Why sick dairy cows may be to blame for 2018’s historic recalls of Salmonella-tainted beef

Update, December 4, 2018 at 2:45 p.m., EST: The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has expanded its October 4 recall by five million pounds, bringing the total to nearly 12 million pounds of ground beef. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has revised its count of people sickened by meat recalled from JBS’s plant in Tolleson, Arizona. The agency now confirms 246 illnesses in 24 states. 

Late last week, JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, recalled 6.9 million pounds of ground beef that it said may have been tainted with Salmonella Newport. Here’s what we know four days into the recall: the strain is responsible for sickening 57 people in 16 states. All of the meat came from the same JBS plant in Tolleson, Arizona. And in less than a week, the incident has already reached historic proportions. It’s the largest recall of beef since the notorious Rancho Feeding Inc. recall of 2014. Former USDA food safety specialist Carl Custer has said it’s largest-ever recall of ground beef related to Salmonella.

Still, major questions remain. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may again broaden the scope of the recall, as it already did on Thursday. More stores may be added to the list of affected retailers published over the weekend. And, of course, more Americans may continue to fall ill. But while basic facts—how much meat, from which stores, causing how many illnesses—remain unclear, a larger uncertainty looms. Namely: How does nearly 7 million pounds of beef get exposed to Salmonella in the first place, then get shipped out to the public? What, exactly, went wrong at Tolleson?

When I asked FSIS for additional insight, I was told I’d have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to learn more. JBS did not respond to multiple requests for comment. So far as the official channels are concerned, we’re still largely in the dark.

And yet, the few details voluntarily released are very revealing if you read between the lines, helping to explain why the meat of an estimated 13,000 animals, a small city of cattle, is now headed for the landfill.

The people I spoke to for this story suggest this outbreak had a clear origin point: a dairy farm in the Southwest. That’s important, because dairy cows processed for meat turn out to be a kind of food safety blind spot. For reasons I’ll explain, dairy cows sickened by Salmonella are more likely than healthy ones to be sent to meat plants for slaughter. Once there, they’re likely to be ground up and used as filler in thousands of pounds of beef, dramatically increasing their risk potential. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s no system in place to track or disarm this risk. In fact, thanks to a quirk in food safety law, meatpackers aren’t required to test for Salmonella. And even when it is present, the government can’t really do anything about it—not even if millions of pounds of tainted product are at stake.

While we may never know the exact details of this outbreak, we can look to previous recalls for clues—and established facts point to a massive, ongoing food safety crisis hidden in plain sight.

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Tolleson, Arizona, situated just west of the Phoenix metropolitan area, is surrounded by cows.

Arizona is the 13th highest milk-producing state by volume. Neighboring New Mexico, with 323,000 cows producing more than 8 billion pounds of milk in 2017, ranks in the top ten. But in the realm of livestock transport, where farmers routinely have to drive their animals hundreds of miles to be slaughtered, Tolleson is less than a day’s drive from the country’s most productive dairy region: central and Southern California.

Dairy cows on a farm in California, the country’s most productive dairy state

California is by far the largest milk-producing state in the nation. In San Bernardino County alone, 40,000 dairy cows produced almost a billion pounds of milk in 2017. Heading north from there into lusher, more temperate central California, production only increases. The state’s top five milk-producing counties—Tulare, Merced, Kings, Stanislaus, and Kern—are home to well over a million dairy cows, who churned out about 27 billion pounds of milk in 2017.

The dairy industry’s proximity is a corroborating detail in last week’s recall. But location isn’t the only factor that makes dairy cows the likely culprit. The smoking gun here is epidemiological: Salmonella enterica serotype Newport, the unusual strain of Salmonella implicated in this recall, has been highly linked to dairy cows in the past. In fact, since the mid-1980s, scientists have identified dairy cows as the primary reservoir of Salmonella Newport.

In 1985, Californians in Los Angeles County started getting sick. Further research found that Salmonella Newport was to blame—a specific, multi-drug-resistant strain that came from California dairy farms. Scientists found that same unique strain in ground beef products on the shelf, at the slaughterhouse where those products were processed, at the dairies who’d sent cows for slaughter on the days tainted product was pushed through, and in the bodies of sick cows at those dairies. In the years that followed, the research community began to take note.

Dairy cow meat makes up 20 percent of the U.S. ground beef market.

“Dairy cows have been incriminated as the source of Salmonella Newport-contaminated hamburgers causing foodborne illness,” wrote the authors of a 1997 paper published by the World Organization for Animal Health, an intergovernmental organization that works to control animal disease worldwide. By 2002, after several smaller outbreaks, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledged that “strains of Salmonella enterica serotype Newport are becoming increasingly common in dairy cattle and are causing a growing share of infections in humans.”

Last year, Megin Nichols, a CDC veterinarian, was part of a team of scientists tasked with investigating a recall that had close similarities to JBS’s: Between October 2016 and July 2017, 106 people across 21 states were sickened by Salmonella Newport after eating ground beef. Nichols’s team traced this lesser-known strain of salmonella back to a herd of New Mexico dairy cows. 

Based on the strain detected in this year’s outbreak, dairy cows will be an important potential source to look at in the current investigation, she says.

“Any time that we see the same strain reappear two years in a row, we don’t necessarily automatically think that it is the same, but it does help provide some background information that can guide us,” Nichols says. “Not only is it the same strain [in this case], but it also appears be the same source, which is ground beef.  So, from that, we’re asking some of the same questions that we asked last year regarding the potential sources of contamination.”

In general, experts tend to agree that when Salmonella Newport turns up in ground beef—the exact scenario that lead to last week’s recall—dairy cows are a likely culprit. I was not able to find reference to a Salmonella Newport outbreak linked to ground beef that didn’t originate with dairy cows. And so it seems reasonable to conclude, even though JBS and FSIS have not offered more official information, that this outbreak is no different, especially given the plant’s proximity to dairy country.

JBS issued a recall for 6.9 million pounds of raw beef last week in connection with a drug-resistant Salmonella Newport outbreak. This is likely connected to sick dairy cows that were culled to slaughterhouses through a food-safety loophole. Credit: AHPhotoswpg, October 2018iStock / AHPhotoswpg

Between October 2016 and July 2017, 106 people were sickened by Salmonella Newport after eating ground beef linked to dairy cows 

But how does Salmonella Newport get into dairy cows in the first place, and why is that strain so likely to end up in our hamburgers? This part of the story that has to do with biology, economics, and regulation—and it’s where things start to get very interesting.

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At large-scale, intensive dairies like the ones that proliferate in California, productivity is all-important. Cows are hooked up by their udders to pneumatic sucking devices and placed on “rotary milking parlours,” originally called Rotolactors—a slowly turning wheel of automated milking stalls, kind of like a cow Gravitron. To best earn a living, dairy farmers need to make sure every cow on that wheel is as productive as physically possible. So when a cow’s output significantly drops for any reason, the farmer must make the difficult decision about whether or not to “cull” the cow: to sell it for meat, and find a better-producing replacement to take its place.

Culling is an unfortunate reality of dairy production. Virtually all dairy cows are sold for meat at some point, but farmers never want to sell a cow they’ve invested time, money, and effort in until they really have to. The difficult question farmers continually face is whether it would be cheaper and more efficient to treat a cow’s ailment, losing productivity all the while, or just sell it for meat and replace it.

A sick dairy cow is more likely than a healthy one to make its way into our food.

Routinely, culling makes the most sense. A 2007 USDA report found that roughly a quarter of cows are removed from dairies each year for one reason or another, and that the vast majority of culled cows are sold for meat. That makes for a lot of burgers. Since dairy cows are bred for milking, not for well-marbled steaks, they’re typically ground, not processed into primal cuts. All that dairy cow meat makes up a significant proportion of the U.S. ground beef market—about 20 percent, according to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

That’s where Salmonella comes in. Because when cows get Salmonella—and Salmonella Newport in particular—their milk output starts to drop. This helps explains a contorted fact that’s hard to believe: A sick dairy cow is more likely than a healthy one to make its way into our food.

Salmonella bacteria can get into a dairy herd in a variety of ways. It can be introduced by new replacement cattle carrying it, or brought in by the rodents or wild birds attracted to grain-heavy dairy cow feed. Because of the stress of modern dairies, cows tend to be quite susceptible to these germs, especially as they age.   

“If you can imagine dairy cow environments, there’s a lot of cows, often moving around in a contained space,” says CDC’s Megan Nichols. “One of the things that might really predispose [dairy cows] to infections are some of the environmental factors and just being mixed with hundreds of other cows. I think anytime you bring a large group together, whether it’s a group of people or a herd of cattle, you’re potentially introducing new diseases.”

