The USDA Is Gonna Do What?

320px-Chicken_vaccination-wikicommonsThe outbreak of several Asian-origin Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (HPAI) viruses is still wreaking havoc for industrial egg and turkey integrators. And the USDA has a vaccination program that’s supposed to address HPAI—but it’s naïve at best or ludicrous at worst.

It’s difficult to keep up with advancement of the HPAI viruses‑H5N2, H5N8, and H5N1—and difficult to keep up with the related data collected by the USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS). As of mid-to-late July, 223 separate reported incidents had affected more than 49 million birds. Fewer than 9,000 of the birds have been grown in small, so-called “backyard” operations. Read More >

Salmonella Outbreak: USDA Gets It Half-Right

The newest superbug in town is Salmonella Heidelberg, and the USDA has issued words of caution to U.S. consumers and instructions for proper meat handling—but it needs to press for reform in agricultural practices, as well.

The CDC has identified S. Heidelberg as “resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics,” and so far the outbreak, which is linked to ground turkey, has sickened 77 people in 26 states and killed one person in California. (The CDC has not specified the drugs to which this Salmonella strain is resistant.)

The emergence of the antibiotic-resistant strain prompted the USDA last Friday to issue a public health alert urging consumers to use caution when handling ground turkey, and to cook all poultry products to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. And today, meat processing firm Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation voluntarily recalled 36 million pounds of its ground turkey products. (For details on Cargill’s decision to suspend ground turkey production at its Arkansas facility, read yesterday’s New York Times and Mother Jones articles.) Read More >

Straight Talk About The Risks of Feeding Antibiotics to Food Animals

Courtesy: CDC

Courtesy: CDC

It is time for some straight talk about the risks of using massive amounts of antibiotics in livestock and poultry. I don’t know one infectious disease expert who would disagree that there are direct links between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in people. Period. If you don’t believe me just ask Rear Admiral Ali Kahn, Assistant Surgeon General and Acting Deputy Director for the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease. Just this summer, during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dr. Kahn testified that, “there is unequivocal evidence and relationship between [the] use of antibiotics in animals and [the] transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing adverse effects in humans.”

Knowing this, I continue to be frustrated with the fact that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack does not publically recognize that the industrial food animal production system is a leading contributor to the increase of antibiotic resistance in pathogens that infect people and animals. Earlier this month at a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meeting, Vilsack reportedly responded to a question about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) by saying the, “USDA’s public position is, and always has been, that antibiotics need to be used judiciously, and we believe they already are.”

That quote had me scratching my head when I read it in a New York Times Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago. The Times’ editors interpreted the statement as saying Vilsack believes there is no need to change antibiotic use policy among food animal producers. That contradicts the positions of both the FDA and CDC. The Times pointed out that while neither regulatory agency is doing enough to address the problem both, at least, recognize that current antibiotic use should change. Read More >

10 in 10: Ensure Every American Child Has Access to Healthy and Affordable Food: A “Gentle” Wish For a New Decade

10in101A new decade brings new opportunities and challenges. The interaction between diet and health received significant attention during “The Aughts.” What will we do during this next decade to respond to the call for action for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle? This is the fourth in a continuing series highlighting 10 ways you can help this year.

Knowing that the obesity epidemic in the United States has some scientists predicting that for the first time in history American children will live shorter lives than their parents, my wish for the next decade is to see First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama and his administration succeed in their mission to ensure that every American child has access to healthy and affordable food. A recent gathering of Obama Administration officials invited to discuss their efforts to improve America’s food system left me hopeful that my wish will come true.

Courtesy: White House Blog

Courtesy: White House Blog

Last month in D.C. Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Dora Hughes, Counselor to the Secretary of Health, and Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator for the First Lady each shared their goals for the next year during an event for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Community Program. Surprisingly it wasn’t their words that left me so inspired; rather it was the words of 10-year-old David Martinez-Ruiz. Kass shared with the audience a letter that the D.C. elementary school student had presented to the First Lady following his class visit to the White House Garden.

