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Tom Laskawy's Posts

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‘Pink slime’ is the tip of the iceberg: Look what else is in industrial meat

Photo by Cobalt123.

You didn’t think I’d miss my chance to weigh in on the latest round of pink slime discussions, did you? Rather than recapitulate the horror that is your favorite form of “lean finely textured beef,” I will instead point you to my favorite statement in defense of pink slime. It was given by American Meat Institute Director of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren to NPR:

"This is not the same ammonia you'd use in cleaning supplies," explains Betsy Booren of the AMI Foundation. "It's a gas, it's a different compound, and it's a well-established processing intervention that has a long history of success."

First off, the AMI Foundation? AMI’s own website identifies the group as “a national trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the U.S. and their suppliers throughout America.” Foundation my arse.

And granted, I’m no chemist -- but my understanding is that the form of ammonia used in cleaning products is typically ammonium hydroxide. And the form used in pink slime is ... ammonium hydroxide! The only difference is the household cleaner is a liquid and pink slime is treated with a gas.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Home on the range: Can grass-based ranching be scaled up sustainably?

Photo by Noskule.

You’ve probably never heard of Frank Stronach. Sure, he’s a Canadian billionaire -- yes, they have them there! -- and an auto-parts cum horseracing magnate. But rather than hanging up his wrench spurs retiring, he’s decided to try his hand at turning grass-fed beef back into a mass-market product.

According to this report in Macleans (Canada’s equivalent of TIME magazine), Stronach is buying up land outside of Ocala, Fla., at a furious pace -- 70,000 acres and counting. His plan: to create a massive ranch with “30,000 cattle, a 61,000-sq.-foot abattoir that would slaughter up to 300 cows a day, and a biomass power plant that would extract methane from manure.” It’s a grand vision:

Read more: Food

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More evidence that grocery stores alone won’t solve the obesity crisis

Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Last week, I wrote a post debunking the myth that the presence of Walmart and big box stores like it makes communities healthier. As I observed, this is a problem since working with such large corporations is key to the Obama administration’s plan to address the obesity epidemic. And now a new study has come along that makes the whole concept of using supermarkets of any size to combat food deserts and improve the diets of low-income Americans appear doomed to fail.

Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and performed by RAND researchers, the study looked at self-reported and parent-reported eating habits and body mass index (BMI) among kids in California and then compared it to the proximity of supermarkets, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores. Distressingly, it found “no robust relationship between food environment and consumption.”

Read more: Food

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Undead laws: ‘Ag-gag bills’ are back to keep factory farm abuse a secret

The progressive left likes to use the term “zombie lies” to refer to untruths that are repeatedly debunked and yet remain endlessly parroted by the media. The phrase may or may not have been coined by blogger Duncan Black (aka atrios), who quipped, “No matter how hard we try to kill them, they keep coming back to eat our brains.”

Perhaps now we should start another meme: zombie bills. Or legislation that opponents believe to be dead but rises up from the grave. Exhibit A: ag-gag laws.

We covered last year’s attempts by Big Ag to pass several of these bills, which are designed to end undercover documentation of abuse on factory farms. And, as of last summer, it looked like the bills in Iowa, Florida, Minnesota, and New York were dead.

But, as Grist List noted last week, Iowa’s bill was reconstituted, and it zipped through the legislature and onto the governor’s desk -- keeping opponents from rallying the troops. Meanwhile in Florida, last year’s ag-gag bill that would make it illegal to photograph farms without permission has been reintroduced to the state legislature, with similar legislation pending in several other states, including Illinois and New York.

Read more: Factory Farms

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Walmart is no savior: More small businesses = healthier people

One of the new, smaller "neighborhood markets" Walmart has been opening in urban areas.

Reforming our food system is a Herculean task; one that might intimidate Hercules himself. Willie Nelson and Anna Lappe summed up the challenge recently on the Huffington Post:

Of the 40,000 food items in a typical U.S. grocery store, more than half are now brought to us by just 10 corporations. Today, three companies process more than 70 percent of all U.S. beef, Tyson, Cargill and JBS. More than 90 percent of soybean seeds and 80 percent of corn seeds used in the United States are sold by just one company: Monsanto. Four companies are responsible for up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. And one in four food dollars is spent at Walmart.