Facts point to a massive, ongoing food safety crisis hidden in plain sight.

As a result, dairy cattle do frequently harbor Salmonella—though estimates vary widely on how often. A 1994 survey in Washington state found Salmonella in only 4.6 percent of culled dairy cattle. More recently, a 2012 study of dairies on the Texas High Plains found Salmonella in nearly a third—32.6 percent—of culled dairy cows from nine different operations. Research at dairies in New York state found that individual farms ranged dramatically: In some dairy herds, zero percent of cows tested positive for Salmonella, while others tested positive at rates as high as 53 percent. USDA data tell us that over 50 percent of dairies with more than 500 cows are Salmonella-positive, more than half of them clustered in the West and Southwest.

Why isn’t it a bigger deal that Salmonella is so prevalent at large diaries? The dairy industry would argue that Salmonella isn’t really a public health issue, thanks to the miracles of modern milk processing. Since proper pasteurization will kill a range of bacteria including Salmonella, you could argue that it doesn’t really matter if a cow is carrying it or not. Dairy farmers care a lot about Salmonella, but that’s in part because it’s a productivity issue that affects their bottom line.

In fact, dairy farmers may not ever know their cows have Salmonella. Though acute cases can result in a range of noticeable symptoms in cows, including fever, diarrhea, and death, most cases of dairy cow Salmonella are subclinical—they betray no obvious signs. “Subclinical Salmonella may be lurking in your herd, and you’d never know it,” warns a promotional pamphlet published by Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of animal medications. According to Zoetis’s guide, the main thing farmers are likely to notice is a drop in milk production—about 2.5 pounds of milk per infected animal per day, which adds up to more than a ton of milk per week at a heavily infected 500-cow dairy.

JBS issued a recall for 6.9 million pounds of raw beef last week in connection with a drug-resistant Salmonella Newport outbreak. This is likely connected to sick dairy cows that were culled to slaughterhouses through a food-safety loophole. Credit: Zoetis, October 2018Zoetis

A pamphlet by Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of animal medications, warns of the dangers of “hidden” salmonella in a dairy cow herd

Salmonella Newport can also cause what veterinarians call an “abortion storm”—a rash of cows in a herd suffering spontaneous abortion. Cows who suffer an abortion can’t produce milk for the season—enough incentive for farmers, hard-pressed to feed and house and animals that can’t produce, to send them to slaughter. But even cows that see a mild to moderate drop in production are likely to be pulled from the herd. In this way, a strange kind of logic plays out across the industry: The sicker an animal is, the more likely it is to enter the food supply. Because when cows stop producing milk for any reason—whether it’s due to age, stress, or disease—we usually end up eating them.

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When infected dairy cows leave the herd, they take their Salmonella with them. Animals processed at the large plants like the one in Tolleson often travel hundreds of miles to get there, a stressful, crowded journey that makes them more likely to both contract and spread illness. Finally, at the slaughterhouse, the Salmonella that isn’t really a health risk on dairy farms suddenly becomes one. Because meat isn’t pasteurized like milk, after all. Plenty of Americans like their burgers medium-rare.

If dairy cows are more likely than beef cattle to harbor Salmonella, the way they’re processed at slaughterhouses makes them even more likely to spread it. While beef cattle are typically processed in “lots”—cattle of specific types, whether conventional, organic, or 100-percent grass fed are kept separate by attribute and price—dairy cows are blended into a wide spectrum of products. You won’t eat a burger that is all dairy cow; those animals aren’t really raised for meat. Culled dairy cows are frequently used as a kind of padding ingredient that’s mixed in with standard beef.

Meat from dairy cows is spread out across a vast number of patties—millions and millions of them.

“Lean beef trimmings from cull cows are often blended with high-fat content beef trimmings harvested from animals finished in feedlots to facilitate a consistent supply of ground beef that meets certain purchase specifications,” according to a 2012 study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. (The study’s lead author is Guy Loneragan, a Texas Tech University food scientist who tells me he also has a paid role on JBS’s Food Safety and Quality Team.) “As a consequence, beef from culled dairy cows may be broadly incorporated into ground beef products across the United States.”

In other words, meat from dairy cows is spread out across a vast number of patties—millions and millions of them. That’s not a bad thing when the meat doesn’t harbor Salmonella. But when it does, the results can be dramatic. The JBS recall ordered by FSIS affected 49 different JBS product lines, from its Cedar River Farms “natural” beef, to its Grass Run Farms line of grass-fed beef, to its conventional beef sold under Walmart’s “Showcase” label. One reason why FSIS recalled so many different products, and so much meat overall, could be that each of these individual offerings was blended with potentially tainted dairy cow meat.

For more conventional offerings, blending with dairy cow trim is standard and would be unsurprising. But in the case of specialty beef marketed with claims like “100 percent grass-fed,” that’s really not supposed to happen. Was that what went on at Tolleson? Hard to say, because there’s another possibility, too: that only some of JBS’s products were blended with the unsafe beef, but pathogens remained inside processing equipment due to a sanitation issue. In other words, dirty equipment may also have contributed to the problem.  

“When you have a six-week window where you have many, many different types of products implicated, it appears to be a sanitation issue,” says Angela Anandappa, founding director at the Alliance for Advanced Sanitation, and a research assistant professor with the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She points out a full cleaning must take place every 24 hours for slaughter and ground beef operations. “If equipment wasn’t adequately cleaned, Salmonella could haven taken up residence. That’s very possible here.”

The federal government is effectively powerless to stop companies from sending Salmonella-tainted meat out into the public.

FSIS confirmed to me that “processing equipment must be broken down, cleaned and sanitized in between production days,” according to federal regulations. It’s possible that didn’t happen here. But you’d also think that JBS would be testing constantly for signs of virulent pathogens like Salmonella Newport—and if the company had taken the time to look, they would have been able to stop the outbreak in its tracks. After all, we’re talking about millions of pounds of meat that moved through the plant over the course of six weeks. Who would want to risk a recall on that scale? Isn’t constant, stringent safety testing in place to prevent this very thing from happening?

No, actually—and that’s where things get really hard to stomach.  According to USDA rules, Salmonella doesn’t even qualify as an “adulterant” in meat. That means processors aren’t required to test for it. And if it does show up, it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong—technically or legally.

“Presence of Salmonella in meat products does not render them ‘injurious to health,’ and thus ‘adulterated’ per se within meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), as normal cooking practices destroy Salmonella organism,” writes the legal research firm Westlaw. In practice, that means that the federal government is effectively powerless to stop companies from sending Salmonella-tainted meat out into the public.

Case in point: In 2011, FSIS pulled its inspectors and halted production at Supreme Beef, Inc., a Texas processor who was selling Salmonella-tainted ground beef to the state’s public school system. Supreme sued, arguing that the presence of Salmonella was not cause for the government to intervene. Ultimately, the United States Court of Appeals agreed, writing that “cross-contamination of Salmonella alone cannot form the basis of a determination that a plant’s products are adulterated, because Salmonella itself does not render a product ‘injurious to health.’”

Workers at a Texas slaughterhouse, where FSIS inspectors are on hand to ensure meat meets USDA food safety standards. But FSIS can do little to regulate the presence of Salmonella in meat

The presence of Salmonella in meat, then, poses no public safety hazard—at least by any legal definition. Even if Salmonella-tainted product actually starts making people sick, the government has no legal recourse to force a company to recall it, or to punish a company for distributing it in the first place. JBS’s recall of 7 million pounds of beef was entirely voluntary, after allissued not because the government forced its hand, but because the company thought it was a good idea.

“Technically, JBS could have said to FSIS, ‘Forget it, I’m not recalling the product,’” says Bill Marler, food safety lawyer and publisher of the website Food Safety News. “Now, that would not have been a smart move on their part because I can still sue them under state law and collect damages. Or if some little kid gets sick or dies, that would not be a good thing from their perspective.” But companies don’t really have to issue meat recalls for Salmonella, —even though they do for E. coli.

According to Marler, E. coli and Salmonella have had radically divergent public health histories. After the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four (at least three of them children), FSIS moved to make E. Coli an adulterant under FMIA, making it illegal in commerce. As a result, meat processors must test for E. coli, and if it’s found to be present in meat, they can’t sell it. In the wake of that decision, poisonings from E. coli 0157:H7—the most dangerous strain—have fallen by 40 percent since 1994.

