July 31, 2013

Former Chicago Mayor Lends A Hand To Ailing Gary, Ind.

After more than 20 years as Chicago's Mayor, Richard Daley is working with the new Mayor of Gary, Ind., to try to revitalize that rust belt city. Daley is a senior fellow at the University of Chicago and his students are also helping in the transformation effort.

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Agricultural work, which is very physically demanding, is also a risky business venture.
(Kirk Siegler/NPR)
July 31, 2013

Farm Laborers Get A Foothold With Their Own Organic Farms

Northern California's Salinas Valley is often dubbed America's salad bowl. Large growers there have long relied on thousands of seasonal workers from rural Mexico to pick lettuce, spinach and celery from sunrise to sunset. Many of these workers seem destined for a life in the fields. But a program that helps field workers, like Raul Murillo, start their own farms and businesses is starting to yield a few success stories.

Murillo leases a three-acre strawberry farm from a cooperative called ALBA Organics. It trains longtime workers in organic farm management and helps with things like fertilizer and irrigation tools.

Murillo can sell his berries back to ALBA's cooperative, which does a brisk business with grocery stores in the nearby Bay area.

If God permits, he says, he'll continue turning a modest profit so he can hire more people who need the work. Under ALBA's rules, Murillo can only lease this land at a subsidized rate for a few years — after that he's on his own. But it's a risk he's willing to take. Even though he'd leave behind the steady paycheck he gets still working for big growers.

It's about being your own boss, instead of working for a foreman, he says. And at 45, he wants to try going out on his own before he gets too old.

Murillo's story is not unlike many of the 50 or so other farmers-in-training here at ALBA. Many have spent their entire lives in the fields, moving from one harvest to the next, from California, down to Mexico, then back.

"So it gives them a chance to take a bit of control of their lives, and not have to work for somebody else," says Nathan Harkleroad, who is in charge of ALBA's training programs, which are run out of an airy, converted farm house.

"You know, is everyone going to make it? Probably not," Harkleroad says.

Probably not, because there are a lot of barriers. Language and the high price of land, to name just two. Still, since 2002, 90 ALBA graduates have managed to break through and start their own farms off-site. And they're doing well today. Harkleroad attributes some of that to growing demand for local produce. But it's also due to a lot of hard work.

"You know our farmers are here six days a week, and on their seventh day they're probably worrying about their crops here. So, you have to be willing to accept that. You have to be willing to accept a certain level of risk, too," he says. "Farming is inherently a risky business."

Gail Wadsworth, head of the California Institute for Rural Studies, which advocates for farm worker rights, adds that "the reward economically isn't that great."

She adds: "I don't think that there are that many farmers that you can look at and say, 'Wow, you know, they've really made it.'"

Wadsworth says ALBA's mission of empowerment and teaching business skills to long-marginalized farm workers is good. But she's not sure encouraging them to launch into farming on their own is a good idea.

"Agricultural work is physically very demanding," she says, "It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But you're not risking everything that you own basically. You don't have the risk of owning land or a business."

That's why 23-year-old aspiring farmer Octavio Garcia has a backup plan. He's almost finished with the ALBA program. He's been able to hire three employees and is now looking for land to lease elsewhere in the valley.

"I want to be my own boss. And when I came from Mexico, I came with the idea of doing something better," Garcia says.

But if Garcia can't find suitable land to lease soon, he'll head to school. He's just been accepted into a plant science program at Fresno State.

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People calling for higher wages for fast-food workers.
(Justin Lane/EPA/Landov)
July 30, 2013

Fast-Food Strikers Demand A 'Living Wage'

At a Wendy's restaurant in Lower Manhattan on Monday, protesters urged the lunchtime crowd to skip the Value Menu for one day. They blocked the sidewalk and half of the street.

Shanell Young held a red strike sign over her head. Young earns the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, at another Wendy's in New York. She says that's not enough to support her and her 5-year-old son.

"It's horrible," says Young. "Everything goes up. It's unfair. You can't find an apartment. You can't pay for children's school uniforms. Everything is unfair. We can't live off this."

Fast-food workers are walking picket lines across the country this week. They're staging a series of one-day strikes in seven cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis. The campaign is aimed at pressuring McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food chains to pay a so-called living wage of $15 an hour.

