Tom Philpott

The Obama Administration's Meaty Gift to Big Chicken

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Remember the proposal that Obama's US Department of Agriculture has been pushing since spring 2012, the one that would speed up kill lines in poultry slaughterhouses while simultaneously slashing the number of federal inspectors who oversee them? As I've reported before, the plan involves a unleashing a barrage of anti-microbial sprays onto chicken carcasses as they zip down the line.

The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy has shown that these sprays, whose use is already on the upswing, harm workers and may even mask, not decrease, salmonella contamination. As for the traces of them that remain on supermarket chicken, "government agencies have not conducted independent research into the possible side effects on consumers of using the chemicals," Kindy reported.

Back in April, as I reported at the time, USDA chief Tom Vilsack declared that the department would roll out the plan "very soon." The USDA claims that it would save taxpayers $30 million per year by laying off inspectors, and save the poultry industry "at least" $256 million annually. The chicken industry—dominated by Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Perdue, and Sanderson—strongly supports the proposal.

But it caused an uproar among food safety and labor advocates—who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and line workers, sparking hopes the USDA might back away from it. A scathing Government Accountability Office assessment (my analysis here) bolstered those hopes.

The new plan involves a unleashing a barrage of anti-microbial sprays onto chicken carcasses as they zip down the line.

But over the past week, the administration has sent two signals indicating that it plans to move ahead with the rules. Just before Thanksgiving, the administration released its Fall 2013 Regulatory Agenda, including for the USDA, which states that in 2014, the department's meat inspection service "plans to finalize regulations to establish new systems for poultry slaughter inspection, which would improve food safety and save money for establishments and taxpayers."

And then, on Wednesday, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service released its action plan to reduce salmonella contamination of the meat supply. What's No. 1 on its 10-point list? "[M]odernization of poultry slaughter inspection," the USDA's preferred phrase for its speedup plan. What does firing inspectors and jacking up line speeds have to do with fighting salmonella?

The timeline on exactly when the administration plans to move on the plan remains cloudy—but its determination to do so seems as strong as ever.

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BPA Sales Are Booming

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Yes, you can make lots of money selling BPA.

Bisphenol A, a chemical used in can linings and plastic bottles, is pretty nasty stuff. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration banished it from baby bottles (at the behest of the chemical industry itself, after baby bottle producers had already phased it out under consumer pressure). BPA, as it's known, is an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it likely causes hormonal damage at extremely low levels. The packaging industry uses it to make plastics more flexible and to delay spoilage in canned foods.

You might think that such a substance would lose popularity as evidence of its likely harms piles up and up. Instead, however, the global market for it will boom over the next six years, according to a proprietary, paywall-protected report from the consultancy Transparency Market Research. The group expects global BPA sales to reach $18.8 billion by 2019, from $13.1 billion in 2012—about a 44 percent jump.

TMR researchers declined to be interviewed by me and wouldn't give me access to a full copy of their report. But they did send me a heavily redacted sample. One of the few trends I could glean from it is that the "steady growth" in global BPA consumption is driven by "increasing demand in the Asia-Pacific region." (According to this 2012 paper by Hong Kong researchers, Chinese BPA production and consumption have both "grown rapidly" in recent years, meaning "much more BPA contamination" for the nation's environment and citizens.) As for the United States, the report says that North America is the globe's "third largest regional market for BPA," behind Asia and Europe. North American BPA consumption is growing, but a "at a very slow rate," the report states. As a result, our share of the global BPA is expected to experience a "slight decline" by 2019. Not exactly comforting.

The sample that Transparency Market Research sent me blacked out its analysis of which companies have what share of the global BPA market. This 2012 US Department of Agriculture report claims that just two companies, German chemical giant Bayer and its US rival Dow, "produce the bulk of BPA in the world." Another major producer is Saudi Basic Industries Corp., or SABIC, a company 70 percent owned by the Saudi government. This charming corporate crew looks set to cash in on handsomely on the ongoing BPA boom.

Study: Everything I Like to Ingest Has Arsenic

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 7:00 AM EST

I have a friend who claims to have stopped reading me because I ruin all of her favorite foods for her: rice, quinoa, chicken… After writing this post, I may boycott me as well. In a study (hat tip: LiveScience) apparently designed by my friend for revenge on me, Dartmouth researchers found an association between bodily arsenic loads and consumption of the following substances I have swooned over in print (and enjoy in really life pretty much every chance I get): white wine, beer, Brussels sprouts, and "dark meat fish," a category that includes my beloved sardines.

