Obama’s USDA Just Played Chicken With the Trump Transition Team – TOM PHILPOTT DEC. 17, 2016 6:00 AM

Brand new rules protect poultry farmers from corporate power. But will the Trump team enforce them?

In its waning days, President Barack Obama’s US Department of Agriculture injected an extra dose of drama into President-elect Donald Trump’s chaotic transition of the ag department this week.

Trump’s agricultural advisory committee has been pushing back hard against Heitkamp—and the new poultry rules will likely heighten their fervor.

The USDA issued a blunt assessment of the state of the poultry industry, portraying it as dominated by a handful of chicken processors that “often wield market power” against the farmers who raise the nations’ chickens, “treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.” The USDA has a point, as Christopher Leonard showed in his excellent 2014 book The Meat Racket(my review here): Farmers own the growing facilities and are responsible for upgrading them according to the companies’ whims, while the companies supply the chicks and the feed and dictate the price farmers are paid.

And it put substance behind the critique, rolling out long-delayed proposed rules designed to give chicken farmers “protections against the most egregious retaliatory practices” used by the big companies. The USDA has been required to release a version of these rules, known as GIPSA, since being charged to do so by the 2008 farm bill, but GOP stalwarts in the US House have been pushing back ever since, using legislative chicanery to block them. This 2015 Washington Monthly piece by Lina Khan details the Obama USDA’s tortured and—until now—failed attempts to release the rules. The farmers’ rights group RAFI has a good summary of what’s in them.

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Behind the Monsanto Deal, Doubts About the GMO Revolution –

Harvesting non-biotech corn in Malden, Ill., last year.

Harvesting non-biotech corn in Malden, Ill., last year.  Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News


Jacob Bunge

Sept. 14, 2016 3:13 p.m. ET

Behind a wave of multibillion-dollar mergers in the agriculture business is a moment of change in American farming. The dominance of genetically modified crops is under threat.

Since their introduction to U.S. farms 20 years ago, genetically engineered seeds have become like mobile phones—multifunctional and ubiquitous. Scientists inserted genes to make crops repel insects, survive amid powerful herbicides, survive on less water and yield oils with less saturated fat, in turn eliminating farmers’ amateur chemistry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates this year that 94% of soybean acres were planted with biotech varieties, and 92% of corn acres.

Today, farmers are finding it harder to justify the high and often rising prices for modified, or GMO, seed, given the measly returns of the current farm economy. Spending on crop seeds has nearly quadrupled since 1996, when Monsanto Co.became the first of the companies to launch biotech varieties. Yet major crop prices have skidded lower for three years, and this year, many farmers stand to lose money.

Biotech farming has also shown limitations, given how certain weeds are evolving to resist sprays, forcing farmers to fork out for a broader array of chemicals. Some are starting to seek out old-fashioned seed, citing diminished returns from biotech bells and whistles.

“The price we are paying for biotech seed now, we’re not able to capture the returns,” said Ohio farmer Joe Logan. This spring, Mr. Logan loaded up his planter with soybean seeds costing $85 a bag, nearly five times what he paid two decades ago. Next spring, he says, he plans to sow many of his corn and soybean fields with non-biotech seeds to save money.

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We Have Terrible News For Anyone Who Eats Chicken – TOM PHILPOTT JUN. 22, 2016 6:00 AM

There might be a huge flaw in the government’s system for protecting you from salmonella.


One of the US Department of Agriculture’s main tasks is to ensure that the nation’s meat supply is safe. But according to a new peer-reviewed study from the department’s own researchers, the USDA’s process for monitoring salmonella contamination on chicken—by far the most-consumed US meat—may be flawed.

The process works like this. After birds are slaughtered, plucked, and eviscerated, the carcasses are sprayed with a variety of antimicrobial chemicals designed to kill pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter, and then plunged into a cold bath (which also includes antimicrobial chemicals) to lower their temperature. At that point, a few of the birds are randomly selected, rinsed, removed from the line, and put into plastic bags filled with a liquid that collects any remaining pathogens. The liquid is then sent to a lab for testing within 24 hours. (The test birds go back into the production line.) If a large number of them test positive for salmonella, the USDA knows there’s a problem and takes steps to address it.

Chicken is the “item in the supermarket most likely to be contaminated with salmonella.”
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A Cheese Glut is Overtaking America – By Kelsey Gee in Chicago and  Julie Wernau in New York May 17, 2016 5:30 a.m. ET

Rise in production comes just as exports are hit by strong dollar; can you eat three pounds more?

Workers package 40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese at a production facility in Ohio. America’s dairy farmers are expected to produce a record amount of milk this year; much of it is being sold to cheesemakers.

Workers package 40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese at a production facility in Ohio. America’s dairy farmers are expected to produce a record amount of milk this year; much of it is being sold to cheesemakers. — PHOTO: TY WRIGHT/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Workers package 40-pound blocks of cheddar cheese at a production facility in Ohio. America’s dairy farmers are expected to produce a record amount of milk this year; much of it is being sold to cheesemakers. Photo: Ty Wright/Bloomberg News

America has built up a glut of cheese so big that every person in the country would need to eat an extra 3 pounds this year to work it off.

