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Archives for Food Safety

Eating Dirt and Staying Healthy


Last summer I spent a week in the hospital after developing a severe staph infection on my lower belly. I drove myself to the emergency room one Sunday evening after having reached the conclusion there was something seriously wrong – this wasn’t just a heat rash. The doctor’s reaction on examining me was (“Holey Moley!!”).

Perhaps I have a sensitivity to staph. I’ve had three staph infections in my life (although this was by far the worse), but I don’t have much sensitivity to anything else infectious – or autoimmune either.

I had asthma as child but outgrew it. For about five years I had something cold-like every fall when the weather first turned cold – but that’s been over 20 years ago. I had the flu when I was 18 and a strep throat when I was 26. Aside from these events I don’t catch diseases. Oh, there have been days when I snuffled a bit or had an upset stomach and may have been fighting off an infection, but it was always gone in a day.

I’m not alone. My parents seldom get colds, don’t have allergies, and aside from the inevitable effects of aging are hale and hearty. Same with my siblings. Sure, you can argue good genes, but I’ve long had another theory about this, one I was reminded of by an article published by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times: “Babies Know: A Little Dirt is Good for You.”

My parents grew up in the 20s and 30s before our culture became terrified of germs while my siblings and I grew up on a farm eating food and drinking water that wasn’t perfectly clean. As children we were all exposed to a broad spectrum of bacteria at low levels and our bodies simply developed the ability to kill the unfriendly ones. Our immune systems were regularly exercised and, as a result, became strong and discriminating.

We’ve seen a huge increase in allergies here in the West and there’s evidence this may be a result of immune systems that “panic.” They have not learned to distinguish between organisms and chemicals that threaten the body and those that don’t. Consequently anytime these immune systems see something odd they attack – even if it’s you they’re attacking.

In another couple of examples, some current research points to potential links between celiac disease and lactose intolerance and the lack of microorganisms in the gut that can break down gluten and lactose. A decrease in breast-feeding may well contribute to this. The placenta isn’t a perfect filter, but it’s pretty good. So breast feeding not only passes on the mother’s existing antibodies to her children, but also passes on some useful bacteria. Ultra-sterilized infant formula doesn’t.

We have become a germophobic nation. The supermarket hands out wipes to disinfect buggies, we buy anti-bacterial soap for our kitchens and bathrooms, we expect our doctors to give us antibiotics whenever we get a runny nose or our child has an earache, we shoot our industrially raised cattle and chickens with drugs to prevent illness – not cure it.

This is silly. We live in – and surround – a sea of bacteria. In fact, aside from physically breaking down the food you eat by chewing and the application of some acids and enzymes, you do relatively little to digest your food. Instead a host of microorganisms living in your gut extract and then excrete the nutrients that keep you alive. If your intestine ruptures many of these bacteria can quickly kill you, but in their place they’re not only harmless but positively beneficial.

Besides, anti-bacterial soaps don’t work any better than ordinary soap, but they do enable bacteria to evolve their own immunity to the anti-bacterial agents. Our over-reliance on drugs whenever we don’t feel well combined with the additional drugs we get in every bite of chicken or drink of milk we eat is breeding a new group of super bugs – and making us less able to defend ourselves.

I don’t really advocate eating dirt, although eating a bit is unlikely to kill you. Washing your hands regularly – but not obsessively – is wise. And washing fruits and vegetables is a good idea, but the most effective way is to disinfect them is by briefly soaking in a vinegar solution. And the next time you feel bad, instead of going to the doctor, just take the day off and relax. Give your immune system a chance to do it’s job – and get a little exercise.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Milk: The Raw Deal


A few days ago I received an offer to purchase unpasteurized milk for my pets from a local organic farm. For $103 I’d receive a gallon of raw milk once a week for 12 weeks. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math: that’s $8.58 a gallon. I’m really fond of my cat, but not $8.58-a-week fond. Which is why I’m pretty sure this offer is an end-run around Tennessee’s laws preventing the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

It’s still very much on the fringes, but there’s a growing movement in this country promoting the health benefits of raw milk. But a little history first.

