Tom Philpott

USDA Ruffles Feathers With New Poultry Inspection Policy

| Wed Apr. 24, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The Obama administration is on the verge of dramatically scaling back the US Department of Agriculture's oversight of the nation's largest chicken and turkey slaughterhouses—while also allowing companies to speed up their kill lines.

Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA's new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster. (The line rates at turkey slaughterhouses are, for obvious reasons, slower, but would also be sped up under the new rules).

After the idea was floated last year, it was met by massive pushback from food safety and worker advocates, who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and workers.

Since then, the proposal has been caught in the federal rulemaking process. But on April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized "very soon," declaring that the plan "will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well."

Indeed, according to a 2012 statement, the department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors. Meanwhile, the USDA calculates that by increasing kill line speeds, the plan will save the poultry industry more than eight times as much, or $256.6 million each year. That windfall would accrue mainly to four large companies—Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Purdue, and Sanderson. Together, they slaughter nearly 60 percent of the chicken consumed in the United States. (Another four companies, led by Butterball, slaughter 55 percent of turkeys.)

The USDA insists that the new system will improve poultry product safety. In his recent testimony, Vilsack said his department expects the new system will prevent "somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses" per year. Interestingly, Vilsack's numbers are less optimistic than other recent claims from department officials: Just a year ago, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, wrote that the plan would "help prevent an estimated 5,200" from getting sick.

The USDA is right that poultry product safety could stand improving. In an analysis of the Food and Drug Administration's latest tests of retail meat, Environmental Working Group found that 81 percent of ground turkey and 39 percent of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs tested contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How would speeding up the kill line and removing all but one inspector improve this dreadful situation? Under current rules, multiple USDA inspectors monitor the kill line for "visible defects"—feces, bruises, blemishes, blood, and the like. But the department insists that's time poorly spent, focusing on the outward cosmetic appearance of the carcasses—quality control issues that the USDA argues should be the slaughterhouse's responsibility. Under the new rules, company employees would instead be in charge of visually inspecting the line and removing defective birds. To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct "online reprocessing"—that is, dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, "whether they are contaminated or not," with water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals. Beyond that, the lone USDA inspector would randomly select 20 to 80 birds per shift to test them for defects. That would represent a tiny fraction of the birds processed over the course of an eight-hour shift; in a single hour, a kill line operating at the new high speed would spit out more than 10,000 carcasses.

Since the late '90s, the USDA has been running a pilot program testing the rules at 20 slaughterhouses, and claims that the results have been sterling. But last year, Food & Water Watch used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain six months' worth of recent inspection documents from participating slaughterhouses. The results, as I reported at the time, were alarming, and don't suggest that the factories' own employees are effectively inspecting the birds.

Here's Food & Water Watch:

Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4' for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.

From March to August 2011, 90 percent of the defects found by the USDA inspectors involved "visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees." Yuck.

You don't have to resort to FOIA to question the USDA's claim that the new system will cut down on illnesses from eating poultry: In its publicly available 2011 evaluation of the pilot program, the USDA found that finished birds at pilot facilities were more likely to test positive for salmonella. And 2 of the 20 pilot facilities—a Tyson factory in Clarksville, Arkansas, and a Golden Rod Broilers one in Cullman, Alabama—failed the USDA's latest test for salmonella standards. According to Food & Water Watch, that 10 percent failure rate—granted, drawn from a small sample size—is higher than the industry's overall rate.

If the USDA is making shaky claims around food safety, it's not making any claims on worker safety, over which it has no mandate. In his House testimony, Vilsack didn't have much to say on the topic: "We've attempted to address those [worker safety] concerns by suggesting that this gives us a chance to study that issue."

But the new rules would force workers to wield sharp knives and make repetitive motions at a kill line that, with 35 more birds going by each minute, would running significantly faster. Tragically, the federal agency that might have something to say about those conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), doesn't. As a fresh, devastating report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on poultry workers shows, slaughterhouses exist in a worker protection limbo:

Despite OSHA's responsibility to ensure worker safety, it has no mandate to regulate processing line speeds to protect workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the only agency that currently regulates line speeds. But the USDA's regulations are designed to guard against contamination of the product, not to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

Even under current line speeds, workers are regularly harmed. Citing OSHA figures, the SPLC reports that 5.9 percent of the poultry workers are injured each year, 50 percent more than the national average. And the report shows that workers routinely face intimidation and might think twice about reporting an injury. Here's the SPLC, describing current conditions on kill lines:

The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.

