Photo from a Mercy For Animals investigation of Quality Egg of New England, 2009.
What's it like inside a factory farm? If the livestock and meat industries have their way, what little view we have inside the walls of these animal-reviewing facilities may soon be obscured. For the second year in a row, the industry is backing bills in various statehouses that would criminalize undercover investigations of livestock farms. The Humane Society of the US, one of the animal-welfare groups most adept at conducting such hidden-camera operations, counts active "ag gag" bills in no fewer than nine states. Many of them are based on a model conjured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that generates industry-friendly legislation language for state legislatures, Associated Press reports.
To understand the stakes of this battle, consider this 2010 Food and Drug Administration report on conditions in several vast egg-producing facilities in Iowa owned by a man named Jack Decoster. I teased out some highlights at the time of its release; in short, it involves flies, maggots, rats, wild birds, tainted feed, workers ignoring sanitary rules, and lots and lots of chickenshit. The report portrays the facilities as a kind of fecal nightmare, with manure mounding up in eight-foot piles—providing perches for escaped hens to peck feed from teeming cages—overflowing in pits, and seeping through concrete foundations.
It was, in short, a blunt and damning portrayal, an example of a federal watchdog agency training the public gaze on the misdeeds of a powerful industry. The investigation led the FDA to ban the offending operations from selling fresh eggs for several months.
USDA inspectors repeatedly witnessed dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production.
Trouble is, the FDA's exposé came after those factory-like operations had been forced to recall nearly half a billion eggs potentially tainted with salmonella, and an outbreak that sickened nearly 2,000 people. It later turned out that the company's own tests had detected salmonella in the facilities, including egg-carrying conveyor belts, no fewer than 73 times in the two years before the outbreak; and that inspectors from the US Agriculture Department had repeatedly witnessed unsanitary conditions like dead bugs on the packing floor and old egg residues on conveyor belts just before the outbreak, but did nothing to stop production, because they were only there to "grade" the size of eggs, not monitor the potential for disease outbreaks (which falls to the FDA).
Given that the egg company itself (which turned out to be part of the nation's largest egg empire at the time) and federal watchdogs both failed to prevent the outbreak despite so many troubling signs, you have to wonder what would have happened if an animal-welfare group like Mercy For Animals or the Humane Society of the US had managed to sneak in cameras and record conditions before those half-billion suspect eggs made it onto supermarket shelves.
In fact, months before the outbreak, HSUS did get operatives to pose as a worker at several giant egg factories in Iowa, operated by Decoster rivals Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises. Here's some of what they found:
From the report:
• Trapped birds unable to reach food and water: Battery cages can trap hens by their wings, necks, legs, and feet in the wire, causing other birds to trample the weakened animals, usually resulting in a slow, painful death.
• High mortality in layer and pullet sheds: The HSUS investigator pulled dead young hens, some of them mummified (meaning they'd been rotting in the cages for weeks), from cages every day.
Failure to maintain manure pits: According to one worker, the manure pit under a pullet shed had not been cleaned in two years. Rose Acre workers claimed that some hens are blinded because of excessive ammonia levels.
• Abandoned hens: Some hens manage to escape from their cages and fall into the manure pits below.
The exposure prompted Rose Acre Farms to undergo "third-party audit" of the facilities in question, while Rembrandt publicly declared it would investigate its facilities, adding to a farm trade journal that "it would have been beneficial had the Humane Society come directly to us right after the alleged violations occurred." We'll never know if the HSUS investigation caused changes that saved consumers from exposure to salmonella or other pathogens.
Federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker.
And in 2011, a Mercy For Animals employee got inside yet another Iowa egg company called Sparboe Farms and released a video depicting dead birds being left to rot in tight cages also occupied by live birds and flies, among other sordid scenes. In a web posting after the release, the company's president wrote that the video had documented acts are "totally unacceptable and completely at odds with our values as egg farmers," adding that the employees responsible had been fired. Just before the MFA release, FDA came out with the results of its own investigation of the facility, which found several violations—again potentially saving the public from a pathogen outbreak.
