Tom Philpott

Europe Bans Bee-Harming Pesticides; US Keeps Spraying

| Fri May 3, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

On Monday, the European Commission voted to place a two-year moratorium on most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are a widely used class of chemicals suspected of contributing to a severe global decline in honeybee health.

In the wake of Europe's decisive action, the US Environmental Protection Agency dithered. Well, it did release a joint report with the US Department of Agriculture on Thursday, generated from a "National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference" the two agencies held last fall. The report fingered no single culprit behind colony collapse disorder, the name for the steep annual bee die-offs that have been stumping beekeepers since 2006. Instead, it pointed to a "complex set of stressors and pathogens," including poor nutrition (mainly from loss of flowering weeds due to increased herbicide use), viruses, gut parasites, and, yes, pesticides. But it includes a summary of a presentation by USDA scientist Jeff Pettis noting that "several studies" have shown that low-level exposure to neonics make bees more vulnerable to the common gut parasite Nosema. (Pettis himself is the coauthor of one of those studies.)

Yet, as Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Jennifer Sass put it in a Thursday blog post, the joint EPA/USDA report limits itself to "recommendations about best management practices and technical advancements for applying pesticides to reduce dust," while avoiding "recommendations that would reduce the overall sales and profits for chemical makers."

Nor does the report express much urgency; it promises an "action plan [that] will outline major priorities to be addressed in the next 5-10 years."

In the United States, neonic-treated crops cover a land mass equivalent to as much as twice the size of California.

Meanwhile, the European Commission's decisive action came amid what the Guardian called a "fierce behind-the-scenes campaign" to stop it from Syngenta and Bayer, the Europe-based chemical giants that market them. The move was prompted by a January report by the European Food Safety Authority, which identified "high acute risks" for bees from exposure to neonic-treated crops like corn and sunflower. And studies from independent researchers implicating neonics in declining bee health have mounted.

Even before the decision, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Bayer's home country, Germany, had all suspend use of the chemicals pending more research on bee health. Now neonics will face severe restriction in all 27 European Union countries for two-year period starting December 1, 2013, during which time the commission will continue its assessment of their impact.

The move trains a harsh light on the EPA, which approved the chemicals based on what its own scientists have called flawed research and is currently reviewing them in light of the threat to bees and other pollinators. Earlier this month, an agency spokesperson told CBS News that the review would take five years—meaning that they'll continue to be used widely on farmland in the US during that period. As I reported a while back, neonic-treated crops cover between 150 million to 200 million acres of farmland in the US each year—a land mass equivalent to as much as twice the size of California.

I contacted the EPA to ask whether the EC decision might speed the agency's timeline on reassessing neonics and their threat to bees. The response, in an emailed statement: "At this time, the data available to the EPA do not support a moratorium." The time frame for completing the reassessment remains in place, the statement added, with this caveat: "If at any time the EPA determines there are urgent human and/or environmental risks from pesticide exposures that require prompt attention, the agency will take appropriate regulatory action, regardless of the registration review status of that pesticide."


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You Won't Believe What's in Your Turkey Burger

| Wed May 1, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Back in August 2011, the agribusiness giant Cargill recalled a stunning 36 million pounds of ground turkey tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella that had come from a single processing facility in Arkansas, a failure that eventually sickened 136 people and killed another. The company shut down the plant, tweaked its process (mainly by adding to and "intensifying" its system of spraying meat with antimicrobial fluid), and quickly reopened it. Within a month, the company had to recall another 108,000 pounds of ground turkey from the same plant, because it was infected with the same strain of superbug salmonella.

Have things gotten any cleaner in the world of Big Turkey since those events? Cargill says it has cleaned up its act, but recent research suggests that ground turkey still has an antibiotic-resistant-pathogen problem. The latest evidence comes from Consumer Reports, which has just published the results of testing it did on 257 samples of ground turkey picked up from retailers around the country, produced by a variety of processors, including Cargill. CR contacted Cargill with the results, and got the following response:

"As we've publicly stated over the past year and a half, no stone was left unturned in our efforts to determine the originating source of salmonella Heidelberg associated with the ground-turkey recalls, yet to this day we do not know the origin of the bacteria linked to outbreak of illnesses," said Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill in Minneapolis. He provided a long list of steps that Cargill has taken since the outbreak to make its ground turkey safer.

Even so, the results of Consumer Reports' tests won't make you eager to order that next turkey burger: "More than half of the packages of raw ground meat and patties tested positive for fecal bacteria."

