Tom Philpott

What Has Massive Breasts, a Weak Heart, and a Lifespan of 42 Days?

| Tue Jun. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

You know how sometimes you get into a high-stakes conversation and you think of the perfect things to say after it's over? Well, here's a factoid I wish I had dropped during last week's interview with Terry Gross on her NPR show Fresh Air: "The number of chickens produced  annually in the United States has increased by more than 1,400 percent since 1950 while the number of farms producing those birds has dropped by 98 percent."

Those startling numbers and many more appear in a new report from a group called Georgians for Pastured Poultry, an alliance that includes pastured-based poultry farms, chefs, the Sierra Club, and an environmental law firm called GreenLaw. (Hat tip to the excellent Maryn McKenna.) The report reads like the black book of industrial chicken farming—a kind of dossier of the ills of rounding up billions (yes, billions) of birds into tight spaces and fattening them as quickly as possible.

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Terry Gross and I Bring Some Fresh Air to the Meat Industry

| Fri Jun. 8, 2012 3:20 AM EDT
Fresh Air's Terry Gross

On Wednesday morning, I was lucky enough to be invited onto the NPR interview show Fresh Air, to be grilled by the legendary host herself, Terry Gross. Terry wanted to hear more about my work on the meat industry, and asked me a series of smart, impeccably researched questions. I hope I overcame my nervousness enough to deliver worthy answers. You can listen to our conversation here.

Tom's Kitchen: Summer Veggie Pasta With Chickpeas and Walnuts

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In Austin, where I grew up and where I'm spending time now, summer arrives with the subtlety of a two-by-four to the back of a head. You wake up one day, and suddenly its 95 degrees and humid—and not getting cooler until October. It's barely June, and we've already crossed that threshold.

But I've noticed an important compensation for the brutal heat: Peak-season summer produce arrives early, too. In the high country of western North Carolina, where I've lived for years, we don't start harvesting green beans, garlic, and squash until July, and tomatoes don't come in until August. On a recent Saturday visit to Austin's excellent inner-city Boggy Creek Farm, I was surprised to find all of that and more on display.

So I grabbed a bunch of it and did what I have done so often at Maverick Farms with similarly excellent produce: minimally cooked it and tossed it into a pasta, goosing it with chickpeas, walnuts, and Parmesan for a little extra flavor and protein.

Are Our Oceans on a Collision Course?

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Back in 2006, a team of scientists from Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Panama published a landmark report in the prestigious journal Science on the state of the oceans. The researchers highlighted what they called an "ongoing erosion of diversity" in sea life that, if left unchecked, would lead to the "collapse of all taxa currently being fished by the mid-21st century."

Stripped of scientese, what the report described was the real possibility of the ocean as a vast, fetid gray zone, not quite dead but no longer able to provide a significant amount of food to humanity. And not in some unimaginably distant future, but rather in just four short decades, around the time when your aughts-era infant will reach middle age.

When the report dropped, it grabbed attention in the eco-foodie world like a great white shark sunning its dorsal fin in the shallows off a crowded beach. I was just beginning to write about food politics at the time, and the Science study jolted me from my land-locked fixations and opened the ocean as a rich and urgent topic.

How California Could Force the Rest of the US to Label GMO Foods

| Thu May 31, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A sign at a pro-labeling rally in San Francisco in February.

In November, California voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would require labeling of all foods containing ingredients from genetically modified crops. The initiative made it to the ballot after almost 1 million Californians signed a petition in favor of it—nearly double the 504,760 signatures needed under the state's proposition rules. The campaign that organized the push to get the measure on the ballot focused on possible health effects of GMO foods.

This news will not likely be applauded by my friends over at Croplife America, the main trade group of the GM seed/agrichemical industry. The big GMO crops—corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton—are processed into sweeteners, fats, and additives used widely by the food industry. Everything from high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Coke to soybean oil-containing Hellman's mayo would have to bear a label reading something like "Contains GMO ingredients."

That would send a shockwave through the food industry—one that could ultimately be felt on the industrial-scale US farms that have been devoting their land to GMO crops for years, and the companies that profit from selling them patented seeds and matching herbicides. The reason isn't just that California represents an imposing chunk of the US food market. It's also that a food-labeling law that starts in California is unlikely to stay in California.

Can BPA Make You Fat?

| Wed May 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The food industry likes to portray obesity as a matter of personal responsibility: People who eat too much gain weight, and it's their own fault.

That view willfully neglects the role that industry marketing, particularly to children, plays on shaping people's food habits. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that exposure to certain industrial chemicals in food, often at very low levels, changes the way people metabolize calories and can lead to weight gain. While no one would say that these chemicals, known as obesogens, are the sole cause of rising rates of obesity in the United States, they may well be contributing significantly to it.

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On Aid, Obama Sells Out Poor Countries to Big Ag

| Fri May 25, 2012 5:29 AM EDT
Table talk: Obama and other G-8 leaders dine at last week's Camp David summit.

