Snake in the Veggies

May 8, 2009

CLIFTON PARK — The sight of a severed snake’s head under his broccoli made Jack Pendleton lose interest in dessert.

Pendleton said he found the head, the size of the end of his thumb, while eating Sunday at the T.G.I. Friday’s in Clifton Park. The chain restaurant said it regrets the appetite-killing error. Pendleton said he has no plans to sue.

Pendleton said he ordered vegetables instead of fries with his chicken sandwich. When he started to eat his broccoli, he saw something gray on the plate he at first thought was a mushroom. “I start to turn it over. I see this gray-green patch,” he said.

Next he saw a V-shape that turned out to be the mouth of a snake. “I could see these black, rotted eye sockets on the top,” he said. The severed head also had bits of tendon and part of the spine attached, he said.

“I stopped eating. I told my girlfriend, ‘I think this is a head,'” he said.

Pendleton snapped a photo with his cellphone camera, then summoned the waiter. He covered the dish with his hand and described his find.

“He thought I was joking until I took my hand away,” Pendleton said. The waiter grabbed the plate and took it back to the kitchen, the diner said.

“The manager came over white as a sheet,” said Pendleton, 28, of Ballston Lake, a senior art director for a textbook company in Clifton Park. “He explained in five years he’d never run into anything like this.”

Amy Freshwater, a spokeswoman for the chain, said in an e-mailed statement the company is trying to determine what happened.

“We are taking this situation very seriously,” she said. “We immediately pulled the broccoli from this restaurant and began an extensive investigation. As a precautionary measure, we pulled broccoli from all restaurants that received product from this supplier. We have since isolated the specific lot date of the broccoli in question and have now reintroduced the product in all restaurants not included in the product hold.”

The supplier has been contacted to begin its own investigation, she said. “We are sending the object to an independent laboratory for testing,” Freshwater said in the statement. “We have very strict and thorough safety and sanitation procedures and regret that this situation occurred in one of our restaurants.”

The couple were given their meals without charge and offered the name of a regional manager, which Pendleton said he declined. He said he advised the manager he should check the kitchen to make sure the rest of the snake wasn’t in someone else’s meal. He also told the manager the head should have been found when the vegetables were harvested or, if it crawled into a box, before it made it into his meal.

Pendleton said he filed a complaint through the restaurant’s Web site but has no plans to sue. He tried to contact the Saratoga County Health Department, he said, but he could not find contact information on its Web site. His story also was posted on the Web site the Consumerist, under the headline “Snakes on a Plate.”

He and his girlfriend had planned to attend a carnival after their meals, he said, but as he pulled into the lot he decided he didn’t have the stomach to go on the rides.

Pig Castration

April 7, 2009


I’m doing some research on pig castration and came across this impressively honest entry from a pig farmer in Georgia:

This week, I castrated my first pig.  It was one of the two survivors from Dottie’s first litter, which Liz has been nursing along for the past four weeks, as she discussed in this post.  His name is Brutus.

Pig castration is a topic that Liz and I have discussed frequently, and we’re torn on the issue.  Some farmers have been successful in essentially developing lines that are free of boar taint.  However, most people believe that you must castrate males if you plan to sell them, and certainly this would be required for the retail/restaurant sector.  Our struggle has more to do with how do we best emulate nature and maintain a natural environment.   The two Berkshire pigs we processed earlier this year were castrated, and both were outstanding.  The two Ossabaw pigs we processed last month were not castrated.  They too were outstanding, but I could definitely detect some boar taint when cooking. Liz, who is normally more sensitive to such things, could detect nothing after eating two different cuts.

We debate the issue of whether we should or shouldn’t castrate and, if there is any boar taint, adjust our taste to suit what nature, and the animal, gives us. Hunters have long known that does can taste different than bucks, especially during the autumn rut.  Does that make it bad?   And our hunter forefathers certainly could not count on hunting an already castrated bison, caribou or moose.  Castration does not occur naturally.  On the other hand, we’re in the business of producing safe, humanely raised and DELICIOUS food for ourselves and our customers.  So, for now, we’re castrating most males, although we may raise some intact in a control group for comparison.

