Book 4: Sustainable Santa Has a Book Suggestion for Every Conscientious Eater on Your Holiday List


Labor and the Local


Book 4: Labor and the Locavore by Margaret Gray

Santa here, back for Wee Barry Estabrook, who has fallen asleep at his desk, so I’ll take the opportunity to slip in another food book recommendation.

As the CEO of a worldwide company that gives its product away for free to all good boys and girls, Santa is well aware of how bottom-line realities can put pressure on worker wages and benefits. Nonetheless, Santa makes sure his elves make at least minimum wage, have full medical coverage, receive overtime, and have generous vacation schedules. He expects all farmers to follow his example.

Alas, Labor and the Locavore, Maggie Gray’s investigation of the growers who supply pretty products to New York City’s farmers’ markets, shows that those Carhartt-clad neo-agrarians under the pop-up tents hide an ugly reality: Unseen migrant laborers often do the real work. The men and women who tend and pick urbanites’ upscale fruits and veggies live anything but upscale lives, without benefits, overtime, medical insurance—or even a guarantee that they will make minimum wage. Naughty, naughty.

Give this book to all farmers’ market shoppers on your list and ask them to share what they learn with their favorite vendors.

Santa has more recommendations in his bag. He’ll be back with another book tomorrow.

Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, by Margaret Gray, $29.95.

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Book 3: Sustainable Santa Has Book Suggestions for Every Conscientious Eater on Your Holiday List




Book 3: The Chain by Ted Genoways

Santa, back again standing in for Wee Barry Estabrook who is supposed to be toiling away on a new book proposal but seems to be wasting a lot of time on social media instead.

As you know, Santa tends a small herd of domestic ruminants himself, so he has a soft spot for all livestock. After reading The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of our Food, Ted Genoways’ scathing investigative report on factory pig farming, Santa will be stuffing several large, filthy lumps of coal in his bag to be put into the stockings of the executives at Hormel Foods and other corporate pork producers.

From the dismal conditions faced by workers inside slaughterhouses to the rundown Midwestern “barrios” that house immigrant workers, Ted takes on Big Pig with investigative vigor and muckraking gusto not seen since Little Upton Sinclair lashed out at the same industry in The Jungle. Santa’s been around a long time. It saddens him to see how little has changed.

Give this eye-opener to all of the meat lovers on your list as well as those who shun animal products.

Santa has more recommendations in his bag. He’ll be back with another book tomorrow.

The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of our Food, by Ted Genoways, $26.99.

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Book 2: Sustainable Santa Has Book Suggestions for Every Conscientious Eater on Your Holiday List

Sam's Book Cover

Book 2: In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz

For those readers who missed the first installment of this Yuletide series, it’s Sustainable Santa writing here again, stepping into this spot for Wee Barry Estabrook, who is struggling to put togeether a new book proposal. The poor lad is working almost as hard as my elves, which is saying something  this time of year.

Santa freely admits to having a sweet tooth. He’s always delighted to find a few cookies left out on hearths. But after sliding down Sam Fromartz’s chimney, Santa heads directly to the kitchen, where inevitably Sam has stashed a few fresh loaves of his just-baked bread.

Sam is a journalist, and a very good one at that. But he is also one of the very best bread bakers in the land. His baguettes once beat out those of all the professionals in a bake-off in his home town, Washington, DC, and when Alice Waters hosted a benefit in the capitol, she insisted that Sam make the bread.

His book, In Search of a Perfect Loaf, Sam blends practical advice and age-old wisdom and leavens the combination with interesting characters and irresistible writing. What arises is an absolute must-have book for the bread baker on your list. But it is also a page-turning read for anyone with a curiosity about this miracle food.

In interest of full disclosure, Sam has edited Wee Barry’s work and supported his reporting through the Food and Environmental Reporting Network.

Santa has more recommendations in his bag. He’ll be back with another book tomorrow.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey, by Samuel Fromartz, Viking, $26.95.

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Sustainable Santa Has Book Suggestions for Every Conscientious Eater on Your Holiday List

Ho-ho-ho! Happy holidays to all, and to all a good read.

Hoe, hoe, hoe!

Hoe, hoe, hoe!

Book 1: The Third Plate by Dan Barber

It’s Santa, writing. Wee Barry Estabrook is preoccupied with putting together a new book proposal, so Santa has picked up his quill to help him out (and lighten Santa’s sleigh) by dashing off a few words about Santa’s favorite books of food journalism for 2014—all dandy gifts for the food lovers on your list.

The image consultants insist that Santa maintains the physique of a fat, jolly, old elf, so it should come as no surprise that he takes food ve-r-r-r-r-r-y seriously. And because Santa expects to be embarking on his annual sleigh ride for many more millennia, it should also come as no surprise that he has a vested interest in the long-term sustainability of our food system.

Which brings Santa to the first book on Santa’s list. (Always fair-minded, Santa will proceed in alphabetical order by author.)


Aptly subtitled Field Notes on the Future of Food, Young Dan Barber’s The Third Plate makes a perfect gift for the deeply thoughtful eaters on your list, the ones who gobbled up Michael Pollan’s Onmivore’s Dilemma when it came out. In fact, Santa will go so far as to say that The Third Plate is the most important book to come out about our food system since Pollan’s seminal work.

Dan, of course, is the James-Beard-Award-Winning chef-owner of the two Blue Hill restaurants in the New York City area. His cooking is earthy, imaginative, intellectual, sometimes playful, and always interesting, yet he never lets diners forget that his culinary tours de force begin in some nearby barnyard. The same could be said of his writing.

It seems a little unfair that such a talented chef writes as well as he cooks, but those of us who are unable to make it to a Blue Hill should be delighted we have the opportunity devour Dan’s masterful prose, and contemplate a food future beyond today’s platitudes of seasonal and local.

Santa has more recommendations in his bag. He’ll be back with another book tomorrow.


The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber, The Penguin Press, $29.95

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What Happens When a Slaughterhouse-Bound Hog Jumps from a Truck That’s Speeding Along an Interstate Highway? Surprise, Surprise.

The Crate Escape

The Crate Escape


Pigs will do the darnedest things. Just ask Peter Burmeister is co-owner of Burelli Farm, an operation in north-central Vermont known primarily for its organic meat chickens, though it also produces beef and a small amount of pork. To lay in a supply of the latter commodity, Burmeister was delivering a pair of hogs to the processing plant in his pickup truck along Interstate 89. Pigs are nothing if not wily, so perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised when one of his charges—perhaps sensing what lay ahead—jimmied the latch on its crate, hopped out of the speeding truck, and, apparently none the worse for the wear after a 60-mile-per-hour tumble, bolted for freedom into the thick, wintery forest.

The condemned pig, up until then the life-long resident of a snug, straw-filled stable, remained at large for 19 days. Nighttime temperatures in the teens and a  Nor’easter that dropped more than a foot of heavy snow weren’t enough to convince the fugitive to come in from the cold.

Who knows what would have happened had 15-year-old Brittany White and her father not decided to get in one more deer hunt before Thanksgiving. They heard a commotion in the bush behind them and wheeled to confront, not the trophy buck of Brittany’s dreams, but a plump, pink, barnyard pig trotting toward them in the tracks they had trampled in the snow.

Knowing a snug, comfortable retreat when it saw one, the creature ambled into a cage the hunters lined with old sofa cushions scavenged from their camp. Brittany claimed naming rights, and, inspired by teenage sibling rivalry, christened the porker Bethany, after her sister.

A local television station covered the unusual results of the father-daughter hunt.

See the WCAX television footage here.

Recognizing the porcine TV personality as the hog that had bolted from the bed of his truck, Burmeister reclaimed the animal, who had been an incorrigible escape artist from the moment it set hooves on Burelli Farm as an eight-week-old piglet. Bethany, it turned out, was actually a male named Howdy. His surviving pen mate back at Burelli Farm was, of course, Doody.

See footage of the reunion here.

For his efforts, Howdy was granted temporary clemency and will be allowed to continue fattening with Doody for several more weeks before the inevitable trip back up I-89.

Despite his sojourn in the Green Mountains, the pig had lost no weight and returned home content and healthy. “If you raise pigs, that shouldn’t surprise you at all,” said Katherine Fanelli, co-owner of the farm. “Howdy was probably perfectly happy out there in the woods digging for roots and nuts.

After two years of researching pigs for my forthcoming book, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, I never cease to be amazed by these remarkable animals.

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250,000 Farmworkers Protected from Deportation by Obama’s Executive Order



The United States became a more food secure nation last night after President Obama issued an order that would prevent deportation of up to five million immigrant workers—including at least 250,000 who are toil in the fields to feed us.

To borrow a slogan, if you eat, thank an undocumented worker. Approximately two thirds of the men and women who pick our produce, milk our cows, and slaughter our hogs lack documentation.

“The President’s action will allow at least 250,000 of America’s current professional farm workers who feed our nation to apply for temporary legal status and work permits.  Farm workers who have lived in the United States for five years and have children who are US citizens or Legal Permanent Residents, pass a criminal background check, pay all of their taxes, and pay a fee will be able to work and live in the United States without fear of deportation,” said United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, in a press release.

As they bend over in the fields today, farmworkers will still face grueling toil, low pay, and the lack of many basic labor rights, but at least they no longer face the prospect of being summarily tossed out of an ingracious country.

It’s a fitting coincidence that Obama issued his order the day before the national release of Food Chains, a terrific documentary about farmworkers’ struggle against oppression that is destined to take it place along side Super Size Me and Food, Inc. as a game-changer for how this country views its food system.

Click here to see the Food Chains trailer and for theaters and show times.

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If You Truly Care about the Plight of Farmworkers, You Must See this Film



Click here to view the Food Chains trailer now

 When I first traveled to the fields of Southwestern Florida in 2008 to research my book, Tomatoland, I came face-to-face with labor abuses that I thought had disappeared from the United States in the 1860s. Abject slavery was common. Four out of five women picking tomatoes reported that they had been raped and otherwise sexually abused on the job. Virtually all workers were regularly sprayed with toxic pesticides. Wage theft was the rule, not an exception.

Called ground-zero for modern-day slavery by a district attorney, Florida’s tomato industry was easily the most repressive agricultural sector in this country.

Today, it is the most progressive.

A terrific new documentary, Food Chains, that will be released in theaters nationwide this Friday November 21st, chronicles the story of how a group of impoverished and disenfranchised immigrant laborers banded together and eventually convinced 12 of the country’s largest restaurant chains, food retailers and agribusiness corporations to cooperatively work with them to fix these seemingly intractable injustices.



In on-screen interviews, producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) do a brilliant job of explaining the underlying forces behind farmworker abuses. The documentary’s cinematography is breathtaking—at times beautiful; at times heart-rending. The story of the workers’ struggles, setbacks, and ultimate success is captivating.

But one of the most valuable aspects of Food Chains is that it provides an opportunity far too few Americans experience, meeting and getting to know the fieldworkers who feed us—in their homes, in the fields, and at gatherings where they assemble to try to improve their lot.

Whenever I speak about tomato workers, someone in the audience asks, “What can I do to help?”

I often find myself struggling. There is rarely a simple answer.

Well here is one. Watch Food Chains. Please click here for a list of theaters and showtimes. If you don’t live near one of these cities, kindly forward this post to anyone you know who does and who cares about our food system.

After three and one-half years in the making, Food Chains has reached a critical juncture. It’s a fact of life that if the audiences on opening weekend are small, the film’s run will end. If they are large, the documentary will continue playing, exposing the truths of farmworker injustice to thousands of Americans.

These are truths every one of us should know.

Spread the word.  And please come see this fascinating film.

Thank you.



 Click here to see the trailer.

 Click here for theaters and times.


And if you’re in the NYC area on November 21 (Friday), I will be on a panel following the 7:45 p.m. showing at the Quad Theater, 34 w. 13th St.

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Genetic Engineers Develop an Appetite for the Humble Spud

Photograph by Simplot

Photograph by Simplot



Update: McDonald’s rejects GMO potato.


Late last week the United States Department of Agriculture gave its blessing for J. R. Simplot Co., a major supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, to begin planting a genetically modified (GMO) potato that the Idaho-based company calls “Innate.”

Although not the first biotech spud to be approved by the government (that honor goes to Newleaf, a variety developed by Monsanto Co. in the mid 1990s, but removed from production after five years because of consumer resistance), Innate has some traits that make it almost unique in the GMO world.

Most GMO crops (including Newleaf) are designed to benefit farmers and agribusiness by being resistant pests and the herbicides used to control weeds. They are often developed by splicing genes of completely unrelated species together—bacteria and corn, for instance.

Innates are lured to be less prone to bruising than everyday potatoes. They also produce less of the chemical acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen that forms when potatoes are deep fried, a benefit for consumers, according to Merck.

The second major difference is that bioengineers altered genes from wild and domestic potato varieties—not unrelated species—to create Innates. Simplot used a a technology called RNA interference, which deactivates specific genes—in this case those that cause potatoes to develop brown areas where bruised and those that cause the plant to make acrylamide.

Consumer advocates are none too happy about Simplot’s new form of genetic manipulation. “We simply don’t know enough about RNA interference technology to determine whether crops developed with it are safe for people and the environment. If this is an attempt to give crop biotechnology a more benign face, all it has really done is expose the inadequacies of the U.S. regulation of GE crops. These approvals are riddled with holes and are extremely worrisome,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture at the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in a press release.

