Tom Philpott

Is the Butterball Turkey Shortage for Real?

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 6:00 AM EST

The interwebs are aflame with news that Butterball, the nation's largest turkey processor, has been beset with a shortage of "large, fresh" (i.e., 16 pounds and over) specimens for the nation's Thanksgiving tables. The company has plenty of frozen monster-size birds, it emphasizes, but will only fill about half of its orders to retailers for the never-frozen kind. Other industrial-turkey giants like Cargill have reported no problems fattening their birds.

What gives at Butterball, the supplier of 1 in 5 US turkeys? In a statement sent to me and other journalists, Butterball is vague about the reasons for the shortage, citing only a "decline in weight gains on some of our farms." In other words, the turkeys that Butterball's contract farmers raise aren't growing as quickly as expected.

This is odd. If there's one thing the modern poultry industry has mastered, it's fattening millions of fowl extremely quickly. And turkeys have been getting bigger and bigger for decades. "[T]urkeys have increased in average weight annually for at least the past 40 years," the US Department of Agriculture revealed in a 2005 report. The USDA added that the average weight of a turkey at slaughter jumped from 18 pounds in 1965 to an enormous 28.2 pounds in 2005—a 57 percent increase. By 2012, the average had inched up to a hefty 29.8 pounds. This is not an industry that's typically plagued by size issues.

Butterball says it's "continuing to evaluate all potential causes," but it has so far declined to name any. Given the near-complete dearth of information, I've come up with a few highly speculative possibilities that may—or may not—explain the case of the missing monster turkeys. I ran them past a Butterball spokesperson, but received no comment. Like a nice slice of roast turkey—preferably from a bird raised outside on pasture—these ideas should be taken with a few grains of salt. But until Butterball divulges more information, speculation is all we have.

Is it the (lack of) ractopamine, stupid? Ractopamine, a drug that mimics stress hormones in animals but makes them pack on lean weight rapidly, is a popular feed additive on factory-scale US farms. It's most famously used in hog production, but the Food and Drug Administration allows a ractopamine product called Topmax for turkeys (and it's also approved for beef cattle). Meanwhile, the European Union, China, Taiwan, and Russia all ban the use of it because traces of it end up in meat, and China and Russian have both banned imports of pork from pigs that were raised on it.

What does this have to do with Butterball and its big-bird shortfall? Well, according to the trade journal WattAgnet, Butterball exports 15 percent of its annual output—that's 100 million pounds of turkey products—and "develops new products that cater to international markets and customs." As well it might, because as the USDA reports, US per capita annual turkey consumption has been declining, going from 17.5 pounds per person in 2008 to 16.4 pounds last year. Meanwhile, total US turkey exports have surged from 546.52 million pounds in 2007 to 741 million pounds in 2012.

So did Butterball, which supplies feed rations to its contract farmers, quietly cut out the ractopamine to preserve its export markets—and in the process, create a shortage of large birds? The company offered no comment on that possible explanation. Indeed, to my knowledge, it has never acknowledged using ractopamine. My colleague Kiera Butler asked the company about ractopamine a year ago, and got no response. But the controversial drug apparently is commonly used by the US turkey industry—in February, Russia explicitly banned US turkey products over the ractopamine issue. Two weeks ago, Russia rescinded its ban on US turkey effective the end of November, declaring it had conducted inspections of US turkey-processing plants. 

Is it the pricey corn? The main feed for industrial turkey is corn—and corn prices have been high for the last half decade, and spiked last year because of the Midwestern drought. In testimony before the House of Representatives this year, National Turkey Federation president Joel Brandenberger complained bitterly about the high price of corn, declaring it "the primary reason one turkey company went bankrupt in 2012 and why the industry already has lost 750 jobs in the last 12 months."

Is the great big-turkey shortfall of Thanksgiving '13 a "marketing ploy to build turkey hype"?

