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

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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.

From Melamine to Mercury

January 29, 2009

After two years of hearing about melamine in pet food and baby formula, watchful consumers have learned that the industrial inputs into our food supply are depressingly unregulated. With so much of the world’s food dependent on bulk amounts of gluten and milk powder, the opportunity for fraud (as in spiking milk powder with melamine to enhance the appearance of protein) or just cutting economic corners (and thus compromising safety) are endless. It is into this latter category that the recent bad news about mercury falls.

Here is the essence of what scientists writing in the January 26 issue of Environmental Health have reported: high fructose corn syrup produced with mercury grade caustic soda led to mercury contamination in over 50 percent of the common commercial foods they tested. Mercury is toxic. It should never be in our food. The scientists wrote, 

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

Before we rush to judgment and condemn Quaker Oats, however, do keep in mind that the HFCS was never labeled “mercury grade.” There was no way for Manwich or Hunt’s or Hershey’s to know that HFCS manufactures used caustic soda made in chlorine plants equipped with mercury cells, which is evidently the source of the contamination.  Critics of our globalized and industrialized food system are rightly calling for a wider embrace of alternative food systems. But that is not enough.  

Our food systems are vast. Supply chains are seemingly eternal. And they are not going away–no matter how loudly we beat the drum for small-scale agriculture, they are not going away. The vast majority of consumers will always —always–buy industrialized food. Fortunately, mercury contamination, like melamine contamination, is not necessarily a reflection of a super-sized food system. It is, though, necessarily a sign of a super-sized political failure.  Recall how the FDA handled the melamine scandal [] and you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s dragging it bureaucratic feet on the mercury news. Again, the scientists: 

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.

While I generally support the move toward alternative systems, I am fearful of at least two things. One, I fear that our unfounded assumption that smaller is safer will prevent us from subjecting alternative agriculture to stringent safety and environmental regulations.  Two, and more importantly, I fear that the many benefits of alternative agriculture will obscure the fact that conventional food production can, with political reform, be reliably safe. (Look at what has happened to cars since Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965). After all, several years ago, a young and ambitious Senator introduced legislation to force chlorine plants to upgrade their old mercury cells.  The legislation went nowhere, but the Senator did. He’s now our President.

Link to the study:

The standard line has always been that free range pigs are healthier pigs than conventionally raised pigs. They’re freer, happier, and thus, with stress levels reduced, healthier. See this piece, for example, published by the Soil Association:  It all seems reasonable enough, if conspicuously silent on the ultimate fate of these frolicking beasts. 

A wealth of recent studies, however, have amassed impressive, if disturbing, empirical evidence that free range pigs are in fact much more likely to carry salmonella and several other potentially deadly bacteria, including trichenella (which has been all but eliminated from conventional pork). The reasons for the greater rates of disease in outdoor pigs is not altogether clear. Interaction with wildlife (rats, birds, feral cats) might be a factor, as might the wide dispersal of manure. The fact that scientists are unsure of the reasons behind this phenomenon means more studies will surely be forthcoming. 

I highlight these studies below not to suggest that we should all run out and eat conventionally raised pork. To the contrary, I merely want to reiterate that when it comes to eating meat it is very difficult to settle on options that are both healthy and environmentally beneficial. Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if we gave the stuff up.

These studies are rather dense, but I suggest plowing through them.  The message could not be more clear: free range pigs are more dangerous to eat.  Why? Well, that’s the big question in this emerging debate.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract of one of the earlier studies, published in 2004 in a Danish academic journal:

“[S]eroprevalence data have indicated a higher incidence of Salmonella in outdoor than in indoor production systems. This higher incidence may be due to an increased exposure of the animals to the surrounding environment, including contact with wildlife. In a study on the transmission of Salmonella to outdoor pigs an unexpected high diversity of Salmonella serotypes that are not normally isolated from pigs . . .was detected in faecal and in soil and water samples. . . The unidentified source of the Salmonella serotypes isolated implies inadequate control possibilities and may therefore pose a problem to outdoor pig production in terms of food safety.”

Last month California Liquid Fertilizer, producer of about a third of California’s “organic” fertilizer, was busted for adding synthetic ammonium sulfate to its product–a chemical explicitly not allowed in organic agriculture. It had been adding the substance for seven years. 

Now there is this piece from the Sac Bee, documenting yet another–even broader–violation of organic standards by a major organic fertilizer producer. It’s an unfortunate hint that organic agriculture’s lack of regulation, as well as its eager push to scale up, may be sowing the seeds of a troubled future. 

By Don Schrack

(Jan. 26, 9:30 a.m.) Another California-based organic liquid fertilizer supplier may be in trouble with federal and state agriculture officials. 

Federal agents searched Port Organic Products Ltd., Buttonwillow, Calif., on Jan. 22, according to an article by the Sacramento Bee. Industry sources, the Bee reported, estimate the company produced up to half of the liquid fertilizer used on the state’s organic farms in recent years.

The GreenPeople Web site and others indicate family owned Port Organic Products is a leading producer of fish-based liquid organic fertilizers. The only company product certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute, Eugene, Ore., according to the institute’s Web site, is Marizyme 4-2-2 Fishilizer. It is identified as a fertilizer containing a variety of ingredients including ground fish. 

The source of the nitrogen in Marizyme 4-2-2 may be the reason for the federal action. TheBee reported it had obtained documents indicating California Department of Food and Agriculture officials suspected in fall 2007 that Port Organic was using synthetic nitrogen. Kern County records reveal the company has in the past three years purchased substantial amounts of aqua ammonia, a source of synthetic nitrogen.

The day after the search at Port Organics, California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, an organic certifier, directed organic growers to stop using the company’s products. 

The investigation at Port Organics is the second one reported in recent weeks. In late December, the Bee reported that the agriculture department two years ago ordered California Liquid Fertilizer, Gonzales, to halt distribution of its products after a more than a yearlong investigation. 

When details of the California Liquid Fertilizer order were reported, Miguel Guerrero, marketing director of the Organics Materials Review Institute, told The Packer that the institute was actively pursuing actions against other California firms. 

According to its Web site, California Certified Organic Farmers is working directly with manufacturers and compliance and inspection agencies to ensure that organic regulations are being followed.

Genetically modified foods–called Frankenfoods by detractors–strike me as a problematic, but potentially invaluable tool (one tool out of many) that we’ll have to exploit in order to feed a world growing at a dangerously rapid rate. More often than not, however, discussions of GMO’s are cast in the most radical polarizations. To get a better understanding of why we need a rational and balanced debate about the role GMOs might play in the future of sustainable food, see the following piece. It’s refreshing  and, in a way, radical because it avoids hyperbole.