For people who drink 2.5 beers or glasses of white wine per day, they found, arsenic levels were 20 percent to 30 percent higher than for nondrinkers. Gulp. Or, perhaps better: Stop gulping.

LiveScience's Bahar Gholipour raises an important caveat: The researchers acknowledge that it's unclear whether the arsenic levels the researchers found in their subjects are high enough to trigger the compound's negative effects, which include, according to the study, "skin lesions; skin, lung, and bladder cancer; vascular diseases; low birth weight; and potentially diabetes mellitus and increased susceptibility to infection." More research, they say, is needed, and I'll be following closely.

As for rice, which has been shown in recent studies to have high arsenic loads, the researchers found "no clear relationship" between consumption and arsenic loads. So my friend can go back to eating her favorite staple—seasoned with a lashing of schadenfreude. Excuse me while I whip up my dinner: air-poached air, accompanied by well-filtered water.

Tom's Kitchen: Shaved Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 6:55 AM EST
Not your grandpa's Brussels.

Nothing splinters a Thanksgiving table quite like Brussels sprouts. Most people loathe them, conjuring the mushy, sulfurous orbs that famously taunted Beaver Cleaver in the '50s. Others actually like Brussels that way, and will devote themselves to fussily cutting an "X" into each one, before steaming or boiling them into submission. Then there's the new-wavers like me, who adore them roasted with plenty of garlic and olive oil. This year, I'm whipping up a pox on all houses—or possibly, an (extra-virgin) olive branch to unite them.

Your grandpa's Brussels.

There's so much rich, roasted stuff on the Thanksgiving table that I'm going raw with Brussels this year—shaving them into a crunchy, zingy salad. But because this is for our national feast, there has to be some richness involved. So I worked in a slice of bacon. (For vegetarians, I recommend omitting the bacon and adding either some toasted walnuts, grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or both.)

Shaved Raw Brussels Sprouts Salad with Bacon-Lemon Vinaigrette
(Serves 4-6 as a side dish)

1 thick slice of bacon from a pastured hog, chopped into small chunks
2 small cloves of garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced
1 pound Brussels sprouts, tough outer leaves peeled
1 bunch parsley, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

mandolin brussel sprouts
It's a mandoline's world.

Cook the bacon in a small frying pan over low-medium heat until the chunks are brown and crispy and have rendered their fat. Turn the heat to low and remove the bacon bits with a slotted spoon, letting the fat drip back into the pan. Set the bacon bits to the side. Add the chopped garlic to the pan and cook, stirring, just until the garlic is fragrant. Remove from heat.

Slice the Brussels very thin, using either a mandoline (here's the cheap, effective one I use) or a very sharp knife.

Now make the vinaigrette. In the bowl you plan to serve the salad in, add the olive oil, the bacon fat/garlic combo, the lemon juice, a good pinch of sea salt and a robust grind of pepper. Whisk. Now dump in the shaved Brussels, the parsley, and the bacon bits. Toss, taste, and adjust for seasoning.

Turkey at $1.38 a Pound Sounds Great. Until You Think About What That Means.

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 6:55 AM EST
Life on a factory turkey farm: not such a bargain.

In Wisconsin, you can buy a Butterball turkey for $1.38 per pound, reports Nami Moon Farms, on its blog. That's about $16.50 for a 12-pound bird—a Thanksgiving main course for eight, plus "ample leftovers." The Nami Moon folks calculate that if they tried to compete with Butterball on price in the their pasture-based turkey system, they'd lose $36.44 per bird—representing a loss of $1,822 for the 50 birds they raise.

Now, a conventional economist would likely conclude from this information that Butterball represents the height of industrial efficiency, while Nami Moon is an anachronism. But the low price  doesn't just reflect efficiency. It also, as the veteran agriculture reporter Christopher Leonard showed in a Friday Washington Post op-ed, reveals power—specifically, the power to exploit farmers.

"Just four corporations—Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods—produce more than half of the turkey in the United States, a level of concentration unthinkable just a few decades ago," Leonard writes. Leonard writes that the Big Turkey operates on the chicken industry's model. Here's how it works.

Turkeys graze on organic pastures and live in pens that protect them from predators, direct sun light, and wind at Nick’s Organic Farm in Maryland. USDA/Flickr

Here is what modern poultry farming looks like: A farmer will borrow several hundred thousand dollars (or in some cases millions) to build industrial barns where the birds will be raised. The birds themselves are never bought or sold on an open market; a poultry company delivers chicks to the farm and picks them up about six weeks later when the birds are big enough to slaughter. Farmers are kept on short-term contracts with the big poultry companies and live in fear that they’ll be dropped.

