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From Holiday Bird to Cold Cuts, Take a Scientific Look at What's in Your Turkey

California lab brings high-tech scrutiny to the search for the perfect bird.

Still searching for the best bird to showcase at your Thanksgiving Day feast? You might want to check out a new report from a Silicon Valley–based lab that brings high tech to the quest for the perfect turkey.

You may be bracing for some scrutiny from your in-laws concerning your choice of holiday fare, but Clear Labs in Menlo Park, California, has given almost literal meaning to putting your food under a microscope.

Founded by a team of software engineers and genomic scientists, Clear Labs uses DNA technology to test food at a molecular level to determine whether any shenanigans are going on behind the scenes, such as unsavory contamination from—blech—human DNA, say, or some wayward pork in your turkey cold cuts. The scientists also test the nutritional content to see whether the claims on the label match what’s in the food.

In preparation for Thanksgiving, the lab tested 12 whole turkeys as well as close to 160 samples of turkey products, ranging from deli meat to turkey sausage. So how did the whole birds stack up?

Not surprisingly, the lab failed to find any substitutions or missing ingredients or any “hygienic issues.” But if you’re counting on that relatively lean roast turkey to offset your second helping of buttery mashed potatoes or sausage stuffing, beware.

“The only consistent issue we found with whole turkeys was that the nutritional information (calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein) reported on their labels did not match what we observed in our tests,” the lab reports.

The whole birds had, on average, 54 more calories per 100 g and 5.5 more grams of fat per 100 g than what their labels said.

Because Clear Labs’ business model appears to provide its services to food makers so that “the world’s most respected food brands can differentiate on quality and stand behind their value,” the company doesn’t single out the worst offenders. But it offers its top three recommendations for whole turkeys whose labels most closely matched their nutritional content. Those include

• Diestel Turkey Ranch Heidi’s Hens Organic Young Turkey
• Honeysuckle White Extra Tender & Juicy Turkey
• Safeway Frozen Young Turkey

However, Diestel, which supplies turkeys to Whole Foods, is being criticized by animal rights activists, who say they are raised in "horrific conditions."

From a nutritional standpoint, all is fine and good for Thanksgiving—but when it comes to turkey and other poultry, Americans are eating a lot of it, and we’re not roasting whole birds every week. As we’ve grown more wary of too much red meat, we’ve turned to turkey (and chicken) to make everything from burgers to sausage. According to the USDA, the average American has about 16 pounds of turkey a year, more than double what was eaten a generation ago.

Of the 158 turkey products Clear Labs tested, more than 13 percent were deemed “problematic,” suggesting that we all might want to pay a little more attention to the run-of-the-mill turkey we buy throughout the year, lending workaday sandwich meat a bit of the attention put toward choosing the right Thanksgiving gobbler.

The DNA analysis found substitute ingredients being used, ingredients that were missing altogether, and hygiene concerns. For example, 7 percent of the samples contained stuff that wasn’t supposed to be there, such as chicken, pork, or beef. (Is it any surprise this tended to be an issue with products like turkey sausage?) One (unnamed) product didn’t contain any turkey at all, while 5.5 percent of products had hygiene issues, including traces of human DNA.

“When we say human DNA, we can’t tell the precise source, only that it was trace amounts,” the lab reported. “The most likely cause is several cells of hair, skin, or fingernail that were accidentally mixed in during the manufacturing process. In truth, traces of human DNA probably end up in the food you prepare in your own kitchen all the time—it’s not harmful, but we do consider it a hygienic issue that degrades the quality of food.”

Well, there’s something to think about as you all gather round the Thanksgiving table.

Among the top 10 major turkey brands to pass Clear Labs’ scientific scrutiny with flying colors:

• Primo Taglio
• New Hope Provisions
• Eating Right
• Safeway
• Butterball
• Hillshire Farm
• Jimmy Dean
• Sara Lee
• Oscar Mayer
• Great Value (Walmart)

Other winners by category:

Best turkey breast (prepackaged, presliced): Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Honey Smoked Turkey Breast
Best turkey burger: Jennie-O Turkey Burgers—93% Lean, 7% Fat, All White Meat
Best turkey sausage: Ball Park Smoked White Turkey Sausage

  • Food
  • New Website Wants to Make Buying Humane Turkey as Easy as a Click

    BuyingPoultry aims to take the guesswork out of shopping for sustainable eggs and poultry.