In a time of fiscal austerity, federal watchdogs like USDA and FDA are having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities, meaning that already-weak oversight will only get weaker. If the meat industry wins these ag-gag battles playing out in farm states nationwide, who will serve as the public's eyes on the factory farm floor? Answer: essentially, no one.
Kathleen Merrigan, outgoing deputy secretary of agriculture.
Back in 2009, when President Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan as second in command at the US Department of Agriculture, celebration erupted in sustainable-food circles. Last Thursday afternoon, the USDA announced the imminent end of Merrigan's run as deputy secretary of ag with a terse note from USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It gave no reason for her departure, which is effective at the end of April.
For generations, the message from the US Department of Agriculture to the nation's farmers could be summed up in the famous piece of advice offered by Ezra Taft Benson, President Dwight Eisenhower's USDA chief: "get big or get out." That's why Merrigan's tenure is so significant. Under her influence, the USDA suddenly began to urge consumers to "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," and made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems supplied by farms of varying scales: the opposite of the globalized, monolithic system envisioned by Benson and put into place with the consent of his successors.
Last summer, the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted an odd provision into a 90-page ag appropriations bill—one that had something to do with money, but nothing to do with the matter at hand, federal appropriations. In what became known as the biotech rider, the provision would have allowed the planting of genetically modified crop varieties even if a federal judge rules that they have been approved by the USDA improperly—as happened, for example, in 2010, when a federal judge issued an injunction against the planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets on the grounds that the USDA had approved them without a substantial environmental review.
In a post last year, I laid out why such protection is so important to the handful of companies that dominate ag biotech: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont). Short story: Their current products are failing, hounded by weed and insect resistance, and they need to get their next-generation products—which are really just intensified versions of their currents ones—to market as quickly as possible. Lawsuits and court rulings on environmental grounds can only gum up the works.
Well, the biotech rider failed last year, but now it's back—showing up this time in another bill that has nothing to do with the regulation of ag biotech, the Senate's Continuing Resolution. This monster piece of legislation is necessary to fund the government once the next (absurd) fiscal deadline hits March 27. The rider in question can be found lurking on page 80 of its 587 pages (it's section 735).
In a river that flows through Shanghai, Chinese officials have pulled 6,000 dead pigs from the water, CNN reported. The situation is undeniably grotesque: "Sanitation workers, clad in masks and plastic suits, have been fishing the bruised pig bodies surfacing in the Huangpu River. The pink, decomposing blobs have wreaked foul odors and alarmed residents."
According to CNN, the corpses began turning up in the river after a government crackdown on the selling of meat from diseased pigs. In a bind, farmers sought a riparian solution to the problem of disposing them. Gross.
China's pig-dumping scandal must be seen the context of the nation's rapidly industrializing hog-production system—as this 2011 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report shows, national policy is driving a lightning-fast switch from backyard hog production to vast US-style hog factories. (And now poultry production is following suit.)
But as China reshapes its meat production in our image, we have no standing to feel superior when scandals like the current one in Shanghai's hinterland erupt. That's because we don't do a very good job of protecting our waterways from the hog industry, either. Consider Iowa, which houses around 18 million hogs, making it our most hog-intensive state. All of those hogs concentrated into a relatively small space generate unthinkable amounts of toxic manure. How much? Food & Water Watch weighs in:
That's the message of a presentation given at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science last month by Justin Teeguarden, a scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a lab that operates under contract with the US Department of Energy. According to a PNNL press release about the presentation, Teeguarden analyzed 150 BPA exposure studies and found that "people's exposure may be many times too low for BPA to effectively mimic estrogen in the human body." The study's funder, the press release adds, was the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Teeguarden's assessment has not been published—in a peer-reviewed journal or anywhere else
But before you dust off that old BPA-laden sippy cup for your kid, it's worth digging a little deeper into the source. First of all, all of those media reports neglected to mention that Teeguarden's assessment has not been published—in a peer-reviewed journal or anywhere else.
