As 125,000 Americans Die, Obama Resorts to Greenwash

Thanks for the five-year reprieve, Mr. President.

Thanks for the five-year reprieve, Mr. President.

Salmonella are known killers. The food-borne bacteria poison 1.2 million Americans each year, resulting in 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. Astonishingly, it is not illegal to sell meat and poultry contaminated with salmonella, according to the current policies of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service—the folks who are charged with keeping this country’s meat supply safe.

Three years ago the USDA denied a petition by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) requesting that the agency declare four strains of drug-resistant salmonella adulterants, which would have made it illegal to sell food contaminated with them. These four bugs can survive regimens of modern medicine’s most powerful antibiotics, making them the worst of the worst in salmonella’s thuggish clan.

Despite the evidence, the USDA turned away CSPI’s petition. Agribusiness representatives won the day by making the rather counterintuitive argument that the potentially deadly germs were simply too common, particularly in poultry. (Early this year, Consumer Reports found salmonella in 97 percent of chicken breast samples in grocery stores.) Eliminating them, they said, would be inconvenient and costly.

After an outbreak of salmonella poisoning caused by poultry from California-based Foster Farms that sickened more than 630 people came to light this summer, the CSPI refiled its petition. A USDA spokesperson told the Washington Post that the agency “will give the petition a full review.”

What’s needed is not yet another foot-dragging “review,” but a quick, firm decision.

I would suggest that the USDA take an approach like the one they used in 1994 when they declared E. coli 0157 an adulterant after that bacteria killed children who had eaten tainted fast-food hamburgers. That caused yowls from the same industry groups that are whining today, but infections from that notorious bug subsequently dropped by 58 percent.

The CSPI’s move coincides with yet another example of the Obama administration’s paying lip service (and reaping huge PR rewards) to sustainable agriculture issues while doing absolutely nothing concrete to back up its fine words.

Last month, President Obama signed an executive order telling three cabinet secretaries to come up with a five-year action plan to curb the abuse of antibiotics. Many resistant bacteria arise on farms where animals, even healthy ones, receive regular doses of antibiotics. These “Superbugs” kill 23,000 Americans a year.

This delighted trade groups such as the National Pork Producers Council, who claimed that more research is needed.

It disappointed biologists, physicians, and consumer advocates who have long insisted that the time for action to curb antibiotic abuse by agriculture is long overdue. When five years have gone by, 125,000 more Americans may have died needlessly.

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Something Stinks at the FDA

Rats!

Rats!

With no warning and little publicity the Food and Drug Administration recently issued import bans—and then quickly backtracked—on Roquefort, Tomme de Savoie and other delightfully pungent cheeses because they contained elevated levels of a common, utterly harmless bacteria.

In an LA Times story, Janet Fletcher (who has written three books about cheese and publishes a free online newsletter called Planet Cheese) reported that the FDA began to enforce drastically lower limits for nontoxigenic E. coli on foreign and domestic raw-milk cheeses.

The ruckus was similar to a flare-up in June when it appeared that the FDA was about to forbid aging cheese on wooden shelves, an artisanal practice.

What is it with the FDA and tasty cheese, anyway? Surely it has more important matters to attend to.

This is the same agency that didn’t have the resources, or will, to properly inspect the Colorado farm that packed the bacteria-contaminated cantaloupe that killed 33 consumers three years ago.

Even though the FDA knew peanut products were a common cause of bacterial illness, it somehow missed the Peanut Corporation of America’s filthy plant in a national inspection blitz. Nine Americans died as a result.

Contaminated eggs from farms owned by Austin Decoster killed nine people in the late 1980s, and the state of Iowa listed his company as a habitual offender, but the FDA failed to inspect its Iowa barns until a salmonella outbreak occurred in 2010 that sickened 2,000 people.

In 2009, the FDA inspected only 1 out of every 1,000 shipments of imported seafood for toxic chemicals. Canada managed to inspect 40 out of every 1,000; Japan 110 out of every 1,000.