    At first glance, the timing of this week’s launch of BuyingPoultry couldn’t be more perfect. After all, Thanksgiving is almost here—but even if you ignore the estimated 46 million birds we consume in homage to our Pilgrim forebears, Americans are eating more chicken and turkey than ever. So wouldn’t it be nice if there was a website that made finding humanely raised, environmentally sustainable poultry at a store near you as easy as ordering from Domino’s?

    That’s the premise of BuyingPoultry, and it’s no doubt a laudable one. Launched by the folks at Farm Forward, a nonprofit that works to help the public make better, more sustainable food choices, the site bills itself as “the first database of its kind” to help consumers “find the highest-welfare poultry products available locally and nationally.”

    Overseen by an Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which is composed of a who’s who of farmers and animal rights advocates who have been at the forefront of the movement toward more humane treatment of livestock and funded in part by the ASPCA, BuyingPoultry promises to “cut through the noise” of what it calls “misleading or meaningless” labels—including “free-range,” “pasture-raised,” “cage-free,” and “natural.” Instead of confusing consumers with marketing gimmicks, the website wants to connect users to qualm-free poultry they can feel better about buying, such as eggs that weren’t laid by chickens confined to an area smaller than a sheet of office paper.

    As beautifully designed and user-friendly as the beta version of the site appears to be, and as noble its ambitions, it still seems very much a work in progress—perhaps a function of the devilish discrepancy between the best of intentions and the daunting task of constructing a truly comprehensive national database of something like certifiably sustainable poultry producers.

    In short, if you haven’t already sourced that locally raised, free-roaming turkey you’re hoping to roast next week, you might not want to count on BuyingPoultry to find it.

    I live in St. Louis, far from the culinary capitals on both coasts but nevertheless in a metropolitan area of substantial size, and yet when I plugged my zip code into the site, I was given just two retailers identified by BuyingPoultry as selling birds that meet the site’s standards—one of which, no surprise, was Whole Foods. I didn’t exactly need a website to tell me that.

    A search for specific poultry products returned some tantalizing results, such as heritage turkeys from Mary’s and turkeys certified as “Gap Step 5+,” the highest certification available, from Diestel Turkey Ranch. Yet a visit to both producers’ websites quickly turned to disappointment as I was informed their birds were not available in my area.

    Missing entirely from the results was the scrappy little grocery within walking distance of my house that specializes in local food, the one where I have again this year placed an order for a humanely raised turkey from a farm about 50 miles from where I live, and where the manager explained to me in great detail the breeds of turkeys that were going to be available this year.

    And that may be the point. It’s not that I want to detract in any way from the good work that a site like BuyingPoultry is trying to do, nor do I want to sound like a Luddite. But in our enthusiasm for a proliferation of snazzy sites and apps that promise frictionless ease in making better food choices, we may perhaps miss a larger point in becoming more conscientious about what we eat, which is to put ourselves in closer connection to the people who are raising our food and to build our own personal network of local purveyors who reflect our values—thoroughly rewarding work that, it must be said, can’t always be done with a click of a mouse.   

  • Food
  • Congress Isn’t Delivering the Progressive Food Policy Americans Want

    Even as substantial majorities of voters say they want an overhauled progressive food system, lawmakers remain stuck in the status quo.

    It probably comes as no surprise that we aren’t on the cusp of overhauling our dysfunctional food system and moving toward something more progressive and sustainable. But what’s galling is just how far behind much of the rest of the population members of Congress appear to be lagging.

    Even as more Americans than ever have become more conscious not only of what they eat but of the social and environmental implications of the food supply, Congress as a whole remains stubbornly resistant to upending the status quo.

    “We the people”? Yeah, right.

    That’s essentially the takeaway from recent work by Food Policy Action, a nonprofit that advocates for a more equitable and sustainable food system. About a month ago, FPA released the results of a survey of 1,000 registered voters, and were these Americans responsible for adopting legislation to reform our food system, well, we might actually see some progress. In contrast, on Monday the FPA released its annual scorecard ranking how members of Congress voted this year on key food-related legislation, and it paints a decidedly gloomier picture.