Teeguarden declined to speak to me but did answer some questions over email. I asked him if his study had been submitted for publication. "Not published yet," he replied. I pressed him on the question of whether it had been submitted for publication. He didn't respond. When I asked him if he would email me a copy of the Powerpoint presentation he gave at the AAAS conference, he replied, "Happy to share post acceptance," meaning, I assume, that he would turn it over once it had been accepted for publication.
The lack of publication combined with Teeguarden's refusal to release a presentation he has delivered in a public forum make it extremely difficult to assess his project. Laura Vandenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts who has published research finding significant levels of BPA in human blood, told me that it's "highly unusual" for an unpublished work to generate so much attention. When a reporter asks her to comment on a study, she told me, "what I normally do is to ask for a copy of the manuscript," she said. In this case, of course, there is no manuscript available.
So why do we grow so much of this one crop—and what do we get for the effort? I've been pondering those questions since I began writing about food politics eight years ago. The answers I've come up with (see here and here for examples) have not been popular with the loose alliance of firms that provide seeds and agrichemicals to farmers to grow corn and that buy the harvest and turn it into a variety of products. Back in 2010, a corn-industry PR person once lashed out at my conclusions as the "rantings of an elitist with an anti-corn agenda."
Brussels sprouts and a burger from Austin's 24 Diner.
How are local farmers and food producers using tech to outsmart Big Ag? Hear Tom Philpott and others weigh in on a SXSW Interactive panel at the Hyatt Regency Austin's Big Bend Room at 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 9.
So you're coming to Austin for South By Southwest, eh? Well, so is half of humanity. (Sorry—I grew up in Austin and lived here through my 20s, but this is my first time back for SXSW in 15 years, so I'm a little freaked out.) Austin is a city under siege during the week leading up to the Ides of March, but if you're patient, you can find a worthy meal or a pint of something good and brewed nearby. What follows is by no means a comprehensive guide to the huge number of choices on offer—just a local food/beer lover's idiosyncratic picks.
SouthBites, across from the Convention Center: "Curated" by local celebrity chef Paul Qui—more on him below—this "selection of gourmet food trucks for SXSW attendees" is the place to start your your chowhounding. Duh.
Downtown Farmers Market, 4th and Guadalupe (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.): When everyone's sleeping it off Saturday morning, creep over to this open-air, once-a-week market right in the middle of downtown. You'll find dozens of farm stands with abundant and magnificent early-spring produce, but it won't be of much use to you, because you won't be cooking. What you need to do is locate the stand of Dai Due, at the market's southeastern corner, and queue up. One of Austin's culinary treasures, Dai Due has no brick-and-mortar retail presence. Owners Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield got their rep with their innovative pop-up dinners staged at farms around Austin. Now they're looking for the perfect space to launch a butcher shop—"I'm a butcher, not a chef," Griffiths has insisted. But until they do, their farmers market stand is the only way to sample their food. And it's not to be missed. The menu changes weekly, depending on what locally produced meats and veggies Griffiths gets his hands on. Recent offerings have included chili-braised pork tacos with cabbage (Griffiths has a way with pork, and chilo peppers, and cabbage), and an absolutely epic grass-fed bison burger topped with a fried egg. If you love food, do not miss Dai Due. The place often offers Mexican-style café de olla—coffee brewed with cinnamon. If so, order some.