And it isn’t just cheese. The growing stacks of cheddar, which can be kept frozen for years, and other cheeses such as feta, which can be stored for only a couple of months, are just the tip of a surplus of U.S. agricultural products that is swamping markets for grains, meat and milk.

Supplies of cheese, meat and poultry started building as farmers decided to expand their herds and flocks two years ago when prices were high and export markets were hot. Abundant stockpiles of grain made it less risky by pushing down feed costs. But the steady climb in the dollar has deterred major foreign buyers, causing supplies to back up in the U.S. just as production is surging to records. That is sending prices for many goods to their lowest levels in years.

“Farmers have had every reason to expand because of strong global demand,” said Shayle Shagam, livestock analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But now we have a lot of products looking for a home in a smaller number of places.”

The USDA said last week that stockpiles of soybeans could fall by almost a quarter this year as export demand picks up. Its outlook for other commodity markets wasn’t as bright. Stockpiles of wheat and corn are expected to grow further. Output of red meat and poultry are forecast to climb 3.1% from last year to 97.6 billion pounds, as farmers continue to expand their operations and grow animals to heavier weights, thanks to the cheap grain prices.

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How big government helps big dairy sell milk – Vox

During the 1990s and early 2000s, it was impossible to open up a magazine without seeing the milk-mustachioed face of a celebrity grinning back at you. The “Got Milk?” ads helped drive demand for dairy products at a time when fluid milk consumption was at its lowest point in decades.

Those “Got Milk?” ads were one example of how, for decades, the federal government has helped sustain the dairy industry by convincing people to drink more milk. Today, the US Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines recommend three servings of dairy a day, despite the fact that one in four Americans can’t digest milk. New evidence also shows that drinking lots of milk doesn’t protect against bone fractures and may be linked to certain types of cancer. And all the good stuff in milk — calcium, potassium, and protein — can be found in greater amounts in foods like broccoli, kale, and black beans.

But these foods are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing against dairy. They don’t have trade groups giving millions to members of Congress and lobbying for influence over the nation’s nutrition policy. To find out how the federal government helped create the modern dairy industry, check out the video above.

GMOs Are Probably Safe. They Should Still Be Labeled. – By Tom Philpott | Wed Mar. 30, 2016 6:00 AM EDT

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Over the past few weeks, an impending law in tiny Vermont has re-ignited an old fight about whether food containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled. The debate typically hinges on safety. Are GM foods safe to eat? If so—and most existing ones probably are—then there’s no compelling reason to label them, critics argue. 

The spread of GM crops has caused a dramatic uptick in herbicide use on America’s farmland.

But for me, the case for labeling comes down to how GM crops are regulated. The spread of GM crops has caused a dramatic uptick in herbicide use on America’s farmland, and absent strong federal oversight, I think consumers should have a right to decide whether they want to support that system. Recent announcements from two of the main government agencies that oversee GMOs demonstrate just how fragmented and ineffective the regulatory process is.

The first came from the US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for assessing all new GM products before they can be used on farm fields. Last Wednesday, the USDA approved two new varieties of GM corn, one each from seed-agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta, and both are engineered to withstand multiple herbicides. The news generated very little media stir because the USDA has been green-lighting herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean products since the mid-1990s.

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This Scientist Uncovered Problems With Pesticides. Then the Government Started to Make His Life Miserable.

USDA researcher Jonathan Lundgren, in his lab

Until fairly recently, Jonathan Lundgren enjoyed a stellar career as a government scientist. An entomologist who studies how agrichemicals affect the ecology of farm fields, he has published nearly 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals since starting at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2005. By 2012, he had won the ARS’s “Outstanding Early Career Research Scientist” award, and directorship of his own lab.

USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren has “gone from golden boy to public enemy No. 1,” says the head of the group representing him.

But recently, things have changed. His work has “triggered an official campaign of harassment, hindrance, and retaliation” from his superiors, Lundgren alleged in an official complaint filed with USDA scientific integrity authorities last year. Lundgren made the battle with his USDA superiors public in October, two months after the agency imposed a 14-day without-pay suspension on him. The charges—laid out in a August 3 letter to Lundgren by John McMurtry, associate director of the ARS’s Plains Area—centered on infractions regarding a trip to the East Coast to present research, and a failure to get proper clearance from his superiors before submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal.

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New dietary guidelines put strict limits on added sugar – by Marisa Taylor February 20, 2015 2:30PM ET

The U.S. government is recommending that Americans limit their intake of foods and drinks with added sugar to less than 10 percent of their daily calories, while easing some of its previous restrictions on cholesterol and sodium, according to a report from an advisory committee on the nation’s dietary guidelines released Thursday.