    Although, according to the survey, 81 percent of Americans say they are very concerned that one-third of children today will likely develop type-2 diabetes, Congress this year failed to pass a number of bills aimed at securing healthier and more affordable meals for kids. Likewise, some 75 percent of Americans say they are either very concerned or somewhat concerned that five of the eight worst-paying jobs in America are in the food industry, yet Congress has generally allowed to languish proposals that would raise the federal minimum wage or guarantee workers a minimum number of paid sick days.

    And while separate polling shows that a significant majority of Americans—upwards of 90 percent—want to see mandatory labels for foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, the House this year overwhelmingly passed a bill that would essentially do just the opposite, establishing a voluntary GMO labeling program while simultaneously outlawing state efforts to require such labeling. The bill, which critics call the Denying Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act, has yet to be taken up in the Senate.

    All in all, the advocacy group says that the average score for members of Congress this year in terms of supporting more progressive food policies inched up by four points and—good news—an impressive 213 members of the House and 78 senators saw their grades improve. (Want to see how your own lawmakers did? Click here.)

    But the picture wasn’t as great for new members of Congress. Freshman members of the House scored an average 10 points lower than the full chamber, while the deficit was 20 percent for new senators.

    “The National Food Policy Scorecard continues to shine a light on what Congress is doing and, far too often, not doing to improve the nation’s food system,” Tom Colicchio, star chef and FPA cofounder, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, to date this Congress has failed to bring bills forward that would work to fix our broken food system and ensure that all Americans have equal access to healthy, affordable food.”

  • Food
  • Think You Know What ‘Natural’ Means? The FDA Wants You to Share

    After more than 20 years, the feds may be getting serious about coming up with a legal definition for the label food makers love to use and abuse.

    “Natural.” It’s a word whose worth to food marketers is priceless, the mother of all feel-good labels, seeming to encompass a litany of other adjectives that are as soothing and comforting as a cup of herbal tea: “simple,” “honest,” “wholesome.” 

    But what does “natural” mean, really, at least when it comes to selling food?

    Not a whole heck of a lot.

    After years of hedging, the Food and Drug Administration is gearing up to tackle the inordinately complicated process of trying to settle on a legal definition for one of the most seemingly simple words in the English language. On Thursday the agency began accepting public comments on what foods and beverages merit the label “natural”—and, perhaps more important, those that don’t.

    Among consumers, rampant confusion appears to exist as to the legal definition of “natural.” For its part, the FDA hasn’t revised its more or less informal guidance on the issue for more than 20 years. As the agency puts it on its website: “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

    Yet consumers associate “natural” with a whole lot more than that. In a survey last year, Consumer Reports found that “nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers are misled by the ‘natural’ label and nearly 90 percent expect it to mean much more than it does.” A substantial majority of respondents—more than 60 percent—said they believed “natural” on a packaged-food label meant not only no artificial ingredients but also that no pesticides or chemicals or genetically modified organisms were used in the production of the food.

    RELATED:  How Cheetos Taught PepsiCo That It Ain't Easy Being Cheesy—or Natural

    Legally, however, “natural” doesn’t technically mean any of those things. As consumers have become more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is processed, a growing number of them have been outraged to discover they’ve essentially been duped. They’ve flooded the courts with lawsuits—more than 200, according to nonprofit Consumers Union—decrying the use of “natural” on products that contain ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup.

    The consumer advocacy group has gone so far as to petition the FDA to ban—yes, ban—the use of the word “natural” by food marketers entirely. Why the radical move? It’s a direct response to the push from industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association to even further dilute the absurdly lax quasilegal definition to embrace genetically engineered food, which seems kind of like expanding the definition of “virgin” to include “just a few one-night stands.”

