The FDA is Out to Lunch

The Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting our health, is a miserable failure


All of his life, Paul Schwarz had been active and healthy. When his family imagined the various ways the decorated veteran of World War II might eventually die, they never imagined that the cause would be a piece of cantaloupe.

On Tuesday, September 13, 2011, Schwarz complained to his daughter Janice of abdominal pains and a slight fever. She took him to his doctor, who said it was likely a case of stomach flu. By Thursday the symptoms had worsened, and Schwarz had developed diarrhea. Janice took him to the emergency room. Once again flu was the diagnosis, and he was sent home. For a time, his condition improved. He called his son, also named Paul, that Sunday and cheerfully assured him that he’d eaten a big breakfast and felt a lot better.

But on Monday morning the younger Paul received an urgent phone call. His father had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, unable to move his legs. In the coming weeks his behavior grew erratic, and he began thrashing in his bed, hollering, and behaving like a drunk. Usually gentle, he was combative with the nurses. “The devil has a hold of me and won’t let go,” he screamed. During a lucid moment, after Schwarz’s condition had stabilized, two of his nieces visited and had an animated chat with him. But after they left, Schwarz, who normally had a sharp mind, turned to Paul and asked, “Who were those people?”

Within a month, Schwarz no longer recognized his son. By then the doctors had determined that he was suffering from invasive listeriosis, an infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium transmitted by eating contaminated meat, dairy products, and produce. The pathogen can lead to bacterial meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that causes headaches, confusion, and convulsions. It kills about one in six of those infected. Children, the elderly, people with depressed immune systems, and pregnant women are most vulnerable. On December 18, 2011, after a drawn-out decline, Paul Schwarz succumbed. He was 92.

Schwarz grew up in Fda City, Missouri, during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. In 1943, when he was 19, he married his 18-year-old sweetheart, Rosellen “Rosie” Clouse, and then marched off to serve as an infantryman in the Pacific, returning home a sergeant with two Purple Hearts. He and Rosellen purchased the house where she still lives in 1953, and raised five children. Schwarz was known for a loud, ready laugh and a twinkle in his eye that foreshadowed some practical joke. He remained active, playing golf until age 88, eating healthfully, accepting the occasional drink, and making sure that he and Rosellen, who was suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s, took their prescribed medications. Devout Catholics, they attended church every Sunday. After Mass they would dine at the same family restaurant, where they always shared a fruit bowl — grapes, peaches, pineapple, banana, and, fatefully, the cantaloupe.

Schwarz was only one of more than 100 patients suffering similar symptoms at the same time in 28 states.

Read the rest of this article at ONEARTH

More Posts by Barry Estabrook on the FDA

You Want Superbugs with That?

By Refusing to Ban Giving Healthy Livestock Daily Doses of Antibiotics, the FDA Puts Corporate Profits Above Consumers’ Health

More Cheap PR Stunts from the Folks Who Are Supposed to Protect Our Health


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Lose Weight by Eating the Best Food You Can Get Your Hands on. A Review of Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy and Really Well”

Dig in!

In the mid-1990s, Peter Kaminsky, a self-proclaimed hedonist, landed the perfect gig. As the writer behind New York magazine’s “Underground Gourmet” column, he was paid to patrol the outer reaches of the boroughs in search of the tastiest ethnic fare. When he wasn’t sampling Vietnamese, Korean, Greek, Cuban, or West Indian cuisine, his duty was to discover little-known, up-and-coming restaurants. And as the magazine’s go-to food writer, Kaminsky was also called upon whenever the likes of Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, or Thomas Keller opened a new bastion of four-star-fare. Some of New York’s greatest chefs hired him as a co-writer (and taster-in-chief) for their cookbooks.

There was one occupational hazard. When Kaminsky, who is five foot-nine, became the Underground Gourmet, he weighed 172 pounds and wore trousers with 34-inch waistbands. After a few years on the job, he had crossed the 200-pound line and struggled to wiggle into XL T-shirts and 38-inch pants. The wake-up call came when his life insurance renewal was denied. “The choice was clear,” he writes. “Mend my munching or fast-forward to Judgment Day.”

And mend he did, shedding 40 pounds, getting his blood sugar levels under control, and regaining his insurance policy. Culinary Intelligence is the story of how he accomplished what many dieticians say is impossible: losing weight and keeping it off.

“Intelligence” is the operative word. Kaminsky tells his story with engaging, thoughtful prose–no gimmicky diets, no impossible-to-follow menu plans. He believes in gratification, not denial. “For a change in diet to succeed, it must be at least as satisfying as the unheathful fast food and processed ingredients that it replaces,” he writes. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to lose weight was so that he could look forward to many more years of drinking great wines and eating juicy steaks.