The walkout at the Wendy's in Lower Manhattan did not force the restaurant to close, although it did seem to persuade a few potential diners to go somewhere else.

Wendy's would not give an interview for this story. Nor would any of the other fast-food chains targeted in the strike. But the National Restaurant Association did. Spokesman Scott DeFife says profit margins in the restaurant business are typically tight — and labor costs are among the industry's biggest expenses.

"There would be a severe impact on the ability to create jobs if the minimum wage was doubling to $15," says DeFife.

The restaurant industry's allies also rallied to its defense. The Employment Policies Institute, a pro-business group in Washington, D.C., bought a full-page ad in Monday's USA Today.

Michael Saltsman, research director at the EPI, says a higher minimum wage could push fast-food companies to invest more heavily in automation instead of hourly workers.

"There are a number of chains here in the U.S. who are experimenting with electronic menus where you can order on an iPad-type device; you can pay on that device," says Saltsman. "These are changes that happen in direct response to higher labor costs."

Critics of raising the minimum wage say it might also affect the kind of people who can get hired. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former chief economist at the Department of Labor, says many of the people making the minimum wage are teenagers or other part-time, entry-level workers.

"So the people who would be the losers would be the unskilled workers," she says. "The people who, like my teenager, want a summer job. No one's going to pay my teenager $15 an hour. But my teenager can get $7.25 an hour."

But these arguments haven't convinced the protesters in New York. And they haven't persuaded Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who stopped by to encourage the picketers outside the Wendy's in his district.

"The history is every time that there's been a debate over raising the minimum wage, people have said this'll cost jobs," says Nadler. "It has never happened. If they pay a higher wage, they'll make a slightly smaller profit margin. They're making huge profits now."

The fast-food protests continue this week with walkouts scheduled in Chicago, Milwaukee, Flint, Mich., and Detroit.

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July 18, 2013

Man Dies In Champaign County Grain Bin

A 55-year-old man died after an accident in a central Illinois grain bin.

Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup says Roy L. McCarty died Wednesday afternoon when he was buried beneath corn in a sweltering Sidney grain bin. Temperatures inside the bin were about 120 degrees.

Firefighters say the Sidney man was working at Premier Cooperative when the accident took place.

An autopsy is expected Thursday.

Authorities say the accident is under investigation.


Stephen Balaban has re-engineered his Google Glass to allow for facial recognition.
(Stephen Balaban)
July 17, 2013

Clever Hacks Give Google Glass Many Unintended Powers

At Philz Coffee in Palo Alto, Calif., a kid who looks like he should still be in high school is sitting across from me. He's wearing Google Glass. As I stare into the device's cyborg eye, I'm waiting for its tiny screen to light up.

Then, I wait for a signal that Google Glass has recognized my face.

It isn't supposed to do that, but Stephen Balaban has hacked it.

"Essentially what I am building is an alternative operating system that runs on Glass but is not controlled by Google," he said.

Balaban wants to make it possible to do all sorts of things with Glass that Google's designers didn't have in mind.

One of the biggest fears about Google Glass is that the proliferation of these head-mounted computers equipped with intelligent cameras will fundamentally erode our privacy.

Google has tried to respond to these fears by designing Glass so it is obvious to the people around these devices when and how they are being used. For example, to take a picture with Google Glass, you need to issue a voice command or tap your temple before the screen lights up.

But hackers are proving it's possible to re-engineer Google Glass in any number of creative ways. And in the process, they've put Google in an awkward position. The company needs to embrace their creative talents if it hopes to build a software ecosystem around its new device that might one day attract millions of consumers. But at the same time, Google wants to try to rein in uses for Glass that could creep out the public or spook politicians who are already asking pointed questions about privacy.

So when Balaban first announced he had built an app that let folks use Glass for facial recognition, Google reacted harshly.

"I'd be lying if I said I was surprised," he said.

The company said it wouldn't support programs on Glass that made facial recognition possible — and changed its terms of service to ban them. But that hasn't stopped techies like Balaban from building these services anyway.

And now, there are all sorts of things developers are doing with Glass that were not built into the original design.

Michael DiGiovanni created Winky — a program that lets someone wearing Google Glass take a photo with a wink of an eye.

Marc Rogers, a principal security researcher at Lookout, realized he could hijack Glass if you could trick someone into taking a picture of a malicious QR code — a kind of square-shaped bar code that can send a computer directly to a website.