The process for cattle (steers) is actually much less invasive, if you use banders.  Somehow, that makes it seem better.  For pigs, there are no bands. They’re not built that way. You have to separate them from the sow (be careful), hold them by the hind legs and flip them over between your legs. They’ll squeal like crazy, but this has nothing to do with pain or discomfort.  They just get scared and squeal loudly. That’s why you want them AWAY from mom…a tough trick when you’re raising them naturally without barns or barricades.  Once you flip them over, you have to work quickly, moving the testicles into the scrotum and making a slit over the scrotum with a sharp razor.  Push the testicle through the slit and pull the blood vessel out until it snaps off.   Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it.

As with most things, it’s one thing to describe it academically. It’s another to do it. Castrating cows was easy. But castrating a little, squealing piglet just for your eating pleasure, well, it gives you pause.  I do have to say that the piglet exhibited no signs of pain or discomfort, and was running around quickly afterwards.  There was actually more squealing before I made the first incision.  So it’s not the pain or discomfort that I’m questioning.  In any event, I suppose we’ll continue to castrate so that we can produce a predictable meat quality, but perhaps we’ll all learn to just appreciate what nature gives us, as is.

Perchlorate Panic

April 5, 2009


Here’s this from the Environmental Working Group:  

We don’t think babies should be gulping down a rocket fuel ingredient – do you? But in some areas of your state, when you mix infant formula contaminated with perchlorate – a rocket fuel ingredient than can interfere with infant brain development – with water that’s also contaminated with perchlorate, you put rocket fuel on baby’s menu. Twice.

We have long said that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates the nation’s water quality, should set a permanent and stringent limit on perchlorate pollution in drinking water.

Although it’s not mentioned in the missive, perchlorate is more than “a rocket fuel” ingredient. It’s also a natural chemical found in Chilean nitrate, an approved organic fertilizer. Check out this from the Perchlorate Information Bureau:

Q: Is perchlorate also found naturally in fertilizer?

A: Yes, since the early 20th century Chilean nitrate fertilizer containing naturally-occurring perchlorate has been widely used in American agriculture. Current amounts of Chilean nitrate fertilizer products being shipped and used in the United States are substantial. According to the Foreign Trade Division, U.S. Census Bureau, the amounts of sodium nitrate imported from Chile into U.S. ports in 2001 was 88,150 metric tons. Specific to California, Chilean nitrate fertilizer containing perchlorate has been widely used since 1923 and between 1923-1998, the reported usage of sodium nitrate in California was 477,061 metric tons. Though the quantities used today are smaller than the amounts applied earlier in the century, the use of Chilean nitrate fertilizer in California remains substantial. Most recent data (2000 U.S. Department of Census) indicates more than 6,600 tons of Chilean nitrate fertilizer were imported to California that year.

I’m pleased with the EWG’s vigilance, but I hope the investigation extends to all areas of the agricultural economy, including the organic industry.

Pass the Veggies

April 4, 2009

Sue Coe, 1991


A common assumption among foodies and environmentalists is that it’s healthier for the planet to eat local. There are a number of ways to poke holes in this premise, but one recently grabbed my attention. A recent study in Environmental Science and Technology showed that it’s not where our food comes from that matters environmentally so much as what the food is in the first place. What we should seek is not a shift to local foods, the authors suggest, but a “dietary shift” away from meat to more fruits and vegetables.  No news flash here, but the numbers really place things in perspective. The energy demanded to put meat in our mouths (even the grass fed and free range options) far exceed that to bring plants to our plates.  Taking meat out of the average American diet one day a week would reduce a family’s carbon foot print the same as if that family bought all food locally. Cutting out meat altogether would be six times more effective than buying all food locally. The lesson here is hard to deny: saving the planet through our diet requires the sacrifice of eating much less meat.

Source:  Weber and Matthews, “Food Miles and Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science and Technology 42 (November 10, 2008), 3508-3513.

Spud History

March 17, 2009

I’ve been reading the comprehensive work of Luther Burbank, the early twentieth-century plant breeder, it’s a vivid reminder of how, as the subtitle of Plant Breeding puts it, How Plants are Trained to Work for Man. The potato, which used have seeds on the outside of it, is a classic example. Burbank writes, “Years of cultivation have removed from the potato the necessity of bearing seeds for the preservation of its race.” In other words, once humans took over the task of preservation, the tater became for us a ball of clay. “The potato plant,” Burbank goes on, “so certain now to reproduce itself through subdivision of its tuber, so reliant on man for its propagation, has little use for the seed upon which its ancestors mostly depended for perpetuation before man relieved it of its burden.” This simple observation should give us pause when we claim that we want our food today to be “all natural.”


