This photo taken Aug. 21, 2009 shows Barbara Palermo looking on while making remarks in her chicken coop in Salem, Ore.
(Rick Bowmer/AP)
July 09, 2013

Champaign City Council Reviews Allowing Hens For Egg Production

The city of Champaign may follow the lead of other communities, like Urbana, by allowing residents to keep hens in their backyard for egg production.

It is a practice that has a lot of support, especially from people involved in sustainable farming.

Champaign currently prohibits residents from raising poultry in the city, but the city council begins a study session Tuesday night to evaluate the feasibility of changing that policy.

City Planner Lacey Rains Lowe said in preparation for that meeting, she has researched ordinances that allow residents to raise hens in other communities, like Evanston, just north of Chicago.

“They haven’t had a single complaint, which was pretty incredible,” Lowe said. “They of course restrict roosters, so that the noise issue is not a problem. They require a permit for the coop to be in place before chickens are allowed to be on the property. They have a minimum amount of square footage per chicken. Your feed must be in a predator proof container, which is essentially a container with a tight sealing lid so it doesn’t attract vermin.”

These are all things Lowe said the city can look at if it chooses to allow residents to raise chickens within the city.

Karen Carney wants to set up a chicken coop in the backyard of her home in Champaign.

“I’ve always been interested in trying to live as sustainably as possible,” she said.

Carney said while raising a few backyard chickens won't necessarily change the food industry, she believes it will help make food safer to eat.

“We’ve all heard those stories about chickens being kept in overcrowded cages and being susceptible to disease and this is just a much better life for the chicken and good eggs for your family,” Carney said.

Lowe said some major concerns that have been brought up about raising chickens in a residential neighborhood include odor issues, increased noise, and traffic generated by egg and meat sales.

The Champaign City Council meets Tuesday at 7 p.m.

(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia Commons)
July 08, 2013

Twinkies To Last Longer Than Many May Remember

Twinkies don't last forever, but they'll have more staying power than most people remember when they return to shelves next week.

Hostess Brands LLC says spongy yellow cakes will have a shelf life of 45 days when they start hitting stores again July 15. That's nearly three weeks longer than the 26 days their previous owner had stated as the shelf life for Twinkies.

A Hostess representative says the change was made by the old company that went bankrupt, with the longer-lasting cakes first hitting shelves on Nov. 1 of last year. But the old company went out of business and stopped production just weeks after that, meaning the Twinkies most people are familiar with had the shorter lifespan.

Hostess declined to say what changes were made.

The seeds and other evidence of Stone Age farming, including tools that looked like sickles, were uncovered at a dig site in the foothills of Iran's Zagros mountains.
(Courtesy TISARP/University of Tubingen)
July 08, 2013

Farming Got Hip In Iran Some 12,000 Years Ago, Ancient Seeds Reveal

Archaeologists digging in the foothills of Iran's Zagros Mountains have discovered the remains of a Stone Age farming community. It turns out that people living there were growing plants like barley, peas and lentils as early as 12,000 years ago.

The findings offer a rare snapshot of a time when humans first started experimenting with farming. They also show that Iran was an important player in the origin of agriculture.

In 2009, archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tubingen led an excavation in the foothills of the Zagros, a mountain range that runs along the Iran-Iraq border.

Based on the suggestion of an Iranian colleague, he'd picked an area close to the border with Iraq and began excavating a mound about eight meters high. Before long, they hit pay dirt: The sediments were rich with artifacts. "Sculpted clay objects, clay cones, depictions of animals and humans," says Conar

There were stone tools, too: things that looked like sickles, and mortar and pestles, some clearly used for grinding food. And then there were the grains and seeds — hundreds of them, charred but otherwise intact and well preserved.

Now, Conard is no botanist. He's an expert on stone tools. But even his untrained eye recognized some of the grains.

"They look like lentils you might buy at the store, or pieces of wheat or barley you might have encountered in other aspects of life."

He suspected he was looking at an "agricultural village," but he sent the grains to his colleague Simone Riehl to double check.


"That was a fantastic feeling, when I first get these plant remains under the microscope," says Riehl, an archaeobotanist at the University of Tubingen.

She confirmed that the grains were indeed varieties of lentils, barley and peas. She also identified a range of nuts and grasses, and a kind of wheat called Emmer, known to be a commonly grown crop in later centuries throughout the Middle East.

But most of the grains Riehl looked at were pre-agricultural. "They were cultivating what we consider wild progenitors of modern crops," says Riehl.

In other words, 12,000 years ago, people were simply taking wild plants and growing them in fields. They hadn't started breeding crops yet, selecting varieties for yield and other desirable qualities.

