Tom Philpott

FDA Takes a Baby Step on Factory Farm Antibiotics

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 7:37 PM EST

For a few months now, President Obama's FDA has been showing zero appetite for standing up to the meat industry on factory-farm livestock use. In two key decisions (here and here), the agency declined to impose real restrictions on farm drug use, promoting a "voluntary" approach instead.

But today, the FDA abruptly canned the lapdog shtick and growled like a real watchdog: It banned certain uses of the cephalosporin family of antibiotics. The FDA declared in a press release:

Cephalosporins are commonly used in humans to treat pneumonia as well as to treat skin and soft tissue infections. In addition, they are used in the treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease, diabetic foot infections, and urinary tract infections. If cephalosporins are not effective in treating these diseases, doctors may have to use drugs that are not as effective or that have greater side effects.  

Citing concern that routine use on factory farms will push pathogens to develop resistance to these antibiotics, the FDA has banned certain uses of them. Now before I show just how limited this move is in the grand scheme, I have to stress its historical significance. For 34 years, the agency has been wringing its hands over the dangers of farm antibiotic abuse, all the while doing precisely nothing about it (save for appointing committees and issuing polite requests for "judicious" use). Now it's actually regulating. The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farms, which advocates a ban on routine antibiotic use, praised the move Wednesday as an "important first step" in addressing the problem.

But make no mistake: This is just a first step, and nothing more. It turns out that cephalosporins make up a tiny—and shrinking—percentage of the antibiotics used in factory farms. This 2010 post from Ralph Loglisci Ralph Loglisci, Center for a Liveable FutureGraphic: Center for a Livable Future of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future (h/t Helena Bottemiller) offers the chart to the right listing the amounts of various antibiotic families used on factory farms in 2009.

Note that these operations used 91,113 pounds of cephalosporins—an amount that literally rounds to zero compared to the whopping total of 28.8 million pounds they burn through. By comparison, they consumed more than 10 million pounds of tetracycline, also an extremely important drug for humans.

Now check out the FDA's 2010 numbers (the latest that have been released) on livestock antibiotic use. The following chart compares 2009 and 2010 FDA data.

Note that the industry's already-modest use of cephalosporin plunged 41 percent between 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, overall antibiotic use held steady (rising 1 percent), tetracycline use jumped 21 percent, and consumption of penicillin—another important medicine you may have heard of—soared 43 percent to 1.9 million pounds.

Precisely why the industry is ramping up use of these two particular drugs is something I'll be investigating. At first glance, what I'm getting from these numbers is that the FDA has courageously restricted the use of a drug the industry barely uses and is already phasing out, and it is cravenly looking the other way as the industry increasingly leans on other antibiotics as a crutch to prop up a reckless production system. Indeed, as Wired's excellent Maryn McKenna points out, penicillin and tetracycline are in the very antibiotic families the FDA recently decided not to regulate.

We'll know whether the agency is changing its ways if, in the coming year, it follows Wednesday's ban with ones on drugs the industry is actually abusing. If not, then what we just heard from the FDA isn't much more than the growl of a toothless watchdog.

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Taste Test: Pricey Winter Tomatoes From Whole Foods

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Organic winter tomatoes at Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin.

Responding to this great New York Times article on large-scale organic farming on Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I alluded yesterday to the "stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes" now gracing the produce aisles of upscale supermarkets. The Times piece raised some important questions about the ecological impact of large-scale organic tomato production in Baja.

That very same evening, I found myself in what must be one of the most upscale supermarkets on the planet—the flagship Whole Foods in the company's (and my) hometown of Austin. (I'm here for the week visiting family.) And in that cavernous circus of high-end food, I did indeed find a large display featuring several varieties of organic tomatoes from Mexico. But here's the thing: they didn't look very pristine to me. Not unlike the non-organic winter tomatoes found in supermarkets throughout the land, their red hue looked sort of pale. And when I handled them, they didn't seem particularly ripe.

Now, I revere tomatoes. Maverick Farms, the North Carolina operation I help run, grows several varieties, some open-pollinated from old seed lines (i.e., heirloom), some hybrid. Our August-September tomato season is sacred to me, as are the jars of them we put up for the rest of the year. But when they're out of season and not in a jar, tomatoes are dead to me. If I hadn't written about organic winter tomatoes from Mexico that very day, Whole Foods' mediocre-looking display would not have caught my eye at all.

And while Whole Foods' offerings didn't look much different from normal supermarket tomatoes, their price tag did capture my attention. Big beefsteaks and medium-sized greenhouse-grown orbs both went for $4 per pound; "vine-ripened" numbers (with vines still attached) went for an eye-popping $6 per pound.