As a result, large processors manage to soak up most of the profits from large-scale turkey production, while "farmers are living on the edge of bankruptcy," he reports. According to these recent USDA numbers show (Excel file), turkey farmers' feed costs has risen by a factor of 2.5 since 2000, mainly because of the ethanol boom, while the price they get for their finished birds has risen only by 1.5 times. Meanwhile, Leanard shows, the meat giants' profit margins have expanded in recent years.

Of course, the power to squeeze farmers isn't the only advantage Big Turkey holds over small operators like Nami Moon. As I've shown before, the meat industry also boasts a formidable ability to prevent regulators from requiring them to clean up their messes. With 15,000 birds in a typical turkey facility—with an average of three flocks per year, that's a lot of concentrated turkey shit. At these mammoth operations, the welfare of the confined birds is  (sometimes literally) stomped on. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, yet another undercover video revealed horrific abuse on a factory turkey farm.

Then, of course, there are working conditions at the industry's vast slaughterhouses—staffed by low-wage workers who endure "debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems," as the Southern Poverty Law Center put it in a recent report. Finally, there's the industry's reliance on low doses of antibiotics to keep animals alive and growing fast under cramped, unsanitary conditions, which the Centers for Disease Control has bluntly acknowledged contributes to antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten people.

So that $1.38/pound price tag doesn't tell a simple story about industrial efficiency. It's also the consumer cherry on top of a largely invisible production system built on rank exploitation—of farmers, workers, animals, public health, and land.

Best Thanksgiving Pro Tips From My Twitter Chat

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 3:37 PM EST

Thanksgiving's in a week, and I know you're bursting with questions. What's a great vegetarian main dish that's not a pre-formed tofu log? What's up with supermarket turkey? What's the best way to cook a pastured, heritage one? Don't bottle it up. Let's hash it all out in 140 characters or less, at my Twitter chat, starting at 3 pm eastern, today. Find me at @tomphilpott.

Update: For those of you that missed the chats, don't worry—you don't have to miss the great Thanksgiving tips! We've rounded up some of the tweets from the conversation below.

On dry brining the bird:

On veggies and sides:

On the perfect gravy:

On booze:

On medicating your unwitting family:

On a tiny Thanksgiving:

On leftovers:

The great pie debate:

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Undercover Video Reveals Savage Abuse at a Factory Pig Farm. Again.

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 2:09 PM EST
Boxed in: Pregant sows in gestation crates at a hog facility in Oklahoma.

Pushed by consumer outrage, the pork industry appears to be slowly moving away from the practice of confining pregnant sows for most of their lives in "gestation crates": spaces so tight, the unfortunate beasts can't even turn around. ("Basically, you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat," as the animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin puts it.) Several large retailers and food chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chipotle, Safeway, Kroger, Costco, and Kmart, have pledged to demand that the pork they buy be from crate-free facilities; and several gigantic pork processors, including Smithfield and Hormel, have vowed to comply.

But two massive companies—Walmart, which is by far the nation's largest grocer, and mega-meat processor Tyson—have stubbornly refused to take a stand on crates, shrugging off considerable pressure. I think that may be about to change.

That's because undercover investigators from the animal-welfare Mercy For Animals managed to infiltrate the workforce of an Oklahoma facility that supplies hogs to Tyson, which in turn processes them into pork for Walmart. What they found looks like a public-service commercial on the cruelty of gestation crates—with a nasty dash of baby-pig abuse thrown in. The video documents abuse both routine and spectacular: from the awful confinement of pregnant sows into tiny spaces to men pummeling them with sheets of wood and kicking them. The video isn't for the squeamish.

Just a few weeks ago, Mercy For Animals got the goods on another facility that supplies pork to Walmart, this one in Minnesota. This particular plant isn't affiliated with Tyson—but embarrassingly, its owner, Randy Spronk, is president of an industry trade group called the National Pork Producers Council. When you watch the following video, reflect that Spronk's company defends the practices depicted on the grounds that they're standard within the industry, including the bludgeoning to death of sick baby pigs.

Why do I think these latest exposés will sour Tyson and Walmart on sow crates? Recall that pork giant Smithfield was wavering on its commitment to phase out the practice—until a 2010 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States documented horrific sow-crate scenes on it own farms. Like a hard slap in the face, the revelations inspired the company to vow anew to phase out extreme confinement of pregnant pigs.