When cows stop producing milk for any reason—whether it’s due to age, stress, or disease—we usually end up eating them.

But Salmonella has taken a different path: Its noxious impact has continued unabated. According to CDC, Salmonella is still responsible for 1. 2 million illnesses and 450 deaths every year—and the rate of confirmed cases has held steady.

The government’s lack of regulatory power over Salmonella shrouds the recent JBS recall in secrecy. Because it cannot be said that the company did anything wrong, USDA can’t insist on providing transparency to the public. Legally, JBS is only recalling potentially tainted beef because it wants to. As such, we may never know what really happened.

But that’s why the case I’ve laid out here, though speculative, is important. By reporting on each recall as a one-off, a crisis that’s here one day and gone the next, we fail to connect the larger dots in an increasingly clear picture. There are things we do know, after all. We know that Salmonella Newport has almost always been linked to dairy cows in the past. We know that those sick cows are more likely to be sold to meat plants than their healthy comrades. We know that dairy cow meat is typically treated like filler at the slaughterhouse, processed in a way that dramatically increases its already significant risks. And we know that, if there is a Salmonella-related food safety issue, the government can’t really do anything about it until it is too late.

There’s only one question that remains, really: why, knowing what we know, we don’t do more about it.

Additional reporting contributed by Sam Bloch.

A saffron plant grows in Rhode Island

Dr. Rebecca Brown thought that the sun had set on this year’s saffron harvest. The autumn-blooming plants—which she and her colleague had planted in the University of Rhode Island’s agronomy farm to the northwest of campus—hadn’t produced flowers in days, and winter was imminent.

“We were already a couple of weeks into harvest,” she says. “We thought it was finished.”

Then on Thursday morning, Brown discovered that, unexpectedly, fresh flowers had sprung out from the soil overnight—a sign of just how suitable growing conditions on the Northeast could now be for a lucrative plant that Americans have traditionally imported.

This is the third year that Brown and her colleague, Dr. Rahmatallah Gheshm, have harvested saffron in Rhode Island. Brown is an associate professor of plant sciences, and Gheshm is postdoctoral fellow in agro-ecology. Their harvests are part of an ongoing research project aimed at assessing how viable commercial farming of the crop could be in the Northeast.

Saffron flower in handRahmatallah Gheshm

The disproportionate amount of work that goes into producing each strand makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world, commanding up to $10,000 per pound

“We’re just trying to answer some very basic questions starting with: Can we grow saffron outdoors in Rhode Island?” Brown says. “[We’re] looking at whether we needed to provide winter protection or not, and what sort of planting density would be best here.”

At the center of every saffron flower are three thin, red threads, called stigma. Once extracted, producers sell these stigma as a valuable and aromatic spice, also called saffron, a coveted ingredient in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and European cooking. Its labor-intensive production and the disproportionate amount of work that goes into producing each strand makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world, commanding up to $10,000 per pound. This means that farmers in the Northeast stand to make a lot of money if commercial saffron harvesting could be incorporated into their production schedule.

Saffron plants in Rhode Island don’t appear to need the protection of hoop houses during the winter, when the leaves sprout in scallion-like grasses.

To conduct their research, the scientists planted 6,000 corms—the bulbous beginnings of every saffron flower—into a field measuring approximately 158 square feet. The land was divided into 16 separate plots, each measuring about 13 by 2.5 feet. To find saffron’s optimal growth conditions, Brown and Gheshm varied density among the plots, protected some with hoop houses during the winter, and left others uncovered year-round.

The idea to grow saffron in Rhode Island came to Gheshm after he was inspired by the Vermont-based saffron research of a friend and former classmate he’d met in their shared home country, Iran. He was curious about how harvest of the spice could be transferred to the particular climate of the Ocean State.

“The milder winters encouraged us to try planting saffron outdoors in Rhode Island, in southern New England,” Gheshm says. In Vermont, researchers needed to transfer their saffron plants into hoop houses during the winter to protect them from the cold.

The study’s results won’t be final until after this season’s harvest is over, but Brown and Gheshm tell me that they’ve already gleaned some preliminary findings. For one, saffron plants in Rhode Island don’t appear to need the protection of hoop houses during the winter, when the leaves sprout in scallion-like grasses. After this year’s harvest, Brown and Gheshm plan to conduct a follow-up experiment, looking at how saffron farming might be able to co-exist—particularly in the summer when saffron plants are dormant—with other crops that local farmers already grow. The project has secured funding from the Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Saffron samplesRahmatallah Gheshm

At the center of every saffron flower are three thin, red threads, called stigma. Once extracted, producers sell these stigma as a valuable and aromatic spice

“Could we grow something else like basil or lettuce on that land while the saffron is sleeping underneath?” Brown asks. If so, farmers “could make more money off the space.”

Right now, Iran is the highest saffron-producing country in the world, exporting nearly half of the world’s market, according to UN trade data. However, compared to the sunny, dry conditions in Iran, Rhode Island has a much higher humidity level—the impact of which Brown and Gheshm wanted to observe in their study. So far, however, it appears that the humidity might not be a problem. U.S. is a major saffron buyer, and its demand has never been higher. In 1992, the U.S. imported $3.17 million worth of the spice, a value that has since risen steadily to $16 million last year, according to Census data.

Because of issues like America’s economic sanctions against Iran, Gheshm explains, most of the U.S.’s saffron imports come from through Spain, which is both a major importer and exporter of the spice. Brown believes that local production of saffron can meet the rising demand from American consumers, which she attributes to an increasingly diverse population. What better way to get around a middle man than to grow it in our own backyards?

Public science for private interests: How University of Missouri agricultural research cultivates profits for industry

In 2006, Zhanyuan Zhang, a University of Missouri professor of plant sciences, was approached by Dow AgroSciences. The industry giant came bearing pieces of DNA and a problem for Zhang to solve.

Industrial agriculture faced a new wave of herbicide-resistant weeds in fields worldwide, which threatened to make Roundup — the most popular weedkiller among farmers — useless. Dow wanted to create a new strain of soybeans that could tolerate a different herbicide. Because Zhang is an expert in transforming plant genetics, the company tapped him to help.

This story was republished from The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness and was co-published with the Columbia Missourian. Read original story here.

“They want to hit the market as quickly as possible,” Zhang said. “And they found my lab as a collaborator.”

The public-private collaboration was a success on both sides.

Dow patented the results of the research and used them to develop a slew of new weed-control products, valued at over $1 billion. Meanwhile, Zhang got a multimillion dollar grant, a co-published paper in a prestigious journal and further contracts with Dow.

The partnership is emblematic of the broader system of industry-sponsored research that takes place in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR), and especially in the Division of Plant Sciences. Corporate money goes to MU professors on both ends of the research spectrum, from basic science to product testing.

Industry’s stake in the system is clear. Companies gain the expertise and credibility of renowned plant science experts like Zhang and MU Extension experts who Missouri farmers trust.

What’s not so clear is how the public benefits.

Agricultural companies build relationships with professors and extension personnel so they can learn what farmers need — and thus drive sales. Even some MU professors who take the money point out that companies give in order to benefit their own bottom line.

Read more about the outsize influence agribusiness has on academic research.

Critics say such funding cultivates a culture of influence that tends to bend research toward company goals. This has been well-documented in fields such as medicine, where drug companies often pay physicians who promote their products.

MU and many other public universities believe that researchers should work closely with companies. They explicitly encourage professors to build relationships with private corporations, arguing that these can enrich research and teaching, and that society benefits when intellectual property is commercialized.

But some MU experts play a dual role: They take industry money to evaluate its products, while also providing information about those products to farmers.

Such conflicts of interest have gotten less scrutiny in agricultural research, where the potential consequences are wide-ranging. Soybeans and corn are used in a vast number of ways: They feed people and livestock; they are found in lotions, soaps and cleaning supplies; they are the basis of biofuels. The pesticides studied by MU researchers blanket fields worldwide.

One thing is evident: Industry money will continue to have a key place in the university’s funding landscape. MU wants to radically increase its external funding levels in the next few years. And in an era when federal funding is flat and competition for such grants is fierce, where else will researchers go for funds?

Plant Sciences stand out

The fact that researchers in MU’s Division of Plant Sciences receive research money from industry isn’t unexpected.

The division houses researchers in fields such as entomology, agronomy and plant pathology. Its faculty members’ research areas — which include agricultural production, pest management and plant breeding — that intersect with industry interests. MU has a reputation for excellent agricultural programs in general and, because the university is nestled in farm country, agribusiness is always nearby; St. Louis-based Monsanto is practically a local company.

