Tom Philpott - 2012

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

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 4:04 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.

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The Worst Farm Bill Ever?

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 3:18 PM EDT

The farm bill—that vast, byzantine, twice-a-decade plan for federal food, ag, and hunger policy—expires on Sept. 30, just weeks before what promises to be an epically contested presidential election.

Under normal circumstances, getting Congress to agree on such complex and expensive legislation at a politically charged juncture would be daunting. This year, with both parties touting fiscal austerity and with the GOP-dominated House having recently approved a draconian budget proposal, getting a farm bill through the legislative process will be nearly impossible.

But none of that will likely stop Big Agribusiness from getting what it wants, which is programs that underwrite environmentally ruinous, nutritionally vapid corn/soy agriculture. Take Big Ag's lobbying power and add a big pinch of fiscal hysteria and what you get is thin gruel for everything else in the farm bill, which could could choke off the USDA's progressive-ag programs and even result in sharp cuts to hunger programs at a time of high un- and underemployment.

Cocina de Tom: Sweet-Hot and Addictive Mango Salsa

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 1:30 PM EDT

I'm on one of my periodic sojourns to Mexico City, so this will be a "Cocina de Tom" version of Tom's Kitchen (see the first one here).

Now is a particularly glorious time to be in central Mexico, because the first mangos of the season have just hit the markets. To me, mangoes are never sweeter or more vividly flavored than when they first come in. I'm so revelling in them right now that there's no way I can resist featuring mangoes in a dead-simple addictive salsa, inspired by the special all-mango menu at the great Azul Historico in downtown Mexico City.

This spicy concoction can either be scooped up with chips or served as a condiment with grilled meat, fish, or, yes, even tofu.

Now, for US readers trying to eat as much as possible from food grown within their own regions, mangoes may seem an elaborate indulgence. For you, I've shown below how to tweak the recipe for peaches, which will be coming in season soon enough across much of the US.

Mango Salsa
Note: This recipe makes a soup bowl's worth of salsa—enough to to provide a kick to four people's dinners, or a chip snack for two. It is easily multiplied.

1 ripe, medium-sized mango, peeled, flesh removed from seed, and chopped into small cubes; or, 2 ripe medium-sized peaches, treated the same way
1 quarter of a medium-sized onion, preferably red (I used white), chopped fine
1 small clove garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced into a paste (a small pinch of salt, added halfway through the mincing, will help turn it into paste)
½ bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 fresh red-hot chile pepper, minced very fine
1 lime
Sea salt

Combine the first four ingredients in a bowl, plus a pinch of salt, about a quarter of the minced chile, and a squeeze of the lime. Stir. Taste. What you're looking for is sweetness balanced by a bit of sour from the lime cut through with a good blast of chile heat. The salt is just there to magnify and blend the other flavors—the salsa shouldn't taste salty. Add increments of chile, lime, and salt until it's just right for you. When I'm making this salsa as a condiment for other food, I tend to make it on the spicy side; while when I'm intending it as a snack, I make it a bit more mild, so as not to enchilear (spice out) my friends—unless, that is, I'm trying to limit their consumption of it to save more for myself.

Frogs May See Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide As a Predator

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Tadpoles share a meal.

Syngenta's atrazine isn't the only widely used herbicide that appears to have bizarre effects on frogs. According to a study (PDF) from University of Pittsburgh ecologist Rick Relyea, Monsanto's flagship weedkiller Roundup—by far the most-used herbicide on the planet—not only has lethal effects on tadpoles at doses found in ponds near farm fields, but it also literally changes their shape in ways that mimic tadpole's reaction to predators.

Importantly, Relyea stresses that what's likely causing the problem isn't Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, but rather the surfactant Monsanto uses to penetrate plant tissues so that glyphosate can effectively kill weeds.

For his paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Applications, Relyea created conditions in outdoor tanks that mimicked natural wetlands and added tadpoles from three different frog species to the tanks. Some of the tanks contained caged predators (newts and dragonflies) and some didn't. He then exposed the tanks to several different Roundup concentrations—all of them at levels found in ponds in and around farm fields—and waited several weeks.

BPA in Your Food? The FDA's Still Okay With That.

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Bisphenol A, a controversial chemical used in the lining of nearly all cans used by the food and beverage industry, got a reprieve from the government last week. Responding to a court order to decide on the Natural Resources Defense Council's petition to ban the stuff on the grounds that it causes harm even in tiny doses, the Food and Drug Administration rejected the petition and upheld its approval of BPA.

That's good news for some of the globe's biggest chemical companies. According to Bloomberg News, the global BPA market is worth about $8 billion, with about a quarter of total production going into cans. (The rest goes into polycarbonate plastics, which end up in everything from water bottles to DVDs.) Bloomberg adds that the three biggest suppliers of BPA to the American market are the chemical/steel giant Saudi Basic Industries Corp.—which is 70-percent-owned by the Saudi government—the German chemical giant Bayer, and Dow, its US rival. Globally, according to the US Department of Agriculture, Bayer and Dow produce "the bulk" of BPA.

What's Even Grosser Than Pink Slime?

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 3:02 PM EDT
Turkeys headed for the kill at an industrial-scale slaughterhouse.

Last week, two news items crossed my desk that demonstrate the meat industry's power and its threat to public health.