But today, Rogers has nothing but praise for how Google responded to his hack. He says less than two weeks after he disclosed the problem to Google, the company had fixed it.

"The other thing that is really good is the way they pushed Google Glass out to a community of people who are particularly good at finding vulnerabilities and improving software and fixing software — way before it is a consumer product," Rogers said. "This means that all of these vulnerabilities — or at least most of them — are going to be found long before Google Glass ever hits the market."

Google's decision to give the first few thousand pairs of Google Glass to tinkerers and hackers and geeks was intentional.

"In a case where you have [a product] that is so different from what is on the market currently, you really have to do these living laboratories where you figure out what the social and technical issues are before you release it more widely," said Thad Starner, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and a manager at Google Glass.

When Google released Glass to the public, it didn't sell it to just anyone. The first few thousand people who got a pair were developers, a technically sophisticated group whose first impulse was to take it apart, peer inside its code and understand how it works. These people are hackers at heart, and when they got their hands on Google Glass, they broke it on purpose, cracking it open and exploring all the ways it could be used or possibly abused.

"That's the great service our [Google Glass] explorers are doing for us," Starner said. "They are actually teaching us what these issues are and how we can address them."

But some of the issues raised by Google Glass might not be possible to address with a simple technical fix.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in new technologies and privacy, has suggested that gadgets like Google Glass or civilian drones could act as "privacy catalysts" and spur conversations and legal debates about privacy in the digital age. Calo believes the conversations are long overdue.

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July 17, 2013

Ousted Metra CEO Describes Rough Illinois Politics

A former California transit executive tapped to clean up Chicago's scandal-tarnished Metra commuter rail agency says he was pushed out for doing exactly that and resisting pressure from Illinois politicians.

Alex Clifford was allowed to speak publicly for the first time Wednesday about his lucrative buyout agreement, which critics have called hush money and a waste of taxpayer funds.

Inquiries into the deal have led to revelations that House Speaker Michael Madigan asked Clifford's staffers to give a pay raise to a Metra employee who was a contributor to political campaigns benefiting Madigan.

Clifford told the Regional Transportation Authority Wednesday he believed Madigan's actions betrayed a "moral and ethical flaw."

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the speaker was merely supporting a recommendation by the employee's supervisor and did nothing improper.


Craig Rowles tends to his pigs in a barn near Carroll, Iowa.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 11, 2013

Are Antibiotics On The Farm Risky Business?

You've probably seen the labels on meat in the store: "Raised without antibiotics." They're a selling point for people who don't like how many drugs are used on chickens, turkey, hogs and beef cattle.

Activist groups, as well as prominent medical organizations, are calling for stricter rules on how these drugs are used. At the moment, there are few restrictions on agricultural use; farmers can buy most antibiotics for the animals over the counter.

There's a passionate but often confusing debate about this. Here at The Salt, we've decided to spend some time digging into this issue to provide more clarity. (To be honest, we needed a little clarity ourselves.)

Today, we're starting with one very narrow question: What exactly is the danger of antibiotic use on the farm? Also, why do scientists disagree about how big that danger might be?

Let's start on the farm: Craig Rowles' hog operation, in Carroll, Iowa.

He takes me into a large room, the nursery, filled with 1,000 little pigs. They're a month old, just weaned from their mothers a week earlier. This is when they're most likely to get sick. And Rowles tells me that some are sick with the flu.

He won't try to treat the flu directly, but he does try to keep it from leading to more deadly bacterial infections. So he's giving all the pigs in this barn two different antibiotics in their drinking water: tetracycline, which is an older antibiotic; and tylvalosin, a newer drug, part of the class of antibiotics called macrolides, which includes the human drug azithromycin.

They'll get those drugs for seven to 10 days — or maybe longer if they still seem in danger. "When they need it, we treat them. If they don't need it, we don't," Rowles says.

A couple of months from now, when these pigs leave the nursery, they'll start getting another antibiotic in their feed, even if they're healthy. This drug, virginiamycin, is supposed to help pigs grow faster, or use feed more efficiently.

