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Could “Comic Contracts” help protect vulnerable workers?

South African group Indigo Fruit Growers thinks they can.

The company, which produces, packs and supplies ClemenGold mandarins to local and international markets, developed the concept in a bid to make contracts easier to understand for farmworkers.

The registered idea Comic Contracts was originally put forward by Robert de Rooy, a South African lawyer based in Cape Town and legal counsel for ClemenGold for many years. Comic Contract

The concept uses visualization to improve the understanding of contractual terms: the parties are represented by characters and illustrations are used to explain the terms of the contract.

The company said the contracts challenge the “taken-for-granted assumption” that only text can capture the terms of a contract”, by using mainly pictures instead of words for a binding agreement.

“It is based on the fact that pictures are easier to understand and easier to remember. The purpose of a Comic Contract is to empower the parties to understand each other, to understand what they expect from each other, and what they are committing to,” de Rooy said in a release.

Indigo Fruit Growers said the contracts were especially designed to address the needs of vulnerable employees: employees who either cannot read well or have difficulties understanding the language in which the contract is written.

Whilst the legal system requires that all employees have an employment contract, it assumes that everyone can read proficiently and understand the contractual terms presented to them.

However, the company claimed this was rarely the case in South Africa, especially in sectors employing low-skill workers such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and domestic work.

“The way in which most contracts are drafted and presented (‘this is standard, sign it or leave it’) does not support a good relationship. Most employees don’t read it, nor would they be able to understand it if they tried,” de Rooy said, adding the situation perpetuated the power imbalance between employers and employees.

The release said under these circumstances employees were bound to terms which they don’t understand, couldn’t live up to, and could not use to hold their employers accountable, which meant misunderstanding and conflict in the workplace should come as no surprise.

“We are really excited about the transparency this contract brings to our employee relations,” said ANB Investments CEO Abs van Rooyen, whose company owns Indigo.

“It creates a more equitable situation, which can only be the start of a more ‘honest’ relationship with our employees. I believe that workers can only commit fully to the content of a contract if they understand what they are signing.”

Indigo recently initiated the implementation of the Comic Contracts, which were first presented to 50 fruit pickers who had previously worked for Indigo. Indigo. Following the successful induction of these 50 workers, the contract was presented the next day to a further 163 fruit-pickers.

“The feedback was positive. No picker asked for the old contract,” said farm manager Faan Kruger.

“Although everything was new and there were many questions, the process went much faster than with a traditional contract.”

www.freshfruitportal.com

 

 

FreshFruitPortal.com

Protect Yourself From Shellfish-Related Illnesses This Summer

Warm weather and low tides are good for harvesting shellfish, but nice weather is also ideal for naturally occurring bacteria to multiply, raising the risk of illness, warns the Washington State Department of Health.

For that reason, food-safety officials in Washington state, California and Oregon advise shellfish gatherers and consumers to follow summertime health advice as they head to area beaches to gather shellfish.

“Sunshine and warming waters are ideal conditions for the bacteria that cause vibriosis to multiply,” explains Jerrod Davis, director of Washington state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “This raises the risk of getting sick from eating raw or undercooked shellfish — especially oysters.”

Here are some important food-safety tips for shellfish gathered in Washington state, California and Oregon:

  • Make sure the shellfish is placed on ice or refrigerated immediately after it is gathered.
  • Harvest shellfish as the tide goes out and don’t take shellfish that have been exposed by the receding tide for more than an hour.
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly, especially in the summer months, because the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria are killed when shellfish have reached 145 degrees F for 15 seconds. Don’t rinse cooked shellfish with seawater because it can be re-contaminated with Vibrio.

Vibriosis symptoms usually appear within 24 hours of eating infected shellfish and may include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. Symptoms typically last between two to seven days. People with lowered immunity, liver disease, stomach ulcers, or who take medication to reduce stomach acid are at higher risk for severe illness and should never eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

Not all shellfish illnesses can be prevented by cooking. Biotoxins, which can also be found in West Coast waters depending on saltwater conditions, are not destroyed by cooking.

Sport-harvested mussel quarantines in California, Oregon

California: The annual quarantine on sport-harvested mussels gathered along the California coast began on May 1. This quarantine applies to all species of mussels harvested along the California coast, as well as all bays and estuaries.

