Tom Philpott

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 6:11 AM EST

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a set of voluntary "guidelines" designed to nudge the meat industry to curb its antibiotics habit. Ever since, the agency has been mulling whether and how to implement the new program. Meanwhile, the meat industry has been merrily gorging away on antibiotics—and churning out meat rife with antibiotic-resistant pathogens—if the latest data from the FDA itself is any indication.

The Pew Charitable Trusts crunched the agency's numbers on antibiotic use on livestock farms and compared them to data on human use of antibiotics to treat illness, and mashed it all into an infographic, which I've excerpted below. Note that that while human antibiotic use has leveled off at below 8 billion pounds annually, livestock farms have been sucking in more and more of the drugs each year—and consumption reached a record nearly 29.9 billion pounds in 2011. To put it another way, the livestock industry is now consuming nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics used in the US, and its appetite for them is growing.

Pew Charitable Trusts.

In an email, a Pew spokesperson added that while  the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in total meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to the previous year, the FDA data show that antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period. That suggests that meat production might be getting more antibiotic-intensive.  

Not surprisingly, when you cram animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, the bacteria that live on and in the animals adapt and develop resistance to those bacteria killers. Pew crunched another new set of data, the FDA's latest release of results from its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, which buys samples of meat products and subjects them to testing for bacterial pathogens. Again, the results are sobering. Here a a few highlights pointed to by Pew in an email:

• Of the Salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures are up compared to 2010. 

• Nearly three-quarters of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic. About 12% of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with Salmonella.

• Resistance to tetracycline [an antibiotic] is up among Campylobacter on retail chicken. About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines. This reflects an increase over last year and 2002.

Takeaway: While the FDA dithers with voluntary approaches to regulation, the meat industry is feasting on antibiotics and sending out product tainted with antibiotic-resistant bugs.

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Nearly Half of All US Farms Now Have Superweeds

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 6:06 AM EST

Last year's drought took a big bite out of the two most prodigious US crops, corn and soy. But it apparently didn't slow down the spread of weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), used on crops engineered by Monsanto to resist it. More than 70 percent of all the the corn, soy, and cotton grown in the US is now genetically modified to withstand glyphosate.

Back in 2011, such weeds were already spreading fast. "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Gallop Through Midwest," declared the headline of a post I wrote then. What's the word you use when an already-galloping horse speeds up? Because that's what's happening. Let's try this: "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Stampede Through Midwest."

That pretty much describes the situation last year, according to a new report from the agribusiness research consultancy Stratus. Since the 2010 growing season, the group has been polling "thousands of US farmers" across 31 states about herbicide resistance. Here's what they found in the 2012 season:

Superweeds: First they gallop, then they roar. Graph: Stratus

• Nearly half (49 percent) of all US farmers surveyed said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.
• Resistance is still worst in the South. For example, 92 percent of growers in Georgia said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds.
• But the mid-South and Midwest states are catching up. From 2011 to 2012 the acres with resistance almost doubled in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana.
• It's spreading at a faster pace each year: Total resistant acres increased by 25 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012.
• And the problem is getting more complicated. More and more farms have at least two resistant species on their farm. In 2010 that was just 12 percent of farms, but two short years later 27 percent had more than one.

So where do farmers go from here? Well, Monsanto and its peers would like them to try out "next generation" herbicide-resistant seeds—that is, crops engineered to resist not just Roundup, but also other, more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D and Dicamba. Trouble is, such an escalation in the chemical war on weeds will likely only lead to more prolific, and more super, superweeds, along with a sharp increase in herbicide use. That's the message of a peer-reviewed 2011 paper by a team of Penn State University researchers led by David A. Mortensen. (I discussed their paper in a post last year.)

New Study: Common Pesticides Kill Frogs on Contact

| Sat Feb. 2, 2013 7:02 AM EST
Got insects?

To me, there are few more comforting sights on a farm or in a garden than a frog hopping about amid the crops. Frogs and other amphibians don't just look and sound cool—they also feast upon the insects that feast upon the plants we eat. These bug-scarfing creatures are a free source of what is known as biological pest control.

