Exploring the Food System with CTY

RS2878_Aquaponics_212-scrTwo weeks ago we hosted our second annual Food Systems and Public Health course in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at the Cylburn Arboretum. Six CLF staff members spent the day with 15 talented middle- and high-school students and their parents, and worked to define the food system, acknowledge harms, and develop a sense of hope for changing the world through the way we grow and eat our food. Read More >

CLF opposes Rehberg amendment, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella infections in children

The FY 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill, voted out of the House Appropriations Committee last week, includes an amendment that would severely limit the authority of FDA to regulate the use of antimicrobials, including antibiotics, in food animal production-a key concern of public health researchers.  Sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), the amendment would prohibit the agency from spending any money appropriated by the bill on actions “intended to restrict the use of a substance or a compound” unless certain conditions are met.  Although the amendment is broad-affecting any “substance or compound,” notably including tobacco-Rep. Rehberg has told The Washington Post that his goal was to block FDA action on the use of antimicrobials by food animal producers.  Indeed, the amendment would, among other things, preempt upcoming FDA restrictions on the misuse use of cephalosporin-the antibiotic of choice for serious Salmonella infections in children.  (Researchers have reported increased incidence of cephalosporin-resistant Salmonella infections [Foley and Lynne, 2008].)   Joining many others in the public health community, researchers at the Center for a Livable Future recently sent a letter to Congress , urging members to strike the amendment from the legislation before final passage.

The Rehberg amendment reads as follows (we have broken it into numbered and lettered points to make the language easier to follow):

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Food and Drug Administration to write, prepare, develop or publish a proposed, interim, or final rule, regulation or guidance that is intended to restrict the use of a substance or a compound unless the Secretary

  1. bases such rule, regulation or guidance on hard science (and not on such factors as cost and consumer behavior), and
  2. determines that the weight of toxicological evidence, epidemiological evidence, and risk assessments clearly justifies such action,
  3. including a demonstration that a product containing such substance or compound

a.  is more harmful to users than a product that does not contain such substance or compound, or

b.  in the case of pharmaceuticals, has been demonstrated by scientific study to have none of the purported benefits. Read More >

Study finds new MRSA strain in European milk


Researchers at Cambridge University say they have found a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in milk from England, Scotland and Denmark, which they are calling LGA251.

The findings – published online by The Lancet Infectious Diseases – can be seen as a further signal that the routine use of antibiotics in industrial food animal production is producing novel public health risks, and diminishing the effectiveness of antibiotics in human medicine.

Center for a Livable Future Director Robert Lawrence said the new findings “underscore the urgent need to protect the effectiveness of a critical medical and public health resource – and this unambiguously translates to the obvious step of eliminating the irresponsible administration of antibiotics to food animals.”

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are used in food animals.

The authors of the Lancet study stressed that current testing protocols would fail to identify this new strain as MRSA, and that “new diagnostic guidelines for the detection of MRSA should consider the inclusion of tests for [LGA251].”

Nationwide Poll: 80% of America’s Moms are Concerned About Antibiotic Use in Industrial Food Animal Production

When moms talk you can bet lawmakers listen, not to mention food retailers. That is exactly what the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is counting on following the release of a nationwide poll of 804 American moms, which found that 80 percent are concerned that food animals produced on industrial farms are being given large amounts of antibiotics. Each of these moms is a  registered voter and has kids aged 16 or younger.  Not only were most of the moms polled concerned about antibiotic use, more than three-quarters said they would support federal regulations to limit its use in food animals.

No doubt this news has the animal agriculture industry concerned. Despite the warnings from scientists and public health experts of the risks of the low-dose use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry,  food animal producers have for years fought proposed federal regulations claiming there is little proof the practice poses a risk to humans. Top leaders of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration disagree with animal producers. Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein testified in front of Congress stating the links are undeniable and in a letter to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, confirmed that the CDC, “feels there is strong scientific evidence of a link between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

More and more research continues to pour in, almost on a daily basis, linking antibiotic-use in intensive food animal production facilities to the growing threat of antibiotic resistant infections in people. Earlier this month, a Pew funded nationwide study of grocery store meats revealed nearly 50 percent of the meat and poultry we buy carries antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and that DNA tests indicate the animals themselves were the primary sources. Read More >

India develops sound policy on antibiotic use in aquaculture and food animals

India is the most recent country to address the public health concerns associated with the use of non-therapeutic antimicrobials in food animal production, and in doing so, may just leap-frog the United States.