“This quarantine is in place to protect the public against poisoning that can lead to severe illness, including coma and death,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer. “It is critical that the public honor the quarantine because the toxins found in mussels have no known antidotes and they are not reliably destroyed by cooking.”

This quarantine is intended to protect the public from paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and domoic acid poisoning (DAP). Both of these toxins are linked to plankton consumed by filter-feeding animals such as bivalve shellfish (e.g., mussels and clams).

The majority of human cases of PSP illnesses occur between spring and fall.

Oregon: The coast of Oregon, from the South Jetty of the Columbia River to the California border, is also closed to mussel gathering.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning

According to information from the Oregon Health Department, warm ocean waters and calm seas are favorable conditions for a bloom of algae that produces PST. A shellfish safety closure is issued immediately if PST levels rise above the alert level of 80 micrograms per 100 grams.

Each state has up-to-date information about PST on its shellfish hotlines. (PST and vibriosis are two different health hazards that can occur in shellfish.)

Shellfish contaminated with PST can cause minor-to-severe illness or even death. PST cannot be destroyed by cooking, by adding baking soda, or by any other method of processing. PST symptoms usually begin with tingling of the mouth and tongue. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, paralysis of the arms and legs and paralysis of the muscles used for breathing. PST(s) are produced by algae and usually originate in the ocean.

Shellfish hotlines

Always check these hotlines before heading out to gather shellfish:

Washington state: 1-800-562-5632.

Oregon: 1-800-448-2474

California: 1-800-553-4133

Food Safety News

Protect Yourself From Shellfish-Related Illnesses This Summer

Warm weather and low tides are good for harvesting shellfish, but nice weather is also ideal for naturally occurring bacteria to multiply, raising the risk of illness, warns the Washington State Department of Health.

For that reason, food-safety officials in Washington state, California and Oregon advise shellfish gatherers and consumers to follow summertime health advice as they head to area beaches to gather shellfish.

“Sunshine and warming waters are ideal conditions for the bacteria that cause vibriosis to multiply,” explains Jerrod Davis, director of Washington state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “This raises the risk of getting sick from eating raw or undercooked shellfish — especially oysters.”

Here are some important food-safety tips for shellfish gathered in Washington state, California and Oregon:

  • Make sure the shellfish is placed on ice or refrigerated immediately after it is gathered.
  • Harvest shellfish as the tide goes out and don’t take shellfish that have been exposed by the receding tide for more than an hour.
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly, especially in the summer months, because the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria are killed when shellfish have reached 145 degrees F for 15 seconds. Don’t rinse cooked shellfish with seawater because it can be re-contaminated with Vibrio.

Vibriosis symptoms usually appear within 24 hours of eating infected shellfish and may include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. Symptoms typically last between two to seven days. People with lowered immunity, liver disease, stomach ulcers, or who take medication to reduce stomach acid are at higher risk for severe illness and should never eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

Not all shellfish illnesses can be prevented by cooking. Biotoxins, which can also be found in West Coast waters depending on saltwater conditions, are not destroyed by cooking.

Sport-harvested mussel quarantines in California, Oregon

California: The annual quarantine on sport-harvested mussels gathered along the California coast began on May 1. This quarantine applies to all species of mussels harvested along the California coast, as well as all bays and estuaries.

“This quarantine is in place to protect the public against poisoning that can lead to severe illness, including coma and death,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer. “It is critical that the public honor the quarantine because the toxins found in mussels have no known antidotes and they are not reliably destroyed by cooking.”

This quarantine is intended to protect the public from paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and domoic acid poisoning (DAP). Both of these toxins are linked to plankton consumed by filter-feeding animals such as bivalve shellfish (e.g., mussels and clams).

The majority of human cases of PSP illnesses occur between spring and fall.

Oregon: The coast of Oregon, from the South Jetty of the Columbia River to the California border, is also closed to mussel gathering.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning

According to information from the Oregon Health Department, warm ocean waters and calm seas are favorable conditions for a bloom of algae that produces PST. A shellfish safety closure is issued immediately if PST levels rise above the alert level of 80 micrograms per 100 grams.

Each state has up-to-date information about PST on its shellfish hotlines. (PST and vibriosis are two different health hazards that can occur in shellfish.)