The guiding principle to eating intelligently (and with full pleasure) according to Kaminsky is by maximizing what he calls Flavor per Calorie, or FPC. FPC simply means consuming the very best food and drink you can get. Beer, which Kaminsky still enjoys, provides a good example of FPC in action. Guzzling a Coors fails to quench that beer-y thirst, so you pop another can. On the other hand, a full-bodied, hoppy, yeasty craft brew invites you to sip and savor its complexity. One bottle leaves you satisfied, and packs no more calories than a bland, industrial brew. The intense flavor of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables satisfies; there’s no need for high-calorie sauces and sweeteners to breathe life into out-of-season produce. A modest portion of grass-fed beef delivers more satisfaction than the dreary meat from industrial feedlots. And — critically — cooking those ingredients well (or living with someone who does) maximizes FPC.

Although there are few outright taboos in Culinary Intelligence, Kaminsky does point out areas where those trying to shed pounds go at their peril. If you want to lose weight, Kaminsky has three words of advice: “No white stuff,” meaning white flour, white sugar, white rice, and potatoes. He suggests you avoid desserts and sweetened beverages. All forms of processed food are antithetical to FPC. And he suggests you examine your diet for high value targets to eliminate. In Kaminsky’s case, it was pizza. As a pizza-loving writer working from home in Brooklyn — a pizza paradise — he was in the habit of nipping out at midday and heading to one of the many good parlors in his neighborhood. A little calculation showed that his pizza habit added the equivalent of two extra days’ worth of calories to his weekly diet — he was eating nine days’ worth of food every seven. Daily sojourns to the pizza parlor became a thing of the past, although he occasionally picks up a slice as a special treat.

Liquor can be part of intelligent eating — in moderation. Kaminsky urges readers to set limits and stick to them. After some introspection, Kaminsky decided that he could survive on one glass of wine with dinner, where his earlier self might have enjoyed three or four. One glass forced him to savor every precious drop and increased the satisfaction he got from wine.

In the end, eating mindfully rests on three commonsense pillars:

  • Don’t eat processed foods.
  • Buy the best, fullest-flavored      ingredients you can afford.
  • Make those ingredients even better      by cooking: the surest way to maximum FPC.

I ran into Kaminsky earlier this year at a reception at a hotel looking out over the Hudson River. He bellied up to the bar clutching a glass of red wine and extolling the culinary virtues of fatty, pasture-raised heritage pork. He was fit and trim — and, from what I could tell, partaking fully in the evening’s festivities.

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Seeing Red: Paperback Edition of Tomatoland Hits the Shelves. Plus!!!! PoliticsofthePlate Exclusive. A Link to a FREE Excerpt.

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Want a taste? Click here to read an Excerpt.

Praise for Tomatoland

“Smart and important book.”
—Sam Sifton, The New York Times

“The pleasures of Tomatoland are real. They’re strong but subtle and sustained. Mr. Estabrook’s prose contains a mix of sweetness and acid, like a perfect homegrown tomato itself.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“If you care about social justice—or eat tomatoes—read this account of the past, present, and future of a ubiquitous fruit.”
—Corby Kummer,

Tomatoland (is) in the tradition of the best muckraking journalism, from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.”
— Jane Black, The Washington Post

“Masterful.”—Mark Bittman, New York Times

“Eye-opening exposé . . . thought-provoking.”
Publishers Weekly

“Estabrook adds some new dimensions to the outrageous . . . Story of an industry that touches nearly every one of us living in fast-food nation.”
—David Von Drehle, Time magazine blog “Swampland”

Tomatoland makes you second-guess your food choices. That Florida red tomato you’re eating? Yeah, it’s probably gassed to make it that red color, and it also may have been picked by slaves. Not so tasty, eh?” —Carey Polis, The Huffington Post

“Read award-winning journalist Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, and you won’t look at a tomato in the same way again . . . Estabrook presents a cogent case for reform, challenging everyone to stand up for what is good not only for the taste buds and the wallet, but also for the soul.”

“This is the sort of book you want—need—to finish in one or two servings as it will forever changes the way you look at the $6 burger.”
LA Weekly

Tomatoland has a moral force that I won’t soon forget. Estabrook makes it clear that the choice we make between a plastic-tasting supermarket tomato and fragrant organic farmer’s market tomato . . . says everything about our humanity, and our conception of America as a nation.”
—Michele Owens, Kirkus Book Reviews

“In the tradition of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Estabrook gives us the darker side of the fruit we so love. Readers who may not have been turned off the winter version of our collectively favorite fruit will certainly find reason here to pause before making a selection at the supermarket. Choose well, Estabrook reminds us.”
ForeWord Reviews

“Our favorite fruit may not be quite as innocuous and delicious as it appears.”—

“Vital information that every conscientious eater—and parents of eaters—ought to know.”

