Filthy water for ag workers in California

Like most children, the students at Stone Corral Elementary School in Seville, Calif., here rejoice when the bell rings for recess and delight in christening a classroom pet.

But while growing up in this impoverished agricultural community of numbered roads and lush citrus orchards, young people have learned a harsh life lesson: “No tomes el agua!” — “Don’t drink the water!”

According to the New York Times, Seville, with a population of about 300, is one of dozens of predominantly Latino unincorporated communities in the Central Valley plagued for decades by contaminated drinking water. It is the grim result of more than half a century in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, pesticides and other substances have infiltrated aquifers, seeping into the groundwater and eventually into the tap. An estimated 20 percent of small public water systems in Tulare County are unable to meet safe nitrate levels, according to a United Nations representative.

In farmworker communities like Seville, a place of rusty rural mailboxes and backyard roosters where the average yearly income is $14,000, residents like Rebecca Quintana pay double for water: for the tap water they use to shower and wash clothes, and for the five-gallon bottles they must buy weekly for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth.

It is a life teeming with worry: about children accidentally sipping contaminated water while cooling off with a garden hose, about not having enough clean water for an elderly parent’s medications, about finding a rock while cleaning the feeding tube of a severely disabled daughter, as Lorie Nieto did. She vowed never to use tap water again.

Chris Kemper, the school’s principal, budgets $100 to $500 a month for bottled water. He recalled his astonishment, upon his arrival four years ago, at encountering the “ghost” drinking fountains, shut off to protect students from “weird foggyish water,” as one sixth grader, Jacob Cabrera, put it. Mr. Kemper said he associated such conditions with third world countries. “I always picture it as a laptop a month for the school,” he said of the added cost of water.

Here in Tulare County, one of the country’s leading dairy producers, where animal waste lagoons penetrate the air and soil, most residents rely on groundwater as the source for drinking water. A study by the University of California, Davis, this year estimated that 254,000 people in the Tulare Basin and Salinas Valley, prime agricultural regions with about 2.6 million residents, were at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water. Nitrates have been linked to thyroid disease and make infants susceptible to “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition that interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen.

Same as it ever was: 3 years after listeria in Maple Leaf cold cuts killed 23 Canada still asleep

The Canadian government has fixed food safety.

They said so in a press release.

The person who is inexplicably still – still — Minister of Agriculture in Canada, Gerry-death-by-a-1,000-cold-cuts-Ritz, said tonight, "Food safety is a priority for this Government. We continue to work with consumers, producers, industry and our provincial and territorial partners to ensure that our food safety system remains one of the best in the world."

At least he didn’t say best in the world.

The self-adoration comes as the Government of Canada released its final report to Canadians on the action it has taken to respond to all recommendations by Ms. Sheila Weatherill outlined in the Report of the Independent Investigator into the 2008 Listeriosis Outbreak.

The Maple Leaf listeria-in-cold cuts outbreak that killed 23 people and sickened 55 in 2008. Self-adoration by government and health-types was rampant during the outbreak even though it was a disaster.

The bureaucrats talk about increased surveillance, more money for inspectors, better testing, more information, but provide little in the way of evidence to support the claim they have addressed all of Weatherill’s 57 recommendations.

Weatherill, who zeroed in on a "vacuum in senior leadership" among government officials, directed almost half of her recommendations on preventing another outbreak toward CFIA.

She also focused on the lack of food safety culture amongst health types and Maple Leaf.

"One of the tangible results of the recommendations is that they collectively impress on all stakeholders involved in food safety the need to adopt a culture of continuous improvement," Brian Evans, the government’s chief food safety officer, says in the report.

Not quite.

Culture encompasses the shared values, mores, customary practices, inherited traditions, and prevailing habits of communities. The culture of today’s food system (including its farms, food processing facilities, domestic and international distribution channels, retail outlets, restaurants, and domestic kitchens) is saturated with information but short on behavioral-change insights. Creating a culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems, including compelling, rapid, relevant, reliable and repeated, multi-linguistic and culturally-sensitive messages.

And where is the compassionate concerned communicator, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf?

Government is fairly hopeless about these food safety things; and it’s not their job. Maple Leaf makes the profit, Maple Leaf product killed and sickened all those people, Maple Leaf should be leaders. Throwing around phrases like food safety culture because it is fashionable doesn’t count. Actions count.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best cold-cut companies may stop dancing around and tell pregnant women, old people and other immunocompromised folks, don’t eat this food unless it’s heated (watch the cross-contamination though).

Fewer sick people? USDA sets new performance standards for salmonella and campylobacter in poultry

I’m a fan of performance standards, quality control, continuous improvement – all those things that can measure risk reduction.

(And why zero tolerances sorta suck.)

But keep it real.

“FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.”