Shellfish contaminated with PST can cause minor-to-severe illness or even death. PST cannot be destroyed by cooking, by adding baking soda, or by any other method of processing. PST symptoms usually begin with tingling of the mouth and tongue. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, paralysis of the arms and legs and paralysis of the muscles used for breathing. PST(s) are produced by algae and usually originate in the ocean.

Shellfish hotlines

Always check these hotlines before heading out to gather shellfish:

Washington state: 1-800-562-5632.

Oregon: 1-800-448-2474

California: 1-800-553-4133

Food Safety News

Protect Yourself From Shellfish-Related Illnesses This Summer

Warm weather and low tides are good for harvesting shellfish, but nice weather is also ideal for naturally occurring bacteria to multiply, raising the risk of illness, warns the Washington State Department of Health.

For that reason, food-safety officials in Washington state, California and Oregon advise shellfish gatherers and consumers to follow summertime health advice as they head to area beaches to gather shellfish.

“Sunshine and warming waters are ideal conditions for the bacteria that cause vibriosis to multiply,” explains Jerrod Davis, director of Washington state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “This raises the risk of getting sick from eating raw or undercooked shellfish — especially oysters.”

Here are some important food-safety tips for shellfish gathered in Washington state, California and Oregon:

  • Make sure the shellfish is placed on ice or refrigerated immediately after it is gathered.
  • Harvest shellfish as the tide goes out and don’t take shellfish that have been exposed by the receding tide for more than an hour.
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly, especially in the summer months, because the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria are killed when shellfish have reached 145 degrees F for 15 seconds. Don’t rinse cooked shellfish with seawater because it can be re-contaminated with Vibrio.

Vibriosis symptoms usually appear within 24 hours of eating infected shellfish and may include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. Symptoms typically last between two to seven days. People with lowered immunity, liver disease, stomach ulcers, or who take medication to reduce stomach acid are at higher risk for severe illness and should never eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

Not all shellfish illnesses can be prevented by cooking. Biotoxins, which can also be found in West Coast waters depending on saltwater conditions, are not destroyed by cooking.

Sport-harvested mussel quarantines in California, Oregon

California: The annual quarantine on sport-harvested mussels gathered along the California coast began on May 1. This quarantine applies to all species of mussels harvested along the California coast, as well as all bays and estuaries.

“This quarantine is in place to protect the public against poisoning that can lead to severe illness, including coma and death,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer. “It is critical that the public honor the quarantine because the toxins found in mussels have no known antidotes and they are not reliably destroyed by cooking.”

This quarantine is intended to protect the public from paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and domoic acid poisoning (DAP). Both of these toxins are linked to plankton consumed by filter-feeding animals such as bivalve shellfish (e.g., mussels and clams).

The majority of human cases of PSP illnesses occur between spring and fall.

Oregon: The coast of Oregon, from the South Jetty of the Columbia River to the California border, is also closed to mussel gathering.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning

According to information from the Oregon Health Department, warm ocean waters and calm seas are favorable conditions for a bloom of algae that produces PST. A shellfish safety closure is issued immediately if PST levels rise above the alert level of 80 micrograms per 100 grams.

Each state has up-to-date information about PST on its shellfish hotlines. (PST and vibriosis are two different health hazards that can occur in shellfish.)

Shellfish contaminated with PST can cause minor-to-severe illness or even death. PST cannot be destroyed by cooking, by adding baking soda, or by any other method of processing. PST symptoms usually begin with tingling of the mouth and tongue. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, paralysis of the arms and legs and paralysis of the muscles used for breathing. PST(s) are produced by algae and usually originate in the ocean.

Shellfish hotlines

Always check these hotlines before heading out to gather shellfish:

Washington state: 1-800-562-5632.

Oregon: 1-800-448-2474

California: 1-800-553-4133

Food Safety News

Protect Yourself From Shellfish-Related Illnesses This Summer

Warm weather and low tides are good for harvesting shellfish, but nice weather is also ideal for naturally occurring bacteria to multiply, raising the risk of illness, warns the Washington State Department of Health.

For that reason, food-safety officials in Washington state, California and Oregon advise shellfish gatherers and consumers to follow summertime health advice as they head to area beaches to gather shellfish.

“Sunshine and warming waters are ideal conditions for the bacteria that cause vibriosis to multiply,” explains Jerrod Davis, director of Washington state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “This raises the risk of getting sick from eating raw or undercooked shellfish — especially oysters.”

Here are some important food-safety tips for shellfish gathered in Washington state, California and Oregon:

  • Make sure the shellfish is placed on ice or refrigerated immediately after it is gathered.
  • Harvest shellfish as the tide goes out and don’t take shellfish that have been exposed by the receding tide for more than an hour.
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly, especially in the summer months, because the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria are killed when shellfish have reached 145 degrees F for 15 seconds. Don’t rinse cooked shellfish with seawater because it can be re-contaminated with Vibrio.

Vibriosis symptoms usually appear within 24 hours of eating infected shellfish and may include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. Symptoms typically last between two to seven days. People with lowered immunity, liver disease, stomach ulcers, or who take medication to reduce stomach acid are at higher risk for severe illness and should never eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

Not all shellfish illnesses can be prevented by cooking. Biotoxins, which can also be found in West Coast waters depending on saltwater conditions, are not destroyed by cooking.

Sport-harvested mussel quarantines in California, Oregon

California: The annual quarantine on sport-harvested mussels gathered along the California coast began on May 1. This quarantine applies to all species of mussels harvested along the California coast, as well as all bays and estuaries.

“This quarantine is in place to protect the public against poisoning that can lead to severe illness, including coma and death,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer. “It is critical that the public honor the quarantine because the toxins found in mussels have no known antidotes and they are not reliably destroyed by cooking.”

This quarantine is intended to protect the public from paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and domoic acid poisoning (DAP). Both of these toxins are linked to plankton consumed by filter-feeding animals such as bivalve shellfish (e.g., mussels and clams).

The majority of human cases of PSP illnesses occur between spring and fall.

Oregon: The coast of Oregon, from the South Jetty of the Columbia River to the California border, is also closed to mussel gathering.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning

According to information from the Oregon Health Department, warm ocean waters and calm seas are favorable conditions for a bloom of algae that produces PST. A shellfish safety closure is issued immediately if PST levels rise above the alert level of 80 micrograms per 100 grams.

Each state has up-to-date information about PST on its shellfish hotlines. (PST and vibriosis are two different health hazards that can occur in shellfish.)

Shellfish contaminated with PST can cause minor-to-severe illness or even death. PST cannot be destroyed by cooking, by adding baking soda, or by any other method of processing. PST symptoms usually begin with tingling of the mouth and tongue. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, paralysis of the arms and legs and paralysis of the muscles used for breathing. PST(s) are produced by algae and usually originate in the ocean.

Shellfish hotlines

Always check these hotlines before heading out to gather shellfish:

Washington state: 1-800-562-5632.

Oregon: 1-800-448-2474

California: 1-800-553-4133

Food Safety News

New species of spider wasp may use chemical signals from dead ants to protect nest

A new species of spider wasp, the ‘Bone-house Wasp,’ may use chemical cues from dead ants as a nest protection strategy, according to a recent study published July 2, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Michael Staab from University of Freiburg, Germany, and his colleagues from China and Germany.

Wasps use a wide variety of nest protection strategies, including digging holes or occupying pre-existing cavities such as in wood. Previous studies showed that the nests of cavity-nesting wasps contain several brood cells separated by thin walls of plant debris, resin, or soil. Once the females have finished constructing the nest, laying eggs, and providing food, they construct an outermost vestibular cell to close the nest. After construction, female wasps abandon the brood and do not care for their offspring anymore. Nest protection strategies play a central role in brood survival, and in this study, scientists interested in better understanding these strategies collected ~800 nests of cavity-nesting wasps with ~1900 brood cells belonging to 18 species in South-East China.

The scientists found a nesting behavior previously unknown in the entire animal kingdom: in over 70 nests they found an outer vestibular cell filled with dead ants. The species constructing these ant-filled vestibular cell was so far unknown to science and was described in the same study as the ‘Bone-house Wasp’ (Deuteragenia ossarium), after graveyard bone-houses or ossuaries. The scientists also found lower parasitism rates in “Bone-house” nests than in nests of similar cavity-nesting wasps. The authors suggest that D. ossarium nests are less vulnerable to natural enemies, potentially supporting the outer cell’s role in defense, which most likely involves chemical cues emanating from the dead ants used as nest-building material.