When our country was largely rural, raw milk was a common beverage, often produced by your own cows, but sometimes purchased from a neighbor. There were no mortality and morbidity survey from public health departments or the Center for Disease Control to track illness from raw milk but it’s certain no one thought twice about drinking it. Both of my parents, who were born in 1920, regularly drank raw milk as children.

But as our society became more urban, providing truly fresh raw milk became more and more difficult. Transportation was slow and there was no effective refrigeration. Perhaps worse, because the milk producers weren’t the friends and neighbors of the people buying the milk they were less inclined to be scrupulous about the quality. And even for well-intentioned milk producers, the inability to easily test for contaminants like campylobactor, salmonella, and e-Coli meant problems could arise. And, given all these factors, they did.

Food poisoning from raw milk sky-rocketed in the first half of the 20th century. In 1938 25 percent of all cases of food poisoning were associated with dairy products. In 1924 the federal Public Health Service began mandating pasteurization for milk sold across state lines. With the passage of this ordinance (and subsequent legislation in most states) incidents of poisoning dropped dramatically (although they still haven’t disappeared, as we’ll see) and the program was deemed a complete success.

Jump ahead to today. Transportation is an order (or two) of magnitude faster and everything is refrigerated. Testing for bacterial contamination is easy, cheap, and highly effective. And these days, even living in a metropolis such as New York City, you can know and learn to trust a milk producer if you take the trouble to do so.

Still federal and state governments remain strongly antagonistic to raw milk sales (22 states absolutely prohibit it and where it’s permitted sales are discouraged in various ways) and they are quick to point fingers at raw milk as a source of food poisoning. In 2008 three cases of campylobacter poisoning were blamed on raw milk from Hendricks Farms near Franconia, Pa. A single sample of the milk did turn up the bacteria – at the purchaser’s home. Additionally, two of those sickened had just returned from travels abroad. No other samples tested positive and thorough testing at the dairy failed to find the bacteria. I happen to have a friend (a professional chef) who works at that dairy and he tells me the food processing areas are as clean or cleaner than any restaurant where he’s worked.

In 2004 FDA Consumer published an article warning against drinking raw milk. Ironically, that same year 38 cases of salmonella poisoning in several states were traced to pasteurized milk but FDA Consumer didn’t publish a subsequent article warning of the dangers of pasteurized milk.

Raw milk advocates argue that raw milk is healthier and tastes better than pasteurized milk because the pasteurization process kills helpful bacteria (probiotics) as well as harmful bacteria and that the process also destroys helpful enzymes. True or not, there are people who want to drink raw milk. Presumably they’re aware of the risks – it takes some research to even find a source. And clearly pasteurized milk presents a risk as well.

Raw milk does taste better, but not so much so that I’m willing to pay $8.58 a gallon for it. But it’s ridiculous that in order to sell raw milk here in Tennessee, the farm near me has to emphasize that it’s for pets, not humans. As I said, I’m fond of my cat, as most people are of their pets, and if I thought raw milk was unsafe for me I certainly wouldn’t feed it to my cat. But at that price neither of us are going to be drinking it.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Eating Oil


On October 12 Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food took over the New York Times Magazine for his polemic, “Farmer in Chief” framed as an open letter to the next president. Pollan writes: “what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food … focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.”

CornThe article is a tour de force of the problems facing the American and world food supply. Pollan begins with food prices but moves on to farm policy, climate change, economic policy, health care, energy policy, and diet. He does a masterful job of showing how these issues relate to and affect each other.

There is much with which I agree. Pollan notes: “Monoculture is the original sin of American Agriculture.” We have a system designed to produce the most possible calories of food for the least possible price – factory farms are the result of this policy. It began with Earl Butz during the Nixon administration when he completely revamped farm policy to encourage maximum production and instead of offering farmers insurance during hard times the government began actively subsidizing crops such as corn, soy beans, and rice. This meant that farmers could make a profit even when their costs of production exceeded the market price of the commodity.

The most obvious result of this policy are CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the increased use of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) in processing our food Both encourage obesity and both are based on the over-supply of corn due to subsidies. That’s corn. But there’s also oil. Another product of corn subsidies, Ethanol – possibly the first bio-fuel – is increasing the demand for corn and thus contributing to increases in food prices. And, as the cost of oil and natural gas increase so does the price of crops dependent on high levels of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, made in many cases from petroleum by-products.