This pattern of antibiotic use is fairly typical. Most chicken farmers, pig farmers and beef producers use antibiotics to treat disease, prevent disease and promote faster growth. The percentage of antibiotics used for growth promotion is a matter of dispute, because the Food and Drug Administration's annual report on antibiotic use in farm animals doesn't provide that data. Some critics have claimed that it makes up most antibiotic use on the farm. A survey of antibiotic use in the pork industry found that the share was about 20 percent.

It all adds up to a statistic that shocks many people, and it's quoted often by critics of antibiotic use on the farm: 80 percent of all the antibiotics in the United States go into farm animals.

But this is where the big argument starts. Scientists disagree about whether this is something that we should worry about.

The worry is not so much that antibiotics will be in the meat we eat. By the time an animal is slaughtered, those residues are supposed to be gone. According to the Department of Agriculture, almost all of the time, they are.

The concern is around a different risk: That using antibiotics on the farm will mean that these drugs won't work when we humans need them, because in theory, the more an antibiotic is given to animals, the more quickly bacteria will adapt and become resistant to it.

These pigs, newly weaned from their mothers, are at their most vulnerable stage of life. They're getting antibiotics in their water to ward off bacterial infection. (Dan Charles/NPR)

Here's an example: A few months ago, a patient was going through chemotherapy at the National Institutes of Health near Washington, D.C. He came down with a terrible case of diarrhea. "He constantly needed to be rehydrated. We moved him to the ICU for a little bit of monitoring for a while," says Elise O'Connell, a physician in training at the NIH, who was caring for the patient.

Tests revealed that the man was infected with campylobacter, a bacteria that you usually pick up from contaminated chicken or turkey. This seemed odd, until the physicians realized that this patient's family had brought in some food from home, and that another member of the family who'd eaten that dish also had gotten sick for a couple of days.

The choice of treatment seemed obvious. "We started him on an antibiotic called azithromycin," recalls O'Connell.

At first the patient got better — and then he got worse again. Azithromycin wasn't working.

O'Connell switched to a different antibiotic, and that one did work.

So why didn't azithromycin work?

Possibly, because on a farm somewhere, chickens were getting treated with macrolide antibiotics — very similar to azithromycin. Campylobacter in the chicken may have become resistant to these antibiotics, then hitched a ride aboard meat to O'Connell's patient.

That's the risk many people working in public health say is very real. But there's passionate disagreement about how worrisome it is, and what we should do about it.

On the one hand, we have Scott Hurd, a veterinarian at Iowa State University who's generally sympathetic to meat producers. He points out that it's not enough just to show that something can happen. "In order to make effective, science-based decisions, we have to move beyond the 'cans' to actually calculating the probabilities," he says.

Think of all the things that have to come together before this actually would happen, he says.

First of all, bacteria have to become resistant to an antibiotic that's actually used to treat people. But, in fact, around three-quarters of the antibiotics that farmers use on animals are not used at all by humans or are used infrequently, such as tetracyclines or virginiamycin. So only a small portion of farm use could create bacteria that are resistant to drugs that you'll use.

"And then you've got to get those bacteria off the farm. And then someone has to get sick with those bacteria," he continues. This also shouldn't happen very often, he says, if people are careful about cooking and handling meat.

Finally, you have to get so sick from the contaminated meat that you need antibiotics. That doesn't happen very often, either. O'Connell's patient needed treatment because he was in chemotherapy; his immune system was compromised.

The point is, this whole chain of events is rare, Hurd says. It's not a big danger to the public. "All published, peer-reviewed scientific articles to date have demonstrated negligible risk from on-farm antibiotic use," he says.

Gail Hansen, a veterinarian who is now working with the Pew Health Group and a critic of antibiotic use on the farm, is unimpressed by Hurd's analysis. "If you just look at — does this antibiotic, given to this animal, make this person sick, so we can't treat them with that same antibiotic — that's such a very narrow piece of this whole interconnected puzzle," she says.

First of all, this kind of case may not happen often, but it's a big deal if it happens to you, she says.

But there are other risks that can't be so easily calculated.

For instance, bacteria have the peculiar ability to share genes, including genes that make them resistant to particular antibiotics. So there can be drug-resistant bacteria on meat that don't make us sick. Once in your gut, they could pass along their drug-resistance to bacteria that can make us sick.

"The other thing to remember is that most of the bacteria don't end in our meat," Hansen says. "That's the good news. Most of the bacteria in animals stay in their manure and don't end up on your meat. But that manure ends up somewhere."

