Earlier this year, scores of New York chefs urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to oppose hydraulic fracturing (AKA “fracking”), a controversial technique for releasing natural gas from underground deposits, like the Marcellus Shale Formation that spans parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
New York’s agricultural economy is strong and vast, and is an important economic driver for our state. We have the second-largest number of farmers’ markets in the country and the fourth-highest number of organic farms — and are the third-largest dairy-producing state. New York is second only to California in its wine production.
As more states pump natural gas from beneath the earth, the negative effects fracking poses to agriculture are more clearly emerging — and we believe they would be devastating for New York.
Across the country, water contamination from toxic fracking chemicals has sickened and killed livestock. Accidents have ruined cropland. Gas companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. And there are no conventional procedures for isolating livestock exposed to chemicals from the food chain.
Find their full piece here.
The Marcellus isn’t the only area of the country where this issue is getting attention. Some of California’s fertile agricultural land sits above the so-called Monterey Shale. As Norimitsu Onishi reported recently in The New York Times,
By all accounts, oilmen and farmers — often shortened to “oil and ag” here — have coexisted peacefully for decades in this conservative, business friendly part of California about 110 miles northwest of Los Angeles. But oil’s push into new areas and its increasing reliance on fracking, which uses vast amounts of water and chemicals that critics say could contaminate groundwater, are testing that relationship and complicating the continuing debate over how to regulate fracking in California.
“As farmers, we’re very aware of the first 1,000 feet beneath us and the groundwater that is our lifeblood,” said Tom Frantz, a fourth-generation farmer here and a retired high school math teacher who now cultivates almonds. “We look to the future, and we really do want to keep our land and soil and water in good condition.”
Finally, for more on fracking and our food supply, head to my earlier post on Elizabeth Royte’s great cover story several months ago in The Nation.
Luke Runyon recently wrote an informative post for Harvest Public Media focused on why the cantaloupe, more than other melon varieties, seems to keep cropping up in news stories about outbreaks of foodborne illness. (I previously posted about one such outbreak.) Runyon explains,
Studies show cantaloupe is more likely to carry bacteria than most other produce, even more than its cousins in the melon family, like honeydew and watermelon. Cantaloupe regularly makes the top five in fresh fruit and vegetables likely to cause an outbreak, according to Doug Powell, professor and food safety expert at Kansas State University. Though, outside of the realm of fresh fruit, produce accounts for a small percentage of foodborne illnesses, at about 13 percent in 2005….
[Colorado State University food microbiologist Larry] Goodridge said from farm to table, there are many places where melons can be subjected to bacterial growth, whether on the rind or in the cantaloupe’s flesh. They’re also dense with water, which make them susceptible to the growth of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.
“Bacteria love water to grow,” Goodridge said. “Inside the melon, there are a lot of nutrients. The pH of the flesh is neutral and bacteria love that.”
On the production and processing side of things, there are also increased chances of cantaloupe contamination. Unlike in many other fruits, bacteria can still grow inside cantaloupe after it has been picked.
Lest yesterday’s post about the UW Dairy Cattle Center open house lead you to think that I frown on the university’s entire dairy program, I thought today I’d share some info from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research’s latest newsletter. Bénédicte Coudé and Professor Emeritus Bill Wendorff provide details on the safe use of wooden boards in cheesemaking:
Wooden boards have been used for many years in most traditional cheesemaking countries as a shelving mechanism for aging cheese. In France, more than 300,000 tons of cheese are ripened on wooden boards each year (Meyer, 2005). Most artisan cheesemakers feel that wooden shelves favor cheese rind development and improve the organoleptic qualities of aged cheeses thanks to the formation of a biofilm on the wood surface.
Take a look at an uncut wheel of Camembert, wrapped in its bloomy white jacket. All that luscious rind—the best part to many people—is made of microbes; the cheese itself begins a few millimeters under the surface. The entire outer crust is actually a colony of organisms, sealing the paste away from pathogens and contributing its own unique flavors to the finished product.
The technical term for this community is biofilm, a web of interconnected microbes that rely on each other to create their own environment, like a coral reef. Biofilms are found everywhere that microbes settle, from a slippery river rock to the lining of your stomach….
But biofilms aren’t just masses of microbes; they’re organized. Individual cells constantly send out and measure chemical signals in a process called quorum sensing. When the bacterium or fungus detects enough of its own kind (or enough other species) in the area, the cells switch from acting as individuals to acting as part of a community of connected organisms.
By knitting themselves together with strands of protein and sugars, the microbes become much tougher. While this is a problem with pathogenic microbes, which become harder to control with chemicals or antibiotics, cheesemakers take advantage of biofilm’s toughness by cultivating edible versions that resist the growth of undesirable bacteria and mold, while regulating the flow of gas and moisture into and out of the cheese paste.
But is it this wood-riding biofilm safe? Yep, if the right steps are taken. Coudé and Wendorff conclude that
considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.
Want all the fascinating technical details? You can find their article on pages 8 and 9 of this PDF.