March 12, 2009

Legislators in Congress have reintroduced LEAN–Labeling Education and Nutrition Act–and competing bills are currently negotiating their way through Capitol Hill. The proposed law would require restaurants (well, only those chains with twenty or more stores) to do what the Nutrition Labeling Education Act did twenty years ago for store bought foods: provide a basic nutritional breakdown. One might think such a measure would rile the restaurant industry, which relies heavily on the thoughtless consumption of fat and sodium-laden products. Every major restaurant association in the US, however, has offered its wholehearted endorsement of this proposed law. And this of course makes me wonder: will this law be good for consumers?

One interesting thing to note about the proposed LEAN legislation is that the federal standards would preclude more stringent local regulations. So if Austin, Texas decided that it was going to require that restaurants note foods made with high fructose corn syrup, wheat gluten, or milk powder, LEAN could prevent it from doing so. In this sense, the LEAN figures take our attention away from the hidden and possibly dangerous inputs into our food supply and direct it toward a set of caloric stats that–while they may be alarming–are ultimately protective of the underlying horrors of industrial food.  

Another thing to note is that the law would give liability protection to restaurants that follow the  law. My sense here is that franchises are concerned that some health organization might get a notion to equate triple cheeseburgers with cancer sticks, and organize a class action suit of heart disease victims against the fast food chains whose food clogged their arteries.  I suppose one way to look at this issue is to hope that consumers will experience some pause at the fact their favorite burger contains 110% of their daily fat intake. Then again, see the story below.

I think I just heard a pillar of culinary civilization come collapsing down. I want to laugh, but I cannot bring myself to do so.

 Heart Attack Grill bypasses nutrition guidelines, political correctness with ‘to-die-for’ operation

CHANDLER, Ariz. (Feb. 02, 2009 ) — The Heart Attack Grill here has proven that a restaurant with a gimmick can still succeed, especially if it knows how to throw its weight—and that of its customers—around.

The Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Ariz., gets its guests’ blood pressure racing with giant cheeseburgers and buxom servers dressed like nurses.


Since owner Jon Basso opened Heart Attack Grill in December 2005, it has achieved widespread publicity for its 8,000-calorie Quadruple Bypass Burger, a medical theme, and a buxom waitstaff dressed as nurses that has riled public outcry as surely as it has attracted patrons.

The 3,300-square-foot, 70-seat restaurant remains a popular novelty, even if the $7.38 half-pound Single Bypass Burger outsells the cardiac-arresting $13.25, 2-pound Quadruple Bypass version. Guests also clamor for the Flat-Liner Fries cooked in lard. Basso said his restaurant is “an affordable diversion” in tough economic times.

The website proclaims the Heart Attack Grill as “a taste worth dying for.”

Basso said he “used to be a nutritionist advising others on their dietary problems but found that to be a waste of time because no one listened. Now I give them better advice that they actually follow: Be happy.”

Offering such an indulgent menu, Basso said is “giving people what they really want…to stuff their faces and laugh about it.”

The menu also includes beer and liquor shots as well as cigarettes.

“We only sell no-filter cigarettes for the adults and bubble gum cigarettes for the kids,” Basso said.

Bill S., in a post in mid-January at , said: “The atmosphere is like nowhere else.… The wife’s feathers were a little ruffled the first five minutes or so after we took our seats at the counter. But halfway through her ice-cold beer, she and the waitress started swapping waitress-working-my-way-through-grad-school stories. By the second beer, they were bosom buddies swapping men-bashing stories. This waitress was sharp. I tipped her 40 percent at the insistence of my wife.”

This semianonymous poster remained impressed with Basso’s business model, however, calling it “an eatery where the entrepreneur turns ground beef, potatoes and lard into CASH, using pretty much only a heat source and a spatula!”

Basso also has received his share of negative publicity.

In late 2006, the Arizona attorney general threatened to close the restaurant because of its use of the term “nurses” in referring to the waitstaff. In addition, servers “write prescriptions” rather than take orders and customers are referred to as “patients.” Nursing advocates claimed that Basso was denigrating their profession.

Basso, who calls himself “Dr. Jon,” cited his right to freedom of speech in defending his concept. He was arrested, however, after attempting to open a live fire hose on a group of picketing nurses. That drew the national attention of conservative media commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo Rivera, whose coverage of the nurse-waitress dispute and the Heart Attack Grill has been broadly positive and tongue-in-cheek.