Standards good, extrapolations based on … who knows what, bad.

Judge for yourselves. The press release is below. Full details have been published in the federal register and are available at

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today announced implementation of revised and new performance standards aimed at reducing the prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and turkeys. The improved standards will become effective in July 2011. With the new standards, FSIS is encouraging establishments slaughtering chicken and turkey to make continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens – namely Salmonella and Campylobacter – in the products they produce.

After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.

"These improved standards are a stronger buffer between foodborne illnesses and our consumers, especially our most vulnerable consumers – children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "There is no more important mission at USDA than ensuring the safety of our food, and we are working every day to lower the danger of foodborne illness. The new standards announced today mark an important step in our efforts to protect consumers by further reducing the incidence of Salmonella and opening a new front in the fight against Campylobacter."

FSIS developed stricter performance standards using recently completed nationwide studies that measure the baseline prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and turkeys prepared for market. The studies indicated that, despite improvements, there was still a risk of consumers being exposed to these pathogens through poultry.

"While the industry has made significant strides in recent years, far too many Americans continue to fall victim to these foodborne illnesses," said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. "These improved standards will drive the industry to do better. They are tough but achievable. And when fully implemented, they will prevent tens of thousands of Americans from getting sick."

President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) developed three core principles to help guide food safety in the United States: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery. In its overall mission to ensure a safe food supply for the public, and in response to the FSWG, FSIS developed the stricter performance standards to cut the Salmonella risk in poultry products.

23 sick from salmonella in headcheese and massive recall because of undercooking; Canadian agriculture minister states obvious, there’s problems in meat inspection

Canadian Agriculture Minister and would-be comedian Gerry Ritz on Thursday told Postmedia News that last week’s massive recall of all Brandt ready-to-eat deli meats exposes gaps in Canada’s meat inspection system, stating,

"I’m concerned that the paperwork that Brandt had was less than strenuous, I’ll call it. We are in there looking through some of that. We’re looking at different protocols, at having them reporting in different ways. At the end of the day, we’ll have a better plant."

Sarah Schmidt, following up on her Postmedia story yesterday about the delay in detecting problems at the Brandt Meats Toronto-area plant, said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – which reports to the Canadian Parliament through the Minister of Agriculture – only checked out the Brandt plant after pressure from public health types.

As in, we got a bunch of sick people, it came from this plant, maybe you should look harder, do we have to do your job as well?

Ritz was further quoted as saying,

"It takes a combination of work between CFIA, public health and the industry of record. I think everyone learns from every one of things. We always do that ‘lessons-learned’ aspect of it. Having said that, we always strive to do better and I think in this case, certainly it could always be worse and we try to make a better system as we move forward."

Minister, by worse, do you mean when 23 people die from listeria in Canada in 2008?

Ritz also said, "we hiring people as fast we can."

Inspectors? Scientists? PR hacks? How’s the quality control on those fast hires?

Resistance is not futile; antimicrobial use in agriculture

In 1969, the Swann report recommended strict oversight and restrictions on the use of antibiotics used in human medicine as growth promoters in agriculture. That was in the U.K., and 31 years later, the debate about the use of antimicrobials in agriculture continues.

The USA Today today and the N.Y. Times on Friday both waded into the issue in advance of House hearing on the issue on Wednesday.

USA Today said in an editorial that,

"high-volume use of antibiotics in animals is a dangerous avenue for the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria that can eventually spread to humans. But, in a classic case of the public interest taking a back seat to private commercial interests, the farm lobby has for decades successfully fought restrictions on animal use of antibiotics. Now federal regulators and some members of Congress are making a worthy new push to rein in hazardous practices.

“The Food and Drug Administration is sufficiently concerned that it issued a detailed, 19-page "draft guidance" last month that calls on the agriculture industry to voluntarily end the "injudicious" use of drugs to help animals grow, which it said "poses a qualitatively higher risk to public health" than using the drugs selectively to cure or prevent disease.”

The FDA says 30 years of studies point unmistakably to a hazard from overuse of antibiotics in animals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says humans could pick up drug-resistant bugs through contact with animals or by eating contaminated food; it cites the example of Campylobacter bacteria, which lives in chicken intestines and can cause diarrhea in humans who eat undercooked chicken.

In 1995, the FDA approved the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics in chickens. Soon, though, doctors began to find Campylobacter strains in sick people that were resistant to fluoroquinolone, and the FDA eventually banned the antibiotic for use in chickens.

Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian and a director of the National Pork Producers Council, writes in an opposing view,

“America’s livestock farmers use antibiotics to keep their animals healthy and, in turn, to produce safe food for consumers. And, contrary to the opponents of modern food-animal production, antibiotics are not being given excessively to pigs and cattle, and their use in livestock production is not the likely cause for an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans.