“A must read for everyone who eats. I don’t care if you are in the commodity cattle business or feed your own family with a small garden. I don’t care if you are a policy maker, extension
professional, molecular biologist, industrial mogul, minister, teacher, or what have you. Tomatoland illustrates how fundamentally bankrupt our current commodity-based, industrial food systems have become and offers a glimmer of hope for a food future that’s healthful for all involved. Read it and try not to weep.”
Grit Magazine

“Put Tomatoland on your reading menu. It will surprise and perhaps enrage you, but its final flavor is hopeful.”
St. Petersburg Times

“The buzz about Tomatoland, a scathing indictment of South Florida’s tomato industry, keeps growing.”—The Oregonian

“You can really stop at any point during the narrative and decide that you’ve bought your last supermarket tomato, but Estabrook is just warming up . . . a brisk read, engrossing as it is enraging.”

“Corruption, deception, slavery, chemical and biological warfare, courtroom dramas, undercover sting operations and murder: Tomatoland is not your typical book on fruit.”


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How to do Your Part to End Labor Abuses of Farmworkers

Every time I talk to groups about the plight of tomato workers—exposure to toxic chemicals, below-poverty wages and, all too frequently, abject slavery—someone comes up to me and says, “This is horrific, but what can I, do?

I have had no simple answer, until now.

The award-winning indie filmmaker Sanjay Rawal and his small crew of cinematographers, producers, and sound experts have spent the last eight months touring the country working on a documentary called Food Chain. They have amassed over 400 hours of incredible footage exposing the terrible conditions endured by the men and women who pick the food we eat. The tenacity of Rawal’s reportage leaves me awestruck. The outtakes I have seen of the Florida tomato industry vividly bring to the raw realities that I could only superficially describe in my book Tomatoland.

Now Rawal needs just $27,000 dollars to hire a world-class editor to shape his work into a documentary. When it is done, I have no doubt that it will reach thousands of Americans with the stark images of the underside of our food supply that the giant food companies, with their billions of dollars, go to great extremes to prevent us from seeing.

At the very least, check out this trailer on Kickstarter.

For as little as $1 on your Amazon account, you can make a difference. Please use the links below to Tweet and Facebook to your friends. This film has to get made. Thanks.

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Tomato Workers to Hold Hunger Strike at Supermarket’s Head Office

Let them eat tomatoes

Let them eat tomatoes


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) should be celebrating. Last week Trader Joe’s signed a Fair Food Agreement with the Florida-based labor justice group. The agreement grants basic rights and higher wages to Florida tomato harvesters.

But the celebrations were short-lived. The CIW announced that 50 of its members and their supporters would be going on a fast. For six days, beginning March 5, the Fast for Fair Food will take place at the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets, a $25-billion, Florida-based company that operates more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast.

“We are fasting today so that tomorrow none of our children are forced to surrender their dignity or to suffer hunger just to work,” Darinel Sales, one of the workers who will be taking part, wrote in an email.

Read the rest at TakePart

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Proof–Once Again–That Organic Can Feed the World


A good egg

A good egg

No, the egg on the right was not laid by an ostrich.

It was laid by one of my aged hens. The 10-bird flock dines on organic feed and ranges freely (weather permitting). By comparison, the runty egg on the left came from an inorganic factory farm where hens are kept in tiny cages. It was labeled ”Grade A Large.”

What does that make my egg?

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The CDC Refuses to Reveal the Name of the Restaurant Chain that Poisoned More Than 60 Customers. Thank God for Scrappy Reporters

aka Restaurant Chain A

aka Restaurant Chain A

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) handling of a recent investigation into a salmonella outbreak that sickened 68 people in 10 states—sending more than 20 to the hospital—had all the elements of a B-grade spy movie. The CDC identified the source of the contaminated food, but refused to make the name public, instead calling it Restaurant Chain A, and saying only that it was a Mexican chain. It could have been any one of six such chains that operated in the affected states.

That seemed like odd behavior from an agency whose responsibility is to save lives, protect Americans, and save money through prevention. Although no one died in this outbreak, which came to light last fall, salmonella is frequently fatal, so outing the culprit could have saved lives. Revealing the identity of the mysterious Restaurant Chain A would have allowed customers to protect themselves by avoiding the place, if they chose. And a little negative publicity might have been just what was needed to convince those in charge of the company to clean up their act, perhaps preventing future outbreaks.

