Ray Daniels inspects a glass of beer. A Chicago brewer, Daniels started the Cicerone training program five years ago.
(Johnny Knight/Courtesy of Ray Daniels)
August 24, 2013

Wine Has Sommeliers. Now, Beer Has Cicerones

If you've been to a fancy restaurant, you've probably seen a sommelier — those wine experts who make sure you get the best possible match for your meal. But what if you don't want a chardonnay or pinot? What if you want a nice cold beer?

A new program is working to bring this same level of knowledge to the world of malt and hops by turning out batches of certified beer experts known as Cicerones.

Ray Daniels, a Chicago brewer, started the Cicerone program five years ago. And he jokes that he did so for a fairly simple reason: bad beer.

"You'd go into a place that had a lot of taps, that you'd think might know their beer. And they really didn't," Daniels sighed. So Daniels came up with the Cicerone exam to standardize a canon of beery knowledge.

There are three levels of of Cicerones, starting out with Certified Beer Servers (an online exam), Cicerones (an in-person test, complete with a tasting component), and the top level of Master Cicerone (an in-person exam lasting two days). The exams focus on five basic components: keeping and serving beer; beer styles; flavor and tasting; brewing process and ingredients; and beer and food pairing.

This may sound a bit complex. And it is: Only about a third of test takers pass (and the numbers are even lower for the Master Cicerone certification). But Daniels stresses that he's not trying to set up some elitist system. Enjoying a beer is a simple pleasure. It's just that beer itself isn't so simple.

"Beer is a fragile product," Daniels notes. "It can be ruined instantly by certain types of handling. So the people in the beer business — from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress — need to understand the complexity of beer."

So far, only seven people have achieved the top level of Master Cicerone. But about 900 have passed the regular exam, and an additional 27,000 have become Certified Beer Servers. And the beer world is taking notice.

Many breweries encourage employees — from brewers to servers to distributors — to study for the Cicerone exam. Portland-based craft brewer Widmer Brothers has gone a step further: It pays for exams and sets up study programs, and it will even require the basic level for certain employees by the end of the year.

Widmer's brewing manager, John Eaton, says it makes a lot of sense. "The last thing a brewer wants," he says, "is for a consumer's first interaction with your beer to be not the beer that you wanted them to interact with."

And that bad interaction can happen when there's something wrong with the beer — from dirty keg lines to brewing mishaps — which the Cicerone training will help employees identify. But Eaton says a bad interaction could also happen when someone just doesn't know how to give you the right beer. While wine has its own language, beer servers are often at a loss as to how best to match a drinker to the right beer.

"That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves," Eaton notes, "is people will say something like a dark beer is automatically heavy or bitter — neither of which is necessarily the case. All different colors of beer can be all different ranges of bitterness and can be all different ranges of density."

And when Cicerones study up so that they understand — and can communicate — these differences, there's a better chance that they can help get the right beer into customers' hands. And that's something that any beer lover can drink to.

butter cow at illinois state fair
(Seth Perlman/AP)
August 14, 2013

No Extra Security At Illinois State Fair Following Iowa Butter Cow Attack

Organizers of the Illinois State Fair say they're not changing security procedures after vandals threw paint on a butter cow at the state fair in Iowa.

Jeff Squibb is a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

He tells The Pantagraph that a refrigerated case holding the butter bovine is locked all the time in the fair's Dairy Building, while a webcam streams live images of the sculpture.

The 500-pound cow is made with unsalted butter. Built from scratch each year, the butter cow has been an unofficial mascot of the fair since the 1920s.

Animal welfare activists hid in a building at the Iowa State Fair and poured red paint all over the butter cow there. The damage was discovered Sunday morning and quickly repaired.

August 12, 2013

USDA Predicts Corn Crop Will Rebound

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects Indiana corn farmers to rebound from a dismal crop last year by producing nearly 1 billion bushels in 2013.

In its first look at expected harvests this year, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts Indiana farmers will produce about 980 million bushels of corn, compared with fewer than 600 million bushels last year.

The forecast Monday also projects a record national corn crop of 13.8 billion bushels.

Purdue Extension agricultural economist Chris Hurt says the larger crop will mean lower food prices.

USDA expects Indiana soybean growers to produce more than 260 million bushels, up from about 224 million bushels last year.

Three chickens foraging in grass.
(Lisa Bralts/WILL)
August 03, 2013

Champaign Writing Rules To Own Backyard Chickens

City leaders in Champaign are working on an ordinance that will allow residents to keep chickens in their backyards.

Champaign city planner Lacey Rains Lowe says representatives from city departments like police, planning, legal and neighborhood services are working through the legislation. The Champaign City Council voted in July to end a ban on keeping chickens. They ordered city staff to draw up regulations.

The News-Gazette reports that city workers are considering how many hens residents can keep, whether permits and registration will be needed and how chicken coop designs will work with zoning codes. The city plan to prohibit roosters.

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.


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


* Share of total market sales for food animal use in 2011
** Share of total market sales for human use in 2011

July 11, 2013

Hipsters Off The Hook: The Truth Behind Abandoned Backyard Chickens

From the headlines this week, I almost expected to see a hen clucking outside NPR's headquarters this morning.

"Chickens Flood Shelters As Backyard Farmers Call It Quits," Time exclaimed. "Hipster farmers abandoning urban chickens because they're too much work," Canada's National Post wrote. As the headlines would have it, hens are getting dumped once their egg-laying years are over.

But are hipsters really the fair-weather farmers they're being portrayed as? Not necessarily.

A closer look at at the backyard farming industry reveals another underlying cause for the spike in unwanted chickens. And it's not the hens that are the major problem but the roosters, says Susie Coston of Farm Sanctuary in New York.