Even less excusable is that in the face of a national epidemic where more than 3,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic resistant infections, the FDA refuses to pass rules that effectively limit farmers from feeding antibiotics to perfectly healthy animals, a practice that is known to cause resistant “superbugs” to evolve. Over 40 years ago, the FDA’s own scientists said that giving drugs to healthy farm animals put human health at risk. Fixing this problem would require no money or human resources—just a stroke or two of a bureaucrat’s pen.

But the FDA won’t budge. It seems like it would much rather expend its regulatory authority on cheeses that have been made safely in the same way for hundreds of years.

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Good News for Seafood Lovers

We went through some rocky times, there. Nice to be back.

We went through some rocky times, there. Nice to be back.

Something very fishy has happened in the waters off California, Oregon, and Washington—and it’s the best news I’ve heard in nearly two decades of reporting on issues related to sustainable seafood.

In an unprecedented step, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (always my go-to source for which seafood I can eat with good conscience, and which I should avoid) has upgraded no less than 21 species of groundfish to either “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative.” Many had been previously listed as “Avoid.” The Aquarium’s move comes on the heels of the Marine Stewardship Council’s certifying 13 groundfish species as sustainable earlier this summer.

The species up-graded by Seafood Watch include sablefish, rockfish (often mislabeled as snapper) sole, founder, Pacific sand dabs (my favorites), pacific grenadier, and spiny dogfish. Overall, 84 percent of groundfish—species that live on or near the ocean floor—are now considered either a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative.”

The rebound is all the more impressive because as recently as 14 years ago the West Coast groundfish fishery was declared a commercial failure due to collapsed populations.

“This is one of the great success stories about ecological and economic recovery of a commercially important fishery,” Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium said in a press release.

The turnaround should put to rest controversies surrounding two management practices. One involves setting aside “marine protected areas” where fishing is banned outright. The other is so-called “catch shares,” where each fisher has a scientifically established quota set on the amount of fish he or she can catch, essentially giving them an ownership stake in ensuring that fish populations remain robust. Both were important to the improvement in West Coast stocks.

The take-home message is that with proper management, we can have our seafood and eat it, too.

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5 Short Films You Have to See

From "A Greene Generation" by Tim Grant

From “A Greene Generation” by Tim Grant

 

 The votes are in, and the winners of the Food and Farming Film Competition are . . . all of us!

Organized by writer and activist Anna Lappé’s Real Food Media project, the competition, a virtual film festival of brief (four minutes or less) documentaries about farming, the environment, and community, attracted more than 150 submissions from 25 states and the District of Columbia and four countries. Judges included Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Robert Kenner. The five winners were announced this week and deal with everything from inner city gardening in the Bronx to hog raising in North Carolina to organic oregano farming in Mexico, but they are united by one theme: It can be done!

You can view all five winning films at Real Food Media’s site. They are thought provoking, moving, and truly inspiring.

Do yourself favor. Check them out.

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Ralph Loglisci Tells the Real Story Behind the FDA’s Symbolic Steps to Limit Livestock Antibiotics

Drug Addicts

Drug Addicts

In 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) let everyone know that there was strong evidence that the use of penicillin and tetracycline for anything other than treating disease in livestock, could lead to the development of super bugs strong enough to render the powerful antibiotics useless in people. That warning sparked a ferocious backlash from the powerful animal agriculture industry, which to this day still depends on feeding animals low doses of antibiotics to help grow them faster and compensate for crowded unsanitary living conditions.

Now, nearly 40 years later the embattled agency has finally mustered the courage to approve a strongly worded recommendation for producers to stop using medically important antibiotics as growth promoters and to give veterinarians oversight over therapeutic uses of the life-saving drugs.

But perhaps FDA’s announcement isn’t so brave after all.

READ MORE AT CIVIL EATS

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Here’s the Ideal Gift for the Tomato Geeks on Your List (And, no it’s not my Book)

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People always ask me, “What is the best tasting tomato variety?” My answer is simple: the one grown closest to your kitchen counter.

But until I met the dedicated crew at the Treasure Valley Food Coalition in Boise, Idaho, in September, I never realized that that the simple act of tending a few tomatoes in your backyard or on your balcony might also be the best way to break agribusiness’s stranglehold on our food system.

