Defying environmentalists worried about groundwater contamination, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has scaled back proposed rules regulating factory farms’ manure spreading amid complaints from the dairy industry.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said Walker’s move diminishes more than a year’s worth of work by a coalition of citizens, government officials and the DNR through the Groundwater Collaboration Working Group to address groundwater pollution in the state.
The state Department of Natural Resources last month completed scope statements to update manure spreading regulations for factory farms statewide, with special restrictions for sensitive areas and new rules on airborne spraying. As per state law, the agency submitted the statements to Gov. Scott Walker’s office for approval.
Walker’s office then shared them with the Dairy Business Association, which expressed concerns about the plan.
So in mid-July, the agency submitted a more limited scope statement to Walker. And the governor approved it the same day.
The new statement doesn’t include revisions on airborne spraying and doesn’t bring rules in line with new state and federal regulations.
This new information was revealed by the Wisconsin State Journal just days before a DNR board meeting where the rules are to be discussed.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said in a news release that citizens from across the state — some of whom are directly impacted by manure-contaminated drinking water, lakes, and rivers — plan to attend the meeting to make sure the NRB knows the importance of developing strong water protections.
“This move makes it abundantly clear Gov. Walker puts very little value on the health and safety of Wisconsinites,” Kerry Schumann, executive director of WLCV, stated in a news release. “Instead, he seems to favor business interests that refuse to make common sense changes to drinking water regulations.”
The group’s final report was initiated by a petition filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.
At the public NRB meeting tomorrow in Ashland, WLCV will deliver about 2,000 letters from citizens on the issue.
“The NRB has now become the last line of defense in the battle for meaningful change that will protect Wisconsin’s most precious resource,” Schumann said.
The league said in some areas of the state, more than 30 percent of private wells are polluted with nitrates, bacteria, endocrine disruptors and other dangerous substances.
Wisconsin is America’s cheese capital — the only state whose citizens proudly wear foam-rubber headgear made to resemble their favorite fermented milk product.
Yet despite the Badger State’s cheese chauvinism, experts appeared taken by surprise when a Wisconsin-made cheese took top honors at the World Championship Cheese Contest this past March at Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.
The Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, produced by Emmi Roth USA at the company’s plant in Monroe, Wisconsin, was the first American-made cheese to snag the award since 1988. The cheese competed against 15 other finalists (culled from 2,948 entries from 31 states and 23 countries) and earned best of class in the smear ripened hard cheeses category with a score of 99.8 out of 100.
The Grand Cru, named such as a reference to the official French term for top-quality wines, is a far cry from the bland American and colby cheeses on which most Wisconsin residents were first weaned. What does it take to make the world’s best cheese and, perhaps more importantly, what does that cheese taste like?
According to Rob Frie, director of operations for the Swiss-owned company’s Monroe and Platteville plants, the cheese is as much the result of having the right “growing” conditions as it does the proper attention from skilled Wisconsin cheesemakers to help manage the cheese’s development.
“Our farmers have to first produce great cow’s milk, and they do,” Frie says. “Like winemaking, cheesemaking is subject to the rigors of terroir. In fact, we’ve seen cows that have gotten into an onion patch in which the onion flavor comes through in the milk.”
Fortunately, no onion flavors or aromas appeared in the locally sourced milk used to produce the Grand Cru Surchoix, which can be best described as a Gruyere-style cheese. The hard cheese’s unique character traits are the result of the techniques applied to the production and aging of the cheese, including application of just the right bacteria to the large wheels curing in Emmi Roth’s Green County cheese cellar.
Once the hard cheese has been produced, the process begins with the daily washing of the rind in a bacteria bath for the first two to three weeks of the cheese’s life, Frie says. The cheese resides on a bed of red spruce planks, another holdover from the traditional Swiss cheesemaking process.
“As the cheese gets established, you have millions of good bugs doing their thing on the cheese’s surface and overpowering the bad bugs,” Frie notes.
The process continues, moving to every-other-day washes for the subsequent three weeks, followed by a final wash with salt water to inhibit mold growth and end the active bacterial process. The cheese is than allowed to age for a minimum of nine months.