Did high corn prices inspire Butterball to substitute some corn in its feed mix for cheaper, lower-calorie alternatives—and sacrifice some bird growth in the process? That's the first thing that crossed the mind of Cornell professor emeritus of nutrition Malden Nesheim, who started out his Cornell career as a poultry nutritionist. He told me that the only other explanation that would make sense to him would be a disease among Butterball's flock—but that is "highly unlikely," since the company sources from several growers. Distillers grains, a byproduct of the process of turning corn into ethanol, is a popular corn substitute on factory farms. According to a report by Sally Noll of the University of Minnesota, distillers grains contain just 84 percent of the energy (calories) of corn. Nesheim told me that it's "plausible" that Butterball's size problem stems from a ramping up of distillers grains, but emphasized that without more information from Butterball, he could only speculate.

Are the FDA's new, voluntary antibiotics rules having an effect? When the Food and Drug Administration released voluntary guidance requesting that the meat industry stop using daily small doses of antibiotics as a growth enhancer last year, I and many other observers mocked the move: first because it was voluntary, and second because the guidelines left a massive loophole in place that could negate any actual cutback (explained here). But what if Butterball is taking the FDA's guidance to heart—and it's causing slower growth among its birds? You'd think the company would crow like a tom turkey if it had made such a change. Again, the company had no comment.

Is it all just a hoax? Time's Laura Stampler suggested the simplest, most elegant explanation: The great big-turkey shortfall of Thanksgiving '13 is a "marketing ploy to build turkey hype." Think about it. Say you made your living selling a product that Americans were consuming less and less of.  And meanwhile, competitors selling niche alternatives—in this case, organic, pasture-raised, or heritage-breed turkeys, or fake turkey analogues—are nibbling away at your market share. Wouldn't you be tempted to create the illusion of a shortage, something to inspire consumers to seek out your product? Scarcity makes the heart grow fonder. Conceivably, that could be going on here.

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In Which I Agree With Big Oil and the Tea Party

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 11:18 AM EST

Amid much fanfare in 2007, Bush signed an energy law that mandated a large and annually increasing amount of corn-based ethanol be mixed into the nation's car fuel supply. Six months or so later, a senator/presidential candidate named Barack Obama could be found jetting about on ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland's corporate airplane and appearing at the openings of new ethanol plants. And his administration has been promoting and defending the stuff ever since.

In their boosterism for corn ethanol, Obama and his predecessor were heeding a bi-partisan consensus that has propped up the industry since the 1970s. But now it's wearing thin. In a document leaked in October, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency revealed it was considering scaling back the amount of ethanol required to be mixed into the gasoline supply in 2014—which, until very recently, would have been an unthinkable affront to King Corn. And then, on Friday, the EPA formally proposed the cutback, and will now take public comment on it, "which is certain to be voluminous," The New York Times dryly noted.

The Demi-Glace Ceiling: Why Do We Ignore Lady Chefs?

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 6:00 AM EST

When Time couldn't think of a single female chef to name to its now-infamous "13 Gods of Food" list, I shared the instant outrage that overtook the internet, but I wasn't surprised at all.

That's because the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige—the increasingly glaring fact that women are largely shut of the food world's top honors—hit me like a sizzling chunk of foie gras to the face in mid-September.

That's when I got the invitation to a prestigious food conference in Westchester County, New York, sponsored by a group called the Basque Culinary Institute. I have to admit my heart skipped a beat. The star-studded guest list—drawn up by the BCI, International Advisory Council, an influential (and all-male) group of chefs known as the G9—included Spanish legend Ferran Adrià, the surrealist godfather of the postmodern cooking style called molecular gastronomy; Michel Bras, whose eponymous restaurant in southern France has held the food world's highest ranking, three Michelin stars, since 1999; and René Redzepi, an Adrià acolyte hailed by The New Yorker as "arguably the most famous Dane since Hamlet" for his radically woodsy "New Nordic" fare.