But modern industrial agriculture doesn't have much use for them. It leans on chemistry, not biology, to control pests—and in doing so, it's probably contributing to the catastrophic global decline of amphibians, a natural ally to farmers for millennia. The irony is stark: In industrial agriculture's zeal to wipe out pests, it is helping to wipe out those pests' natural predators. The latest evidence: a new study showing that exposure to common pesticides at levels used in farm fields can kill frogs rapidly.

For a decade or so, it has become increasingly clear that widely used herbicides like Syngenta's atrazine, in tiny amounts found in streams after running off from farm fields, do crazy things to the sexual development of frogs. Such "endocrine-disrupting chemicals" have what scientists call chronic, not acute, effects on amphibians—that is, they don't kill them outright, but they alter them profoundly—even change their gender. (See Dashka Slater's profile of a scientist who documented atrazine's impact on frogs, earning a backlash from Syngenta.) Monsanto's blockbuster herbicide Roundup also exerts subtle but important harm on amphibians, research suggests.

Again, this research focuses on what happens to amphibians when they encounter agricultural poisons at low levels in ponds and streams. But what happens when they are actually sprayed with chemicals in farm fields? That's where the new study, a recent peer-reviewed paper by a group of German and Swiss scientists, comes in. They write that the phenomenon of frogs experiencing direct contact with pesticides has been little-studied, even though the scenario is quite common on the ground—farmland has become one of the "the largest terrestrial biomes on Earth, occupying more than 40% of the land surface," and thus represents an "essential habitat for amphibians."

DOJ to Big Beer: We're Cutting You Off

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 6:03 PM EST
Cheers to the DOJ.

Like a drunk closing down a bar, beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn't know when to stop. That's the message of the Department of Justice's recent lawsuit to block A-B InBev's $20.1 billion takeover of Mexican beer giant Modelo, maker of the iconic (and, in my opinion, insipid) Corona brand, along with other popular brands like Pacifico, Negro Modelo, and Victoria. According to the DOJ's complaint (PDF), A-B InBev already controls 39 percent of the US beer market, rival MillerCoors owns 26 percent, and Modelo has 7 percent.

By the DOJ's reckoning, allowing A-B InBev and Modelo to combine would bring AB InBev's market share up to 46 percent, leaving two companies—A-B InBev and MillerCoors—with 72 percent of the beer market. That's about three of every four beers consumed in the United States.

The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 6:01 AM EST
A farmer spreads synthetic nitrogen fertilizer on a field.

In a recent Nation piece, the wonderful Elizabeth Royte teased out the direct links between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the food supply. In short, extracting natural gas from rock formations by bombarding them with chemical-spiked fluid leaves behind fouled water—and that fouled water can make it into the crops and animals we eat.

But there's another, emerging food/fracking connection that few are aware of. US agriculture is highly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized in a process fueled by natural gas. As more and more of the US natural gas supply comes from fracking, more and more of the nitrogen fertilizer farmers use will come from fracked natural gas. If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.

Saving the Ocean, One McBite at a Time?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 1:27 PM EST
McDonald's Filet o' Fish, since 2007 sourced from MSC-certified fisheries, will soon be getting a new eco-package.

Last week, the Twitternets were abuzz with news that McDonald's is going to (as @HuffPostFood put it) "serve all sustainable seafood" at its 14,000 US stores. Actually, as Associated Press reports, the fast-food giant has been sourcing exclusively from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) since 2007. What it announced this week was that the packaging on its Filet O' Fish sandwich—and that of a new product, Fish McBites—will soon be adorned with the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ecolabel.

So strip away the hype, and what you've got here is a packaging change and a product launch. Way to get scads of free publicity, McD's marketing team!