Disgusted with the “flavorless, rock-hard, industrially grown tomatoes in grocery stores” the coalition launched the Tomato Independence Project last spring as a way to take on the “industrial tomato complex” by encouraging residents in southwestern Idaho to grow their own. Workshops were held. Seedlings sold. And great tasting tomatoes harvested.

The coalition’s larger goal is to support local farmers and to promote a vibrant food economy in the Boise area. But the group also wants to help folks in the rest of the country break the “tyranny of tasteless tomatoes.” For information on how to bring the Tomato Independence Project to your area email treasurevalleyfoodcoalition@gmail.com.

And, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for that hard-to-please tomato geek on your list, what could be better than a Tomato Independence t-shirt? Proceeds go to a great cause. And as the owner of one myself, I assure you it will be worn proudly. It’s also quite slimming.

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Five Foods I Will not Eat

My partner eyed me sternly when I announced that my next book was going to be an investigative look at pork production. “Does this mean that I’ll have to give up eating bacon?” she asked.

Deadly outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella in spinach and cantaloupes, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” connected to pork and chicken production, potent drugs that are banned in the United States in imported shrimp and catfish: Nothing has the potential to destroy your appetite quite as thoroughly as writing about industrial food production or living with someone who does. Somehow, I have remained omnivorous, more or less. But there are only five things that I absolutely refuse to eat.

Hamburger

 1. Supermarket Ground Beef

I lost my appetite for prepared ground beef in the late 1980s, when a friend’s three-year-old daughter died after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7, which lives in the intestines of healthy cattle and other animals, but can be found in water, food, soil, or on surfaces that have been contaminated with animal or human feces. She endured a painful, lingering death, beginning with a tummy ache, and over two weeks progressing to bloody diarrhea, convulsions, and seizures as the E. coli bacteria destroyed her kidneys.

It’s true that E. coli dies when hamburger is cooked to at least 160 degrees, by which point it is well-done. But even if you like dry, gray patties (I don’t), why take the risk? Every time you buy a package of supermarket ground beef, you’re playing culinary Russian roulette. E. coli comes from meat that has been contaminated with manure. A few E. coli cells can multiply into millions in a short time. Slaughterhouse scraps that go into ground beef come from the outside and undersides of carcasses, the areas most likely to come in contact with the hide and most prone to fecal contamination. Those parts can travel from several slaughterhouses to one facility to be ground and packaged.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning article describing how a Minnesota woman was left paralyzed after eating E. coli-tainted hamburger, New York Times’ Michael Moss reported that the meat in the single prepared, frozen patty she ate had been shipped to a Wisconsin processor from facilities in Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota, and Uruguay.

The easiest way to avoid supermarket hamburger is to buy a whole cut like a chuck steak or sirloin and grind it yourself. A few pulses from a food processor does the trick nicely, if you don’t own a meat grinder. Or have a butcher grind it for you while you wait. You can also buy from a small producer. When I went to pick up my beef order last fall, the owner of the custom slaughterhouse was standing beside a stainless steel table holding a mountain of ground beef waiting for her to pack it into one-pound bags. “I can tell you exactly how many animals this hamburger came from,” she said. “One.”

Bagged Greens

2. Salad Greens in Plastic Bags or Clam-Shell Boxes

For starters, salad fixings bought whole and chopped in your kitchen are more nutritious than those from containers. Bagged and boxed greens are in for the long haul, and can stay “fresh” for as long as 17 days. But vegetables begin losing nutrients the second they are picked. Within eight hours, 10 percent of Vitamin C and  between three and four percent of beta-carotene are gone. Chopping and shredding increase oxidation, driving out more nutrients.  Even short stretches of time at room temperatures further lower nutrient levels.

Packaged greens are also vulnerable to bacterial contamination. In packing houses, crops from many fields are washed in the same water, which allows bacteria from one field to spread to greens from clean fields. E. coli and other bacteria can hide in cut edges, safe from wash water.  Allowed to become warm for even a short time, the containers become perfect incubators for bacteria. The result is that bagged greens have sickened or killed consumers in dozens of outbreaks over the last several years.

In a 2010 investigation, Consumer Reports found that bags and containers of greens contained levels of coliform bacteria (which doesn’t make you sick, but is a sign of unsanitary handling) that were 39 percent higher than what is considered acceptable.