The Obama administration has clearly expressed the benefits of its new plan: minor savings for the government, major savings for Big Poultry. Testifying before Congress last year, Cass Sunstein—then serving as the famously regulation-averse chief of Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—hailed the poultry slaughter proposal as an example of the administration's will to unburden industry of "cumbersome, outdated" regulation. The costs, though, don't appear to have been reckoned with adequately, if at all.

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A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

As investigators and rescuers move through a destroyed fertilizer factory in West, Texas, it makes me think about just what nitrogen fertilizer is, and why we use so much of it.

Nitrogen is one of the nutrient elements plants need to grow. Every apple or ear of corn plucked represents nutrients pulled from soil, and for land to remain productive, those nutrients must be replenished. Nitrogen is extremely plentiful—it makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. But atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is joined together in an extremely tight bond that makes it unusable by plants. Plant-available nitrogen, known as nitrate, is actually scarce, and for most of agriculture's 10,000-year-old history, the main challenge was figuring out how to cycle usable nitrogen back into the soil. Farmers of yore might not have known the chemistry, but they knew that composting crop waste, animal manure, and even human waste led to better harvests.

Will Monsanto Ties Influence Nutritionists' Stance on GMOs?

| Sat Apr. 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The GMO seed giant Monsanto recently flexed its muscles in Congress, working with a senator to sneak a friendly rider into an unrelated funding bill. Now it appears to be having its way with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As the New York Times reports, a dietician who'd been working on crafting the group's GMO policy claims she was pushed aside for pointing out her colleagues' links to Monsanto.

The controversy started during last fall's highly contested battle over a ballot initiative that would have required labeling genetically modified food in California. The prestigious dieticians' group was incorrectly listed by the official state voters' guide as one of the scientific organizations that had "concluded biotech foods are safe." Actually, the AND had taken no position on the issue, but it promised to come out with a position paper on it. (The ballot initiative ultimately failed.)

Monsanto Claims to Ditch Herbicide While Selling More of It

| Wed Apr. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Roundup, the usual suspect.

Genetically modified seed giant Monsanto likes to trumpet its "commitment to sustainable agriculture." The story goes like this: by generating novel, high-tech crop varieties, Monsanto will wean farmers off of synthetic chemical poisons. The company even markets its flagship product, seeds genetically engineered to survive its own Roundup weed killer, as a tool they can use to to "decrease the overall use of herbicides."

But as I've shown before, herbicide use has actually dramatically ramped up as the Roundup Ready technology conquers vast swaths of US farmland. That's because weeds quickly developed resistance to it, forcing farmers to apply ever-larger doses and resort to older, more toxic herbicides to combat resistant weeds. And while the company has tried hard to leave behind its past as a purveyor of toxic chemicals and rebrand itself as a technology company, those toxic chemicals remain central to its growth and profitability, as its latest quarterly profit report shows.

The report—press release here—cheered investors, driving Monsanto shares to their highest levels since 2008. Here's the main bit, lifted from the press release (note that by "second quarter," the company means the January to March period):

Monsanto's latest earnings report—all about corn and "ag productivity" (herbicides) Detail from a Monsanto press release.

Note that the company consists of two main segments: what it calls "Seeds and Genomics," which involves sales of seeds, obviously, plus licensing fees on genetically modified traits; and "Agricultural Productivity," which means, essentially, chemicals, mainly Roundup in a variety of forms. Seeds and Genomics is by far the largest of the two in terms of contribution to overall sales, but good old Agricultural Productivity is still really important. Indeed, its sales shot up from $824 million in second-quarter 2012 to $1.12 billion in the same time period of this year—that's an amazing 36 percent jump.

By contrast, Seeds and Genomics sales went from $3.92 billion to $4.35 billion over the same time span—just a 10 percent rise.