Need a quick breakfast downtown? It's easy, tiger. Easy Tiger
Easy Tiger, 709 E. 6th: They call it Dirty Sixth, a multiblock stretch of bars and clubs just west of I-35 on Austin's fabled 6th Street. And during SXSW, it's at its absolute maddest. But right in the middle of it all sits an unlikely oasis known as Easy Tiger, its beer garden perched on a scenic creek. By night, it will be utterly packed—the place has one of Austin's best beer lists, a full bar with fancy booze for the A&R execs on expense accounts (they still exist, right?), and terrific house-made sausage from sustainably sourced meat (with a good veggie option as well). If you find yourself on 6th at night, by all means muscle your way to the bar and get a pint along with a wild-boar sausage or a snack plate featuring homemade pimiento cheese and a fantastic pretzel (menu). But here's the weird part: Easy Tiger isn't just a great beer hall; it's also, by a wide margin, Austin's best bakery. And you can go there in the morning and get a top-flight cup of coffee along with all manner of expertly baked treats—and likely not have to battle crowds.
24 Diner and Counter Cafe, both at 6th st and Lamar, next door to each other: 24 will be on every SXSW food-rec list, and for good reason. Run by the same crew as Easy Tiger, it offers delicious comfort food made with nice ingredients in a mod setting. Vegetarians, don't be put off by the meat-heavy menu—both the house-made veggie burger and the roasted vegetables over quinoa are first-rate. Did I mention that it's open 24 hours a day, serves breakfast anytime, and has a great beer list? (Guilty pleasure: the roasted bananas and brown sugar milkshake.) If the crowds at 24 are too much, try the next-door daytime alternative Counter Cafe. Stuffed into a long, narrow space and dominated by a soda-fountain style bar, Counter Cafe is another variation on the delicious-diner-food-with-good-ingredients theme (complete with killer veggie burger). And the building is an Austin icon—back when it was an old-school steakhouse, scenes from Slacker (1991) were filmed there.
Just add beer: Panko-fried, all-natural pork belly sandwich, kewpie mayo, karashi mustard, served with Japanese eggplant salad. East Side King
Grackle Bar/East Side King food truck, 1700 East 6th: East of the highway on 6th Street, in what was once a Mexican-American neighborhood, Austin's latest hipster mecca has arisen. The place now teems with bars, restaurants, and condos. My favorite of the new-wave establishments is a divey bar called the Grackle—named after a bird so common in Austin it almost has pest status—which houses in its parking lot a great food truck called East Side King. The Grackle is dark, dominated by a pool table, and has a good, small selection of tap beers, several of them local. And the bartenders pour a healthy-sized shot of good whiskey at prices well below what you'll find at other spots around town. What more can you ask of a bar? That's where East Side King comes in. From a modest-looking food truck decorated in garish hippie art, chef Paul Qui—who I believe has won some reality TV contest, and has worked as executive chef for a while at Austin's much-hyped sushi temple Uchiko—is doing inspired Asian-fusion bar food like fried pork belly sandwich with fiery mayo and "Broccoli Pops," whole spears of grilled broccoli in chili-miso sauce. North of downtown near the University of Texas campus, there's another East Side King perched outside of another dive bar called the Hole in the Wall (2538 Guadalupe), where I misspent many a night and even afternoon during college.
Weather Up, 1808 East Cesar Chavez: If you find yourself east of the highway, feeling spendy, and in need of a drink, Weather Up is your place. It offers fancy "craft" cocktails poured by mustachioed hipsters (but friendly ones) from a cute old house with a tranquil patio out back.
Houndstooth Coffee (401 Congress) and Frank (4th and Colorado): If you're anything like me, you're going to need lots of coffee during SXSW—really good coffee. Houndstooth offers the best in town. Its first location, at 42nd and Lamar, is a bit off the SXSW path. Its new location, at 4th and Congress, is right in the middle of everything, but not open yet. Not to worry—during SXSW, Houndstooth will be running a cart on the patio outside its new place with full coffee service. The cortado—a perfect espresso shot with just enough steamed milk—is the signature drink. Another highlight: beans from top Austin roaster Cuvee brewed in a Chemex pot fitted with a Hario metal filter (coffee geeks will know what I'm talking about). Frank, a hotdog joint around the corner from Houndstooth, also offers top-flight, obsessed-over coffee (I've never tried the 'dogs).
