Oily Crabs, Animal Rights, and the Food Industry

Lubricated Crab Larvae

It had to happen sooner or later. Oil has officially contaminated the Gulf of Mexico's seafood chain.

Last week Geoff Pender of the Sun Herald, a newspaper serving the Mississippi coast, reported that scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane University had found droplets of oil in the larvae of blue crabs. Although the oil's presence is no immediate cause of concern for those craving a summer evening Cajun crab boil, it is a harbinger of bad news. Small fish such as menhaden feed on crab larvae, and as they say, big fish eat little fish. "I think we'll see this enter the food chain in a lot of ways," Harriet Perry, director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, told Pender.

So is Gulf seafood still safe to eat? The answer, according to Andrew Schneider in a terrific post on AOL News, is yes. But according to Schneider, in the event that contamination is found in Gulf seafood, a confusing collection of oil-industry interests, fishing organizations, politicians, and government agencies will decide exactly when and how to share the bad news with the rest of us.

Ohio Farm Animals' Crate Escape

This may come as a surprise, but not all politicians are stupid. Last week, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and agricultural leaders in the state signed what amounted to a peace treaty with the Humane Society of the United States and a group called Ohioans for Humane Farms. He did so after being presented with a petition containing more than a half-million signatures from supporters of a November ballot initiative mandating more humane treatments for calves, pigs, and laying hens.

The agreement requires the gradual phasing out of pens that prevent veal calves from moving freely, gestation crates for breeding sows, and cramped battery cages that are too small to allow hens to flap their wings and otherwise move about in a normal fashion. The governor also agreed to enact regulations against cock fighting, puppy mills, and keeping exotic pets. "This agreement moves us forward on all of the components of the proposed ballot measure as well as other important advances for animals, too," said Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society president, in a press release.

Gov. Strickland must have been mindful of that old saying: "As California goes, so goes the nation." In November 2008, Californians voted nearly two-to-one in favor of an anti-animal-confinement ballot initiative even tougher than the Ohio proposal. Other politicians in other states would do well to keep the saying in mind should the Humane Society come calling.

An Offer Americans Can—And Will—Refuse

Members of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union and agricultural workers' rights organization, just made an offer that should be greeted with joy by all unemployed Americans: take our jobs. And they have enlisted comedian Stephen Colbert to spread the word on his July 8 Comedy Central broadcast.

Yep, that's right. If you're out of work—and perhaps blaming undocumented foreign laborers for your predicament—here's your chance to take a job from one of them. The UFW has even provided a convenient online application form, though the union cautions that duties include working in 90-plus-degree weather and being able to "bend, stoop, lift, and carry 50-pound weights on a regular basis."

"Agriculture in the United States is dependent on an immigrant workforce. Three-quarters of all crop workers working in American agriculture were born outside the United States," the UFW explains on its website. "According to government statistics, since the late 1990s, at least 50 percent of the crop workers have not been authorized to work legally in the United States. We are a nation in denial about our food supply."

I spent a great deal of time reporting on South Florida's tomato industry this winter. During a time of record unemployment and nonstop home foreclosures in the area, can you guess how many white-skinned, red-blooded Americans I saw stooped over in the fields?

Monsanto's Profits Drop—Again

Hugh Grant, chairman of Monsanto, announced earlier this summer that he expected his company would record dramatically lower profits, largely because of generic competition from Chinese versions of its once-popular weedkiller Roundup. But he put an upbeat spin on the down news, telling Reuters that the company was reducing the importance of Roundup to concentrate on more lucrative matters. "By reducing the uncertainty associated with Roundup, we free Monsanto to grow on its fundamentals. What matters to our long-term growth is our seeds and [genetic] traits business, which is on track."

Grant's predictions were correct, but only partially. Last week Monsanto announced that its third-quarter earnings were down by 45 percent. But what about that all-important GMO seeds business? The Wall Street Journal reported that the company is planning to lower prices on two new lines of GMO soybeans and corn. American farmers haven't taken to the seeds as eagerly as Monsanto had hoped.

So much for being "on track."

Presented by

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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