Tyson has responded to the Oklahoma case by cutting ties to the hog operation in question, The Los Angeles Times reports. "We’re serious about proper animal handling and expect the farmers who supply us to treat animals with care and to be trained and certified in responsible animal care practices," the company wrote in a statement. As for Walmart, "We think the animal handling in this video [the Oklahoma one] is unacceptable. We agree with Tyson’s decision to terminate the relationship with the farm," a spokesperson told me.

But taking action against a single supplier might not be enough. There are really two issues here. One is overt violence—the kicking and pummeling. The other is the inherent cruelty of the crates themselves. On the latter issue, the Walmart spokesperson said, “We are currently engaged with pork suppliers, food manufacturers, animal rights organizations, and others to work towards an industry-wide model for raising pork that is not only respectful of farmers and animals, but also meets our customers’ expectations for quality and animal safety.”

Uh huh. It turns out, I think, that systematic abuse of the creatures that feed us can only flourish when it can be hidden from the public. As Ted Genoways showed in the cover story of the July/August 2013 Mother Jones, that's exactly why the meat industry has fought so hard to criminalize the investigations of groups like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals. But at this point, the cat is out of the bag—and soon, I reckon, the sow will be out of the crate.

Is the Butterball Turkey Shortage for Real?

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 7:00 AM EST

The interwebs are aflame with news that Butterball, the nation's largest turkey processor, has been beset with a shortage of "large, fresh" (i.e., 16 pounds and over) specimens for the nation's Thanksgiving tables. The company has plenty of frozen monster-size birds, it emphasizes, but will only fill about half of its orders to retailers for the never-frozen kind. Other industrial-turkey giants like Cargill have reported no problems fattening their birds.

What gives at Butterball, the supplier of 1 in 5 US turkeys? In a statement sent to me and other journalists, Butterball is vague about the reasons for the shortage, citing only a "decline in weight gains on some of our farms." In other words, the turkeys that Butterball's contract farmers raise aren't growing as quickly as expected.

This is odd. If there's one thing the modern poultry industry has mastered, it's fattening millions of fowl extremely quickly. And turkeys have been getting bigger and bigger for decades. "[T]urkeys have increased in average weight annually for at least the past 40 years," the US Department of Agriculture revealed in a 2005 report. The USDA added that the average weight of a turkey at slaughter jumped from 18 pounds in 1965 to an enormous 28.2 pounds in 2005—a 57 percent increase. By 2012, the average had inched up to a hefty 29.8 pounds. This is not an industry that's typically plagued by size issues.

Butterball says it's "continuing to evaluate all potential causes," but it has so far declined to name any. Given the near-complete dearth of information, I've come up with a few highly speculative possibilities that may—or may not—explain the case of the missing monster turkeys. I ran them past a Butterball spokesperson, but received no comment. Like a nice slice of roast turkey—preferably from a bird raised outside on pasture—these ideas should be taken with a few grains of salt. But until Butterball divulges more information, speculation is all we have.

Is it the (lack of) ractopamine, stupid? Ractopamine, a drug that mimics stress hormones in animals but makes them pack on lean weight rapidly, is a popular feed additive on factory-scale US farms. It's most famously used in hog production, but the Food and Drug Administration allows a ractopamine product called Topmax for turkeys (and it's also approved for beef cattle). Meanwhile, the European Union, China, Taiwan, and Russia all ban the use of it because traces of it end up in meat, and China and Russian have both banned imports of pork from pigs that were raised on it.

What does this have to do with Butterball and its big-bird shortfall? Well, according to the trade journal WattAgnet, Butterball exports 15 percent of its annual output—that's 100 million pounds of turkey products—and "develops new products that cater to international markets and customs." As well it might, because as the USDA reports, US per capita annual turkey consumption has been declining, going from 17.5 pounds per person in 2008 to 16.4 pounds last year. Meanwhile, total US turkey exports have surged from 546.52 million pounds in 2007 to 741 million pounds in 2012.

So did Butterball, which supplies feed rations to its contract farmers, quietly cut out the ractopamine to preserve its export markets—and in the process, create a shortage of large birds? The company offered no comment on that possible explanation. Indeed, to my knowledge, it has never acknowledged using ractopamine. My colleague Kiera Butler asked the company about ractopamine a year ago, and got no response. But the controversial drug apparently is commonly used by the US turkey industry—in February, Russia explicitly banned US turkey products over the ractopamine issue. Two weeks ago, Russia rescinded its ban on US turkey effective the end of November, declaring it had conducted inspections of US turkey-processing plants. 