Big Food Wants to Crush the GMO Labeling Movement

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 6:00 AM EST

In my post yesterday on the defeat of Washington state's GMO labeling initiative, I speculated that the junk-food industry, which had poured millions into defeating the measure, might support a national label.

My logic was this: Coke, Pepsi, Nestlé, etc, profitably operate in Europe, where GMO ingredients are scarce and labeling is mandatory. Presumably, they could do so in the United States, too. Eventually, I figured, they'd tire of fighting the agrichemical/GMO seed industry's fight. I pointed to a statement made yesterday by the Big Food trade group the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), to the effect that it would advocate for "national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with GMO ingredients."

Boy, was I naive. According to GMA documents uncovered by the public-health lawyer and writer Michele Simon, Big Food has no intention of laying down its lobbying or campaign finance swords on the labeling fight. Quite the opposite, in fact. Simon got hold of the documents after the Washington state Attorney General's Office sued the GMA for having "illegally collected and spent more than $7 million" to fight the labeling initiative "while shielding the identity of its contributors." To settle the matter, GMA revealed the names of the companies, which turned out to include Pepsi, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Nestlé USA. Simon told me that she caught wind that the AG's office had obtained the GMA documents during its investigation, and she in turn obtained from the AG's office under a Washington open-records statute. But not before the GMA was given the opportunity to redact portions of the documents.

Even so, the docs contain some juicy stuff. Scroll down to the February 18, 2013, "Privileged and Confidential Memorandum" document, which spells out GMA's labeling agenda. It reports that at a January 19 meeting, GMA's board of directors "coalesced in support of a multi-pronged approach" to "address the challenges presented by proposals for mandatory labeling of any product containing GMOs." Here's what came next:

The key bit is number three: "Pursue a statutory federal preemption which does not include a labeling requirement." Translation: GMA is pushing for a federal law that not only frees the industry from the burden of a national label, but that would also preempt any state labeling requirement. And the group is lining up cash—"a long-range funding mechanism"—for the effort. And it's planning to "oppose all state legislation" in the meanwhile. The GMA did not return my calls seeking comment on the documents.

Message: Proponents of GMO labeling face the lavishly funded opposition of Big Food—a powerful ally for the agrichemical/GMO industry in the battle against labeling.

FDA Moves to Ban Trans Fat

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 1:03 PM EST

Of all the Food and Drug Administration's bows to Big Food—examples here, here, here, and here—perhaps the most pernicious is the status it has long bestowed on partially hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fat: "generally regarded as safe."

With trans fat deemed "GRAS," the food industry has been free to dump the cheap butter substitute in a whole array of foods for decades. Meanwhile, the public health community generally regards the stuff as quite ruinous to a bodily organ generally regarded as critical to one's health: the heart. The Harvard School of Public Health calls it the "worst fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body."

After decades of fending off demands, the FDA finally required food manufacturers to label trans fats starting in 2006. And just today, the FDA announced it had begun the process of revoking trans fat's "generally regarded as safe" status. The process begins with a 60-day comment period. If the agency follows through, any foods containing trans fats will be "considered adulterated under U.S. law, meaning they cannot legally be sold," the FDA wrote in its press release.

For the industry-addled history of the FDA's effort to reckon with the health menace of trans fats, see this post from last year.

Washington State's GMO Labeling Appears Headed for Defeat

| Wed Nov. 6, 2013 2:57 PM EST
A sign carried by a supporter of Washington's GMO labeling initiative at a recent rally in Seattle.

Vote counts go slowly in Washington State, where ballots come in via mail and can be sent in as late as election day. But early returns suggest that—like its predecessor, California's Prop. 37—Washington's ballot initiative that would have required labeling of genetically modified food has been snuffed out under a fluffy pillow of cash from the agrichemical and food-processing industries.