I decided to take home one of each and subject them to a taste test. Were the tomatoes worth their lofty price? Were they worth the environmental impact they exact on their growing region?

Organic Tomatoes in January: Sucking Mexico Dry

| Mon Jan. 2, 2012 5:18 PM EST

Walk into a fancy grocery store today and you'll see them: stacks of pristine, glistening organic tomatoes. But what does it take to generate a bounty of organic tomatoes in January?

According to a great New York Times story by Elizabeth Rosenthal, the bulk of organic tomatoes now gracing the produce aisles of US supermarkets hail from Mexico's Baja Peninsula—a desert. Rosenthal reports that Baja's production of US-bound organic tomatoes has expanded dramatically in recent years. And growing large monocrops in a desert, organic or not, requires lots and lots of water. Here's Rosenthal:

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops.

That's a pretty brutal tradeoff: A luxury product for export—fresh winter tomatoes—squeezes out people who are trying to feed themselves from their own land. And lest anyone argue that the arrangement is somehow building wealth and pulling people out of poverty in this part of Mexico, Rosenthal notes that the going wage for working in these mercilessly hot fields is $10 per day—twice the local minimum wage, but not enough to pull anyone out of poverty and certainly not sufficient compensation for drawing down the water table and snuffing out other forms of agriculture.

My Four Best Road Meals of 2011

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 3:45 PM EST
Just another strip mall—that, and so much more.

I travel quite a bit for my job. Honestly, long hours in airports and hotels weigh on me, as do the rigors of the conference room and the speaker's lectern. Sigh. Salvation lies in city streets, where I go hounding for good, relatively inexpensivce chow. In no particular order, here are my most memorable road meals of 2011.

Lou Wine Bar
724 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA

It's really just another strip mall amid a galaxy of them in L.A. It offers a laundromat, a Thai massage parlor, a discount store, a burger joint, a "nail spa," … and what might be the greatest wine bar in America. OK, so not every strip mall in L.A. has a Lou Wine Bar. But they should! Lou delivers what you want from a wine bar: low lighting, zero pretension among the waitstaff, the murmur of animated conversation, "small plates" containing big flavors, and, most importantly, a terrific list of off-the-beaten-path bottles. Lou is a temple of what has become known as "natural wine"—wine made without the homogenizing manipulations of industrial technology (here's the house manifesto). Both the menu and the wine list change frequently. The food savors of the Santa Monica farmers market; and the wines offer flavors as idiosyncratic and welcome as a great bar in a nondescript strip mall. I remember well a particularly gruelling day in L.A. last February; Lou made it all better that night with a glass of Cabernet Franc from France's hallowed Loire Valley and a plate of wicked-fresh arugula with glorious cheese and charcuterie.

Northern Spy
511 East 12th Street
New York, New York

I have but six words for this intimate, farm-focused restaurant tucked into the East Village: lamb burger with duck-fat fries. Order it next time you're skulking around Manhattan at lunchtime and feeling dented. Or go for the raw-kale salad featuring a market basket's worth of veggies and a couple of baked eggs. Either will set you right—as will will the terrific list of regional brews.

Green Table
75 9th Ave (Chelsea Market)
New York, NY

The name sounds earnest and a little precious, but the food at this small Chelsea Market restaurant is anything but. Any doubters will be silenced by the "GT Burger," which plays perfectly cooked organic beef against the sting of house-made kimchi. The local-seafood cevichRight up my alley. Right up my alley. e is also terrific, as is, come to think of it, everything else I've tried. Bonus: Right outside of Green Table in Chelsea Market, there's an outpost of 9th Street Espresso, one of the city's shrines to great coffee.

Green Goddess
307 Exchange Alley
New Orleans, LA.

In New Orleans, it's no secret that people sometimes get stuck in a bar and end up having too many Sazeracs. Not that I have any such first-hand experience! But I do know where to go the morning after. Step gingerly through the French Quarter and find the quiet alley graced by Green Goddess. When I did so, they sat my friends and I at an outdoor table and poured us cups of coffee so strong we had to nurse them through an entire leisurely brunch (not our standard practice). Then they started bringing out amazing and even radical food. First up: sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with a mat of molten manchego cheese and then caramelized sugar: a bizarre and scrumptious spin on crème brûlée. Then French toast, stuffed with sauteed apples and  finished exactly the same way as the tomatoes. All to myself, I had the ultimate hangover platter (strictly for research purposes): two fried eggs with strips of fried pork belly, all sitting on a bed of collards. And my friend had the greatest Cuban sandwich I've ever had a bite of. All the while, the gentle autumn sun of the greatest US city fell upon us, and all was well.