Overall, the herbicide contribution to Monsanto's total sales went from 17 percent in second-quarter 2012 to 20 percent in the the same period of 2013.

Fast-Food Workers Protest Poverty McWages

| Sat Apr. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's shareholders, the past five years can be aptly summed up by the slogan "I'm lovin' it." According to Yahoo Finance, shares of the global fast-food giant are up 80 percent since April 2008—more than four times the gain of the S&P 500 over the same period. The company is robustly profitable—its profit margin hovers near 20 percent, and it's got $2.3 billion in cash on the books.

Other fast-food giants are doing well by their shareholders, too. Burger King shares are up 25 percent over the past year, while YUM! Brands—the holding company for Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut—are up 10 percent. (Over the same period, the S&P 500 is up just 5 percent.)

For these companies' employees, it's been a much rougher road. The steep recession and glacial recovery have kept unemployment at high levels, meaning fewer opportunities to switch jobs and little leverage in wage negotiations. Even in ultra-expensive New York City—which has by far the nation's highest cost of living—many McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! workers draw the federal minimum wage, $7.25. The federal minimum wage translates to about $15,000 per year. This, in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment tops $3,000.

That's why it's so heartening that in New York City, workers from big-name  fast-food chains are walking off the job and taking to the streets to demand better wages. Here's the New York Times:

Thursday’s strike, sponsored by a labor-community coalition that calls itself Fast Food Forward, seeks to press the city’s fast-food restaurants to pay their employees $15 an hour. Many workers say they can barely get by on the $7.25, $8 or $9 an hour that many receive; $9 an hour translates to around $18,000 a year for a full-time worker. The current minimum wage in New York State is $7.25, though lawmakers agreed last month to raise it to $9 by 2016.        

For an excellent discussion of the situation, including interviews with workers having to support families on fast-food wages—check out this segment from Chris Hayes' new MSNBC show:

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Sen. Roy Blunt: Monsanto's Man in Washington

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, a recent Senate bill came with a nice bonus for the genetically modified seed industry: a rider, wholly unrelated to the underlying bill, that compels the USDA to ignore federal court decisions that block the agency's approvals of new GM crops. I explained in this post why such a provision, which the industry has been pushing for over a year, is so important to Monsanto and its few peers in the GMO seed industry. (You can also hear my talking about it on NPR's The Takeaway, along with the senator who tried to stop it, Montana's Jon Tester, and see me on Al Jazeera's Inside Story.)

Which senator pushed the rider into the bill? At the time, no one stepped forward to claim credit. But since then, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has revealed to Politico's ace reporter David Rogers that he's the responsible party. Blunt even told Rogers that he "worked with" GMO seed giant Monsanto to craft the rider.

The admission shines a light on Blunt's ties to Monsanto, whose office is located in the senator's home state. According to OpenSecrets, Monsanto first started contributing to Blunt back in 2008, when it handed him $10,000. At that point, Blunt was serving in the House of Representatives. In 2010, when Blunt successfully ran for the Senate, Monsanto upped its contribution to $44,250. And in 2012, the GMO seed/pesticide giant enriched Blunt's campaign war chest by $64,250.

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Yes, Antibiotic-Resistant Bugs Can Jump from Animals to Humans

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

For decades, the meat industry has denied any problem with its reliance on routine, everyday antibiotic use for the nation's chickens, cows, and pigs. But it's a bit like a drunk denying an alcohol problem while leaning on a barstool for support. Antibiotic use on livestock farms has surged in recent years—from 20 million pounds annually in 2003 to nearly 30 million pounds in 2011.

Over the same period, the entire US human population has consumed less than 8 million pounds per year, meaning that livestock farms now suck in around 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. Meanwhile, the industry routinely churns out meat containing an array of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

As former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler recently put it in a New York Times op-ed, "rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another's waste." And feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may "do the most harm," Kessler continued, because it provides a perfect incubation ground for the generation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The meat industry's retort to all of this is, essentially: And the problem is? The websites of the major industry trade groups—the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council—all insist current antibiotic practices are "safe." The main reason they can claim this with a straight face is that while scientists have long suspected that drug-resistant pathogens can jump from antibiotic-treated animals to humans, it's been notoriously difficult to prove. The obstacle is ethics: You wouldn't want to extract, say, antibiotic-resistant salmonella from a turkey and inject it into a person just to see what happens. The risk of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention politely calls "treatment failure," i.e., death, would be too great.

