Tom Philpott

Why You Should Be Worried About the California Mad Cow Case

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Move along, nothing to see here.

That sums up the USDA's public reaction to news that a downed California dairy cow was discovered to have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. The cow had an "atypical" case of BSE, one that likely doesn't come from BSE-infected feed, but rather from a genetic mutation, the agency insists.

Moreover, it never came close to entering the food supply, USDA stressed—it had shown up dead at a rendering facility, where it was randomly chosen for testing as part of the USDA's BSE-testing program. USDA chief Tom Vilsack, ever ready to jump to the meat industry's aid at a time of need, declared on CNN, "I'm having beef tonight for dinner. And that's no lie."

Global food and health agencies echoed the USDA's assessment, Bloomberg reports: "The U.S. finding of a case of mad cow disease shows the country’s surveillance system is working, according to the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health."

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Can You Get Mad Cow Disease From Milk?

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

USDA-mandated testing turned up a downed California dairy cow that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, the agency announced Tuesday. According to an exec with the rendering plant where the poor beast ended up, it was chosen for testing completely at random, having shown "no signs" of disease.

The scenario suggests that relatively recently, a BSE-infected cow was producing milk for public consumption. According to the USDA, there's nothing to worry about. The agency's chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, released a statement Tuesday declaring that the the the cow in question had "atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed." He added that "milk does not transmit BSE."

To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:51 PM EDT

Corn is by far the biggest US crop, and a network of corporations has sprouted up that profits handsomely from it. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sell the seeds and chemicals used to grow it, while Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and their peers buy the finished crop and transform it into meat, ethanol, sweetener, and a range of food ingredients. Known in Washington as King Corn, the corn lobby wields formidable power in political circles. 

And the economic pie these companies gorge on is massive. Pesticide Action Network's Heather Pilatic has an great post about how integrated pest management in US corn fields collapsed with the introduction of Monsanto's seeds engineered to contain the pesticide Bt and with the rise of Bayer's neonicotinoid-pesticide seed treatments—representing billions in annual sales to those companies. On the corn-processing side, government mandates ensure that a huge portion of the corn crop—currently, 40 percent—gets diverted into the fuel supply in the form of ethanol, a huge boon to ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland.

11 Minutes To Eat School Lunch?!?

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

My recent post on the question of food deserts and people's eating habits led me to a topic I haven't touched in a while: school lunches. I wrote about it a lot in 2009-'10, when Congress was working on its once-in-five-years reauthorization of lunch funding.

Amid much hype in late 2010, President Obama signed a reauthorization bill that created new guidelines to encourage more fresh and healthy foods, but allocated an extra 6 cents a day per kid—a miserly sum given that schools have less than $3.00 per day to spend on each kid's lunch, about two-thirds of which goes to overhead, leaving pennies to spend on ingredients.

It's hard for me to imagine that schools can serve up decent food at those rates. And money isn't the only scarce commodity cafeteria operators have to grapple with. Another one is time. Get this:

In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad enough. But realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes (we have been timing it).

That's from Minneapolis sixth graders Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter, writing on the op-ed page of the Minnesota Star Tribune. Ten to 11 minutes to eat lunch? Welcome to fast-food nation, kids, where eating is a necessary inconvenience, to be dispatched with as rapidly as possible.

Nationwide, similar trends hold sway. According to the School Nutrition Association, elementary-school kids get a median of 25 minutes for lunch, while middle and high school students get 30.

Over at the Lunch Tray blog, University of Iowa law professor and parent of public-school children Chris Liebig offers the following explanation for what he calls the "incredible shrinking lunch period":

At a meeting with concerned parents, the school superintendent sympathized with our concerns, but explained how much pressure the administrators were under, because of No Child Left Behind, to raise standardized test scores. As a result, administrators felt that they had to add instructional time to the day, and there were only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess.

What seems to be going on in schools is that administrators are drawing a clean line between eating and education—and squeezing the one in order to make more time for the other in an era of budget cuts.