“ The bacteria helps cheese age and develop its flavor profile from the outside in while it sits in an environmentally controlled room designed to optimize bacteria growth,” says Frie. “The lactose in the cheese breaks down inside and that contributes to the curing and aging process.”
High-quality cheeses get taste-tested and flavor profiled throughout the aging process, which in the case of the award-winning Surchoix lasted 14 months. Emmi Roth only produced 20,000 pounds of the award-winning cheese, Frie says.
What does the world’s best cheese taste like? Even fans of 10-year-old cheddar and other aged cheeses will find the Surchoix a unique experience.
The cheese arrives dressed in a black rind, which contributes to its character and flavor. The overall color is aged ivory, which gets significantly darker as it gets closer to the rind where it was subject to higher levels of bacterial inoculation during the aging process.
“The judges commented that the cheese had a lot of complex flavors, but that it was well-balanced and nicely toned,” Frie says. “There weren’t a lot of peaks and valleys amid the flavor components and it has a nice mouthfeel.”
At 14 months, complexity becomes the cheese’s key driver. We found earthy notes and the suggestion of burnt caramel on the back palate. Despite the cheese’s hard texture, the overall sensation indeed led to a creamy mouthfeel and flavors that gained intensity closer to the rind. One can almost taste the cellar ambience in the rind itself, which adds immensely to Surchoix’s dimension and charm.
The only downside, in fact, is that given the cheese’s relatively limited production, it’s getting harder to find since it won the award.
Specialty cheese shops like Madison’s Fromagination and grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods tend to carry the cheese, which retails for between $19.99 and $24.99 per pound depending on where you shop. But demand is quickly exceeding supply, Frie says.
“Next year we’ll make more,” he adds.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of several ractopamine-based animal drugs is being challenged by animal advocates and farm workers. The groups are suing the FDA for failing to take into account the drugs’ cumulative effects on animal behavior, worker safety, wildlife or the nation’s waterways.
The lawsuit focuses on ractopamine, a drug fed to farm animals to promote rapid weight gain. The drug has been banned in dozens of countries and is said to cause death, lameness, stiffness, trembling and shortness of breath in farm animals.
The groups are suing because FDA has allowed millions of pigs, turkeys and cows to be fed ractopamine-based animal drugs without considering the cumulative impacts of the agency’s actions. The drugs include new combinations of ractopamine with controversial antibiotics and steroids. These drugs remain active in animal waste, and when sprayed on fields, or spilled from manure lagoons, they can wreak havoc on habitat, wildlife and endangered species.
“The FDA’s actions have far-reaching impacts on millions of animals, millions of acres of habitat, and thousands of farm workers throughout the United States,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, who works in the Animal Protection Litigation department at The Humane Society of the United States. “America’s animal factories are pumping out uncounted tons of ractopamine-laced animal waste into the environment each year, and the FDA has no idea what the long-term environmental effects might be.”
Ractopamine can make animals severely stressed and difficult to handle, increasing the likelihood of injuring or killing farm workers. Workers’ exposure to antibiotics like Tylosin also endangers them and their families because exposure to the antibiotics can leave them more vulnerable to dangerous antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
“The wide-spread use of these drugs adds another layer of risk for farm workers, who are already doing some of the most dangerous jobs in America on factory farms, and puts farm worker communities at increased risk of illness and disease” said Erik Nicholson, national vice-president for United Farm Workers of America.
“Consumers are increasingly demanding humane treatment of farmed animals and the U.S. should be at the forefront of animal protection rather than lagging behind the international curve,” says Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in San Francisco by The Humane Society of the United States, The United Farm Workers, and The Animal Legal Defense Fund, asks the Court to set-aside FDA’s approvals of the drugs at issue while the agency performs the environmental review required under federal law.
From the plaintiffs in the case:
• Ractopamine is fed to between 60 to 80 percent of all U.S. pigs, cattle and turkeys.
• Tylosin is an antibiotic given to livestock to promote growth and FDA considers it “critically important” to human medicine. Tylosin-resistant bacteria has been found in the soil and air downwind of factory farms.
• Monensin is a livestock antibiotic administered to promote growth. Even in low doses it has direct toxic effects on soil animals and presents a potential ecological risk.