Pollan’s point is that the next president needs to have a Food Policy, a set of principles and plans that account for how energy, health, economics, and diet relate to and influence each other. Pollan’s thesis is that a piecemeal approach to the issues makes things worse and the next president needs to use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to think more deeply about these issues and their interconnections. He even recommends turning part of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as Eleanor Roosevelt did during World War II.

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none. But that’s not really the point. Food issues, whether the issue of animal confinement being addressed by California’s Prop 2, or buying organic, or even entertainment in the form of the Food Network is becoming something more and more Americans care about.

We see this interest reflected in the media. For instance, we not only have a Food Network, but one of Bravo’s hits is “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel offers both “No Reservations” and “Bizaare Foods.” The cover story of the November 2008 issue of Wired is “The Future of Food.” And equally telling, two years ago Spot-On asked me to write this column – not a food and cooking how-to but instead about how food and cooking fit into and are reflected in our culture.

This increased interest in food is a good thing because we’re approaching a food crisis that will affect even those of us in the developed world. The more thought we give to the issues now the better prepared we’ll be when the crisis hits and we actually do something about it. As Pollan writes, “…most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.”

In other words: We need to quit eating oil.


Update: Apparently I was wrong when I wrote:

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none.

According to this article Obama read at least a synopsis.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Something COOL


This past Tuesday (October 1) we finally saw something good for consumers come out of the federal government: Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for food. Grocery stores have six months to comply and then most meat and produce and some nut producers must specify the origin of their products (exceptions include roasted nuts, mixed vegetables, and a few other items).

SalsaThis requirement (which applies to retailers not producers, although it certaily affects producers) is a provision of the Farm Bill – not the most recent Farm Bill but the 2002 Farm Bill. The requirement for fish and shellfish was implemented in 2005 because of concerns about foreign seafood, but the other labels were delayed first in 2004, then in 2005. The retail food industry was, inevitably, totally opposed to the idea claiming it would raise prices, drive small retailers out of business (Ever noticed that it’s big business that hires lobbyists to supposedly defend small business?), and would reduce consumer choice – as though I’m going to give up eating leg of lamb because it comes from New Zealand or might not be just as happy with ground lamb from Oregon in Kofta.

Such end-of-the-world objections about added costs, whether to parsnips or ball bearings, are almost always nonsense if the added costs are applied equitably.

There are inevitably exceptions, which is why writing laws, rules, and regulations is hard. Requiring Donna, who grows the best tomatoes in East Tennessee and sells them at farmers’ markets, to individually label her tomatoes as grown in Tennessee would be silly. However, apparently this regulation doesn’t require that (it only applies to those selling more than $230,000 of produce a year).

Although COOL isn’t directly concerned with safety issues, it’s certainly a step in that direction. If you have concerns about grapes grown in Chile or peppers from Mexico you will have the opportunity to avoid these products. And in the case of the salmonella-ridden Mexican peppers the labels would probably have sped up discovery of source of contamination.

The law does contain some rather large loopholes. For instance, if the food is processed in some way it needn’t be labeled. So raw chicken from Guatemala has to be labeled but if that same chicken is made into chicken nuggets. Raw peanuts are covered but salted peanuts aren’t. Additionally, dairy products aren’t covered.

Also, if foods are mixed together they needn’t be labeled so although Mexican cantaloupe has to be labeled, if it’s mixed in a fruit salad with American oranges or Nicaraguan pineapple then no label is required. And oddly enough, meat and seafood sold in dedicated butcher shops or fish markets isn’t covered by the law.

Hopefully COOL will have some effect on food safety (although most cases of contaminated food during the past decade has been produced in this country). It also gives consumers the option of making more informed buying decisions. I may not care if a cantaloupe comes from the U.S. or Mexico – but then again, I just might.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Inefficiencies of Scale


I came home from the farmers’ market last Tuesday with a couple of pounds of tomatoes. To some folks, that makes me a brave or foolish man.

