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:

This beautiful photograph is of broomstraw grass. I post it merely to remind myself that this was one among hundreds of native grasses that were almost totally wiped out by grass fed cattle brought from Europe to North America in the early 17th century.

Today, it is common to tout Broomstraw (Andropogon) growing on top of building in gutter by Martin LaBar.the many benefits of eating beef reared on grass–one of the most laudable is that this is what cattle are supposed to eat. It’s more natural, or so we’re told. But natural in what sense?

Overlooked in the rush to buy grass-fed is a longer view of animal domestication.  Cattle are not “natural.” In fact they are actually engineered through human breeding to eat diets conducive to various agricultural systems. Puritan farmers grazed cattle because they had a lot of pasture land and very little labor.  It was cheaper and more convenient for them to do so. When they could confine the cattle and feed them a diet partially based on corn, they did so–as early as 1650. Because imported cows from England had been eating corn for over a century, this was not a problem.

The cattle that wiped out broomstraw did not wipe it out because they consumed it. To the contrary, they found it hard to digest. They had not been bred to digest it. They had been conditioned to eat corn and English grass. Rather than undertake the long and arduous process of breeding cattle that could eat native grass (recall, there were no native cattle), European settlers instead chose to import European grasses (clover, timothy) that quickly choked out the native species but fed their Anglican beasts.

How does this historical ecological relationship apply to the here and now? Then as now, producing beef inherently  requires an aggressive manipulation of the landscape and the animals that inhabit it. This claim is just as valid for grass fed as for conventionally produced beef. The cattle we breed–by virtue of the process of breeding–will never eat what is “natural,” if for no other reason than the fact that humans determine what is natural for cows. That’s what domestication is all about.  We are inevitably  supporting one of the more active human manipulations of the landscape when we eat beef.

The Dangers of Soy

February 6, 2009

See full size image

As the industrial food supply swells into a seemingly unruly beast, a number of food products have come under sustained fire: high fructose corn syrup, milk powder, wheat gluten, to name a few.  These raw materials have been joined by agro-industrial meat and all manner of processed foods as emblematic symptoms of a global diet intent on killing us. For me, one of the more exciting aspects of scrutinizing this unsavory world is that every now an then the unexpected study or random tip-off from a concened consumer manages to, yet again, challenge one of my more sacred assumptions, taking me far beyond the obvious dangers into new and unknown territory. For some reason, I enjoy this.

This time the tip came from a housewife in Illinois who’d seen an article I wrote last year on heavy metals in fertilizer. The product she was placing under the microscope of castigation was the very product that, as a relatively new and hardly militant vegetarian, I’ve come to rely on: soy.  The housewife will go unnanmed (for now), but the unpublished paper she generously passed on is supported by everyone from prestigious scientists at Johns Hopkins to the diabetics whom she has, through her obsessive campaign against soy, helped heal.  Soy! In one form or another, it’s in 60 percent of everything sold in the grocery store, and this woman is arguing it’s at the basis of our health problems. 

I’m not ready to go that far. A house wife from Illinois, after all, is hardly a “legitimate” authority on the dangers of soy. But it did not take more than a few hours with “the google” to find enough valid medical support for the gist of her claim. In brief, and to simplify, soy contains extremely high levels of phytic acid (phytates). These acids bind to important minerals that the body needs and makes them unavailable. As a result, the body experiences mineral deficiencies with decreasing levels of iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium, among others. 

The loss of zinc is of special concern. Zinc is essential to the body’s detoxification system. When we hear “detox” we might think “hippie.” But the detox system is a system of the body like the circulatory system or the respiratory system. One role zinc plays in it–perhaps the most essential–is to power a protein called metallothionein. This protein, which lines the intestinal tract, regulates physiological metals in order to prevent metal toxicity. Take away matallothionein and concentrations of copper, lead, nickel, and aluminum rise to dangerous levels. 

Copper is what especially concerns many scientists and nutritionists. Chronic copper accumulation–something that medical experts are only beginning to learn about– can have a deleterious impact on nearly every aspect of a body’s proper functioning.  It’s been clinically linked to anxiety and stress, migraine headaches, epilepsy, irritable bowel syndrome, a host of kidney problems, and arthritis.

The housewife who turned me on to these studies became interested in copper accumulation when her dogs started to become sick, and many of them died, after she put them on a diet rich in soy-fed beef. When she altered their diet to eliminate soy, zinc levels rose, and the dogs recovered almost immediately. She now consults with a dog food company to produce healthy food for dogs. Plus, many diabetics seek her advice on dietary changes to improve their conditions. Many have been able to go off their medications as a direct result. 

I’m just onto this story, so stay tuned. But for now, I’m staying away from the tofu.

This from Scientific American:


President Obama says he’s ordering a “complete review” of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after state and federal inspectors failed to detect and crack down on  a Georgia plant that knowingly sent out tainted peanut butter products that havesickened 529 people in 43 states and may have killed eight.

The oversight is only the most recent of “instances over the last several years” in which “the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch,” Obama told theToday Show this morning. “At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”

Obama hopes to select his FDA commissioner “in the next few days,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a press briefing Friday. Without elaborating, Gibbs added that the president would implement “a stricter regulatory structure” that would avoid additional disease outbreaks.

The FDA in the past several years has drawn heat for outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that took months for the agency to trace. In addition to the current outbreak of salmonella from peanut butter made by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which began in September, salmonella-tainted jalapeno peppers sickened 1,400 people in the U.S. and Canada between last April and July. A 2006 E. coli outbreak that killed three people was ultimately traced back to contaminated spinach.

In addition, hundreds of dogs and cats died and thousands more became ill in 2007 after they ate pet food laced with the chemical melamine, which had been deliberately put in the chow to artificially inflate its alleged protein content. More recently, the chemical was used in China to bulk up infant formula; six babies there died and nearly 300,000 more became sick from the contaminated milk. Tiny amounts of melamine were recently discovered in American-sold formula, but the FDA said that it wasn’t enough to pose a threat.

The FDA says it’s working with the Justice Department on a criminal investigation of PCA, and Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation also is studying whether the company broke state laws after it shipped products that it knew were contaminated, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. PCA’s president, Stewart Parnell, is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Peanut Standards Board, which sets “quality and handling standards” for peanuts, the newspaper notes.

“We at Peanut Corporation of America express our deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened in the salmonella outbreak and their families,” the company said in a statement posted on its Web site. “We share the public’s concern about the potential connection to Peanut Corporation of America’s products.”

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, praised Obama for calling for a probe of the embattled FDA and urged Congress to pass legislation requiring the feds to inspect factories such as PCA annually. It notes that it missed problems at the contaminated PCA plant in Blakely, Ga., because it only inspects food-production plants on average once every 10 years.

“The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short,” Jean Halloran, CU’s director of food policy initiatives, said in a statement. “The FDA has been so severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is so poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients, that it can no longer keep food safe. The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that processing plants are inspected every year.” 

She said that a recent CU poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the FDA to inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak, both Michigan Democrats, and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., last week introduced legislation (and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is expected to offer a measure this week) calling for the FDA to beef up inspections and oversight of food plants. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is set to offer a version of the bill in the Senate. 

The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised consumers not to eat products such as crackers, cookies or candy containing peanut butter or paste unless they first confirm with manufacturers that the ingredients didn’t come from PCA. Here’s the FDA’s full list of recalled peanut butter products.