The Houston Mom Taking on Big Ag
First Bettina Siegel went after the beef industry. Now she’s tackling the Chinese government.
Many of the decorated generals in our recent food wars have been men—like Eric Schlosser, Mark Bittman, Michael Moss, and Jamie Oliver—but the most dogged foot soldiers have almost all been moms like Bettina Siegel, from Houston. When the married 48-year-old mother of two—a fourteen-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son—started her blog, the Lunch Tray, in May 2010, it was just an outlet for her to share what she was hearing at the Houston Independent School District’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee. A slight, pretty woman with wide eyes, freckles, and a law degree from Harvard, Siegel soon found herself fully invested in the Lunch Tray. It was, to her, a real calling, writing daily dispatches from her kitchen table in her elegantly appointed home in Southampton, a neighborhood adjacent to Rice University. Siegel started looking into everything from food labeling and obesity to the nutritional value of Girl Scout cookies.
“I really didn’t have any clear expectations for the blog,” she said. “It was fun. It was addictive.” But as with so many fun, addictive things, over time Siegel began to take her work more seriously. She joined HISD’s furious food fight over the value of serving breakfast in the classroom. (Poor kids needed the meal to help them stay sharp during the day, but some parents of wealthier, better-fed kids complained that serving breakfast took up valuable learning time.) Soon enough, she was commenting on national food issues, as when she described recently introduced Republican legislation as a “bill to gut healthier school food.”
“I got plugged into the food policy world,” Siegel told me. “It didn’t take long for me to enter into that discussion.” The result has been a blog that evinces a very healthy skepticism toward corporate and government notions of nutrition, most notably when she waded into the infamous “pink slime” debate.
The trouble started in 2009, when Siegel read about a substance called “lean, finely textured beef,” also known as LFTB or “pink slime,” in a New York Times report by Michael Moss, who would go on to win a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the beef industry. Specifically, pink slime is made up of slaughterhouse scraps and used as filler in ground meat. A year or so later, Siegel caught an ABC News follow-up to Moss’s story that showed that no less than 70 percent of ground beef sold in the United States contained pink slime and that the stuff started out highly contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. It was not comforting to Siegel that the USDA thought pink slime was safe to eat because it had been disinfected with ammonium hydroxide.
Siegel began to dig and discovered that although the likes of McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell had stopped putting pink slime in their food, around seven million pounds of the stuff was still making its way to American elementary school lunchrooms. “I started to get really angry,” Siegel told me. She wrote in the Guardian around that time, saying, “Unlike fast-food customers who can vote with their dollars, American schoolchildren have no say in what our government sees fit to feed them. Indeed, most of the children who participate in the school lunch program do so because they are economically disadvantaged and have no choice but to eat the school meal.”
She decided to launch a petition on Change.org asking the USDA to banish LFTB from American schools. Within two weeks, her work had gone viral, with more than 258,000 signatures (100,000 supporters added their names to the list in just one day). Several members of Congress joined in, and the USDA capitulated, agreeing for the first time to offer school districts the option to buy ground beef free of pink slime. Legislation regarding full disclosure on food labels followed, and Bettina Siegel became an unofficial advocate for the schoolchildren of America. Like so many formerly shy stay-at-home moms, Siegel’s advocacy had led to a personal transformation: her name now resided in the electronic rolodexes of people like Anderson Cooper and food activist Michael Pollan.
Of course, there was a price to pay. Siegel narrowly dodged being named in the $1.5 billion lawsuit filed in September 2012 by Beef Products, Inc. against ABC News and others for launching a “concerted disinformation campaign” against pink slime. Another suit was filed—and then dropped—by a man who claimed Siegel had cost him his job. Indeed, several plants that produced the stuff were shut down, which also brought out a team of governors from beef-producing states, including Texas’s own Rick Perry, who denounced the “smear” against slime by wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “Dude, it’s beef.” Trolls infested Siegel’s blog with sexist and anti-Semitic comments. “It was nerve-racking,” Siegel said.
But it didn’t lead her to lay down her laptop. In fact, Siegel is now gearing up for what may be her biggest fight to date. The latest turn of events began a few months ago when, on the suggestion of an unnamed source, Siegel decided to look into an issue involving a traditionally unpleasant foodie topic: mass-produced American poultry. It seemed that USDA had just approved four plants in China for processing American chicken and then shipping the meat back to the U.S., cooked and ready for human consumption. Siegel wasn’t all that interested—shipping food out of the country for cheaper processing has become oddly normal—until the source suggested that this chicken could end up in the mouths of babes, as part of their school lunches. That’s when Siegel got alarmed—again.
Picture a Doberman on Adderall and you have some idea of the way Siegel investigates. She started with what she knew. As she told me, “China’s food safety record is decades behind ours.” Her most-basic research revealed stories about dangerously high levels of mercury in Chinese baby formula; more than 16,000 diseased pig carcasses dumped in a river to rot; more than $1 million dollars’ worth of rats and other small mammals sold to Chinese consumers as lamb; and more than 300,000 Chinese children sickened, with several dying, from melamine-tainted milk powder. There isn’t any direct evidence that the Chinese will give American chickens any sort of toxic treatment, but there isn’t any evidence showing that they won’t either—or, for that matter, that they won’t ship Chinese chickens back to America in place of the birds raised here under USDA laws. The efficacy, and even the existence, of on-site inspections, for instance, is debatable.
Nonetheless, Siegel’s initial research provided some comfort: the USDA claimed on its website that no chicken processed in China would reach the lunchrooms of America’s schoolchildren. The agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) website included this nugget of information: “The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service ensures that products included in [sic] school lunch program are produced, raised, and processed only in the United States, its territories or possessions, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.”
Most people would have been satisfied, but Siegel was not. “My own expertise in school food led me to believe that the USDA’s answer was either knowingly or just negligently incomplete,” she told me. Further investigation resulted in the September 25, 2013, Lunch Tray headline, “USDA Misinforms Parents re: Chinese Processed Chicken in School Meals.” The American government would in fact, allow chicken processed in China to be fed to American children and was using a lot of weasely wording to obscure that fact. Before long, her post was picked up by people such as New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and, according to Siegel, “two days later the USDA ‘thanked’ me for my input and corrected the information on its website.”
Many people would have stopped there—again—but not Siegel. An activist for an organization called Food and Water Watch was already on the Chinese poultry case and connected Siegel with Connecticut congresswoman Rose DeLauro, who had long opposed any efforts to open U.S. borders to chicken processed in China. Siegel had conference calls from her sunny kitchen with DeLauro. With her pink slime triumph behind her, Siegel raised the prospect of launching another online petition. It would show that concerns about food safety had grassroots support, thus hopefully goading the government into action. The plan was to ask President Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and members of Congress, among others, to promise to keep Chinese-processed chicken out of federal child nutrition programs—a.k.a., school food—and refuse future funding for any rule that would allow the importation of Chinese-raised or -slaughtered poultry.
In January Siegel joined forces with two other advocates, Nancy Huehnergarth and Barbara Kowalcyk (“Safety in numbers!” she said), to launch the Change.org petition entitled “KEEP CHINESE CHICKEN OUT OF OUR SCHOOLS AND SUPERMARKETS!!” On the Lunch Tray Siegel went one step further, adding that “the USDA’s move is considered to be a preliminary step toward eventually allowing China to export its own raw poultry into this country, in exchange for China’s opening up its lucrative beef market to American beef producers.” The beef industry, it turned out, had been angling for a way to get back into China following the mad cow scare of 2003, which prompted China to close its borders to American meat. In short, Siegel had inserted herself into a global trade issue. (As of this month, 307,000 people have signed her petition.)
“International trade is increasingly important to the vitality and sustainability of American agriculture,” a 2011 letter sent from several Big Ag lobbyists to Vilsack argued, “with animal agriculture contributing about one third of the positive trade balance.” The “long unresolved status of the cooked poultry situation,” the letter continued, was cutting into the opportunity for global expansion.
“The big issue is that they want to break down trade barriers, but we don’t want to put free trade ahead of food safety,” Siegel explained. Siegel and her petitioners are still waiting for a response from the president and his staff. Tackling global trade is a lot trickier than taking on just one entity, like the beef industry, she told me gamely. In the meantime, Siegel is keeping busy, writing on the Lunch Tray about the dairy industry’s desire to put artificial sweeteners in schoolchildren’s chocolate milk, and the unfortunate propensity of Houston teachers to give candy rewards to students who excel.
“This already gives me carpal tunnel,” Siegel said, but she didn’t seem to be feeling the slightest bit of pain.