But as Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel argues, that distinction is false. She points to a post by Karen Le Billion (author of French Kids Eat Everything), who puts the case like this:

Learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom, in my opinion. If we are giving our children a short lunch break, we are teaching them that food is an inconvenience, and eating is an interruption in the day. We encourage them to gobble their food, when the research shows that eating more slowly is healthier. In fact, the French spend longer eating, but eat less–in part because that ‘fullness feeling’ (satiety signal) needs about 20 minutes to get from your stomach to your brain. But the French also spend longer eating because they believe that it’s important to teach kids to eat well—it’s a life skill, like reading.

Hustling kids through lunch, by contrast, seems an ideal way to mint life-long customers for the fast-food industry.

Supermarkets, Food Deserts, and School Lunch

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 7:00 AM EDT
Supermarkets: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

My colleague Kevin Drum has a good post rounding up recent research on the problem of food deserts—neighborhoods that lack access to large supermarkets and are instead served largely by corner stores.

Food deserts have come under scrutiny as a possible cause of obesity and other diet-related health problems in low-income neighborhoods. But as Kevin shows in his post, there's no evidence that adding a supermarket to a neighborhood automatically changes people's diets or improves their health outcomes.

Bum Steer: How Big Pharma Dominates Meat Science

| Thu Apr. 19, 2012 6:41 PM EDT

It isn't just ourselves or our pets that have been getting bigger over the past couple of decades. Turns out, our beef cows have become gigantic too. How big? According to an excellent article by Melody Petersen in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975."

That's a hefty 30 percent gain. What gives? According to Peterson, the main reason is pharmaceutical: heavy use of antibiotics, hormones, and other growth-enhancing drugs. Peterson untangles the web that connects pharmaceutical giants like Merck to professors at big public land-grant universities, who not only act as paid researchers to develop new products but also as shills who appeal directly to cattle feedlot operators.

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Tom's Kitchen: Ice Cream to Melt the Blues

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Somewhere, there exists a photo of three-year-old me with an ice cream cone crammed by my tiny fist into my face, which is marked with dark splotches of Rocky Road. My expression is focused, beatific, like that of a religious fanatic at prayer. To this day, I remember howls of adult laughter echoing around me. I didn't give a damn—what mattered was getting that creamy, crunchy, sweet stuff into my mouth.

I try to play it cooler these days, but the joy I take in the famed cold confection has changed little. I don't eat ice cream everyday, as my three-year-old self vowed I would once I threw off the yolk of adult meddling. But I do love a little of it it now and then, especially when I'm feeling dented.

Four Things Grosser Than Pink Slime

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
One way that nasty bacterial strains from factory farms make it to "the community"--i.e., you.

The specter of "pink slime"—pureed, defatted, and ammonia-laced slaughterhouse scraps—has caused quite the uproar over the past six weeks. (The latest: Propublica has a great explainer on pink slime and other filler products.) The current fixation on pink slime may well lead to the demise of the product; already, supermarket and fast-food chains and school cafeterias are opting to stop adding the stuff into their burger mixes. The company's maker, Beef Products International, has had to temporarily shut down three of its four plants in response to collapsing demand, which doesn't augur well for the company's long-term health.

But I'm wondering if focusing on the ew-gross aspects of "lean, finely textured beef" (as the industry calls it) doesn't miss the bigger picture, which is that the meat industry's very business model is deeply gross. Even if pink slime is purged from the face of the earth, the system that produces our meat and related products (eggs, milk) won't be fundamentally changed. A while back, I identified something about meat production that's "even grosser than pink slime"—proposed new rules that would privatize inspection at poultry slaughterhouses while dramatically speeding up kill lines. Here are four more.

How the NY Times Got It Wrong on the FDA's New Antibiotics Rules

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 1:10 PM EDT
Will the FDA's new rules change this scenario? Not likely.

A casual reader taking in my account and the New York Times' account of yesterday's big FDA antibiotics announcement might have thought we were reacting to different events. Here's the Times lead:

Farmers and ranchers will for the first time need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs' overuse.