Avoiding packaged greens is simple: Buy whole heads or bunches and chop them yourself. While working on an article for the New York Times Magazine in 2011, I bought a head of romaine lettuce, rinsed the leaves individually, and chopped them. It took me two minutes and 53 seconds. As a bonus, I saved myself 80 cents.

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3. Bluefin Tuna

Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean populations of Bluefin tuna are severely overfished. In the Atlantic, the species hovers on the brink of extinction. Some scientists say that it may have already passed the point of no return. In the Pacific, the population has been decimated by 96 percent. I liken eating bluefins to eating Bengal tigers. Both are beautiful, sleek predators. Bluefins can swim 60 miles per hour, dive to 4,000 feet, and migrate across oceans. Someone alive today could be the person who eats the last bluefin. I don’t want it to be me.

International organizations that are charged with setting catch limits for bluefins regularly set quotas far above what their own scientists recommend. And there has been a thriving market in illegally caught fish. If that’s not enough to put you off Bluefin, be warned, their flesh is extremely high in mercury.

Tomato pickers

4.  Out-of-Season Tomatoes

The first question is, why would you want to eat an out-of-season tomato? Most of the hard, pale orbs are pithy and tasteless, at best. Compared to their local, in-season cousins, they are bereft of nutrients. And varieties that do have a glimmer of tomato flavor are outrageously expensive.

But the real problem with winter tomatoes is the abuses suffered by the farmworkers who harvest them. These men and women in the tomato fields are underpaid, ill-housed, and often sprayed with toxic pesticides. Abject slavery is not uncommon. (I care so much about this topic that I wrote a book about it.)

In recent years, working conditions in Florida, the source of most American-grown winter tomatoes, have improved dramatically. New varieties have been developed that actually taste tomato-y, and most Florida growers have signed onto a Fair Food Program that guarantees workers some basic labor rights and provides them with a one-penny-a-pound raise (it doesn’t sound like much but it’s the difference between $50 and $80 a day).

However that’s only if—and it’s a big if—the end buyer of the tomatoes signs onto the program as well and agrees to pay that extra penny directly to the workers. So far, most fast-food and food-service companies have come aboard. But aside from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, not a single supermarket chain has signed on. Until they do, they won’t get my business.

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5. Farmed Salmon

A salmon farm, even a so-called organic one in Scottish waters, is nothing short of a floating feedlot. Excrement, uneaten food, and dead fish fall into the ocean, along with a witch’s brew of drugs and disease organisms that can kill wild salmon unlucky enough to swim in the vicinity of a farm’s net pens. Farmed salmon are susceptible to infectious salmon anaemia, aquaculture’s answer to highly contagious hoof-and-mouth disease. The “cure” is to eradicate entire farmed Stocks consisting of millions of fish. Captive salmon also spread sea lice to wild fish. The parasites feed on the mucous, blood, and skin and can kill young salmon.

Farmed salmon is also potentially harmful to humans who eat it. Studies have shown that farmed salmon contains significantly higher levels of chemicals known to cause everything from neurological damage to cancer than wild salmon.

As a way to produce protein, farming salmon is illogical. Although feed formulas have improved over the years, salmon still have to eat more pounds of fishmeal and oil than they put on as meat. That meal they are fed comes from stocks of small sardine-like fish that are already caught at maximum sustainable levels. It’s far better to raise fish like tilapia that can be fed a vegetarian diet. But that’s not where the money is.

Fortunately, there is a good alternative to farmed salmon. Wild salmon from Alaska is sustainable and its taste will remind you why you wanted to eat salmon in the first place.

So what about my partner? Will she feel obligated to forsake bacon? My pork research is still in the early stages, so I don’t have a final answer. But at very least, it’s looking like we’re going to want to become very selective about what goes in our frying pan.

This?

This?

Or this?

Or this?

 

This post originally appeared on Civil Eats

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The Dirty Secret in the Farm Bill

Some big questions remain.

Some big questions remain.

Provisions in the farm bill passed by the Senate this week have set the stage for Big Ag to win a monumental shell game. The hapless victims will be American taxpayers.

