Tom Philpott

The Mystery of Exploding Pig Poop

| Thu Feb. 9, 2012 7:00 PM EST
Stink bomb: Potentially explosive foaming manure on a hog farm

A specter haunts the Midwest's factory-scale hog farms: the specter of explosive "manure foam." From the Minnesota Daily:

A few years ago, hog farmers throughout the Midwest noticed foam building on top of their manure pits. Soon after, barns began exploding, killing thousands of hogs while farmers lost millions of dollars.

And you thought Santorum was gross.

But seriously, what gives? First, it helps to have an idea of how manure is handled at industrial hog facilities. In his classic 2005 Rolling Stone exposé of the industrial pork giant Smithfield, Jeff Tietz provided a vivid description:

The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

The manure itself is pretty nasty, too. Pigs on factory farms are given daily doses of antibiotics and growth-promoting additives like ractopamine, much of which ends up in their waste. So what you get in those cesspools, the ones now exploding in the Midwest, is kind of a stew of bacteria, antibacterial agents, and novel antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains, all mixed with the random detritus described by Tietz.

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US Pushes the World to Import Our Dodgy Meat

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 8:08 PM EST
Paylean is the brand name for Eli Lilly's growth-promoting hog-feed additive ractopamine.

Remember that recent story by Helena Bottemiller (my post about it here) on how the US meat industry regularly doses hogs and cows with an additive called ractopamine that makes their meat leaner but also stresses them out?

According to Bottemiller, the FDA approved ractopamine back in 1999 based on industry-funded science that remains controversial. Traces of the chemical, made by the animal-medicine subsidiary of the pharma giant Eli Lilly, routinely make it into the meat supply. And that's precisely why it's banned in dozens of countries, including the entire European Union as well as China and Taiwan. These countries also refuse to accept meat imports that contain residues of it.

Turns out, the Obama administration isn't just content to allow domestic meat producers to expose American consumers to Lilly's chemical. It also wants to impose it on consumers throughout the world, even those who live in one of countries where it has been banned. The issue has emerged as a central dispute in trade talks with Taiwan, because inspectors in that nation have been refusing to allow in American meat that tests positive for ractopamine.

Heading to California's Annual Organic-Farming Woodstock

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:34 PM EST

At California's annual Eco-Farm conference, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, farmhands, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference center an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk seeds, weeds, and agribiz misdeeds amid the dunes. I loved it when I attended in 2008. At the Asilomar center overlooking Monterery Bay—incidentally, the site of a seminal meeting of scientists and lawyers about how to proceed with GMO research way back in 1975—there's no brain-sucking hotel auditorium, no day upon day of artificial light and processed air. Break-out sessions take place in scattered bungalows, linked by trails through rolling dunes. The low roar in the background isn't some infernal highway; rather, waves lashing up against a rocky shore. It's a bit like summer camp for sustainable-ag nerds: You wind up outdoors a lot, wandering from activity to activity, often pelted by rain.

I'll be there for the next several days, filing dispatches as possible. I'm also giving a talk on how it's up to communities to create alternative food systems in an era of outright industry capture of regulation and food policy. Here is the schedule.

VIDEO: What Happens to Piglets on Factory Farms

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:30 PM EST

The remarkable thing about Humane Society of the United States' latest factory farm video exposé is how banal it is. No illegal acts like "downer" animals being forced down the kill line with fork lifts, or getting their brains bashed in with a pickax. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs' lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video looks at two aspects of the dirty business of raising thousands of pigs en masse in close quarters: 1) the way pregnant pigs live as they wait to have their litters; and 2) what happens to baby pigs with they're weaned after just three days. Neither is for the squeamish.

In case you couldn't watch, the video illustrates the well-known, widespread practice of confining gestating pigs for months on end in 2 foot by 7 foot crates that deny them room to move or even turn around; and the ghastly (though perfectly legal) custom of snipping off baby pigs' tails without use of painkillers.

The targets are two relatively obscure but quite large companies in Oklahoma, Seaboard Foods and Prestage Farms, the nation's third- and fifth-largest hog producers. In addition to raising hogs, Seaboard also slaughters them and sells pork to large retailers, including Walmart. Its brands include the rustic-sounding Prairie Fresh; and the company's website proclaims its "strong commitment" to animal welfare.

80 Percent of Chicken Growers Never Sanitize Poop-Filled Crates

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 8:13 PM EST
You don't want to tailgate one of these—trust me.