As in California, the Washington initiative, known as I-522, polled strongly early and then swan-dived as the election approached amid a flurry of anti-labeling TV ads. Again, the anti forces outspent the pro forces by a wide margin; again, they promoted the trumped-up charge that labeling would dramatically ramp up food prices, which I debunked here. Here's the money-in-politics group Maplight:

Maplight

You'll note from that list that there are two distinct kinds of corporations that dumped cash into the effort to squash labeling in Washington: agrichemical/GMO seed companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, BASF) and Big Food companies (Pepsi, Nestle, Coca Cola, etc.).

The agrichem firms are united in their zealous opposition to labeling. Their products dominate the corn, soybean, sugar beets, and cotton markets, and GMO versions of these crops suffuse the US food system, making up the great bulk of the sweeteners and fats that end up in processed food. They'd obviously prefer to keep that information off of labels, in fear that consumers might demand non-GMO versions of those products.

The Big Food firms, of course, buy those sweeteners and fats and turn them into highly processed foodstuffs. For them, labeling is inconvenient, but not a major threat. After all, they operate quite happily in Europe, where GMO ingredients are rare and labeling is mandatory. Even before the Washington fight, Big Food was ambivalent about continuing to fight labeling, as Tom Laskawy noted in January. Many of these companies have organic brands, and the cash they devoted to defeating labeling in California put them in a tight spot with fans of their organic lines.

They ended up coming out in force to fund the opposition to I-522, but not without making an awkward and ultimately failed attempt to hide their contributions by funneling them through a powerful trade group called the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the GMA celebrated the likely defeat of labeling in Washington State but left the door open to supporting possible nation-wide labeling that would come from Washington, DC:

Because a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws would be confusing and costly to consumers, GMA will advocate for a federal solution that will protect consumers by ensuring that the FDA, America's leading food safety authority, sets national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with GMO ingredients.

National labeling? If Big Food does get behind it, it could conceivably happen.

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Tom's Kitchen: Kale-Potato Soup With Fried-Shishito Garnish

| Wed Nov. 6, 2013 9:17 AM EST

Back at Maverick Farms, we often have lots of potatoes and kale. And so a go-to dish there—especially when we're feeding a crowd—is the classic Portuguese idea of combining those two staples into a simple soup called caldo verde. The authentic version includes the cured pork sausage known as chorizo. Pork, kale, and potatoes do indeed make a sublime combination, but at Maverick, we often go hippie and leave out the sausage.

Recently, when I found myself with a small bounty of kale, potatoes, and not much else, I knew what to do. I didn't have any stock made, but no matter. Stock—meat-based or vegetable—adds body and richness to soups. But real talk: good old water works fine in a pinch, especially, as in this case, you use a vegetable purée as the base.

Even so, I made this soup just as laid out below and I found it missing one more element—I had adjusted salt, pepper, and given it a lashing of vinegar, and it still wanted something. Then I remembered I had a handful of shishito peppers in the back of the fridge. Shishitos—and their very similar cousin, padrones—are smallish frying peppers famed in Spain because about one in every eight of them is fiery hot (the rest are mild but quite flavorful). In Spain, they sauté shishitos in plenty of olive oil and then lash them with coarse salt—creating an addictive and Russian Roulette-like tapa (I love getting the spicy one.) To garnish this dish, I fried the shishitos as I normally would, chopped them coarsely, and garnished my soup with them. They filled the flavor void.

Tom's Kitchen: Kale-Potato Soup with Fried-Shishito Garnish
Serves four generously

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped fine (optional)
2 pounds potatoes (I used Yellow Fins), chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 quart water
1 bunch of curly kale, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Something acidic—such as fresh lemon juice or Sherry vinegar

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, turn heat to medium add a generous glug of olive oil (enough to cover the bottom, plus a little more). Sauté the onion, stirring occasionally, until it's soft. Add the garlic, give it a few stirs, and add the carrots. Let the carrots sauté a few minutes, than add half of the potatoes and a good pinch of salt. Let the potatoes sauté for a minute, stirring to coat with oil, and then add half of the water. Turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and let simmer until the potatoes are soft.

