ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

California Recipe: Strawberries with a dose of Methyl Iodide

image from

Several years ago, looking into the differences between organic and conventional farming methods, I focused on strawberries as a case study.

At the time, conventional growers depended on methyl bromide, a potent neurotoxin that is injected into the soil to kill pests and diseases. The applicators wore full body suits with gas masks. The ground was covered in plastic to help keep the toxic gas contained. These fields looked like something out a futuristic moonscape, covered in plastic with workers in full hazmat suits. It was just one of the many toxic chemicals used in the conventional strawberry regime. I described all this in a chapter of my book Organic, Inc. Many people told me that after they read that chapter they never bought a conventional strawberry again.

Methyl bromide was always particularly controversial. Law suits were filed because of drift of this pesticide to nearby public schools on the central coast of California, the heart of the strawberry industry. The issue for the courts: Was the drifting chemical at sufficiently low levels to be safe?

You had the usual sides drawn, with growers who feared losing a cherished tool and farmworker and environmental advocates worried about toxicity. The result was that the state set what it considered a "safe level" of use, with widened buffer zones and requirements on when the chemical could be sprayed. But I found the evidence of a "safe level" less than convincing. Knowledge about the effects of chronic exposure to the chemical were not iron clad and a panel that explored the issue was split. 

Organic growers avoided nearly all chemicals and relied on crop rotations, beneficial insects and vacuums to suck up the bugs. (A  NY Times article explains organic methods here). Though their yield was lower, organic farmers were successful because of the premium paid for organic. 

Methyl bromide eventually was phased out under a UN treaty, because it contributed to a hole in the ozone layer. Growers got extensions for years to keep using the chemical but they knew the end was in sight and so turned to other chemicals. Methyl iodide was the most promising, though even conventional growers told me that they thought the chemical was more toxic than methyl bromide. Its saving grace -- no ozone depletion in the atmosphere.

This week, California, which has among the most rigorous pesticide regulations in the nation, approved methyl iodide for use. This came despite the unanimous findings of its own scientific panel against approval of the chemical. California Watch quoted a member of this panel.

"It is my personal opinion that this decision will result in serious harm to California citizens, and most especially to children," wrote panel member Theodore Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University.

But the state overruled the panel and found that, based on a risk assessment, the pesticide could be safely used. In doing this, they followed 47 states. Had they outlawed it, California growers no doubt would have argued they were no longer competitive.

Like methyl bromide, methyl iodide is most hazardous to those who use it in the fields and to those who come into contact with its drift. It does not linger, like other pesticides, on the fruit itself. I wonder, if the state or even the EPA, would have thought differently about the pesticide, if there was a consumer risk. Farm workers and farm communities tend to be abstract and distant -- we don't know who these people are. Often, because they are immigrants, they remain silent. We don't attend the schools abutting the fields. I just wonder, if we did, whether the outcome would have been different.

- Samuel Fromartz

Image source: UW Farm blog, "New Study Weighs in on Organic vs. Conventional Debate"

Notes From a Slaughterhouse: Proposed USDA Rules Could Crimp Local Meat

The following post was submitted by Joe Cloud, partner in T&E Meats, a small-scale locally focused slaughterhouse in Harrisonburg, Va. I wrote about T&E in the WaPo and invited Joe to post his thoughts on this blog. - SF

image from  By Joe Cloud

This is usually the slowest time of the year for butchering, but T&E Meats is booked months in advance, like the other small meat processing plants in Virginia. We’re working at almost full capacity to bring locally grown, pasture-raised, and humanely slaughtered quality meats to market. 

But, right now, our future is looking tenuous due to newly proposed regulations from the USDA.

Picture an hourglass and you’ll understand the local, sustainable meat crisis: there are plenty of willing consumers looking for humanely raised, quality local meats, and there are more and more farmers looking to “meat” that consumer demand (sorry – couldn’t help myself!), but the real bottle neck is processing capacity. Small, community-based meat processing plants have become an endangered species in America, done in by an ocean of super-cheap industrial meat and the challenges and costs of meeting one-size-fits-all regulations.