    RELATED:  The Surprising Reason Fewer Foods Are Being Labeled 'Natural'

    So what should the word “natural” mean, whether it’s on your eggs or your frozen egg rolls? When Consumer Reports surveyed more than 1,000 Americans to answer that question, it learned:

    • 87 percent believed no artificial materials or chemical should be used during processing
    • 86 percent believed no artificial ingredients or colors should be used
    • 86 percent believed no toxic pesticides should be used
    • 85 percent believed no GMOs should be used

    When it comes to meat and poultry—the labeling of which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—more than 80 percent of consumers believed “natural” should mean the animal’s diet did not contain artificial ingredients or GMOs and that the animal was not given antibiotics or other drugs. Two-thirds believed that animals raised for “natural” meat should not be confined indoors.

    How long it might take the FDA to come up with a legal definition for “natural” is anyone’s guess. Until then, it’s worth noting that we have a label that means exactly what most consumers think “natural” does: It’s called “organic.”

  • Food
  • In the News
  • Eating Meat Linked to Cancer—Again

    This time, meat cooked at high temperatures appears to raise the risk for kidney cancer.

    Wait a minute—there’s now another story in the news that links meat eating with cancer?

    You can be forgiven for thinking this is déjà vu or that your browser is mysteriously pulling up old news. After all, it was just a couple weeks ago that we were deluged with headlines surrounding the World Health Organization’s controversial announcement that it had decided to classify processed meats such as bacon and hot dogs as carcinogenic and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

    Now comes news of a study from researchers at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas that links meat consumption with an elevated risk of kidney cancer, which claims the lives of about 14,000 Americans each year. In particular, scientists say, it appears that meat cooked at high temperatures—grilled, say, or panfried—may increase exposure to certain known carcinogens that form when meat is subjected to excessive heat.

    Scientists have long cautioned that cooking meat at temperatures higher than 300 F seems to create a greater number of carcinogenic compounds of the type that have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Epidemiologic studies based on people’s responses to diet questionnaires have further established a correlation between high consumption of well-done, fried, or grilled meats and a higher risk for cancers of the colon, pancreas, and prostate, according to the National Cancer Institute.

    The latest study, which included nearly 660 patients newly diagnosed with kidney cancer and almost 700 healthy participants, is the first to identify an association between kidney cancer and dietary intake of a particular type of mutagenic compound that forms when meat is cooked. It also suggests that people with certain genetic mutations may be more susceptible to cancer risk from these compounds.

    So what does all that mean? At this point, researchers say, they’re not recommending you drop meat from your diet entirely, but neither do they encourage wild abandon when it comes to the sizzling, sputtering, flame-broiled frenzy of seared meat that is more or less a staple of swaggering American food advertising.

    As Dr. Xifeng Wu, professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas and senior author of the study, said in a statement: “Our findings support reduced consumption of meat, especially meat cooked at high temperatures or over an open flame, as a public health intervention to reduce [renal cell carcinoma] risk and burden.”

  • Food
  • Feds Used Monsanto-Funded Studies to Decide Monsanto’s Weed Killer Is Safe

    The EPA relied heavily on industry-funded research to determine that glyphosate isn’t an endocrine disruptor.

    In June, the Environmental Protection Agency released the results of its assessment of 52 chemicals and the likelihood that any of them could be classified as endocrine disruptors—those substances known to interfere with the hormonal system and linked to such health ills as certain cancers, birth defects, and developmental disorders. On the list of chemicals the agency examined was glyphosate, which most Americans know better as Roundup, which is Monsanto’s trade name for what has become the most widely used herbicide in the world. In the United States, hundreds of millions of pounds are dumped on farmland annually.  

    Glyphosate has had a tough year. In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, stunned Big Agribusiness by declaring that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. So the agrichemical giants were no doubt thrilled when the EPA announced a few months later that it had found “no convincing evidence” that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor.

    “As a longtime Monsanto scientist who has spent my career studying the health and safety of pesticides, including glyphosate, I was happy to see that the safety profile of one of our products was upheld by an independent regulatory agency,” Steve Levine, a senior science fellow at Monsanto, crowed on the company blog.

    The italics are mine. But heck, I thought I might as well just give them to Levine, because it becomes almost embarrassingly obvious that’s what he wants. He practically goes overboard in trying to sell you on the EPA’s objectivity—not only emphasizing the agency’s “independence” but calling its review “comprehensive” (twice) as well as “rigorous” and “science-based.”