But the amount of industry funding the division receives stands out when compared to other CAFNR departments, according to a Missourian analysis of funding data from fiscal year 2009 to 2018. Download PDF

Plant science funding pie chart

Plant Sciences received about 13.8% of its external funding directly from industry sources, including agrochemical and seed companies Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. That translates to $13 million of the department’s $94 million, a total that includes funding for Plant Science’s extension programs.

While the School of Natural Resources brought in almost as many total dollars, it received a negligible proportion of corporate money — less than 1%. That’s similar to other departments in CAFNR, including Food Systems & Bioengineering and Applied Social Science.

After Plant Sciences, the next largest recipient of corporate money was the Division of Animal Sciences, but it got only 6.7% of its external funding from industry sources.

Plant Sciences is also an outlier among departments across campus.

Among the 18 departments that brought in $40 million or more from industry sources, the Department of Medicine was the only one that had a higher percentage from corporate sources, at 22.4%. There are other departments — including many in the School of Medicine — that bring in higher proportions, though they all bring in significantly less total funding.

Shibu Jose, interim associate dean in CAFNR’s office of research and extension, said in an emailed statement that CAFNR’s largest contributors are federal research agencies. These include the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

CAFNR’s website features a graphic stating that 58% of its research expenditures in 2017 were federal.

But a closer comparison reveals a more complex story.

Only 40.3% of Plant Science’s external funding for fiscal years 2009 to 2018 was federal in origin, according to the Missourian’s data analysis. This was far less than its sister departments, Animal Science at 83.9% and Natural Resources at 77.4%.

“Funding sources that are needed and available to support research of specific arenas vary,” Jose wrote.

Researchers pursue funding based on their interests, and it’s to be expected that the research portfolio of Plant Sciences will differ from that of other departments, Jose wrote. Download PDF

Plant science sponsors bar graphBut plant sciences, as a scientific field, is not uniquely tied to industry.

While researchers at MU’s School of Natural Resources receive almost no corporate money, the field overlaps with industry interests, including those of fossil fuel companies. For example, ExxonMobil and other companies have given millions in research funding to the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University, according to High Country News.

Plant Sciences is “one of the very top research groups in the nation, and as such, would be expected to attract more funding from all sources, including industry organizations,” Jose wrote.

His answer did not specifically address the differing percentages.

It’s not just industry money that compensates for Plant Sciences’ lower levels of federal funding, though. Plant Sciences also pulls in proportionately more grant funding from nonprofit industry organizations, foundations and other universities. Some of these organizations are directly tied to industry.

For example, the division received over $13 million from the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council — the most from any single funder. The council is a non-profit checkoff organization, which collects fees from soybean producers to fund research and advertising to promote the industry. Download PDF

External sponsors bar graph

From a $2.6 million grant to a $1 billion product

Within CAFNR, researchers’ funding portfolios vary widely.

Of the 280-plus CAFNR researchers — including those in extension — who secured external funding, 210 didn’t receive any industry money, according to the Missourian’s analysis. Of those who did, only 11 got more than $500,000. Eight were in Plant Sciences. Four Plant Sciences professors and one Animal Sciences professor each brought in over $1 million.

Zhang, the professor of Plant Sciences, brought in the most by far. About $4 million of his $5.7 million total funding came from industry.

Zhang’s Plant Biotechnology Innovation Laboratory collaborates with both public organizations and private companies. But while the research his lab does for a sponsor is very similar, the goal in each case is different, Zhang said.

For the companies the goal is profit, he said, “but the public (research) is just for the discovery — for the scientific discovery.”

When Zhang began his collaborations with the agrochemical company then-known as Dow AgroSciences, its main goal was to develop a new product: a herbicide-resistant soybean.

For years, farmers have sprayed the herbicide glyphosate — commonly sold under the brand-name Roundup — on crops that have been genetically altered to survive the weedkiller. Monsanto pioneered the system in the mid-1990s, and it has been efficient for farmers and immensely profitable for industry.

In recent decades, though, there has been a spike in glyphosate-resistant weeds caused by overuse of the herbicide.

One of Dow’s solutions was to combine glyphosate with 2,4-D, which is another herbicide, and develop a soybean resistant to both.

Dow had a gene it thought would work, but at the time, it had no way of putting it into a soybean seed to find out for sure. It could do the work in other crops, like corn, but engineering new soybeans is tricky.

That’s where Zhang and his lab came in.

His lab successfully engineered and tested a soybean that was resistant to 2,4-D. Dow provided $2.6 million in grants and used the results to help develop its herbicide-seed combo, marketed as the Enlist weed control system.

Zhang and his collaborators shared the results of the work in a 2010 paper, though Dow had already taken steps to secure its ownership of the key genes. The company filed to patent them in 2006.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the commercial planting of the soybeans (and 2,4-D-resistant corn) in 2014, although actual sales of the new herbicide didn’t begin until 2015. Dow’s head of research and development told Reuters that Enlist was “the most important release we’ve had.”

Dow estimated Enlist’s value to the company would be over $1 billion.

‘Absolutely critical’ to industry profits

In Pengyin Chen’s decades of experience in the soybean world, he’s never been much impressed by industry’s generosity.

“Companies don’t give us a penny,” Chen said. “They benefit from our research. A company’s goal is to make money, not to give money away.”

Chen is the David M. Haggard Endowed Professor of Soybean Breeding at MU, and he has headed the Fisher Delta Research Center’s soybean breeding program since 2016. Before that, he was at the University of Arkansas, and his work has spanned the research spectrum, from developing new breeds of soybean to doing service orders.

University research on dicamba, which received scrutiny because of the widespread crop damage it caused in recent years, was funded by service orders.

But the companies he’s worked with aren’t interested in investing in basic science, Chen said, adding that there’s really no such thing as “company-sponsored research.”

“Anything we release, they can make use of,” he said. “It’s kind of a second step, taking what we find to benefit their commercial pipelines.”

Why does a massive company need to collaborate with MU to fill its product pipelines?

After all, before Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018, the two companies announced that they planned to spend $16 billion on research and development over the next six years. The combined $4 million that the companies spent on research at MU over the 10 years examined by the Missourian seems minuscule by comparison.

It’s impossible to generalize about what companies might need from a university, said Steven Padgette, a managing director at the private equity firm Paine Schwartz.

Padgette was formerly the vice president of R&D investment strategy at Monsanto, where he worked from 1984 to 2016.

MU researchJason Vance/Columbia Missourian

Grain sorghum sprouts from tiny tissue cultures on Dec. 4, 2018, at MU’s Sears Plant Growth Facility. Zhanyuan Zhang is working to advance transgenic technology’s applications in the field of agriculture.

Padgette said a large company would usually turn to universities and their extension programs when it needs to understand exactly how a product might work for a customer. It’s about harnessing on-the-ground expertise.

“The weed science departments, the extension services, the entomology departments, agronomy departments — those professors in those types of departments are absolutely critical for the product development because they are very knowledgeable about what the farmers’ problems are and what solutions might be,” he said.

That role as an aid to Missouri farmers and an ear to their practical problems is one MU Extension prides itself on.

Because the university serves the people of Missouri, it’s the most unbiased source of information, said Lee Miller, an MU Plant Sciences professor who works in both research and extension.

“We’re not tied to anybody,” he said. “We’re here to solve problems and to answer questions, and to try and improve society — that’s what we’re here for.”

A culture of industry influence

At the heart of this relationship is a potential conflict.

MU researchers who have studied a product are clearly qualified to talk about it. And if a new bioengineered seed or herbicide can solve a problem, it makes sense for them to recommend it.

The fact that researchers at public universities take money from agricultural companies to study their products — and then make recommendations about those products — has been heavily criticized. The financial relationship, critics argue, aligns with industry’s commercial interests and encourages the overuse of industrial farming methods such as pesticides.

There are multiple ways that industry money can influence agricultural research at a land grant university, said John Ikerd, MU professor emeritus of agricultural economics. He retired from MU in 2000 and was also a state co-coordinator for sustainable agriculture extension programs in Missouri from 1995 to 2000.

Apart from obvious things such as gifts to the university, companies often cultivate relationships with particular professors, Ikerd said.

Researchers might get grants for projects of interest to a corporation, Ikerd said. If the results are favorable to a corporation’s interests, a researcher will likely get more funding when he or she needs it for a particular project.

“Once you acclimate a professor to a research partnership it’s going to alter their perceptions and what they say about those companies,” he said.

But even if you don’t wish to accept industry money, you have to tread carefully, Ikerd said.

