Tom Philpott - April 2014

Chicken Nuggets, With a Side of Respiratory Distress

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Think you have it tough at work? Imagine taking a post at a factory-scale poultry slaughterhouse. Chicken carcasses whiz by at the rate of 140 per minute, requiring repetitive hand motions with sharp knives. Then there's the caustic odor of chemical sprays and washes—practices the industry has resorted to in recent years as a way to control bacterial pathogens like salmonella.

The US Department of Agriculture, which inspects the kill line at these plants, has been brandishing a proposal since 2012 that would remove some inspectors from the kill line while allowing the industry to speed them up to a rate of 175 birds per minute—a 25 percent acceleration. The speedup would likely increase reliance on those antimicrobial sprays to manage pathogens: In the USDA's proposal, "visibly contaminated poultry carcasses" would be allowed to remain on-line for treatment with germ-killing chemicals, instead of being taken offline for cleaning, as is the current practice. For companies that opt to keep their "visibly contaminated" birds on the kill line, "all carcasses" on the line would be doused with antimicrobial chemicals, the proposal states, "whether they are contaminated or not."

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Are Your Delicious, Healthy Almonds Killing Bees?

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Honeybees and almond blooms: mutual dependence

California dominates almond production like Saudi Arabia wishes it dominated oil. More than 80 percent of the almonds consumed on Planet Earth hail from there. Boosted by surging demand from China—overall, 70 percent of the state's output is exported—California's almond groves are expanding. The delicious nut's acreage grew 25 percent between 2006 and 2013. In a previous post, I noted how the almond boom is helping fuel a potentially disastrous water-pumping frenzy in a drought-stricken state.

Now comes more unsettling news: California's almond groves are being blamed for a large recent honeybee die-off.

What do almond trees have to do with honeybees? It turns out that when you grow almond trees in vast monocrops, pollination from wild insects doesn't do the trick. Each spring, it takes 1.6 million honeybee hives to pollinate the crop—about a million of which must be trucked in from out of state. Altogether, the crop requires the presence of a jaw-dropping 60 percent of the managed honeybees in the entire country, the US Department of Agriculture reports.

Vermont to Require GMO Labeling

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 8:27 AM EDT

When Maine and Connecticut passed laws last year requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, there was a catch: They withheld implementation "until other states pass similar legislation with the hope of sharing the expense of any litigation," reports the ag trade paper Brownfield. This week, they appear to have gotten their wish. On Wednesday afternoon, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin took to Facebook to announce his intention to sign a bill that had been recently passed his own state's legislature—one with a concrete plan for implementation, by July 1, 2016. "The legislature has spoken loud and clear," he declared. "Vermonters deserve to know what is in their food."

As for the litigation fears expressed by its fellow New England states, Vermont has an answer, Brownfield reports: "The bill also sets up an $8 million fund to implement the rules and defend them if necessary." No doubt, law firms are already jostling for pieces of that action. The agrichemical and food-processing industries, which spent $46 million to defeat a labeling ballot initiative in California in 2012 and another $21 million to beat a Washington State labeling campaign last year, will almost certainly attempt to block the Vermont law in court.

An article published last month in the Vermont paper VTDigger.com portrays the intense lobbying the industry brought to bear as the legislature debated the bill, and lays out the likely legal arguments it will make in court to crush it:

A potential lawsuit would hinge on several legal arguments: First Amendment rights and protections against compelled speech, “equal protection” laws, rules prohibiting conflict between state and federal laws, and the so-called “dormant commerce” clause saying states can’t make laws that will have adverse impact on interstate commerce.

Of course, taking to the courts to defeat a popular initiative won't do much to improve the GMO seed/agrichemical industry's public image. I laid out the reason I support GMO labeling in this post on California's failed ballot initiative.

Why American Apples Just Got Banned in Europe

| Thu Apr. 24, 2014 12:01 AM EDT

Back in 2008, European Food Safety Authority began pressing the chemical industry to provide safety information on a substance called diphenylamine, or DPA. Widely applied to apples after harvest, DPA prevents "storage scald"—brown spots that "becomes a concern when fruit is stored for several months," according to Washington State University, reporting from the heartland of industrial-scale apple production.

