Sunday, 29 April 2012

A Better Plan B

If the PEI government wants to make Islanders traveling in cars and trucks safer, how about telling the Federal Government to give Alberta that $8 Million to improve that highway that brings so many Maritimers to jobs in the oil sands.  It doesn't quite fit the  "Atlantic Gateway" criteria, but if keeping people safe is the issue, lower the speed limit here, get a four lane highway built there. And there's more, it can be a thanks to Albertans for not electing a Wildrose government with its deep suspicion about the role of equalization, and lastly it can remind the rest of Canada of the generosity of Maritimers. How to compensate Island roadbuilders? Not sure.

Friday, 27 April 2012

It Seemed Like the Right Thing to Do

It was a story that most people probably missed, fourth or fifth on a couple of radio newscasts, well inside any newspaper that cared to run it, and it's probably all the story deserved.

Case of Mad Cow Disease Is Found in U.S.
The Department of Agriculture announced that it had identified a case of mad cow disease, the first in six years, in a dairy cow in central California.
The cow “was never presented for human consumption, so it at no time presented a risk to the food supply or human health,” John Clifford, chief veterinary officer at the department, said in a statement........... "

This isn't what happened in May of 2003,nine years ago,  when one older black angus cow in Alberta was discovered with BSE or madcow.   There were huge headlines across North America, our bosses at CBC demanded that it lead every radio and t.v. newscast in the country for several days.  The discovery had a profound impact on the Canadian beef industry, farmers lost tens of millions of dollars, beef processors made windfall profits, and Canadian consumers (god bless them), ate more beef than they ever had,  and there's no province that the discovery had a bigger impact  on than PEI, an impact that continues to this day.

Beef producers lost money because the American border was closed, resulting in a  huge over-supply in Canada. Prices to farmers collapsed. That in turn allowed beef processing plants to buy cheap cattle, while Canadian consumers rallyed  to support farmers and prices at the supermarket didn't fall. That's what allowed the processing plants to make so much money.

Here in the Maritimes beef farmers were working on building a new federally inspected slaughter plant after the Hub operation in Moncton was shut down. Many thought there was an opportunity to capitalize on the headlines about madcow, and create a little marketing niche for a plant that everyone knew was going to struggle. It was going to be tiny compared to the big beef plants in Alberta,  so needed some kind of marketing edge. The plan was to go above and beyond the Federal regulations of separating out spinal cord, brain, etc (the risky bits) and only slaughter younger cattle (under 30 months).  Some high ranking agriculture officials even proposed having veterinarians inspect every brain and certify the beef  "BSE free".  The thinking was it might allow PEI beef to be sold in valuable markets in Japan and South Korea, where Canadian beef had been banned.  The beef industry in the rest of Canada had a fit, arguing if PEI promotes itself as "BSE free", then it implies consumers are at risk  buying beef slaughtered somewhere else. 

The "BSE Free" plan had other important implications. Hamburger is generally made from older beef and dairy cattle,  but with the PEI plant not accepting these older cattle, a hamburger machine was never purchased. (It has been now).

Fortunately for consumers and the Canadian beef industry the various steps the Canadian government took, increased surveillance of older cattle, keeping animal parts out of feed (that was a bad idea from the get go) and so on means madcow is now the uneventful story that we saw last week, with few people even noticing, 

Unfortunately on PEI the possibility of having a unique product but then discovering it had to compete in the beef commodity market with all the big boys, not having a hamburger line, all led to weeks, months and now years of losses that taxpayers continue to foot.  In the last two years huge steps have been taken to promote what really is unique about Maritime beef, coming from small farms and feedlots,  excellent breeding stock, and yes a hamburger line is now in place. Chefs have been recruited to promote the quality of the beef. It's going to need all of these attributes to survive now that the government has set a limit of a million and a half dollars of losses it will cover. (last year the plant lost about $3 million). 

You can't help but wonder if madcow hadn't been discovered back then, didn't have such a devastating impact on farmers incomes, whether the PEI government of the day  would  have even considered underwriting the new plant in the first place, or make revenue projections based on the idea of being the only plant in Canada offering BSE-free beef. Would it have led to more hard-headed thinking about the viability of a small beef plant in the Maritimes competing against the much,. much bigger competitors. As I've argued elsewhere in this blog I think the plant should have been built regardless of BSE, and is badly needed to maintain a livestock industry here now (the closest Federally-inspected plant is in Ontario), but some tougher, smarter decisions might have been made when the plant was built, and PEI taxpayers might be feeling more confident about the plant's future,if that one mad cow hadn't been found in Alberta almost a decade ago.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The "or" Gets You Everytime

I don't think there are really any winners coming out of Tuesday's court case heard in Summerside where farmer Warren Ellis had to answer charges of buffer zone violations linked to a fishkill last July where hundreds of fish from three rivers died from pesticide poisoning.   Ellis' reputation has taken a beating since the charges were laid, and there's no doubt that his lawyer used a loophole in what once again has proven to be poorly worded legislation, to get the charges dismissed. That's what lawyers do, and that's what the courts are for, but  many in the public, and in the farming community, were looking for something more rigorous than a technical decision.  