It's spread on fields; it can go into waterways. There's not much research on this, but it probably increases the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria everywhere.

When and how might some of those bacteria make us sick? We don't really know, Hansen says, but it's not a risk we should take. "If we don't have all the information we need to know for sure whether something is bad or not, let's give the environment and the people and the animals the benefit of the doubt, and not continue to do something that might be harmful," she says.

So this is where the argument ends up: When risks are uncertain, what do you do?

The Food and Drug Administration is working on rules that would stop antibiotics from being used just to help animals grow faster. The rules may also require farmers to get a veterinarian's approval before using most of these drugs.

Hansen wants the agency to go further and allow antibiotic use only when animals are sick or clearly in danger of getting sick. Scott Hurd disagrees; he says if farmers can't use antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks, they'll end up with more sick animals. And that's not good for farmers or consumers.

It's a balance between agriculture and human medicine. It's also a balance between capturing the benefits of these "wonder drugs" now, and keeping them working in the future.

Comparing Antibiotics Used In Animals And People

Some of the antibiotics used on the farm are very similar to the drugs prescribed by doctors to treat people. Critics of antibiotic use in food animals say this is one reason why farmers should be more careful about how much and which drugs they use — they could be jeopardizing human health if bacteria become resistant to the drugs over time. But bacterial resistance to drugs doesn't always develop the same way or at the same rate. And some drugs given to animals aren't important for humans — for example, ionophores. Below is a table showing where animal and human antibiotics overlap. It includes the classes of antibiotics (cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, macrolides and lincosamides) health authorities are most worried bacteria will develop resistance to, which could put human lives at risk. — Eliza Barclay

  In food animals In people
Drug class Market share* FDA-approved uses Market share** Specific examples of use
Tetracyclines In food animals 41% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Chlortetracycline for growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry In people 3.5% Tetracycline for chlamydia
Ionophores In food animals 30% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle and poultry Example: Monensin for growth promotion in beef calves In people 0 Not used in human medicine
Penicillins In food animals 6.5% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Amoxicillin to treat a sick cow In people 44.4% Amoxicillin for ear infections
Macrolides In food animals 4.3% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Erythromycin for growth promotion in chickens In people 5% Azithromycin for campylobacteriosis (infection from Campylobacter)
Sulfas In food animals 2.7% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in pigs Example: Sulfamethazine for growth promotion in pigs In people 14.6% Bactrim for urinary tract infections
Aminoglycosides In food animals 1.6% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in poultry Example: Gentamicin to prevent disease in turkey In people 6.4% Gentamicin for urinary tract infections
Lincosamides In food animals 1.4% Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in pigs and poultry Example: Lincomycin to treat arthritis infection in pigs In people 2.2% Clindamycin for respiratory tract infections
Cephalosporins In food animals 0.2% Limited extra-label use in poultry Example: Limited extra-label use for poultry In people 15.1% Ceftriaxone for pneumonia and bacterial meningitis
Fluoroquinolones In food animals Sales are small but exact details not available Prescription use only to treat infections in cattle Example: Danofloxacin for respiratory disease in cattle In people 8.4% Cipro for staph infections
Streptogramins In food animals Exact sales details not available Treatment and control of infections and growth promotion in cattle, pigs and poultry Example: Virginiamycin for growth promotion in pigs In people Less than 1% Quinupristin/dalfopristin (QD) for strep and staph infections
Pleuromutilins In food animals Exact sales details not available Growth promotion in pigs Example: Tiamulin for dysentery in pigs In people Less than 1% Retapamulin for skin infections

Notes

* Share of total market sales for food animal use in 2011
** Share of total market sales for human use in 2011
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July 11, 2013

Illinois AG Seeks Damages From Apple

Attorney General Lisa Madigan says Illinois will seek to recover damages from Apple Inc. after a federal judge found the company violated antitrust laws.

A U.S. District Court judge in New York on Wednesday ruled Apple conspired with book publishers to raise electronic book prices significantly in spring 2010.

Madigan says Apple and the publishers forced book buyers to pay millions more for electronic books than they would have otherwise.

She says Illinois will be one of 33 states and territories that will try in a second trial to recover damages. The second trial will determine how much Apple should pay for its role in overcharging customers.

Apple has said it did nothing wrong and will appeal the ruling.


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