Finally, to see an award-winning cheesemaker at work, aging his much-sought-after cheeses on wooden boards (and even wrapped in spruce bark), check out the episode of Wisconsin Foodie that features Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. (Hatch also happens to be a dairy science alum of UW-Madison.) Enjoy the whole program if you’ve got time, or skip ahead to catch a couple minutes starting at time mark 10:11.
Amy Mayer’s recent piece for Harvest Public Media examines a current proposal to change the USDA’s poultry inspection system. She writes,
Retired federal inspector Phyllis McKelvey spent 44 years looking for blemishes and other defects on chicken carcasses. She started as an inspector’s helper, worked her way up, and in 1998, became part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture trial.
“I was one of the first group of inspectors ever put on HIMP,” she said in an interview from her home in north Alabama.
Fourteen years later, the HIMP* [see footnote below] inspection system is at the center of controversial new regulations proposed by the USDA for chicken and turkey processors. It’s all part of an attempt to modernize an inspection system that dates back to 1950s-era poultry law….
For links and a map of federally inspected poultry plants, as well as audio and print versions of Mayer’s full piece, head here.
The USDA program garnered attention and generated controversy last spring. Although it isn’t on the front pages today, the story continues. Three recent guest editorials at the website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution help give a sense of some of the competing views. As moderator Rick Badie describes,
The USDA wants to reduce the number of chicken plant inspectors and increase line speeds that process and inspect carcasses to 175 birds per minute from 140. Critics, including two of today’s guest columnists, have cried foul with concerns about poultry worker safety and consumers of chicken products. A Georgia poultry executive defends the modernization of processing lines in an industry that contributes $18.4 billion a year to the state economy.
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, writes in her contribution that
The USDA readily admits that the poultry industry will stand to earn an additional $260 million per year by removing the cap on line speeds, and tries to explain away the risk of contamination by promoting the use of a chemical cocktail at the end of the slaughter process. Companies are allowed to use chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate (used to clean cement) and hypobromous acid (used to clean swimming pools) to treat poultry for salmonella and to sterilize feces that might still be on carcasses.
The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training or prove proficiency in performing duties normally performed by government inspectors who are required to take training before they are assigned to the slaughter line.
Lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increasing line speeds will have a negative impact on worker safety….
All three editorials are worth a read, so check them out here.
*Harvest Public Media translates this serving of classic bureaucratic alphabet soup: “HIMP stands for HACCP-based Inspection Models Program. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a method of identifying potential problem areas and maintaining written plans for managing the risks they present.”
On the heels of my post featuring a Red Bull-sponsored video (of cranberry harvesting—and wakeskating—on a northern-Wisconsin farm), I thought I’d share this recent story from Barry Meier of The New York Times. Meier reviews the evidence supporting the health and performance claims made by makers of these food-like products and finds it to be sorely lacking:
Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012 — more than Americans spent on iced tea or sports beverages like Gatorade.
Their rising popularity represents a generational shift in what people drink, and reflects a successful campaign to convince consumers, particularly teenagers, that the drinks provide a mental and physical edge.
The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels. But however that review ends, one thing is clear, interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies show: the energy drink industry is based on a brew of ingredients that, apart from caffeine, have little, if any benefit for consumers.
The full story is worth a read, so check it out here.
The cover of the current edition of The Nation magazine asks the question, “What the frack is in our food?” Journalist Elizabeth Royte‘s cover story takes a look at the complicated question of the possible impacts on our food supply of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the process by which substances like natural gas are extracted from underground geologic formations like shale deposits. Although widespread problems haven’t been documented, there are troubling signs that some farms and farmers may be unfortunate canaries in these mines. As Royte reports,
Jacki Schilke and her sixty cattle live in the top left corner of North Dakota, a windswept, golden-hued landscape in the heart of the Bakken Shale. Schilke’s neighbors love her black Angus beef, but she’s no longer sharing or eating it—not since fracking began on thirty-two oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch and five of her cows dropped dead. Schilke herself is in poor health. A handsome 53-year-old with a faded blond ponytail and direct blue eyes, she often feels lightheaded when she ventures outside. She limps and has chronic pain in her lungs, as well as rashes that have lingered for a year. Once, a visit to the barn ended with respiratory distress and a trip to the emergency room. Schilke also has back pain linked with overworked kidneys, and on some mornings she urinates a stream of blood.
Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes’ water….
Schilke’s story reminds us that farmers need clean water, clean air and clean soil to produce healthful food. But as the largest private landholders in shale areas across the nation, farmers are disproportionately being approached by energy companies eager to extract oil and gas from beneath their properties. Already, some are regretting it.
Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first (and, so far, only) peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled case studies of twenty-four farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems. Exposed either accidentally or incidentally to fracking chemicals in the water or air, scores of animals have died. The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning.