I haven't found anyone able to explain why there is an "or" in PEI's buffer zone regulations when it comes to grassed headlands, other than giving the minister and department a little more flexibility in how the regulations are interpreted.   Explaining the use of grassed headlands is a little like trying to explain relativity theory, but here goes. It relates to row crops that go up and down, rather than parallel, to the boundary of a waterway. With the ground in between rows of hilled potatoes for example acting like a rain gutter, there's obviously huge risk of run-off if the rows are pointed towards the waterway.  So if the end of rows are within 200 metres of a waterway (the 200 metres is not the size of the buffer, but used to determine those fields that must have a grassed  headland), then there should be 10 metres of grassed area that's been planted the year before PLUS the normal fifteen meter buffer for all fields that are row cropped around water. The regulations (watch for the OR) look like this:

7. (2) No person shall, without a grass headland variance or grass
headland exemption, and other than in accordance with the terms and
conditions thereof, cultivate a row crop within 200 metres of any
watercourse boundary or wetland boundary unless every row that ends
within 200 metres of any watercourse boundary or wetland boundary
ends at
(a) a grass headland; OR
(b) a buffer zone.

Warren Ellis' lawyer argued he did have "a buffer zone", and the charges were dismissed.  Given the reference to a grassed headland variance and exemption in the opening section, there seems little reason to thrown in another choice at the end. 

We have to remember that a very smart lawyer was seconded to the Environment Department for a year to re-write the buffer zone regulations so they would stand up in court. Several people have said the  regulations were pretty air-tight coming out of that process, but then massaged at the political level. Whatever happened it's back to the drawing board.

It's been generous (and true) for people who have been working so hard to improve the health of watersheds to also tell the media that they recognize the large numbers of farmers who follow the law, or go above it. Their anger and discouragement has been felt in the larger farming community as well. .  In the past  farmers would start the conversation blaming the media for rushing to judgement, or being defensive about the need to protect crops, but not this time. 

It's hard to see anything constructive coming out of this. Warren Ellis has spent a lot of money he probably doesn't have to defend himself, the public is left once more wondering how  hundreds of dead fish can wash up and no one is held accountable, and  many  will be thinking "potato farmers have gotten away with murder again."  If the end result are new regulations that are too restrictive or punitive,  then the many farmers doing what's right get punished too.  The government should stick to the basics: a 3 year rotation should be a 3 year rotation, not ten different ways to get around it, and the requirement of a grassed headland should mean just that. It's the "but's" and "or's" that get you every time.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Dead Fish.. What Dead Fish?

I hope I've got this wrong, but it looks like the Summerside trial of Western PEI  farmer Warren Ellis won't hear a word about the hundreds of dead fish caused by pesticide washing into into three Western PEI  rivers last July.  The province charged two farmers for having inadequate buffer zones between potato fields and waterways.  Avard Smallman has already pleaded guilty and paid the minimum $3000 fine.  Warren Ellis is facing four charges under PEI's Environmental Protect Act, all related to buffer zone violations. Presumably the evidence will include field measurements and photographs, and could have been laid whether there were dead fish or not.  The dead fish don't matter.

Warren Ellis' case has been delayed several times.  It's the request  for delays by  PEI Crown Prosecutor John Diamond that are most telling. He's been waiting for Environment Canada to also lay charges, but despite some newspaper reports that it has, Environment Canada will simply be watching from the sidelines when this case goes to trial, and that's wrong.

It was a UPEI toxicologist who summed up the frustration of many when it comes to prosecutions for fish kills on PEI.  Back in July Mike van den Heuvel said "There's never been any serious prosecution of these events. Oilsands companies killed 1,600 ducks and had to pay $3 million, [but] nobody has ever had to pay anything for the millions of fish that have died on P.E.I." 

The fines for provincial buffer zone violations range from $3000 to $10,000. Environment Canada has a much bigger stick. It's authority comes from the Fisheries Act:

"Subsection 36(3) prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances. Environment Canada is responsible for administering this subsection. Unlike Subsection 35(2), there is no provision to authorize the deposit of deleterious substances except by Regulation or an Order in Council. A deleterious substance is defined by the Fisheries Act as any substance that, if added to water, makes the water deleterious to fish or fish habitat or any water containing a substance in such quantity or concentration or has been changed by heat or other means, that if added to water makes that water deleterious to fish or fish habitat."

A pesticide that kills fish would likely fit the definition. A fine under the Fisheries Act can run up to a half a million dollars. 

Warren Ellis will get his day in court and is innocent until proven guilty, and that's as it should be.  It's the lack of any credible deterrence or public confidence in the ability of government to investigate and prosecute these kind of incidents that's most at risk.

We don't know why Environment Canada isn't laying charges because it refuses to talk to the media.  Last summer I tried to find out if Environment Canada would act and was told the legal challenge is this: Yes there are dead fish, yes pesticides can be shown to be the cause of the deaths, and yes Warren Ellis and Avard Smallman were found to not have the proper buffer zones, but proving these specific farmers were the cause of the fish deaths  beyond reasonable doubt is much more difficult, one person said impossible.  That may be what distinguishes cases like this from the tailings pond deaths in northern Alberta where one company is clearly the cause. If that is the case then Environment Canada should state that publicly, and politicians can determine if it's necessary to change the law. Even better in my opinion would be to lay the charges and let a judge decide the Federal Crown can't prove the case, then it will be clear that the regulations need attention.  Going through a court case in Summerside where the dead fish are incidental/unimportant/don't matter  to the proceedings seems like the worst outcome of all, and an insult to common sense.

And according to the Globe and Mail, environmental regulation of any kind is going through a major transformation in Canada, and ducks and fish won't be better off.

 Harper government to shrink environmental-assessment process

The Harper government is about to dramatically shrink the federal oversight of proposed natural resource developments, handing over environmental reviews for many projects to the provinces and cutting back the number of smaller construction projects that are subject to any environmental assessment.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is expected to unveil a sweeping legislative plan on Tuesday that will focus Ottawa’s role in environmental assessments to projects it deems to be of national significance.