Overall, 90 percent of the samples tested by CR researchers carried at least one of the five bacteria they looked for—and "almost all" of the bacteria strains they found showed resistance to at least one antibiotic. The two fecal-related bacteria strains—enterococcus and E. coli—showed up the most frequently:

Consumer Reports

What's more, those bacteria tended to be superbugs—that is, resistant to at least one antibiotic:

Consumer Reports

You'll note from the above charts both good and bad news about salmonella, the source of that 2011 Cargill outbreak. Happily, salmonella was rare in the meat CR tested—just 12 samples contained it, or 5 percent of the total. Unhappily, though, the salmonella they did find tended to be of the superbug variety—eight of those samples carried salmonella resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics. And there's evidence of lingering problems at that Arkansas plant of Cargill's—one of the multiresistant salmonella strains came from there, CR reports.

Consumer Reports also tested samples of ground turkey labeled "organic," "no antibiotics" and "raised without antibiotics." (Under USDA code, meat labeled organic must come from animals that were never treated with antibiotics.) The bacterial strains that turned up in these products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant.

Consumer Reports

The Consumer Reports study comes on the heels of a troubling analysis of Food and Drug Administration meat-testing data performed by Environmental Working Group. Every year, the FDA randomly selects samples of meat from retailers, tests them for resistant bacteria, and publishes the results in a manner that's nearly indecipherable (try it yourself—latest report, released in February, is here). EWG slogged through the results (report here) and found that 81 percent of ground turkey samples contained traces of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

All of which shines a harsh spotlight on the FDA's "voluntary" approach to curbing antibiotic use on farms. Between 2003 and 2011, antibiotic use on US livestock farms soared from 20 million pounds per year to 30 million pounds—a jaw-dropping 50 percent leap. These facilities now suck in 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. The great bulk of these drugs are used not to treat sick animals, but rather to make them grow faster and keep them alive until slaughter under tight, filthy conditions.

Meanwhile, there's the US Department of Agriculture's imminent plan to slash the number of inspectors it places on poultry-industry kill lines (chicken and turkey) while simultaneously allowing those same kill lines to be sped up.

Michael Pollan's "Cooked": Delicious, If a Bit Rich

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 12:11 PM EDT
Michael Pollan

Having largely abandoned the home kitchen, Americans have embraced the "reality" of TV cooking. We now spend less than 60 percent of our food budgets on groceries for home consumption a third less than we did a half century ago. And when we do eat at home, there's a lot of box opening and microwaving. Time spent cooking has plunged over the past 40 years. According to a 2010 study (PDF) by University of Utah researchers, the time women spend cooking dropped from over 90 minutes per day to 60 minutes per day between 1975 and 2006. And men didn't pick up the slack—their kitchen time hovered around 20 minutes over that period. Meanwhile, cutthroat cooking contests featuring celebrity and would-be celebrity chefs have soared in popularity, as have old-school cooking-demo shows. 

What gives? Why abandon the practice and embrace the spectacle? In his new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan ventures an answer. We've also abandoned other traditional household pursuits like making furniture or clothes, he notes, but "we're not watching shows or reading books about sewing or darning socks or changing the oil in the car." Our flight from the kitchen has left a void, an itch we can't scratch; unlike other happily discarded activities, cooking "retains an emotional power we can't shake, or don't want to." And so time we once spent doing the act, we now spend watching it.

That pull, he says, emanates from the depths of human history—from the African savannah, circa 1.8 million years ago. Leaning on the work of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangam, Pollan claims that cooking, which frees up and concentrates nutrients, probably led to the expansion of the early human brain and sent us down the path that led to civilization. Something so central to the human project cannot be discarded lightly, Pollan insists.

This is a just-so story, of course; there's no way to judge its truth value. But by linking the rise of food TV with the decline of cooking, Pollan has hit upon a powerful correlation, and he marshals impressive evidence of drastic consequences: the expansion of waistlines and the deterioration of health.

Pollan's fascinating and charismatic guides range from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Pivoting off this central insight in Cooked, Pollan has written two different books that exist in some tension. One is a lavish, rollickngly told account of Pollan's recent culinary education, his path from pedestrian cook to the sort of fellow who maintains a sourdough starter for bread and makes his own beer. The other is a cri de coeur about our exile from the kitchen and an attempt to lead us—men and women alike—back. "My wager in Cooked," he writes, "is that the best way to recover the reality of food, to return it to its proper place in our lives, is to master the physical processed by which it has been traditionally made."