The CFS claims that analysis of RNA interference by a panel of independent scientists requested by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there were many significant uncertainties about potential risks from this technology, and that current risk assessment procedures were not adequate.  “Despite such cautions, USDA is rushing the technology forward,” the group says.

Ultimately Innate’s fate, like that of Newleaf, may rest with consumers who don’t like the idea of  a bunch of bioengineers messing with their fries.

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Blunderdrug: Growth Booster for Beef Cattle Rears Its Controversial Head–Again

Hay, Merck! We're fattening just fine as is.

Hay, Merck! We’re fattening just fine as is.


I thought we’d seen the last of Zilmax, a chemical given to feedlot cattle to make them pack weight in the weeks leading up to slaughter. Merck Animal Health, which sold the drug, called it a “beef-improving technology.”

Although the drug added 24 and 33 pounds to carcasses, it failed in the marketplace. Grocery chains didn’t want beef from Zilmax-fed cattle because consumers complained about lack of taste and toughness. Besides, nobody was clamoring for bigger cuts of beef. One meat department supervisor grumbled that he had to start using larger Styrofoam trays to accommodate the brontosaurus-sized T-bones.

What seemed like Zilmax’s death knell sounded in the summer of 2013 when beef giants Cargill and Tyson announced that they would no longer accept Zilmax-treated cattle, citing animal welfare concerns. Cattle fed with the stuff often arrived at the companies’ slaughterhouses with hooves so damaged by the drug that they were unable to walk to their deaths.

The European Union and China (not exactly a paragon of consumer protection) banned meat from animals treated with the drug because of human health concerns.

True to form, the United States Food and Drug Administration, which approved Zilmax in 2006 (and is charged with protecting our health) took absolutely no action, even though its original approval was based on studies by scientists who received funding from Merck.

The situation became so bad that Merck voluntarily pulled Zilmax from the market in August 2013.

But, as it turns out, the company was far from ready to say good riddance to a loser product.

Instead it implemented the “Zilmax Five-Step Plan for Responsible Beef” as a way to reintroduce the controversial drug to American herds. The plan took one giant step forward when the FDA approved a new method of administering the drug in October, paving the way for Merck to announce that it would launch “In Field Use Studies” with cattle farmers that the company has trained to administer Zilmax according to its specifications. The company’s hope is that these studies will “help support the return of Zilmax to the market place in the future.”

One more reason to eat grass-fed beef, in case you needed one.

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Fish Die in Droves after Iowa Hog Farm Pumps Manure into River

Photograph by Lori Nelson, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

Photograph by Lori Nelson, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

During my many trips to Iowa to research my forthcoming book, Pig Tales, I lost count of the number of times government officials, university professors, and owners of large hog operations assured me that the state enforced strict manure-management regulations to keep the soupy manure, which is usually applied to fields, out of waterways and wells. “We have to account for every drop,” said one pork producer.

I also cannot count the number of times I was told by environmental activists and managers of municipal water systems that such assurances were a pile of, well, manure.

It’s time to score one for the environmentalists—though it’s not the sort of we-told-you-so moment they wished for.

Late last month a pipe ruptured at a farm in northern Iowa spewing 5,000 gallons of raw manure into the Little Cedar River. When Department of Natural Resources employees arrived at the scene, they found dead fish floating along a half mile of the river downstream from the spill.

At a time when many states were cleaning up their rivers and lakes, the number of impaired waterways in Iowa more than tripled from 159 in 1998 to 630 in 2012–a period of rampant growth of factory hog operations.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, seen by activists as a lap dog of agribusiness, responded to the pollution crisis by doing less than nothing—the department actually cut the number of factory farm inspectors from 23 to nine.

In 2007 the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa branch of the Sierra Club, and Washington, DC-based Environmental Integrity Project threatened to sue to force the Department to enforce The Clean Water Act.

The Department agreed to a series of changes, including reinstating some of the fired inspectors, conducting regular on-site monitoring of large hog farms, and increasing fines and penalties for miscreants.

It sounded great on paper, but as Lori Nelson, a board member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, told me—and last month’s spill demonstrates—words on paper mean nothing.

The one bit of good news to come out of Little Cedar spill is that the pollution was prevented from spreading farther and faster because the current was slowed by dams across the river built by beavers. If only the Department of Natural Resources approached its mandate as eagerly.


See also

Raising a Stink: Neighbors Win $11-Million Lawsuit Against Foul-Smelling Factory Hog Farm.


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