In the Times' reading, the FDA placed significant restrictions on antibiotics use. My take was more critical: "The plan contains a bull-size loophole—and is purely voluntary, to boot."

What gives? In short, the Times delivered a skim-level, FDA-friendly account of the new plan. Let's start with the loophole. Here's the Times:

Michael Taylor, the F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for food, predicted that the new restrictions would save lives because farmers would have to convince a veterinarian that their animals were either sick or at risk of getting a specific illness. [Emphasis added.]

The bolded part is the key. As I reported yesterday, the FDA plan intends to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, but allows them to continue to be used to "prevent" disease. That's a major loophole—it means that farmers can continue stuffing animals together in filthy conditions and dosing them with antibiotics to keep them alive. Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a longtime watchdog of the meat industry's antibiotic-gorging ways, put it like this in a Wednesday press release:

The outlined process appears to give the companies the opportunity to relabel drugs currently slated for growth promotion for disease prevention instead. Such relabeling could allow them to sell the exact same drugs in the very same amounts

None of this comes out in the Times story.

Then there's the voluntary angle. The Times let's the FDA's Mike Taylor spin it:

Initially, the F.D.A. is asking drug makers to voluntarily change their labels to require a prescription; federal officials said that drug makers had largely agreed to the change. If some fail to impose the restrictions, the agency will consider a more forceful ban, Mr. Taylor said.

Sounds good, right? Mellon looks into the plan's nuts and bolts, and find reason for skepticism:

Unfortunately, the process will also be secret. Companies will have three months to submit voluntary plans and three years to implement them. During this entire time, the public will be kept in the dark. It could be three to four years before anyone knows how well the program is working.

Finally, the program contains a stealth gift to the drug industry: It allows companies to "avoid risk assessments for new drug approvals," Mellon wrote.

Now, it is true that the new FDA plan will likely change how antibiotics move from drug company to factory farm. The FDA wants the drug industry to require vets' prescriptions for all human-relevant antibiotics issued to factory farms, and the Times is correct the industry seems willing to (eventually) comply. But because of the prevention loophole, there's just no guarantee that the move will significantly reduce the meat industry's voracious and reckless use of antibiotics.

FDA's New Rules on Factory Farm Antibiotics Are Flawed—and Voluntary

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 5:04 PM EDT
These not-so-little piggies get a daily dose of antibiotics. Will the FDA's new initiative change that?

Without much warning and indeed just in time to catch me on a deadline for another story, the FDA finally got around to announcing its plan to address something it has seen as a public-health menace for 35 years: overuse of antibiotics on factory-scale animal farms.

Unfortunately, the plan contains a bull-size loophole—and is purely voluntary, to boot.

Before I get into the weak parts of the announcement, let me point to the positive. In its press release, the agency states bluntly why a change in policy is necessary:

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections. Because it is well established that all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary. [Emphasis added.]

Now, given that the FDA recently revealed that livestock operations consume 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States (excluding industrial uses), that's a strong statement. The meat industry denies that its drug habit contributes to antibiotic resistance in diseases that affect people. The FDA is now on record contradicting that.

Now to the plan itself. Here it is (also from the FDA's press release):

Under this new voluntary initiative, certain antibiotics would not be used for so-called "production" purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency in an animal. These antibiotics would still be available to prevent, control or treat illnesses in food-producing animals under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Okay, let's unpack some things here. Currently, antibiotics have three uses on factory livestock farms. The first is growth promotion. For reasons that are little understood, when animals get small daily doses of the the stuff, they grow faster. The second is disease prevention. When you stuff animals together in filthy conditions, they tend to get sick and pass diseases among themselves rapidly. So the industry likes to dose them regularly to keep them from getting sick. The third use is disease treatment—an animal comes down with a bug and gets treated with antibiotics.

So the FDA is stating its intention to phase out the first use and leave the other two intact. But preserving the second use, prevention, leaves a gaping loophole. First of all, how can anyone distinguish giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease from giving them small daily doses to promote growth? The industry can simply claim it's using antibiotics preventively and go on about its business—continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to menace public health by breeding resistance.