The garden at Olivia; chicken house in back. Olivia
You better lick it: Austin's best ice cream. Lick
Lick (2032 S. Lamar), Barley Swine (2024 S. Lamar), and Olivia (2043 S. Lamar Blvd). If you head south on Lamar to see music at the legendary honky-tonk Saxon Pub—and you should—you'll pass this trio of formidable establishments, which sit just north of Oltorf. Lick offers spectacular ice cream, made from local Mill King Creamery milk and featuring flavors like grapefruit ginger and chocolate pecan with buttered caramel. Starting life as a food truck, Barley Swine presents a down-home version of molecular gastronomy—radical techniques and combinations applied to top-flight local ingredients, in a simple setting with lots of beer choices. Olivia is Austin's least-hyped local-food temple: No one ever talks about it, but there's a great veggie garden out back, complete with an adorable chicken run for egg production. The menu features impeccably sourced, pricey, and delicious Mediterranean food by night; on weekend days, it's my favorite brunch spot.
Yes you can: Pearl Snap is an emerging Austin classic; also available on tap. Austin Beerworks
Austin, on Tap
Just in the past five years, Austin has emerged as an excellent beer town. Here are some of my favorites, widely available on tap at bars.
Austin BeerWorks Pearl Snap Lager. This is just a rock-solid, clean, crisp, light pilsner—a tribute, I think to Pearl Beer, an old-time Texas brewery whose lagers fueled Austin's lefty political class until their simultaneous demise sometime in the '80s. Pearl Snap lager is my go-to refreshment for weekend garden work—and a great way not to get bogged down during a long night on the town. (All the ABWs are worth drinking—if you can get your hands on a Sputnik, the brewery's deep-black, roasty, dry, and oddly quaffable "Russian imperial coffee oatmeal stout," by all means, do it.)
Real Ale Brewing Phoenix Double ESB. This slightly sweet, malty, medium-bodied dark brew is perfect for Austin's current weather, which takes on a slight late-spring chill at night. Careful, though—while Phoenix is deceptively drinkable, its 7.2 percent alcohol level will catch up with you.
Hops & Grain Alt-eration and Pale Dog Pale Ale. This newish Austin brewery has just two offerings on the market, and both are worth seeking out. Alt-eration is brewed in the style of a classic German alt—light auburn and malty—and the Pale Dog is just perfect example of the classic American style popularized by Sierra Nevada.
Rogness Giantophis Imperial IPA. If your thing is a big, reeking IPA, loaded with piney hops and balanced with a malt punch, then the well-named Giantophis has your name on it. All of the Rogness offerings are excellent—milder souls will appreciate the Rattler pale ale or the saison-style Beardy Guard.
Balcones True Blue Corn Whiskey. Okay, this isn't a beer, but attention must be paid to Central Texas' emerging cult craft distiller. Balcones' signature True Blue whiskey, made from "roasted Atole, a Hopi blue corn meal," is deep, slightly smoky, and balanced by a long sweet, spicy finish. It's a fixture in Austin's fancier bars, and you should treat yourself to a shot of it, neat.
So, ingesting these industrial chemicals is a bad idea, especially if you're a kid or a pregnant woman. But avoiding them is very difficult, since they're widely used in plastics, and are ubiquitous in the food supply. The federal government has not seen fit to ban them generally—although the FDA did outlaw BPA from baby bottles last year (only after the industry had voluntarily removed them) and Congress pushed phthalates out of kids' toys back in 2008. Otherwise, consumers are on their own to figure out how to avoid ingesting them.
Unfortunately, that's a really hard task—and eating fresh, local, and organic might not be sufficient, as new research (abstract), published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, shows.
"All calories count," declared the voiceover in an infamous recent Coca-Cola ad. "No matter where they come from, including Coca Cola and everything else with calories." Message: a calorie is a calorie; don't blame our sugary drinks for your troubles!
But all calories aren't created equal, two recent studies suggest. The first one, on sugar, is alarming; the second, on the so-called Mediterranean diet, is comforting.