    And yet…

    It doesn’t take more than five minutes poking around on Google or WorldCat to begin turning up fairly recent studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals that include sentences like “a growing body of knowledge suggests the predominance of endocrine disrupting mechanisms caused by environmentally relevant levels of exposure” to glyphosate-based herbicides. So how can the EPA be so certain glyphosate isn’t an endocrine disruptor?

    Because, it seems, Monsanto and other chemical companies said so.

    As Sharon Lerner revealed over at The Intercept this week, of the 32 studies the EPA used to make its determination that there is “no convincing evidence” that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, 27 were either conducted or funded by the agrichemical industry. “Most of the studies were sponsored by Monsanto or an industry group called the Joint Glyphosate Task Force,” Lerner wrote. “One study was by Syngenta, which sells its own glyphosate-containing herbicide, Touchdown.”

    More telling, when Lerner reviewed the paltry five independently funded studies the EPA relied on for its determination, three of them concluded glyphosate could very well pose a danger to the endocrine system.

    “Yet, of the 27 industry studies, none concluded that glyphosate caused harm,” Lerner added, even though “many of the industry-funded studies contained data that suggested that exposure to glyphosate had serious effects.” No less worrisome is that a majority of the studies were more than two decades old—thereby predating the existence of the term “endocrine disruption.”

    Just last week, a senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed allegations that he was harassed after publicly voicing concerns about another popular class of pesticides. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder just how “independent” and “rigorous” our federal regulatory agencies are when it comes to evaluating the risks posed by all those agrichemicals out there coating all those amber waves of grain.   

  • Food
  • National Soda Tax Would Save Half a Million Kids From Obesity—and Save Money Too

    Public health researchers say taxing sugary drinks may be one of the most cost-effective ways to address the public health problems the beverages are associated with.

    Here’s something the soda industry doesn’t want: another headline touting the benefits of a widespread tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

    Hot on the heels of recent news that the peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks that Mexico adopted in 2013 appears to be driving down soda consumption in that country, a team of U.S. public health researchers published a study Monday that finds a national soda tax may be one of the most cost-effective ways to curb the epidemic of childhood obesity in the States.

    The team, led by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, examined the cost-effectiveness of seven approaches to addressing obesity in American kids, an estimated 17 percent of whom are obese. These ranged from the preventive, such as implementing a nationwide one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks to reduce kids’ consumption of all that liquid candy, to giving obese adolescents increased access to bariatric surgery. Each of the interventions examined by the researchers required complex modeling based on a wide range of factors to extrapolate their likely impact and cost-effectiveness over the course of the next decade (wonky types can feel free to dive into the study itself, which was published in the journal Health Affairs).

    The upshot? The national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was predicted to prevent some 576,000 cases of childhood obesity, the greatest number by far. Better yet, such a tax, which would raise the cost of soda and other sugary drinks by about 16 percent, would be eminently cost-effective, as the researchers report: For every dollar spent implementing the tax, the net savings for society in terms of medical costs and the like would be $30.78. Over the course of the next decade, those savings would add up to an estimated $14.2 billion.

    Two other obesity-prevention strategies examined by the team proved cost-effective as well. Shocking but true: Food makers are allowed to deduct the cost of their advertising from their corporate taxes, even when they’re marketing junk food to kids. What if the feds eliminated that ridiculous tax deduction? The study estimates nearly 130,000 cases of childhood obesity would be prevented, with a net savings of $32.53 per dollar spent. Full implementation of federal standards governing the foods and beverages sold in schools beyond federally subsidized meals (e.g., snacks sold in vending machines) would prevent 345,000 cases of childhood obesity, at a net savings of $4.56 per dollar spent.

    So is an ounce of prevention really worth a pound of cure, as the old adage goes? According to the study, yes. As the authors note, “while many of the preventative interventions in childhood do not provide substantial health care cost savings (because most obesity-related health care costs occur later, in adulthood), childhood interventions have the best chance of substantially reducing obesity prevalence and related mortality and health care costs in the long run.”     

  • Food
  • American Egg Board Targets Vegan Mayo Start-Up

    Looks like the multibillion-dollar egg industry is more worried about eggless alternatives than it was letting on.