I was going to call this post "The Poultry Industry's Dirty Secret," but then I got to thinking: Isn't that too broad? It raises the question of which dirty secret—the fact that it turns independent family farmers into low-income serfs? Intentionally feeds arsenic to chickens, which ends up both in meat and in ground water? Severely damages one of the nation's most productive fisheries with tainted chickenshit? Routinely sends out chicken that's infected with pathogens resistant to several antibiotics?

So I added the parenthetical modifier "latest." This one shocked even me. Reports the meat-industry trade journal Meatingplace (sub required):

Survey results seem to indicate that about 80 percent of poultry growers don’t ever sanitize their crates, according to an Auburn University survey of 10,317 farms. What’s more, just 18.3 percent sanitize their trucks and trailers—two areas that contribute to the spread of Salmonella and Campylobacter.

What does this mean? First it's important to get some definitions straight. For background, this Humane Society of the United States report (PDF) delivers a pretty good overview of how poultry facilities work. Every year, HSUS informs us, the industry raises 9 billion birds in sheds the size of 1.5 football fields (about 450 feet) lengthwise and 40 feet wide. These factory-style facilities hold as many as 20,000 chickens, with enough space to offer each about a letter-size piece of paper's worth by the time they reach market size.Naturally, such conditions—along with the industry's zeal to get birds to fatten as quickly as possible—leads to all manner of injury and disease, HSUS reports:

Between 5-7 weeks of age, broiler chickens spend 76-86 percent of their time lying down, depending on the degree to which they suffer from lameness. This unusually high level of time spent lying down is thought to be related to fast growth and heavy body weight, and, in turn, leads to breast blisters, hock burns, and foot-pad dermatitis. Because sheds are sometimes cleared of litter and accumulated excrement only after several consecutive flocks have been reared, the birds often must stand and lie in their own waste and that of previous flocks.

As I've written so many times before, these sad birds are kept alive by daily doses of antibiotics—and so it's no surprise that in 2008, Johns Hopkins researchers found not only poultry-house manure, but also flies that find their way into the houses, to be rife with bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Tom's Kitchen: A Spicy-Hot Soup to Crush Your Cold

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 3:37 PM EST

When I come down with a cold, I avoid treating it with pharmaceuticals that mask symptoms. Instead, I try to ramp up my immune system to fight the cold back the hippie way: with herbs and vitamin C and the like.

But there's no doubt that cold symptoms—sore throat, stuffed nose, irritated sinuses, lethargy—really, really suck. For more years than I care to calculate, I've been fighting these vexations with a fiery soup, loosely based on a Mexican specialty called sopa de tortilla. It won't really "crush" your cold, as the headline promises, at least not permanantly, but it will send it packing for the time it takes you to eat a bowl or two and for about 15 minutes after. During that blessed period, your sore throat will vanish, your sinuses will open and allow you to breathe freely, and overall, you'll feel like a million bucks instead of death warmed over. I credit the latter effect to the feel-good endorphins that chile peppers are said to release.

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Supermarket Meat Comes From Sick Animals

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:25 PM EST

At Maverick Farms, we keep a flock of chickens for eggs. It seems axiomatic to me that the happier and healthier the birds are, the better the eggs will be. So if a salesperson showed up pitching a product that would, say, boost egg production by 5 percent, while making our birds sick, but just healthy enough to keep laying, I'd send him packing. Who wants to eat eggs from a sick chicken? And why would I intentionally harm the animals who provide my eggs?

The US meat industry has different ideas. Its main goals are to maximize production while minimizing costs. Animal health matters only to the extent that the animals need to be well enough to scuttle down the slaughter line (or produce eggs, in the case of hens). Thus the industry routinely feeds livestock stuff that makes them sick.

Reporting for the newly hatched Food and Environment Reporting Network, the excellent food-safety reporter Helena Bottemiller exposes one major example: the widespread use on factory-scale hog farms of ractopamine, a drug that boosts meat production but makes hogs miserable. The drug—fed to 60 to 80 percent of pigs, Bottemiller reports—"mimics stress hormones, making the heart beat faster and relaxing blood vessels." Its effects are pretty dire:

Since it was introduced [13 years ago], ractopamine had sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market, a review of FDA veterinary records shows. Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now, 218,000 pigs over 13 years is a rounding error for the pork industry, which slaughters upwards of 110 million hogs every year. The industry has clearly calculated that torturing pigs with pharmaceuticals is worth a few losses, so long as overall meat production gets a boost.

Dow and Monsanto Team Up on the Mother of All Herbicide Marketing Plans

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:43 PM EST
Expect to see lots of this stuff blanketing the Midwest for a long time if Monsanto and Dow get their way.