Currently, commodity farmers get handouts totaling about $5 billion per year from the government in direct subsidies, whether they need them or not. Large farms and agricultural corporations receive most of this largesse. Under the new Senate bill, these subsidies would disappear and be replaced by a $9-billion expansion in crop insurance support, which reimburses farmers for losses caused by weather.

Crop insurance is really just handout by another name. The government picks up nearly two thirds of the cost of premiums. It also pays private insurance companies more than $1 billion a year oversee the policies. But at least in theory, benefits are paid out only to the farmers who actually need them.

This is where political sleight-of-hand enters the picture. Commodity subsidies received by individual farmers are part of the public record and are published in a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC nonprofit.

In contrast, crop insurance payouts are confidential. Even though their money is being spent, taxpayers have no way of knowing who gets how much. How convenient, if you happen to be a wealthy farmer who might not want others to know how deeply your face is planted in the public trough.

Take the example of Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican. Last month he vigorously argued in favor for slashing $20 billion from the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) which helps feed nearly 50 million needy Americans.

In support of his stance, he hauled out the Bible, quoting from Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

What the Congressman, who is also a well-to-do farmer, failed to mention is that over the past dozen years he has pocketed farm bill crop subsidies totaling $3.5 million. Last year his take, according to the EWG, was close to $70,000 in subsidies alone, more than twice the median income for Tennessee families.

At least Rep. Fincher’s hypocrisy was exposed. If the provisions of the Senate bill become law, similar shenanigans may never see the light of day.

As the House of Representatives begins to take up the farm bill, lawmakers who like to base their legislative decisions on Biblical quotations should reflect upon the following verse from Luke: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.”

FOR MORE DAILY COVERAGE OF FOOD NEWS VISIT CIVIL EATS

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Paul Greenberg on the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone–and How to Fix it.

In the latest Food & Environment Reporting Network report, in partnership with The American Prospect, reporter Paul Greenberg, author of the New York Times bestseller Four Fish, tells the story of how the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is the  result of decades-long U.S. agricultural practices and investigates some of the promising solutions to fixing its future.

The story, “A River Runs Through It,” features a first look at some of the key players working to keep nutrients out of the Gulf, from a Minnesota conventional commodity farmer to a leading scientist who has studied the marsh ecosystem for 25 years, to a MacArthur genius grantee in Louisiana, who was one of the first to shed light on the dead zone phenomenon. Greenberg also talks with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who supports voluntary interventions. “Part travelogue down the Mississippi River, part intense conversation with those who want to fix the dead zone, part mourner’s prayer for a way of life that is under threat, ‘A River Runs Through It’ is a remarkable piece–and I’m delighted the Prospect is publishing it,” said Kit Rachlis, The American Prospect’s Editor-in-Chief. The story was photographed by Dennis Chamberlin, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist and an associate professor of journalism at Iowa State University, while Switchyard Media of Seattle produced the infographic. “This story was kind of a ‘perfect storm,’ because Paul’s such an exceptional reporter and writer,” said FERN Editor-in-Chief Sam Fromartz. “But we also knew Dennis’s memorable photos and Switchyard’s strong visual storytelling would engage readers as well. The American Prospect worked hand-in-hand with us through the entire process.” You can read the full report on the dead zone at The American Prospect, or here on FERN’s Web site,

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The FDA Could Soon Approve GMO Frankenfish

Salmon-GMO (2)

The following very timely post was written on April 26 by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman for the Onearth blog.

Today marks the deadline for public comments on a genetically modified salmon currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the fish will be the first transgenic animal ever to enter the human food supply. Some say it’s about time. In an op-ed that appeared last month in the New York Times under the title “Don’t Be Afraid of Genetic Modification,” science writer Emily Anthes explained that the company behind the fish, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, has been waiting more than 17 years for approval of its product.

Anthes, author of the just-published Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, called the FDA’s extension of the comment period on its environmental assessment (the original deadline was back in February) “just one more delay in a process that’s dragged on far too long.” The tests were in, she suggested, and the diagnosis an obvious one. Couldn’t we please put this poor company out of its misery and give its salmon the green light already?

Not so fast. . . .

READ THE REST AT ONEARTH BLOG

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