Tom Philpott

Utah Follows Iowa in Factory Farm Video Ban

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 6:20 PM EST

For me, Utah conjures up visions of Mormons and dramatic canyons, not factory-scale facilities stuffed with pigs and hens. Yet the state's western half contains four counties with "extreme" concentration of such facilities, and three more that rank as "severe," according to Food and Water Watch. One of those counties, Beaver, is home to Circle Four Farms, a subsidiary of hog giant Smithfield Foods. Circle Four churns out a million pigs per year in just 40 buildings.

Perhaps emboldened by their peers in Iowa, Utah's state legislators have passed a law that would help shield such farms from scrutiny. Like the recently passed Iowa law, the Utah bill would prohibit people from getting jobs at farm facilities under false pretenses—an attempt to stop animal welfare groups from documenting conditions there.

The Iowa and Utah bills represent a new wave of attempts to protect the meat industry from the scrutiny of watchdog groups. The first wave of bills, which floated around state houses throughout farm country last year, sought to criminalize sneaking cameras into factory farms. Those bills failed because of concerns about constitutionality, Amanda Hitt, executive director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign, told me.

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The "Pink Slime" in Your Kid's School Lunch

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 6:30 AM EST
USDA photo of a beef grinding operation

Like a horror-film villain, "pink slime"—the cheeky nickname for scraps of slaughtered cow that have been pulverized, defatted, subjected to ammonia steam to kill pathogens, and congealed into a filler for ground beef—takes a pounding but keeps coming back.

Last month, McDonald's announced it would stop using the stuff. But just this week, pink slime got a de facto endorsement from none other than the USDA, which—the online journal The Daily reported—plans to keep buying millions of pounds of it for use in the National School Lunch Program.

These developments are just the latest installments of a long-playing drama. The product first entered my consciousness in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., when the product's maker, Beef Products International, was proud enough of its now-infamous burger extender to do what no other meat company would: invite filmmaker Robert Kenner into its factory to film its shop floor in action.

Rush Lashes Out at Another Accomplished Young Woman

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 7:17 PM EST
Tracie McMillan

Undaunted by the fiasco of his misogynist diatribe against Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh has aimed his rhetorical bile at another accomplished young woman (via Lindsay Beyerstein). This time his target is an acquaintance of mine: Tracie McMillan, author of the new book The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table.

By Limbaughian standards, the anti-McMillan tirade was tepid and banal; he didn't use the word "slut" or demand sex tapes. Yet it drips with the woman-hating idiocy that has become central to the Limbaugh brand. From the the show's transcript, here's the money bit (the rest is running commentary on the recent New York Times review of MacMillan's book, in which a barely coherent Rush seems to be waxing paranoid about an impending government takeover of the food system):

What is it with all of these young single white women, overeducated—doesn’t mean intelligent. For example, Tracie McMillan, the author of this book, seems to be just out of college and already she has been showered with awards, including the 2006 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Social justice journalism. This woman who wrote the book on food inequality, food justice, got an award for social justice journalism. She has a B.A. from New York University in political science. She's a political scientist. She's a journalist. She has received awards for social justice journalism, and she has a book out on food justice.

Iowa Moves to Keep Its Factory Farms Shielded From View

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 4:10 AM EST
Now you see it, now you don't: a screenshot from Mercy for Animals' 2011 video of Iowa egg operation Sparboe Farms.

On Friday, Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed a bill that will make it much more difficult for animal welfare advocates to sneak cameras into Iowa's factory livestock farms. The bill's fate is being watched nationwide, because Iowa's factory farms grow more hogs and keep more egg-laying hens than those of any other state.

The news got me to thinking of my own attempt, years ago, to peer inside an animal factory.

I was on a tour of a rural Iowa county, given by some farmers who were angry that massive hog-raising facilities had been plunked down in their community (I wrote about it here). At one point, we got out of the van so I could gape at two rows of such low-slung buildings, each holding thousands of hogs. A vast manure cesspool separated the two rows.

Even more repellent than the smell—which nearly dropped me to my knees—was the large man who came barreling out of one facility to demand to know what we were up to. When we informed him that we were citizens standing on a public road, he reminded us that just beyond that road lay private property, and we'd be well advised not to set foot on it. I asked him if I could have a look inside one of the buildings. He shot me a glare and turned on his heel, barking into his cell phone as he returned to his lair. I took the response as a "no," and we moved on.

Tom's Kitchen: French Lentils, Delicious (and Easy) Dinner

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST

I love legumes of all kinds, but I'm not always together enough to soak, say, white beans the night before I want them. Many cooks address the soaking problem with a pressure cooker, which can take any bean from rock-hard to cooked in less than an hour. I don't have a pressure cooker, so I turn to the lentil, which cooks in less than an hour without soaking anyway.