    HBO’s Silicon Valley may have wrapped up its season, but fans of the show looking to satisfy their cravings for some tech start-up drama might do well to follow the real-world saga going on over at Hampton Creek, the tech-driven food upstart that seems to be ruffling a lot of feathers in its bid to revolutionize the processed-food industry by replacing eggs with plant-based ingredients in a host of products.

    Just like the fictional start-up Pied Piper on Silicon Valley, Hampton Creek and its CEO, 35-year-old Josh Tetrick, have managed to garner starry-eyed accolades—and loads of venture capital—from some of Silicon Valley’s most notable names, while at the same time being beset by one plot-twisting headache after another. The latest dramatic turn came on Wednesday, when news broke that a major egg-industry group was trying to halt the company's rise—and maybe take a hit out on its CEO?

    The fledgling company has already been forced to fend off a lawsuit from Hellman's owner Unilever, a David-versus-Goliath contest in which the food giant cried foul over Hampton Creek’s marketing of its popular eggless sandwich as mayonnaise—an emulsion of oil and egg yolks, as those who author history would have you believe—only to drop its suit in the wake of bad publicity. Unilever was then vindicated last week when the FDA declared anything marketed as mayonnaise must include some type of egg. Adding to the drama, Hampton Creek was being hailed as a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum while simultaneously defending itself against allegations of unsavory business practices lodged by a cadre of disgruntled employees and chronicled in Business Insider.

    But Now in what may be described as the season’s biggest shocker, it appears no less than the American Egg Board has engaged in a stealth campaign to undermine Hampton Creek’s egg-free ambitions, even going so far as to try to keep Just Mayo off the store shelves at Whole Foods, according to the Associated Press.

    As with other such organizations intended to promote American agricultural commodities such as pork and beef, the American Egg Board isn’t a government agency—not exactly. Its funding, to the tune of $23.5 million last year, comes from the multibillion-dollar egg industry, but it’s overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    Thus beyond the questions raised as to whether the egg board dramatically overstepped its bounds when, instead of limiting itself to such promotional activity as paying bloggers to extol the virtues of eggs or even hiring a powerhouse PR firm to help counter the glowing press coverage of Hampton Creek, it actually tried to stop the sale of Just Mayo in the retail market, there’s the larger issue of the USDA’s complicity in the Big Ag status quo. In what capacity should the taxpayer-funded department even be in the business of promoting beef or pork or eggs, given these industries hardly seem to be in need of government support, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable doctor to advise that we should all be consuming more animal products than we already do?

    The AP report is based on documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request made by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a FOIA expert at MIT, and attorney Jeffrey Light, who in turn shared them with Hampton Creek. The company provided them to the news organization. Similar to any number of corporate hacks that have taken place recently, the emails from egg board officials and others contracted by the organization provide some embarrassing behind-the-scenes fodder, as when one egg board executive wrote to another, hopefully joking: “You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay [Hampton Creek CEO] Mr. Tetrick a visit?”

    Get Shorty meets vegan "mayo"? Now there may just be a 21st-century TV hit in the making after all.

  • Food
  • Whistle-Blower Claims the USDA Suppressed Research on Bee-Killing Pesticide

    A scientist alleges he was harassed for speaking out about chemicals linked to bee deaths.

    After a government scientist began raising serious questions about the environmental impact of a popular pesticide that experts widely believe is helping to drive the drastic decline in America’s bee populations, he claims he got stung—and stung bad.

    Jonathan Lundgren, an 11-year entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, filed an official whistle-blower complaint this week, alleging he was harassed and retaliated against after speaking out in the media last year about research he conducted that points to the potentially insidious effects of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics.

    Since neonics began to be widely marketed in the mid-1990s, their use has exploded. Whereas a scant amount was used by farmers in 1995, today an estimated 6 million pounds of the pesticides are applied to fields every year—and that doesn’t take into account the staggering amount of seeds planted that are pretreated with the stuff. According to a report from the Center for Food Safety, “almost all of the corn seed and approximately half of the soybeans in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids,” and upwards of 90 percent of canola planted in North America is as well.