India’s Directorate General of Health Services recently released a policy document entitled “The National Policy for Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance (NPCAR)”, which outlines approaches for targeting both human and animal antimicrobial usage, infection prevention and control, education and training on administration of antimicrobials, antimicrobial resistance surveillance systems, and enforcement.

It is a move that should be viewed as very positive, if significantly overdue” says Ed Broughton, Research and Evaluation Director of the USAID Health Care Improvement Project at University Research Company and former doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Among the proposed policies specific to food animal production, the NPCAR recommends banning non-therapeutic usage of antimicrobials in food animals, labeling requirements in food exposed to antimicrobials, and banning over-the-counter (OTC) sale of antimicrobials. It is not clear whether the OTC sales ban would also apply to purchases of antimicrobials in feed (i.e. medicated feed) for food animals. Read More >

How much meat do we eat, anyway?

Reading the new federal dietary guidelines made me want to look into this question.  The guidelines, just released, say that Americans presently eat an average of 3.7 ounces daily of meat and poultry.  But, the figures I typically see are double that, or more.  So, why, in the brand-new guidelines, are USDA and HHS telling us that Americans eat less than a quarter pound of meat on a given day?  I set out to reconcile these figures:

Who says what? US per capita meat consumption (ounces per day)

High estimate

Mid estimate

Low estimate



of the UN

NHANES data from the CDC*

New NCI analysis of NHANES data

2010 federal dietary guidelines**

Meat & poultry





Red & processed





*In: Wang, 2010.  **See: table 5-1 on page 51 of the guidelines.

High estimate

screen-shot-2011-03-21-at-10738-pm1An oft-cited estimate for meat consumption in our country comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO).  The FAO figure of three-quarters of a pound daily has gained traction: The New York Times and The Guardian both cited this data for national meat consumption, propagating an image of Americans consuming a very large amount of meat on a daily basis.  This reporting appears logical, because the FAO data combine US meat production and imports, and then subtract exports and typical rates of spoilage and waste, arriving at 124 kilograms per capita per year, or 12 ounces per day.

However, Hodan Farah Wells of the USDA Economic Research Service points out that the FAO data appear to represent the carcass weight of meat, not its retail weight (e-correspondence, March 2011).  There is a big difference between the two.  Retail weight represents cuts of meat, ready to cook.  Carcass weight is heavier: it includes the weight of the bones, tendons, ligaments and fat that do not end up in the eventual retail cuts.  For a beef steer, the difference between carcass weight and retail weight can be a couple hundred pounds.


Live weight (lb)

Carcass weight

Retail weight

(% of live weight)

Steer (beef)




Pig (pork)




Broiler (chicken)



66% (less if boneless)

Sources: Cornell Waste Management Institute fact sheets; Advances in Meat Research, Pearson & Dutson, eds.; Principles of Meat Science, Hedrick et al., eds. (thank you Mary Schwarz)

Carrie Daniel of NCI, author of a recent paper in Public Health Nutrition about trends in US meat consumption, explains that the FAO definition of “consumption” in this case is the total amount of “the commodity” available for human consumption (e-correspondence, March 2011).  Yet a bunch of this matter gets diverted from the human food supply and sent for rendering into products other than human food.  (Industrial and agricultural products, and pet food, are some of the biggies).  FAO keeps the numbers rougher than it might for the sake of international comparison: not every country can provide equally precise information on how livestock and meat circulate in society, so FAO reports the data at a level that permits cross-border comparisons. Read More >

In Media, Big Ag Looms Large while Farmers Get Younger, Better Looking

In September 1965, CBS broadcast its first episode of Green Acres, a mini-series documenting a family’s transition from an urban life of prestige and luxury, to one of mud, manure, and chaos on a farm in the fictional town of Hooterville.