If you have an immersion blender, now's the time to use it to reduce this chunky concoction to a smooth purée. You can also accomplish this by dumping the contents of the pan into a blender. Take great care and start the whirring on the lowest speed possible and cover it tightly—hot liquids in the blender can be volatile.

Return to the purée to the pot along with the kale, the rest of the water, and a pinch of salt. Give it a stir, turn heat to medium, and cover. Cook until the kale has begun to wilt—about five minutes. Now add the other half of the potatoes, turn heat to low, and cook, covered, until the kale and the second round of potatoes are both tender. Add plenty of black pepper, a splash of lemon juice or vinegar, and taste. Add more salt, pepper, or vinegar if needed. Serve garnished with chopped, fried shishitos (see below).

Things i like to see: shishito peppers sputtering in hot oil

Fried Shishito Peppers

A good handful of shishito peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt

Put a cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, and add more than enough olive oil to cover the bottom. When the pan is hot—test by adding a drop of water to it; it should sizzle—and the peppers in a single layer. They should sizzle and sputter. When they have become browned and blistered on one side, carefully turn each one over with a tongs. Give them a vigorous sprinkle of sea salt at this stage. After the second side has browned, remove them onto a plate with a tongs, pausing for a second over the pan to let the oil drip from each one as you go. Consume half of the fried shishitos as soon as they've cooled enough to eat. For the other half, remove the stems and chop them coarsely.

4 Foods That Could Disappear If New Food Safety Rules Pass

| Wed Nov. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EST
Spinach harvested from a small farm (undisclosed location),

When President Obama signed into law an overhaul of the nation's food safety regime in early 2011, it was clear that the system needed a kick in the pants. Recent salmonella outbreaks involving a dizzying array of peanut products and a half billion eggs had revealed a dysfunctional, porous regulatory environment for the nation's increasingly concentrated food system.  

The law, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was a pretty modest piece of work when it came to reining in massive operations that can sicken thousands nationwide with a single day's output. No surprise, since Big Food's main lobbying group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, notes on its web site that "GMA worked closely with legislators to craft the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and will work closely with the FDA to develop rules and guidance to implement the provisions of this new law." (Food and Water Watch summarizes FSMA here; Elanor Starmer lists some of its limitations here.)

Even for many supporters of food safety reform, one persistent question has long been whether the new rules would steamroll small and midsize farms. Obviously, what would be a light burden for a multinational giant like, say, Kraft Foods, could be a crushing one for a farm that sells its produce at a farmers market. To allay fears of one-size-fits-all regulations—which swirled in sometimes-wildly paranoid forms during the FSMA debate—Congress exempted most operations with sales of less than $500,000 from most of its requirements. But the proof of is in the rule-making—the process by which federal agencies, in this case the Food and Drug Administration, translate Congressional legislation into enforceable law. Congress intended its exemption to save small farms from overly burdensome regulation, but the question remained: How would the FDA put it into action?

Finally, more than two years after Obama signed FSMA, the FDA's rule-making process appears to be nearing an end. And I'm disappointed to report that, according to decidedly nonparanoid, noncrazy observers, the proposed rules as currently written represent a significant and possibly devastating burden to small and midsize players.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a highly respected lobbying and watchdog outfit, has come out with a list of "Top 10 Problems with the Food and Drug Administration’s Proposed Food Safety Regulations for Farmers and Local Food Businesses."

If you'll excuse the gimmick, here are four foods that could go missing if the FDA sticks to the current version of its food-safety rules.

1. The local, organic carrots in your kid's school lunch program. Many farm-to-school programs are facilitated by what the US Department of Agriculture calls food hubs—operations that gather produce from small farmers and sell it, usually to buyers like schools, restaurants, and retailers. The USDA actively promotes them as "strong and sound infrastructure support to producers across the country which will also help build a stronger regional food system." The USDA lists more then 100 active food hubs nationwide.

