Friday, May 15, 2009

Big Ag Update

Grist reports that USDA head Tom Vilsack is on the verge of appointing Dr. Mike Doyle, head of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, as his food safety czar. Doyle has been praised by the likes of the American Meat Institute (which honored him with its Scientific Achievement Award in 2004 for his "groundbreaking research" into ways of getting rid of pathogens in meat, including irradiation), and has received funding and support from the National Chicken Council, an industry lobby group. Grist notes that Doyle's main champion in Congress is none other than Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and is "associated with the Animal Agriculture Alliance as well as the American Council on Science and Health ... both industry-funded astroturf organizations whose shared mission is to undermine any research that questions the safety of industrial products or practices.

Meanwhile, Vilsack testified in favor of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, AKA factory farms) at a House appropriations subcommittee meeting last week, the Ethicurean reports. Vilsack defended the crowded conditions and antibiotic use by factory farms, insisting that meat companies are "First and foremost, they're concerned for the safety of their consumers. Without consumers, they don't have a market, and without a market they don't have money." In other words, it's our responsibility to investigate what conditions animals at a particular farm are kept in and make our buying decisions accordingly. Personally, I try to stick to organic meat and poultry for that very reason, but not all consumers have that option--or the kind of access to information Vilsack's condescending comment implies.

Speaking of personal responsibility, big food manufacturers now say it's consumers' job to make sure their pathogen-infested food doesn't make us sick--by cooking their products for so long we kill any crap that's in there. According to the New York Times, ConAgra--whose Banquet pot pies sickened thousands of people with salmonella in 2007--is now telling consumers to heat their products to an internal temperature of 165 degrees "as measured by a food thermometer in several spots"--a habit that's sure to be picked up by consumers who buy the company's $1.99 frozen dinners. (In addition to buying a food thermometer--not a basic kitchen tool for people who don't cook a lot of big cuts of meat--the new frozen-food standards also require consumers to have an 1,100-watt microwave oven.) Basically, the food companies don't want to have to go to the trouble of tracking all their ingredients, so they're covering their asses by putting consumers on the hook for their products' safety.

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