“Industry creates a culture in which it can be very hard to resist their influence,” he said.

One way that industry shapes research is simply by selecting the type of work that gets done in the first place.

The thing about industry money is that it goes toward solving problems through more chemical use, said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The council is a national not-for-profit organization that advocates for laws and policies to protect the environment.

To tackle the issue of glyphosate resistance in weeds, for example, industry is just going to pair chemicals with other chemicals, Sass said.

And that’s exactly what Zhang’s research did. His lab’s work on soybeans for Dow AgroSciences led to a new weed control system that encourages the use of 2,4-D and glyphosate together.

It’s a paradox that also concerns Ikerd.

“Until you are willing to move away from (industrialized agriculture), every solution seems to create another problem,” Ikerd said. “This is good for the bottom line of corporate supplier of ‘solutions’ but not for farmers or society in general.”

In the weed science scientific community, this has been called a “herbicide treadmill;” overuse of one herbicide spawns weeds it can no longer kill, which prompts the switch to a different herbicide — and on and on. In October 2018, the presence of 2,4-D-resistant waterhemp was confirmed in Missouri.

“This trend would move us in the opposite direction of the reduced chemical inputs that scientists in sustainable agriculture have long advocated,” wrote several professors in a 2012 article.

Their paper, published in the scientific journal BioScience, was prompted in part by Monsanto and Dow’s development of dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant crops. The authors also argued that the creation of these crops would push farmers to buy them, regardless of whether they even use the weedkillers.

“(O)nce an initial number of growers in a region adopts the resistant traits, the remaining growers may be compelled to follow suit,” they wrote. Doing so would reduce the risk of damage to their own crops caused by herbicide drift or misuse by their neighbors.

There are pest control methods that don’t rely primarily on chemical inputs. The research programs and extension outreach that could encourage their use also needs financial support, yet agrochemical and seed companies have “little incentive” to invest in them, the scientists wrote.

After all, such methods would mean fewer sales.

The stakes of getting funded

MU’s administration has been vocal about its desire to drastically increase research funding from all sources, including industry.

In February 2018, MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said the university intends to double its funding from federal, philanthropic and private sponsors within five years to $400 million — an aggressive, ambitious proposal.

MU’s annual external funding levels have hovered around $200 million for the past decade, according to the Missourian’s data analysis. The highest was in fiscal 2010, when the total reached around $250 million. The lowest was $184 million, in fiscal 2013.

MU’s strategy for doing this includes the NextGen Precision Health Institute, a cutting-edge facility that the university envisions will support 60 researchers who each generate $900,000 in grants per year. The UM System will also put $50 million into fostering collaborative, multi-researcher projects that can secure more external funding, said UM System President Mun Choi in September 2018.

CAFNR aims to add at least 20% more research positions over the next five to six years, Jose wrote.

This institutional effort to double research funding comes in an era of stagnant federal funding, especially for basic research.

This trend in federal money troubles Chen, the professor of soybean breeding.

“Think about the agriculture industry as a whole, where we are in the 21st century, how much progress we’ve made. It’s all coming from public research,” he said.

It’s not only the products and technology that universities have helped develop, but it’s also the people they train, Chen said.

“And yet, our funding has been decreasing since the 1980s,” he said.

This also has implications for the work Extension does. Extension takes research done by MU professors, including those in CAFNR, translates it into practical applications and communicates it to the public. The vast majority of that research is government funded.

For the university, boosting the flow of grant money means raising its profile among the Association of American Universities — a yearslong campaign that has survived MU’s changing administrations.

For individual researchers, though, the stakes of securing grant funding are much higher.

The university funds some of Miller’s extension programs, as well as his salary and a little bit of research funding. But that’s it.

“I have a research technician that I have to find funding for his salary. I have to find funding for graduate students,” he said. “I have to find funding for all of the research … So that all comes down to me and grants and contracts and things like that.”

Preparing and sending grant proposals swallows his time, but it’s an inevitable part of the job. And if he can’t secure the funding he needs?

“I’d be sitting here in an empty office,” Miller said.

Brendan Crowley contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, [email protected].

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org

Thinly sliced: New tariffs on European cheese could narrow the price gap for American producers

This is the web version of a list we publish twice-weekly in our newsletter. It comprises the most noteworthy food stories of the moment, selected by our editors. Get it first here.

From urchin to uni. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the kelp forest between the Bay Area and Oregon has declined by 90 percent, and seaweed-munching urchins are a big part of the problem. A Norwegian company called Urchinomics has a plan: Gather them up, fatten them, and serve them for dinner. If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em?

Into the wild. In 1980, there were 17 million hunters in the U.S. By 2016, that number had plummeted to 11 million. That drop has resulted in a corresponding decline in revenue for state wildlife agencies, which collect most of their funds through hunting licenses or taxes on gear. To reverse the trend, states are launching initiatives to get more young people, people of color, and women into hunting, Pew’s Stateline reports. The idea is to reduce economic, social, and knowledge barriers and unite people of different backgrounds over a love of local food. Get your hand in the game—get it? Also notable: the word “hipnecks.”

It’s still good! The former staff of Deadspin, a sports-and-more site that was recently eviscerated by new owners, are finding new homes. Drew Magary, a columnist, is now at Vice, where he’s continuing to answer nagging questions about everyday minutiae. Like, for instance: What’s the most-thrown away food? And the completely speculative, unscientific answer? We’re not spoiling it for you, but it ain’t wasabi.

Body by butter. The Minnesota Timberwolves might have the most sophisticated nutrition program in pro basketball—aggregating data from games and practices to design individually optimized meals. Sounds neat, but as Charles Barkley says, analytics aren’t everything. ESPN reports the team consulted with Regina Culver, mother of the 20-year-old rookie Jarrett, to figure out how to make his eggs, because their data-crunched omelettes were making him sick. “He is such a routine kid,” Regina says, sloshing in whole milk and a spoonful of salted butter.

American cheese, but good. New tariffs on European cheeses could provide American producers an upper hand. While American cheeses (as distinct from American cheese) usually cost more due to economies of scale, the prices of imported cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano, Roquefort, manchego, Swiss, and cheddar will likely rise, The Washington Post reports. Last month, an American creamery beat thousands of entries at the 2019 World Cheese Awards, for the first time ever, a possible sign of things to come.

New study shows the EAT-Lancet diet is unaffordable for at least 1.6 billion people

Earlier this year, a groundbreaking study from the EAT-Lancet Commission outlined a climate-friendly path to feeding 10 billion people “within planetary boundaries.” Its recommendations included limiting meat consumption to about an ounce per day, or roughly two chicken nuggets, and bulking up on low-impact foods like beans. 

The backlash was swift. Critics argued that scaling back on meat would devastate smallholder farmers who rely on animals for income. Others claimed the report was based on outdated nutritional science. Some thought the diet was just too hard to follow; our writer Sam Bloch agreed after trying it for a week. Public launch events were controversial, or sparsely attended. Almost a year later, the negative press coverage refuses to die: As recently as this week, the president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association pointed to reports that one of the study’s backers had invested in an airline, saying the move “exposes complete hypocrisy and hidden agendas.” (He has a point: By some calculations, the carbon footprint of a single transatlantic flight is larger than a year of meat consumption.)

That would mean rich people eating less animal-sourced food and poor people eating more.

A new study from researchers at Tufts University and the International Food Policy Research Institute adds a wrinkle to the debate: the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet commission is simply unaffordable for an estimated 1.58 billion people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

To get these numbers, the researchers cross-referenced local income data with the retail prices of 744 foods in 159 countries. They based their model on the lowest-cost diet that conformed to the recommendations made in the report and found that following the EAT-Lancet diet would cost a median of $2.84 per day globally. It was also about 60 percent more expensive than a diet that met minimum nutritional requirements, largely because it includes high-cost meat and dairy. 

“The original EAT-Lancet Commission, and the reference diet that they published, was intended to provide a bull’s eye, if you will, or a focus point of attention, towards which global diets could converge,” says Will Masters, a professor of nutrition and economics at Tufts University who worked on the report. “They recognized from the start that, if the world were to converge on the EAT-Lancet reference diet, that would mean rich people eating less animal-sourced food and poor people eating more. What we’ve done is just to quantify how much more expensive and out of reach that reference diet is for the poorest.”

The Green Revolution gave us enough starches to survive; if we want to sustain a growing population, we have to invest in other food groups.

So what will it take to make this diet more affordable? The researchers write that such a change would require “some combination of higher incomes and lower prices.” This could mean revamping existing social safety nets to provide better coverage or supporting specific programs that aim to bring down the cost of healthy foods. The Green Revolution gave us enough starches to survive; if we want to sustain a growing population, we have to invest in other food groups.