So how significant is that McDonald's is using MSC-certified fish? When MSC re-certified the Alaskan pollock fishery in 2010, one of the group's officials declared it, "one of the best managed fisheries in the world"—an assessment that's often bandied about. But Monterey Bay Aquarium's highly respected Seafood Watch program rates the fishery a "good alternative," one level below its highest sustainability accolade, "Best Choice." "Alaska Pollock populations are moderately healthy, but their numbers have been declining," MBA reports. "Alaska Pollock are now at their lowest levels in over 20 years." MBQ also notes that that while the fishing fleets that operate there use trawling gear that's designed not to damage the seafloor, "these midwater nets contact the seafloor an estimated 44% of the time—resulting in severe damage to seafloor habitats of the Bering Sea." MBA also notes possible bycatch concerns involving Chinook salmon.

And the UK-based MSC-based has come under criticism for being overly industry-friendly in the past—such as in 2010, when it certified a Danish company's Antarctic krill harvesting, prompting a Greenpeace campaigner to declare that MSC had given an "unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice." Similar outrage erupted that same year when MSC certified British Columbia's troubled sockeye salmon fishery.

All of that aside, McDonald's could be doing a hell of a lot worse than stuffing its fryers with fish rated a "good alternative" by Monterey Bay Aquarium. And exposing its millions of customers to the MSC label might inspire some of them to learn more about the plight of the oceans. Let's just hope that the Alasksan pollock fishery is robust enough to handle the Fish McBite, should that product take off.

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Got the Blues? Eat More Kale

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:55 PM EST
Just another mood-altering substance?

Humans have long turned to substances—from beer to Prozac—to improve their outlook on life. But there's another possible remedy to the rigors of existence that doesn't get nearly as much attention: the green stuff that grows in the field, and I don't mean marijuana (though, hey, that might help, too). A new study (abstract) from Harvard researchers found a strong association between adults' levels of optimism and the amount of carotenoid antioxidants in their blood. Carotenoids are found in richly colored green and orange vegetables, including kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, and collard greens. The more servings of carotenoid-containing vegetables you eat, the results suggest, the brighter your outlook.

Of course, the researchers can't be sure that the association means a cause-and-effect relationship: It may just be that optimists are more likely to eat their veggies than pessimists, they emphasize. But unlike, say, Prozac, veggies' side effects are positive—for example, eating them improves life for the millions of beneficial microorganisms that live in our guts and keep us healthy.

If you're able to get your hands on some good product this weekend, here's a recipe for raw kale salad that may or may not brighten your outlook, but will taste really good.

Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 6:11 AM EST

"Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?," thunders the headline of a recent Guardian piece. Hard to say, but reality check: It isn't just vegans who enjoy quinoa. Like many occasional meat eaters I know, I've been eating it for years. Quinoa is also big among gluten-intolerant omnivores. So quinoa's truth—unpalatable or not—isn't just for its vegan fans to bear.

So what is going on with this long-time staple of the Andes and newly emerged favorite of health-minded US eaters?

The FAO has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

First, the good. Quinoa is the grain-like seed of a plant in the goosefoot family (other members include spinach, chard, and the wonderful edible weed lambs quarters), and its appeal is immense. Twenty years ago, NASA researchers sung its praises as potential astronaut chow, mainly for its superior nutrient density. No less an authority than the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization hails it as "the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten." The FAO is almost breathlessly enthusiastic about quinoa—it has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.

And quinoa has generally been a success for the people who grow it. Unlike other southern-hemisphere commodities prized in the global north, like coffee and cocoa, quinoa, for the most part, isn't grown on big plantations owned by a powerful elite. A 2003 Rodale article describes its cultural place in the Andean highlands, an area that encompasses parts of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador:

Tom's Kitchen: Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs

| Sat Jan. 19, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Hmmm, ribs.

Braising—cooking something, usually meat, at low temperature in a covered pot with a little liquid—is a fundamental technique. Demanding a little preparation and a lot of patience, braising ever-so-slowly transforms tough, inexpensive cuts of meat into something sublime—and conveniently napped in its own luscious sauce (i.e., the cooking liquid). If you're a meat eater and you haven't braised before, now is the time. It's not something you'll be tempted to do in the summer.