A Quarter of All Burgers Tainted With Drug-Resistant Bacteria

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 5:00 PM EST

Responding to the same FDA cave-in to the meat industry I flagged earlier today, Mark Bittman points to a damning study I missed when it came out in April.

In it (press release; full text), researchers gathered 136 samples of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey from supermarkets in five US cities and tested them for staph aureus, a common food-poisoning bacteria that causes everything from from minor skin infections to serious diseases like pneumonia, endocarditis and sepsis.

The results: 47 percent of the samples contained the staph; and of those, fully half were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. This suggests that a quarter of the meat in US supermarket shelves are tainted with multi-drug-resistant strains of this potentially deadly pathogen.

The FDA's Christmas Present for Factory Farms

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 8:00 AM EST

On Dec. 22, while even the nerdiest observers were thinking more about Christmas plans than food-safety policy, the FDA snuck a holiday gift to the meat industry into the Federal Register. The agency announced it had essentially given up any pretense of regulating antibiotic abuse on factory farms, at least for the time being.

Wired's diligent Maryn McKenna has the background. She reports that way back in 1977—when livestock farming was much less industrialized than it is today—the FDA announced its intention to limit use of key antibiotics on animal farms. The reason: By that time, it was already obvious that routine use of these drugs would generate antibiotic-resistant pathogens that endanger humans.

In the decades since, the agency has ruminated and mulled, appointed committees and consulted experts, all the while delaying making a final decision on the matter. Meanwhile, the meat industry built a multibillion-dollar business based on stuffing animals by the thousands into tight spaces amid their own waste. To keep them alive and growing to slaughter amid such conditions, feedlot operators give their animals daily doses of antibiotics. The FDA recently revealed that factory animal farms now burn through fully 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the United States.

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Warren Buffett's Son Schools Bill Gates on African Ag

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:34 PM EST
Bill Gates and Howard Buffett, being honored by the World Food Program in Washington in October

Howard Buffett—son of billionaire investor Warren—is a fascinating character. He is the hands-on owner and operator of a large-scale industrial corn farm in the Midwest and has been nominated by his father to take over chairmanship of insurance giant Berkshire Hathaway upon the aging magnate's eventual retirement. He has also emerged as a leading philanthropist on the topic of agriculture in the Global South.

As a gift-giver, Buffett the younger has come into conflict with Bill Gates, whose well-heeled Gates Foundation makes him the leading philanthropist on the topic of agriculture in the Global South. Gates, too, has a strong tie to Warren Buffet. He is said to be like a son to the the famed investor; and when Warren Buffett decided to give away the great bulk of his fortune, he handed a cool $31 billion to Gates' foundation.

But in a riveting segment of last week's 60 Minutes, Howard Buffett delivered a blunt critique of Gates' high-tech approach to improving food security in the Global South. He said that the Gates Foundation was essentially trying to recreate US-style industrial agriculture in Africa, an approach that he himself had tried early in his philanthropic career. "I don't think it worked," he said. "We need to quit thinking about trying to do it like we do it in America," Buffett added.

Earlier in the segment, he championed low-tech, inexpensive methods for increasing farm productivity—a stark contrast to the high-tech seeds and pricey synthetic fertilizers favored by Gates. Buffett emphasizes that Gates' efforts in African ag aren't "all wrong" and adds that Gates is the "smartest guy in the world, next to my dad." But his disagreement with the Microsoft founder over agriculture is clear.

The emerging Gates/Howard Buffett rift on agricultural development has a special resonance for me. I'm a long-time critic of the Gates approach; and back in August, I wrote a post about Howard Buffett, with a headline that screamed, "Warren Buffett's Son Is Super-Wrong About Africa."

My argument was actually more subtle than that (I didn't write the headline). I acknowledged that Buffett fils was sincere and knowledgeable about improving the lot of African farmers, but I questioned his contention—laid out on Huffington Post—that Africa would achieve food security when its farmers scaled up enough to "sell to companies that operate in their country, like ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Maseca [the Mexican corn flour giant part-owned by ADM], or Tiger brands."

Not so fast, I argued. Such a path would likely lead to the pauperization of most African farmers. I stand by my argument. But I no longer think Buffett's remark about ADM and Cargill really represents his work.