Although species go extinct on earth on a regular basis, every so often there is a major event that comes along and wipes out 40% or 50%. The same happens in the small business world. A few businesses fold every year due to retirement, poor management, and changes in the market, and that is quite normal. But then every so often a catastrophic event comes along that causes a wholesale wipeout.

In the small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium when Small and Very Small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Plan) system. It has been estimated that over 20%, perhaps more, of existing small plants went out of business when HACCP was first instituted. Now, proposed changes to HACCP threaten to take down many of the remaining local plants, making the availability of healthy, local meats a rare commodity.

This is ironic given the USDA's new emphasis on promoting local food production. The department's Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Program web site says it wants to "foster the viability and growth of small and mid-size farms and ranches, and we want to create new opportunities for farmers and ranchers by promoting locally produced foods." But the newly proposed regulations from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the inspection arm of the USDA, will reduce local opportunities for ranchers, never mind create new ones.

The intent of HACCP is to prevent contamination of meat by harmful pathogens. It does so by instituting well-recognized, established processes and controls set by the USDA itself. At T&E, we have had a HACCP Plan in place since 1999, and it works. We undergo extensive E.Coli testing every year, and have never had a positive sample.

But on March 19, the FSIS published a Draft Guidance on HACCP System Validation, outlining new rules which would institute much more intensive testing of all meats, whether or not a problem has been identified. These requirements will cost small plants tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, every year -- a financial burden appears great enough to force many to shutter.

Now, the reason these rules are being proposed is clear: millions of pounds of recalled hamburger, e. coli food poisoning incidents and distrust by consumers and foreign trading partners of U.S. produced meat. But these problems have arisen at plants that handle thousands of animals a day in extremely fast-moving production lines.

Small plants operate quite differently. At T&E, for example, we process around 20 animals a day. I know which farmer delivered each animal, often because that same farmer wants his butchered animal back so he can sell it. We're not mixing thousands of animals of unknown provenance into piles of hamburger meat and then sending it all around the country. 

Perhaps a large plant slaughtering 5,000 animals per day can afford its own lab and microbiology staff, and can pass the cost along to the consumer. And perhaps they should, given the recalls arising from these large-scale facilities. But most small plants can’t handle it.

The USDA needs to recognize that "One Size Fits All" inspection no longer works. The risks arising from mega agribusiness plants are far different from community-based plants and they should be regulated appropriately. This does not mean lowering the hurdles for small processors. Rather it means tailoring regulations to the scale and risks of an operation. That way we can provide what the consumer wants – safe AND local food, not just the shrink-wrapped anonymous meat in the supermarket.

The USDA is accepting comments on this matter until June 19th, 2010. The original deadline was April 19. You can learn more at the Association of American Meat Processors web site, or the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network.

Please submit a comment if you care about community-based meat processing and humanely produced meats. Your comments really do matter. Submit your comments to the email address or to the Docket Clerk, USDA, FSIS, Room 2-2127, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Beltsville, MD 20705.

Were photos of Mexican swine CAFO sensationalistic?

Ethicurean posted the pictures of the factory swine farm near where the first case of flu was reported then thought better of it. The blog posted a lengthy comment by a Vermont pig farmer who said the pictures circulating in Mexico and Europe were much ado about nothing -- this from someone who doesn't love CAFOs. So were they sensationalistic? Check them out and you decide but I tend to side with the farmer on this one. Hat tip to Ethicurean on posting the point-counterpoint.

More on the pig front, this piece from Wired is worth reading about the relationship if not the direct causality between CAFOs and flu. The quote by this researcher caught my eye:

“We haven’t found evidence of infected pigs,” said Ian Lipkin, aColumbia University epidemiologist and member of the World Health Organization’s surveillance network. “But even if we never find that smoking pig, we can surmise that this is probably where it came from.”