The new rules imperil food hubs in two ways. The first is through the farms that supply them. The new law's less-than-$500,000 exemption applies only to farms that sell more than half of their produce directly to consumers. But a growing number of small farms earn a significant amount of their income selling to third-party local enterprises like food hubs and food co-ops—and if revenue from those sources exceeds half of total revenue, these farms would lose their exemption and become subject to costly requirements. NSAC points to the FDA's own economic analysis (see page 27) showing that more than 30,000 "small" and "very small" farms would be subject to regulation. The cost of compliance for these farms, USDA shows, will be 4 percent to 6 percent of total gross sales—enough to knock out half or more of a small operation's profits, and turn an operation that's scraping by into one that fails.

Then there's the problem that the FDA's proposed rules have not settled upon a definition of "very small business." If such a definition isn't spelled out, NSAC warns, operations like food hubs could be "regulated well beyond their risk and with compliance costs too high for them to stay in business."

2. The kohlrabi in your farm-share box. You might be annoyed by the amount of kohlrabi (a grievously underrated vegetable) in your CSA, but probably don't want it to disappear altogether. But because the current proposal doesn’t narrowly define "manufacturing facilities," CSAs and other "direct farmer-to-consumer farms that do light processing activities or include produce from another farm in their boxes will be subject to inappropriate, excessive regulations designed for industrial food facilities," NSAC states.

3. The pickles peddled by your favorite hipster farmer. Small value-added operations—like artisanal pickle and salsa makers—are also endangered by these hazy definitions. Indeed, the proposed rules "treat pickles like a dangerous substance," NSAC reports. The FDA does not consider fermentation (pickling) or canning to to be "low-risk" activities, and thus operations that engage in them, no matter how small, will be subject to an onerous thing called the Preventative Control Rule—a set of requirements that make sense for a huge factory but not so much for the farm that produces your prized kimchi. The FDA claims such strictures are important because of the specter of botulism, which is indeed a deadly pathogen, but let's remember that food-borne botulism cases remain vanishingly rare, and its incidence has not risen despite the recent artisanal pickle revival.

4. The local, organic spinach you're hooked on. For me, perhaps the most galling aspect of the proposed FSMA rules involves compost and manure—the lifeblood of soil fertility on organic farms. Under the USDA's organic standards for crops that come into contact with the soil, like greens, farmers can apply raw manure to soil as long as it's at least four months prior to crop harvest. Most organic farmers I know apply manure in November and plant their first cash crops in April, harvesting some of them, like salad greens, soon after. That's a five-to-six-month gap. The FDA's new rules would push the limit for all farms to nine months, making the fertility programs that drive organic farming essentially illegal, and also directly contradicting the FSMA itself, which had stipulated that the new safety safety rules should not conflict with the National Organic Program, NSAC reports. In a recent national survey by the Organic Trade Association and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, 55 percent of respondents said the manure rule would prevent them from maintaining their current crop rotations and crop diversity, and another 45 percent said it would have a "moderate" effect on crop rotation and diversity.

The nation deserves a food safety regime that focuses on real threats while not imposing the same regulatory burden on, say, a CSA or a diversified vegetable farm as it does a giant peanut-paste factory. As Ariane Lotti, NSAC's assistant policy director, told me, "If the proposed regulations are finalized without changes, they will unjustifiably create barriers to sustainable and organic farming, chill the growth in local and regional food systems, and further consolidate farming into the hands of the few who can afford to comply with expensive requirements."

The FDA is accepting public comments on its proposed rules until November 15.

Obama's 5 Biggest Sellouts to the Meat Industry

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EST

When Barack Obama won the presidency in November 2008, taking on the meat industry surely ranked somewhere behind managing the financial crisis and wrangling two wars on his list of priorities.  

Still, he had explicitly promised to crack down on some of Big Meat's excesses. In his campaign literature targeted at rural voters, he deplored "anticompetitive behavior" and "market consolidation" by big meatpackers, and vowed to "strengthen anti-monopoly laws" and "make sure that farm programs are helping family farmers, as opposed to large, vertically integrated corporate agribusiness." He also insisted his administration would  "strictly monitor and regulate pollution" from factory-scale animal farms, backed by "fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards."

