Friday, January 20, 2012


January 20, 2012
10:34 AM

Consumer Group Opposes USDA’s Privatization of Poultry Inspection

WASHINGTON - January 20 - Today, the Secretary of Agriculture and Undersecretary for Food Safety announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan to proceed with a program that would privatize the inspection of poultry products in the United States. Food & Water Watch vehemently opposes this plan and any other attempts to privatize food safety functions that are the responsibility of the federal government.
“This proposal is unacceptable and violates the department’s legal obligation to protect consumers by inspecting every carcass and every bird produced in USDA-inspected plants,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter.
The USDA has been running a pilot project with this new inspection scheme in two dozen slaughter facilities since 1998. In these plants, line speeds have been permitted to run as fast as 200 birds per minute, which is several times faster than other poultry slaughter plants. Reports from these plants indicate that the company employees who perform inspections that used to be performed by USDA inspectors are not properly trained or given the authority to take necessary action to stop unsafe product from leaving the plant.
An initial review of more than 5,000 pages of documents that Food & Water Watch recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act indicates that current regulations are not being enforced by company inspectors. For example, the records show that bile, sores, scabs, feathers, and digestive tract tissue are often not being properly removed from chicken carcasses.
Before the release of these documents just last week, the USDA has provided virtually no data or analysis of how this pilot program is working. The Government Accountability Office issued a critical report on the pilot program in 2001, and there has been no independent evaluation of how well this privatized scheme has been working since.
“The agency claims that the salmonella rates in the pilot project plants are lower than the rates for plants that receive conventional inspection. But given the GAO criticism of the design of the program and the fact that production practices can be easily be manipulated during government testing periods, FSIS’s claims are suspect,” said Hauter.
“This plan by USDA illustrates how much power the meat industry has inside this agency,” continued Hauter. “Handing over food safety inspections to companies to perform themselves is unacceptable. Food & Water Watch will oppose any attempts to do so in meat and poultry inspection or food safety programs run by the Food and Drug Administration. USDA must abandon this plan that puts industry interests above consumer protection.”
Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A farm bill in 2012? Don’t hold your breath

The “smoking ruins” of the Secret Farm Bill aren’t a very fun place to be. Your tour of the site includes proposed cuts to conservation programs, reductions in federal nutrition programs, and problematic expansions of crop insurance including the creation of a controversial new subsidy known as “shallow loss insurance” that would guarantee farmer income in the event of small drops in sky-high commodity prices. There’s also all that exhausting post-hype fallout raining down. Those motivated souls who paid attention to the “Secret Farm Bill” late last year are understandably reluctant to re-enter the area.
It’s time to ask: What are the chances that any of this will come to pass as scheduled this year? Certainly, legislators are hard at work. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), architect of the shallow loss program, is already out among agribusiness folks flogging the idea once again. Meanwhile, a confident Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said in a speech recently that she will have a bill ready for a vote in “the first half of this year.”
But here come the red flags. According to this report in the trade paper Hoosier Ag Today, a big-league insider, former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, said out loud what it appears many are saying to themselves about a Farm Bill this year: “Don’t hold your breath.” Said Connor, ‘with Congress not working well together, I feel it will be very difficult to get any work done on the Farm Bill’” before the election.
As President of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), Conner is in a good position to speak on the matter. Don’t be fooled by the name — the NCFC includes the folks who put the “Big” in Big Ag. Connor’s group represents the interests of giants like Ocean Spray, Land o’ Lakes, Sun Maid and the coop with perhaps the worst reputation of them all, the Dairy Farmers of America (the latter group controls 40% of fluid milk production in the U.S. and was once fined $12 million for price fixing).
Conner did leave open the possibility that a Farm Bill could pass before the election if there’s one ready by Memorial Day. Tellingly — and in a reality check for good food advocates — he believed that the biggest roadblock to passage was not the efforts of those challenging subsidies and cuts to conservation on grounds of sustainability, but rather the infighting among Big Ag interests. “Farm Bureau struggled… last week[at the group’s national conference], and their proposals are different than the corn and soybean groups and sharply different than what the cotton and rice folks want.”
Indeed, more red flags were raised recently by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) who fears a struggle on the House floor over how much to cut now that the attempt to ram a Farm Bill through the deficit super-committee failed. Apparently, finding a House majority to support a Farm Bill skinned of conservation, nutrition and organic programs but larded with new subsidies — as Sen. Stabenow admitted to a Michigan farm group is in her plan – won’t be easy. In an interview with a group of North Dakota reporters (mp3 audio), Rep. Lucas himself raised the possibility of an extension of the Farm Bill that would push the subsidy debate until after the election.
The picture is looking so bleak that good food advocates can be forgiven for rooting for delay. At least 2013 holds the prospect of a re-elected President Obama. Of course it also holds the prospect of a President Romney. And/or a Republican-controlled Senate — though also perhaps a Democratically-controlled House. Admittedly, uncertainty reigns on every front. But one thing seems sadly true: the odds that the new Farm Bill will represent anything but a rolling back of recent gains are increasingly slim.
A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a founder and Executive Director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom’s long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea.