I got the braising bug recently through the confluence of two factors: a cold snap here in Austin and the arrival of an advanced copy of Michael Pollan's new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, due out in April. I'll have more to say about it soon—expect a review around publication date—but let it suffice to say for now that it contains an entire, very evocative chapter on the act of slow cooking meat in a little liquid.

Pollan's prose made me crave the smell of beef, mirepoix vegetables—onions, carrots, and celery—and red wine gurgling gently on the stovetop. That is the essence of a French-style braise—you can also use the flavor palates of other cuisines. (In fact, for a Tom's Kitchen last year, I braised pork ribs in a Mexican-style chile-pepper sauce; and you could certainly do the same for beef ribs.)

To me, the most attractive candidates for the braising pot are tough, bone-in cuts like ribs. Tough cuts are tough because they're full of collagen, and braising works by melting the collagen into gelatin, giving rise to fork-tender meat. And bones are good because they enrich the cooking liquid, essentially turning it into a full-bodied sauce. The result is supposedly really good for you—the radical whole-foods group Weston A. Price Foundation ascribes great nutritional value to bone-enriched stocks:

Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.

Braises tend to taste even better the the day after cooking, but there's another reason to cook beef short ribs a day in advance: if you can let the cooking liquid cool overnight, the fat can be easily skimmed away. Beef ribs are a fatty cut, and too much fat in the final sauce makes the dish overrich. You can also serve them the same day—just carefully skim the cooking liquid of fat before reducing it in the recipe's final step.

Wine-Braised Beef Short Ribs
Serves 4, with a little leftover

Olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 pounds beef short ribs from grass-fed cows
1 large onion, diced (here's a great video for a simple, effective onion-dicing technique)
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 bottle inexpensive but drinkable red wine, preferably not aged in oak
1 bay leaf, plus some fresh or dried thyme

Pat the beef ribs dry with a towel, and liberally season them with salt and pepper on all sides. Place a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or a brazier (a shallow version of a Dutch oven) over medium heat, and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. When it's hot, brown the ribs on all sides. Be patient and allow for a nice caramelization—it will add big flavor to the dish.

Remove the ribs to a plate and add the diced veggies to the pot. Saute them, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until they're very soft. As you stir, try to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan into the sizzling veggies. If they the veggies to scorch before they've turned soft, turn the heat down a bit.

Wine + mirepoix veggies = magic

Now add the wine and herbs and turn the heat to high. Again, stir with a wooden spoon, liberating any brown bits that might still be clinging to the bottom. Bring to a boil, and let the wine reduce by about a third. Now turn the heat to the lowest setting on your stovetop, and place the ribs, bone side down, along with any juices that have accumulated under them, into the pot. Cover and let them simmer gently, checking every half an hour or so, until the meat is very tender (a butter knife should easily penetrate it). This will take about three hours.

Remove the cooked ribs to a plate, and pour the cooking liquid into a wide-mouthed jar. Cover both and store in the fridge overnight. Clean the pot. The next day, about an hour before you plan to eat,, skim the hardened fat from the top of the cooking liquid, and then dump the cooking liquid into the cooking pot. (Actually, the "liquid" may retain the shape of the jar—the gelatin from the bones will have given it considerable body.) Turn the heat to medium to melt the liquid. When it is fully melted, turn the heat to high and let it boil until it has reduced by about half. Taste for salt and pepper. Turn heat to low, and return the ribs, bone side down, to the pot. Cover, and let them simmer gently until heated through. Serve the ribs napped in their sauce, with a hearty seasonal vegetable, such as roasted turnips, as well as something green, like sauteed kale.

Coke: Wait, People Thought Vitaminwater Was Good for You?

| Fri Jan. 18, 2013 6:01 AM EST

In light of Coca-Cola's much-discussed attempt to place itself at the vanguard in the fight against obesity—see video above—it's worth taking look at its line of "enhanced waters," known as Glacéau vitaminwater. You could be forgiven for thinking the product is a life-giving nectar. The made-up word Glacéau evokes the purity of glaciers. Vitamins are essential nutrients. And water is an unimpeachable ingredient.