"They were probably just trying to secure their everyday needs," says Riehl.

Now, Riehl's samples spanned a period of two thousand years. And in the younger samples, those about 10,000 years old, she did detect the first signs of domestication: The Emmer wheat from this period had tougher ears. "That's because of human selection," she says. Those tough ears, she explains, helped keep the grains from falling to the ground when they were ripe. It made harvesting a lot easier.

Experts in prehistoric agriculture have welcomed the study, which is published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

"It's allowing us to push back our picture of early agriculture to these very, very initial stages, when people are beginning to play around with plants and their environment," says Melinda Zeder, curator of old world archaeology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The study also changes our understanding about the geographic origins of agriculture, she says.

Until now, she says scientists had thought agriculture arose in the western parts of the Fertile Crescent — a region that includes Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel — because that's where all previous evidences of early agriculture came from.

Iran, on the other hand, is on the eastern edges of the Crescent, and was thought to be "a non-player in the history of agriculture," says Zeder.

The new study proves otherwise, she says. It shows that communities across the entire Fertile Crescent started experimenting with farming around the same time. And that, says Zeder, is exciting.


(Jeff Roberson /AP)
June 28, 2013

Avocado-Fed Pork? Why Animal Feed Is Going Gourmet

Peanuts, flax, sprouts and avocados: It's not the menu at a health food deli, but the menu inside some barns. What's more, many farmers experimenting with these gourmet feeds are growing the ingredients themselves.

Take Russ Kremer, the Missouri pig farmer whose operation served as the inspiration for the 2011 Chipotle ad. Kremer hasn't bought commercial animal feed in 30 years. Instead, he grazes his hogs in a pasture, and grows (or buys from neighbors) grains and legumes to supplement their nutrition.

Kremer and some of the other farmers developing specialty feed say they are willing to shoulder the extra cost and time to produce it because they're turned off by conventional feed mixes. The conventional mixes are what most of the hogs in the U.S. consume, and can include commodity corn and soybeans, blood protein, animal waste and rendered fats, according to Kremer.

Kremer also runs a co-op where farmers can pool resources to mill their own feed. "We opt for grains like barley and oats as often as possible, because most corn and soy is now [genetically modified]," he says.

The scarcity of non-GMO corn and soybeans is what led hog farmers Kelley and Mark Escobedo of South Texas Heritage Pork to experiment with peanuts.

Using their own 1950s-era mill, the farmers combine peanuts, peanut hay, and oats to boost the animals' protein intake and overall health — especially important because they raise their animals without antibiotics. The resulting meat has a delicate, nutty flavor that has helped them attract a loyal customer base willing to pay a higher price for the meat. "I've never had anyone come back and say it's not worth it," says Escobedo.

She and other farmers even take custom feed requests. Case in point: One restaurant shaped a special meal around a single hog that the Escobedos fed avocados (along with the peanut-based feed) for the last 6 weeks of its life.

"The meat was soft and delicious," Escobedo recalls. "It was the most delightful dinner I've ever eaten." (Pot-fed pigs are getting similarly rave reviews in Washington state, as we've reported.)

Farmers are supplementing animal feed with other ingredients found in gourmet kitchens, too. To boost his animals' immunity, Kremer uses oregano oil. To add omega-3 fatty acids, many cattlemen are adding the superfood flax to feed. And Nigel Walker of California's Eatwell Farm not only grows his own wheat to feed his egg=-laying hens, he also sprouts the grains for added nutrition.

Even as farmers learn to market meat from animals raised on special diets, only a small percent of consumers are willing to pay extra for it. A pastured chicken fed with homegrown grains, for instance, can cost as much as $20 to 25, compared with $10 for a conventional chicken in the grocery store.

The cost to farmers, in terms of both dollars and time, also remains significant. Kremer says he can afford homegrown feed because he saves money on veterinary care since he doesn't use antibiotics. His pigs also have a higher survival rate than average (just 1 percent mortality compared to nearly 5 percent industry-wide). But his operation is also much smaller than average, so the risks are different from a large hog operation.

Jack Lazor, author of the forthcoming book The Organic Grain Grower, and owner of Butterworks Farm in Vermont, says homegrown animal feed has fundamentally transformed his farm. Lazor supplements his dairy cows' diets with homegrown grains and feeds his laying hens kelp and soybeans he grows and roasts himself, using a recipe developed by Polyface Farm's Joel Salatin. The birds gain more weight, and the eggs are yellower, but more important to Lazor is the sense of being in complete control of what he calls the "craft of farming."