The first is an unmitigated triumph. As a longtime cooking nerd, I consumed Cooked like I do a plate of pasta with clams: that is to say, voraciously. Pollan organizes his narrative around four cooking styles correlated to the elements of pre-science Europe: fire (barbecue), water (braising), earth (fermentation), and air (breadmaking). For each, he chooses fascinating and charismatic guides, ranging from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Each of them pops vividly to life on the pages of Cooked, and Pollan places them in an enticing background of deftly researched history, science, and philosophy—and then takes their lessons into his home kitchen for a test run. His legendary chops as a science writer are on full display. Here he is on a loaf of bread, lovingly coaxed from a homemade sourdough starter, as it cooks in his oven:

I closed the oven door gently to make sure I didn't deflate the risen loaf while it finished baking. I needn't have worried. By now, the starches in the dough had "gelatinized"—stiffened enough to formalize the matrix of gluten, which had itself stiffened. During the early moments of baking, the cells of the matrix had ballooned under the pressure of gases expanding in the heat. At least for the first six to eight minutes of oven time, new alveoli continue to form, since the yeasts keep working until the temperature reaches a lethal 130 F. During this period, provided there remain enough sugars to feed them, the rapid flush of heat provides one last, climatic burst of fermentation.

Leave it to Pollan to turn the baking of a bread loaf into steamy drama.  

Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

Incidentally, Pollan's terrific bread section offers a possible explanation for the recent rise of "gluten intolerance" and the general bloated feeling one gets from modern bread. Today's loaves are pumped with fast-acting industrial yeasts and never undergo a lengthy fermentation, Pollan writes. But in that increasingly rare process, "the organic acids produced by the sourdough culture also seem to slow our bodies' absorption of the sugars in white flour, reducing the dangerous spikes in insulin that refined carbohydrates can cause." No wonder I feel fine after eating naturally leavened bread.

But as a clarion to lead the masses back to the kitchen, Cooked falls a bit flatter. True, it inspired me to want to expand and deepen my own kitchen practices—it left me eager to launch my own sourdough culture and rekindled a decades-old ambition to brew beer. But I've been a passionate home cook for 25 years, and worked in restaurants before that. What about the unsaved? By the time Cooked is cooked, Pollan has roasted a whole pig, been scolded by his private kitchen tutor, a Chez Panisse chef, that the dice on his mirepoix for his daube simply won't do (not fine enough), and produced a credible boule under the tutelage of the baking wizard who runs San Francisco's celebrated Tartine. Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

I put the book down wondering if such exertions might, to some, confirm precisely the attitude that Pollan is at pains to dismiss: that cooking is a luxury, a spectator sport, not a daily practice.  

But this quibble doesn't take away from the overall achievement of Cooked. Other writers—Mark Bittman, Suzie Middleton, Tamer Adler—specialize in demonstrating that anyone can cook great from-scratch food without too much fuss or expense. Still others, like Tracie McMillan, have demonstrated the brutal economic realities that undergird our flight from cooking (as with Pollan's other books, labor and class don't register in Cooked). What Pollan has done is written a brilliant set of narrative essays on what it means to transform the raw into the cooked—among the most riveting in English since those of MFK Fisher.

Tom's Kitchen: Miso-Glazed Pork Chop with Stir-Fried Veggies

| Sat Apr. 27, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Umami dearest: a little miso pushes this dish over the edge.

At the end of the week, my stock of perishable foods consisted of the following items: a bunch of kale, two knobs of gorgeous, purple-skinned kohlrabi, and a fat pork chop. The veggies were leftovers from the previous weekend's farmers market run; the chop was an impulse buy after lunch at a new Austin butcher shop/salamuria called Salt and Time, where they buy whole animals from local farmers, break them down, and put the results to various uses: everything from sandwich fillings to cured sausages to a magnificent case of expertly cut steaks, chops, and the like.

Disclaimer: I don't eat a lot of meat, but I think pastured animals play a critical role in sustainable agriculture. And when I do indulge, I love to buy it from skilled butchers sourcing directly from nearby farms. I have made the economic case for locally owned butcher shops here and here.

