming that are highly productive, less polluting, and more resilient to climate change. You might think farm policy would be primed to adjust to these developments. Instead, our legislative process is pushing agribusiness as usual.

USDA Prepares to Green-Light Gnarliest GMO Soy Yet

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:30 AM EDT
A crop duster sprays a soybean field.

In early July, on the sleepy Friday after Independence Day, the USDA quietly signaled its intention to green-light a new genetically engineered soybean seed from Dow AgroSciences. The product is designed to produce soy plants that withstand 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide (and, famously, the less toxic component in the notorious Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange).

Readers may remember that during an even-sleepier period—the week between Christmas and the New Year—the USDA made a similar move on Dow's 2,4-D-ready corn.

If the USDA deregulates the two products—as it has telegraphed its intention to do—Dow will enjoy a massive profit opportunity. Every year, about half of all US farmland is planted in corn and soy. Currently, Dow's rival Monsanto has a tight grip on weed management in corn-and-soy country. Upward of 90 percent of soy and 70 percent of corn is engineered to withstand another herbicide called glyphosate through highly profitable Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines. And after so many years of lashing so much land with the same herbicide, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now vexing farmers and "alarming" weed control experts throughout the Midwest.

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Tom's Kitchen: Ratatouille, the Classic Summer Veggie Stew

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Ratatouille, served here over toast and under a fried egg, along side a salad of raw shredded kale.

Ratatouille, a classic dish from southern France, had been confounding me for years. On the one hand, it combines iconic hot-weather produce—squash, eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, and basil—making it an ideal high-summer dish. On the other hand, I first discovered in in the early '90s, before I had heard of farmers markets or seasonal cooking; and the recipe I used for it required long roasting. Back then, I'd make it in winter from supermarket veggies trucked in from God knows where and serve it with something hearty like polenta. It was actually quite satisfying.

And then for years, as my life turned to gardening, farming, and fixation on the farmers market, I never made ratatouille. I wasn't going to buy tomatoes or eggplant in the winter; nor did I have any desire to heat up my kitchen with a long roast in high summer.

Then, in the process of reviewing Alice Waters' book The Art of Simple Food a few years ago, I stumbled upon her ratatouille recipe, which in place of roasting involves a kind of extended stir fry—still a hot project, but nothing like an oven blazing at 400 degrees. (I've since learned that the Waters' method is the classic method of Provence; no telling where I got the roasting idea).

With peak-of-season produce and good olive oil, ratatouille is a spectacular dish: the brightness of squash, tomatoes, and peppers, the depth of eggplant, and the pungency of onion and garlic, all melted down down into a delicious stew. And it's a wonderful thing to cook on the weekend and have around for the work week. I served it one day as a side dish to grilled chicken breast (cue silly vegan outrage); another day tossed with pasta and chickpeas; and twice for lunch over toast and under a fried egg.

House Ag Committee Takes Aim at Food Stamps, GMO Regulation

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 1:03 PM EDT
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House ag committee, and "valued partner" of the biotech industry.

Surprising no one, the House agriculture committee has passed a boldly regressive farm bill draft—trumping the recently approved Senate version in generosity to Big Ag and austerity for the people who rely on the food-stamp program (now known as SNAP).  

Summing up the bill's main provisions, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it an "anti-reform bill—bad for family farmers, rural communities, and the environment."

But the committee added a dash of spice to this acrid stew of a bill that not even a political cynic like me could have predicted: Buried in the depths of the 557-page draft loom 16 pages of riders (see sec. 10011-10014) that, if passed into law, would gut the USDA's already-weak ability to regulate the politically influential agriculture-biotech industry. (If you want to dive deep into the industry-friendly framework of the USDA's GMO oversight, check out these two posts of mine from last year.)

 

How the NY Times Went Too Far in Slamming Big Organic

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In a much-discussed feature that led the Sunday New York Times business section, Stephanie Strom reignites the long-simmering debate about whether the organic label has been essentially bought out and drained of meaning by gigantic corporations. She paraphrases Michael Potter, founder and CEO of one of the last independently owned organic companies, Eden Foods, like this: "He calls the certified-organic label a fraud and refuses to put it on Eden's products."

A fraud, huh? Strom's story raises many important points that need to be thought through and debated. But it misses a key one: The organic label, for all the untoward influence of Big Food players like dairy giant Dean Foods, still means something. If you buy food labeled organic, you can be reasonably sure it was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, without genetically modified seeds, without (in the case of dairy, meat, and eggs) antibiotics and other dodgy pharmaceuticals, and on farms required to have a plan for crop rotation and (quoting straight from federal organic code) to "manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content." (For a primer on why I find the latter bit so impressive, go here.) Even the most processed certified-organic item on the supermarket shelf contains raw plant and/or animal material that was raised in ways fundamentally different than nonorganic fare.

5 Surprising Ingredients Allowed in Organic Food

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Sunday's New York Times piece on the corporatization of organics (which I commented on here) got me to thinking: What are the weirdest additives the USDA allows in food labeled "organic"? Here are five.

1. Carrageenan
Made from seaweed and used as a thickener and stabilizer for certain dairy products like cottage cheese and yogurt, carrageenan is probably the most controversial organic additive. Joanne K. Tobacman, an associate professor of medicine at University of Illinois-Chicago, claims that carrageenan causes intestinal inflammation, and she petitioned the USDA not to approve it for organic food. The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute notes that according to USDA organic code, nonorganic ingredients like carrageenan can only be introduced into certified-organic food when they are deemed "essential" to the manufacture of a given product. The group argues that carrageenan should not have been deemed essential, because some organic dairy companies don't use it at all, proving it can be done without. For example, Horizon and Whole foods 365 use it in their cottage cheeses, while Organic Valley and Nancy's don't.

2. Synthetic DHA (a fatty acid)
This omega-3 fatty acid supplement, derived from algae in some dairy products, is made by Martek Biosciences Corp., a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Royal DSM. Its critics (including me) argue it's a dubious addition to organics because it's not essential to producing any product. You don't need it to produce milk; you only need it to produce milk that contains synthetic DHA. According to Cornucopia, Martek's DHA is is derived from a strain of algae generated through "induced mutations with the use of radiation and/or harsh chemicals."

3. Acidified sodium chlorite
This synthetic chemical, used as a disinfecting wash for poultry and other meats, hasn't been connected to any health problems. It's made by chemical giant Dupont.

4. Tetrasodium pyrophosphate
A mixture of phosphoric acid with sodium carbonate, this compound is used is soy-based meat alternatives. "It promotes binding of proteins to water, binding the soy particles together, and is used for the same purpose in chicken nuggets and imitation crab and lobster products," writes Simon Quellen Field, author of Why There's Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: The Chemistry of Household Ingredients. 

5. Ethylene
This fossil fuel derivative is used to speed ripening of tropical fruit and "degreen" citrus. While its use in food doesn't harm people, using fossil fuels sure does.