Understanding the possible extent of the impact of fracking on food production is a difficult proposition. As Royte notes,
By design, secrecy shrouds the hydrofracking process, casting a shadow that extends over consumers’ right to know if their food is safe. Federal loopholes crafted under former Vice President Dick Cheney have exempted energy companies from key provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, the Toxics Release Inventory, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a full review of actions that may cause significant environmental impacts. If scientists and citizens can’t find out precisely what is in drilling or fracking fluids or air emissions at any given time, it’s difficult to test whether any contaminants have migrated into the water, soil or food—and whether they can harm humans. It gets even more complicated: without information on the interactions between these chemicals and others already existing in the environment, an animal’s cause of death, Bamberger says, “is anyone’s guess.”
Clearly, the technology to extract gas from shale has advanced faster, and with a lot more public funding, than has the study of its various effects. To date, there have been no systematic, peer-reviewed, long-term studies of the health effects of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production (one short-term, peer-reviewed study found that fracking emissions may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for people living near drill sites). And the risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse.
As the excerpts above suggest, the piece is extraordinarily thoughtful and well-written. The full article covers much more and is accompanied by some effective infographics; head to the online version here or find it in the December 17 print edition of The Nation. For a shorter version of Royte’s piece, click over to Open Channel, an investigative reporting project from NBC News.
Lastly, for extensive reporting on the wide-ranging social, economic, and environmental impacts of fracking, check out the Pennsylvania edition of StateImpact, a project of local public media and NPR.
This story from Eliza Barclay at NPR’s The Salt discusses some of the findings from the Food Chain Workers Alliance‘s new report, “The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain.” (Click here for the comprehensive, 92-page PDF.) As Barclay describes, “the Alliance found that only 13.5 percent of workers earn ‘livable wages.’ The rest receive below minimum wage or low wages, and have little or no access to paid sick days and health benefits. Only 21 percent of the workers surveyed said they could take a paid sick day. That has serious consequences for consumers, the group says, who are put at increased risk of foodborne illness when sick workers touch their food.” For the full article, head here.
In a piece at Civil Eats yesterday, Michele Simon writes about the USDA’s newly announced policy change regarding testing for E. coli in ground beef. As Simon details, “while the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has for years required testing of the deadly 0157:H7 strain of E. coli, numerous other strains have also become a significant safety threat. So now, any ground beef that tests positive for six additional strains will be considered adulterated under the law, which means the product cannot be placed into commerce. That’s what makes this such a big deal. It also explains why the meat industry fought the policy for so long.” Head here for the full piece.
In unrelated news, CBS and the AP recently reported that “Meat containing ‘pink slime,’ the colorfully nicknamed beef byproduct that caused a national uproar, will not be served at most school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. The vast majority of states participating in the government-subsidized lunch program have opted to order ground beef that doesn’t contain the product, called lean finely textured beef. Only Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota chose to continue ordering beef that may contain the filler.” Check out the entire article here.
Whether you get your news from NPR and The Huffington Post or Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, you probably caught wind of recent reporting about so called “pink slime.” It’s actually been covered by some in the media for years, including the 2008 film Food, Inc. (see below, starting at 1:38) and this lengthy article in The New York Times from December 30, 2009, one in a series of reports that earned Michael Moss and NYT colleagues a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting.
Despite this earlier work, pink slime — an ammonia-treated, heated and processed slurry of beef scraps used as a ground beef filler — didn’t become a high profile story until recently. In the last few weeks, social media helped publicize blogger Bettina Elias Siegel‘s online petition to demand that the USDA end the inclusion of pink-slime products in the federal school lunch program. As Huff Post Food describes, this followed other recent events. “After chef Jamie Oliver went on a televised tirade about the substance, also known as ‘finely textured lean beef [FTLB],’ McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King announced in January, 2012 that they would no longer use pink slime as filler in their ground beef. But this past week, to the horror of consumers, ABC News reported that the pink slime is even more ubiquitous than we think. 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the gelatinous additive, even though no mention of this filler is required on the label.”
On Thursday, the USDA announced that, while it believes FTLB is safe, schools will be able to opt out of products containing it if they choose come this fall. Alas, the practical implications of this announcement aren’t all that encouraging. Also, it only applies to USDA sourced beef; as USA Today reports, “On average, schools in the National School Lunch Program purchase 20% of their food through the USDA.” Since there are still no FTLB labeling requirements, it seems that schools, parents, and other consumers will still be largely in the dark.
Consumers who want to be sure their ground beef is pink-slime-free can buy organic, since (at least according to media reports above and elsewhere) USDA organic ground beef is legally prohibited from including fillers like FTLB. That’s a least some good news, not to mention the fact that one report suggests your organic burger will taste much better, too.
J and I have had much success extending the life of cheese in our fridge by following a simple tip I picked up online. Once we open a package of hard (e.g., Parmesan) or semi-soft (e.g., cheddar) cheese, the leftover chunk gets wrapped in parchment paper, which then goes into an airtight plastic bag, which then goes into the cheese drawer. If the paper starts to show signs of excess moisture, we rewrap the cheese in a new piece of parchment before sealing it up again.
Despite best efforts to stave off mold, though, it sometimes makes an unwelcome appearance. J recently came across this handy guide from the Mayo Clinic for deciding when you need to pitch moldy cheese and when it can be saved … and if it’s salvageable, how to best go about it. Of course, as the article suggests, when in doubt, pitch it!