The panel of health and nutrition experts combed through the latest medical research to update the national dietary guidelines, which are revised every five years by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS). The guidelines call for an “environmentally friendly” diet that limits processed and red meats, is “lower in calories and animal-based foods” and focuses on “plant-based foods” such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

In particular, the committee emphasized stricter limits on added sugars — frequently found in sugar-sweetened sodas and sports drinks — to no more than 10 percent of a person’s calories per day.

Rather than replacing soft drinks with beverages sweetened with low-calorie alternatives, the panel recommended skipping the soda altogether and drinking water, because there was “inconsistent evidence” that so-called “diet” sodas actually help a person lose weight.

Americans get around 13 percent of their calories from sugars, and many children and young adults even more, the panel said. But Tufts University professor Miriam Nelson, a member of the panel, told the Associated Press that that 10 percent target was “within reach.”

The panel also reversed some of its advice from the 2010 dietary guidelines. For example, the panel retracted its previous guidance that Americans consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, because “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship” between consuming cholesterol in the diet and elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood. In other words, it’s OK to eat eggs again.

It reiterated its 2010 recommendation that people consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but eased its previous advice that those at risk for cardiovascular disease consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day.  That’s because a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine found little evidence that eating less than 2,300 milligrams each day is beneficial for scaling back the risk for heart disease.

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Are Stores Making Bank Off Food Stamps? – —By Tracie McMillan | Tue Apr. 22, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Dennis Chamberlin/FERN

How much of Walmart’s revenue comes from its shoppers’ food stamps? The store isn’t required to say. But a January Court of Appeals ruling could change that. If the unanimous decision by the 8th Circuit’s panel of three judges holds, the United States Department of Agriculture will be required to release data indicating exactly how much of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s $80 billion in annual sales is paid to specific retailers and individual stores.

The Argus Leader, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, paper, brought suit against the USDA in 2011 after the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking data on USDA’s annual payments to grocers, gas stations, and other retailers in the SNAP program. The USDA routinely tracks the payments, which retailers process as they do credit cards: The stores accept recipients’ Electronic Benefits Transfer cards as payment, and in turn the government pays the stores.

Walmart executives estimate that 18 percent of all SNAP sales are conducted at its stores—about $13 billion annually, Marketplace reported.

Stephanie Bengford, the US attorney representing the USDA, argued that under federal code, specific details about SNAP revenue should be considered private business information. In the appeals court opinion, Chief Judge William Jay Riley held that the USDA had misread the code, and issued a decision in favor of the Argus. The agency has until April 28—90 days from the January decision—to file an appeal with the US Supreme Court. If the USDA does not file an appeal, the case will likely return to the District Court.

The Argus case follows a 2010 incident in which Massachusetts officials threatened reporter Michael Morisy of Muckrock.com with fines or imprisonment for publishing SNAP retailer sales data obtained from the state’s welfare agency under a basic information request. The state released the data, but when Morisy mapped out sales by store and published it online, the agency said the information had been released erroneously and demanded that he remove it, citing the same statute on which the USDA centered itsArgus case.

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Today’s USDA Meat Safety Chief Is Tomorrow’s Agribiz Consultant —By Tom Philpott | Sat Dec. 7, 2013 3:00 AM GMT

Dan4th Nicholas /WikiMedia Commons

Deloitte Touche is one of the globe’s “big four” auditing and consulting firms. It’s a player in the Big Food/Ag space—Deloitte’s clients include “75% of the Fortune 500 food production companies.” The firm’s US subsidiary, Deloitte & Touche LLP, has a shiny new asset to dangle before its agribusiness clients: It has hired the US Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary for Food Safety, Elisabeth Hagan. She will “join Deloitte’s consumer products practice as a food safety senior advisor,” the firm stated in a press release. The firm also trumpeted her USDA affiliation:

“Elisabeth will bring to Deloitte an impressive blend of regulatory level oversight and hands-on experience, stemming from her role as the highest ranking food safety official in the U.S.,” said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP, and Deloitte’s U.S. consumer products practice leader.

Last month, Hagan announced her imminent resignation from her USDA post, declaring she would be “embarking in mid-December on a new challenge in the private sector.” Now we know what that “challenge” is. It’s impressive that Deloitte managed to bag a sitting USDA undersecretary—especially the one holding the food safety portfolio, charged with overseeing the nation’s slaughterhouses. Awkwardly, Hagan is still “currently serving” her USDA role, the Deloitte press release states. I’m sure the challenge of watchdogging the meat industry while preparing to offer it consulting services won’t last long. The USDA has not announced a time frame for replacing Hagan.

Hagan won’t be the only member of Deloitte’s US food-safety team with ties to the federal agencies charged with overseeing the food industry. You know those new poultry-slaughter rules that Hagan’s erstwhile fiefdom, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, keeps touting, the ones that would save Big Poultry a quarter-billion dollars a year but likely endanger consumers and workers alike, as I laid out most recently hereCraig Henry, a director within Deloitte’s food & product safety practice, served on the USDA-appointed National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection, which advised the FSIS on precisely those rules, as this 2012 Federal Register notice shows.

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