Basso reached a compromise with officials that called for him to put a disclaimer on his website that stated: “The use of the word ‘nurse’ above is only intended as a parody. None of the women pictured on our website actually have any medical training, nor do they attempt to provide any real medical services. It should be made clear that the Heart Attack Grill and all its employees do not offer any therapeutic treatments.”

Basso says much of the Heart Attack Grill’s success has been because of the entertainment value and the restaurant’s theatrics–part of the positioning that sets the grill apart from other burger spots.

For instance, after customers devour a quadruple burger, which also has four layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon, they have the option of having a waitress transport them to their car in a wheelchair.

Basso said that about 10 customers take the restaurant up on its wheelchair offer each day.



Organic Oversight

March 2, 2009

Simply because I have been critical of organic agriculture by no means implies that I am somehow “against” it. To the contrary, I embrace the core values of the movement. It’s just that I think it behooves us all to be aware of its weaknesses as well as its strengths in order for it for to achieve its greatest potential as an alternative form of agriculture. It is for this reason that I celebrate developments like the one below. This is movement in the right direction. 



USDA Toughens Oversight of Organic Fertilizer
Organic fertilizers must undergo testing

By Don Schrack , The Packer, February 25, 2009

On the heels of disciplinary action by the California Department of Food and Agriculture against one manufacturer and a federal probe into yet another company, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving to stiffen requirements for suppliers of organic fertilizers.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the National Organic Program, announced Feb. 20 that it will require third party reviewers to implement detailed audit and inspection protocols for all high nitrogen-content liquid organic fertilizers effective Oct. 1.

California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, Calif., which certifies the state’s organic growers, immediately applauded the federal agency’s action in a news release.

Reports surfaced in late December that the state ordered in January 2007 California Liquid Fertilizer, Gonzales, Calif., to halt distribution of its fertilizer products. On January 22, federal agents raided Port Organic Products Ltd., Buttonwillow, Calif. The following day, California Certified Organic Farmers directed the state’s certified organic grower-shippers to halt the use of the company’s products. More than a week before the Port Organic Products raid, the organization established its own liquid fertilizer approval policy. Since then, it has implemented a liquid fertilizer sampling initiative and members of the certifying group’s staff met with legislative leaders, testified at a Sacramento legislative hearing and traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue with National Organics Program officials.

“It’s been a busy two months, but we are very pleased with the outcome and the NOP decision to issue this new notice in a time-sensitive manner,” said Peggy Miars, executive director of the organization, in the news release.

The organization’s policies on organic liquid fertilizer may be found at

Food is a Four Letter Word

February 20, 2009

It was encouraging to see this blog appear from a Seattle reporter. It’s about Patty Martin, a crusader against toxic fertilizer, and the consequences she has endured as a result of taking on one of agribusiness’ dirtiest secrets. Routinely, as Martin explained to now Times reporter Duff Wilson, fertilizer companies dump toxic waste into their products. This waste comes from industry–coal, steel, film processing equipment, you name it–and the EPA deems it legitimate recycling material because it contains an element or mineral potentially beneficial to plant growth. What’s overlooked is the fact that it also contains high concentrations of dangerous heavy metals. In private correspondence with Martin, I have learned that rates of arsenic in US soil have risen dramatically since the 1980s, when this harmful and shameful practice began.    

Secret Ingredients
Small town never forgets or forgives former mayor’s crusade to protect food and farmers from toxic material.

If there were a poster child for the overused saying that “no good deeds go unpunished,” it would be Patty Martin.

Chuck Allen, a reporter for the Quincy Valley Post Register, wrote a story today about the Quincy City Council unanimously tdefeating the appointment of former mayor Martin as the city recreation director.

You’ve got to read Allen’s story to see why this is so absurd.

Regrading the vote, Martin told the reporter that, “I’m sorry I’m such a threat. It wasn’t about whether or not I could do the job. It’s about making sure a person who stood up to do the right thing and against something that was illegal doesn’t have a voice.”

It was a decade ago that Martin, then the mayor of Quincy, Washington, a 2-square-mile town about 160 miles east of Seattle, took on the agri-chemical industry. 
She was worried about the harm to consumers and farm workers that might come from the very common practice of using industrial waste as fertilizer on the potatoes, apples, wheat, corn and vegetables produced on the hundreds of thousand of irrigated areas in the Quincy Valley.