Urban chicken farming has exploded in popularity over the past few years. (Who doesn't want a pet that makes your breakfast?) In response, many cities have made it legal for residents to keep egg-laying hens, but they still prohibit roosters. The gentlemen are just too loud for urban living, Coston says.

Here's where the problem begins. When urban farmers order hens online, as is popular, suppliers can't tell 100 percent if they're sending a lady or a gentleman.

And that means many city dwellers end up getting roosters, when they really wanted hens. Once the poor fellows start crowing, their fate is sealed: It's either the frying pan or the local humane society.

"Roosters are being treated very differently from hens," Coston says. "We probably get 400 or 500 roosters each year at just one of our sanctuaries."

But for urban dwellers who want to raise backyard chickens, there's a way around this mystery-chicken-sex problem: Adopt an adult chicken — or better yet, adopt a hen from a factory farm, says John Reese of the Marin Humane Society.

The animal adoption facility he runs in Novato, Calif., gets most of its chickens from factory farms. "They're called spent hens," he says. The little ladies still have some egg-laying left in them, but they're just not as productive as younger birds.

"The factories slaughter most of them for food," Reese says, "but we save some of them from the soup and [let them] enjoy the leisure life in Marin County."

Reese also says he hasn't seen an uptick in abandoned birds. "We literally have the extreme opposite situation here on the north side of San Francisco," he tells The Salt. "Over the past few years, we've just had a steady rise in chicken adoptions."

Crop consultant Dan Steiner inspects a field of corn near Norfolk, Nebraska.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 09, 2013

As Biotech Seed Falters, Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt

Across the Midwestern corn belt, a familiar battle has resumed, hidden in the soil.

On one side are tiny, white larvae of the corn rootworm. On the other side are farmers and the insect-killing arsenal of modern agriculture.

We've reported on earlier phases of this battle: The discovery of rootworms resistant to one type of genetically engineered corn, and an appeal from scientists for the government to limit the use of this new corn to preserve the effectiveness of its protection against rootworm.

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like Syngenta or AMVAC Chemical that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

This is a return to the old days, before biotech seeds came along, when farmers relied heavily on pesticides. For Dan Steiner, an independent crop consultant in northeastern Nebraska, it brings back bad memories. "We used to get sick [from the chemicals]," he says. "We'd dig [in the soil] to see how the corn's coming along, and we didn't use the gloves or anything, and we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!"

For a while, biotechnology came to his rescue. Biotech companies such as Monsanto spent many millions of dollars creating and inserting genes that would make corn plants poisonous to the corn rootworm but harmless to other creatures.

The first corn hybrids containing such a gene went on sale in 2003. They were hugely popular, especially in places like northeastern Nebraska where the rootworm has been a major problem. Sales of soil insecticides fell. "Ever since, I'm like, hey, we feel good every spring!" says Steiner.

But all along, scientists wondered how long the good times would last. Some argued that these genes — a gift of nature — were being misused. (For a longer explanation, read my post from two years ago.)

Those inserted genes, derived from genes in a strain of the bacterial Bacillus thuringiensis, worked well for a while. In fact, the Bt genes remain a rock-solid defense against one pest, the European corn borer.

In parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, though, farmers are running into increasing problems with corn rootworms.

"You never really know for sure, until that big rain with strong wind, and you get the phone call the next morning: 'What's going on out there?'" says Steiner.

Entire hillsides of corn, with no support from their eaten-away roots, may be blown flat.

Monsanto has downplayed such reports, blaming extraordinary circumstances. But in half a dozen universities around the Midwest, scientists are now trying to figure out whether, in fact, the Bt genes have lost their power.

At the University of Nebraska, entomologist Lance Meinke is turning colonies of rootworms loose on potted corn plants that contain different versions of the anti-rootworm gene, to see how well they survive.

The larvae get to feed on the corn roots for about two weeks. The soil from each pot then is dumped into a kind of steel container. If the larvae are still alive, a bright light will drive them into little glass jars filled with alcohol. "They try to escape from the heat," says David Wangila, a graduate student who is managing this experiment.

If the rootworm-fighting genes in the corn are working well, no larvae should emerge.

But some have. Wangila points to one of the little glass jars. Inside, there are three nice plump corn rootworm larvae.

This is not good. Those insects, originally collected from a cornfield in Nebraska, were feeding on corn that contained the first rootworm-fighting gene that Monsanto introduced ten years ago. Technically, it's known as the Cry 3Bb gene.

Meinke and Wangila will compare the survival rate of these rootworms with others that have never been exposed to Bt. They're looking for signs that rootworms in the corn fields of Nebraska have evolved resistance to genetically engineered crops.

An identical experiment in Iowa, carried out more than a year ago, found corn rootworms resistant to the Cry 3Bb gene.

Nobody knows how widely those insects have spread, but farmers aren't waiting to find out. Some are switching to other versions of biotech corn, containing anti-rootworm genes that do still work. Others are going back to pesticides.

Steiner, the Nebraska crop consultant, usually argues for another strategy: Starve the rootworms, he tells his clients. Just switch that field to another crop. "One rotation can do a lot of good," he says. "Go to beans, wheat, oats. It's the No. 1 right thing to do."

Insect experts say it's also likely to work better in the long run.

Meinke, who's been studying the corn rootworm for decades, tells farmers that if they plant just corn, year after year, rootworms are likely to overwhelm any weapon someday.

The problem, Meinke says, is that farmers are thinking about the money they can make today. "I think economics are driving everything," he says. "Corn prices have been so high the last three years, everybody is trying to protect every kernel. People are just really going for it right now, to be as profitable as they can."

As a result, they may just keep growing corn, fighting rootworms with insecticides — and there's a possibility that those chemicals will eventually stop working, too.


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