My only problem with that quote is that I often think of smoking pig in a much different and tastier light.
- Samuel Fromartz

Did the Swine Flu Come From a Factory Pig Farm?

While the net is buzzing with talk that the swine flu originated from a factory pig farm, the evidence thus far has been compelling but inconclusive. As Grist's Tom Philpott asks: "...could the swine-flu outbreak have originated literally in the shadows of Granjas Carroll’s hog confinements, and not have some tie to intensive hog farming? That’s a question that health authorities have to vigorously pursue."

Although the Mexican government is testing a million pig farm in Perote, in Veracruz State, so far it has not come up with a smoking gun. The first case of the flu, however, originated in the same area.

The Times reports:

Mexico’s first known swine flu case, which was later confirmed, was from Perote, according to Health Minister José Ángel Córdova. The case involved a 5-year-old boy who recovered. 

But a spokesman for the plant said the boy was not related to a plant worker, that none of its workers were sick and that its hogs were vaccinated against flu.

Smithfield Foods, which owns a half-interest in the Mexican facility, is also trying to distance itself from the flu. In the absence of evidence linking the flu to the operation, you wouldn't expect otherwise.

The WSJ reports (subscription-$)

"We are very comfortable that our pork is safe," Smithfield president and chief executive Larry Pope said in an interview. "This is not a swine issue. This is a human-to-human issue."

Mr. Pope said Mexican authorities have been on at least some Smithfield farms in Mexico for "several days" testing hog herds to confirm that there is "no incidence of this virus on our farms."

Another opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Henry Miller, a former flu researcher and scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, however, clearly implicates - as Philpott does - intensive animal production: 

Intensive animal husbandry procedures that place poultry and swine in close proximity to humans, combined with unsanitary conditions, poverty and grossly inadequate public-health infrastructure of all kinds -- all of which exist in Mexico, as well as much of Asia and Africa -- make it unlikely that a pandemic can be prevented or contained at the source.

Flu viruses can be directly transmitted (via droplets from sneezing or coughing) from pigs to people, and vice versa. These cross-species infections occur most commonly when people are in close proximity to large numbers of pigs, such as in barns, livestock exhibits at fairs, and slaughterhouses. And, of course, flu is transmissible from human to human, either directly or via contaminated surfaces. 

Pigs are uniquely susceptible to infection with flu viruses of mammalian and avian origin. This is of concern for a couple of reasons. First, pigs can serve as intermediaries in the transmission of flu viruses from birds to people. And when avian viruses infect pigs, they adapt and become more efficient at infecting mammals -- which makes them more easily transmitted and dangerous to humans.

Second, pigs can serve as hosts in which two (or more) influenza viruses infecting an animal simultaneously can undergo "genetic reassortment," a process in which pieces of viral RNA (the virus's genetic material, similar to DNA) are shuffled and exchanged, creating a new organism. The influenza viruses responsible for the world-wide 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics -- which killed about 70,000 and 34,000, respectively, in the U.S. -- were such viruses, containing genes from both human and avian viruses.

The Humane Society of the US also has a long, informative article about the relationship between factory animal production and flus, but again, does not have a smoking gun. (Linked by Ethicurean.) Which begs the question, do we need one? Or do we merely need to reduce the chances for this sort of outbreak by preventing conditions that breed them in the first place?

-Samuel Fromartz

The After-Shock of Contaminated Spinach

If you're interested in what happened after contaminated spinach sickened people across the country two years ago, hop over to this must read by my friend Barry Estabrook at Gourmet magazine.

I've covered aspects of the spinach crisis before, but Barry goes further and looks into the environmental aftershock that has occurred from farmers seeking to put a protective shield around their fields, with no evidence that they're addressing the root cause of the problem.

In the name of food safety, they have scraped 30-foot-wide borders ofbare dirt around the edges of fields, set up poison-bait stations for ground squirrels and mice, installed eight-foot-high fences to exclude deer and other wildlife, ripped vegetation from creeks and ditches, and drained ponds and lakes or treated them with chemicals that kill every living thing in them. Creeks flowing into the Salinas River run brown with silty water polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Piles of bleached, bonelike tree trunks and roots have replaced wooded groves.