"More than one in four Africans—close to 218 million people—is undernourished," the UN Development Program declared in a recent report. With food prices gyrating upward in recent years, the situation has reached a crisis. What's the answer?

According to President Obama and his fellow heads of state in the G-8 (United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, and Russia), the solution lies in the private sector. At last weekend's G-8 summit at Camp David, the group launched "The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition," described as a "commitment by G-8 nations, African countries and private sector partners to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years through inclusive and sustained agricultural growth."

The "private-sector partners" in the alliance have pledged $3 billion in new investments in African ag over the next decade. And what are the companies that President Obama and his G-8 peers have tapped to lift Africa out of hunger? Their number (list here) turns out to include global agribiz giants Cargill, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Yara, and junk-food behemoths Unilever, Kraft, Hershey's, and Mars.

What Do the World's Most Powerful Pesticide Honchos Eat for Dinner?

| Wed May 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I've made a career of sorts writing about the "big six" agrichemical companies—Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, and BASF—that produce the great bulk of the world's pesticides and, increasingly, seeds. But last week, I did something different. Rather than investigate and critique these companies in print, I broke bread with some of their executives. And then, in a public forum live-cast on the internet from DC's Newseum, I told them bluntly what I thought of their industry.

They seemed a bit stunned by the spectacle, rapt in attention but increasingly silent as my critique went on. From my perspective, I was looking into a sea of dark suits, red ties, and wide eyes, with only the stray vigorous shake of the head to register open dissent from my critique.

Obama's Plan to Stick It to Poultry Workers

| Mon May 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Poultry workers already have to work perilously fast—and now the USDA wants them to speed it up.

As I reported a while back, the USDA is pushing a new regime for industrial-scale poultry slaughterhouses: The agency wants to fire its own inspectors and let the poultry companies oversee their own kill lines. And that's not all. The proposed new rules would allow the companies dramatically speed up  those company-inspected kill lines.

In my previous post, I focused on the food-safety implications of the new rules. I pointed to this Food & Water Watch report, which analyzed the USDA's own data on pilot programs testing the new rules, obtained under the Open Record Act. FWW found that in plants that had participated in the pilot program for the new rules, company-paid inspectors had done a less-than-stellar job at picking out feces-contaminated birds whizzing past at rates of up to 200 birds per minute, or 3 per second.

But what's even more egregious is the human cost to the people working with their hands on those kill lines. As Mother Jones co-editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery put it (citing Webster's) in their piece on the economy-wide trend toward workplace acceleration, speedups are all about "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay." But poultry workers stand to get more than just a wage squeeze from this particular government-proposed speedup. Celeste Monforton of the occupational-health blog The Pump Handle points to this "action alert" released by the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group for US Latinos, urging the USDA not to put the new rules in place. As the NCLR appeal shows, line workers are subject to all manner of repetitive-motion injuries at current rates—a situation that would only be worsened by the USDA's plan.

A massive body of research bears that claim out. Monforton points to no fewer than 10 studies—"here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here"—showing that poultry line workers already suffer from conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome at rates significantly higher than those of the general population. Repetitive-motion ailments like carpal tunnel might sound relatively minor, but they can be crippling—and the big poultry processors scramble to avoid responsibility for them. Anyone who doubts this hasn't read the Charlotte Observer's superb, award-winning 2008 series "The Cruelest Cuts."

The journalist Gabriel Thompson, who spent a year working alongside undocumented Latinos for his book Working in the Shadows, recently described his time as a poultry worker in The Nation:

I was soon tearing through more than 7,000 chicken breasts each night (I worked the graveyard shift), while nearby workers sliced up countless birds with knives and scissors. The massive plant was capable of killing and processing nearly 1.5 million birds a week, and the pace was as relentless as such numbers suggest. We often didn't even have time to wipe bits of chicken flesh from our faces, and I took to popping ibuprofen during breaks to quell the swelling in my hands. (Pilgrim's Pride, the poultry giant that owned the plant, was nice enough to line one wall of the break room with dispensers filled with painkillers; it wasn’t nice enough, however, to provide them free of charge.)

If anything, government regulators should be intervening to improve such harsh conditions. Why is the USDA proposing to make them even harsher? The agency laid out its rationale in its Federal Register notice announcing the new proposal back in January: "This proposed rule is a result of the Agency's 2011 regulatory review efforts conducted under Executive Order 13563 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review."

90 Percent of Corn Seeds Are Coated With Bayer's Bee-Decimating Pesticide

| Wed May 16, 2012 8:00 AM EDT

I'm doing something very odd this week: speaking at the annual conference of Croplife America, the main trade group for the US agrichemical industry. Croplife members include Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Syngenta, all massive multinational companies I write about regularly and witheringly. I am astonished that Croplife wants to hear what I have to say—what I think of the group's member companies and their products is a matter of public record—and am curious to hear what they have to say to me.

As I prepared for the conference, a few interesting news items on the industry crossed my desk.