But the CDC kept the eatery’s identity under wraps.

This did not sit well with Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney whose firm specializes in litigating food-borne illness cases. Marler is nothing if not tenacious—just ask the dozens of food processers and fast-food outlets who have paid more than $600 million in claims to his clients in the past two decades.

The CDC has a policy of seeking “cordial relationships” with companies who supply information voluntarily,” said its deputy director, Robert Tauxe in an interview with MSNBC that was quoted on Marler’s blog. It publicly identifies a source of food-borne illness, he said, “only when people can use that information to take specific action to protect their health.” The reason Restaurant Chain A had been admitted to the CDC’s equivalent of a witness protection program was that the outbreak had already run its course.

Reporters for Food Safety News, an online newspaper funded by Marler’s firm contacted all six of the possible companies. They either refused to reply or insisted that they were not Restaurant Chain A. The reporters kept digging and eventually received a document leaked from Oklahoma’s Department of Health. (Oklahoma was one of the affected states). Marked “for internal use only” the document was called “Summary of Supplemental Questionnaire Responses Specific to Taco Bell Exposure of Oklahoma Outbreak Associated Cases Multistate Salmonella Enterititis Outbreak Investigation.” It’s a long, convoluted title, but the important words were “Taco Bell.”

Even once Taco Bell was outed, the CDC maintained its code of omerta. Taco Bell, which the CDC found to have been responsible for a 2006 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that sickened more than 70 customers in the Northeast, did not return my call, but the company did put a cryptic post on its website  linking to the CDC’s investigative report about the recent salmonella outbreak but did not own up to being at fault.

A restaurant poisons its customers. A government agency colludes to keep its identity under wraps. And it takes a scrappy group of reporters to uncover the truth for Americans. Talk about a sickening situation.

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Way to Go, Joe. Major Victory for Tomato Workers. Trader Joe’s Signs Fair Food Agreement

Thanks, Joe.

Thanks, Joe.

Trader Joe’s, a national grocery chain with more than 350 outlets in nine states, has become the second major food retailer to sign on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Agreement.

For a more than a decade, the CIW, a grassroots farmworkers’ rights organization, has tried to persuade supermarket chains, fast food outlets, and other major produce buyers to sign Fair Food Agreements. The agreements give workers a raise from $50 to $80 a day and assure them basic rights that virtually every other employee in the United States enjoys, including accurate time keeping, clearly defined grievance procedures, safety education, and protection from violence and sexual harassment in the fields.

Fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King and institutional food-service companies like Sodexo came aboard. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing all major growers in the state agreed to join the Fair Food effort. But with the exception of Whole Foods Market, not a single grocery retailer cooperated, until now.

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New “Food Hub” Makes Small-Scale, Sustainable Food Production Financially Viable

Finsen makin' bacon.

Finsen makin' bacon.

Take pity on male baby goats. Their sisters look forward to long lives providing milk for cheese or fiber for yarn. But for most goatherds in this country, bucklings, as the little fellows are called, are inconvenient byproducts. With no infrastructure for the processing and distribution of their meat, many young bucks are simply euthanized and their carcasses discarded.

To Shirley Richardson, co-owner of Tannery Farm Cashmeres in northeastern Vermont, that waste was unaceptable. Richardson, who raises breeding goats to sell to other farmers and harvests cashmere from her own herd, realized that there was a growing demand for the tasty, high-protein, low-fat meat of young goats that wasn’t being tapped by local farmers, who were too small and scattered to effectively get it to market. So she launched Vermont Chevon Meats, a collective of farmers.

As Richardson expected, there was no shortage of farmers who wanted to sell through Vermont Chevon and plenty of potential buyers. Unfortunately, though, the Northeast had very few slaughter and processing facilities, and those that operated in the region focused on cattle. As a start-up operation, Vermont Chevon lacked the capital and volume of business to justify investing in its own processing facility.

Enter Mad River Food Hub, the brain child of Robin Morris. Opened in late 2011, the hub is the only government-inspected processing, storage, and distribution facility for both meat and produce in the Northeast, according to Morris.

When I visited in January, the hub’s offices still had a whiff of new construction about them and a gleaming flash freezer waited on a pallet beside a loading dock for installation. Even though the hub is a couple of months away from completion and is awaiting final certification from the United States Department of Agriculture (it is certified by Vermont), Richardson is among 10 area farmers that are already using the 4,000-square-foot $250,000 facility.