Green Acres took off, in part capitalizing on the popularity of its 1963 predecessor, Beverly Hillbillies, which was the number one TV show in America during its first two years. While Green Acres commented on the awkward integration of city elite into rural America, Beverly Hillbillies followed a clan of poor Ukrainian farmers through their upgrade to flashy Beverly Hills (but only after striking oil – mistakenly – on their land). The two TV hits were only a part of a mass of mini-series placing a farmer, or farm family, at the center stage. Other notable shows included The Real McCoys and Petticoat Junction. According to film critics, these series succeeded for their comedic portrayal of culture clash; for the agricultural community, however, the shows unfairly labeled farmers, and the farming occupation, as backward, poor, uncivilized, and low-class.green-acres

By the 80s and 90s, TV focusing on the rural farmer waned in popularity. Perhaps the last big effort to revive the genre came in 1993, as 20th Century FOX released Beverly Hillbillies in a movie format. The critic reviews gave the movie an A for low-brow humor, but labeled the overall effort a pointless remake of a worn-out past. Worse still, the film’s directors received complaints from (mostly southern) viewers who found the movie insulting, irrelevant, or both. And so, by the end of the 20th century, the relationship between TV, film, and the farmer was headed for reform.

Admittedly, media’s desertion of the country farmer role reflected the reality of a swiftly changing food environment. As the US food system was appropriated by massive industrialized farming operations, fewer Americans could survive as independent farmers, and the bucolic image of rural food production -overalls and mud – no longer resonated with the TV-watching, movie-loving public.

By the 2000s, popular film took on industrialized food production, and began to depict agriculture as a mysterious and powerful force of greed and deception. One such portrayal came in the 2007 movie Michael Clayton, which followed an elite lawyer through his defense of an agrochemical company’s billion-dollar class action lawsuit brought for damages caused by toxic chemicals. Two years later, the movie The Informant publicized the true story of an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agriculture processing companies. The plot depicted the details of this employees’ harrowing experience as a whistleblower against executives found to be fixing the price of lysine, an additive for livestock feed. Read More >

Chicken, Ascendant

Between now and April 3, the USDA is inviting comment on a just-completed, major research effort to reassess how much of the food in the United States actually makes its way into our mouths.  Its findings suggest that in the chicken-versus-beef rivalry, the popularity of boneless chicken is edging out beef consumption in the USA for the first time on record.

The report calculates “consumer-level” food losses.  “Consumer-level,” in this case, doesn’t only mean us, and what we do with the food we bring into our homes.  Here, “consumer” reflects the amount of food that is discarded after it reaches the home, the restaurant, or other institution that serves prepared meals (including schools, hospitals, company cafeterias).  (Losses before this point – not covered by this report – are termed “primary”  or “retail” losses.  Owing to spoilage, expiration dates, trimming, or culling, primary and retail losses occur as food travels from the farmgate, through slaughter and processing, on to transport and distribution, to arrive in warehouses and grocery stores.)

Losses from hundreds of foods, after they reach their final destination, are evaluated in the report.  Among its major findings are that losses of meat and poultry in particular may be much lower than was previously estimated.  The past estimate was that 32% of beef, 39% of pork and 40% of chicken was discarded from restaurants and homes.  The revision decreases these loss estimates to 20%, 29% and 15% for these three “leading meats:” beef losses drop by a third, pork by a quarter, and chicken by a whopping 167%.

The big tumble in estimated chicken losses leads to perhaps the first evidence of a much-anticipated triumph of chicken over beef.  “Adoption of the proposed loss estimates,” reports USDA, “would mean that for the first time since the data series began in 1909, consumers would now eat more chicken than beef in terms of pounds per year” (p26).

At first glance, these results seem really encouraging: people and institutions must be becoming more frugal, allowing less to go to waste.  Yet, reading closer, we learn that these decreases basically reflect the fact that meat now comes to us with less to dispose of.  This is partly because meat is a bit leaner, with the fat trimmed closer, than it would have been when the estimates were last calculated.

The major factor, though, is the growth in popularity of boneless meat.  Now, more meat is cut away from bones before it reaches the “consumer,” so what’s changed is just that bones and meat part ways earlier in the food chain.

These bones are valuable resources that we could be making into nutritious, mineral-rich stocks and broths, as humanity has done with animal bones for millennia.  Bones provide us additional sustenance from the same amount of meat.  However, today’s food landscape tends to send bones off to renderers where they are turned into highly-processed industrial and agricultural products.  That’s better than the landfill, but, still, deriving additional human nutriment from the animal would help justify the cost, energy, and, we hope, care that went into raising the cow, pig or chicken.