She and some concerned farmers found that there was illegal dumping of hazardous waste, which, because of bizarre EPA rules magically became “safe” when it was called fertilizer.

Many local farmers hated her. Major agricultural chemical companies expressed evil wishes about her well being. Her enemies included global corporations feared her crusade would somehow get the attention of the outside world and USDA and EPA might crack down on the dangerous practice.

Restraint and subtly were unheard of in the assaults on her and her farmers.

Duff Wilson, one of the nation’s best investigative reporters, worked for the Seattle Times when he learned of the mayor’s battle. For months he chased the story and did a fantastic job of documenting the toxic dangers and corporate and government shenanigans surrounding this public health atrocity. He was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize for public servive for his work.Picture

Wilson’s 2001 book, Fateful Harvest, gets to the heart of an environmental crime that continues today, albeit somewhat better hidden.

I covered hearings and public meetings where policy makers in EPA headquarters used Martin’s findings and Wilson’s work to try to halt the toxic waste shell game. However, the Bush White House, buckled to the agri-chemcial lobby and ordered the OMB to stifle the new regulations.

Today, Wilson, who is doing his reporting magic for the New York Times, told me that Martin “helped expose and reform” the dangerous practice.

“As a result of her calling this to public attention when she was mayor of Quincy eight years ago, many states reformed their fertilizer rules and set limits on these so-called toxic tag-alongs in fertilizer,” Wilson wrote me in an email.

“It’s sad for me to see that (she) continues to suffer retaliation in her hometown for trying to make fertilizer, farming and food safer.”

For more of the story on what Martin did and Wilson wrote, check out this link and ask how much of this is still happening.


Posted by Andrew Schneider at February 19, 2009 6:13 p.m.

Food, Romance, History

February 11, 2009

There’s something powerful about the romantic allure of a lost golden age of food. Evidently there was a time when Americans ate well, ate locally, ate fresh, ate communally, and ate with moderation.  The professional historian in me finds this hard to believe. But, among food writers at least, I appear to be all alone in my skepticism.

Mark Bittman, whom I respect as much as any food writer alive, falls prey to the myth of a culinary Eden in his latest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. The book is generally wonderful, and Bittman is to be given much credit for having the guts to come out and tell his many sybaritic followers that they must reduce meat consumption.  But still, he cannot help but call for a “focus away from the twentieth-century style of eating and back to something saner, more traditional, and less manufactured.” (emphasis added) Michael Pollan, whose work has also been a great inspiration to me (not that I agree with him all the time), practically wallows in the myth, describing Joel Salatin’s operation in these terms: “The farm and the family comprised a remarkably self contained world, in the way I imagined all American life once did.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

But here’s the deal: you don’t have to imagine anything.

The history of pre-industrial agriculture is laid bare, much of it in published sources like Experiment Station reports, almanacs, agriculture newspapers, diaries, account books, USDA brochures, and the like.  I can assure these stumpers for the long lost Golden Age that, should they take the time to consult the actual rather than the imagined past, the rose tinted lenses would quickly go clear.  

Here are a few things the romantics assuredly would not find: subsistence agriculture (no farm was self sufficient), a quest to eat local (everyone was after surplus production and foreign trade), healthy food (everyone cooked with lard), safe food (insecticide of choice was arsenic), and recycled manure (fertilizer often came from afar, often in the form of guano from Chile and Peru).  There’s your lost Golden Age.

I guess I wouldn’t bother bringing the matter up if all that was at stake was the accuracy of the historical record. Too often, though, people seduced by the romantics make dietary changes that conform to the myth’s psychic appeal. One area where I see this happening with potentially dangerous consequences is the quest to eat wild food rather than “industrial” food.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, eating free range pigs and chicken has been determined to be more dangerous than eating pigs raised conventionally.

And now this: A San Antonio company has recalled wild elk that it distributed because the elk was found to have Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)–a fatal brain and nervous system disease. Officials are alarmed by the finding because an outbreak of CWD can easily spread from elk to wild deer, which humans consume much more of than elk. The prospect of CWD transmitting to humans is theoretical, but given that another prion-mediated disease–bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)–does spread to humans, it is not out of the question. BSE is also known as Mad Cow Disease.  

Who knows what else lurks in the gut mucosa of the wild kingdom. But before we start becoming hunter-gatherers again, or even talk about its supposed health benefits, we’d be wise to recall that, as those historical documents reveal, one reason why we started domesticating meat in the first place was that it was easier to control contamination.


elk recall: