Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on March 12, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

piglet-1The late Tom Anderson, the family doctor in this little farm town in northwestern Indiana, at first was puzzled, then frightened.

He began seeing strange rashes on his patients, starting more than a year ago. They began as innocuous bumps — “pimples from hell,” he called them — and quickly became lesions as big as saucers, fiery red and agonizing to touch.

They could be anywhere, but were most common on the face, armpits, knees and buttocks. Dr. Anderson took cultures and sent them off to a lab, which reported that they were MRSA, or staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) sometimes arouses terrifying headlines as a “superbug” or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The best-known strain is found in hospitals, where it has been seen regularly since the 1990s, but more recently different strains also have been passed among high school and college athletes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that by 2005, MRSA was killing more than 18,000 Americans a year, more than AIDS.

Dr. Anderson at first couldn’t figure out why he was seeing patient after patient with MRSA in a small Indiana town. And then he began to wonder about all the hog farms outside of town. Could the pigs be incubating and spreading the disease?

“Tom was very concerned with what he was seeing,” recalls his widow, Cindi Anderson. “Tom said he felt the MRSA was at phenomenal levels.”

By last fall, Dr. Anderson was ready to be a whistle-blower, and he agreed to welcome me on a reporting visit and go on the record with his suspicions. That was a bold move, for any insinuation that the hog industry harms public health was sure to outrage many neighbors.

So I made plans to come here and visit Dr. Anderson in his practice. And then, very abruptly, Dr. Anderson died at the age of 54.

There was no autopsy, but a blood test suggested a heart attack or aneurysm. Dr. Anderson had himself suffered at least three bouts of MRSA, and a Dutch journal has linked swine-carried MRSA to dangerous human heart inflammation.

The larger question is whether we as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap bacon but risks the health of all of us. And the evidence, while far from conclusive, is growing that the answer is yes.

A few caveats: The uncertainties are huge, partly because our surveillance system is wretched (the cases here in Camden were never reported to the health authorities). The vast majority of pork is safe, and there is no proven case of transmission of MRSA from eating pork. I’ll still offer my kids B.L.T.’s — but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.

Let me also be very clear that I’m not against hog farmers. I grew up on a farm outside Yamhill, Ore., and was a state officer of the Future Farmers of America; we raised pigs for a time, including a sow named Brunhilda with such a strong personality that I remember her better than some of my high school dates.

One of the first clues that pigs could infect people with MRSA came in the Netherlands in 2004, when a young woman tested positive for a new strain of MRSA, called ST398. The family lived on a farm, so public health authorities swept in — and found that three family members, three co-workers and 8 of 10 pigs tested all carried MRSA.

Since then, that strain of MRSA has spread rapidly through the Netherlands — especially in swine-producing areas. A small Dutch study found pig farmers there were 760 times more likely than the general population to carry MRSA (without necessarily showing symptoms), and Scientific Americanreports that this strain of MRSA has turned up in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples.

Now this same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States. A new study by Tara Smith, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, found that 45 percent of pig farmers she sampled carried MRSA, as did 49 percent of the hogs tested.

The study was small, and much more investigation is necessary. Yet it might shed light on the surge in rashes in the now vacant doctor’s office here in Camden. Linda Barnard, who was Dr. Anderson’s assistant, thinks that perhaps 50 people came in to be treated for MRSA, in a town with a population of a bit more than 500. Indeed, during my visit, Dr. Anderson’s 13-year-old daughter, Lily, showed me a MRSA rash inflaming her knee.

“I’ve had it many times,” she said.

So what’s going on here, and where do these antibiotic-resistant infections come from? Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all. That’ll be the focus of my next column, on Sunday.

Neo-Colonialists Begin Campaign Against Obama’s Fair Trade Agenda

Posted in human rights, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 18, 2009

David Sirota

sweatshop1Nicholas Kristof’s latest New York Times column makes the case that corporate colonialism and human exploitation aren’t just not bad, but actually a great virtue that will save the developing world – and that those working to stop such colonialism and exploitation are the root cause of global poverty. I kid you not:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough…

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty…

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

This is quite literally the argument of a sociopath – and the problem is that sociopathy is so prevalent in discussions about trade and globalization that we barely even notice it anymore.

David Sirota :: Neo-Colonialists Begin Campaign Against Obama’s Fair Trade Agenda

Think about how intellectually dishonest Kristof’s argument is: He is basically saying that when American trade policy incentivizes corporations to employ young women in 15-hour shifts in sweatshops for $1 a day, we’re doing those women a favor, because that situation – however horrendous – is better than them having to dig through garbage dumps or serve as prostitutes for subsistence. The assumption – totally unquestioned – is that it’s an either/or choice: According to Kristof, either these women can have the great honor and privilege of being exploited, or they can face a worse hell (like, he says, pulling a rickshaw). And America should be unapologetically proud of itself for providing the opportunity for the former.

Left unsaid, of course, is that the size of the American market coupled with strong labor/wage protections in our trade policy would likely compel another alternative to the binary sweatshop-or-worse-hell paradigm.

Here’s the deal: Because our market is so big, economists will tell you that every multinational corporation wants to do business in the United States – that is, every corporation that wants to be globally competitive wants to be able to sell things to Americans. This is a huge amount of potential global economic leverage. The standards we choose to set as conditions for access to our market set standards throughout the world For example, our trade policies include restrictive patent protections for pharmaceutical companies and foreign governments enforce such patents even though they keep many medicines prohibitively high for their impoverished populations. Why? Because if they don’t, they could face crippling economic sanctions (read: loss of access to the American market they need access to).

Unfortunately, our current trade policy – and specifically, its omission of basic labor/wage/environmental/human rights standards – means we don’t use the economic leverage that comes with that market power for anything good. While we do, for instance, protect drug industry profits with restrictive provisions for patents, we don’t protect human beings and deride proposals for such protections as evil “protectionism” (as if the patent protections aren’t protectionism). By saying to corporations that they can have access to our market with almost no preconditions, we incentivize only one thing: a race to find the most exploitable labor and most lax environmental laws in the world so as to bring down product prices and inflate profits as much as possible.

In mimicking Margaret Thatcher’s famous “There Is No Alternative” refrain, Kristof would have us believe that the current standards-free system is inevitable and unchangeable – and worse, that any effort to change it would only hurt the poor foreign workers he purports to care about. But clearly there is an alternative. If the United States government’s trade policy said companies could only have access to our market if they followed the most basic labor/wage laws that prevent gross sweatshop exploitation, that would economically incentivize companies to improve their labor standards by making access to their American customers contingent on better behavior. And thus the either/or paradigm would be mitigated, if not eliminated.

Kristof and the neoliberal elites his writing represents likely knows all this – they may be sociopaths in their carefree attitude toward human exploitation, but they aren’t stupid. They want this either/or paradigm to exist, even though it doesn’t have to. Why? Because it both alleviates their privileged guilt and because it justifies the shredding of the social contract.

America’s ruling class – whether wealthy pundits, Wall Streeters, Washington lobbyists, corporate executives, politicians, or your typical suburban SUV-driving hundred-thousand-aire – desperately needs ways to avoid guilt and instead feel good and moral about sustaining lavish lifestyles through human exploitation. And so they have people like Kristof, Tom Friedman and other kindred spirits to give them a reasonable-sounding White Man’s Burden-style argument that helps them feel righteous rather than stoic in their excess; makes them feel like they are Saving the Children when they buy a pair of expensive slacks made by children toiling in a foreign sweatshop; and makes them feel that any pangs of guilt or efforts to change things are what’s really creating such bone-crushing poverty in the Third World. As Kristof himself proudly declares, the problem with America’s trade policies is not that the sweatshop culture they incentivize “exploit[s] too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”

Such rhetoric psychologically reassures the decidedly upper-class readership of the New York Times op-ed page that they don’t have to change their behavior or political disposition at all in order to feel like they are good people. And many, of course, follow up with traditional gestures of the noblesse oblige in order to buttress the positive self-image neoliberalism manufactures for them. For instance, Kristof proves to himself that he’s not the mundane colonialist that he is by penning other columns about the horrors of foreign poverty. Likewise, millionaire “liberals” who back the most exploitative globalization policies give money to anti-poverty charity. And yet, the structural policies that create poverty go untouched.

