Drought Updates, The Quest for Sustainable Beef, and More in Food Policy This Week

In Food Policy This Week: 5 News Bites

A roundup of news clippings we're reading that affect the way we eat.


Photograph: macieklew on Flickr

Drought in California Increases Need for Water Drilling

As the drought in California continues, vegetable farmers are attempting to keep production high—in fact, only about 10% of arable land will be underused or left idle this season. But where are they sourcing the irrigation water to raise all those vegetables? Typically, irrigation water comes from above-ground sources like rivers and streams. But during dry spells, farmers must tap into underground aquifers. This results in something of a "hydrological arms race," as agribusiness companies drill deeper and deeper into groundwater sources. The long-term consequences of such drilling are unknown. But given that aquifers take much longer to replenish than above-ground sources, it's likely that if the next drought comes too soon, there will be serious threat to groundwater resources.

Good News and Not-So-Good News in Antibiotic Regulation

When the FDA announced earlier this year that they would be imposing voluntary regulations on antibiotic use in the meat industry, there was a mixed response. Some were glad that regulation was being introduced at all, given that the jury's out on the health impact of eating highly-medicated animals. But others were unconvinced that voluntary regulations would be effective. Last week, the FDA gave another announcement: 25 of 26 veterinary drug manufacturers agreed to cooperate with the voluntary regulations. On the surface, this is great progress to monitoring how antibiotics are used in the meat industry. But only certain types of drugs are regulated, and the companies can still choose whether to back out of the regulations altogether. It's also unclear how the regulations will be implemented and monitored. For many public health advocates, the recent announcement is a positive step but there are many strides to go until antibiotic use is appropriately reported and regulated.

McDonald's Quest for Sustainable Beef May Be Exaggerated

Several fast food chains have recently demonstrated increased desire to source sustainable meat. But the definition of 'sustainable' has been vague. When McDonald's announced it would source 'verified sustainable beef' by 2016, many in the food industry raised an eyebrow. NPR looked into how McDonald's intends to verify said meat's sustainability. It turns out that McDonald's is one of several corporate entities involved in the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which released its first draft of criteria for sustainable beef last week. Their timeline for producing beef that meets all their criteria is about twenty years. In 2016, McDonald's announced date for sourcing sustainable meat, they will begin pilot programs in major beef-producing countries. Given that each country has its own conditions that must be met in order for beef to be raised 'sustainably,' it's likely that this process will take much longer than initially implied in McDonald's announcement.

Cargill Pushes Further Integration of Chicken Factories

One of the key features of the modern meat industry is vertical integration, in which companies control every step of the production process, from hatching to packaging. Cargill seeks to go a step further by also integrating their employees in international factories. A new factory in Shuzou, Nanjing, will contain 45 farms and produce 1.2 million chickens per week. Cargill employees will be housed on-site and work stringent hours to prevent the spread of disease. Observers worry that this situation will lead to unhealthy work and living conditions for employees, especially given the higher rates of disease among chickens living in confined factory settings. Meat produced at such factories is generally sold to international chains such as McDonald's and KFC.