Masters cites eggs as an example. Crops, he says, are produced efficiently by small-scale farmers. But foods like eggs, which are rich in protein and other nutrients, are much cheaper to produce at a large scale. “Having chickens that lay eggs is a much lower cost per egg if you can put the chickens in a bigger coop and manage them in a more efficient way,” he says. “If you want low-cost eggs, you’re going to need some specialized egg producers, and then a distribution system around that … Backyard chickens are very important. But they’re not a good source of eggs.” 

Of course, higher incomes and lower food costs are just one step in the process. Once people have enough money to buy foods that match the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission, there’s no guarantee that they will (or even necessarily should) make choices that conform to it. 

But no one ever really expected the EAT-Lancet Commission to dictate the contents of the world’s shopping cart. Its report is more of a jumping-off point for further discussion about how our planet can feed 10 billion people. And, given the debate the diet continues to generate nearly a year after its release, it seems to have succeeded.

Olive oil lobby to FDA: Regulate us, please

The olive oil industry wants more government oversight. On Monday, the American Olive Oil Producers Association (AOOPA) formally requested the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set and enforce quality standards for different kinds of olive oil. In a citizens’ petition, it argued that the current dearth of industry regulation is causing “widespread mislabeling of grades, adulteration, consumer mistrust, and unfair and unethical industry business practices.”

“There is so much differentiation within the ‘extra virgin olive oil’ category that this grade fails to provide consumers with any benchmark for assessing quality or pricing,” the petition reads.

In general usage, extra virgin olive oil refers to the purest form of the oil, extracted directly from the fruit through pressing. Lower grades of the product—you might see them labeled simply as “virgin” or “refined”—undergo varying additional refinement processes, and they are typically allowed a higher acid content and the use of some additives. A related, cheaper product, called olive-pomace oil, is extracted by treating olive pulp with solvents—consider it the juice of leftovers. As an eater, you may be able to detect certain defects among these less-than-extra-virgin oils, particularly rancid odors.

“Right now, a consumer can’t make an informed choice because nearly everything is labeled ‘extra virgin’ despite the fact that very little of it actually is.”

The main issue, according to olive oil producers, isn’t the existence of these lesser-quality olive oils, but that a lack of oversight that allows such oils to be marketed as “extra virgin.”

“Our hope is that we see all those graded properly—that we have extra virgin [olive oil] on the shelf, virgin [olive oil] on the shelf, others, and consumers can make an informed choice based on what they’re looking for and their price point,” says Adam Englehart, AOOPA chair. “Right now, a consumer can’t make an informed choice because nearly everything is labeled ‘extra virgin’ despite the fact that very little of it actually is.”

Englehart’s claim is corroborated by evidence that olive oil is frequently mislabeled. In 2011, a team of researchers at the University of California Davis analyzed samples of popular olive oils labeled as “extra virgin.” Scientists found that, among the five top-selling olive oil brands in the U.S., 73 percent of samples failed to meet the International Olive Council’s definition of “extra virgin.” (More on those definitions later.) In 2015, a consumer group found that more than half of a selection of nationally-available extra virgin olive oil brands were mislabeled, which played a role in prompting this week’s petition. Anecdotally, the issue of mislabeled extra-virgin olive oil has been extensively covered, including the notable case of Operation Yellow Gold in Europe—where authorities busted an organized crime ring making $9 million a year by selling low quality oil as “extra virgin.”

Businesses love spending thousands to make sure they adhere to voluntary guidelines.

Currently, olive oil standards are shaped by a patchwork of overlapping, yet largely unenforced guidelines established by both domestic and international stakeholders. Stateside, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has quality standards for various grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil. It even runs a monitoring program that allows producers to submit olive oil samples and a hefty monthly fee in exchange for federal testing and permission to use a USDA seal on product labels—because businesses love spending thousands to make sure they adhere to voluntary guidelines. According to USDA, only two olive oil brands are listed as participants in the program right now, and they’re owned by the same parent company.

USDA’s current olive oil grading system was established in 2010, a development which was largely informed by an intergovernmental organization called the International Olive Council (IOC). IOC mandates olive oil standards among member countries, which include many Mediterranean nations but not the U.S. Both USDA and IOC standards require that EVOO acidity remain under 0.8 percent, while differing in limits for two nutrients, linolenic acid and campesterol. Plenty of states, including New York, and Oregon, codified today’s olive oil standards before USDA updated them most recently in 2010. Other olive oil associations, including the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) and the California Olive Oil Association, have their own quality approval programs.

All of these competing and often redundant parameters can be potentially confusing to anyone who just needs a bottle of the stuff to make dinner this week. AOOPA wants FDA to adopt the standards and practices currently in place in California. In 2014, the state agriculture department began requiring government and third-party testing of olive oil produced in the state by growers who generate 5,000 gallons of it or more annually. Since then there has been an  uptick in EVOO label consistency, per a report produced by the state-run Olive Oil Commission of California.

It might be extra virgin at the point of bottling, but then lose its prized qualities rapidly over the course of the journey from factory to kitchen.

Producers who specialize in extra virgin olive oil believe that enforcement of national standards can reduce the number of companies taking advantage of the premium that “extra virgin” commands.

“When there’s a financial benefit, you’re going to have people to try to cheat,” Greg Traynor, a farmer who produces extra virgin olive oil on California’s central coast. (Traynor isn’t a member of AOOPA.) “It puts the people that are following the standards at a competitive disadvantage to people that may be mislabeling a product.”

When it comes to EVOO, time is of the essence. Because olive oil is perishable, it might be extra virgin at the point of bottling, but then lose its prized qualities rapidly over the course of the journey from factory to kitchen, after exposure to heat, light, and time. For that reason, producers want FDA to regulate olive oil rather than USDA. While USDA sets grades and standards for agricultural products—everything from “prime” beef to “extra fancy” apples—FDA has oversight over packaged foods, which is what olive oil is by the time it ends up on grocery shelves. (For its part, FDA requires oil products that mix olive oil with other oils state as much on their labels.)

“While testing and production is helpful, it doesn’t necessarily ensure that that product on the shelf is in fact extra virgin,” Englehart says.

Some industry stakeholders have different ideas on how olive oil standards should be set. In a statement, NAOOA, which represents olive oil importers, announced it had plans to file a separate petition to FDA. It intends to ask the agency to design olive oil guidelines more akin to those set by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, called Codex. California’s standards, which AOOPA wants FDA to set nationwide, differ slightly from Codex’s, largely in terms of acidity levels.

Joseph Profaci, executive of NAOOA, tells me that the organization originally intended to file its own petition by the end of the year, but that AOOPA’s announcement this week “shifted things around.”

Ultimately, Profaci believes that all industry stakeholders share the same end goals, despite varying ideas on how to reach them.

“We have some differences, but I don’t think they’re substantial,” he says. “I’m really optimistic that we’re going to have a standard of identity to protect American consumers and to regulate the industry. We’re on a good track.”

Thinly sliced: Why did FDA keep quiet about another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce?

This is the web version of a list we publish twice-weekly in our newsletter. It comprises the most noteworthy food stories of the moment, selected by our editors. Get it first here.

Slippery when wet. Olive oil companies are asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create an official definition for the stuff, as well as for terms like “virgin,” “extra virgin,” and “refined.” Why? Because too many Americans think they’re buying EVOO, but are actually cooking with low-quality, old, or rancid oils according to a petition filed yesterday. These definitions, known as standards of identity, are at the foundation of almost all labeling lawsuits. Politico reports it is about “restoring consumer trust.”

Aw, nuts. Cashew-based dairy analogs may not be the ethical choice they’re marketed as. Quartz delves into how cashews are processed—through forced manual labor in places like India, Vietnam, and Côte d’Ivoire. The supply chain is fraught with labor abuse and it seems to be getting worse as demand grows steadily. Americans are the second-highest consumers of cashews, incidentally, to be outdone only by India.

Poison pen. There was another national outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce this summer, sickening consumers in a dozen states. Didn’t hear about it? That’s because FDA and CDC sat on the information until Halloween, angering food safety advocates and calling the agencies’ credibility into question. In a largely unprecedented move, industry publication Food Safety News has decided to post a statement on all its related stories for the next six weeks: “At this time, the credibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not to be trusted. Both agencies have shown a reckless disregard for the public’s right to know, and their reliability going forward remains suspect.”