By this insane logic, then, we should be working not only to prevent any kind of labor/wage/human rights/environmental protections in our trade policies, but to start shredding the social contract here at home. By this logic, our minimum wage, workplace safety standards, minimal union organizing rights, and environmental laws must be abolished so that companies will employ workers here – regardless of the terms of that employment. After all, at least you can get a below-the-poverty-line job at Wal-Mart and not have to dig through trash dumps to subsist, right?

Well, sure – but it’s a false choice. When all the basic employment protections we take for granted were originally passed, our nation decided that the either/or choice didn’t have to exist – and we were right. For example, we understood that even if state and federal governments made mining companies permit unions and made mining companies pay workers a minimum wage, they would still maintain operations in places like Colorado and Montana. Why? Because there’s trillions of dollars worth of natural resources in those states that makes it worth staying, regardless of those basic worker protections – and if one company leaves, their competitor will come in and capitalize.

It’s the same thing in our globalization policies. We should understand that companies will keep employing the foreign workers that Kristof claims to care about even if we include minimal labor/wage/human rights/environmental standards in our trade pacts. Why? Because there’s trillions of dollars worth of customers in America that makes it financially smart to conform to such standards, rather than closing up shop. Such standards would also create an economic incentive for foreign countries to improve their domestic workplace laws and enforcement of said laws so as to get access to the American market ( Right now, the incentive is the opposite: Countries are encouraged to decimate their domestic laws so as to attract foreign investors, and those investors know there is no economic cost – ie. loss of access to the American market for going to the countries with the worst possible conditions).

Admittedly, over the long-haul, we may not have as much potential market-influencing power as we do now. With the rise of China and India, and the Bush-weakened domestic economy, it’s possible the American market will shrink in relative size to the rest of the globe, and therefore we won’t have as much market leverage to incentivize such standards. But that’s why there’s so much urgency to the basic fair trade reforms that President-elect Obama campaigned on, and that so many congressional Democrats have promised.* Not only will those fair trade reforms begin preventing Americans from having to compete in an unfairly rigged and recession-exacerbating race to the bottom with foreign slave labor, but they will use this potentially fleeting moment of American economic supremacy to lift the world up, rather than kicking it down.

Ultimately, such a paradigm shift will be far more important to restoring America’s image in the world and alleviating global poverty than the (admittedly significant) symbolism of removing George W. Bush and replacing him with a leader who has ancestral ties to Africa. That’s the secret the “exploitation is good” sociopaths from Kristof to the Chicago Boys don’t want us to grasp.

* And let’s be very clear: Nobody is proposing the institution of standards that even approach America’s domestic standards. No one is proposing a global American-level minimum wage or workplace safety standards or environmental protections. What has been floated are the most minimal protections against the worst kind of exploitation (child labor, right to join a union, etc.) – and yet even these most minimal standards are being opposed by the Establishment.

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

Posted in Economy, labor, politics, poverty, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on January 15, 2009

Nicholas Kristof


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.

Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”

Striking the Brothels’ Bottom Line

Posted in women's rights by allisonkilkenny on January 11, 2009

Nicholas Kristof

_248684_prostitutes300POIPET, Cambodia

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner.

My guide to that has been Sok Khorn, an amiable middle-aged woman who is a longtime brothel owner here in the wild Cambodian town of Poipet. I met her five years ago when she sold me a teenager, Srey Mom, for $203 and then blithely wrote me a receipt confirming that the girl was now my property. At another brothel nearby, I purchased another imprisoned teenager for $150.

Astonished that in the 21st century I had bought two human beings, I took them back to their villages and worked with a local aid group to help them start small businesses. I’ve remained close to them over the years, but the results were mixed.

The second girl did wonderfully, learning hairdressing and marrying a terrific man. But Srey Mom, it turned out, was addicted to methamphetamine and fled back to the brothel world to feed her craving.

I just returned again to Ms. Khorn’s brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust.

For years, Ms. Khorn had been grumbling to me about the brothel — the low margins, the seven-day schedule, difficult customers, grasping policemen and scorn from the community. There was also a personal toll, for her husband had sex with the girls, infuriating her, and the couple eventually divorced bitterly. Ms. Khorn was also troubled that her youngest daughter, now 13, was growing up surrounded by drunken, leering men.

Then in the last year, the brothel business became even more challenging amid rising pressure from aid groups, journalists and the United States State Department’s trafficking office. The office issued reports shaming Cambodian leaders and threatened sanctions if they did nothing.