During the late December media lull, the USDA didn't satisfy itself with green-lighting Monsanto's useless, PR-centric "drought-tolerant" corn. It also prepped the way for approving a product from Monsanto's rival Dow Agrosciences—one that industrial-scale corn farmers will likely find all too useful.

Dow has engineered a corn strain that withstands lashings of its herbicide, 2,4-D. The company's pitch to farmers is simple: Your fields are becoming choked with weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. As soon as the USDA okays our product, all your problems will be solved.

At risk of sounding overly dramatic, the product seems to me to bring mainstream US agriculture to a crossroads. If Dow's new corn makes it past the USDA and into farm fields, it will mark the beginning of at least another decade of ramped-up chemical-intensive farming of a few chosen crops (corn, soy, cotton), beholden to a handful of large agrichemical firms working in cahoots to sell ever larger quantities of poisons, environment be damned. If it and other new herbicide-tolerant crops can somehow be stopped, farming in the US heartland can be pushed toward a model based on biodiversity over monocropping, farmer skill in place of brute chemicals, and healthy food instead of industrial commodities.

Yet Dow's pitch will likely prove quite compelling. Introduced in 1996, Roundup Ready crops now account for 94 percent of the soybean crops and upwards of 70 percent for soy and cotton, USDA figures show. The technology cut a huge chunk of work out of farming, allowing farmers to cultivate ever more massive swathes of land with less labor.

When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012When Roundup Ready crops hit the market in the mid-1990s, farmers started applying more and more Roundup per acre.: From Mortensen, at al, "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," BioScience, Jan. 2012But by the time farmers had structured their operations around Roundup Ready and its promise of effortless weed control, the technology had begun to fail. In what was surely one of the most predictable events in the history of agriculture, it turned out than when farmers douse millions of acres of land with a single herbicide year after year, weeds evolve to resist that poison. Last summer, Roundup-resistant superweeds flourished in huge swathes of US farmland, forcing farmers to apply gushers of toxic herbicide cocktails and even resort to hand-weeding—not a fun thing to do on a huge farm. A recent article in the industrial-ag trade journal Delta Farm Press summed up the situation: "Days of Easy Weed Control Are Over."

USDA Greenlights Monsanto's Utterly Useless New GMO Corn

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 4:15 PM EST

You've got to keep an eye on US regulatory agencies in the second half of December. That's when watchdog journalists like me tend to take time off—and regulators like to sneak gifts to the industries they're supposed to be regulating. This year, I was alert enough to detect this gift from the FDA to the meat industry; but the USDA caught me napping. The agency made two momentous announcements on GMO crops, neither of which got much media scrutiny. It deregulated Monsanto's so-called drought-tolerant corn, and it prepared to deregulate Dow's corn engineered to withstand the herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba. More on the later this week. 

The drought-tolerant corn decision, which came down on Dec. 21, was momentous occasion, because it marked the first deregulation of a GMO crop with a "complex" trait. What I mean by that is, the other GMOs on the market have simple, one-gene traits: a gene that confers resistance to a particular herbicide, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed or a gene that expresses the toxic-to-bugs properties of the bacteria Bt, as in Monsanto's Bt seed. But a plant's use of water is a complex process involving several genes; there's no single "drought tolerant" gene. Generating such traits in plants that succeed in field conditions has been considerably more tricky for the agrichemical giants than than simple traits.

Paula Deen Hawks a Dubious Diabetes Drug

| Wed Jan. 18, 2012 7:32 PM EST
Detail of an ad campaign for a Novo Nordisk diabetes drug featuring Paula Deen.

I generally don't believe in skewering people, even celebrities, for their health problems and/or how they deal with them. So at first I hesitated to join the chorus lambasting Paula Deen for waiting three years to disclose that she has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But Deen's stubborn insistance on using her Food TV forum to promote unhealthy food, and her long-time role as a paid shill for industrial-meat giant Smithfield, tempted me to comment on her announcement. (Evidence is mounting, by the way, that industrially raised meat contributes to diabetes risk.).

What pushed me over the edge was her debut this week as a spokesperson for pharma giant Novo Nordisk's diabetes treatment Victoza. As Anthony Bourdain tweeted in response to the announcement, "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later." Here, Deen isn't making a private decision on how to treat an ailment; she's turning her ailment into a quite-public revenue stream. And she's broadcasting a clear message to her legion of fans: Eat all the junkie food you want, and don't worry, because the pharmaceutical industry will bail you out.