The burger immortal. The last McDonald’s cheeseburger sold in Iceland in 2009 is still standing—and currently being live streamed by 400,000 people daily. “I had heard that McDonald’s never decompose so I just wanted to see if it was true or not,” Hjortur Smarason told AFP. Smarason donated the hamburger and fries to the National Museum of Iceland, but the institution rejected it, because it was “not equipped” to preserve the food. No matter: The burger now lives at the Snotra House, a hostel in southern Iceland, where you can take a selfie with it.

What’s your AGE number? There’s more to eating healthy than watching your sugar and salt intake: You should also probably consider your AGEs, aka “advanced glycation end-products.” AGEs are compounds found in food that has been cooked using high heat, such as through deep-frying or grilling. In the past few decades, scientists have drawn significant correlations between the presence of AGEs in food and spikes in AGEs in the body, which researchers have further linked to cancer and other chronic diseases. The Post and Courier follows one South Carolina scientist’s journey exploring the connection between AGEs and cancer.

Midwest farmers have taken a beating from the U.S.-China trade wars. Why are they sticking with Trump?

America’s farmers have borne the brunt of China’s retaliation in the trade war that President Donald Trump launched in 2018.

One reason: China is the biggest buyer of many U.S. agricultural products, such as soybeans, grain sorghum, cotton and cattle hides, which made these products an obvious target for retaliatory tariffs.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the original article here.

The other related reason is more strategic: China hoped inflicting economic costs on U.S. farmers – who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 – would in turn put pressure on the president to end his trade war.

Although farmers have lost billions of dollars in exports, China’s strategy hasn’t created the intended effect, with surveys of farmers continuing to show strong support for the president.

We conducted our own survey of corn and soybean farmers. Published in October, it suggests three reasons farmers support Trump’s trade policies despite the costs.

Easing the pain

Undoubtedly, China’s retaliatory tariffs on almost all U.S. agricultural exports, most notably soybeans, feed grains and pork products, have been painful for farmers.

China bought anywhere from $20 billion to $26 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products a year from 2012 to 2017. Chinese purchases plunged to $9.2 billion in 2018 and are on a slightly higher pace so far this year. Soybean exports alone fell 75% from 2017 to 2018.

Over 80% of the 693 Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota farmers we surveyed from February through June said trade disruptions had an adverse effect on their net farm income in 2018. Almost a third reported that their income dropped by over 20%.

But the Trump administration’s efforts to ease their pain have paid off. The administration gave soybean, sorghum and other farmers $12 billion in assistance in 2018, which the vast majority of our survey participants found useful. The survey was conducted before an additional $16 billion in payments went to farmers this year, both to offset trade losses as well as the effects of too much rain.

Long-term gains

We also found that farmers largely view the trade disruption as short-term pain for long-term gain.

While only 14% think their farm operations will be better off financially a year from now, more than half said they expected something good to ultimately come out of the trade war. And about 44% said they believe the U.S. economy will be stronger in three years. China’s 2017 decision to allow imports of U.S. beef and its 2020 national ethanol mandate also give farmers hope for new export opportunities.

In other words, most farmers are prepared to sacrifice income for a while on the belief they’ll make up for it down the road. Since agriculture is a highly cyclical industry, this sanguine view is understandable.

In fact, U.S. agricultural exports to China this year rebounded a bit compared with a year ago, thanks to China’s recent exemptions of tariffs on U.S. soybeans and pork products.

Frustration with China

Finally, we found a growing frustration with China’s erratic buying behavior.

For example, China shut out U.S. beef for 14 years over a mad cow scare in 2003, keeping the ban more than a decade after other countries like Japan and South Korea lifted theirs.

Chinese purchase of products such as distillers grains or corn sometimes just disappear. These may have been offshoots of adjustments China made to its corn support policy, but, from the perspective of U.S. farmers, Chinese demand for certain U.S. agricultural commodities has been annoyingly inconsistent.

Although we didn’t ask survey participants a specific question on this topic, many farmers provided their own unsolicited comments that voiced this frustration.

“The Chinese do not play by the rules,” one Illinois farmer said. “They cancel shipment orders that are not in their favor. They continue to steal our patents. Only President Trump has tried to stop these unfair trade practices.”

Or as a farmer from Minnesota explained: “China imposed the tariffs and refused to buy soybeans in an attempt to hurt our agriculture and get us to turn against a president they do not want. They have been stealing technology and jobs for too long and giving us back inferior goods. Prior to this, they manipulated our markets by buying and then canceling or refusing shipments of grain.”

The possibility of relief

Our survey showed that most farmers recognize that they will continue to be the biggest victims of the U.S.-China trade war and will likely lose markets–some permanently–as China diversifies away from American producers.

As one Illinois farmer who was less supportive of tariffs put it, “we are not the only game in town.” U.S. agricultural exports will face growing competition from Brazil on soybeans and from Europe and Australia on meat.

Yet 56% still said they supported imposing tariffs on Chinese products, while only 30% oppose them.

The latest news that China and the U.S. are poised to sign “phase one” of a possible comprehensive trade deal–which involves China committing to buy $40 billion to $50 billion worth of U.S. farm products–offers the possibility of relief for farmers. And so, heading into an election year, it will likely bolster support for Trump and his strong-arm trade policies.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

Tyson settles with government over fraudulent inspection records

Tyson Foods has reached a $1-million settlement with the federal government after the meat giant alleged that a Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector lied about her work and forced the company to throw out thousands of pig carcasses. 

“This was an unfortunate situation and we appreciate the USDA for working with us to address our losses,” a Tyson spokesman told The New Food Economy. 

Tyson is a titan of the food industry, pulling in over $40 billion in annual revenue. The Springdale, Arkansas, meatpacker slaughters more chickens and cattle than any other American company, employing 121,000 people at over 120 plants and offices. It’s responsible for 20 percent of all beef, pork and chicken produced in America, including McDonald’s chicken nuggets and Walmart’s ground beef, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Pork isn’t its main business.)

“Establishments continue to produce products that are bought and consumed by Americans with the USDA seal when, in reality, little to no inspection has occurred at all.”

In May, the company sued the United States, claiming that a USDA veterinarian, Yolanda Thompson, had signed inspection certificates for 4,622 slaughtered hogs at its Storm Lake, Iowa, plant on March 26, 2018. The company claimed that video footage showed Thompson hadn’t entered the plant that day, and in fact, signed those forms in her car. 

Federal meat inspectors are required to visually inspect animal carcasses, to make sure they’re safe to eat.

By the time plant officials found out, it was too late to remove the pigs from production. Unable to separate them, the company said it was forced to destroy around 8,000 hog carcasses. In its complaint, it sought over $2.48 million in damages, including $1.85 million for destroyed carcasses, and $315,000 in cancelled sales.

That’s a lot of pigs, though only a fraction of the 21 million that Tyson processes every year, according to company data. As the Trump administration pursues a plan to privatize meat inspection, federal meat inspectors say they’re already understaffed, and don’t have the ability to do their jobs.

A nine-month investigation found that in some USDA districts, one in seven federal meat and poultry inspector positions were vacant, at a total of nearly 700 nationwide. That shortage forces some inspectors to cover double and triple the number of plants for which they’re normally scheduled.

Thompson’s normal assignment was a nearby turkey plant. She’d been assigned extra shifts at Tyson to cover the short staffing.

The situation is particularly bad in the Des Moines district, where Thompson works, with a 17 percent vacancy rate for inspectors in March. Multiple inspectors in that region said they’d been pushed into overtime, with at least one reporting consecutive 70-hour work weeks.

At the time of the alleged falsification, Thompson’s normal assignment was a nearby turkey plant. She’d been assigned extra shifts at Tyson to cover the short staffing, according to a union rep. 

“Establishments continue to produce products that are bought and consumed by Americans with the USDA seal when, in reality, little to no inspection has occurred at all,” a veteran inspector in Nebraska wrote last year. “I don’t feel like I’m crying wolf here. I’ve been in this agency for a long time, seen the best of the best and the worst of the worst. How we are protecting the consumer right now is lacking.”

The department has denied that there’s an inspector shortage, and claimed that 100 percent of all carcasses in USDA-certified plants are inspected. 

Whether that figure includes the hogs in the Storm Lake plant isn’t clear. The department still has not conceded it’s at fault.

Uncle Sam wants you to eat more shark

Late last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sent out a newsletter featuring a potentially surprising piece of advice: For a sustainable source of protein, try eating shark sometime. NMFS is an arm of the federal science agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and it’s responsible for protecting fish populations and their ocean habitats.