Like a Virgin, but Not Quite: Olive Oil's Dirty Secret

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The bottle of "extra virgin" olive oil on your kitchen shelf? It's probably not extra virgin, defined as cold-pressed and otherwise unrefined. And it might not even be 100 percent olive oil.

That's the conclusion of Tom Mueller's new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Mueller first took on the subject in his 2008 New Yorker article, "Slippery Business," painting the European olive oil business as a shadowy underworld populated by crooks, liars, and hucksters—some of them occupying corner offices at transnational food firms. One EU investigator tells him that dealing counterfeit olive oil brings "profits comparable to cocaine," with "none of the risks." 

Berkeleyside blog sums up Mueller's findings:

Since neither the FDA nor the Italian equivalent really regulate the market, unscrupulous producers have developed numerous ways to adulterate extra virgin olive oil, according to Mueller. They cut olive oil with hazelnut or sunflower oil. They take musty oil made from rotting olives, deodorize it to remove the bad smell, and then add a bit of extra virgin oil to make it smell authentic. Then they slap fancy labels on glass bottles and sell it as extra virgin olive oil.

Berkeleyside points to a recent University of California-Davis study that adds weight to Mueller's claims. Researchers found that 69 percent of imported extra virgin olive oils sampled from California supermarkets failed to meet requirements to merit that label. Interestingly, 90 percent of the California-produced samples did. I guess the California olive oil industry is too young and immature to realize the benefits of fraud; the Europeans have been adulterating olive oil since Roman times, Mueller reports. 

Is Your Fleece Killing the Ocean?

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 3:46 PM EST
Cozy, but maybe not so great for the ocean.

In its 2008 heyday, the blog Stuff White People Like took aim at the ubiquity of "outdoor performance clothes"—people's penchant for marching down city streets and suburban strip malls dressed as if they were slogging the Appalachian Trail.

It turns out, our devotion to outdoor wear might be more than just a crime against fashion. It might also be a crime against the outdoors itself—or at least, that vast swath of it that's covered by ocean.

Over on Grist, Clare Leschin-Hoar brings the bad news. She points to a recent study showing that "nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash and, unfortunately, those tiny plastic bits are making their way into the ocean."

Just how prevalent are they? In a recent Science study, researchers took sand from 18 beaches over six continents, Clare Leschin-Hoar reports. The results?

Every beach tested contained microplastics (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller). Of the samples collected, nearly 80 percent were polyester or acrylic, though without further research, it's impossible to know exactly which type of clothing—whether it's your stretchy yoga pants or that super-soft fleece blanket—is causing the most problems.

Worse still, "polyester is heavier than water," Leschin-Hoar reports; so it sinks to the ocean bottom, an area that teems with little creatures that gobble everything in sight before eaten by bigger creatures—and the "microplastics" then bioaccumulate up the food chain, quite possibly to your plate.

Is the FDA Finally Going to Get BPA out of Can Linings?

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 8:28 PM EST

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical that mimics estrogen. Even in tiny doses it has been linked to cancer, reproductive trouble, and irregular brain development in kids.

It's really the sort of thing you want to keep well clear of your food. Unhappily, in addition to being vile stuff for humans, it also has properties that make it quite attractive for manufactures of food packaging. As Mother Jones has noted before ("Waiter, There's BPA in My Soup"), it's in the lining of virtually every can in the supermarket, from baby food to beer to Coca-Cola to chicken soup. Even some organic brands use it in their canned tomatoes.

And yes, it moves from those cans into our bodies (see here,  here and here). 

The FDA—the agency charged with overseeing the safety of the food supply—for years bucked a growing weight of scientific evidence and declared it safe. Then, in January 2010, the agency shifted course, declaring it had "some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children." In a report released in May of this year, FDA scientists tested "commonly consumed" canned foods from supermarket shelves, just to make sure BPA was really leeching from the can linings into the food (as ample previous reseaerch had already confirmed). The results: 71 of 78 samples had "detectable" levels.

All the while, the agency has avoided making a decision on the question of whether or not to ban the chemical, and millions of Americans continue to be exposed to it daily. Why the delay? Given the weight of evidence indicting BPA, I can only conclude that the chemical-industry lobby, rallying to protect a lucrative market, has convinced the agency to sit on its hands.

This week, hounded by a lawsuit from the Natural Resource Defense Council, the FDA has announced it will make a final decision on BPA by March 31, 2012. I wish we could expect the Obama administration to take the side of science and public health here. But given what we know about industry influence over regulatory decisions in this administration⇀and after seeing what happened with the FDA's decision over the "morning-after pill"⇀the chemical industry may well have this one in the can, along with its BPA.