But this decades-old industry fig leaf is fraying fast. The latest: a gene-sequencing study from Denmark that documents two cases of the movement of MRSA, an often-deadly, antibiotic-resistant staph infection, from farm animals to people. The excellent "scary disease" reporter Maryn McKenna recently broke down the science in lucid detail:

Is Your Workout Gear Ruining Farm Fields?

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In a glittering example of industry setting its sights on solving the great problems of humankind, you can now buy workout clothes spiked with "moisture-wicking" nano silver—microscopically tiny silver particles that kill bacteria and (as one company puts it) "help counter the formation of unpleasant sweaty odours."

But what are the consequences of our allegedly stench-free gym sessions? Before the apparel industry started spiking socks and even underwear with silver bits, you might assume the Environmental Protection Agency had thoroughly vetted the technology for unintended ecological consequences. Turns out, not.

In a new report, the Natural Resources Defense Council looks at the EPA's system for vetting new pesticides, a category that includes nano silver, since it exists to kill pesky bacteria. Result of NRDC's analysis: About 65 percent of the 16,000 pesticides legally in use made their way through the EPA without undergoing rigorous vetting for potential human and environmental harm, as they are required to under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The always-ahead ETC Group first sounded the alarm about nanotechnology a decade ago, in a 2003 report titled "The Big Down."

Not Just the Bees: Bayer's Pesticide May Harm Birds, Too

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Geese in a corn field

Once again this spring, farmers will begin planting at least 140 million acres—a land mass roughly equal to the combined footprints of California and Washington state—with seeds (mainly corn and soy) treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Commercial landscapers and home gardeners will get into the act, too—neonics are common in lawn and garden products. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know all of that is probably bad news for honeybees and other pollinators, as a growing body of research shows—including three studies released just ahead of last year's planting season.

But bees aren't the only iconic springtime creature threatened by the ubiquitous pesticide, whose biggest makers are the European giants Bayer and Syngenta. It turns out that birds are too, according to an alarming analysis co-authored by Pierre Mineau, a retired senior research scientist at Environment Canada (Canada's EPA), published by the American Bird Conservancy. And not just birds themselves, but also the water-borne insect species that serve as a major food source for birds, fish, and amphibians.

Tom's Kitchen: Raw Root-Veggie Slaw

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

In most areas of the country, late March is one of those awkward times to shop at the farmers market. Glamorous spring vegetables like asparagus and artichokes aren't in yet; winter staples like beets, carrots, and radishes are still coming out, but you're starting to get bored of them. That's the exact situation now playing out in Central Texas, with the added annoyance that my favorite veggies of all, leafy greens, are already on the way out, laid low by the fast-warming weather.

Even so, I was able to coax a fresh, fun dish out of what was abundant at the farmers market: beets, kohlrabi (a bulbous relative of broccoli, cabbage, and the rest of the brassica family), carrots, and spring onions. What inspired me was a gadget that has been stuck on a low shelf of my kitchen, unused, for years: a mandoline. I had always thought of mandolines as fancy devices that I would never be able to afford. When my mom gave me this inexpensive, plastic Japanese-brand model as a gift a few years ago, I never got around to trying it out. As an experiment, I decided to subject my market bounty to its razor-sharp blades, and came away impressed: a zippy, crunchy salad that tasted like spring on a salad plate, not winter warmed over.

You can make a very similar, slightly less attractive salad by simply grating the veggies, or slicing them as thinly as possible. Use any combo of winter veggies—except, of course, for ones that really need to be cooked to be enjoyed, like potatoes. The combo I used brought together sweet (carrots), earthiness (beets), and spice (kohlrabi), as well as a great clash of colors. A radish or two would also have been nice. It's also important to brighten the dish with plenty of herbs—parsley and mint work great—as well as a tart dressing.