Since taking office as a rookie minister last summer, Mr. Oliver has promised to streamline and overhaul Ottawa’s environmental assessment process, which the government insists is too cumbersome, duplicative and subject to tactical delaying efforts by environmental groups who are determined to block development.

More broadly, the move reflects Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of proper federal and provincial roles, in which Ottawa is far less active in areas of provincial jurisdiction like natural resource management, environmental protection and health policy.

Mr. Oliver’s announcement in Toronto puts some flesh on the promise contained in the March 30 budget that Ottawa would streamline the environmental assessment process to provide more timely reviews of major resource projects. Critics have already warned that the government is prepared to rubber-stamp resource developments regardless of their environmental impacts even as it works to demonize opponents as “radical” and “foreign funded” groups that are working to undermine the national economic interest.

Under the proposed legislation, Ottawa would concentrate its effort on environmental assessments of “major economic projects,” according to background information obtained by The Globe and Mail. Provinces will set their own level of oversight for smaller projects.

It was unclear how federal and provincial governments will determine which projects require federal assessment and which require only provincial consideration, though those that cross provincial boundaries will remain federal matters.

Ottawa will also impose strict deadlines on the review of projects, ranging up to two years from the time a proponent files the project plan.

And the government has said it will apply those timelines in the case of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil-sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for export by super-tanker to Asia. The highly controversial project is now being reviewed by a joint panel of the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), a process that could take three years or more.

Mr. Oliver has pointed to the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline project as an example in which the environmental and social assessment became bogged down and lasted so long that the pipeline was no longer commercially viable by the time it was approved.

He also complained that a recently approved oil-sands mine planned by France’s Total SA took six years to work its way through the regulatory maze, though the company itself was responsible for much of that delay.

It remains unclear how Ottawa intends to ensure it meets its constitutional mandate to fully consult with first nations and to accommodate their concerns about resources projects. British Columbia Indian bands have vowed a court challenge to the anticipated federal approval of the Gateway pipeline project, arguing the current hearings are a sham because the Harper government is determined to proceed.

In the budget, the government said it would “enhance consultations” with aboriginal peoples.

Ottawa also plans to centralize all environmental oversight in three agencies, rather than the 40 departments and agencies that can now have a say before any major project is approved.

The Harper government will also impose new financial penalties, ranging from $100,000 to $400,000, that will be imposed on individuals or businesses that violate environmental regulations. Currently the federal government lacks the power to levy financial penalties under environmental law short of laying criminal charges.

Mr. Oliver will also announce a 50-per-cent increase to pipeline inspections, “to safeguard the environment and identify pipeline issues before they occur,” as background information stated.

Mr. Harper has been aggressively selling Canada on the international stage as a natural resources superpower, with not just booming oil sands but also natural gas, electricity and mineral wealth to be developed and exported.

The Conservatives have targeted natural-resource exports as a major priority. According to statistics provided by the government, the sector employs more than 760,000 workers across the country, with more than 500 new projects cumulatively valued at $500-billion planned over the next 10 years.

Environmental Assessment Process:

What Exists:

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) reviews all non-energy projects that could have a substantial impact on the environment, including fish habitat and endangered species. The National Energy Board handles reviews of oil and gas projects and pipelines, while the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does the assessments of nuclear-related facilities.

In the case of major projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline that would carry oil-sands bitumen to the B.C. coast for export by super-tanker, the NEB and the CEAA conduct a joint review, including a panel hearing that includes environmental, safety and social impact.

Dozens of federal departments and agencies participate in the major reviews, including Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

After cabinet approves a positive assessment from the CEAA or National Energy Board, companies often have to receive permits from other departments, notably Fisheries and Oceans, as they seek to mitigate projects’ effects.

Industry Complaints/Environmentalist Fears:

The mining and energy industries say the reviews take too long, are carried out even when environmental impact is negligible, and that the process can bog down even after approvals are granted.

They also complain the federal and provincial governments often have duplicative review processes, which can add to delays and uncertainty.

In hearings last year, the CEAA acknowledged that 94 per cent of its screenings were for small projects – expansion of a light-craft harbour, for example – that have minor environmental impact. A report from the Conservative majority on the environment committee recommended the government create a list of types of projects to be reviewed, or have the decision left to ministerial discretion.

Environmentalists say Ottawa has been weakening its environmental assessment process by, among other things, putting pro-industry agencies like the National Energy Board in charge of oil and gas.

They fear the government will gut what’s left of the review process by reducing if not eliminating input from government scientists, and by handing the oversight to provinces.

What’s To Come:

The federal government will no longer do environmental assessments for smaller projects, but only for those of national significance, although it remains unclear how that standard will be determined.

Ottawa will turn over to provinces the review of major resource projects when it deems that the specific province has the wherewithal to assess a project.

Where the federal government continues to do reviews, responsibility will fall to three central agencies; officials at Fisheries and Oceans or Transport Canada will not be able to intervene.

Agencies will have to meet fixed time lines when reviewing major resource projects.

The government will introduce new penalties for those who contravene federal environmental regulations, ranging up to $400,000.

Shawn McCarthy

Recent developments:

The Harper Conservatives were shifting the way the government approaches environmental issues even before Tuesday’s announcement. Three recent developments illustrate that shift:

The end of the National Round Table

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy will write its last reports over the next year, on topics including business resilience to climate change. But as of March 31, 2013, the NRTEE and its $5-million in annual funding will disappear.

The group has a mandate from Parliament to engage Canadians in sustainable development. Critics say it’s being shutdown because the government doesn’t like its advice. But the government says times have changed since the NRTEE was created in 1988 and similar information is available online from universities and other groups.