“The hub is a central point in the community that helps farmers in any way they need,” said Morris. “What we are offering is like a smorgasbord. They can choose any of our services they need.”

Customers can rent space from the hub when they need it at daily rates. The meat-processing room, fully equipped with cutting implements, stainless steel counters and sinks, a grinder, a sausage machine, and a vacuum packager, rents for $150 per day. A similarly outfitted room for baking and produce processing costs $200 per day. Clients pay to store their products the hub’s warehouse-like refrigerator and freezer. Once a week, a delivery truck leaves the hub to distribute those goods to restaurants and grocery stores in Burlington, Vermont’s largest city (about 40 miles away) and several other nearby towns. Calling on his experience as a former executive at American Flatbread, a pizza company with roots in the Mad River Valley, Morris consults with clients on financial and marketing issues.

“The state-of-the-art equipment required more capital investment that most small farmers have,” Morris said. “But not having this equipment prevents small producers from being efficient and competitive. The hub gets around that problem.”

On the morning I dropped by the hub, Jacob Finsen, the manager and in-house butcher, was busily converting a pork belly into bacon and pancetta. The pork had come from Von Trapp Farmstead, where brothers Don and Sebastion von Trapp (of that family) revitalized their parents’ organic dairy by converting raw milk into cheese. They feed whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking, to a herd of pigs. Whey-fed pigs command a premium price–about $2.50 a pound dressed. After being cured or converted into sausage, the pork sells for $6 to $15 per pound, making the von Trapp’s farm that much more viable.

Although Morris received government grants to help finance construction of the hub, it is being operated as a for-profit business. “I don’t think it would viable in the long term if we had to go begging for uncertain funding each year,” Morris said. Currently, the hub is operating at between 30 and 40 percent of its capacity. The break-even point, according to Morris, is 60 percent, a figure he expects to meet during the 2012 growing season.

In the meantime, there are other rewards. On a recent evening, Morris, who is a food lover as well as a die-hard advocate for local farming, was dining at a high end bistro on the outskirts of Burlington. He noticed that braised Vermont goat with chanterelles was one of the choices. The meat had come from Richardson’s collective. Finsen had butchered it at Mad River. Without the hub, it would have never found its way onto the restaurant menu as a $27 entré.

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A Cornfounding Situation: Bioengineering Brought Us Super Weeds, Now Wonder Worms. What is Next from the Labs of Monsanto and Dow?

Some big questions remain.

Some big questions remain.

Advocates for genetically modified crops have never relied on logic to advance their cause. And the same holds true for the government officials who give their blessings to new bioengineered plants. Just look at what has been playing out in the corn industry over the past month or so.

Just before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took steps toward approving a new variety of corn engineered by Dow AgroSciences that would survive being sprayed by the herbicide 2,4-D, a component of the notorious weed killer Agent Orange. The chemical may be a carcinogen and causes reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, and immunosuppression, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of Stonyfield Farm and a long-time crusader for organic agriculture, called the USDA’s move “diabolical” in a recent telephone conversation with me. The agency will make a final decision after a public comment period ends at the end of February.

The reason Dow wants to market the new corn is that weeds in at least 26 states have become resistant to glyposate, a less-toxic herbicide commonly sold under the trade name Roundup. So farmers need corn that can survive being sprayed with a more powerful herbicide, while the weeds growing alongside the corn die — or at least that’s the plan.

For now, 2,4-D still works on weeds, but scientists speculate that — just as they did with Roundup — weeds will inevitably become resistant to 2, 4-D, creating an increasingly vicious cycle as bioengineers come up with crops that can survive applications of ever more toxic herbicides. It’s a neat trick. The companies will profit from problems that their products create.

In a recent issue of the journal Bioscience, a group of researchers led by David Mortensen, a specialist in weed ecology at Penn State University, reported that the introduction of the new 2,4-D-resistant crops was likely to “increase the severity of resistant weeds.” The researchers also concluded that the new crops would result in a significant increase in the use of herbicides.

Regulators at the USDA would have done well to consult with their colleagues over at the Environmental Protection Agency. A month before the USDA opened the door to approval of Dow’s new GMO corn, the EPA took agri-giant Monsanto to task for “inadequate” monitoring. Scientists found signs that rootworms in four states were developing resistance to Monsanto corn that was engineered to produce a natural bacterial insecticide that normally kills caterpillars and worms.

First Super Weeds, now Wonder Worms. What marvel can we expect next from the laboratories of Big Ag?

Check out the OnEarth blog, where this post first appeared.

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