Coca-Cola's marketing encourages the healthy image. According vitaminwater's website, the Power -C flavor of vitaminwater delivers "zinc and vitamin C to power your immune system"; while the XXX offers "antioxidant vitamins to help fight free radicals and help support your body." And so on.  

But not everyone's convinced that vitaminwater does a body good. Back in 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola for making "deceptive and unsubstantiated" health claims about the products. In 2010, a US federal district court judge rejected Coca-Cola's motion to dismiss the suit (document here), noting that Coke's lawyers had made a remarkable argument: "At oral argument defendants suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."

In other words, no one actually believes our flashy marketing—it's obviously nonsense. The vitaminwater suit still hasn't been resolved, a CSPI spokesperson informed me. And hilarity over Coca-Cola's cynical defense strategy is ongoing, too. Stephen Colbert spoofed it just this week:


The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Vitaminwater Advertising Lawsuit
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive


And I think Coke's obesity campaign should be read in the same light: No consumer should be misled into thinking that the sugary-beverage giant (its heavily marketed array of "diet" products nothwithstanding) has been transformed into an obesity-fighting machine. Or, as New York University dietician Marion Nestle put it on her Food Politcs blog, "Coca-Cola fights obesity? Oh, please."

Just for fun, I checked out the ingredients of "orange-orange"-flavored vitaminwater, which are remarkably similar to the other 11 flavors (also listed in that link). Here they are :

Reverse osmosis water, crystalline fructose, cane sugar, less than 0.5% of: citric acid, magnesiumlactate and calcium lactate and potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), gum acacia, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin E (alpha-tocopheryl acetate), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), glycerol ester of rosin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12, beta-carotene, modified food starch, sorbitol.

So, it contains less than 0.5 percent of a whole list of stuff (none of which has anything to do with this particular flavor's namesake fruit, the orange), and thus at least 99.5 percent water, crystalline fructose, and sugar. Crystalline fructose, it turns out, is an even more processed version of high-fructose corn syrup—it provides a pure jolt of fructose. "Cane sugar" is about half fructose and half glucose. There's a growing body of literature, described ably by Gary Taubes in his 2011 New York Times Magazine piece "Is Sugar Toxic," suggesting that refined sweeteners, and in particular their fructose component, are driving a range of health problems including diabetes. Recently, UCLA researchers have found evidence that "a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning." And then there's the emerging suspicion that diets high in refined sweeteners can trigger Alzheimer's disease. In a 2012 Mother Jones piece, Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens showed how the sugar industry has worked hard over the decades to suppress and downplay such research.

So what Coke is passing off as "enhanced water" is mostly just sugar water; or as CSPI has put it, "vitamins + water + sugar + hype = soda - bubbles." Granted, there's less sugar in vitaminwater (19 grams per 12 oz.) than in, say, Coca-Cola classic (39 grams per 12 oz.). But it's still pretty sugary.

Coke charges about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for Coca-Cola Classic."

What about the other 0.5 percent of vitaminwater—the vitamin part? It includes electrolytes—the stuff found in sports drinks. It turns out that electrolyte-laden drinks are mostly hype. As for all those vitamins, there's little or no evidence that vitamin supplements do much to improve health. "We have an enormous body of data telling us that plant-rich diets are very healthy," Josephine Briggs, head of the National Institute of of Health's  National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. "As soon as we take these various antioxidants [and other nutrients] out and put them in a pill, we're not consistently getting a benefit."

In other words, you're much better off getting your vitamins from whole foods than from sugary drinks.

What, then, is vitaminwater good for? Well, it does seem to provide good profit margins for its maker. At Staples, you can pick up an assorted 12-pack of assorted 20-oz. vitaminwaters for $19.99. That's about 8 cents per ounce. Another form of Coca-Cola-produced sugar water, Coca-Cola Classic, fetches $11.99 for a 24-pack of 12-oz. cans at Staples. That's about 4 cents per oz. So Coke gets about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for its flagship product.

Say what you want about Coke's marketing of vitaminwater and its anti-obesity rhetoric, but its business sense is impeccable.