A 2006 report from the Institute of Food Technologists concluded: "Eliminating antibiotic drugs from food-animal production may have little positive effect on resistant bacteria that threaten human health. … Who knows? The risk of not using antibiotics could outweigh any risk of using them.

Elizabeth Parker, chief veterinarian at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, wrote in Friday’s Times in response to a June 30 editorial that,

“Ranchers have an obligation to protect cattle health and welfare. We also have an obligation to protect human health by providing a safe beef supply. That’s why, for generations, cattle producers have worked closely with veterinarians in the careful use of antibiotics to prevent, control and treat disease.”

Judicious use guidelines have been around a lot longer than last month. It’s a way of an industry group saying, hey, we know this is a powerful technology, so we’ll use it carefully in order to retain access to the technology.

But, judicious use can evolve into routine use. The challenge is maximize the benefits of a technology while minimizing the risk. Science can be messy.

Pollan gets $25,000 to speak with students?

I figure the Chinese–funded U.S. bailout has at least been good for Denis Leary, Howie Long, and the dude who does dirtiest jobs cause they all got gigs selling American cars.

What’s worse is that sustainably-minded Michael Pollan is stiffing students for $25,000 to come and share his menu planner.

As reported in Feedstuffs today, Pollan spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week, some farmers and aggie types challenged Pollan’s, uh, views of agriculture, and that Pollan was paid  $25,000 to speak.

Pollan has a university gig like me, although I’m not sure how he got it. My cv or resume is on-line and anyone can see it. Today I got two requests to speak: one with the Missouri public health folks, one with some food safety conference in Chicago. In both cases, I said, cover my expenses, cause otherwise I’m taking money away from undergraduate and graduate students, money that I have to raise. But no fees.

Why anyone would waste $25,000 on Pollan is baffling.

Canadian ag minister speaks about listeria outbreak report, CFIA

The unintentionally funny and still, inexplicably, Minister of Agriculture in Canada, Gerry-death-by-a-1,000-cold-cuts-and-isn’t-my-moustache-awesome Ritz, spoke at a press conference today. has already published some of the Q&A, which I have edited here for brevity:

Q:  Do you now recognize that, that CFIA, both those inspectors were over, do you accept that they were stressed and they were stretched too thin and that, and maybe explain why the audits were conducted?

A:  Well as you know, I’m not involved in the day to day operations, so I can’t speak to the stress of the front line operators. 

Q: We talk a lot about what went wrong, where the failures were, but 22 people died here.  Where’s the accountability?  Has anyone been fired and are you willing to compensate the families that were so aversely affected by this clear failure of our system?

A: Well there was a lawsuit, as you know, and there were compensations paid out through McCain’s.  Other than that, as I said, it’s a very complex issue. 

Q: But Maple Leaf Foods took responsibility.  Why can’t the government take some sort of responsibility?  Clearly, there were breakdowns within the government and that’s acknowledged in this report.

A:  Well our, our responsibility is to move forward with a better, better food safety system and I pledge to the victims and the, you know, their families and friends that we will move forward.  That’s my responsibility, I accept it.

Q: So there’s no compensation to them?

A: No.

Q: There won’t be any?

Moderator: Okay, that was our last question.  Thank you Minister.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail of Listeria

As part of her cultural education, about-to-be graduate student Katie has been exposed –inundated – with some of the favorite movies of Doug and Amy.

Last week it was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Young Katie wasn’t too impressed, and I’ll admit, the film has aged.

But certain bits still come readily to mind. When Amy asks me to clean up the yard and landscape, I think of the Knights Who Say Nee and ask for shrubberies from Roger the Shrubber. When Amy and her colleagues speak French, I want to taunt them John Cleese-style, such as, “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries.”

So when Canadian Agriculture Minister and would-be standup comedian, Gerry Ritz, told special parliamentary hearings tonight that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has "suffered a black eye" over last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak and that it was time to "get past the politics of this issue and move forward," I couldn’t help but think of the scene from the Holy Grail after Lancelot has killed and maimed many of the wedding party celebrating the union of Prince Herbert and the huge tracks of land owned by Princess Lucky. Prince Herbert’s father, eager for land and not a swamp, says to the dead and wounded,

"What’s the point of bickering and arguing about who killed who, it’s time to move forward.”

The layers of the listeria onion are slowing peeling away, and if a few key reporters can keep their jobs before being swallowed by the Intertubes, Canadians may eventually find out who knew what when and why in the listeria shitfest of 2008.

Sarah Schmidt of Canwest reports tonight that CFIA is permitting food companies to use non-accredited laboratories to analyze some listeria tests after the industry shot down a pricey proposal tabled after last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak requiring the use of accredited labs, according to newly released ministerial briefing notes. …

At the time of the listeriosis outbreak, such companies as Maple Leaf Foods were not required to conduct environmental listeria tests throughout their meat plants, including food-contact surfaces.