DPA isn't believed to be harmful on its own. But it has the potential to break down into a family of carcinogens called nitrosamines—not something you want to find on your daily apple. And that's why European food safety regulators wanted more information on it. The industry came back with just "one study that detected three unknown chemicals on DPA-treated apples, but it could not determine if any of these chemicals, apparently formed when the DPA broke down, were nitrosamines," Environmental Working Group shows in an important new report. (The EFSA was concerned that DPA could decay into nitrosamines under contact with nitrogen, a ubiquitous element, EWG notes.) Unsatisfied with the response, the EFSA banned use of DPA on apples in 2012. And in March, the agency then slashed the tolerable level of DPA on imported apples to 0.1 parts per million, EWG reports.

Monsanto GM Soy Is Scarier Than You Think

| Wed Apr. 23, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Soybeans are the second-largest US crop after corn, covering about a quarter of American farmland. We grow more soybeans than any other country except Brazil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of the soybeans churned out on US farms each year are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, nearly all of them involving one called Roundup. Organic production, by contrast, is marginal—it accounts for less than 1 percent of total American acreage devoted to soy. (The remaining 9 percent or so of soybeans are conventionally grown, but not genetically modified.)

Americans don't eat much of these lime-green legumes directly, but that doesn't mean we're not exposed to them. After harvest, the great bulk of soybeans are crushed and divided into two parts: meal, which mainly goes into feed for animals that become our meat, and fat, most of which ends up being used as cooking oil or in food products. According to the US Soy Board, soy accounts for 61 percent of American's vegetable oil consumption.

Given soy's centrality to our food and agriculture systems, the findings of a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry are worth pondering. The authors found that Monsanto's ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans, engineered to withstand its own blockbuster herbicide, contain more herbicide residues than their non-GMO counterparts. The team also found that the GM beans are nutritionally inferior.

In the study, the researchers looked at samples of three kinds of soybeans grown in Iowa: (1) those grown from GM herbicide-tolerant seeds; (2) those grown from non-GM seeds but in a conventional, agrichemical-based farming regime; and (3) organic soybeans, i.e., non-GM and grown without agrichemicals.

A Single Pot Plant Uses HOW Much Water?!

| Wed Apr. 16, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Dude, where's my stream?

Like college sophomores philosophizing over bong hits late at night, the California North Coast's booming marijuana farms languish in the smoky haze of paradox. On the one hand, they're hyperregulated—that is to say, illegal (with the exception of farms licensed to grow for the medical trade). On the other hand, being illegal, they're essentially not regulated at all, as my colleague Josh Harkinson showed in a recent piece.

A rogue grower tending a plot on a California state park isn't worried about running afoul of state fish-and-wildlife authorities for illegally diverting a stream for irrigation. Instead, he's scrambling to avoid being busted on federal drug charges—and will thus grab any resource necessary to churn out a fast and plentiful pot harvest.

And with California's drought settling in for a long, hot summer, that's bad news for ecosystems that rely on the state's increasingly scarce surface waters—including the once-prolific Northern California salmon run. A recent article in the Mendocino County Press Democrat shows just how dire things have gotten in the state's pot-farm-heavy "Emerald Triangle" (Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties).

A pot plant consumes six gallons of water every day.

The piece looks at a forthcoming study from the California Fish and Wildlife Department on three key Emerald Triangle watersheds. Using satellite imagery, the researchers found that pot cultivation had skyrocketed in the areas since 2009, rising between 75 percent and 100 percent. The three watersheds contain an average of 30,000 pot plants each, they found. (Here's a nifty map). And they're thirsty. According to the Press Democrat, "Researchers estimate each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day. At that rate, the plants were siphoning off 180,000 gallons of water per day in each watershed—all together more than 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants."

Mind you, that's just in the three watersheds the researchers looked at. According to the Press Democrat, there are more than 1 million pot plants in Mendocino alone—not counting legal ones licensed for the medical market.

Already, the region's salmon tributaries are under severe pressure—as many as 24 went dry last year, the Press Democrat reports. And even without the drought, there just isn't enough water available to keep the pot crop humming and the salmon moving along, state Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Bauer told the paper.

And water diversions aren't the only vice indulged in by large-scale pot growers. Last year, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board listed a few others, including land-grading and dam-making that leads to stream-clogging erosion; wanton use of pesticides—most egregiously, wildlife-killing rat poison; and "discarding of trash and haphazard management of human waste."