"When you're feeding an animal you can tweak it one way or the other based on the herd or the season," he says. "Plus, it just adds more meaning to your life."

Chicken cage
(Dan Charles/NPR)
June 27, 2013

What The Rise Of Cage-Free Eggs Means For Chickens

The typical life of an egg-laying chicken is beginning to change dramatically.

Ninety percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens that live in long lines of wire cages, about eight birds to a cage. Animal welfare groups have long been campaigning against these cages.

They are succeeding, and this is where the change starts. In recent years, several big food companies have promised to switch to "cage-free" eggs. They include Unilever, which sells Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Aramark, which supplies food to big companies, colleges and prisons.

Those promises set off a supply chain reaction. "There weren't enough cage-free eggs for us to do Hellmann's Light mayonnaise, initially," says Doug Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever North America. "It's going to take us about five years of working with egg suppliers so that we can convert all the egg farmers, just to supply the eggs for Hellmann's mayonnaise."

Which brings us to a brand-new pair of chicken houses tucked into the rolling farmland near Hershey, Pa.

Inside one of those houses, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at the plastic covers on my shoes.

The chickens just arrived here a few weeks ago. So did the farmer, a taciturn young man named Harold Sensenig, who grew up just down the road.

"Been living here for about four weeks now. Moved in a week before the chickens came. Got married two weeks before that," he says.

These chickens aren't free-range or organic; they don't go outside. But they do get to roam around inside the house, which makes them cage-free.

Sensenig built this style of chicken house — and a bank financed it — on the strength of those promises by Unilever and Aramark.

Sensenig has a deal with a local egg buyer, Sauder's Eggs, which is paying twice the going rate for cage-free eggs. Sauder Eggs, in turn, supplies those eggs to Unilever and Aramark.

"It's the demand that's driving it," says Paul Sauder, who owns Sauder's Eggs. "I mean, I wouldn't take the risk of paying double for these eggs, versus commodity eggs, if I didn't have the demand pushing on the other side."

According to the United Egg Producers, about 7 percent of all eggs now come from cage-free houses. That's up from 3 percent five years ago. For Sauder's business, it's currently 10 or 12 percent, and growing every year.

It's more expensive to produce eggs this way, Sauder says. You need more buildings for the same number of chickens, because you can't stack the birds on several levels in the same house. There's also more work involved — somebody has to walk through the chicken house collecting stray eggs that chickens laid on the ground, rather than in their enclosed nests.

But the industry, he says, is responding to "the perception that cage-free is a better product than eggs from a conventional cage house."

"Do you believe that?" I ask.

Sauder pauses. "From a nutrition standpoint, the egg is the same," he says.

Yet as Sauder stands amid the crowd of chickens, he does seem pleased. You're closer to the animals, he says, the way farmers were 50 years ago. You also get to see chickens acting more like chickens, dust-bathing or perching on long metal rods up near the ceiling. "You come in here at nighttime, those things are all full up there, because birds migrate to the top perches. That's where they feel safest," he says.

There's still some argument, though, about whether that means the chickens are really better off.

In Michigan, scientists are carrying out a large-scale experiment with three different full-scale chicken houses. One has chickens in traditional cages; one has so-called enriched cages that are bigger, and include nests and perches; and a third house is cage-free.

"We have over 300 cameras mounted within those systems to collect data," says Janice Swanson, from Michigan State University. She's one of the scientists in charge of the study, which is funded by a consortium of egg producers.

Swanson says they are measuring every aspect of each system: how clean the air is; how healthy the chickens are; how much it costs; how each system affects a chicken's welfare.

On the third floor of Michigan State's animal sciences building, teams of students are carefully watching videotapes, counting how often the chickens do things like spread their wings or peck each other.

Swanson says it's important to measure all of these things because there may be trade-offs between different goals.

For instance, in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe in their own waste. "There are concerns about that, relative to egg safety," he says. "Now, for the hen's behavioral repertoire, this is cool! We can get down and dust-bathe, and so on."

The experiment has been running for a year now, and the scientists have released some preliminary observations. Here are just a few: Hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Swanson says it's too early to draw any firm conclusions, though, because these observations are from just one production cycle.


Paula Deen
(Chia Chong)
June 21, 2013

Paula Deen's Contract Is Toast After Quick-Fire Criticism

Paula Deen's contract with The Food Network expires at the end of June — and it won't be renewed.

The celebrity chef faced a barrage of criticism after the National Enquirer reported that Deen admitted to using the N-word in a deposition for a discrimination lawsuit against her. (For more details, check out this close read of the deposition in our Code Switch blog.)

Deen released multiple apology videos Friday. As BuzzFeed reports, the first video "toggled between public and private for an hour before it was completely removed, replaced by a longer version."

In the second video, she says she wants to "learn and grow from this" and that "inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable."

But wait, there's more. The news also follows a missed appearance on NBC's Today show. As The Atlantic Wire reports:

"In the middle of Today's 7 a.m. hour, Matt Lauer made the announcement that Deen had scheduled an exclusive live interview with Today — and that she simply did not show up."

Deen released a third video apologizing to host Matt Lauer for not showing up, saying: "The last 48 hours have been very, very hard. And you know, I'm a strong woman, but today I wasn't. This morning I was not."

NPR's Kathy Lohr tells our Newscast Desk:

"Deen is trying to stave off criticism from all corners, including her fans. She makes millions each year from TV shows, cookbooks and personal appearances."

June 21, 2013

Taste of Champaign-Urbana Begins Friday Night

On Friday, the annual Taste of Champaign-Urbana kicks off at West Side Park in Champaign.

At this year’s event, there will be live music, art work, and food from about two dozen vendors. The Champaign Park District’s Laura Auteberry said people who come to the Taste should nott hold back on the food.

“Remember that they are eating guilt free because this is the park district’s major fund raiser each year for our youth scholarship program," she said. "What that does is it allows us to provide fee waivers to children in our community whose families might not be able to afford to pay for day camps, swim lessons, or sports programs.”

Auteberry said she hopes to raise about $15,000 for the cause.

Also, this is the first time in the event’s 43-year history that people will be able to drink beer. Beer sales will be contained in the main entertainment area, and there will be increased security.

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana goes from 5pm until 10pm on Friday, 11am until 10pm on Saturday, and 11am until 6pm on Sunday.

food production
(Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images)
June 20, 2013

Why Slave Labor Still Plagues The Global Food System

When the State Department released its annual report on human trafficking Wednesday, we got a chilling reminder that even in 2013, slave labor is still embedded in the global food system.

As many as 27 million men, women, and children are estimated to be trafficking victims at any given time, according to the report. And some of those victims, the State Department says, are later forced to work in agriculture and food processing (though no one has a good idea how many).

The agriculture sector has an ugly track record when it comes to labor abuses, of course. Sugar production fueled the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Americas. As the Polaris Project, an anti-slavery organization, notes, agricultural work today is often isolated and transient, with peaks and lulls in employment due to changing harvest seasons. These conditions leave workers vulnerable, creating opportunities that farmers and food factory owners continue to exploit.

The new State Department report has many references to farm work: Malian children transported to Cote d'Ivoire for forced labor on cocoa farms, and ethnic Indian families forced to work in the Bangladesh tea industry, to name a couple. Some of these offending farms and factories serve only the local economy. But some are selling food products on the international market.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the State Department hopes that this year's report will hit home with Americans. And so an official reminds us that as consumers, we are at one end of a food supply chain that sometimes leads back to slavery.

Luis CdeBaca, the official in charge of the office that monitors and fights trafficking, told Michele:

"This year's report looks at things like the fishing industry — and actually raises a question that I think all of us should be asking, which is: How much of my life is impacting modern-day slavery? Do I know where the shrimp is being caught or processed that is on my plate?"

CdeBaca's comment was a lightly veiled reference to shrimp farms and processing plants in Thailand, which labor groups claim are heavily reliant on migrant workers from Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

Because of ongoing issues on shrimp farms and elsewhere, for the fourth year in a row, the State Department put Thailand on the "Tier 2 Watch List" for failing to increase efforts to address human trafficking, compared to the previous year.

Thailand is the source of one-third of all shrimp imported by the U.S. American retailers (and consumers) like it in part because it is cheap. Labor abuses at Thai shrimp factories and farms that export are well-documented. As PBS reported last year, Thai labor activists have documented abuses of Burmese migrant workers who work in the shrimp-peeling sheds that supply shrimp to larger factories for export to the U.S.

A recent briefing paper by the International Labor Rights Forum and the Warehouse Workers United noted labor abuses at Thai shrimp producer Narong Seafood, which has been a major supplier to Walmart and a leading shrimp processor for the U.S. market. But despite the prevalence of abuse, the paper recommends that Walmart not drop Narong as a supplier, but instead "work with labor and human rights activists in Thailand to ensure the rights of the workers who produce shrimp for Walmart in Thailand are respected."