Five years and another election later, "how's that hopey-changy thing working" (to quote Sarah Palin) when it comes to challenging the meat industry's power? The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production's landmark report, released months before the presidential election in 2008, provides a good framework for examining Obama's record. Led by a distinguished set of public-health, agriculture, and animal-welfare experts, the Pew Report delivered a blunt assessment of the health and environmental effects of factory meat production—and a set of policy recommendations for cleaning it up. And just last week, the Center for a Liveable Future at Johns Hopkins University (which worked with Pew on the original report) came out with an updated assessment of how things have gone over the past five years—a period that roughly coincides with Obama's presidency.

Unfortunately, Big Meat continues to enjoy a rather friendly regulatory environment nearly a half-decade into Obama's presidency, the report shows. Drawn (mostly) from CLF''s update, here are five ways the Obama Administration has kowtowed to the meat industry.
 

The GAO concluded that on factory farms, the EPA "does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations."

1. Factory farms don't have to register with the EPA. Remember the tough talk about how the administration would "strictly monitor and regulate pollution" from concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs)? Turns out, if you run one of these gargantuan operations—which accumulate vast cesspools of manure that regularly pollute water and air—you're under no obligation to inform the Environmental Protection Agency of your existence, which makes it hard to monitor and regulate your pollution. In a 2008 report, the Government Accountability Office concluded that, because of this information void, the EPA "does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations."

Under pressure from a lawsuit by environmental groups back in 2010, Obama's EPA proposed new rules that would have remedied the situation by requiring CAFOs to file basic information on their operations with the agency.  Then, in 2012, the EPA unceremoniously withdrew the proposed rules, CLF reports. So now we're back to where we were in 2008. Meanwhile, new peer-reviewed research has found that that the closer you live to a large hog operation, the likelier you are to be infected with a dangerous antibacterial-resistant pathogen called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or (MRSA).
 

2) Factory farms are exempt from the most important pollution laws. MRSA isn't the only threat faced by people who live near factory animal farms. As this 2011 paper by North Carolina researchers shows, the foul odors emitted by these operations likely cause a host of problems ranging from eye irritation to difficulty breathing. CAFOs concentrate animal waste and emit ammonia, particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds into the air.

In a craven move just before leaving office in early 2009, President George Bush exempted CAFOs from having to report hazardous air emissions under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund—an exemption that remains in place.

The Obama EPA has not taken back that gift to Big Meat. The holdup, as Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, explained to me, is that the EPA says it doesn't have a reliable way to gauge CAFOs' air emissions (not surprising, given the dearth of data the agency has on CAFOs). The EPA's attempts to get the data necessary to regulate air emissions has been vexed—and the dysfunction dates to the Bush II administration. In an industry-funded collaboration beginning in 2005, the EPA conducted air-quality monitoring at 15 livestock confinements and 9 manure lagoons across the country. When the EPA finally released data from the study in 2011, 11 of those 15 operations exceeded exceeded federal reporting thresholds for ammonia emissions, according to an analysis of it by Environmental Integrity Project. But when the EPA finally released its own analysis of the data, its own Science Advisory Board (SAB) found the EPA's methodologies to be woefully inadequate—and essentially sent the agency back to the drawing board.

And so, under Obama, the EPA's effort to create a system for measuring exactly what enters the air from CAFOs—much less protecting communities from it—has stalled indefinitely, the report finds.
 

3) Big Meat has only gotten bigger, unchecked by antitrust action. Not long after taking office in 2009, President Obama announced a series of public hearings, bringing together farmers with antitrust officials from the Justice Department, to talk through anticompetitive practices in the meat industry. After years of nearly unchecked consolidation—big meat packers combining with and/or buying up smaller meat packers, concentrating market power—this seemed like a radical move. Meanwhile, the 2008 farm bill required USDA to come up with a set of policies, known collectively as the GIPSA rule, designed to level the playing field between livestock farmers and the big meatpackers, which dominate the industry with their contracts. The effort that began promisingly; "Small Farmers See Promise In Obama's Plans," a 2009 NPR report declared.