Of course, like any other crop, pot could be grown in ecologically responsible ways. For example, "if growers collected all their water during the rainy season and stored it in permitted tanks or ponds—like many other farmers—marijuana's water consumption would not be such an issue," one environmental watchdog told the Press Democrat. And in dry years like this one, at least some pot fields could be fallowed, leaving more water for wildlife.

But since pot farming is illegal, growers have little incentive to act as land stewards. Indeed, they tend to sneak onto—and trash—state and federal parkland to plant their illicit crop. If pot farms were legal, growers could be held accountable for their environmental footprint. As one activist told Harkinson for his Mother Jones story, "It is not the growers who are a disease. They are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war."

Of course, legal agriculture isn't a paragon of environmental responsibility, and criminal pot farms aren't the only operations wreaking water havoc in California. As I wrote recently, the state's ag-heavy Central Valley is currently in the midst of sucking dry its fossil water resources, driven largely by a boom in tree nut production and a near-complete lack of regulation of groundwater pumping. The situation has gotten so dire that even big farming interests, which have for decades fought back any pumping regulations, are openly considering the possible need for smarter water rules.

But that debate can't even begin among pot growers until they can no longer hide in the shadows cast by the drug war.

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Tom's Kitchen: Stir-Fried Beef With Celery, Carrots, and Kohlrabi

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Tossing the beef with the vegetables

This recipe owes its existence to the confluence of three unrelated events:

• At the very end of a busy recent trip to San Francisco, I ate lunch at a restaurant called Mission Chinese, a hipster homage to Americanized Chinese food. I had the "Kung Pao pastrami"—an expertly rendered twist on a venerable strip-mall standard.

• While on the plane home, I read a New York Times style piece on "#normcore," an internet meme/elaborate joke/contrived fashion trend that involves the "less-ironic (but still pretty ironic) embrace of bland, suburban anti-fashion attire": stuff like "dad jeans" and Teva sandals.

• The night after I returned from my trip, my mother invited me over for dinner—a simple stir-fried pork dish familiar from my childhood. She brandished a book I hadn't seen in years: an opulently splattered first edition of Joyce Chen Cookbook, the 1962 opus that taught a generation of Americans (including my mom) how to cook Chinese. Just like in the old days, she served it over white rice—a swerve from her decades-long fixation on brown.

Sitting there, transported by that vintage stir-fry to my '70s childhood of Toughskins and pre-hipster Chuck Taylors, it hit me: old-school, US-inflected Chinese is a culinary embodiment of #normcore. Plus, it's really good! (When made with decent ingredients.)

It wasn't long before I was busy in my own kitchen, contriving my own #normcore stir fry. Since I was having a few friends over, I wanted to find the "less-ironic (but still pretty ironic)" sweet spot—and produce something delicious.

From Joyce Chen's recipe for beef with green peppers—a childhood staple—I settled on a protein: "Flank steak is fairly inexpensive and easy to slice," Chen instructs. And she's as right in 2014 as she was in 1962. I found a beautiful cut of it at Austin's excellent neo-old-school, whole-animal butcher shop Salt and Time. I also borrowed from Chen the method for flavoring the stir fry: you marinate the meat in soy sauce sweetened with a little sugar and thickened with corn starch—giving the finished product a lovely glaze—which I goosed up with ginger, green onions, garlic and chili pepper (Chen treats aromatics like ginger and garlic as potent substances to be used in tiny amounts, and her book is devoid of hot peppers.)

For vegetables, green bell peppers felt too on-the-nose #normcore for me. So from that Kung Pao dish I had at Mission Chinese, I lifted the idea of  celery, which strikes me as both a pretty #normcore vegetable itself, and also quite delicious and underused. Carrots, too, seemed right. But I only had a little of each, so I filled out the dish in decidedly un-normcore fashion: with a gorgeous bulb of kohlrabi leftover from the previous week's farmer's market run. That kohlrabi bulb sported a generous set of leaves—similar to kale, a related vegetable—so I threw those in, too.

A vegetarian was among the guests, so I had to come up with a non-meat alternative protein. Tofu would have been the straight-ahead #normcore move, but all I had in the fridge was a block of tempeh, so I went with it. Here's what I came up. Enjoy with canned beer—Bud Light if you want to go full-on you-know-what, or a new-wave canned craft brew like Dale's Pale Ale if you want a twist.

Stir-Fried Beef With Vegetables

(Serves four, with leftovers.)