Lentils may bear some of the baggage of people's bad college cooking. In my college days in the '80s, we were of that generation whose parents had raised us to demonize salt, so we had no idea how or even whether to use it. I remember eating too many grim bowls of mushy, gray, aggressively bland lentils at friends' houses. But those days are long gone. Now lentils are good!

These days, my two favorite varieties are red lentils, which I cook with plenty of caramelized onions and Indian spices, and the French kind, which are green. Unlike many other lentil varieties, the French ones stay firm when cooked. And they have a great rustic flavor on their own, so it doesn't take much to make them to taste delicious, and well, French. I just cook them with what the French call a mirepoix—a mixture of chopped onion, celery, and carrots. To jazz up my usual French lentil dish this time around, I made a quick arugula and red onion salad. Over rice, or with some crusty bread, it makes a good dinner.

French Lentils With Arugula-Red Onion Salad

Serves three
Ingredients:
3 carrots, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium-size onion, chopped
Olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 red-hot dried chili pepper, chopped (optional)
½ teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika (optional)
1 cup French (also called puy) lentils
½ (lengthwise) of a medium-size red onion, sliced into thin, short strips
1 good handful of arugula (Italian parsley will work too)
A lemon and some olive oil for dressing
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1) Add a good splash of olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot, and turn heat to medium-low. When the oil shimmers, add the mirepoix vegetables and sauté, stirring occasionally, until they're soft. Add the garlic and the chili pepper and paprika (if using), and stir. Let it sizzle for a second, and then add the lentils. Stir them in, letting them sauté for a few seconds, and add enough water to cover them by an inch or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, turn heat to low, and let them simmer until they're tender but still pleasantly firm. Check occasionally, and be ready to add water if the lentils threaten to dry out.

2) After the lentils have simmered a while and are almost done, make the salad. Add the onion slices to a medium sized bowl and over them, tear the arugula leaves into bite-sizes pieces with your hands. Add a good pinch of sea salt, a grind of black pepper, a splash of olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Combine with your hands and taste, adding a little more of whatever in the dressing seems to faint.

3) When the lentils are done, season with sea salt, pepper, and lemon juice. (Actually, lentils are a great way to learn the genius of salt. First taste the cooked lentils unseasoned, then add salt a pinch at a time, tasting after each pinch. Note how the salt draws out the other flavors out as you add it bit by bit. Be careful not to over-salt—you want to taste the food, not the salt). Distribute them among three bowls, leaving a little behind for seconds, and garnish each bowl with the salad on top. Serve with bread.

How Coca-Cola Squeezes Workers in Italy's Orange Groves

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 3:15 PM EST

When I think of southern Italy, a kind of mental postcard comes to mind: a table laden with seafood, pasta, and wine, with Homer's "wine-dark sea" sparkling in the sun-drenched background.  

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. The food and sights can be glorious, but amid the region's base of small farms there exist industrialized, plantation-scale operations. And scale aside, working conditions on the region's farms are hardly idyllic. Last year, the UK-based Ecologist published a blistering exposé of working conditions in the region's tomato fields, which produce for the nation's vast canned-tomato export industry. Workers, mainly migrants from Africa, live in slave-like conditions, with meager pay and awful housing. As is too often the case in the United States, people who spend their time harvesting food live in dire poverty, often having to rely on charity for enough to eat.

Now the Ecologist is back, this time with a report on conditions in southern Italy's orange groves, which produce fruit to be juiced for the processed food industry, including Coca-Cola and its Fanta soft drink. It's not clear whether any of the Italian juice ends up in Fanta sold in the US. "The majority of the juice we procure from this area is used in products for our Italian market," the company wrote in a statement to the Ecologist. Honestly, I'm surprised there's any real juice in Fanta at all.

For the article, the Ecologist reporters visited a variety of work camps and talk to numerous workers, in the process sketching a hellish picture.

They typically earn 25 euros [about $33] for a day’s work in the Calabrian orange groves. They are often recruited by gangmasters acting on behalf of farm owners cashing in on the ready supply of cheap labour. The gangmasters, both Africans and Italians, can charge workers for transport to and from the orange farms—typically between 2.5 to 5 Euros—and sometimes make other deductions from wages paid by farmers. Many of the migrants in Rosarno and the surrounding countryside live in appalling conditions, in run down buildings or in makeshift slums on the edge of town. There's no electricity or running water. In many cases there's no functioning roof.

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Diet Soda, the Silent Killer?

