Tom Philpott

Bum Steer: How Big Pharma Dominates Meat Science

| Thu Apr. 19, 2012 3:41 PM PDT

It isn't just ourselves or our pets that have been getting bigger over the past couple of decades. Turns out, our beef cows have become gigantic too. How big? According to an excellent article by Melody Petersen in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975."

That's a hefty 30 percent gain. What gives? According to Peterson, the main reason is pharmaceutical: heavy use of antibiotics, hormones, and other growth-enhancing drugs. Peterson untangles the web that connects pharmaceutical giants like Merck to professors at big public land-grant universities, who not only act as paid researchers to develop new products but also as shills who appeal directly to cattle feedlot operators.

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Tom's Kitchen: Ice Cream to Melt the Blues

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Somewhere, there exists a photo of three-year-old me with an ice cream cone crammed by my tiny fist into my face, which is marked with dark splotches of Rocky Road. My expression is focused, beatific, like that of a religious fanatic at prayer. To this day, I remember howls of adult laughter echoing around me. I didn't give a damn—what mattered was getting that creamy, crunchy, sweet stuff into my mouth.

I try to play it cooler these days, but the joy I take in the famed cold confection has changed little. I don't eat ice cream everyday, as my three-year-old self vowed I would once I threw off the yolk of adult meddling. But I do love a little of it it now and then, especially when I'm feeling dented.

Four Things Grosser Than Pink Slime

| Wed Apr. 18, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
One way that nasty bacterial strains from factory farms make it to "the community"--i.e., you.

The specter of "pink slime"—pureed, defatted, and ammonia-laced slaughterhouse scraps—has caused quite the uproar over the past six weeks. (The latest: Propublica has a great explainer on pink slime and other filler products.) The current fixation on pink slime may well lead to the demise of the product; already, supermarket and fast-food chains and school cafeterias are opting to stop adding the stuff into their burger mixes. The company's maker, Beef Products International, has had to temporarily shut down three of its four plants in response to collapsing demand, which doesn't augur well for the company's long-term health.

But I'm wondering if focusing on the ew-gross aspects of "lean, finely textured beef" (as the industry calls it) doesn't miss the bigger picture, which is that the meat industry's very business model is deeply gross. Even if pink slime is purged from the face of the earth, the system that produces our meat and related products (eggs, milk) won't be fundamentally changed. A while back, I identified something about meat production that's "even grosser than pink slime"—proposed new rules that would privatize inspection at poultry slaughterhouses while dramatically speeding up kill lines. Here are four more.

How the NY Times Got It Wrong on the FDA's New Antibiotics Rules

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 10:10 AM PDT
Will the FDA's new rules change this scenario? Not likely.

A casual reader taking in my account and the New York Times' account of yesterday's big FDA antibiotics announcement might have thought we were reacting to different events. Here's the Times lead:

Farmers and ranchers will for the first time need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals, in hopes that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce the tens of thousands of human deaths that result each year from the drugs' overuse.

In the Times' reading, the FDA placed significant restrictions on antibiotics use. My take was more critical: "The plan contains a bull-size loophole—and is purely voluntary, to boot."

What gives? In short, the Times delivered a skim-level, FDA-friendly account of the new plan. Let's start with the loophole. Here's the Times:

Michael Taylor, the F.D.A.’s deputy commissioner for food, predicted that the new restrictions would save lives because farmers would have to convince a veterinarian that their animals were either sick or at risk of getting a specific illness. [Emphasis added.]

The bolded part is the key. As I reported yesterday, the FDA plan intends to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, but allows them to continue to be used to "prevent" disease. That's a major loophole—it means that farmers can continue stuffing animals together in filthy conditions and dosing them with antibiotics to keep them alive. Margaret Mellon, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a longtime watchdog of the meat industry's antibiotic-gorging ways, put it like this in a Wednesday press release:

The outlined process appears to give the companies the opportunity to relabel drugs currently slated for growth promotion for disease prevention instead. Such relabeling could allow them to sell the exact same drugs in the very same amounts

None of this comes out in the Times story.

Then there's the voluntary angle. The Times let's the FDA's Mike Taylor spin it:

Initially, the F.D.A. is asking drug makers to voluntarily change their labels to require a prescription; federal officials said that drug makers had largely agreed to the change. If some fail to impose the restrictions, the agency will consider a more forceful ban, Mr. Taylor said.

Sounds good, right? Mellon looks into the plan's nuts and bolts, and find reason for skepticism:

Unfortunately, the process will also be secret. Companies will have three months to submit voluntary plans and three years to implement them. During this entire time, the public will be kept in the dark. It could be three to four years before anyone knows how well the program is working.

Finally, the program contains a stealth gift to the drug industry: It allows companies to "avoid risk assessments for new drug approvals," Mellon wrote.

Now, it is true that the new FDA plan will likely change how antibiotics move from drug company to factory farm. The FDA wants the drug industry to require vets' prescriptions for all human-relevant antibiotics issued to factory farms, and the Times is correct the industry seems willing to (eventually) comply. But because of the prevention loophole, there's just no guarantee that the move will significantly reduce the meat industry's voracious and reckless use of antibiotics.

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

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 2:04 PM PDT
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.

The Worst Farm Bill Ever?

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 1:18 PM PDT

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.

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Cocina de Tom: Sweet-Hot and Addictive Mango Salsa

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 11:30 AM PDT

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 3:00 AM PDT
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 3:00 AM PDT

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 1:02 PM PDT
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.