Read more: Food

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Finally, a smoking gun connecting livestock antibiotics and superbugs

How does the livestock industry talk about antibiotics? Well, it depends on who's doing the talking, but they all say some version of the same thing. Take the National Cattlemen's Beef Association; they say there is "no conclusive scientific evidence indicating the judicious use of antibiotics in cattle herds leads to antimicrobial resistance in humans [MRSA]."

Or Ron Phillips of the Animal Health Institute (a drug-industry front group). In an interview on Grist last year, he said that before you can draw any conclusions:

... You have to look at specific bug/drug combinations and figure out what are the potential pathways for antibiotic-resistant material to transfer from animals to humans. Studies have been done, and have come to the conclusion that there is a vanishingly small level of risk.

The message is clear. Until scientists trace a particular bug from animals to humans and show precisely how it achieved resistance and moved from farm to consumer, there's no smoking gun. Thus industry leaders' heads can remain firmly buried in the sand.

Ladies and gentlemen, we now have a smoking gun! NPR reported on it first; here's their take:

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Ad nauseam: Did Chipotle’s Grammy ad scare Big Ag?

A screenshot from the now-famous Chipotle ad (click to watch).

During the broadcast of this year’s Grammys, Chipotle “stole the show” when it ran this animated ad to illustrate the company’s support for less-intensive sustainable livestock agriculture.

The animation itself has been online since last August, but thanks to Chipotle, it was seen by millions of people that night. It also got the attention of Big Ag, which expects to be the one doing all the expensive ad buys when it comes to agriculture.

Case in point: The Chipotle ad inspired Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst (author of the provocative anti-foodie screed “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals”) to pen this New York Times op-ed. The article is nothing less than a full-throated defense of factory farming that even includes a strong endorsement of one of the worst factory farm practices -- pig gestation crates.

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Corn, corn everywhere — and not a drop to eat

This spring, commodity farmers will plant more corn, soy, and wheat than they have since World War II.

If you want to understand the state of American commodity agriculture at the moment, you need only read this recent Bloomberg article. It begins:

U.S. farmers will plant the most acres in a generation this year, led by the biggest corn crop since World War II, taking advantage of the highest agricultural prices in at least four decades.

They will sow corn, soybeans and wheat on 226.9 million acres, the most since 1984, a Bloomberg survey of 36 farmers, bankers and analysts showed. The 2.5 percent gain means an expansion the size of New Jersey, as growers target fields left fallow last year and land freed up from conservation programs.

According to the article, American farms brought in a net income of over $100 billion last year. As farmer Todd Wachtel told Bloomberg, “There is unlikely to be any ground that won’t be planted this year ... Farmers know that they have to plant more when prices are high because they may not last.”

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Sh*t happens: Mysterious ‘manure foam’ causes pig farms to explode

A screen shot from an ABC news report about the probem (click to watch the video).

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Well, according to this report from the Minnesota Daily, nature also abhors factory farms. Large midwestern hog farms have for the last few years been battling a mysterious foam that is forming on top of their barns. In the worst case scenarios, the foam blocks ventilation ducts and the barns explode -- yes, explode -- killing the thousands of hogs inside. The report reads:

The foam traps gases like methane and when a spark ignites it causes an explosion. About a half dozen barns in the Midwest have exploded since the foam was discovered in 2009.

In mid-September 2011, a barn in Iowa was added to the growing number of barns taken down by the foam. In the explosion, 1,500 pigs were lost, and one worker was injured.

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Sugar low: Do sweeteners need to be regulated?

Are we talking about only serving sugar in bars? Or needing a “sugar license”? (Photo by jacsonquerubin.)

A recent op-ed published in the journal Nature, by several scientists who are experts in their field, has the pundits all aflutter. But the subject is somewhat surprising: Sweeteners. (Nutrition professor Marion Nestle has posted the full PDF of the article here.)

Robert Lustig (a minor YouTube celebrity since his 2009 lecture on fructose), Laura Schmidt, and Claire Brindis argue that added sweeteners of all kinds -- including sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and all their oddly named ilk (that means you, maltodextrin!) -- have as many negative health effects as alcohol and should be regulated.

Responses have come from all over the food politics spectrum -- from Raj Patel in The Atlantic, who took to dreaming of a world where large corporations aren’t in charge of feeding us, to Jennifer LaRue Huget on the Washington Post’s Checkup blog, who just wants everyone to get off her lawn leave such issues to personal responsibility.

Read more: Food