4 spring onions
2 cloves of garlic, crushed and peeled
1 knuckle-sized nob of fresh ginger, peeled with the edge of a spoon
1 tablespoon (organic) corn starch
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon of crushed red chili flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons of good soy sauce (my favorite is the Japanese brand Ohsawa Nama Shoyu)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 pound of flank steak
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots
1 bulb of kohlrabi
A few kohlrabi leaves (optional; kale will do as well).
Peanut oil, for stir frying
More soy sauce, rice vinegar, and black pepper, to taste

First make the beef marinade. Cut the spring onions to separate the white and green parts. Slice the green parts into two-inch sections, set aside.  Coarsely chop the white parts, and place them in the bowl of a mortar-and-pestle (a small food processor will also work here). Chop the ginger and garlic and add it to the mortar. Top with the corn starch, sugar, chili flakes, and a good grind of black pepper. Crush everything vigorously together into a paste.  Add the soy sauce and vinegar, and mix it with the pestle. Dump the marinade into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the steak, against the grain, into quarter-inch strips about two inches long. Add the beef to the marinade, along with the green onion tops, and toss to coat well. Set aside.

Now prep the vegetables. Slice the carrots, kohlrabi, and celery into two-inch match sticks. (Here's a great Jamie Oliver video that explains how to do that better than I ever could in words). Set the carrots and kohlrabi aside in one bowl, and the celery in another. Slice the kohlrabi or kale leaves, if using, into thin strips, and set aside.

Now the stir fry begins. Set a bowl large enough to incorporate all the ingredients by the stovetop. Put your biggest, heaviest skillet—or wok—over high heat and add enough oil to cover the bottom. When the oil shimmers, add the celery sticks and sauté, using two spatulas to keep them constantly moving. Continue until they're just cooked—they should retain a little crunch. Place them in the large bowl.

Put a little more oil in the pan—still over high heat—and add the carrot and kohlrabi sticks. Cook them as you did the celery sticks, and then dump them in the same bowl when they're done. Repeat with the kale leaves, if using.

Again, add a bit of oil to the hot pan. Dump in the meat, onion greens, and the marinade. Spread the meat out across the pan's bottom, so it forms a single layer. Let it sizzle for a minute—this will allow it to caramelize a bit—and then toss with the two spatulas as with the vegetables, until the meat is cooked through. Add the meat to the big bowl, and toss everything together—the glaze that coats the meat will also coat the veggies. Taste, add a bit more soy, pepper, and vinegar to taste. Serve over brown rice—or white.

The tempeh version: #notsonormcore, but still delicious.

If there's a vegetarian coming to dinner: Before you start the vegetables for the main dish—in a medium-sized bowl, mix two tablespoons of olive oil, two of soy sauce, and a dash of maple syrup. Take a block of tempeh and cut it lengthwise into quarter-inch strips. Add the tempeh to the bowl and toss. letting it marinate for at least 5 minutes. (This is a twist on the tempeh technique from Heidi Swanson's great cookbook Super Natural Every Day.) Put a separate skillet over medium heat, add a little peanut or coconut oil. When the oil shimmers, remove the tempeh from its marinade with a slotted spoon and stir fry until it's cooked through. Place it in a bowl. Then, as each round of veggies come off the main skillet, add a portion to the tempeh. When done, toss together, along with a bit of the marinade.

How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

James McWilliams—a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic for his contrarian defenses of the food industry—is back at it. In an item published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard, McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times' Mark Bittman.

Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed 72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.

Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should] just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy."

After a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat, the food industry began to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct. But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the overall findings, Science reported. Another one of the authors told Science that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want," he told Science. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."

Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in eating animal products is long-standing—he's the author of a book called Vegan Before Six and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays" practice.

But McWilliams' real beef (so to speak) ultimately didn't involve the study itself, or the debate over fat's place in our diets. Rather, it centered on Bittman's critique of the food industry, which Bittman blamed for stoking the public's fat phobia, and manipulating it to its own ends. McWilliams chides Bittman for the "disingenuousness of using a study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed food," and laments the "dubious manner in which processed foods are condemned."