• Melengestrol is a synthetic steroid hormone used in dairy and beef cattle. The European Union prohibits the use of melengestrol because of the potential risks to human health from hormone residues in bovine meat.
• The FDA has never prepared an Environmental Impact Statement or an Environmental Assessment of the cumulative and combined effects of its approvals of Ractopamine and Ractopamine-based combination drugs on the vast majority of the pigs, cattle, and turkeys raised for food in the United States, nor even presented its decisions to the public for review or comment by outside experts.
Wisconsin’s fall legislative session will get off to a slow start, with Republicans in control of both the Senate and Assembly still searching for consensus on major issues like toughening drunken driving laws and imposing new reporting requirements on public and choice schools.
The Assembly canceled its meeting days in September, in part because of the disruption caused by the resignation of Majority Leader Scott Suder, but also because so much remains up in the air. Suder left to take a job with the Public Service Commission.
The Senate plans to be in session only on Sept. 17, when it could act to restrict public access to the proposed iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin, loosen campaign donation limits and create a new crossbow hunting season.
Other major issues will have to wait until later in the fall as lawmakers and Republican Gov. Scott Walker search for common ground. Even if they find it, some prominent Republicans have little desire to wade into more divisive proposals like a constitutional amendment to give fetuses the same constitutional rights as individuals.
“We have already had three years of contentious politics in Madison,” Republican Senate President Mike Ellis said. “I think the less contentious the better.”
Legislative leaders and Walker – often mentioned as a potential candidate in the GOP presidential primary but also facing re-election in 2014 – seem particularly uneager to get mired in those issues that could become campaign fodder next year, such as legalizing the sale of raw milk and outlawing the sale of fetal body parts.
“We are trying really hard to say ‘What are the issues people are hearing about in their districts that need solutions?’” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.
He has shown no appetite for taking up more abortion-related proposals, including the personhood constitutional amendment put forward by Republican Rep. Andre Jacque.
“That’s not going anywhere,” Vos said.
Vos was noncommittal about a package of six bills that would toughen the state’s drunken driving laws, including making third and fourth offenses felonies rather than misdemeanors, lengthening prison sentences for repeat offenders and imposing a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for killing someone while driving drunk.
The measures would add tens of millions of dollars in expenses for prosecutors and the state’s prison system. The high cost has been the downfall of similar proposals in the past, including last session.
All six of the drunken driving bills will be up for a committee vote on Thursday. Vos said he asked those working on the bills to find something that could pass, but he’s not sure what that may be.
Vos supports a bill that would raise Wisconsin’s speed limit to 70 mph, but he said it won’t be a priority.
Walker and Senate Republicans have been cool to the idea.
Vos said Republicans are looking into a number of other areas, including mental health and prison reform, changes in the governance of the University of Wisconsin System and addressing Milwaukee crime, but likely won’t have legislation ready until later in the fall.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said Republicans should avoid issues like raising the speed limit and legalizing raw milk because those aren’t topics the public prioritizes.
“Our priorities are what the people’s priorities clearly are, which is to do more to advance job training and economic development and trying to get back to work and trying to strengthen our schools,” Barca said.
On the Senate side, one bill widely expected to pass in September, which already cleared the Assembly in a slightly different form, would legalize a new crossbow hunting season at the same as the archery deer season in Wisconsin.
A school accountability bill that’s been two years in the making but that has found little support among Republicans so far will pass in October or November, said Sen. Luther Olsen, the sponsor.
The Senate was expected to pass a bill that’s already cleared the Assembly that would double campaign contribution limits and allow for online voter registration. A number of other election reform bills have been introduced.
The bill restricting access to the mine site is on a fast track. It was introduced, had a public hearing and was voted out of committee in six days. The bill would close 3,500 acres of land around the proposed mine site in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior to the public.
“I don’t know if we have to do that much,” Ellis said, referring to the number of acres covered. “I think we should do something, but I don’t know what.”
On the surface, the new tenant at the storefront where Harvey Milk waged his historic political campaign would seem like the last organization to anger people in the gay community.
The Human Rights Campaign, the United States’ largest gay rights lobbying group, wants to open up an information center and a gift shop in the building that would pay tribute to the slain gay rights leader.