Dr. Staab added, “Our discovery demonstrates in an impressive way, what fascinating strategies of offspring-protection have evolved in the animal kingdom.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by PLOS. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

An Earth Day Suggestion to Protect our Planet, Farmworkers and Families

(This was published April 22, 2014, on The Hill’s Congress blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.)

Each Earth Day, we are inundated by advertising and other pronouncements with ways to help protect our planet. But one step – curbing the use of toxic and harmful pesticides in agriculture – would help protect the environment, farmworkers and our families.

The dangers that pesticides present to the environment are well-documented and widely discussed. Outrage and concern have grown over the depletion of bee populations due to pesticide spray. In big agribusiness states such as Florida and California, the chemicals endanger dozens of fish and bird species.

But the careless use of these toxic chemicals such as chlorpyrifos and phosmet also has dangerous effects on our food system – for both farmworkers and consumers.

Pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce in the country, including manufacturing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 20,000 workers are affected annually. The real number is likely much higher, as many workers have no access to medical attention.

Many farmworkers don’t receive adequate training about pesticide hazards, so they might not even realize their symptoms are due to pesticide exposure. And farmworkers who lack legal work authorization – the majority are undocumented immigrants – are less likely to report violations of workplace safety for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

Consequences of pesticide exposure range from stinging eyes, rashes and blisters to blindness, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coma and even death. Infertility, neurological disorders and cancer are also common. Farmworkers’ family members sometimes are similarly affected. Pesticide exposure is credited with causing birth defects, developmental delays, leukemia and brain cancer among farmworker children. Many of these children also attend schools and live in homes that are dangerously close to fields using these chemicals.

The dangers don’t stop in the fields. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found disturbing levels of pesticide exposure in consumers. In their 2013 study, 93 percent of all Americans tested were rated positive for metabolites of chlorpyrifos, banned in households due to the danger posed to children, yet still permitted for agricultural use. In the same study, 99 percent tested positive for DDT degradants, a pesticide that has not been used in nearly 40 years, primarily because of its well-known harms.

As we look for solutions to environmental dangers this Earth Day, it is clear that progress toward curbing the risks of pesticides is achievable. For example, EPA is currently considering changes to the Worker Protection Standard, the federal regulation designed to protect farmworkers from risks such as pesticide exposure.

Our planet and the nation’s farmworkers deserve to be protected from the deadly nature of pesticides. All consumers deserve to know what is in their food and whether it is safe.

To learn more about the harmful effects of pesticides, read Exposed and Ignored: How Pesticides are Endangering Our Nation’s Farmworkers or visit www.farmworkerjustice.org.

Food Safety News

In grasslands remade by humans, animals may protect biodiversity: Grazers let in the light, rescue imperiled plants

A comparative study of grasslands on six continents suggests there may be a way to counteract the human-made overdose of fertilizer that threatens to permanently alter the biodiversity of the world’s native prairies.

The solution is one that nature devised: let grazing animals crop the excess growth of fast growing grasses that can out-compete native plants in an over-fertilized world. And grazing works in a way that is also natural and simple. The herbivores, or grazing and browsing animals, feed on tall grasses that block sunlight from reaching the ground, making the light available to other plants.

That’s the key finding of a five-year study carried out at 40 different sites around the world and scheduled for online publication March 9, 2014 in the journal Nature. More than 50 scientists belonging to the Nutrient Network, a team of scientists studying grasslands worldwide, co-authored the study.

“This study has tremendous significance because human activities are changing grasslands everywhere,” said study co-author Daniel S. Gruner, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. “We’re over-fertilizing them, and we’re adding and subtracting herbivores. We have a worldwide experiment going on, but it’s completely uncontrolled.”

Gruner, a member of the Nutrient Network (which participants have nicknamed NutNet) since its founding in 2006, helped plan the worldwide study and analyze its results. Elizabeth Borer of the University of Minnesota was the study’s lead author.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that grasslands cover between one-fifth and two-fifths of the planet’s land area and are home to more than one-tenth of humankind. But like all plant communities, grasslands are suffering from too much fertilizer.

As humans burn fossil fuels, dose crops with chemical fertilizers, and dispose of manure from livestock, they introduce extra nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, air and water. The excess is a special problem for grasslands, where many plants, like annual wildflowers and others, have adapted to low nutrient levels. They often struggle to compete against grasses that use the extra nutrients to grow faster and bigger.

At the same time, grasslands worldwide are being converted to pastures for domestic animals, with native grazers like elk and antelope giving way to cattle and sheep.

Ecological theory asserts that grazers can counteract the effects of over-fertilizing in most cases, but the theory has never been broadly tested, Gruner said. To do that, the NutNet scientists ran essentially the same experiment worldwide, marking off test plots in groups of four at each of 40 sites. In each group, one plot was fenced to keep grazing animals out. One was treated with a set dose of fertilizers, to mimic the effect of excess nutrients from human sources, but was not fenced so the animals could graze. One was both fenced and fertilized. And one was left alone.

The researchers did not try to alter the test sites’ animal populations. In some places native animals were abundant. At others they’d been mostly replaced by domestic animals like cattle, goats and sheep. And still others were former pastures where livestock had browsed in the past, but were no longer there.

In general, where fertilizer was added and grazing animals were kept out, the variety of plants in the experimental plots decreased. Where animals were allowed to graze in the fertilized plots, plant diversity generally increased. The researchers’ data analysis concluded that the grazers improved biodiversity by increasing the amount of light reaching ground level.

Grassland plants have evolved a variety of strategies to take advantage of a setting where nutrients are in short supply and inconsistently available. They may be ground-hugging, or ephemeral, or shoot up when they capture a nutrient pulse, Gruner explained. These differing strategies create a diverse grassland ecosystem.

In the human-altered world where nutrients are always plentiful, plants that put their effort into growing tall to capture sunlight have an advantage. They block the sunlight from reaching most other plant species, which cannot grow or reproduce. But grazing animals cut down the light-blocking plants and give the others a chance to bloom.

“Where we see a change in light, we see a change in diversity,” said Borer, the lead author. “Our work suggests that two factors which humans have changed globally, grazing and fertilization, can control ground-level light. Light appears to be very important in maintaining or losing biodiversity in grasslands.”

The effect was greatest where large animals, wild and domesticated, grazed on the test plots: cattle, pronghorn and elk on North America’s Great Plains; wildebeests and impala on Africa’s Serengeti; and horses, sheep and ibex in rural India. In places where the only grazers were small animals like rabbits, voles and gophers, the grazers’ effect was weak and variable.

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Ants protect acacia plants against pathogens

Jan. 15, 2014 — The biological term “symbiosis” refers to what economists and politicians usually call a win-win situation: a relationship between two partners which is beneficial to both. The mutualistic association between acacia plants and the ants that live on them is an excellent example: The plants provide food and accommodation in the form of food bodies and nectar as well as hollow thorns which can be used as nests. The ants return this favor by protecting the plants against herbivores. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, have now found that ants also keep harmful leaf pathogens in check. The presence of ants greatly reduces bacterial abundance on surfaces of leaves and has a visibly positive effect on plant health. Study results indicate that symbiotic bacteria colonizing the ants inhibit pathogen growth on the leaves.

Myrmecophytes are plants which live in a symbiotic relationship with ants. The acacia species Acacia hindsii, which is native to tropical dry forests in Central America, is such a myrmecophyte. Its inhabitants are ants of the genus Pseudomyrmex. The ants depend completely on their host plants for nectar and the food bodies rich in proteins and lipids which they require. The acacia also provides shelter, the so-called domatia, in the hollows of its swollen thorns. In return for room and board, mutualistic Pseudomyrmex ferrugineus ants become bodyguards, protecting their host against herbivores and competing plants. However, some ants also benefit from the plant’s services without giving anything in return, such as the parasitic ant species Pseudomyrmex gracilis.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology have now looked more deeply into the insect-plant interaction, asking whether the tiny bodyguards also provide protection against microbial pathogens. They compared the leaves of acacia plants which were inhabited by either mutualistic or parasitic ants to leaves from which ants had been removed. Intriguingly, the leaves of acacia colonized by parasitic ants showed more leaf damage from herbivores and microbial pathogens than did the leaves that had mutualistic ants. The presence of the right symbiotic partner seemed to have a positive effect on the plant’s health.

Analysis of the surfaces of the leaves revealed that the number of plant pathogens as well as of necrotic plant tissues increased considerably when mutualistic Pseudomyrmex ferrugineus ants were absent. These plants also showed strong immune responses in the form of an increased concentration of salicylic acid, a plant hormone which regulates defense against pathogens. Detailed analysis of the bacterial composition on the surfaces of the leaves suggested that the presence of mutualistic ants changed the bacterial populations and reduced harmful pathogens. Although far less pronounced, this effect could also be observed in parasitic ants.

How antimicrobial protection is transferred from ants to plant is still unclear. Chilean researcher Marcia González-Teuber, first author of the publication, suspected that microorganisms associated with the ants might play a role. Because acacia leaves are touched mainly by ants’ legs, she extracted the legs of mutualistic and parasitic ants and tested the effect of the extracts on the growth of bacterial pathogens in the lab. Plant pathogen Pseudomonas syringae was sensitive to the application of leg extracts of both ant species and its growth was inhibited. In the next step, the scientist isolated and identified bacteria from the legs of the ants. In lab tests, bacterial strains of the genera Bacillus, Lactococcus, Pantoea and Burkholderia effectively inhibited the growth of Pseudomonas bacteria isolated from infected acacia leaves. Interestingly, some of the bacterial genera associated with the ants are known to produce antibiotic substances.

The Jena researchers have thus added another level of interaction to the symbiosis between ants and their host plants. “Such mutualistic relationships are much more complex than previously thought. In the future, we will have to include bacteria and other microorganisms in our considerations,” says Wilhelm Boland, head of the Department of Bioorganic Chemistry at the Max Planck Institute. Studies on symbiotic relationships between ants and myrmecophytic plants should not overlook the role of bacterial partners that help the ants protect “their” plants.

ScienceDaily: Agriculture and Food News

Full Disclosure: Changes to Poultry Inspections Needed to Protect Public Health

For the past 15 years, USDA conducted a pilot project to inform how we modernize our inspection process – all to ensure that meat and poultry is safe to eat. Today, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), released a report on the project, known as the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and how FSIS has relied on it to propose a modernized approach to inspecting poultry.

While an initial scan of the press coverage may lead you to believe that GAO discredits this proposal, that is not the case. GAO gave HIMP a thorough review and made just two recommendations, both of which FSIS is already working to fulfill.

GAO chose not to include some facts that also deserve public disclosure. FSIS put forward this proposal because data shows that a system like HIMP will prevent at least 5,000 more foodborne illnesses annually. The study that FSIS has conducted of HIMP provides an appropriate basis on which to judge the merits of this system. Approximately 10 years ago, FSIS asked an independent group of experts in poultry microbiology, statistical evaluation, poultry food safety and public health to evaluate our study.

These experts supported FSIS’ study design and found that that our approach was valid. But GAO’s report does not mention this food safety conclusion.

GAO’s report also assumes that the basis for moving forward with this proposal is to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. Although it does accomplish both of those things, as FSIS made clear to GAO, this proposal is first and foremost about making food safer. As an agency responsible above all for protecting consumers from foodborne illness, we are obligated to ensure a more modern and better system at hand. In other words GAO did not evaluate this from a public health angle – Rates of illness caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter have been stagnant, even showing occasional rises, in recent years. We must reverse this trend, and if we are to do so, one thing is clear: we cannot continue inspecting poultry the way we have been for over 50 years.

Here is what the data tells us:

  • Under the HIMP, FSIS inspectors complete more inspection tasks “off the line” that verify that the plants they work in continuously satisfy food safety performance standards.
  • Fecal material, the primary avenue for pathogen contamination, appears about half as often in HIMP establishments as it does in non-HIMP establishments. HIMP establishments are also checked four times more often for fecal material by FSIS inspectors as are non HIMP establishments.
  • The average positive rate for Salmonella in HIMP establishments is 20% lower than the average positive rate in non-pilot establishments.

If finalized and implemented broadly, this new inspection system would enable FSIS to better fulfill our food safety mission. Nothing in the GAO’s report contradicts this basic fact.

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