FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The U.S. Senate approved a vast overhaul of the nation's food-safety laws on Tuesday, marking the system's biggest makeover since the 1930s. By a vote of 73 to 25, lawmakers gave sweeping new powers to the Food and Drug Administration, such as the ability to order food recalls — not just request them — and to access internal records at farms and food-production facilities. The bill also requires the FDA to begin regularly inspecting those farms and facilities, but it doesn't leave everything up to Uncle Sam. It places greater responsibility on farmers and manufacturers to catch contamination, too, a change from the current system that relies almost entirely on overstretched government inspectors. And the bill also sets tougher standards for imported foods, a growing part of the U.S. diet that was largely overlooked before, since the FDA now inspects only about 1 percent of food from abroad. The vote is being widely heralded as a victory for public health, and even among a bitterly divided Congress, the country's recent string of food-borne epidemics — from tomatoes and spinach to peanuts and eggs — convinced lawmakers to put party politics aside, at least briefly. "It's an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress," the Pew Health Group's Erik Olson tells the Washington Post. "It is a major step forward protecting the food that everyone eats every day." Not everyone likes the bill, of course, with some food-safety advocates calling it "toothless," and some Tea Party activists describing it as government overreach. Some in the organic farming and local-foods movements had worried the bill would force smaller farms out of business, but Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., allayed their fears with an amendment he added before Thanksgiving. Tester, a farmer himself, exempted small farms as well as those selling directly to consumers, such as at farmers markets and roadside stands, from the bill's tougher rules. The House passed a stricter version of the bill more than a year ago, but leaders of that chamber now say they'll accept the softer Senate version, dodging the lengthy process of melding the two bills into one. The bill must be signed by President Obama before becoming law. (Sources: Washington Post, New York Times)

BEACH BUMMER: The seaside setting of this week's Cancun climate summit serves as a poignant reminder of what's at stake, the AP reports, with delegates from around the world gathered near beaches that are crumbling in the face of rising seas. The problem began not with global warming, but more directly in human hands, as Mexico unwisely built a tourist destination on the shifting sands of a narrow, low-lying peninsula. But the slowly encroaching sea, combined with more frequent hurricanes, has reduced many of Cancun's beaches to flimsy shelves of sand, and in some cases the beach has vanished entirely, leaving the tide to lap against rocks and towering hotels. The hotels were built too big and heavy, and beaches were stripped of native plants, setting the stage for widespread erosion that's now accelerating dangerously thanks to climate change. "It was the chronicle of a disaster foretold," the former head of Mexico's environmental agency tells the AP. "Everybody knew this was going to happen. This had been predicted for 40 years." And according to a report released Tuesday at the U.N. climate conference in Cancun, things are about to get much worse. Rising sea levels could cause $187 billion in beachfront damage by 2080, warn the authors of the U.N.-commissioned report, and that's just among the 15 mainly English-speaking Caribbean nations that make up the Caricom regional group. With a 1-meter sea-level rise, which scientists now consider likely, the Caribbean could see "at least 150 multimillion-dollar tourism resorts damaged or lost," the report's authors write, as well as the destruction of 21 Caricom airports and the flooding of land surrounding 35 of the region's 44 sea ports. And if sea levels rise by 2 meters, things get even uglier: "at least 233 multimillion-dollar tourism resorts" would be lost, along with nine power plants, 31 airports and 441 miles of roads. Throw in the rising rate of hurricanes (Mexico has been hit with four category 4s and 5s in the past decade, the highest rate in 40 years ), and the damage spirals even further out of control. It's a threat highlighted by the conference's location in Cancun, but it's not unique to the Caribbean — low-lying nations worldwide are on the front lines of climate change due to sea-level rise, a fact that has frustrated many of their leaders at U.N. talks, including Cape Verde Islands ambassador Antonio Lima. "We are the most vulnerable countries in the world," he tells the London Independent, "although we pollute the least." (Sources: Associated Press, Independent)

MERCURIAL: Mercury pollution in waterways can turn white ibises gay, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, adding yet another environmental quirk to the toxic heavy metal, already known to cause neurological problems in humans. Scientists in Florida and Sri Lanka stumbled across the discovery while trying to figure out why mercury pollution seems to reduce the breeding of white ibises, a type of long-legged water bird (pictured). Mercury often winds up in water from the emissions of coal-burning power plants, as well as from waste incineration and mine runoff, and while it's toxic on its own, it become even more dangerous underwater, where bacteria convert it to the highly toxic methylmercury. To see how this contamination affects ibis breeding, the researchers fed the birds food pellets containing mercury levels equivalent to those measured in shrimp and crayfish around their wetland habitats. The researchers expected to see some changes, but they were still surprised by what they found: The more mercury a male ibis ate, the more likely it was to pair up with a fellow male. "We knew mercury could depress their testosterone levels," the study's lead author tells the BBC. "But we didn't expect this." It's still not clear why exactly mercury has this effect on ibises, but the implications are clear, the researchers say. If large numbers of ibises — or any other species that might experience similar effects — develop homosexual mating habits, the species' breeding rate could plummet, raising the risk of localized extinctions. "Any effect that might reduce the productivity of a species would likely be harmful in nature," explains one wildlife researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey who wasn't involved with the study. (Source: BBC News)

AIR APPARENT: It's not just China that has "crazy bad" air lately — Tehran, the sprawling capital city of Iran, has declared a two-day public holiday for Wednesday and Thursday of this week, following dangerously high levels of air pollution across the city. All schools, public offices, universities and banks will be closed for the two-day break, CNN reports, and residents are being asked to stay inside when possible and use public transportation instead of driving. Iranian health officials have also issued warnings to people with lung and heart conditions to avoid the outdoors, as well as children and the elderly, who are especially at risk for respiratory ailments. It's a drastic move, but not unprecedented — in fact, it's the second such shutdown in less than a week. Tehran also announced a sudden public holiday last Wednesday due to spiking air pollution, widely blamed on tailpipe emissions from inefficient automobiles. The country already restricts driving around Tehran in an attempt to reduce pollution, requiring motorists to obtain a special permit to drive in the capital, and forcing cars to alternate driving days based on their license-plate numbers. But it's not enough, even though traffic has dropped 40 percent since last week's holiday — as CNN reports, there are an estimated 4 million cars driving throughout Tehran, contributing more than 80 percent of its air pollution. "In our long-term plans to solve the pollution problem, we will get rid of old and dilapidated autos, standardize our auto manufacturing, upgrade the quality of our fuel and our mass transit system," says the head of Iran's Environmental Protection Agency. About 2,500 people die in Tehran annually due to pollution-related health problems, according to government estimates, and aside from updating the country's auto fleet, authorities are also reportedly considering artificially creating rain and wind to help clear the air. (Sources: CNN, Reuters)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (eggs at production facility): ZUMA Press

Photo (eroded beach in Cancun): Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

Photo (white ibis): Loyce Hood/Citizen Image

Photo (Tehran from above): Ensie & Matthias/Flickr

Daily Briefing: Wed. 12/1/2010
U.S. OKs food-safety bill, smog shuts down Tehran, mercury turns birds gay, and more.