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Vintage diet sodas from the '60s and '70s

What is this thing called diet soda? Here are the ingredients of one of the best-selling brands, Diet Pepsi:

CARBONATED WATER, CARAMEL COLOR, ASPARTAME, PHOSPHORIC ACID, POTASSIUM BENZOATE (PRESERVES FRESHNESS), CAFFEINE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL FLAVOR

My favorite line on that list is the "preserves freshness" that follows potassium benzoate. The freshness of what, precisely? The caramel color? Not likely—caramel color for most colas comes from a chemical reaction between sugar, ammonia, and sulfites at high temperatures. Or maybe it's the phosphoric acid? Or the least plentiful ingredient of all, the unspecified "natural flavor"? In plain English, diet soda is artificially blackened water tarted up with synthetic chemicals. That anyone ponies up cash for such a thing surely counts as one of the food industry's greatest marketing triumphs.

Video: Eric Schlosser Talks Food and Class

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Will Allen of Growing Power gives a composting workshop in inner-city Milwaukee.

One of the most effective arguments against transforming our food system is the class one: Sure, it's great if well-heeled coastal urbanites want to pay up for food grown without chemicals, but that kind of agriculture can never be productive enough to feed poor people. For that reason, we need monocropped fields of corn and soy, factory-scale livestock operations, and annual monsoons of agrochemical.

In this view, food system reform advocates like me are raging elitists, and Big Food institutions like McDonald's and Walmart are populist champions of the working poor.

I call it the two-food-systems solution: a niche local-organic one for the few willing to pay up; a dominant chemical-driven one for everyone else. In essence, that model describes what has evolved here in the United States over the past 20 years: vibrant islands of farmers markets and CSAs in a vast swamp chemically produced calories.

But what if we transformed the entire food system—precisely because it so ill-serves low-income people, who do the behind-the-scenes dirty, dangerous work to keep it humming?

At a conference I attended last May in DC, I heard Eric Schlosser—whose seminal 2001 book Fast Food Nation exposed the brutal working conditions that underpin what he called "all-American meal"—deliver a brief, damning refutation of the claim that Big Food is somehow the anti-elitist champion of America's working poor. The context of Schlosser's remarks was somewhat ironic, for he was introducing perhaps the most elite proponent of sustainable agriculture on Earth: His Royal Highness, Prince Charles of Wales, who went on to give an equally lucid and clear-eyed indictment of global industrial agriculture.

The Making of an Agribusiness Apologist

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 4:18 PM EST

Earlier this month, Forbes.com published an op-ed by Jon Entine in which he purported to debunk Dashka Slater's must-read recent Mother Jones profile of Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley professor who found that tiny doses of the widely used herbicide atrazine affects frogs' sexual development.

Entine, who describes himself as an "author, think tank scholar, leadership and sustainability consultant, media commentator, and public speaker on the DNA of human behavior," accused Slater of blatantly overstating the dangers of atrazine, which shows up at low levels in drinking water in farming-intensive areas in the Midwest and South. According to Entine, as it's currently used on American fields, atrazine poses no risks to people or farms. Entine called out Mother Jones for promoting "End of Days hysteria" and displaying "a devastating lack of respect for science." Now, Entine's critique of the science indicting atrazine is sophisticated and deserves to be answered. I have written critically about atrazine before, and much of Entine's critique of Slater's piece applies to my work as well. I'll be digging into that in a forthcoming post.

How Factory Farms Are Killing Seals

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 7:00 AM EST

The meat industry defends its reliance on routine antibiotic use by flatly denying the practice poses any public health problem. The view is summed up by this 2010 National Pork Producers Council newsletter: "[T]here are no definitive studies linking the use of antibiotics in animal feed to changes in resistance in humans." The claim, I guess, is that the drug-resistant bacteria that evolve on antibiotic-laden feedlots stay on those feedlots and don't migrate out.

That contention is looking increasingly flimsy. My colleague Julia Whitty recently pointed to a new study showing that a particular antibiotic-resistant pathogen "likely originated as a harmless bacterium living in humans, which acquired antibiotic resistance only after it migrated into livestock." In its new, harmful form, Julia reported, the bacterial strain "now causes skin infections and sepsis, mostly in farm workers."

And humans aren't the only creatures paying the price of routine antibiotic use. A research team from the Pacific Northwest has found that terrestrial pathogens, including strains of E. coli resistant to multiple antibiotics, are now infecting sea mammals. The researchers collected and performed autopsies on more than 1,600 stranded seals and otters over 10 years. They found that infectious diseases accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the deaths. "Comparing the diseases found in marine mammals with terrestrial mammals has identified similar, and in many cases genetically identical disease agents," the researchers report.