“The science isn’t there to prove that deer are a factor, but farmers are being required to moonscape the habitat around their fields in the name of food safety,” says Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a 6,000-acre operation. “That’s amputating a person’s leg because they have a hangnail.”

I'd heard about these draconian measures from wildlife and small farm groups and knew it was ripe for a deeper look. Luckily, Barry did too. His article makes you think twice about what "food safety" really means, when it's regulated with a bulldozer.  Here's another observation:

Of the 12 recorded E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 have been traced to mechanically harvested greens bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks has yet to be determined. None have been linked to small farms selling to local markets.

After the jump are Barry's tips for avoiding pathogens:

Think Outside the Bag

· Cooking is the only way to kill bacteria in greens for certain, but there are some less drastic steps you can take to protect yourself.

· You’ve heard it a thousand times: Buy local; buy small. Packaged produce in the supermarket can be more than two weeks old. Produce from a CSA or farmers market packed in ordinary, unsealed plastic bags is most likely picked a day or two before you buy it.

· Buy whole heads or bunches of intact plants; precut edges provide a particularly easy point of entry for bacteria.

· Washing won’t get all the bugs out of contaminated bagged greens, but it can remove some surface bacteria.

· If you do buy prewashed, factory-bagged produce, look at the “use before” date. If it’s getting close, avoid the product. The longer it has been in the bag, the more opportunities for pathogens to grow.

· Never, ever eat uncooked greens from bags whose expiration date has passed, no matter how fresh they appear.

The Bad Taste of Tainted Meat

My promise to our customers has always been the same: to consistently provide the industry’s highest quality, best tasting beef with a commitment to environmentally sound practices, humane animal treatment and personal integrity. I stand behind this commitment the best way I know — by putting my name on everything we sell.”
- Robert E. Meyer, Founder and Owner, Meyer Natural Angus

So did Meyer Natural Angus live up to those words?

The company has been at the center of a hamburger recall at Whole Foods Markets. The beef in question was sold under the Coleman Natural brand -- a storied name that pioneered the natural meat business in this country but which has been sold at least twice and now is associated with tainted meat.

Coleman, to my knowledge, never had an e coli recall under its previous ownership. I interviewed Mel Coleman Jr. -- son of the founder -- and my impression was that food safety, as with no antibiotics and hormones, was at the forefront of its concerns.

So what happened? Meyer Natural Angus bought Coleman's beef business in April, leaving the Coleman company with its other meat and poultry operations. Just a few months earlier, Meyer Natural Angus had bought Laura's Lean Beef Co., another natural beef company in the East.

Meyer then switched slaughtering operations to the infamous Nebraska Beef plant that had received multiple citations from the Agriculture Department and which has had two recalls of ground beef this summer. (More background on the plant and what happened in a Washington Post article here.)

The Times pointed out that "most of the beef was sold at grocers other than Whole Foods and recalled this summer. An additional 1.2 million pounds were recalled on Friday by the processor after illnesses in several states were tentatively linked to ground beef sold at Whole Foods and other stores."

What's surprising is that Whole Foods didn't know Meyer Natural Angus had switched processing plants. This isn't a simple oversight, since Whole Foods has long audited the slaughterhouse facilities from which it is supplied. To switch plants without being informed would undermine its quality control system (and potentially its protocols on humane animal treatment). As the Times said:

Whole Foods acknowledged that a code stamped on beef packages arriving at its stores accurately reflected the change in processing plants. But the grocery chain said it had no procedures in place to watch the codes on arriving meat packages, and therefore failed to notice it was getting beef from a packing plant it had never approved.

Whole Foods will immediately institute new procedures to detect such a change in the future, the chain said.