Changing the Fisheries Act

A former federal scientist obtained documents last month that showed the government has plans to change the Canada Fisheries Act. The government may remove the requirement to protect fish habitats and fish that are not of “economic, cultural or ecological value.”

The changes would allow faster approval of huge projects including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. A letter from more than 600 scientists from across the country urged the Prime Minister not to go ahead with the changes, saying it “would be a most unwise action, which would jeopardize many important fish stocks and the lakes, estuaries and rivers that support them.”

Funding fight for environmental NGOs

The Conservatives have labelled environmental charities, including Tides Canada, as radicals that have hijacked the review process for the Northern Gateway. International funding that the groups receive has been scrutinized by the government, with some Conservatives questioning why U.S. money was used to oppose the oil sands.

National Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the groups used foreign funding to “undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” But the environmental groups say the portrayal of funding as mostly foreign is incorrect and an attempt to silence their views. A senate inquiry is examining the foreign funding of charities.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


They get paved in the months leading up to an election, they're a measure (paved or dirt) of what the government thinks about a community, and when they're built on sandstone rather than granite they are very very expensive to build and maintain.  Take a look at these numbers from the capital budget from a year ago:

From the 2011 Capital Budget for PEI

Highways: $17 Million
Atlantic Gateway:  $8 Million
Bridges: $7 Million
Provincial Paving: $6.5 Million

They're big numbers for sure, but it's how the cost of the Atlantic Gateway compares to everything else I find most revealing, and may explain why the Road builders Association and the government seem so determined to build a new road so few people want. Maybe it's the only major work they've got planned for this year, and companies have to keep up the lease payments on that big machinery they use..

It's always been a bit confusing (and maybe that's the point) when the government separates capital spending from program spending, but who knows if that $8 Million which was in the budget a year ago is still there, got spent on something else, hasn't been borrowed yet. Is that why common sense statements like "They're much more important things to spend the money on" don't get any traction. I know PEI won't get the Feds contribution without matching it, but saying the Federal money is free and would be wasted if not taken is clearly not true.

And politically this is, and will be very damaging to the government. There's nothing like concrete evidence that the media can take pictures of, videotape, and use over and over to fix in people's minds bad decision making, especially now that we're in a  time of restraint. It's one of Harper's biggest challenges with the cost of the jets, slashing spending all over the place (including the CBC), while acting like sailors on leave  when it comes to upgrading Canada's warplanes.

A very smart  video on the road no one wants (produced by ??), and a good column by Linda McQuaig on jet buying below.

Prime Minister Harper’s team gets a good laugh over ‘austerity’

April 09, 2012

Linda McQuaig

There’s a striking photo of Ronald Reagan and members of his inner circle, cocktails in hand, practically doubled over with laughter.

A clever wag attached a caption to the bottom of the photo: “We told them the wealth would trickle down!”

With that caption, the photo has gone viral on the Internet. One can imagine the photo capturing a 1980s scene inside the White House, as someone pulled back the curtain and caught the Reagan team in flagrante, celebrating how successfully they’d fooled the public about their “trickle down” theory.

With the revelations presented last week by Canada’s Auditor General Michael Ferguson, it’s easy to imagine a similar scene here: members of the Harper cabinet buckled over with laughter, celebrating how they successfully hid from the public $10 billion in costs connected to the purchase of dozens of fighter jets, even as they sold gullible Canadians on the need for “austerity.”

Ha ha ha!

As the auditor general made clear, Stephen Harper’s government failed to be honest with Canadians about the true costs of buying 65 of the pricey, U.S.-made jets, which were always much more popular with Canada’s military brass, the Harper cabinet and the aerospace industry than with the general public.

Indeed, even before Ferguson’s damning report, the public had good reason to be wary of plans to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, without a tendering process open to competitors.

Costs of military contracts are notorious for escalating wildly, on average by triple the announced price, notes Peter Langille, a defence analyst formerly employed by Canada’s defence department, who now teaches peace studies at McMaster University.

Langille says that the F-35 program, if it proceeds, will draw scarce government resources into preparing for war-fighting abroad, and away from public programs like health care and education — a development Canadians would likely resist if they thought much about it.

Anxious to prevent the public from thinking much about it, the Harper team deliberately lowballed the costs, suggesting Canada could acquire the planes for $15 billion.

As the auditor general has revealed, Harper cabinet ministers continued to insist that $15 billion would be the cost, even after our defence department provided them with confidential information in June 2010 showing that the true costs would be $25 billion.

But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page smelled a rat, and produced his own estimate in March 2011 showing that the planes would cost $29 billion.

The Conservatives quickly dissed this annoying parliamentary watchdog as well as opposition critics, and insisted ever more vigorously that the price tag would not exceed $15 billion.

Still, some unpatriotic types remained skeptical. The government’s refusal to provide a fuller accounting was, in part, what led to the non-confidence motion that prompted last spring’s election.

Throughout that campaign, Harper and his ministers stuck adamantly to the $15 billion estimate — while knowing it wasn’t true — and won a majority government.

Ha ha ha! What a knee slapper! And did you hear the one about the two Canadians who walked into a polling station, only to discover it was the wrong one!

But, while a $10 billion cost overrun is apparently no big deal to the Harperites (who, oddly, present themselves as sound fiscal managers), they quickly shifted into “austerity” mode after the election, lecturing Canadians on the dire need to reign in government spending.

Just last week, citing “challenging fiscal times,” the Harper team ended a program that provides Internet access at libraries and community centres, giving low-income Canadians — about half of whom lack Internet access — a lifeline to the world, as well as a way to apply for jobs.

The nationwide program, which costs only $15 million, operates with the help of volunteers.

This example of generous Canadians volunteering to help Canada’s most vulnerable citizens is enough to restore one’s belief in the goodness of this country. But, suddenly, with the stroke of a pen, it was wiped out by the Harper cabinet, in the name of austerity.

Ha ha ha! High fives, boys!

Linda McQuaig's column appears monthly.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Can't Escape the Pink Slime

 In the spirit of context, I'm presenting a couple of more pieces on you know what.  Context doesn't usually makes things easier, but that's OK.  Don't forget it's not a process used in Canada, but does speak to the importance of what Raymond Loo is doing. The deadly strain of E-coli is partially caused by feeding grain rather than just grass to cattle.   The various links in the stories can be used if you click on the links on this page to the originating sites.

The Pink Menace

Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman on food and all things related.
Rick Perry — remember him? — was more inspired as a defender of the beef processing industry than he was as a debater. Last week, Perry — along with Iowa’s governor-for-life Terry Branstad and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas — implored the media to end its “smear campaign” against pink slime, the ammonia-treated burger extender he’d rather have us call by the name used by its producers: Lean Finely Textured Beef.
Whether “pink slime” is a fair handle or not, public outrage has thrown it off a cliff. Some of the country’s largest grocery chains have announced that they will no longer sell products containing it, as did McDonald’s, while Wendy’s emphatically insisted that it never has. The United States Department of Agriculture, a major buyer of pink slime for its National School Lunch Program, has offered participating schools the option to order their beef with or without it, though it will likely remain in many schools.
As a result, the largest producer of the stuff, Beef Products Inc., has suspended operations at three of its four plants for 60 days, by which time it hopes to do some public relations hocus-pocus to restore consumer confidence before resorting to permanent closures. We’ll see.

A little review: Lean Finely Textured Beef was born about 10 years ago, as an attempt to eliminate E. coli from ground beef. Using fatty beef trimmings, which are especially susceptible to E. coli and salmonella contamination, B.P.I. created a product that could be sprayed with ammonia (yes, that stuff, referred to by B.P.I.’s former quality assurance manager as “Mr. Clean,” in this dramatic piece by Michele Simon) to kill the bacteria. It was then mixed with “normal” ground beef. Voilà: safe hamburgers.
Except that despite B.P.I.’s claim that the ammonia treatment killed E. coli and salmonella, and despite the U.S.D.A.’s support for this process, those pathogens have been found in B.P.I. meat.[1] Oops.
But there’s an irony: the stuff is gross, for sure, but it’s far from the most disgusting meat product out there, and at least its origins reflect an attempt to make meat safer. Some argue, correctly, that other processed meats are much worse, and that ammonia isn’t nearly the most egregious chemical that’s approved for use on meat without your knowing it.[2]
Besides, pink slime could conceivably even be helping: According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli O157:H7 illnesses are down 48 percent over the last decade. (And, as my colleague Andy Revkin points out, some 1.5 million additional cattle will need to be raised and slaughtered to fill the “pink slime gap.”)
Yet the public outcry over pink slime is justified, encouraging and impressively effective. (The response by some food safety officials that it’s misguided, and that only “experts” should be determining how food is processed, is shameful.[3]) And this is how it’s going to be from now on; public pressure will increasingly determine policy, and not only in food: “Before the Internet,” says Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer, “companies and governments simply made decisions, assuming the public didn’t need to know or even care what was in their food. That is no longer the case.”
But pink slime, as Grist writer Tom Laskaway says, is the tip of the iceberg; it’s a symptom, not a disease. Remember why it was originally created — to eliminate bacteria found in ground meat. The fact that pink slime was a “solution” might lead you to ask: What’s the problem?
The answer lies in the industrial production of livestock on a scale that’s far too large to sustain without significant collateral damage. E. coli, found in the digestive tracts of cattle, is common on factory farms where cattle are fed only grain. (Their stomachs are meant to digest grass.) The incomprehensible quantity of manure produced by these cattle — also often containing E. coli — is deposited on the land, sometimes seeping into the water supply; that’s how you wind up with E. coli in vegetables. To make matters worse, “healthy” farm animals are routinely fed so many antibiotics that E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens are developing resistance to commonly prescribed drugs.
The Food and Drug Administration  has just been given a golden opportunity — well, it’s a legal mandate — to remedy this. Ruling on a lawsuit brought last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a federal court decided that the F.D.A. must finally conclude whether the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to farm animals constituted a threat to human health. If the F.D.A. decides that it does, it must ban the practice altogether.
While the F.D.A. has — for the last 35 years — admitted the dangers of administering antibiotics to healthy farm animals, it has so far declined to act. Now we’ll see whether the agency has the fortitude to resist the pressure from the meat and drug industries and do the right thing. (Based on its recent decision not to ban the chemical biphenyl A  from food and drink packaging, I’m betting the bad guys win here, but I’d be happy to be wrong.)
The United States food system may seem more palatable when “pink slime” and many other forms of chemical processing are gone, but it won’t be any safer until we begin to seriously address the reasons they exist in the first place.

April 1, 2012, 10:06 am
Why I’m O.K. with ‘Pink Slime’ in Ground Beef

This is not an April Fool’s Day joke. I agree with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on something — the nutritional merits of derided “pink slime” — the processed last scrapings of meat and connective tissue after cattle are butchered. Dude, it is indeed beef — a source of low-fat nutrition.

The ammonium hydroxide that is added is safe and has long been used in foods from cheeses to pudding.

I’m all for open disclosure of food contents, but not when the labeling effort is aimed at fomenting fear over facts. (This issue goes far beyond beef byproducts; I encourage you to read this Colorado State University analysis of the issues surrounding labeling of genetically engineered foods.)

In my home, we rarely eat beef. And I’d love to see the day when all beef comes from free-range herds like the one up the road from me. [And there are always tasty vegetarian burger options, as Tara Parker-Pope noted this week.] But given that we’re not going to a meat-free society any time soon, and that kids need cheap sources of low-fat protein, I’d like those pushing the “yuck” factor to consider the extra 1.5 million or so head of livestock that will need to be slaughtered to fill the ground beef gap.

Then there’s the public health issue. I encourage you to click over to the Bucks blog and read Ann Carrns’ post. Here’s an excerpt and link:

    [N]ot everyone is cheering the demise of the hamburger enhancer. In fact, the Consumer Federation of America, an association of consumer-focused groups, sounds downright worried.

    “Today’s announcement by Beef Products Inc. that the company will suspend operations at three plants in the wake of the controversy over lean finely textured beef is unfortunate,” Chris Waldrop, director of the federation’s Food Policy Institute, said in a statement on Monday that used the food industry’s preferred name for the stuff.

    Unfortunate? Come again? What could be worse than ingesting ammonia-soaked cow scraps?

    Eating E. coli-infected cow scraps, Mr. Waldrop said.

Here’s how Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary of agriculture for food safety, summarized things not long ago (LFTB is the acronym for “lean, finely textured beef,” the industry name for the product):

    I believe it is important to distinguish people’s concerns about how their food is made from their concerns about food safety. The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Trying to Ignore Pink Slime

I've been tempted to take a run at the "pink slime" story but it was receiving so much attention elsewhere there seemed little reason. For one thing the process isn't used in Canada, so there isn't any direct impact here, other than reminding us that what happens behind the walls of the big food processors isn't what goes on in our Grandmas' kitchen.  A couple of stories picks up on both points.

Is Canada really better off without it?


When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his crusade against so-called "pink slime," a processed beef product added to burger patties in the U.S., the world watched in horror.  The media was buzzing with stories about how beef off-cuts were being processed with ammonium hydroxide, then mixed with hamburger meat.
McDonald's in the U.S. stopped using the stuff this January, and the media was quick to condemn the US Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program for buying the product.
All the attention has been bad for business. This week, Beef Products Inc, the makers of the controversial "pink slime" — or, as the company refers to it, "lean finely textured beef" — announced it was suspending operations at three of its four plants. It also took to the web to defend its unappetizing creation.

Health Canada doesn't permit the use of ammonium hydroxide in meat products, so there's no pink slime in our burgers. But should Canadians be feeling smug?

Richard Holley, a food science professor at the University of Manitoba, not only thinks "pink slime" is fine, he thinks it's a better alternative to what is typically done in Canada.
"I see this as not an unreasonable process from a scientific perspective," he says. "It enables the recovery of high-quality protein from meat that otherwise would more than likely end up as mechanically separated."
You've no doubt noticed the words "mechanically separated" on many a meat label. It's a process that's been used for some time in Canada, and other parts of the world, where carcasses are put through a high-pressure filter and all the tissue is extracted, even some spinal fluid.
"[Mechanically separated meat products] can only be used in products that are frozen, because it has high bacterial numbers," says Holley. "What we've got here, with ammonium treated beef, is a chemical intervention that's reducing potential for E. coli contamination."

And while Health Canada does not permit ammonia for meat products, it does allow it in the processing of other foods, including cocoa products and gelatin.
According to McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz, the process is nothing to worry about.
"Neither the dissolved ammonia, nor the ammonium hydroxide it forms, presents a health concern," Schwarcz wrote in a recent Montreal Gazette article."Ammonia is a product of protein metabolism and therefore routinely forms in the human body. It ends up being converted into urea which is then excreted in the urine."
So is Canada better off without pink slime? Or, as food columnist Ari Levaux asks in the Atlantic, "Is pink slime any worse than pink cylinders, yellow nuggets, brown breakfast sausage patties, or any number of mystery meat products?"
"Probably not," he writes. "And for what it's worth, it isn't even slimy."

10 things the food industry wants to hide from you

Bigger, juicier, saltier, sweeter, crunchier. Most of all, more. The food industry and its nonstop marketing has been tabbed by many experts as a major player in the obesity epidemic.
"The result of constant exposure to today's 'eat more' food environment," write Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim in their upcoming book Why Calories Count, "has been to drive people to desire high-calorie foods and to become 'conditioned overeaters.'"
Even as the food industry takes steps seemingly in the right direction--by launching campaigns to bring healthy products to schools, for example--wellness initiatives are often just marketing ploys, contends David Ludwig, a pediatrician and coauthor of a commentary published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that raised questions about whether big food companies can be trusted to help combat obesity. Ultimately, he has argued, makers of popular junk foods have an obligation to stockholders to maximize profits, which means encouraging consumers to eat more--not less--of a company's products. Health experts including Ludwig and Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, both of whom have long histories of tracking the food industry, spoke with U.S. News and highlighted 10 things that junk food makers don't want you to know about their products and how they promote them. Here's a peek behind the curtain:
1. Junk food makers spend billions advertising unhealthy foods to kids. According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children through the traditional media as well the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes. An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. The bulk of these ads are for unhealthy products high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. Promotions often use cartoon characters or free giveaways to entice kids into the junk food fold. On TV alone, the average child sees about 5,500 food commercials a year (or about 15 per day) that advertise high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy, and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and bottled water.

2. The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products.
In fact, according to a review led by Ludwig of hundreds of studies that looked at the health effects of milk, juice, and soda, the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was several times higher among industry-sponsored research than studies that received no industry funding. "If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science," he says. 3. More processing means more profits, but typically makes food less healthy. Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables obviously aren't where food companies look for profits. The big bucks stem from turning government-subsidized commodity crops--mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans--into fast foods, snack foods, and beverages. High-profit products derived from these commodity crops are generally high in calories and low in nutritional value. Ultraprocessed foods, for example, lack fiber, micronutrients, and healthful plant substances called phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and diabetes, Ludwig wrote in a 2011 JAMA commentary. Consider: A 10-ounce, 90-calorie portion of strawberries has 5 grams of fiber, abundant vitamins and minerals, and dozens of phytochemicals, while a 1-ounce portion of Fruit Gushers also has 90 calories, but virtually none of the fruit benefits.
4. Less-processed foods are generally more filling than their highly processed counterparts. Fresh apples have an abundance of fiber and nutrients that are lost when they are processed into applesauce. And the added sugar or other sweeteners increase the number of calories without necessarily making the applesauce any more filling. Apple juice, which is even more processed, has had almost all of the fiber and nutrients stripped out. This same stripping out of nutrients, says Ludwig, happens with highly refined white bread compared with stone-ground whole-wheat bread.
5. Many supposedly healthy replacement foods are hardly healthier than the foods they replace. In 2006, for example, major beverage makers agreed to remove sugary sodas from school vending machines. But the industry mounted an intense lobbying effort that persuaded lawmakers to allow sports drinks and vitamin waters that--despite their slightly healthier reputations--still can be packed with sugar and calories.
6. A health claim on the label doesn't necessarily make a food healthy. Health claims such as "zero trans fats" or "contains whole wheat" may create the false impression that a product is healthy when it's not. While the claims may be true, a product is not going to benefit your kid's health if it's also loaded with salt and sugar or saturated fat, say, and lacks fiber or other nutrients. "These claims are calorie distracters," adds Nestle. "They make people forget about the calories." For example, tropical-fruit flavored Gerber Graduates Fruit Juice Treats show pictures of fresh oranges and pineapple to imply that they're made from real fruit, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In reality, the main ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, and white grape juice concentrate. And Keebler's Townhouse Bistro Multigrain Crackers boast that they're made with "toasted whole wheat," although sugar content far outweighs the whole wheat. "'Made with whole grains' should send up a red flag," says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "If you're eating packaged food, like cereal, bread, or pasta, check the ingredient list to verify that the first ingredient is in fact a whole grain." (Think of the first ingredient listed on a package as the main ingredient; those listed farther down are included in smaller amounts.) Although the government is working to develop guidelines for front-of-package labels, no consensus has been reached.
7. Food industry pressure has made nutritional guidelines confusing for consumers. As Nestle explained in her 2003 book Food Politics, the food industry has a history of preferring scientific jargon to straight talk. As far back as 1977, public health officials attempted to include the advice "reduce consumption of meat" in an important report called Dietary Goals for the United States. The report's authors capitulated to intense pushback from the cattle industry and used this less-direct and more ambiguous advice: "Choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake." Overall, says Nestle, the government has a hard time suggesting that people eat less of anything.
8. The food industry funds front groups that fight antiobesity public health initiatives. Unless you follow politics closely, you wouldn't necessarily realize that a group with a name like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has anything to do with the food industry. In fact, Ludwig and Nestle point out, this group has lobbied aggressively against obesity-related public health campaigns--such as the one directed at removing junk food from schools--and is funded, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, primarily through donations from big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Wendy's.
9. The food industry works aggressively to discredit its critics. According to the 2008 JAMA article, the Center for Consumer Freedom boasts that "[our strategy] is to shoot the messenger. We've got to attack [activists'] credibility as spokespersons." On its website, the group calls Nestle "one of the country's most hysterical anti-food fanatics."
10. "Pink slime" is on its way out--but it's not gone. Ground meat is commonly bulked up with what critics call "pink slime," butchering scraps that have been cleansed with ammonia. While the industry insists that its "lean, finely textured beef trimmings" are harmless, some experts are questioning the safety of the ubiquitous filler. Following a public outcry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this month that school districts can choose between receiving beef with the trimmings or without, but at a higher fat content. A growing number of grocery stores, including Safeway and Supervalu, have announced that they're ditching so-called "pink slime." Still, it remains USDA-approved, and the food industry is free to use it.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Something to Worry About, Something to Celebrate

Most of us have heard about the catastrophic decline in bee populations in developed countries.  It's been called "colony collapse disorder". Apparently healthy hives die-off as worker bees start to disappear, and with no food, the hives weaken and die.  In the Maritimes there have been huge losses in over-wintering hives. Given the importance of bees to pollination of so many of the plants and trees we require to produce food, scientists around the world have been working on what's happening. It includes a bewildering array of possibilities from viruses, mites, fungi and other pathogens, to stress and poor diet from the great spring migration of beehives that travel thousands of miles  throughout North America pollinating one crop after another. And of course pesticides has been on everyone's list.

Last week two important studies were published that focus on a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids that are widely used by farmers and pet owners in the Maritimes. Imidacloprid (sold under the brand names Admire, Gaucho, Merit, and Advantage-that's the flea product used on dogs and cats) has received a lot of attention especially on PEI because of its wide use in the potato industry.  Almost all potato growers apply imidacloprid as a liquid in the furrow when planting.  The upside of the product is that it's a systemic which resides in the plant itself killing Colorado potato beetles for months without the farmer having to do any further insecticide spraying.  Its persistence, the ability to control sucking insects for months, is also its biggest danger.

No one disputes (it's right on the label of the product) that imidacloprid kills bees. The years of research, including here at UPEI,  have focused instead  on whether bees are exposed to the pesticide because of its use in potatoes. Here's the thinking. Potatoes do have a flower but it really doesn't offer much to bees, so you never see bees working potato fields they way they do clover or canola fields. In a normal rotation grain is grown next and again it's of no interest to bees. So it's really in the third year of a proper rotation when hay is produced (including clover and alfalfa) when there are plants of interest to bees.  The UPEI research showed imidacloprid is not a risk to bees two years after its use in a potato crop.

The new research raises serious questions about imidacloprid's use again.  It indicates that  sub-lethal exposure (small amounts) to  neonicotinoids can be just as deadly, because it alters the behavior of bees.  This won't come as a surprise to many beekeepers on PEI who have argued for years that the wide use of imidacloprid had to be hurting their hives, despite what the research showed.

This was one of the more difficult stories I covered over the years. I have friends who are beekeepers who made a compelling case that imidacloprid should be banned and I had an obligation working for the people's network to expose the truth. Other people I respected said the lose of hives was linked to mites, climate change, and poor management. The UPEI research was well designed and seemed to give  a good indication  that imidacloprid was not the culprit.  This new research means it's time to think about this again. I'll include a story about the new research below.

The better news is that organic farmer Raymond Loo is going to produce pastured beef and pork.  I've written a lot about the importance of PEI moving in this direction. Grass is something we can produce here really well, and higher-priced grass-fed beef does have a niche market following. It could give PEI a marketing edge, but someone has to do it to find if that's the case. And Raymond once more is taking the risk. We should support him.

Here's the bee stuff:

2 Studies Point to Common Pesticide as a Culprit in Declining Bee Colonies
by CARL ZIMMER  •  March 29, 2012

Scientists have been alarmed and puzzled by declines in bee populations in the United States and other parts of the world. They have suspected that pesticides are playing a part, but to date their experiments have yielded conflicting, ambiguous results.

In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.

The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids.

“I personally would like to see them not being used until more research has been done,” said David Goulson, an author of the bumblebee paper who teaches at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. “If it confirms what we’ve found, then they certainly shouldn’t be used when they’re going to be fed on by bees.”

But pesticides are only one of several likely factors that scientists have linked to declining bee populations. There are simply fewer flowers, for example, thanks to land development. Bees are increasingly succumbing to mites, viruses, fungi and other pathogens.

Outside experts were divided about the importance of the two new studies. Some favored the honeybee study over the bumblebee study, while others felt the opposite was true. Environmentalists say that both studies support their view that the insecticides should be banned. And a scientist for Bayer CropScience, the leading maker of neonicotinoids, cast doubt on both studies, for what other scientists said were legitimate reasons.

David Fischer, an ecotoxicologist at Bayer CropScience, said the new experiments had design flaws and conflicting results. In the French study, he said, the honeybees got far too much neonicotinoid. “I think they selected an improper dose level,” Dr. Fischer said.

Dr. Goulson’s study on bumblebees might warrant a “closer look,” Dr. Fischer said, but he argued that the weight of evidence still points to mites and viruses as the most likely candidates for bee declines.

The research does not solve the mystery of the vanishing bees. Although bumblebees have been on the decline in the United States and elsewhere, they have not succumbed to a specific phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, which affects only honeybees.

Yet the research is coming out at a time when opposition to neonicotinoids is gaining momentum. The insecticides, introduced in the early 1990s, have exploded in popularity; virtually all corn grown in the United States is treated with them. Neonicotinoids are taken up by plants and moved to all their tissues — including the nectar on which bees feed. The concentration of neonicotinoids in nectar is not lethal, but some scientists have wondered if it might still affect bees.

In the honeybee experiment, researchers at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France fed the bees a dose of neonicotinoid-laced sugar water and then moved them more than half a mile from their hive. The bees carried miniature radio tags that allowed the scientists to keep track of how many returned to the hive.

In familiar territory, the scientists found, the bees exposed to the pesticide were 10 percent less likely than healthy bees to make it home. In unfamiliar places, that figure rose to 31 percent.

The French scientists used a computer model to estimate how the hive would be affected by the loss of these bees. Under different conditions, they concluded that the hive’s population might drop by two-thirds or more, depending on how many worker bees were exposed.

“I thought it was very well designed,” said May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But James Cresswell, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter in England, was less impressed, because the scientists had to rely on a computer model to determine changes in the hive. “I don’t think the paper is a trump card,” he said.

In the British study, Dr. Goulson and his colleagues fed sugar water laced with a neonicotinoid pesticide to 50 bumblebee colonies. The researchers then moved the bee colonies to a farm, alongside 25 colonies that had been fed ordinary sugar water.

At the end of each year, all the bumblebees in a hive die except for a few new queens, which will go on to found new hives. Dr. Goulson and his colleagues found that colonies exposed to neonicotinoids produced 85 percent fewer queens. This reduction would translate into 85 percent fewer hives.

Jeffery Pettis, a bee expert at the United States Department of Agriculture, called Dr. Goulson’s study “alarming.” He said he suspected that other types of wild bees would be shown to suffer similar effects.

Dr. Pettis is also convinced that neonicotinoids in low doses make bees more vulnerable to disease. He and other researchers have recently published experiments showing that neonicotinoids make honeybees more vulnerable to infections from parasitic fungi.

“Three or four years ago, I was much more cautious about how much pesticides were contributing to the problem,” Dr. Pettis said. “Now more and more evidence points to pesticides being a consistent part of the problem.”