The cleaner plate club: Making sustainable food realistic for parents 

Photo by Marco Bernardini.
About a month ago, I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about a study on working mothers and multi-tasking. Moms, the study said, are on overdrive during the hours they’re with kids. Many described the hours between 5 and 8 p.m. as the “arsenic hours.” The result? Their pre-frontal cortex was overloaded, their brains frazzled, and their decision-making impaired.
“Yup,” I thought to myself. “Exactly.”
With that study in mind, I’d like to propose a change to how we think about parents and food: that rather than seeing parents’ constant reaching for convenience food as some sort of moral failing, let’s view it instead as a call for help — a form of crying “uncle” amidst a staggering number of stressors in our not-very-family-friendly society.
Here’s the thing: I am a Monsanto-hatin’, farmers-market-shoppin’, card-carrying CSA member. I believe small is beautiful, that local is groovy, that chemical-free beats chemical-laden. I know that food is a powerful way to change the world: Eating is the one thing, after all, that we all do every day — the lucky among us do it many times a day — so enormous systems have risen up to support what we consume, and how we consume it.
I love the sustainable food world. But there’s this other world I occupy, as well: that of the harried, working mom. In some ways, the two worlds overlap. After all, having children is a pretty profound motivation for saving the earth from annihilation, for fresh air and clean water and food that’s not doused with cancer-causing chemical crap. But as a parent, I have found that the two worlds don’t overlap nearly as much as they should.
Children aren’t easy. They have homework and sports practice and doctors’ appointments and medicines and sometimes a doozy of a tantrum. They desperately want their parents to read them the next chapter of Junie B. Jones, or that book about the animals that lived before the dinosaurs. They lose shoes, have 3 a.m. nightmares, resist cleaning the guinea pig cage, and demand endless attention. They are changing on a daily basis, which means that the moment you get one routine down, you already need to find another. And if your child has special needs, as so many kids do now, your life rapidly devolves into a series of therapy appointments and physicians’ visits, insurance negotiations and lines at the pharmacy counter.
And amid all of this, children are hungry. All of the time, or at least every couple of hours.
Just keeping up with it all — keeping them alive, safe, fed, their homework done, their clothes clean and shoes matching while emphasizing please and thank you, and don’t you dare call your sister a dummy — feels like a Herculean effort on many days.
The food manufacturers know this. They know that I’m constantly running, eternally late, that the kids are hangry (hungry + angry), in the back seat, and that multitasking is multi-stressful. The food companies know that whether or not our family owns a TV (we don’t), my children will learn the brand names of junk food as readily as they’ll learn the alphabet. They know there are moments — many of them throughout the day, frankly — when when I feel like I will do anything to make the noise stop.
But let’s not hand our children over to the likes of Frito-Lay so quickly. I still believe that even the most stressed out parent can go beyond a Con-Agra-processed frozen Flip N’ Dip pancake with sausage links in a plastic tray. To make that happen, however, we’re going to need to start from where parents actually are, rather than where we believe they should be.
Last year, I coauthored a book with Beth Bader, The Cleaner Plate Club: Raising Healthy Eaters One Meal at a Time. We began with the premise that most parents are trying pretty hard on behalf of their kids — food-wise, and in every way. But that even when healthy calories are affordable to parents — less and less the case, these days — they need a little help. Consider:
  • Plenty of parents don’t actually know how to cook. Judge me if you will, but when I first started using whole foods, my intentions and abilities were wildly out of sync. My farmers market garlic turned brown and bitter in the pan, my lettuce wilted tragically in the refrigerator, my CSA green beans were stringy and inedible, my co-op beans chalky and half-cooked. Real food doesn’t come with directions, and for those of us who grew up eating mostly packaged foods with directions, it can be an uncomfortable transition.
  • It’s bigger than recipes. Never before in the history of humanity has it been so easy to find a recipe. There are millions of recipes online, and some 100 million homes get the food channel. And yet cooking remains largely a spectator sport. Even when armed with a great recipe, chances are good that parents are missing other things – knife skills, or a sense of timing and rhythm, or the confidence to say, “I can have that made before my kids have melted into the floor.” If we can help parents master techniques — not just recipes — we can make home cooking more intuitive. And more likely.
  • Good food isn’t about what happens in the kitchen. When my daughter was born, I realized I didn’t know anything about feeding her. How, for example, did her taste preferences form, and how should I respond when she pursed her tiny lips? Why was it that every time I stepped into a grocery store, I had to pry Barbie Froot Snacks from her fingers with a crowbar? How could I deal with her donut-wielding auntie? Which of the conflicting pieces of advice I received from fellow parents — Keep them from sugar! Withholding treats will only make them want it more!  — actually helps? And for heaven’s sake, was it really, truly necessary to play that goddamned airplane game at the dinner table?
The book's coauthors, Ali Benjamin and Beth Bader.
With the book, Beth and I want to help bridge the sustainable food world with the reality of exhausted parents who are trying to put food on the table. And, while the book itself isn’t likely to get every parent back into their kitchen for every meal, we see it as a piece of a bigger puzzle — one in which we really examine what family life looks like these days, recognize that contemporary parents are struggling, and that processed food is a symptom, not a sin. And one in which families are supported in all kinds of ways — through education, through family-friendly policy, through reshaping the environment so that the healthy choices are the easy ones, rather than the heroic ones.
In the meantime, we also know that some parents might need some hand-holding to take that next step into the world of good food. That’s why, over the next few days, a series of excerpts from The Cleaner Plate Club will be appearing here on Grist. If nothing else, we hope we can move together toward a society where parents’ cries of “uncle” are a little less frequent, and a little less desperate.
Ali is the co-author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Raising Healthy Eaters One Meal at a Time.