The Pope of Pork: Meet the farmer who inspired Chipotle’s commercial in praise of small pork producers

The bad old days

Priest or pig farmer? Those were the only two callings that Russ Kremer ever considered. And really, it wasn’t even close.

Raised in the hamlet of Frankenstein in central Missouri, a few miles from where he still lives, Kremer wasn’t even old enough to attend grade school when his father gave him the job of bottle-feeding orphaned piglets in the house. By age six, he had graduated to tending sows and their litters. At eight, Kremer’s father handed him a recently weaned female and said, “She’s yours.” Kremer named her Honeysuckle and raised her like a pet, often lying beside her in her stall. She gave birth to 15 young — a challenge because she only had 13 nipples. Normally, at least three piglets would have died, but Kremer switched the babies on and off their mother during the critical early weeks. All 15 survived.

Happy days are here again.

For a time as a teenager, Kremer, a devout Catholic, considered becoming a priest. “I was always a person of faith,” he says. “I went to Catholic schools and was inspired by the work priests did to help people.” Even today, his voice, a soft twang, can take on reverential tones when he talks about his animals, and he’s been a life-long bachelor. But when he realized that he could never minister to a congregation and raise a herd of swine at the same time, he headed off to the University of Missouri, got a degree in animal husbandry, and returned home.

Instead of the catechism, he followed the canon of modern agribusiness.

To get more profit from the land, which his family had farmed for five generations, Kremer erected a long, low warehouse-like building and cycled 2,400 hogs a year through his operation. It wasn’t pretty. The sows that produced his piglets spent their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates — metal enclosures barely larger than the animals themselves, which barely allowed them to move. The piglets grew up cheek by jowl in metal pens. Stressed and sickly, the animals were fed a constant diet of commercial feed laced with low levels of antibiotics. Slatted concrete floors allowed their excrement to drop into a vast pit below the barn. Massive fans pushed out poisonous gasses from the pit. In the mid-1980s, a thunderstorm struck in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning, knocking out power. Within a few hours, more than 200 hogs suffocated from the gas. Instead of going to church that morning, Kremer dug a pit and buried them.

“Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made,” he says.

The last straw came in 1989, when a 700-pound boar, eager to service a receptive sow, sliced open Kremer’s knee with one of its tusks. The leg became infected and ballooned to twice its normal size. Doctors treated him with a half dozen different antibiotics, but the virulent Streptococcus suisbacteria proved to be resistant to all of them. Kremer developed heart palpitations. His family was told to prepare for the worst.

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Civil Eats Relaunches–A Great Day for Food Journalism

 

 

Civil Eats, one of my very favorite sources of information about food-related issues, has just been relaunched, and I’m delighted to report that it’s better than ever. Anyone who has an interest in the material covered by Politics of the Plate should bookmark Civil Eats. You’ll be visiting it often for the latest from the world of sustainable food.

This from the Civil Eats editors:

When we started Civil Eats in 2009, we saw a need to create a trusted community supported blog about food politics, from policy being made on Capitol Hill to new projects seeking to change our food system sprouting up on Main Street and everything in between. Since then, we’ve had 2.5 million pageviews, with clicks coming from decision makers in Washington, D.C. and ordinary citizens across the nation. We are proud to have featured the work of over 200 contributors. We hope to continue to grow our readership and find new ways to inform and provide resources to everyone interested in food politics. Today, we share with you the new vision of Civil Eats (in beta, of course, while we iron out the wrinkles). 

Visit Civil Eats

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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, TheAtlantic.com

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.”
Epicurious.com

“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.”—Salon.com

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

“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.”
TheDailyGreen.com

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

 

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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.

Read the rest at TakePart.com

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