Is it the pricey corn? The main feed for industrial turkey is corn—and corn prices have been high for the last half decade, and spiked last year because of the Midwestern drought. In testimony before the House of Representatives this year, National Turkey Federation president Joel Brandenberger complained bitterly about the high price of corn, declaring it "the primary reason one turkey company went bankrupt in 2012 and why the industry already has lost 750 jobs in the last 12 months."

Is the great big-turkey shortfall of Thanksgiving '13 a "marketing ploy to build turkey hype"?

Did high corn prices inspire Butterball to substitute some corn in its feed mix for cheaper, lower-calorie alternatives—and sacrifice some bird growth in the process? That's the first thing that crossed the mind of Cornell professor emeritus of nutrition Malden Nesheim, who started out his Cornell career as a poultry nutritionist. He told me that the only other explanation that would make sense to him would be a disease among Butterball's flock—but that is "highly unlikely," since the company sources from several growers. Distillers grains, a byproduct of the process of turning corn into ethanol, is a popular corn substitute on factory farms. According to a report by Sally Noll of the University of Minnesota, distillers grains contain just 84 percent of the energy (calories) of corn. Nesheim told me that it's "plausible" that Butterball's size problem stems from a ramping up of distillers grains, but emphasized that without more information from Butterball, he could only speculate.

Are the FDA's new, voluntary antibiotics rules having an effect? When the Food and Drug Administration released voluntary guidance requesting that the meat industry stop using daily small doses of antibiotics as a growth enhancer last year, I and many other observers mocked the move: first because it was voluntary, and second because the guidelines left a massive loophole in place that could negate any actual cutback (explained here). But what if Butterball is taking the FDA's guidance to heart—and it's causing slower growth among its birds? You'd think the company would crow like a tom turkey if it had made such a change. Again, the company had no comment.

Is it all just a hoax? Time's Laura Stampler suggested the simplest, most elegant explanation: The great big-turkey shortfall of Thanksgiving '13 is a "marketing ploy to build turkey hype." Think about it. Say you made your living selling a product that Americans were consuming less and less of.  And meanwhile, competitors selling niche alternatives—in this case, organic, pasture-raised, or heritage-breed turkeys, or fake turkey analogues—are nibbling away at your market share. Wouldn't you be tempted to create the illusion of a shortage, something to inspire consumers to seek out your product? Scarcity makes the heart grow fonder. Conceivably, that could be going on here.

In Which I Agree With Big Oil and the Tea Party

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 12:18 PM EST

Amid much fanfare in 2007, Bush signed an energy law that mandated a large and annually increasing amount of corn-based ethanol be mixed into the nation's car fuel supply. Six months or so later, a senator/presidential candidate named Barack Obama could be found jetting about on ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland's corporate airplane and appearing at the openings of new ethanol plants. And his administration has been promoting and defending the stuff ever since.

In their boosterism for corn ethanol, Obama and his predecessor were heeding a bi-partisan consensus that has propped up the industry since the 1970s. But now it's wearing thin. In a document leaked in October, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency revealed it was considering scaling back the amount of ethanol required to be mixed into the gasoline supply in 2014—which, until very recently, would have been an unthinkable affront to King Corn. And then, on Friday, the EPA formally proposed the cutback, and will now take public comment on it, "which is certain to be voluminous," The New York Times dryly noted.

The Demi-Glace Ceiling: Why Do We Ignore Lady Chefs?

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 7:00 AM EST

When Time couldn't think of a single female chef to name to its now-infamous "13 Gods of Food" list, I shared the instant outrage that overtook the internet, but I wasn't surprised at all.

That's because the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige—the increasingly glaring fact that women are largely shut of the food world's top honors—hit me like a sizzling chunk of foie gras to the face in mid-September.

That's when I got the invitation to a prestigious food conference in Westchester County, New York, sponsored by a group called the Basque Culinary Institute. I have to admit my heart skipped a beat. The star-studded guest list—drawn up by the BCI, International Advisory Council, an influential (and all-male) group of chefs known as the G9—included Spanish legend Ferran Adrià, the surrealist godfather of the postmodern cooking style called molecular gastronomy; Michel Bras, whose eponymous restaurant in southern France has held the food world's highest ranking, three Michelin stars, since 1999; and René Redzepi, an Adrià acolyte hailed by The New Yorker as "arguably the most famous Dane since Hamlet" for his radically woodsy "New Nordic" fare.