So far more than 1,000 people have officially been sickened by the latest salmonella outbreak. But, health care professionals say that in such estimates, for every reported case of sickness, more than 30 go unreported. This means something close to 40,000 people have been sickened to some degree.

This event was originally attributed to tomatoes from somewhere – no one knew exactly where. That’s reassuringly specific, isn’t it? Now the Food and Drug Administration says the source may not be tomatoes but peppers – or maybe cilantro.

Whatever the source, the problem isn’t willful disregard for our safety by a malevolent tomato poisoner. It’s an organizational problem. The larger an organization – in this case, Big Agriculture and its buddies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – grows the more it seeks to simplify and find one-size-fits-all solutions. Sometimes this leads to efficiencies of scale resulting in reduced costs to customers (if we’re lucky) and greater profits for owners. But in the case of our food, something’s gone very wrong.

Commercial tomatoes are often gathered together from many sources at centralized packing plants. Some tomatoes may come from Florida, others from California, and some from Mexico or Guatemala. At these plants they’re sorted according to size and color (apparent degree of ripeness) and repackaged for shipping to supermarkets. This is quite efficient for the purveyors. And at the store you’re presented with a collection of uniform red spheres to choose from. But without knowing the origin of a given tomato, tracing the source of contamination becomes extremely difficult.

The solution is pretty straightforward: produce should be labeled with it’s point of origin. Toys and clothing are so why not food? This might make the supply chain a bit less efficient and a bit more expensive, but it would make tracking contamination quite efficient given the scale of the agricultural system that feeds us.

But in implementing such a policy we need to be careful not to introduce an inefficiency of scale.

Now, as I’ve suggested, I know where my tomatoes are from, I even know the name of the couple who grew them. There’s no need to label them, and yet, in a search for efficiency, I worry that the F.D.A. might require that farmers Sam and Lorraine pick their tomatoes a day early so they can sit up half the night sticking little labels to each one by hand.

Actually, I can’t see that. Sam and Lorraine would just quit faced with too much work and cost to deliver a poorer product; it would be the case of an inefficiency created to someone else’s scale. But this is the sort of thing the F.D.A. and U.S. Department of Agriculture would go for. Why? Well, when it comes to livestock, they’ve come close with something called N.A.I.S., a single rule for tracking lambs, pigs and cows that’s efficient for the bureaucracy and large farm operations but threatens to put smaller farmers (like the one where I buy my lamb) out of business.

This mis-mash of policies is positively schizophrenic and results from the often conflicting roles Congress has assigned these agencies. They are chartered to promote the business of agriculture on one side and protect the public on the other. But these goals constitute a genuine conflict of interest.

It’s also absurd that the F.D.A. is responsible for tomatoes while the U.S.D.A. is responsible for hamburgers. There should be a single agency responsible for food safety and it shouldn’t have any duties beyond safety. It shouldn’t be promoting sales of pork to Canada or negotiating with South Korea over beef imports. Furthermore, it should have adequate funding. Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s food safety chief notes, that we can’t inspect our way to a safer food supply chain, but budget cuts during the Bush administration have weakened even that fragile safety measure.

As much as I love the idea of everyone eating mostly locally-raised food, that’s not realistic – we simply can’t feed everyone that way. And so we need focused policies and programs and methods for ensuring that the bulk of our food, which will continue to be produced using industrial agricultural practices, is safe. This means we need efficiences of scale both in the supply chain and the system of safeguards. At the same time it would be a mistake to blindly apply policies that are intended to operate in the arena of industrial agriculture to small and medium, local and regional farm operations. In doing so we’d be throwing the tomatoes out with the bath water.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Attack of the Not-So-Killer Tomatoes


I’m almost as fed up (pun intended) with writing about food recalls as I am learning about them. Some good news on the food front would really be nice, but I’m afraid that with 238 people reportedly sickened with salmonella from contaminated tomatoes there is none this week.

That 238 doesn’t sound like very many but using the Center for Disease Control estimates – only one in 30 cases of salmonella poisoning is reported – you can figure over 7,000 people got sick.