“While overfishing has greatly depleted some shark populations overseas, U.S. shark fisheries are some of the most sustainable in the world,” it read. I did a double take, racking my memory for the last time I saw shark as an option at the grocery store or on a restaurant menu. The press release seemed to run contrary to my general sense that shark populations were in jeopardy everywhere.

NMFS estimates that U.S. fishermen landed more than 28 million pounds of shark in 2017, 8.6 million pounds of which were exported.

In August, for example, scientists warned that levels of the popular shortfin mako shark in the Atlantic ocean—for which NMFS has catch limits—are so overfished that they would require until 2045 to fully recover, even if a total harvesting ban were enacted. In July, the Animal Welfare Institute published its annual directory of restaurants whose menus include dishes made from shark fin, rising demand for which contributes to declining shark stocks. And in 2013, researchers issued this dire warning: Commercial fisheries kill approximately 100 million sharks every year, far faster than the rate at which sharks can repopulate.

So why is NMFS encouraging eaters to eat more shark? Pointing to its strict fishing quotas, the agency suggests that eaters buying American-caught shark can now do so without guilt.

“[U.S. shark fishermen’s] decades of stewardship should be recognized at the market,” NMFS specialist Randy Blankinship writes in the release. NMFS notes that none of the 43 Atlantic sharks species that it manages are in danger of extinction as defined by the Endangered Species Act.

“There is no such thing as sustainable harvesting of sharks.”

People all over the world consume shark meat regularly. Eaters in Peru enjoy it in traditional ceviche. Iceland’s national dish is a fermented shark called hákarl that has been compared to both cheese and urine. Fin-based dishes like shark fin soup have roots that historians have dated back to China’s Ming Dynasty. Though consumption data is hard to pin down, NMFS estimates that U.S. fishermen landed more than 28 million pounds of shark in 2017—8.6 million pounds of which were exported—the most recent year for which it has fishing data.

Such catch numbers may seem miniscule when compared to the 657.3 million pounds of Pacific cod or 1 billion pounds of salmon landed by U.S. fishermen that same year. Still, it’s not negligible, falling in the general ballpark of mackerel (30.4 million pounds) and halibut (26.5 million pounds).

There’s a remarkable diversity among the shark species that American fishermen catch, and just a tiny proportion resemble the classic, Jaws-inspired conception of the fish. Of total U.S. shark catches, about 25 million pounds were comprised of dogfish, a small shark named for its proclivity to hunt for prey in big packs, as dogs do. The Atlantic sharpnose shark and the blacktip shark each made up over half a million pounds in landings, while other notables species include 444,000 pounds of Atlantic shortfin makos, 61,000 pounds of hammerhead, and almost 2,000 pounds of blue shark.

Unlike land animals, maintaining wild seafood populations requires international cooperation, especially when it comes to migratory species like sharks.

Sharks are a subcategory of fish, but what distinguishes them from more common seafood aisle options is their unique role as apex ocean predators. They are the kings of marine food webs, with no natural predators of their own—besides, perhaps, other sharks. This unique position—in addition to their long lifespans and slow reproductive cycles—means that reckless human fishing of sharks can have severe ripple effects throughout the ocean ecosystem (e.g., spikes in prey populations and subsequent declines in species lower in the food web). What does this all say about NMFS’s encouragement that we eat more shark? For some advocates, it’s a bad suggestion.

“Sharks simply breed too slowly,” says Marie Levine, founder of the Shark Research Institute conservation group. “There is no such thing as sustainable harvesting of sharks.”

Reese “Chip” Michalove, a fisherman and charter captain based in South Carolina, concurs. He releases sharks back into the ocean after he catches them, a common recreational fishing practice. Five years ago, Michalove tells me, he could catch 50 to 60 tiger sharks. This past year, he’s only caught six. Based on his observations, he believes that many other sharks are facing similar declines. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently lists tiger sharks as “near threatened,” meaning that the species could face risk of extinction in the near future.)

But other conservationists like Sonja Fordham—founder of Shark Advocates International—argue that total prohibition is neither practical nor necessary. Fordham sits on the NMFS advisory panel for highly migratory species, including sharks. She believes that there should be fishing bans on certain species, such as the Atlantic shortfin mako, depending on factors including current populations and reproduction rates. However, she argues, NMFS guidelines remain a standard bearer for sustainable shark fishing globally, and they can serve as an example of shark management for countries where conservation isn’t a priority.

Chip with sharkReese “Chip” Michalove

Michalove releases sharks back into the ocean after he catches them, a common recreational fishing practice

“Much of sharks’ futures are in the hands of developing countries that are fishing sharks for food and subsistence,” says Fordham. “It’s unlikely, unrealistic, and not particularly sensitive to just assume that developing countries are going to stop all shark fishing, when they have a need for protein and livelihood.”

Fordham’s point speaks to the interdependent nature of fisheries management across the world. Unlike land animals, maintaining wild seafood populations requires international cooperation, especially when it comes to migratory species like sharks. Annual NMFS catch limits are developed with consideration for current population estimates, under- and overharvests in past years, and guidance from the intergovernmental body that manages Atlantic ocean fisheries, called the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). In October, comments closed on NMFS’s proposed 2020 shark catch limits. The agency will issue a finalized quota later this year. This month, ICCAT member nations, including the United States, will convene in Spain to update global shark catch guidelines.

One of the most contentious elements of shark fishing is finning—the practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins, and discarding the rest of the fish overboard. Producers are economically incentivized to engage in finning because of the high price tag that fins command relative to shark meat. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that producers worldwide exported 18,909 U.S. tons of shark fin worth $438.6 million in 2011, the most recent year for which global data are available. In that same year, more than seven times as much shark meat was exported—121,641 tons of it specifically—but its total value was a relatively modest $379.8 million. Shark fin is highly sought-after for its slippery texture—which is considered a desirable element in Asian cuisine—primarily among wealthy Chinese eaters in China and abroad, who consume it in soups and dumplings.

To combat the practice of finning, President Bill Clinton signed the Shark Finning Prohibition Act into law in 2000. The legislation required that all fins to be brought to shore with their corresponding fish carcasses. It doesn’t, however, prevent processors from removing fins and selling them separately.

The landed value of sharks in the U.S. was more than $7.2 million in 2017.

In the years that followed, at least 20 countries have followed suit by passing similar laws. A dozen U.S. states and three territories have gone one step further, passing legislation to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins, regardless of how its corresponding shark was caught. In 2015, the world’s largest delivery company, UPS, announced it would stop processing shark fin shipments. At the federal level, Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban the shark fin trade altogether, arguing that doing so would buoy the country’s standing in shark conservation efforts internationally.

“Abolition of the shark fin trade in the United States will remove the United States from the global shark fin market and will put the United States in a stronger position to advocate internationally for abolishing the shark fin trade in other countries,” Booker’s proposal reads.

NMFS’s defense of U.S.-caught shark may have highlighted its conservation efforts, but it also serves as marketing for the industry as a whole. The landed value of sharks in the U.S. was more than $7.2 million in 2017—that’s the monetary worth of the fish before it’s processed, packaged, and marked up for consumers at the retail level. The retail value of the processed shark meat would be many millions higher. 

“Cooked right, it is like a like a steak, like pork, honestly.”

“Once upon a time, nobody was eating [shark]. Now, everybody wants to try it,” says Anshu Pathak, founder of the Exotic Meat Market, an online store that offers two types of shark in addition to delicacies like emu, armadillo, and bobcat. Pathak has been selling shark meat for at least eight years. He declined to share sales data but said that demand for shark has increased by 20 to 30 percent in recent years. I asked him to describe the experience of eating shark.

“It does not taste like a fish,” Pathak says. “Cooked right, it is like a like a steak, like pork, honestly.” Shark meat has also been compared to chicken and alligator. According to experts, sharks can also contain high mercury levels, and because the fish urinate through their skin, should be soaked before cooking.

Whether you request shark the next time you visit a seafood market—assuming you can find it—will likely depend on a variety of factors, including your personal taste and sense of culinary adventure. But can you really “rest assured” that American-caught sharks are an environmentally sustainable choice, as NMFS suggests? The reality appears more ambiguous than that—but maybe that shouldn’t stop you from trying it.

“Fisheries for shark species can be sustainable if they’re well managed,” Fordham says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a much better situation than it has been.”

Correction, November 5, 2019, 3:00 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated that Sonja Fordham believes quotas for the Atlantic shortfin mako should be lowered. Fordham believes fishing for the Atlantic shortfin mako should be banned.