The first is the extraordinary, bipartisan political defense of the embattled, ammonia-laced ground-beef filler that has become known as "pink slime." The second is a proposed plan by the Obama administration to fire USDA inspectors and let the poultry industry inspect its own slaughterhouse lines—while simultaneously speeding up the kill line.

Let's start with pink slime. Democratic and Republican politicians agree on little these days, but they do find common ground on this point: Pink slime is good stuff. Government officials, from USDA chief Tom Vilsack and the USDA's chief food-safety functionary to Texas' ridiculous governor and two other GOP governors, rallied around the ammonia-reeking substance last week, trying desperately to boost the flagging fortunes of its maker, South Dakota-based Beef Products International (BPI). Confirming pink slime's bipartisan appeal, both candidates for a hotly contested Iowa House seat—Tea Party stalwart Steve King and Christie Vilsack, wife of USDA chief Tom—appeared at an event to sing its praises.

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3 New Studies Link Bee Decline to Bayer Pesticide

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 7:40 PM EDT

It's springtime, and farmers throughout the Midwest and South are preparing to plant corn—and lots of it. The USDA projects this year's corn crop will cover 94 million acres, the most in 68 years. (By comparison, the state of California occupies a land mass of about 101 million acres.) Nearly all of that immense stand of corn will be planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides produced by the German chemical giant Bayer.

And that may be very bad news for honey bees, which remain in a dire state of health, riddled by large annual die-offs that have become known as "colony collapse disorder" (CCD). 

In the past months, three separate studies—two of them just out in the prestigious journal Science—have added to a substantial body of literature linking widespread use of neonicotinoids to CCD. The latest research will renew pressure on the EPA to reconsider its registration of Bayer's products. The EPA green-lighted Bayer's products based largely on a study funded by the chemical giant itself—which was later discredited by the EPA's own scientists, as this leaked memo shows.

Farmworkers Get Beat Up in Florida Fields and the US Senate

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

In the heart of Florida's industrial-scale fruit and vegetable fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved the most tangible gains for US farmworkers since the glory days of the California-based United Farm Workers in the 1970s. CIW has methodically taken on large tomato growers and the giant corporations that buy their product, winning for themselves an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they harvest, which amounts to a substantial raise; as well as code-of-conduct agreements between buyers and growers that set up a grievance process for alleged abuses and other protections.

But despite CIW's burgeoning power, conditions remain rough in the area's farm fields—especially on farms that haven't signed the code of conduct. The group's agreements so far only cover tomatoes; workers toiling in other crops remain underpaid and largely unprotected. And last week, the group reported Sunday, a worker from a nearby eggplant field walked into its office wearing a bloodied t-shirt. Here's what happened:

He had been working at a vegetable packing house, packing eggplants, about 10 miles from Immokalee when a supervisor approached him. According to the worker, the supervisor criticized his work, and he, thinking the criticism unjustified, answered back. A discussion ensued when, according to the worker and a witness, the supervisor hauled off and punched him in the face. Staggered, he swung back, but was knocked to the ground by the supervisor before others in the area stepped in to pull them apart. The worker was told to go home, clean up, and return the next day. Instead, he went to the CIW's office, and filed a police report. He then went to the hospital, where he learned that the supervisor's punch had broken his nose.

For CIW, the incident was a haunting reminder of how things were in tomato fields in the mid-1990s, before the penny-per-pound campaign, when another young man walked into the offices wearing a bloody shirt:

He had been picking tomatoes in a field near Immokalee when he stopped to take a drink of water. A field supervisor accosted him, shouted "Are you here to work, or to drink water?", and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied—and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a nighttime march of nearly 500 workers on the crew leader's house. The marchers brandished his shirt as a banner, declaring "If you beat one of us, you beat us all!", and helped launch a movement that changed Immokalee forever.  

While I read CIW's report, I thought about another place farmworkers are getting beat up: in the halls of the US Senate. Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) have introduced what they call "common sense" legislation designed to squash new rules proposed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that impose new restrictions on employing children on farms. The  proposed rules would prevent kids under 16 from handling pesticides, working in animal feedlots, among other things that most people wouldn't want their kids doing.

Tighter Rules for Factory Farm Antibiotics? Maybe.

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 3:00 PM EDT

On Dec. 22, the FDA quietly delivered what I called at the time a "Christmas present for factory farms": It announced it was ending a process it had begun 35 years earlier to determine whether routine antibiotic use on factory-scale kivestock farms posed a public health threat. Instead of pursuing regulation, the agency declared, it would rely on a "voluntary" approach to persuading livestock operations to reduce antibiotic abuse.

This, even though the agency itelf has conceded that that the practice of giving animals raised in tight quarters daily antibiotic doses of generates antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people; and even though the meat industry has shown no appetite to end the practice on its own.

Just three months later, the industry's gift has been unceremoniously snatched back by a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of consumer and enviro groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  

Tom's Kitchen: Frittata With Greens

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EDT

The frittata—an Italian-style open omelette—is surely one the easiest and most versatile ways to throw together a substantial and delicious meal. Therefore, it was inevitable that I'd eventually turn my attention to it for the Tom's Kitchen column.

I learned to make frittatas at the knee of the great Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan. Not literally; I've never met her, and it's a good thing, because if I ever did, I'd likely collapse into a puddle of incomprehensible gushing. But I've studied her immortal Essentials of Classic of Italian Cooking, and it was there, over the past two decades, that I picked up my frittata technique.