TomatoesNow, in all fairness, given a U.S. population of 304 million, 7,000 case of stomach cramps (and worse) isn’t even a statistical blip. Besides, salmonella is seldom fatal in healthy people. So, if I lacked a sympathetic soul, I would suggest that anyone willing to eat a non-local, out of season, cardboard tomato shipped from God-knows-where and served in a fast-food joint probably deserves their fate. Fortunately I do have a sympathetic soul and have suffered from food poisoning myself I know that even if you don’t die from contaminated food you may wish you would – just to end the misery.

What’s really troubling about food poisoning is that the numbers are beginning to add up. Reported incidences have increased steadily over the past 30 years. Better reporting or more incidents? My bet is on both. And it’s troubling. We know we take a risk every time we get into an automobile and we’ve become inured to it. Yeah, it’s risky, but it’s an acceptable risk. Risky food, though, is a different matter. We expect what we eat to be safe, comfortable, and nutritious. When something like a tomato goes bad it throws our sense of order out of whack.

This most recent case is unique in the recent spate of contamination stories because it involves tomatoes. Although according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest there have been some 24 cases of tomato contamination since 1990 with around 3,000 reported cases, tomatoes are a rather rare source of food poisoning. There’s a good reason for this.

Salmonella, like e-Coli, lives primarily in the intestines of animals and the bacteria is usually passed on through feces. The initial contamination can come from animal waste from wild animals or from improperly processed manure used for fertilizer, or it can be passed on by poor worker hygiene. When contaminated products are processed with uncontaminated products as they often are in our increasingly industrial food system the contamination is spread from the dirty to the clean. As the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the barrel.

But tomatoes have a tough, thick, impermeable skin, unlike lettuce or spinach that can absorb off-flavors. That’s why they can go through a chlorine rinse after picking to kill any external contamination. The implication with this latest round of food poisoning is that the fruit’s flesh – the inside – was contaminated. That raises two questions: 1) How can the salmonella get in to inflect the flesh? and 2) how can it get out to infect other tomatoes?

Obviously damage to the flesh can allow microbes to enter. But when was the last time you bought a tomato with an open wound except, possibly, from a farm stand where a recent rain has caused the tomato to split? And it’s safe to assume that even at Wendy’s or BurgerKing the produce buyers avoid cases where items are damaged.

So given that, how does contamination in one apparently pristine (albeit cardboard) tomato get into another? In an article by Barry Estabrooks in Gourmet, according to David Gombas at the United Fresh Produce Association, “the exact mechanism remains a food-safety mystery that the industry would dearly love to solve.”

I’ll bet they would. And in case they don’t, Keith Warriner at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada has been working on a salmonella vaccine for tomatoes designed to make them resistant to the bacteria.

Actually, that last question doesn’t really interest me – except intellectually. I only buy tomatoes when they’re in-season (in about a month or so, here in the U.S.) and then only from local farms.

I might still get sick from one but I’ll never get sick because of one contaminated tomato fell in with the 40,000 other clean tomatoes at the processing plant and spread its gut-wrenching microbes to my lunch-time BLT.

How to Choose a Tomato
The tomato should feel heavy for it’s size. It should be firm but not hard – a light squeeze should give you the feeling that a hard a squeeze would bruise it. But as with almost all vegetables and fruits, smell it. If it doesn’t smell like a tomato it probably never will and certatinly won’t taste like a tomato. When buying at the supermarket, avoid flaws in the skin and choose tomatoes that still have a stem attached. Hopefully, this will allow you to avoid contaminated tomatoes even in a supermarket. When buying at a farmers market or farm stand you needn’t be so picky about flaws in the skin (a heavy rain will cause tomatoes to split open) and a just-picked perfectly ripe tomato won’t have a stem since it was – before picking ripe and ready to let go of the mother plant.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

More Insanity from the U.S.D.A.


Most bureaucracies are famed for their lack of imagination, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages to consistently confound that dismal notion by finding new ways to control what we eat and who we buy it from. How the U.S.D.A. plans to regulate the farmers from whom I buy locally-raised meats is a good example of this ineptitude.

On many Friday afternoons I drive down to an empty grocery store parking lot to meet up with Ralph and Kimberley Cole who operate West Wind Farms. On these occasions I’ll buy a chicken or a pork loin or even, on rare occasions, a steak. Their animals are not only organic, but raised on pasture. I also buy meat from Tracy Monday who operates Laurel Creek Farms, and although Monday’s farm isn’t certified organic, there is no appreciable difference between the way he raises his animals and the Coles raise theirs. Both are small farms, personal operations, if you will.

But it seems clear that the U.S.D.A. doesn’t want me – or you – to buy meat raised sustainably by local farmers. Oh sure, it claims it supports all farmers, but in reality it only supports industrial farmers: Big Ag. Or least that’s what its new project, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) seems to prove.

The headline statement on the NAIS Web site is: “To protect the health of U.S. livestock and poultry and the economic well-being of those industries, we must be able to quickly and effectively trace an animal disease to its source.”

Note, first, that there’s no mention of consumers in this statement. Animals will be protected (supposedly), industries will be protected (certainly), but you and me? Phfft!

Created as part of the Patriot Act – an act of Congressional insanity if there ever was one – this initiative required that every “livestock” animal – cows, goats, chickens, your child’s pet Easter rabbit or pony – be registered in a national database, implanted with a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip, and its every movement be tracked from birth to death.

So, let’s assume you were foolish enough to give your kid a live rabbit at Easter. The breeder would have to register his premises and that rabbit. When he sold it to the pet store they would have to do the same. When you bought the rabbit… Yep, you too. Furthermore, every movement of the rabbit must be logged, so if you take the rabbit to the vet you’ve got to log that movement – to the vet first and then back again. And the vet also has to log it. And, of course, fees will be charged for all this folderol. Also, note that NAIS does nothing to directly improve the safety of the meat you eat, it is simply a tracking program.

OK. So you’re not foolish enough to buy your daughter a rabbit. But my local farmers would have to register their premises, implant RFID chips in every chicken, pig lamb and duck and log any movement of their animals in the national database. I know these folks, they’re scraping by on a prayer and passion for quality. NAIS means time and money they can’t spare.

But here’s the real killer. “Vertically integrated” operations, such as Tyson foods, that own the entire chain from birth to slaughter only need to register animals as a group. So while the Coles have to track each individual chicken because that’s the nature of their business – small and personal – Tyson pays the same price for 30,000 chickens. Guess what? Tyson is all in favor of this “government interference.” The result? The U.S.D.A. is throwing the weight of the federal government, on the side of Big Ag once again.

There has been push-back from small operators and the U.S.D.A. has backed off from enforcing it at a national level. Instead the U.S.D.A. is strongly encouraging individual states to enforce the initiative. Again note, NAIS will remain a federal program administered by the U.S.D.A., the states are simply being made to do the dirty work of making it mandatory.

NAIS may be a good idea for the Tysons and Smithfields that have no sense of social responsibility to begin with. But NAIS won’t directly improve quaility, will be devastating for small farmers, and makes no sense at all when it comes to that pet rabbit.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

No Prevention, No Cure


Two weeks ago in “USDA – D is for ‘Downer’” I discussed the graphic and disturbing video taken by the Humane Society containing footage of “downer” cows – those too ill to walk – being shoveled into a meat processing facility in Chino, Calif. That film has since led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef.

Click for larger image.The recall has become big news which is great, but as I’ve read and listened to the coverage I’ve been angry about one thing: The news agencies keep calling it a “USDA recall,” which is flat wrong and is misleading the public.

Why? Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no authority to recall so much as a single hamburger. All it can to is request, “pretty please,” that the manufacturer voluntarily issue a recall. If the system really worked – or even if it were meant to work – there might still have been a recall but it wouldn’t have been for 143 million pounds of meat processed over two years, and it certainly wouldn’t have been voluntary.

Oh sure, as this Congressional Research Report states, USDA can apply some pressure by, say, pulling inspectors from plants – in which case the facilities are no longer permitted to sell across state lines. Or the agency can put a hold on distribution for up to 20 days. But if the meat processor balks there’s nothing the USDA can do about it. The USDA isn’t even permitted by law to inform consumers about where the recalled beef was sold. So if you’re wondering if you bought some of the beef that’s being recalled – you’ll have to keep wondering. That’s a trade secret of the company selling the possibly contaminated product. Nor can the USDA require that the recalled meat be destroyed. If Hallmark chooses to it can turn around and sell that meat outside of this country. In other words, their corporate “trade” secrets are more important to our government than your health.

Someone once commented that corporations have rights without responsibilities. This is a fundamental flaw in any social actor. When the health of corporal (living) members of a society is stacked against a corporation’s (non-living entity’s) welfare and then arbitrated by a government that feels it must treat corporations as individuals without the authority to impose the same set of responsibilities on the corporations that it does on real humans, well, then you – we – have a problem.

I quite understand the value of corporations and their ability to concentrate and apply capital. Without them I wouldn’t be able to catch a plane to New Orleans. Corporations make it possible for me to use the Internet to research places to stay (and more importantly eat) when I get to there. Corporations make renting a car in advance simple. But while I may need a large well-run corporate entity to help me find a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t have to be owned and manage by one. The same goes with a restaurant. And when a corporation can make me ill or even kill me without being held responsible for its actions then we – you and I – have failed in our effort to govern ourselves.

You can argue that the recall shows the system works. And the same argument may well be made in defending the lawsuits that may be filed in the wake of this scandal. But becasue there’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this specific event, it’s not very different from pointing a gun at a stranger’s head, pulling the trigger, and upon failing to blow their brains out argue, “Hey! No harm done.”

In the latest recall Hallmark could have simply stonewalled. And that, may in the end, be the result. Apparently the company is going out of business just as Topps Meat did and under similar circumstances. So, in the end, what does the corporation stand to lose by not recalling the meat? In fact, it may have been better off if it hadn’t since then it wouldn’t have to reimburse those who purchased the meat. And, of course, a company closes its doors is one that’s harder to sue for any damages.

Given the drastic increase in recalls – not just meat but drugs and other products – those options becomes more logical, if you’re corporate but not corporeal. And especially if the dog guarding you has no teeth.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

USDA – D is For “Downer”


The food news last week was grim, disturbing, and troubling. It featured a video taken by members of the Humane Society of the United States that shows workers at Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, California picking up, rolling over and dragging “downer” cows — animals that can’t walk — with forklifts, shocking the animals, and shooting water up their noses in an effort to get them into the slaughter house. The video is grim and graphic, no animal should ever be treated that way.


The USDA is not doing it’s job, neither is the FDA for that matter, but in this case the primarily responsible agency is the the Department of Agriculture, and it’s not on your side. It may have been, once upon at time. But these days, it’s a government-funded lobbying group for Big Ag. Even worse: Congress had an opportunity to reform this seriously misdirected government bureaucracy when finalizing the Farm Bill, but didn’t.

The events recorded in the video almost certainly aren’t rare. And this is disturbing because downer cows are down because they’re too sick to stand up. The most frightening prospect is they could have mad-cow disease, one of the few diseases that can cross species lines. And bovine spongiform encephalitis may well be a recent development. What other diseases might cattle, forced to live in circumstances for which they didn’t evolve, have developed?

Furthermore, while down they become covered in feces harboring our old nemesis e. Coli. It’s bad enough that animals in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) have to stand around in their own excrement, rolling in it — or being rolled in it — is even worse.

And the troubling part is that Hallmark sells to Westland Meat Co. (Note, Westland President Steve Mendell is also Hallmark’s operations manager. Nepotism anyone?) Westland, in turn, sells to the Agriculture Department’s commodities program, which supplies food for school lunch programs. In fact, in the 2004/2005 school year the Ag Department named Westland its Supplier of the Year. Even if you didn’t think the USDA was on your side, you might have hoped it wasn’t trying to kill your kids. Good luck.

I’m no bleeding heart. I eat meat and have no qualms about it, but I buy most of my meat from local suppliers whose cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens are raised in pastures. I’ve seen those farms. As a shepherd friend of mine notes, “[My lambs] have a darned fine life. They’re coddled and cared for right up until their last moment.” One of my local suppliers explained to me at great length what he looked for in deciding where to have his animals slaughtered. To these people the animals aren’t products, they’re living creatures entitled to be treated with decency and kindness right up to the end. And if you think about it, few of us get to choose our when our last moment occurs, all we can hope for is living comfortably until that moment comes.

