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Factory Farms

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Four important food and farm stories you may have missed

1.piggy FDA and antibiotics: If you’re confused, it’s not your fault

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the courts have recently told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it has to regulate several commonly used antibiotics if they can’t be proven safe. The ruling was the result of a long-running lawsuit by a group of environmental and public health advocates lead by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and gave many in the food movement a reason to feel cautiously optimistic.

Meanwhile, the FDA has been moving at a glacial pace on its expressed intention to put a voluntary control on antibiotics in place. And this week it finally put the rubber to the road, in the form of a major press effort and the release of a new set of guidelines for cooperating companies. (The two events are supposedly unrelated, but it’s not hard to see how FDA may want to distract attention away from a court order that requires it to play the bad cop, if it can play up and formalize its role as good cop.)

The agency’s press release is even called "FDA takes steps to protect public health," and in it the agency promises to “promote the judicious use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals” [emphasis mine]. FDA also comes right out and acknowledges that “antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections.” In other words, the agency is talking. Whether it'll do any walking to go along with it is yet to be seen.

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Farm Bill 2012: ‘It’s a mess, but it’s our mess’

Daniel Imhoff began writing about the farm bill before today’s so-called Good Food Movement took hold. In 2007, in an effort to make accessible the giant piece of legislation that touches on everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, Imhoff wrote Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Then last year (after editing the influential CAFO Reader), Imhoff revised the book just in time for Congress to craft the 2012 Farm Bill, which narrowly escaped getting passed behind closed doors last fall but is nonetheless shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.

Q. What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?

A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.

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Antibiotics in your meat? The ethanol industry might be partly to blame

Photo by USDA.

Last year, while touring a fairly small, pasture-based farmstead cheese company, I found myself in a giant feed barn with a group of curious foodies. It was one of the last stops before the cheese tasting, so no one wanted to linger. But I have a distinct memory of what it was like to stand there staring at the giant piles of grains, thinking: “The cows eat all this, on top of the grass?”

Like many dairies and livestock operations, the farm owners had been able to lower their feed costs by using the byproducts of industrial food and fuel production. Towering around us that day, we were told, were giant piles of canola pellets, cotton seeds, and soy hulls (from oil production), and dried distillers grains (from ethanol production).

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Industrial poultry about to get even crappier — literally

A still from a video about USDA poultry plant inspection (which might soon be a thing of the past). Click to watch.

One of the most quoted lines from Eric Schlosser’s now famous book, Fast Food Nation, comes from the chapter about pathogens in ground beef. Without mincing words, he wrote: “There is shit in the meat.”

Well, that phrase may be relevant again if the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) moves forward with plans to privatize part of its meat and poultry inspection program.

Under the current rules, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for inspecting all chicken and turkey carcasses for things like bruises, bile, and yes, shit, before they’re sent for further processing. The proposed HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) would remove those USDA inspectors from the lines, leaving poultry plant employees, who already stand in a fast-moving, I-Love-Lucy-style line, to flag unsanitary or otherwise flawed birds.

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Pig ears and donkey butts: 5 foods that could save the world

Photo by Laura Billings.

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, eats some pretty strange dishes. Now, he wants you to do the same in the name of saving the world:

You can change the world one plate at a time. If we can take better advantage of the global pantry and eat from a wider variety of choices we would do more to combat food poverty, our damaged food production system, obesity and other systemic health and wellness issues than any one single act I can imagine. Here are some suggestions, but be creative. It works.

Here are the five foods he suggests we all start stuffing our faces with:

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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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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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‘Ag-gag’ rules choke off supply of livestock snuff films

Rather than deal with the inhumane, superbug-spawning conditions in factory farms, the Iowa state legislature would prefer to stifle one of activists' primary weapons of dissent, reports NPR.

Just this week, the Iowa legislature passed a bill that would make it a crime to use false pretenses to gain access to a livestock operation to engage in activities not authorized by the owner.

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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.