What has Obama's challenge to the industry's market power amounted five years into his presidency? "[N]ear-total collapse," CLF laments. The DOJ hearings resulted in a 24-page report and little else. The Obama USDA ended up watering down its initially strong GIPSA rule proposal—only to see it essentially gutted by Congress, CLF reports. Meanwhile, "consolidation in the meat industry has continued unabated worldwide," Pew finds.
 

CLF found evidence linking routine farm antibiotic use to human disease—everything from potentially deadly MRSA to urinary-tract infections.

4) CAFOs continue to generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens. There's no more depressing section of the CLF update than the one on the meat industry's reliance on routine antibiotic use. Back in 2008, the commission recommended that the federal government "phase out and then ban the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials" in livestock production. The rational was simple: when you feed tightly confined animals daily doses for antibiotics, microbes quickly evolve resistance to those antibiotics. And some of those microbes—like salmonella and certain forms of E. coli—can cause severe damage to people.

Antibiotics should be reserved for cases when animals are actually sick, not used to stimulate their growth or to try to prevent them from getting sick, Pew concluded.

Five years later, CLF reports, evidence has accumulated linking routine farm antibiotic use to human disease—everything from potentially deadly MRSA to urinary-tract infections. This year, the Centers for Disease Control bluntly acknowledged the problem. The Obama Administration's response to the threat? Amid much fanfare in 2012, the Food and Drug Administration rolled out a voluntary approach—one that, even if the industry chooses to follow it, will likely be inadequate, because it contains a massive loophole, CLF reports (more details here). As a result, "meaningful change" to Big Meat's antibiotics fixation is "unlikely in the near future."
 

5) Obama's USDA is pushing to speed up poultry slaughterhouses, workers be damned. Working conditions in slaughterhouses are beyond the scope of the Pew Commission's original report, but no list of Obama's sellouts to Big Meat is complete without a mention of the US Department of Agriculture's proposed new plans for inspecting poultry line. They're essentially a privatizer's dream: Slash the number of USDA inspectors on the kill line, saving the government some money; hand much of the responsibility for inspection to the poultry packers themselves; allow them to substitute random testing and plenty of antimicrobial spray for the onerous task of inspecting every bird, which means the kill line can speed up, thus saving the industry loads of money.

All of which sounds great, unless you're a worker about to find that your already-hazardous job just got more dangerous; or you're a chicken eater, because, according to a Food and Water Watch analysis of USDA data on its pilot program for the new system, the new system lets some pretty foul stuff through.

Worker and food-safety advocates have pushed back hard against the new rules, but the USDA appears to be sticking to its guns. The department is in the process of finalizing the new plan, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

What It's Like To Sneak Across the Border To Harvest Food

| Thu Oct. 31, 2013 5:00 AM EDT
Author Seth Holmes, second from left (standing), preparing to sneak across the US/Mexico border with Triqui migrant farm workers.

For most anthropologists, "field work" means talking to and observing a particular group. But for Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist at the University of California-Berkeley, it also literally means working in a field: toiling alongside farm workers from the Triqui indigenous group of Oaxaca, Mexico, in a vast Washington state berry patch. It also means visiting them in their tiny home village—and making the harrowing trek back to US farm fields through a militarized and increasingly perilous border.

Holmes recounts his year and a half among the people who harvest our food in his new book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. It's a work of academic anthropology, but written vividly and without jargon. In its unvarnished view into what our easy culinary bounty means for the people burdened with generating it, Fresh Fruit/Broken Bodies has earned its place on a short shelf alongside works like Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating, Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, and Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers.

I recently caught up with Holmes via phone about the view from the depths of our food system.

Mother Jones: What sparked your interest in farm workers—and how did you gain access to the workers you cover in the book?