But he misses an important point: You can't meaningfully debate the role of fat in our diets without looking hard at the way the food industry has manipulated the evolving scientific consensus around fat. On NPR last week, reporter Allison Aubrey showed how widespread fat phobia among the public gained traction from a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat—which then got interpreted by the food industry as a license to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Simultaneously, as Bittman correctly noted, trans fats—cheap vegetable oils treated with hydrogen so that they remain solid at room temperature—emerged as the food industry's butter substitute of choice for decades, providing the main substance for margarine. Based on relentless food industry marketing, generations of people grew up thinking trans-fat-laden margarine was healthier than butter—even after science definitively showed that it was much, much worse (a sorry tale I laid out here). 

These fat-related marketing triumphs, quite profitable for the food industry, coincided with a surge in diet-related health troubles, including heightened obesity, diabetes, and metabolic-syndrome rates. Bittman is correct to discuss highly processed food in the context of the controversy over fat; and in trying to force it out of the conversation, McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.

In Cargill's Chicken Factories in China, Workers "Live on the Farm" and "Can't Leave"

| Thu Apr. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mornin', neighbors.

In a wide-ranging interview with the India-based Economic Times, Cargill CEO David MacLennan talks about how the globe-spanning agribusiness giant managed to turn the 2008 economic crisis into a "record year of profits"—a remarkable performance, given that that year's food-price spikes pushed 115 million people into hunger, as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimated. And then MacLennan drops this nugget on his company's poultry operations in China:

So we are building a facility in Shuzou, Nanjing, which will have 45 farms and it's a chicken facility that will process 1.2 million chicken every week. That's 60 million chicken a year. We have a hatchery, where we hatch the eggs and one-day old chicks, DOCs, get transported to the farms. The employees live on the farm. They can't leave because then you increase the risk of disease. So you grow the chicken for 44 days. The chicken goes to the plants, get processed, might be for KFC and McDonald's, might be for retail. They can count on us because they know where every one of their chicken came from. It came from us because we're fully integrated as opposed to other companies. [Emphasis added.]

I should note that US meat giant Tyson, too, is rolling out fully integrated and vast chicken facilities in China. But wait, back up: like employees at Foxconn, the company that manufactures Apple products, Cargill's poultry workers will live on-site. But rather than reside amid the production of iPhones and whatnot—apparently, not the most pleasant place to call home—Cargill's workers will live amid the growth and slaughter of 1.2 million chickens per week—and all the blood, guts, and vast stores of chickenshit that implies.

MacLennan doesn't mention whether the live-in requirement the company imposes on its Chinese workers also applies in its poultry operations in other developing countries. But he does boast that the company runs "very big" chicken operations n Nicaragua and Costa Rica, adding that it plans to "develop fully-integrated poultry breeding, hatching, growth and processing" in other countries around the world.

I am reaching out to Cargill to hear more about this innovative chicken factory/worker-housing mashup in China. Kind of gives new meaning to the industry habit of calling its large livestock-raising facilities "confinements."

Update: Cargill's assistant vice president for corporate responsibility has responded: 

We can understand how that might have been confusing. The workers at our chicken plant in China come and go as they please. What our CEO was talking about was a few specialized jobs at the farm where the chickens are raised. In a chicken barn, two or three people go into the barn with the chicks when they’re a day old and stay with them as they grow for 45 days. This is to prevent germs from getting into the barn. The workers have their own quarters, with kitchens and television, etc. When the chicks have grown, the workers leave for about three weeks. -Mark Murphy, Asst. Vice President for Corporate Responsibility, Cargill

Study: Fad Diets Work (But Not Why You Think)

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 1:58 PM EDT

What's the best diet to follow to get healthy—should you go Paleo, low glycemic, low-carb, Mediterranean, or low-fat? For a paper released last month in the Annual Review of Public Health, Yale medical researchers David Katz and Samuel Meller surveyed the scientific evidence and decided ... all of the above. Specifically, they found that all of these fad diets can be consistent with these basic principles:

The weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches. [Emphasis added.]

But what about the Paleo diet, which encourages meat eating? The authors conclude the "aggregation of evidence" supports meat eating, as long as the "animal foods are themselves the products, directly or ultimately, of pure plant foods—the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as we are." That's entirely consistent with the Paleo push for meat from pasture-raised animals, and brought to mind a study I wrote about late last year finding that cows fed on grass deliver milk with healthier fat profile than their industrially raised peers.

The Yale paper essentially cuts through the hype of various fad diets and affirms the koan-like advice put forward by author Michael Pollan in his 2008 book In Defense of Food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In fact, the authors reference Pollan directly in the chart that summarizes their findings: