January 28, 2010

Frack, Baby, Frack
With all the excitement over fracking -- the process of freeing huge amount of natural gas trapped within rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale by injecting water and chemicals at high pressure -- in Pennsylvania and New York, it's tempting to forget that the environmental cost to getting the gas out of the ground may turn out to be severe. In NY, the concern is radioactive contamination of New York City's upstate water supply. In Pennsylvania, the problem is more mundane -- constant industrial accidents (via Pro Publica):
Earlier this month, Pennsylvania's environmental officials fined Pennsylvania-based Atlas Resources after a series of violations at 13 wells, including spills of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the sites. And just last week the agency fined M.R. Dirt, a company that removes waste from drilling sites, $6,000 for spilling more than seven tons of drilling dirt along a public road.

The reports come on the heels of a string of other incidents that have killed fish in one of the state's most prized recreational lakes and released toxic chemicals into the environment.

The Atlas spills are significant because they are among the latest and because they happened repeatedly during the routine transfer of fluids. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection fined [1] Atlas Resources $85,000 for the offenses, which took place between May and December of 2009. Many of the spills were discovered by DEP inspectors.

..."If you look at this series of violations -- it's not only that there are multiple violations," said DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys, pointing to the fact that the same three violations were turning up at each site. "This is a pattern, and it's a problem."

Newsweek has a nice piece on the dangers of fracking fluids -- the stuff they inject into rock to bust the natural gas out -- and the fact that, despite their highly toxic, often corrosive, nature, such fluids were exempted from clean water regulations by Congress back in 2005. The NYT also covered a series of drilling-related spills in Pennsylvania a month ago.

But no matter the technique, Pennsylvanians should know by now that extractive industries have a tendency to poison the environments they exploit. The state has been actively cheerleading the industry (although given the potential windfall also strangely resistant to taxing it -- Gov. Rendell seems to prefer putting the tax burden on casino gamblers). But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, especially where hydrocholoric acid, benzene and diesel fuel (favorite ingredients for frackers everywhere) are concerned. Like the saying goes, frack around too much and there's sure to be trouble in the end.

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January 27, 2010

Philly Grocery Exec A Guest at State of the Union
This is definitely cool (via the Inqy):

Tonight, when President Obama gives his State of the Union address, he's expected to acknowledge a fourth-generation New Jersey grocer who builds supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, including four in Philadelphia.

Jeff Brown, 46, who runs Brown's Super Stores Inc. of Westville, Gloucester County, acknowledged yesterday that he would be a guest of honor seated in Michelle Obama's box in the House of Representatives during the speech.

"It's cool," Brown said. "So cool."

Obama is expected to mention the idea of building more supermarkets in impoverished areas, commonly called supermarket deserts because of the dearth of stores large enough to sell fresh food.

It's great news that addressing food access for low-income folks truly is a priority in the White House. Brown operates several Shop-Rite's in struggling Philly neighborhoods and deserves credit for his efforts. The only thing I'll ding him for is his vocal and influential opposition to Philly's failed plastic bag ban of last summer. Still, net net, he's one of the good guys so good for him for getting his work (and Philly) some much-needed attention.

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January 26, 2010

And the Winner of the USDA's Food Safety Sweepstakes Is...

Dr. Elizabeth Hagen! No, you're not expected to know who she is. Suffice it to say that, as anticipated, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack turned to an under-the-radar choice for Under Secretary of Food Safety. Hagen, currently the USDA's Chief Medical Officer, will, if confirmed, take charge of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry products.

The interesting aspect of this pick is that she is an infectious disease doc and public health specialist who has been working at USDA for several years -- and thus should have a good grounding in food safety methods. It also means both the Under Secretary of Food Safety as well as the administrator of FSIS itself, Dr. Jerold Mande, will be medical doctors. One can hope we will on longer hear things like "I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health," coming from top FSIS administrators.

Hagen joined the USDA during the Bush administration so she's neither a fresh face nor someone who is untainted by the food safety failings of the last few years. But neither does she appear to be an industry flunky. While I would have preferred an outsider who might come in and shake up the ossified USDA food safety culture, that was clearly too much to ask. It's also true that no one outside of USDA seems to have had many dealings with Hagen, but hope abounds (via Food Safety News):

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at The Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, responded to the announcement with guarded optimism.

"Consumer advocates who work closely with the FSIS on policy issues have had limited direct experience with Dr. Hagen. We have been told, however, that she has been a strong advocate for improved food safety policies and has urged the agency to be more aggressive in asking companies to initiate recalls."

Better recalls are certainly a start (if for no other reason than to give bloggers a break). Yet it strikes me that nothing in the pick undermines the argument that the FDA's newly minted deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor is the true "national" head of food safety right now. That's neither a good nor a bad thing, just political reality. And with the top jobs now filled, there's no further excuse for inaction.

At some point soon, in the course of fixing our broken system, Hagen and Taylor will have to take a stand: Is the future of meat safety in this country one of decontamination and post-hoc treatments for routinely infected products (aka "Zap the Crap")? Or will the USDA attack the root causes of pathogens in our meat -- an unrelenting focus on low quality, high quantity production methods. Dr. Hagen, please surprise us.

This post originally appeared on

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January 22, 2010

Someone Tell Schools: Sugar is *Not* a Food
Reporter Ed Bruske spent a week working in a Washington, D.C. public school lunchroom. His series of articles (1, 2, 3) that resulted are fantastic reading for anyone following the ongoing debate regarding school lunches and the challenges for enacting real reform. Today's entry looked at how sugar is used in school food.

Bruske lists the multiple ways schools find to sugar up our kids -- Pop-Tarts, sugar cereal, canned fruit in syrup, flavored milk, cookies and other desserts and even juice. Yes, juice is part of the problem, too. By weight, it has just as much sugar as Coke. Bruske observes that a 4 oz cup of apple juice has the equivalent of 3 tsp of sugar. As for flavored milk, an 8 oz carton of the brand served in the DC school contains 6 tsp of sugar. It's the same percentage of sugar as juice but at twice the service size, it's almost the same amount of sugar as a can of Coke -- and handed out to many of our kids for free. Got diabetes?

I recommend an experiment. Take a cup measure and put in 4 oz (1/2 cup) of water. Then add 3 tsp of sugar. If you’re feeling saucy, double the amount of both. Now drink. That’s what we serve to our kids at school? Yuck.


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You say "unagi," I say... Sablefish!

Casson Trenor, author and sustainable seafood expert, decried on Twitter today the fate of the Thames River eel, whose population has crashed 98% in the last five years. This comes on the heels of a 90% decline in the eel population in European waters over the last 30 years. Seafood Watch also encourages consumers to avoid freshwater eel, despite the fact that it is a "farmed" species, because the eels are captured from the wild and raised in pens. Breeding stocks in the wild thus remain pressured and declining.

So, I asked Trenor (via Twitter), what is an unagi lover to do?

He said, try sablefish! He also observed in another tweet that:
We don't generally eat unagi for the taste of the eel itself, we eat it for the sauce, rice, and texture -- can replicate these
He even helpfully provided a recipe from Seafood Watch, which I reproduce below.


(Serves 8)
Sablefish season: May–October
  • 1 1/2 pounds sablefish* fillet
  • 1 large sheet konbu (kelp)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons mirin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sake
  • 1 handful katsuobushi (skipjack flakes)
  • Potato starch
  • Sea salt
  • Sesame seeds
  • Extra sake
  • Extra water
  • Steamed rice
Dust both sides of the sablefish fillets with sea salt. Cover the fillets in plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator. Let sit for 15–20 minutes.

Wash salt off the fillets with very cold water. Blot dry with a paper towel.

Tear the konbu into pieces the size of your fillets. Wet a new paper towel with sake and use it to moisten the konbu. Sandwich the sablefish between pieces of sake-moistened konbu. Cover the fillet in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30–40 minutes. Remove the konbu and return the fillet to the refrigerator.

Mix the soy sauce, sugar, mirin, and katsuobushi with 1 1/2 tablespoons of sake, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of water, in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and remove the katsuobushi then set the sauce aside.

In a small bowl, combine 8 tablespoons of cold water with 2 tablespoons of potato starch to create a thickener (add the water to the potato starch gradually, whisking constantly to avoid clumping). Return the soy/mirin sauce to a boil then lower heat to a simmer. If desired, add the potato starch thickener to the sauce, gradually, until the desired consistency is reached. (Some people may choose to add very little or no thickener—you definitely won't want to use it all, but it's easier to mix a large batch.) Remove from heat and let cool.

To serve:
Slice sablefish into portions approximately 1 inch wide by 2 inches long. Lightly char one side of the fish with a small butane torch or sear it very briefly in a hot saucepan. Top fish with a drizzle of the sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Serve slices of faux-nagi over bowls of hot steamed rice. You can also serve this nigiri style as they do at Tataki.

*Seafood Watch® recommends wild-caught sablefish from Alaska and British Columbia.
And don't forget to ask for sablefish at your favorite sushi place. They may not have it, but maybe they'll get the message and buy some... Thanks, Casson!

Flickr photo: avlxyz

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January 20, 2010

Is the FDA FUBAR*?
Journalist Merrill Goozner highlights some commentary from an FDA Insider who claims that the FDA is "more pro-industry than any time in 35 Years":

So says Jim Dickinson, editor of FDAWebview, an industry newsletter that closely follows enforcement issues at the agency. After reviewing the deregulatory shifts at the Food and Drug Administration since the Carter administration, he writes:

It has taken almost a generation, but by now, the pro-industry infiltration of FDA's culture is firmly entrenched. Not only is collaboration in product reviews officially encouraged, but good relationships across the regulatory fence hold the prospect of a possible future career in a well-paid industry job - a connection that is less likely to be publicly noticed in news media that now have to line up for information that has been filtered through agency press offices. The arm's-length relationship that formerly ruled every contact between agency and industry has become a fading memory.

He says the shift in culture accelerated after the 1992 passage of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, which made the agency dependent on industry funding. He concludes there's nothing that Margaret Hamburg, the new commissioner, and Joshua Sharfstein, her deputy, can do about it. Quoting a former chief of enforcement, he writes:

User fees at FDA are the primary villain, because they "allowed the industry to dictate the changes at the FDA in programs, procedures and practices. It will be impossible for the Obama administration to reverse the trend because as long as the user fees are in place the industry has the upper hand."

Radical stuff from an unexpected source.

It's hard to talk about the creeping takeover of the federal government by corporate interests without sounds like a conspiracy-minded crackpot. And yet, when presented with evidence like this, what other conclusion can you draw? There's no question that the "collaboration" Dickinson refers to continues to this day -- and not just for drugs. It's an established fact that the FDA relied heavily on chemical industry lobbyists to draw up the (hopefully) now infamous 2008 FDA bisphenol-A report that declared the plastics ingredient totally safe, despite all evidence to the contrary. And with concerns over the budget deficit now front and center any attempt to eliminate what is a legitimate funding source (by that I mean those drug company fees) will likely fail. In a word: Ugh.

*Y'all know what FUBAR means, right?

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With Obesity It's Not Just the Calories. It's the Chemicals

Michelle Obama hula hooping with kidsMichelle Obama's anti-childhood obesity agenda would have kids a little less round 'round the middle.White House Flickr streamWhile we await Michelle Obama's speech this Wednesday to the United States Conference of Mayors that will likely launch her new campaign against childhood obesity, I thought I'd offer a little perspective as well as a few bits of research that shed light on the enormity and complexity of the obesity epidemic.

First off, let's be clear: The First Lady will, of course, do everything she can to avoid picking a fight with Big Food -- I wouldn't be surprised to see corporate partnerships coming out of her efforts. Indeed, her team's first foray into the food policy arena, which included rumors of a White House embrace of former FDA Commissioner David Kessler's "junk food addiction" model for obesity, the president himself raising the possibility of a soda tax and the somewhat defensive posture of her policy team in an interview with NPR, were overshadowed by industry objections.

Even the most common-sense advice from her (drink water not soda, eat less processed food) prompted howls of outrage from food companies. We'll know for sure next week, but school food will probably be the focus of all her efforts. After all, school food is already the government's responsibility and even in the "reform-proof" Senate there is a fair amount of momentum for reducing access to junk food in the lunchroom and improving the quality of school food.

Unfortunately, the school environment is not the only one at issue for kids...


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January 15, 2010

Food Failings Hit Congress Hard
A story in Politico describes the soul-searching on Capitol Hill prompted by the sad, sudden death of Rep. John Boehner's 46-year-old chief of staff Paula Nowakowski:

"For a lot of us, this was a mortality check," said Justin Harding, 34, who's often on call seven days a week as chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and frequently gets home from work after his kids have gone to sleep. "It's causing us all to reflect and sort of check our own circumstances."

Hill staffers say Nowakowski's lifestyle mirrored much of their own. She smoked, she didn’t always eat well, and she often worked seven days a week.

A toxic combination, to be sure. Stressful jobs that require long hours are certainly unhealthy. But it's only recently that you could add diabetes to the list of job-related illnesses:

After working on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign in Michigan and enduring a lifestyle of horrible food and little sleep, Roe developed Type 1 diabetes [ed note: the reporter meant Type 2 since Type 1 doesn't "develop" in adults]. He knew he was getting ill, but he ignored the signs until he collapsed right after Bush's Inauguration and nearly died. He was hospitalized for a week and barely avoided a diabetic coma.

Other Hill staffers have also developed diabetes and high blood pressure.

And there's more:

One longtime Democratic committee staffer and former staff director, who asked not to be identified, got his wake-up moment when he crashed his car driving back to the Capitol after working until 5 a.m. the night before.

"I must've fallen asleep at the wheel," the staffer said. "I banged the car into a curb and blew both tires."

Soon afterward, he discovered he had developed high blood pressure and was battling diabetes. He later bowed out of his position, taking a lower-key spot on the committee.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Barton blamed his heart problems on "eating too many chicken-fried steaks."

"In the long run, I'd say this lifestyle could certainly be detrimental to your health," said Rep. Kathleen Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a freshman who previously worked as a dietitian and spoke with POLITICO by phone from the Blue Dog retreat on Tuesday. "I'm sitting here watching them bring out trays of snacks: cheeses and sweets. We just ate lunch, which was huge. And before that, we had a very big breakfast. I can't get over how much food they put in front of us."

...Those who worked around the clock on last year's stimulus package and, now, on the health care bill admit to getting the majority of their meals from the Capitol vending machines.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to upgrade the food choices in the House cafeterias, the value meal in Longworth still includes a fountain drink and choices like chicken wings, burritos and popcorn chicken salad.

The focus in the obesity epidemic is often on low-income communities and their food deserts and swamps. But for many farther up the income chain, the work environment is just as toxic. It's not just Congressional workers who indulge in vending machine lunches, pastry and candy-strewn conference room spreads and bottomless cups of soda.

I can only hope that Capitol Hill denizens realize why addressing obesity and the associated problems in the food system requires going far beyond demands of personal responsibility and virtue. They would, I imagine, agree that they eat what's available. And if it's junk that's available, that's what they eat -- they don't have a choice. And as a result that junk makes them sick.

It's an interesting experiment going on up there -- how much more do they themselves have to suffer before they take steps to clean up their own food environment? And if they do act to protect themselves (or even if they don't), one hopes they now see the value of fixing public school cafeterias if not the rest of American workplaces.

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January 14, 2010

New York City and Rising Seas
As a complement to my post on The Vine asking if we're doing enough to prepare for the climate change-induced -- and inevitable -- rise in sea level, here's something from the NYT that takes a slightly different tack on the issue (thanks to TNR's Brad Plumer for pointing it out to me):

This weekend, the public was given its first glimpse of a project a year in the making: a collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and its affiliate P.S.1, an art exhibition house. The museums have asked five separate architectural teams to come up with plans for transforming the metropolitan area's coastlines after warmer oceans and melting Antarctic ice have raised global sea levels, something many scientists predict is inevitable.

A full exhibit opens at MoMA on March 24, but what the teams are already coming up with has people talking. They envision a city lined with marshes, permeable coastlines, and oyster farms used as wave breaks. To adapt to climate change, the teams are asking New Yorkers to look at things in a more positive light -- namely, as a chance to bring a city famous for blocking out the ocean back to dealing with it.

Oyster farms, eh? That's certainly seeing opportunity in the face of disaster. Of course, it's not just coastal development that kicked out the oysters -- it was water pollution. And New York Harbor, though far cleaner that it was a few decades ago, still "harbors" enough heavy metals, pollutants and bacteria that I don't think anyone will be slurping "ersters" from its waters anytime soon. Still, power of positive thinking and all that. And I do like one team's idea of letting parts of Manhattan go all Venice and just accept streets full of water at high tide.

Anyway, it's worth noting that the architects' plans only account for about a 2 foot increase in sea level. As I highlight in my TNR post, we should plan for a 7 feet rise and very likely will get even more. An increase like that would swamp any city's most ambitious adaptation plans.

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January 13, 2010

More Power to Renewable Energy!

Now a bit of good news via the Wonk Room:
In 2004, Colorado became the first state to pass a renewable energy standard (RES) by popular vote, a measure requiring large utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Three years later, after it became clear the RES goal of 10 percent was going to be achieved nearly eight years ahead of schedule, the state legislature doubled down with a new 20 percent mandate by 2020.

Now it looks like Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, will be able to meet the 20 percent five years ahead of schedule. So Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and legislative leaders are uping the ante once again, making a 30 percent RES by 2020 a priority for the legislative session that begins today.

The point is that these targets often prove much easier to achieve than corporations like to admit. We have a corporate community that by and large provides kneejerk resistance to regulation so it's good to be reminded (again) that their predictions of doom/failure are usually unfounded and frequently just plain wrong.

There is no doubt in my mind that the same will prove true in the case of cap and trade. Industry, as it has countless times in the past, will discover how easy it is to function, even thrive, in a world where carbon comes with a price tag. But Colorado's experience also suggests that, in the event a climate bill fails this year or, as the WSJ speculates, is scrapped, Congress should indeed go ahead and enact an ambitious renewable energy standard -- something even cap-and-trade hating folks like Sen. Blanche Lincoln and American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman are on record supporting. In the end, success with renewables might make coming back and enacting cap-and-trade that much easier.

Flickr photo: LordFerguson

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January 12, 2010

It's Not Just TV. Desk Jobs Can Kill You, Too!

This latest research confirms the worse fears of those who think Americans spend too much time in front of the idiot box:
Couch potatoes beware: every hour of television watched per day may increase the risk of dying earlier from cardiovascular disease, according to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Australian researchers tracked the lifestyle habits of 8,800 adults and found that each hour spent in front of the television daily was associated with: > an 11 percent increased risk of death from all causes, > a 9 percent increased risk of cancer death; and > an 18 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related death.
But contra Kevin Drum, taking up blogging may not be the best idea:

While the study focused specifically on television watching, the findings suggest that any prolonged sedentary behavior, such as sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, may pose a risk to one's health. The human body was designed to move, not sit for extended periods of time, said David Dunstan, Ph.D., the study's lead author and professor and Head of the Physical Activity Laboratory in the Division of Metabolism and Obesity at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Victoria, Australia.

"What has happened is that a lot of the normal activities of daily living that involved standing up and moving the muscles in the body have been converted to sitting," Dunstan said. "Technological, social, and economic changes mean that people don't move their muscles as much as they used to -- consequently the levels of energy expenditure as people go about their lives continue to shrink. For many people, on a daily basis they simply shift from one chair to another -- from the chair in the car to the chair in the office to the chair in front of the television."

This point was entirely ignored in the LA Times article linked by Drum. But it's a crucial point. Our society privileges and encourages desk work and frowns on activities that smack of manual labor -- you know, like farming. But that may ultimately prove to be a calamitous mistake.

Flickr photo: Ste3ve

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January 11, 2010

More Trouble for Menu Labeling

A new study out of Tufts confirms that supermarket and restaurant calorie counts are inaccurate. From the abstract:
Measured energy values of 29 quick-serve and sit-down restaurant foods averaged 18% more than stated values, and measured energy values of 10 frozen meals purchased from supermarkets averaged 8% more than originally stated. These differences substantially exceeded laboratory measurement error but did not achieve statistical significance due to considerable variability in the degree of underreporting. Some individual restaurant items contained up to 200% of stated values and, in addition, free side dishes increased provided energy to an average of 245% of stated values for the entrees they accompanied.
It's easy to simply dismiss this as another case of corporate shenanigans, though the study authors observe that the variation from stated values is within USDA requirements for accuracy. Unfortunately, the authors also point out that the variation matters:
The extra mean measured energy in this study compared to stated information may cause substantial weight gain over time. For example, positive energy balance of only 5% per day for an individual requiring 2,000 kcal/day could lead to a 10-lb weight gain in a single year. It is also notable that free side dishes on average contained more energy than the entrees alone. It is unclear whether consumers are aware of how much energy free side dishes contain, and providing more accessible information on meal energy contents both with and without side dishes could help increase attention to the potential of these casual food items to more than double meal energy intake.
For better or for worse, if you really want to know what's in what you're eating, you need to cook it yourself from scratch. Short of that, you're putting yourself at the mercy of corporate nutritionists and government watchdogs. To date, those two have not exactly shown themselves to be good guardians of our national waistlines, have they?

Flickr photo: Ken Yourdon

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January 7, 2010

Pesticides and the Great Die-Offs

Yale's Environment360 has a new must-read report by Sonia Shah linking pesticides to the high-profile die-offs among amphibians, bees and bats. What makes this news timely isn't necessarily the toxicity of the pesticides per se, it's the indirect effects on these animals of chronic, low-dose exposure to chemicals:

In the past dozen years, no fewer than three never-before-seen diseases have decimated populations of amphibians, bees, and -- most recently -- bats. A growing body of evidence indicates that pesticide exposure may be playing an important role in the decline of the first two species, and scientists are investigating whether such exposures may be involved in the deaths of more than 1 million bats in the northeastern United States over the past several years.

...The recent spate of widespread die-offs began in amphibians. Scientists discovered the culprit — an aquatic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, of a class of fungi called “chytrids” — in 1998. Its devastation, says amphibian expert Kevin Zippel, is “unlike anything we’ve seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.” Over 1,800 species of amphibians currently face extinction.

It may be, as many experts believe, that the chytrid fungus is a novel pathogen, decimating species that have no armor against it, much as Europe’s smallpox and measles decimated Native Americans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But “there is a really good plausible story of chemicals affecting the immune system and making animals more susceptible,” as well, says San Francisco State University conservation biologist Carlos Davidson.

Shah goes on to explain a mechanism whereby pesticides applied to fields in California's Central Valley drift into the Sierra Nevada mountains "where they settle in the air, snow, and surface waters, and inside the tissues of amphibians." A scientist who studied the matter "found a strong correlation between upwind pesticide use... and declining amphibian populations."

Meanwhile, bees and bats have suffered a similar fate -- killed off by powerful pathogens that in theory could be novel but in practice seem to have taken advantage of animal populations immuno-compromised by pesticides.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece was the description of an Italian scientists unpublished research that suggests the "missing link" between neonicotinoids, a powerful pesticide already banned in Europe but still in use in the US, and bee colony collapse. It relates to the practices of using neonicotinoids-coated seeds planted by machines that kick up clouds of pesticide as they work...


Flickr photo: Paul L. Nettles

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January 6, 2010

It's not Just the Meat

Not to overdo the food safety theme, but I thought it amusing gross to discover that fast food restaurants have contamination issues in more than just their meat. A team of microbiologists from Virginia's Hollins University just published a paper in the International Journal of Food Microbiology that indicates soda fountains harbor coliform bacteria (usually but not always fecal in origin), E coli and other harmful bugs at levels far beyond EPA safe drinking water limits. From the abstract:
More than 11% of the beverages analyzed contained Escherichia coli and over 17% contained Chryseobacterium meningosepticum. Other opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms isolated from the beverages included species of Klebsiella, Staphylococcus, Stenotrophomonas, Candida, and Serratia. Most of the identified bacteria showed resistance to one or more of the 11 antibiotics tested. These findings suggest that soda fountain machines may harbor persistent communities of potentially pathogenic microorganisms which may contribute to episodic gastric distress in the general population and could pose a more significant health risk to immunocompromised individuals. These findings have important public health implications and signal the need for regulations enforcing hygienic practices associated with these beverage dispensers.
And antibiotic resistant to boot! The good news, sort of, according to the researchers is that only one outbreak from about ten years ago was linked to a soda fountain. But there's an awful lot of unreported "gastric distress" out there. I guess it's not just the HFCS that soda drinkers have to worry about.

h/t the Smithsonian's Food & Think blog

Photo by Zach Klein used under a CC license

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A Hearty Helping of Pink Slime

The NYT's latest ground beef revelation involves a substance that some in the meat industry refer to as "pink slime" and is a component in ground beef sold in supermarkets and at fast food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald's and fed to our children at school. At issue in the article is the question of safety. It appears that the disinfection process of injecting ammonia into the stuff in order to kill bacteria like salmonella and E coli isn't nearly as effective as claimed.

But that's not what jumped out at me. What jumped out at me was the description of what "pink slime" actually is:
[A] product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.
So, it's meat that was previously not considered fit for human consumption. But now it's in every McDonald's hamburger (and most supermarket patties) sold in the US. What changed? Pink slime purveyor Beef Products' "innovative" ammonia treatment supposedly fully disinfected the meat and thus made it safe to eat.

But is that the only definition of what's fit for human consumption? I mean, by that definition we could disinfect all sorts of nasty manufacturing byproducts and stick it in our food. Keep in mind that we're not talking about hunks of meat that got chopped off a side of beef and ground up. This is a highly processed product. Before it can be sold in frozen blocks of beefy mash, it goes through a process of "liquefying the fat and extracting the protein from the trimmings in a centrifuge." Sounds delicious!

Tom Philpott has a nice piece on some of the implications of this story. In it, he points to an AP article where fast food companies including McDonald's and Burger King stand by their decision to continue the use of pink slime in their hamburgers (only "a small percentage" of it is in any given burger assures a Burger King spokeswoman).

But the AP reporter missed an opportunity to ask this fundamental question. Why does anyone think it's okay to put this stuff in burgers? I mean, where's the shame? And I'm not the only one who thinks this is gross. From the NYT piece:
Another [USDA] microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef "pink slime" in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."
Right on! People simply shouldn't be eating this ammonia-soaked, industrially manufactured beef-like mash -- and I can't imagine they would be happy to find out that brands they trust have been "secretly" feeding it to them in order to save a few bucks. But all this raised another question in my mind. What if no one cares? Put a different way, are there limits for Americans? I'm starting to wonder. People who learn about pink slime and then walk into a McDonald's and order up a Big Mac need to ask themselves what it is they think they're eating. Because I can tell you that pink slime may have fat, calories and protein in it. But that doesn't make it food.

Photo by ILoveButter used under a CC license

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January 5, 2010

Can GMO Seeds Be "Sustainable"?

The NYT has another piece encouraging a flare-up in the cage match between organic farmers and those in favor of genetic engineering as the solution to future food needs. This one is centered on the "unlikely" but happy marriage of a plant geneticist and an organic farmer:

Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak have every reason not to get along.

Ronald, a plant scientist, has spent her past two decades manipulating rice from her lab bench, bending the grain's DNA to her whim. Adamchak, meanwhile, is an organic farmer, teaching college students the best practices of an environmentally gentle agriculture at his California market garden.

As Adamchak confesses, few have been more vociferously opposed to the genetic engineering practiced by Ronald than his organic movement, which has steadily grown in recent years to constitute an influential, if tiny, part of the U.S. farm system. So it can come as some surprise when Ronald and Adamchak let slip that they have been happily married for more than a decade.

Such a union should not be shocking, the couple argues. And a more modest version -- sans marriage -- must be considered by any farmer or consumer hoping for a sustainable future for agriculture.

Industrial farming, with its heavy use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and irrigation, is exhausting the environment, and with billions more mouths to feed in the upcoming decades, the problem will only worsen unless the efforts of organic farming and genetic engineering are combined, they say.

...To spread their message to two communities that rarely speak in measured terms, Ronald and Adamchak have written a book, "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food," which came out in paperback last month.

What Adamchak and Ronald pursue in the book is in essence a unified theory of farming. While critical of Western seed companies that have co-opted genetically modified (GM) crops for questionable business practices, the couple argues that both current and future generations of altered crops will, if responsibly managed, allow much of the world's hungry to be fed from land already degraded by the plow's slice and the tractor's compressing wheel.

This news gets the usual contrarian suspects cheering, of course. But to read the article, you'd think there are all these fantastic genetically engineering seeds just waiting to be planted if only the "powerful" organic lobby would let it happen. Only there aren't. Not a one. And while Ronald, the plant scientist, urges open-mindedness among sustainable agriculture folks, her own major plant breeding project on flood-tolerant rice uses advanced breeding techniques and not genetic engineering.

It's worth revisiting a Newsweek article from the summer that talked about the "return" of conventional breeding as the favored technique for developing new crops:

Part of the story is that conventional breeding can still do certain things extremely well—even better than genetic manipulation. What GM techniques are best at is isolating particularly useful bits of DNA in a prized plant, and transferring that single gene to another plant that is less well endowed. (In the best-known example, Monsanto spliced a gene from naturally herbicide-tolerant grass into soybeans, so farmers could apply the chemicals without killing their crops.) Conventional breeding still does better at building up qualities that require a complex suite of genes, such as the ability to fight off certain insects or to resist drought, which involves a host of genes that determine the way plants take up and manage water.

Roland would surely agree. And the fact is that the challenges before us require more than dropping in a gene here or there. To date, genetic engineering techniques have simply not shown itself to be up to the task. The result is that the debate over GMOs as a sustainable solution remains entirely theoretical. The existing GMO seed lines require heavy doses of synthetic fertilizer and water (in the case of the Bt crops mentioned in the article) or heavy doses of synthetic pesticides, fertilizer and water (in the case of Roundup Ready crops, the only other GMO seed line), neither of which are consistent with organic -- or sustainable -- practices.

In essence, this is an argument about federal research dollars not an argument about which seeds to plant. Wake me up when Monsanto invents a seed that can actually do all the things they've been promising us for the last couple of decades. In fact, don't. It's likely to be decades and decades before someone sees fit to rouse me. I could use the sleep

Photo by The Wandering Angel used under a CC license

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January 4, 2010

Winter Farmers Markets
Yet another indication that the just-announced USDA hoop house study can't finish soon enough. Here in Philly we're going to get another year-round farmers market:
While launching a farmers' market in the dead of winter may seem both counter-intuitive and turnip-friendly, market manager Kyle Perry explains the clever strategy behind this maneuver and promises you'll see more than a pile of potatoes to welcome you.

...Perry says to expect, of course, root vegetables, from the lineup of 20 vendors, but since some of the farmers do have greenhouses, there should be cucumbers, tomatoes and salad greens. There will also be grass-fed beef, naturally-raised pork, free-range chicken and lamb. One vendor, M & B Farview Farm, out of Berks County, will also be grilling their meats, so you can grab a grass-bed burger or a pork sausage while you shop.

Salad greens? Tomatoes? In January? I'll be interested to find out how they heat those greenhouses (just compost, I hope) but I'm still excited. May the Teens be the decade in which "local winter veggies that aren't of the root variety" start to seem normal. The new market will be in the so-odd-it's-cool Piazza in the Northern Liberties starting January 16.

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