Food News: Eggs, Pesticides, Chinese Honey

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Something to Squawk About

During the winter here in Vermont, my 12 laying hens seem content enough residing in a retrofitted horse stable. But when I open the henhouse door for the first time in the spring, feathers literally fly as the birds stampede to get outside. In celebration of their newfound liberty, they flap, run, peck, and scratch—in short, behave like chickens.

Which is why I'm always skeptical when a factory farm claims that hens are perfectly happy spending their entire lives crammed into barns with tens of thousands of other chickens in stacked battery cages each not much bigger than the average computer screen. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) apparently agrees. Last week, the organization filed a complaint (PDF) asking the Federal Trade Commission to stop Rose Acre Farms, the country's second largest egg producer, from making "false and misleading animal welfare claims."

Indiana-based Rose Acre, which bills itself as "the good egg people," has 16 million hens and supplies eggs to most parts of the nation. According to the company's website, its chickens get "plenty of fresh country air" and have "plenty of space for free movement." The company says only happy hens lay eggs.

In its complaint, the HSUS says that Rose Acre falsely claims that it provides a "humane and friendly environment" for its caged hens. In an investigation earlier this year, the HSUS says it found conditions in one of Rose Acre's facilities starkly at odds with the cheerful image projected by the company. Birds were trapped in the wires of battery cages, unable to reach food or water. Others had broken bones and untreated prolapsed uteruses. Mummified corpses of dead chickens were in cages with live ones. Abandoned hens had fallen into manure pits.

"Companies like Rose Acre are deceptively exploiting the exponentially growing consumer demand for improved animal welfare," said Jonathan Lovvorn of the HSUS in a press release.

Gas Pains

Methyl bromide was a popular weapon in chemical agriculture's arsenal. Sprayed onto fields before planting, the colorless, odorless gas conveniently kills every living organism in the soil. Less conveniently, the chemical is also eats a giant hole in the ozone layer, so the Environmental Protection Agency ordered that the fumigant be weeded out of the nation's fields by 2015.

The pesticide industry wasted no time coming up with a substitute. Called methyl iodide, the new chemical also sterilizes soil, but doesn't poke holes in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, in experiments with lab animals, it caused cancer, neurological damage, and birth defects.

"This is, without question, one of the most toxic chemicals on earth," John Froines, a professor of environmental health at the University of California, told Timm Herdt, a reporter with the Ventura County Star.

Froines, who chaired a scientific review panel on methyl iodide's possible health effects, testified before a California legislative committee last week. The committee is looking into a decision by the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation to authorize the use of methyl iodide in California. A public comment period on the decision ends at the end of this month. Unless legislators act, the chemical will cleared for application by late fall, even though the panel said that "adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible."

But Arysta LifeScience, the company that sells methyl iodide under the trade name Midas, assured potential customers that, barring unforeseen circumstances, the chemical would be available by next spring—"fumigant season" in California. It seems that the scientific review panel overlooked one important fact: it pays to have friends in high places.

A Sting Operation

Add yet another chemically contaminated food to the roster of unsafe imports from China. Earlier this month, federal marshals seized 3,500 gallons of honey from a Philadelphia warehouse. The honey, which had been imported by Sweet Works, Inc. from China, contained chloramphenicol, an antibiotic that is not approved for use in food, animal food, or food-producing animals in the United States.

Chloramphenicol is a potent, potentially toxic drug that is given to people with infections that have proven resistant to other treatments. Fortunately, the marshals got to the honey before it was distributed to consumers.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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