Okay, back to the kitchen. My challenge late one recent weekday evening: how to turn these staples into a fast, delicious dinner. My first thought was a stir fry—just cut everything up, sear it off, and then nap it with a quick, soy-sauce-based sauce. But cutting up that beautifully rendered pork chop seemed silly—like taking a scissors to a Picasso canvass to make it fit a tight space. So I decided to sear the pork chop whole and stir fry the veggies as a side dish.

I decided on an East Asian flavor palate—ginger, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Fermented soy products like soy sauce deliver that ineffably deep, savory quality known as umami. To ramp up the umami factor, I turned to the ultimate fermented soy product: miso, a jar of which had been languishing at the back of my fridge.

Kohlrabi tastes a lot like broccoli stem—a high compliment, in my view.

Miso-Glazed Pork Chop With Stir-Fried Kohlrabi and Kale
Serves two

2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 knuckle-sized chunk of fresh ginger, peeled with a spoon and chopped
A few whole peppercorns
A good pinch of dark-brown sugar
A robust pinch of crushed red chili flakes
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
2 tablespoons of soy sauce (my favorite is the sublime Ohsawa)
1 large thick-cut, bone-in pork chop, which will be a half or two-thirds of a pound
Some freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch kale
2 bulbs of kohlrabi
A little cooking oil, such as peanut or sunflower
1 cup water or stock
1 tablespoon miso

First, make the marinade. Pound the first five ingredients in a mortar and pestle until reduced to a coarse paste. Add the vinegar and pound and stir the mixture. Do the same with the soy sauce. Dump the marinade into a container not much bigger than the pork chop. Add the chop, turn it a few times with a tongs to fully coat it, and then let it sit in the fridge. (The chop can marinade for a few minutes, while you prep the veggies, or up to an hour or so.)

Preheat the oven to 400.

Now prep the veggies. Stack the dry kale leaves on top of each other and roll them lengthwise into a cylinder. Slice them crosswise into half-inch strips, stems and all, down to where the leaves end. (This last bit is controversial; most people remove the stems. I find that if the kale is fresh, a bit of stem adds a nice crunch.) Now rotate your cutting board 90 degrees and slice the kale strips again, again in half-inch increments. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Trim the kohlrabi of stems and tough parts. Slice each bulb in half, and place the halves on the cutting board, cut-side down, and slice them thinly into crescents. Cut those crescents in half. Set aside.

Get two heavy-bottomed skillets going over medium on the stovetop: a small one for the chop, and a large one (or a wok) for the veggies. Add a little cooking oil to each. While they're heating, remove the chop from the marinade, scraping away the chunks with a butter knife. Reserve the marinade in the container, including any chunky bits from the chop, and add a cup of water to it. This will become the base for the miso glaze.

Dry the chop well with paper towels or a kitchen towel that will be set aside for washing before any other use. (This step, while annoying, is critical for properly brown the chop—wet meat will turn a dull gray instead of caramelizing.)

Let it get good and brown—the caramelization adds to the dish's umami.

Give the chop a vigorous lashing of fresh-ground pepper on both sides, and place it on the smaller, now quite-hot skillet. Let it sizzle.

Now add the chopped kale to the larger, also-hot skillet or wok. Toss the kale in the hot oil until it starts to wilt, add a few dashes of soy sauce to the pan, and turn the heat down to low and cover. Let the kale steam in the covered pan until tender. This won't take long.

When the chop is beautifully browned on the bottom, turn it over. Let it go a minute or two on the stovetop, and then place it in the hot oven. For a thick-cut chop, finishing in a hot oven is a great way to ensure the meat is properly cooked without scorching.

Meanwhile, when the kale is done, set it aside, and return the skillet or wok to medium heat. Add a bit more oil, then add the kohlrabi. Tossing often, let it sauté until it's starting to brown and is tender, but still retains a bit of crunch. Now add the cooked kale and half of the watered-down marinade. Add a half-tablespoon of miso, and stir until the miso has become incorporated and the marinade has reduced to a glaze.

By now, the pork chop should be done. I shoot for medium—no rawness, but a touch of pink inside. At that point, the chop should feel firm but springy to the touch. You can also cut into it to take a peak.

Remove the chop to a plate. Pour off any excess fat from the skillet—careful, it will be smoking-hot, Add the other half of the watered-down marinade to the hot skillet, and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve any caramelized bits on the bottom. (This is known as "deglazing the pan.") Add the other half tablespoon of miso and stir to incorporate. Let the meat rest another minute or two, and then dump any juices that have accumulated on the plate into the skillet, stirring to incorporate. This is your miso glaze. Cut the chop in half, placing each on a plate. Divide the veggies onto the two plates. Drizzle the miso glaze over each chunk of pork, and serve. A bit of brown rice would be a welcome addition as well.