One of the things that I want to say about being at the White House was how gentle the feeling was. It felt surprisingly natural to be there. We planted on a warm day. The sun was out and there was a little breeze. The grass was beautiful and green. The people made us feel good. I liked the way the staff person who helped me was very gentle with the worms we found. I think about the garden as being gentle: gentle with nature, gentle to your body, and gentle with each other. Read More >

Vilsack Visits the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Meeting

I was privileged to spend the past few days at the Inaugural Meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a well-organized group of stakeholders from around the country ranging from farmers to policy wonks (who are sometimes one in the same) working in coalition on important issues. In addition to learning an incredible amount from this crew, I was thrilled to meet dozens of NSAC members eager to see public health take a larger, more active role in drawing the links between sustainable agriculture and health. I was also encouraged that Secretary Vilsack took the time visit to the NSAC Meeting. Read More >

Vilsack Supports Single Food Safety Agency

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

On Tuesday Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he would like to see a single food safety agency as opposed to the current system where food safety for the millions of Americans is overseen by two separate agencies, the USDA and the FDA.  “We are the only industrial nation to have two systems,” said Secretary Vilsack, whose comments came in response to the recent peanut butter – salmonella outbreak, indicating that a single centralized agency in charge of protecting America’s food would be more successful in preventing food-borne illness.

In the current system, the FDA oversees the food safety for all domestic and imported food sold in interstate commerce, including shell eggs and bottled water, but not meat, poultry, or egg products.  The USDA oversees the food safety for all domestic and imported meat and poultry, and related products such as meat or poultry containing stews, pizzas, and frozen foods, along with processed egg products (as soon as the shell is broken, it becomes the USDA’s responsibility).  The total burden for food-borne illness is no small matter either, as every year it is estimated there are approximately 76 million food related illnesses, 323,000 hospitalizations, and 5,200 deaths.  Read More >

New Ag Secretary Discusses Child Nutrition, Health Care in Address to USDA Employees

New Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, discussed the difficult economic issues facing the country, discrimination at the USDA, and health care and nutrition issues yesterday in a wide-ranging address to USDA employees. “The health care issue is a big issue…that’s why it’s important to promote a nutritious diet…and make sure children have access to healthy foods,” he told a packed audience. In a question and answer session following his remarks, he alluded to an article, “Farmer in Chief,” published last October in the New York Times by Author Michael Pollan. “If it had been president Pollan, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he joked. Many comments in the press and blogs following his nomination were critical of Vilsak’s ties to big agriculture interests, particularly the biofuel industry. He appeared to be sensitive to that in answering the question saying, “We have to listen to critics and criticism of the food system in this country,” adding, “We have without question an epidemic of juvenile diabetes. If we’re interested in making sure our resources are spent wisely….we have to address this issue.” There’s a short piece in today’s Des Moines Register about his address and a full video clip available on USDA’s web site.

-Chris Stevens

Ag Nominee Vilsack Receives Strong Support at Confirmation Hearing


As far as Senate confirmation hearings go, yesterday’s testimony by President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to become the next Secretary of Agriculture proved to be a big yawn. Questions asked of former two-term Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack seemed soft, often patronizing, during the 2-1/2 hour question and answer session.

Watch a video of the entire testimony:


Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, pointed to health care reform as an opportunity for the USDA. “I think we have a big role to play in that in…(with) the reauthorization of Child Nutrition Program. That’s the only thing we have to do this year,” he said. Gov. Vilsack pledged to implement the 2008 Farm Bill–and the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Program. “We can work with our schools to insure that fresh fruits and vegetables are available,” and work with local producers and ensure distributions systems are in place, he told the senators. Read More >

Ag Nominee Vilsack: Concerns on Ethanol, Biotech, Climate, CAFOs, Corporate Concentration, Hunger and Nutrition

In response to the blog post below, it is worth expanding, to clarify the reasons many in the sustainable agriculture community – and others who are concerned about sustainability, justice and public health – are feeling let down by the choice of the new secretary of agriculture, even as we try to remain hopeful about the overall direction of change.  
First, Tom Vilsack is a major proponent of ethanol production. Industrially produced corn ethanol has been disvalued for climate change mitigation because it contributes more emissions than it reduces. Further, industrial corn ethanol production leads to substantial environmental impacts from fertilizer and pesticide use. But the impacts go beyond environmental, to corn ethanol’s destabilizing effect on food prices around the world. The former U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to food has termed corn ethanol “a crime against humanity.” As of early December, the U.N. reported that nearly 1 billion people around the world are now undernourished; these numbers have risen substantially  in the wake of the food price spikes. Estimates on ethanol’s role in the rise in food prices range from a few percent up to 3/4. Vilsack does support moving over the mid-to-long term towards other forms of ethanol.  But even with alternate ethanol sources, significant problems in terms of land use for energy vs. food, corporate concentration, and unsustainable production methods are likely to remain. Read More >