Here in Knoxville such humanely-raised meat is about 25 percent more expensive than what I would pay at the supermarket, and it’s less convenient. Furthermore, I confess I haven’t cut back much on my meat eating, but I eat fewer roasts and steaks and eat more cheap cuts. And I can tell you that a grass-fed beef brisket, slowly braised with beer, onions, and carrots is better than almost any steak you can buy at a grocery store. I also trust my meat suppliers. I’ve seen their farms, petted their animals, and I know my supplier’s names as they known mine.

Now, things were certainly worse before the agency was formed – read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But in the near century that’s passed since that book was written, the USDA has turned its attention to promoting agriculture, not protecting citizens. So, the next time you’re tempted to buy a rib-eye steak for $6.00 a pound, remember, it may have come from an animal that was too weak to stand up and so was rolled into the slaughter house with a forklift. Not particularly appetizing, eh?

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Send in the Clones


“After years of detailed study and analysis, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. There was insufficient information for the agency to reach a conclusion on the safety of food from clones of other animal species, such as sheep.” — FDA press announcement

CowLet’s apply a little logic to the issue of cloning animals. First, cloning is not genetic engineering; it is not about transferring genes from an eggplant to a cow. It’s about taking the nucleus of an animal’s cell, embedding it in an unfertilized egg, and starting the natural process of embryonic growth. There is no logical reason why the meat or milk of a cloned animal should be any more dangerous than that of any other animal. And in some six years of study, that’s what the FDA has concluded. If you think about it, identical twins are simply clones that arise naturally during gestation.

You can quibble with a few of the FDA’s assertions. For instance, according to an article by Rick Weiss at the Washington Post, “agency scientists decided to use the same simple but effective standard used by farmers since the dawn of agriculture: If a farm animal appears in all respects to be healthy, then presume that food from that animal is safe to eat.” It’s worth noting in this context that cattle suffering from mad-cow disease appear just fine until they don’t. And we know that government oversight of meat processing facilities is a joke: We’ve already had our first meat recall of the year.

It’s also unlikely that you’ll be offered meat or milk from cloned animals any time soon. It’s just too expensive a process. Instead the technique will be used to produce breeding animals and it will be their offspring, naturally produced (that’s “natural” if you consider artificial insemination “natural”) that will be enter our food chain. And nature is pretty ruthless about eliminating flawed animals, so if an offspring of a clone survives long enough to become a full-grown dairy cow or steer it’s highly unlikely it has any serious problems. In short, I think the FDA is correct in it’s assessment. But there are other issues.

Social issues first. The FDA has stated it won’t require that cloned meat or milk be labeled as such, but may allow non-cloned meat or milk to be labeled as “not cloned.” I hope they do. Although I see no problems with such products, I understand that others are concerned and they should have the option of knowing what they’re buying. There are also religious issues — for example, is cloned meat Kosher? These issues matter but there’s a larger and more damning problem, the increasing lack of diversity in what we eat.

Cloning is another step towards monoculture. Genetic diversity means that if I’m susceptible to a particular disease and you’re not then the human species has a better chance of survival. Any reduction in the gene pool increases the risk that a single fault, – whether it’s disease susceptibility or a congenital defect – could wipe out or seriously harm even a large population of animals or crops. When an entire farm is populated with genetically identical animals you have a highly fragile system that’s more susceptible to the domino effect – a single nudge from an illness or infection would cascade through the population and wipe it out.

Now, there’s a case to be made for using cloning to, say, producing pigs that are naturally more resistant to disease and require fewer antibiotics as they’re being raised. Cloning would be a way of speeding up the development of such a pig.

But care needs to be taken to keep the overall population genetically diverse. Sadly, though given its record in other areas, our food production system – meat inspections – is unlikely to encourage that use of cloning and will instead use the technology to increase production while reducing the gene pool. We won’t end up with healthier pigs, we’ll get even leaner and more flavorless pork. And that’s a damned shame.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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