This dish goes well with malty, slightly sweet beers—think the German alt style—or simple lagers. For wine, look to dryish, zippy Rieslings or Gruner Veltliners.

USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

The Obama administration is on the verge of dramatically scaling back the US Department of Agriculture's oversight of the nation's largest chicken and turkey slaughterhouses—while also allowing companies to speed up their kill lines.

Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA's new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster. (The line rates at turkey slaughterhouses are, for obvious reasons, slower, but would also be sped up under the new rules).

After the idea was floated last year, it was met by massive pushback from food safety and worker advocates, who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and workers.

Since then, the proposal has been caught in the federal rulemaking process. But on April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized "very soon," declaring that the plan "will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well."

Indeed, according to a 2012 statement, the department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors. Meanwhile, the USDA calculates that by increasing kill line speeds, the plan will save the poultry industry more than eight times as much, or $256.6 million each year. That windfall would accrue mainly to four large companies—Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Purdue, and Sanderson. Together, they slaughter nearly 60 percent of the chicken consumed in the United States. (Another four companies, led by Butterball, slaughter 55 percent of turkeys.)

The USDA insists that the new system will improve poultry product safety. In his recent testimony, Vilsack said his department expects the new system will prevent "somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses" per year. Interestingly, Vilsack's numbers are less optimistic than other recent claims from department officials: Just a year ago, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, wrote that the plan would "help prevent an estimated 5,200" from getting sick.

The USDA is right that poultry product safety could stand improving. In an analysis of the Food and Drug Administration's latest tests of retail meat, Environmental Working Group found that 81 percent of ground turkey and 39 percent of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs tested contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How would speeding up the kill line and removing all but one inspector improve this dreadful situation? Under current rules, multiple USDA inspectors monitor the kill line for "visible defects"—feces, bruises, blemishes, blood, and the like. But the department insists that's time poorly spent, focusing on the outward cosmetic appearance of the carcasses—quality control issues that the USDA argues should be the slaughterhouse's responsibility. Under the new rules, company employees would instead be in charge of visually inspecting the line and removing defective birds. To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct "online reprocessing"—that is, dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, "whether they are contaminated or not," with water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals. Beyond that, the lone USDA inspector would randomly select 20 to 80 birds per shift to test them for defects. That would represent a tiny fraction of the birds processed over the course of an eight-hour shift; in a single hour, a kill line operating at the new high speed would spit out more than 10,000 carcasses.

Since the late '90s, the USDA has been running a pilot program testing the rules at 20 slaughterhouses, and claims that the results have been sterling. But last year, Food & Water Watch used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain six months' worth of recent inspection documents from participating slaughterhouses. The results, as I reported at the time, were alarming, and don't suggest that the factories' own employees are effectively inspecting the birds.

Here's Food & Water Watch:

Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4' for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.

From March to August 2011, 90 percent of the defects found by the USDA inspectors involved "visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees." Yuck.

You don't have to resort to FOIA to question the USDA's claim that the new system will cut down on illnesses from eating poultry: In its publicly available 2011 evaluation of the pilot program, the USDA found that finished birds at pilot facilities were more likely to test positive for salmonella. And 2 of the 20 pilot facilities—a Tyson factory in Clarksville, Arkansas, and a Golden Rod Broilers one in Cullman, Alabama—failed the USDA's latest test for salmonella standards. According to Food & Water Watch, that 10 percent failure rate—granted, drawn from a small sample size—is higher than the industry's overall rate.

If the USDA is making shaky claims around food safety, it's not making any claims on worker safety, over which it has no mandate. In his House testimony, Vilsack didn't have much to say on the topic: "We've attempted to address those [worker safety] concerns by suggesting that this gives us a chance to study that issue."

But the new rules would force workers to wield sharp knives and make repetitive motions at a kill line that, with 35 more birds going by each minute, would running significantly faster. Tragically, the federal agency that might have something to say about those conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), doesn't. As a fresh, devastating report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on poultry workers shows, slaughterhouses exist in a worker protection limbo:

Despite OSHA's responsibility to ensure worker safety, it has no mandate to regulate processing line speeds to protect workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the only agency that currently regulates line speeds. But the USDA's regulations are designed to guard against contamination of the product, not to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

Even under current line speeds, workers are regularly harmed. Citing OSHA figures, the SPLC reports that 5.9 percent of the poultry workers are injured each year, 50 percent more than the national average. And the report shows that workers routinely face intimidation and might think twice about reporting an injury. Here's the SPLC, describing current conditions on kill lines:

The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.