Many of the brothels are owned by the police, which complicates matters, but eventually authorities in Cambodia were pressured enough that they ordered a partial crackdown.

“They didn’t tell me to close down exactly,” said another Poipet brothel owner whom I’ve also interviewed periodically. “But they said I should keep the front door closed.”

About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn’s brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it’s doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. “A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.

“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. … Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.”

Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage.

But brutality has its own drawbacks as a business model, particularly during a crackdown, pimps say. Brothels that imprison and torture girls have to pay for 24-hour guards, and they lose business because they can’t allow customers to take girls out to hotel rooms. Moreover, the Cambodian government has begun prosecuting the most abusive traffickers.

“One brothel owner here was actually arrested,” complained another owner in Poipet, indignantly. “After that, I was so scared, I closed the brothel for a while.”

To be sure, a new brothel district has opened up on the edge of Poipet — in the guise of “karaoke lounges” employing teenage girls. One of the Mama-sans there offered that while she didn’t have a young virgin girl in stock, she could get me one.

Virgin sales are the profit center for many brothels in Asia (partly because they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins several times over), and thus these sales are their economic vulnerability as well. If we want to undermine sex trafficking, the best way is to pressure governments like Cambodia’s to organize sting operations and arrest both buyers and sellers of virgin girls. Cambodia has shown it is willing to take at least some action, and that is one that would strike at the heart of the business model.

Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.

Obama’s ‘Secretary of Food’?

Posted in Barack Obama by allisonkilkenny on December 11, 2008

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

As Barack Obama ponders whom to pick as agriculture secretary, he should reframe the question. What he needs is actually a bold reformer in a position renamed “secretary of food.”

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

Renaming the department would signal that Mr. Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food,” notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”

The Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school-lunch programs, exacerbating our national crisis with diabetes and obesity.

But let’s be clear. The problem isn’t farmers. It’s the farm lobby — hijacked by industrial operators — and a bipartisan tradition of kowtowing to it.

I grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., where my family grew cherries and timber and raised sheep and, at times, small numbers of cattle, hogs and geese. One of my regrets is that my kids don’t have the chance to grow up on a farm as well.

Yet the Agriculture Department doesn’t support rural towns like Yamhill; it bolsters industrial operations that have lobbying clout. The result is that family farms have to sell out to larger operators, undermining small towns.

One measure of the absurdity of the system: Every year you, the American taxpayer, send me a check for $588 in exchange for me not growing crops on timberland I own in Oregon (I forward the money to a charity). That’s right. The Agriculture Department pays a New York journalist not to grow crops in a forest in Oregon.

Modern confinement operations are less like farms than like meat assembly lines. They are dazzlingly efficient in some ways, but they use vast amounts of grain, as well as low-level antibiotics to reduce infections — and the result is a public health threat from antibiotic-resistant infections.

An industrial farm with 5,000 hogs produces as much waste as a town with 20,000 people. But while the town is required to have a sewage system, the industrial farm isn’t.

“They look profitable because we’re paying for their wastes,” notes Robert P. Martin, executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. “And then there’s the cost of antibiotic resistance to the economy as a whole.”

One study suggests that these large operations receive, in effect, a $24 subsidy for each hog raised. We face an obesity crisis and a budget crisis, and we subsidize bacon?

The need for change is increasingly obvious, for health, climate and even humanitarian reasons. California voters last month passed a landmark referendum (over the farm lobby’s furious protests) that will require factory farms to give minimum amounts of space to poultry and livestock. Society is becoming concerned not only with little boys who abuse cats but also with tycoons whose business model is abusing farm animals.

An online petition that can be found at calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary — and names six terrific candidates, such as Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska. On several occasions in the campaign, Mr. Obama made comments showing a deep understanding of food issues, but the names that people in the food industry say are under consideration for agriculture secretary represent the problem more than the solution.

Change we can believe in?

The most powerful signal Mr. Obama could send would be to name a reformer to a renamed position. A former secretary of agriculture, John Block, said publicly the other day that the agency should be renamed “the Department of Food, Agriculture and Forestry.” And another, Ann Veneman, told me that she believes it should be renamed, “Department of Food and Agriculture.” I’d prefer to see simply “Department of Food,” giving primacy to America’s 300 million eaters.

As Mr. Pollan told me: “Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”

Your move, Mr. President-elect.