To learn more, see the report: Consumer-Level Food Loss Estimates and Their Use in the Economic Research Service Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data.


Julia DeBruicker Valliant, MHS is completing a doctorate in public health.  For her thesis she is conducting an in-depth and place-based study about the market for eco-labeled meat in Indiana, where she also raises cows and turkeys on her family’s farm.  From 2007 to 2010 she served as a CLF Predoctoral Fellow.

Pesticide use reporting bill discussed in the MD General Assembly

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has surveyed MD farmers about their pesticide use just four times since 1988—most recently in 2004 when an estimated 10.7 million pounds was applied (full report). A bill heard yesterday in the Maryland General Assembly Environmental Matters Committee (House Bill 660) looks to modernize pesticide reporting— by requiring farmers and other certified applicators ( landscape companies. pest control companies, state agencies as well as dealers who purchase and sell restricted use pesticides) to annually report agricultural pesticide usage, release, purchase, and sales.

Maryland State House (wikipedia)

Maryland State House (wikipedia)

In-house record keeping of pesticide usage is already required of farmers, so what this bill adds is the concept of— and funding for— an online, centralized pesticide reporting system that Maryland Department of Agriculture would administer, using funds levied from a tax on pesticide vendors and not farmers.

Pesticide usage is important to monitor because these chemicals can be toxic to non-target organisms, including humans and wildlife. Human health risks from pesticides do exist, as noted in an information packet developed by Ruth Berlin of the Maryland Pesticide Network:

Recent research conducted primarily under the National Institute of Health’s Agricultural Health Study suggests that farmers, their families and other agricultural workers are at increased risk for a wide range of health problems due to pesticide exposure. These include: respiratory disorders (i.e., Farmer’s lung; asthma), cancer (lung, bladder, colon, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukemia in offspring), poor cognitive functioning, depression, autism and fertility problems.

Once applied to crops, pesticides can travel off the farm and into groundwater, surface water and carried by wind, called spray drift. The United States Geological Service (USGS) found 75% of wells sampled in Central and Western Maryland, and 75% of surface waters sampled in the Mid-Atlantic (including MD) contain pesticides. These pesticides include both herbicides and insecticides. Agricultural pesticides migrate into water bodies like the Potomac River, where they can create intersex fish and stress aquatic animals as shown in a USGS study.

“Given the crucial economic, ecological, and sociological role that the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay have for our region” says Dr. Eric Schott of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in written testimony in support of HB660, “and the fact that the Bay is downstream of everything, it is prudent to know as much as possible about pesticide and fertilizer usage in the state.” Schott predicts that pesticide reporting will allow modelers and ecologists to come up with better solutions for the Bayʼs problems.”

Scientists, including myself, and physicians who testified in support of the bill are eager to see it move forward.

The MD bill’s sponsor in the House is Delegate Barbara Frush and in the Senate Karen Montgomery. The Senate version of the bill is scheduled for committee hearings next Tuesday, March 8, 2011.

Health experts worldwide agree, people who eat a lot of red and processed meat should cut back

As physicians we recognize that lean meats may be a healthy part of almost anyone’s diet. However, based on the preponderance of evidence compiled by scientists and health experts across the globe, there is little doubt that a diet high in red and processed meats is linked to serious health risks and that we would all be wise to keep our consumption down. New dietary guidelines, recently released by the United Kingdom’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) bolsters this conclusion. The SACN’s Iron and Health 2010 report advises that Britons can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer while maintaining healthy levels of iron by keeping their red meat and processed meat consumption to 70 grams or about 2 ½ ounces a day.

Cutting back on red and processed meat could do more than just ward off colorectal cancer.  Research has linked it to other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s. A landmark United State’s study, published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Meat Intake and Mortality, which included data from more than half a million members of the AARP, concluded red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases of “total” mortality in addition to cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. An equally important Harvard study, published in Circulation in 2009, that followed more than 84,000 female nurses, found that red meat intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease. More importantly researchers concluded that shifting sources of protein from meat based to plant based could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that cutting down on red meat could save an estimated 3,800 Britons from dying of bowel cancer every year. However, SACN researchers made it clear that their report did not address other potential health risks associated with meat consumption, which means many more lives could be saved from other preventable diseases. Read More >