The recall comes at a particularly bad time for the natural and organic retailer, which is facing a double-whammy of slower growth and a renewed FTC investigation into its purchase of Wild Oats. It also comes just as Whole Foods rolls out of its humane meat  ratings program -- on which it has been working for at least five years.

Past food safety incidents have shown that concentration increases the risk of tainted food -- in this case, in a processing plant with a known history of e. coli recalls and at a fast-growing meat company integrating multiple acquisitions. Indeed, it's difficult to see how Meyer Natural Angus could have hoped to stay true to its words while relying on Nebraska Beef for processing.

Quick Bites - Alaska Quits MSC?

(Updated) Alaska Quitting MSC? -  The state of Alaska wants another party to arrange sustainable fish certification for its salmon fisheries with the Marine Stewardship Council, Sustainable Food News reports ($-sub). The state Department of Fish and Game has been the client which arranged for this service -- a rare role for a government body. Now,it is hoping another group, such as a fisheries industry body, takes over the role. Alaska is the largest certified sustainable fishery in US waters, if not the world. Fisheries pay fees to get certified by the MSC, which independently reviews fish populations, catches, management and fishing methods. But the state feels it has a higher standard than even MSC. More on this item over at

You Can Go Home Again - Vancouver celebrated the first return of a sockeye salmon to a lake in 100 years. "Seeing that first fish, it almost made us cry," George Chaffee, a councillor with the Kwikwetlem band, said.

Holy Jalapeno! - Turns out tomatoes weren't the culprit in the recent outbreak of salmonella. Instead the FDA has turned its attentions to jalapeno peppers. Tomato growers predictably were angry. "They will never say that tomatoes were not implicated, because to do so would [imply] they caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damages for nothing," Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, told the WSJ. The salmonella outbreak sickened 1,200 people across 42 states.

unHappy Meals - The WSJ also has an item on Los Angeles city council member's attempt to ban junk food in an area of the city with high obesity rates. The 32-square-mile chunk of the city is home to some 400 fast-food restaurants, where 30% of adults are obese, compared with about 21% in the rest of the city.

Water Bottle Watch: Canada Scrapping BPA

Canada is expected this week to become the first country to ban a potentially toxic chemical used in packaging, known as bisphenol A (BPA), while a US government report for the first time linked the substance with cancer. BPA is found in the liners of cans, in hard plastic containers and infant formula packaging. The Toronto Globe and Mail Reports:

Major retailers across the country yesterday began clearing theirshelves of products made with a compound that Health Canada is expected to declare a potentially dangerous chemical as early as today.

Canada's imminent action contrasts with the US government, which until now seen little risk from the substance. But a report by the National Toxicology Program acknowledged for the first time that the chemical, detected in the urine of 93 percent of the population over 6 years of age, may be linked with cancer and other diseases. Advocacy groups such as EWG have been warning about the substance, but companies such as Nalgene - the water bottle maker - insist it is safe. The Globe writes:

Governments are reviewing the safety of BPA because its molecular shape is similar to estrogen, which allows it to mimic the female hormone in living things. It is also biologically active at extremely low concentrations, just like natural hormones, leading to concerns that the tiny amounts leaching from food and beverage containers could be a health threat.

Dozens of studies by independent researchers have linked low exposure to BPA in animal and test-tube experiments to illnesses, such as cancer, that are thought to have an origin in hormone imbalances, although industry-funded studies haven't been able to find the same effects.

WaPo has a piece on how to avoid exposure to BPA, noting "recycling code #7 may mean the product contains BPA." And this family health blog offers a cheat sheet on BPA-free bottles and sippy cups.

Macabre Medical Mystery at Minnesota Meat Plant

The Times had a truly weird medical story today on a disease affecting workers at a Minnesota pork plant, apparently caused by a high-pressure air hose blasting the brains out of pig skulls. No, it's not mad cow. But you wouldn't want this neurological illness. The stuff you find out when you begin to look at the food system is beyond bizarre. (Thanks Clare for the "heads up" - so to speak).