And if companies were analyzing these tests at in-house labs, CFIA inspectors were not required to review them.

Does it matter if people are disconnected from food?

I used to be physically fit from playing hockey and squash and golf with friends in Guelph, Ontario. A lot of them worked in agriculture – for the feds, province, university, industry, and farm groups – and a lot of them insisted that people were disconnected from how food was produced and so support for agriculture sucked. If people were better educated about growing and preparing food, problems with food safety would be largely resolved and an Age of agricultural Aquarius would be achieved (Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding …)

So it was hardly surprising to read this morning that the best and brightest in Guelph told some federal politicians that people are disconnected from the food they eat.

Vern Osborne, assistant professor of animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph, said Canadians, especially young ones, are disconnected from the food they eat. A policy, he suggested, should include educational components that teach kids where their food comes from and how to actually prepare it. Kids have largely lost the ability to cook, he and others said.

Rickey Yada, professor of food science at U of G, agreed that young people have lost the ability to prepare even simple dishes, a fact that is contributing to widespread indifference towards food issues.

Such generalizations are of little use. My kids know how to cook; so do lots of others. Lots of people drive but don’t know how their cars work. Lots of people use computers and know little about integrated circuits. I recognize it’s trendy to say people are disconnected from food production, but so what? Where’s the evidence that having a connection with food –however that is defined —  will make people fitter, healthier and safer?

Jim Romahn: It’s time for general Canadian public to speak up

I’ve know Jim Romahn for about 15 years. His writing drives a lot of bureaucrats ballistic, which is why he’s recognized as one of Canada’s best journalists writing about food and agriculture.

Jim just sent me this column about food, protectionism and hypocrisy. The South Koreans went somewhat nuts about American beef earlier this year, with riot police called to quell the protests of tens of thousands.

Six months later and the Washington Post reported, what was the big deal?

“Low-priced U.S. beef has appeared in supermarkets here in recent days, after a decision by three major retailers to start selling it again, and the reaction has been brisk business and no political fuss. Fifty tons of U.S. beef disappeared from shelves the first day it was offered for sale."

That’s usually the way things work. Politicians worried about particular constituencies will make outrageous claims on behalf of all Canadians or Koreans or consumers in general, in the absence of any data. Yet when people are allowed to vote at the grocery store, with their wallet, conventional wisdom becomes political nonsense.

So here’s Jim’s take on Canada, South Korea, trade and BS.

Pity the beef and pork producers eager to increase exports to South Korea.

Trade talks have been dragging on for years.

For sure, the beef and hog producers of South Korea oppose dropping tariffs on Canadian products.

But there’s also a big problem in our own back yard.

The Koreans want to sell us cars, but Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are lobbying hard to maintain the 6.1 per cent tariff. So is the Canadian Autoworkers Union.

There is another big problem – our dairy industry.

The trade talks have expanded to bring in other countries to make a deal more attractive, especially to increase exports.

So far those talks involve Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand.

New Zealand wants to export its dairy products. And everybody knows Canadian dairy farmers won’t budge one iota.

So, after 13 rounds of negotiations with South Korea, and a few with the so-called P4, Canada’s special interests are blocking trade deals that would quite obviously benefit beef and hog farmers and all Canadian consumers.

It’s one thing to stonewall at the World Trade negotiations. It’s even more upsetting when our politicians stonewall on country-specific negotiations, and this P4 group of minor countries.

What are the chances our politicians will agree to trade terms that will increase competitive pressure on our auto industry?

What are the chances they will undermine supply management for the dairy and poultry farmers?

What hope, then, that Canadians will be able to heed the advice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he says the current economic crisis calls for free trade.

Harper reminds world leaders that protectionism gets blamed for some of the depth of the Great Depression.

It’s not world leaders who need a lecture. It’s our own Canadian protectionists.

What’s more, Harper has the tools to back his talk with action.

 If he could make a deal with the P4, it would set the stage for him to take a far more aggressive position in the World Trade negotiations.

 And there the goal from the beginning of the Doha round has been to benefit poor nations. And among the poorest people in those nations are farmers.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture and a series of agriculture ministers have pretended we can take a “balanced” position in trade negotiations, winning market access for our exporters and continued protection for the marketing boards.

It’s obviously not true.

The Doha round talks have repeatedly stalled. Thirteen rounds of negotiations with South Korea have failed to yield a deal. And Canada is unlikely to stay at the negotiating table with the P4 because it won’t compromise with New Zealand.

It’s time for the general Canadian public to speak up and demand an end to political pandering to special interests. We can’t afford to waste our money and resources, especially as the rest of the world moves to capture the benefits of freer trade.