Forced labor, including debt bondage, also continues to sustain palm oil plantations in Malaysia, also on the Tier 2 Watch List, and Indonesia. (Palm oil is used in lots of processed foods, from Dunkin Donuts to Girl Scout cookies.) Cargill, the largest importer of palm oil and trader of 25 percent of the world's palm oil supply, says it has a policy of not using any slave or child labor. But the Rainforest Action Network has alleged that one of Cargill's palm oil suppliers used slave labor on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Even in the U.S., food workers aren't exempt from abuse and even slavery. As our NPR colleague Yuki Noguchi reported last month, men with intellectual disabilities who worked at an Iowa turkey-processing plant suffered severe verbal and physical abuse for over 20 years. A jury eventually awarded the men approximately $3,000,000, the largest jury verdict in the history of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

And we here at The Salt have previously told you about labor groups that have documented cases of enslaved migrants working in Florida's tomato industry.

To get a rough idea of how your consumption habits may lead back to slave labor, use the calculator at

June 17, 2013

Rantoul Looks At Turning Air Base Into Food Hub

There is interest in Champaign County about transforming at least part of Rantoul’s former Chanute Air Force Base into a facility where locally grown food can be processed and distributed to area businesses.

Supporters say this “food hub” would drive up interest in local produce by improving access to it. Backers of the project include officials with the University of Illinois, the village of Rantoul, and the Champaign County Farm Bureau.

Farm Bureau Manager Bradley Uken said the proposed food hub would only be one part of this project.

“We’re looking at this big picture of not just your typical food hub. It is must more than that,” Uken said. “It is the farming. It’s education. It’s research. It’s aggregation. It’s packing. It’s all of that."

Uken said he sees this project as an opportunity to shepherd in the next generation of agricultural workers who are growing up on small family farms.

“This is a great opportunity for some of the younger individuals where may be the operation isn’t big enough for another family to be brought into the operation,” he said. “This is for some farmers to kind of diversify their operations (through) local foods. It’s a different type of agriculture, but it’s clearly part of agriculture.”

The Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993, taking away thousands of jobs and leaving dozens of old, empty buildings in Rantoul.

Mike Royse, a consultant working with the village on behalf of the Center for Community Adaptation, is exploring the feasibility of developing the shuttered military base. The village is paying the center $4,000 a month for his services. Royse said Chanute is a perfect spot to begin looking forward.

“The old Chanute Air Force base is an underutilized asset that used to supply 10,000 jobs to our region,” he said. “It’s a source of blight, and it deserves our focus. It’s better than looking at areas that are currently economically viable, and doing it there.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the success of food hubs is growing, with more than 200 operating across the country. The agency recently awarded a $99,000 grant to Heartland Community College, in partnership with the community - based Edible Economy Project, to start up three food hubs in Central Illinois.

The locations of those hubs have not been finalized. Royse said he has been in talks about partnering with the recipients of the grant.

“There are other counties in our Midwest region who have started to really focus on growing their own food, and we import a lot of food now,” Royse said. “If we could not do that and profitably grow our food here, we could add a lot of value.”

Meanwhile, Royse said he is also reviewing the possibility of starting up a biofuel production facility at the Chanute Air Force Base. He maintained any discussions about future developments at the site are still in the early phases.

Meat tenderized the old-fashioned way. The industrial method is a mechanized process involving needles.
June 11, 2013

Tender Beef, Without The Pathogens: USDA Proposes Labeling Rules

In order to make tough cuts of beef more tender, the industry uses a mechanical tenderizing process that involves piercing the meat with needles.

This is effective in breaking up the tough muscle fibers, but there's a downside, too: a higher risk of surface bacteria making their way into the cut of meat, which can set the stage for food poisoning. That's a particular concern when it comes to the center of meat cuts, which don't get heated to the same temperatures as the exterior.

Since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has learned about five foodborne illness outbreaks linked to mechanically tenderized beef.

And what was the common denominator in these outbreaks? Undercooked or raw beef.

So, the USDA has proposed a new rule that would require new labels for mechanically tenderized meats, so that consumers know what they are purchasing. The thinking is that if you know your cut of meat has been mechanically tenderized, you'll be inclined to cook it a little longer.

"This proposed rule would enhance food safety by providing clear labeling of mechanically tenderized beef products and outlining new cooking instructions, so that consumers and restaurants can safely prepare these products," wrote USDA Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen in a release announcing the proposal.

Chef Bruce Mattel, who's associate dean for food production at the Culinary Institute of America, says these new labels should be helpful to consumers.

"An experienced cook can assess 'doneness' by the firmness of the product. However, it is always best for everyone, including professionals, to use a thermometer," Mattel says.

And how hot does the internal reading need to be? Mattel says 160 degrees minimum is what home cooks should aim for.

The proposed rule is open for a 60-day comment period. You can weigh in here.

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