But Milk’s friends and admirers are so incensed at the group taking over the slain San Francisco supervisor’s stomping grounds that they would rather see a Starbucks there, underscoring the tensions that exist within the various factions of the gay rights movement.
The organization is a frequent target of criticism from gay rights activists who consider its mainstream, “inside the Beltway” style ineffective. They believe the organization’s philosophy of incremental progress in the gay rights movement runs completely counter to the uncompromising message of gay pride championed by Milk.
“It’s spitting in the face of Harvey’s memory,” said AIDS Memorial Quilt founder Cleve Jones, who received his political education at Milk’s side in the 1970s.
“What’s next? Removing the Mona Lisa’s face and replacing it with the Wal-Mart smiley face?” asked Bil Browning, the founder of a popular gay issues blog.
The Washington-based nonprofit organization announced last week that it was moving its San Francisco Action Center and gift store into the site of Milk’s old Castro Camera.
It’s a historic site in the gay rights community. A sidewalk plaque outside that marks the spot’s historical significance and encases some of Milk’s ashes is a popular stop for visitors making pilgrimages to San Francisco gay landmarks.
In the 32 years since Milk was assassinated at City Hall along with Mayor George Moscone, the building has housed a clothing store, a beauty supply shop, and most recently, a housewares emporium.
HRC President Joe Solmonese said the new location will stock items bearing Milk’s words and image, with a portion of the proceeds going to a local elementary school named in Milk’s honor and the GLBT Historical Society. The organization also plans to preserve a Milk mural the previous tenants installed, Solmonese said.
“People are rightly protective of the legacy of Harvey Milk, and we intend to do our part to honor that legacy,” Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said. “Bringing an LGBT civil rights presence to the space that has previously been several for-profit retail outlets is a worthwhile goal.”
Not according to activists like Jones and Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Milk” – the 2008 Sean Penn movie about the first openly gay man elected to a major elected office in the U.S.
During his life, Milk railed against well-heeled gay leaders he regarded as assimilationists and elitists. Black devoted two scenes in “Milk” to the subject. Some of the leading activists he crossed swords with went on to launch the Human Rights Campaign, which sometimes is criticized for focusing on lavish fundraisers and political access at the expense of results, Jones said.
“He was not an ‘A-Gay’ and had no desire to be an A-Gay. He despised those people and they despised him,” he said. “That, to me, is the crowd HRC represents. Don’t try to wrap yourself up in Harvey Milk’s mantle and pretend you are one of us.”
The Human Rights Campaign has been struggling to regain its credibility with gay activists who favor a more grassroots approach since at least early 2008, when the group agreed to endorse a federal bill that included job protections for gays and lesbians, but not transgender people.
The disillusionment grew later that year with the passage of a same-sex marriage ban in California. Although HRC donated $3.4 million to fight Proposition 8, the devastating loss provoked young gay activists to take to the streets and to question the organizing and messaging abilities of established gay rights groups.
Since then, HRC has been accused of taking too soft an approach with President Barack Obama and the Congress that until last month’s election was controlled by Democrats. To some, the group’s failings were epitomized by the U.S. Senate failure last week, for the second time this year, to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.
Black said HRC’s failure to talk to anyone close to Milk before it leased the Castro Street storefront demonstrates that it is out of touch. He and Jones think the space would be put to better use as a drop-in center for gay and lesbian youth, or if HRC partnered with another local nonprofit to ensure its sales benefit San Francisco.
“If any LGBTQ political organization is to move into Harvey’s old shop, there is a higher standard to be met, because such a move begs comparisons,” Black said. “Because it has become a tourist destination, whoever moves in that’s a political organization is in some way adopting Harvey as their own.”
HRC creative director Don Kiser understands the concerns and says he is open to suggestions, but thinks the criticism is overstated. The group obtains about one-third of the new names on its mailing lists from visitors to its retail stores in San Francisco, Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Washington. Each tourist who goes in to buy a Harvey Milk T-shirt or an HRC tote bag is a potential activist, Kiser says.
“They live in small towns in Texas and flyover states. Those are the people we need to help find the spirit that Harvey Milk had,” he said. “If they can go back and take a little of the spirit the Castro has, we will see sea changes.”