The Obama administration has clearly expressed the benefits of its new plan: minor savings for the government, major savings for Big Poultry. Testifying before Congress last year, Cass Sunstein—then serving as the famously regulation-averse chief of Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—hailed the poultry slaughter proposal as an example of the administration's will to unburden industry of "cumbersome, outdated" regulation. The costs, though, don't appear to have been reckoned with adequately, if at all.

A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

As investigators and rescuers move through a destroyed fertilizer factory in West, Texas, it makes me think about just what nitrogen fertilizer is, and why we use so much of it.

Nitrogen is one of the nutrient elements plants need to grow. Every apple or ear of corn plucked represents nutrients pulled from soil, and for land to remain productive, those nutrients must be replenished. Nitrogen is extremely plentiful—it makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. But atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is joined together in an extremely tight bond that makes it unusable by plants. Plant-available nitrogen, known as nitrate, is actually scarce, and for most of agriculture's 10,000-year-old history, the main challenge was figuring out how to cycle usable nitrogen back into the soil. Farmers of yore might not have known the chemistry, but they knew that composting crop waste, animal manure, and even human waste led to better harvests.

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Will Monsanto Ties Influence Nutritionists' Stance on GMOs?

| Sat Apr. 13, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

The GMO seed giant Monsanto recently flexed its muscles in Congress, working with a senator to sneak a friendly rider into an unrelated funding bill. Now it appears to be having its way with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As the New York Times reports, a dietician who'd been working on crafting the group's GMO policy claims she was pushed aside for pointing out her colleagues' links to Monsanto.

The controversy started during last fall's highly contested battle over a ballot initiative that would have required labeling genetically modified food in California. The prestigious dieticians' group was incorrectly listed by the official state voters' guide as one of the scientific organizations that had "concluded biotech foods are safe." Actually, the AND had taken no position on the issue, but it promised to come out with a position paper on it. (The ballot initiative ultimately failed.)

Monsanto Claims to Ditch Herbicide While Selling More of It

| Wed Apr. 10, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Roundup, the usual suspect.

Genetically modified seed giant Monsanto likes to trumpet its "commitment to sustainable agriculture." The story goes like this: by generating novel, high-tech crop varieties, Monsanto will wean farmers off of synthetic chemical poisons. The company even markets its flagship product, seeds genetically engineered to survive its own Roundup weed killer, as a tool they can use to to "decrease the overall use of herbicides."

But as I've shown before, herbicide use has actually dramatically ramped up as the Roundup Ready technology conquers vast swaths of US farmland. That's because weeds quickly developed resistance to it, forcing farmers to apply ever-larger doses and resort to older, more toxic herbicides to combat resistant weeds. And while the company has tried hard to leave behind its past as a purveyor of toxic chemicals and rebrand itself as a technology company, those toxic chemicals remain central to its growth and profitability, as its latest quarterly profit report shows.

The report—press release here—cheered investors, driving Monsanto shares to their highest levels since 2008. Here's the main bit, lifted from the press release (note that by "second quarter," the company means the January to March period):

Monsanto's latest earnings report—all about corn and "ag productivity" (herbicides) Detail from a Monsanto press release.

Note that the company consists of two main segments: what it calls "Seeds and Genomics," which involves sales of seeds, obviously, plus licensing fees on genetically modified traits; and "Agricultural Productivity," which means, essentially, chemicals, mainly Roundup in a variety of forms. Seeds and Genomics is by far the largest of the two in terms of contribution to overall sales, but good old Agricultural Productivity is still really important. Indeed, its sales shot up from $824 million in second-quarter 2012 to $1.12 billion in the same time period of this year—that's an amazing 36 percent jump.

By contrast, Seeds and Genomics sales went from $3.92 billion to $4.35 billion over the same time span—just a 10 percent rise.

Overall, the herbicide contribution to Monsanto's total sales went from 17 percent in second-quarter 2012 to 20 percent in the the same period of 2013.

Fast-Food Workers Protest Poverty McWages

| Sat Apr. 6, 2013 5:00 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 5:00 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.