    Coincidentally, as the use of neonics has gone up, the populations of key pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies have plummeted. Although neonics can kill bees outright, many scientists believe it’s chronic exposure to the chemicals that imperils bees—by weakening their immune system, for example, or causing them to become disoriented and unable to find their way back to their hives.

    RELATED:  America’s Rivers Are Flowing—With Bee-Killing Pesticides

    But with an estimated $3 billion or more in neonic sales at stake on the global market, big agrichemical companies such as Bayer and Syngenta have adamantly denied any link between their pesticides and the devastating declines of bees and other pollinators.

    That may very well be what landed Lundgren in hot water.

    The senior research scientist made headlines by discussing his work regarding neonics, including two studies that concluded that using neonic-treated seed did not lead to higher crop yields for farmers. After that, Lundgren claims, “USDA managers blocked publication of his research, barred him from talking to the media, and disrupted operations at the laboratory he oversaw,” according to Harvest Public Media, which reviewed the complaint Lundgren’s attorneys filed with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board this week.

    “Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” one of those attorneys, Laura Dumais, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Washington Post. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”

    RELATED:  The Decline in Bees Will Cause a Decline in Healthy Food

    For its part, the USDA has declined to discuss Lundgren’s case, but the department issued a statement that read, in part, “We take the integrity of our scientists seriously, and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policymakers and the general public.”

    Yet word among the scientific community seems to be that the USDA isn’t doing such a bang-up job fostering a sense of scientific “integrity.” As the Post reported, a study by Scott W. Fausti of South Dakota State University on the unexpected environmental and economic consequences of the widespread adoption of genetically modified corn in the U.S., published in the most recent issue of Environmental Science & Policy, carried this telling footnote from the author: “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren's contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, the ARS has required Dr. Lundgren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”

  • Food
  • Just in Time for Halloween, Another Study Highlights the Horror of Too Much Sugar

    New research suggests that cutting added sweeteners can improve kids' health drastically and quickly.

    In a stroke of timing sure to strike fear in parents, on Tuesday scientists released the results of a clinical study that raises significant alarm about the impact of too much added sugar on kids’ health, just days before the national sugar free-for-all known as Halloween.

    For their ingeniously designed study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Lustig at the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco, targeted added sugars in the diets of kids ages nine to 18 who had at least one or more factors that put them at high risk for developing diabetes and related disorders. Here’s what’s key: The researchers did not try to cut the number of calories the kids consumed or even the amount of carbs. They simply replaced many of the foods the kids typically ate that contained added sugar with other types of carbohydrates, such as bagels for breakfast instead of sugar-sweetened yogurt.

    The results of the short-term study, which were published in the journal Obesity, were remarkable. The 43 participants didn’t lose much, if any, weight, but on average, their levels of LDL cholesterol (so-called bad cholesterol) fell by 10 points, their diastolic blood pressure fell by 5 points, and the amount of harmful triglycerides in the blood dropped by a third. Also significantly improved were their fasting blood sugar and insulin levels, suggesting that they had substantially decreased their risk for developing diabetes.

    How long did the kids have to adhere to this low-added-sugar diet to achieve these dramatic results? Just 10 days.

    “This paper says we can turn a child’s metabolic health around in 10 days without changing calories and without changing weight—just by taking the added sugars out of their diet,” Lustig told The New York Times. “From a clinical standpoint, from a health care standpoint, that’s very important.”

    If you’ve at all followed the growing debate over the deleterious effects of added sugar during the past several years, then it’s likely that Lustig’s name rings a bell. After all, he’s been one of the leading crusaders trying to get us to fundamentally shift our attitudes about all the copious amounts of sugar that the makers of processed foods and soda dump into their products. Lustig’s 2009 lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has amassed nearly 6 million views on YouTube, and he was at the center of Gary Taubes’ 2011 The New York Times Magazine feature “Is Sugar Toxic?” In Lustig’s—and Taubes’—opinion, the answer is decidedly yes.

    Through his work, Lustig has long maintained that the old view that a calorie is a calorie isn’t true—rather, he believes that not all calories are created equal and that the way our bodies metabolize calories from too much added sugars is one of the prime factors in the alarming rise in obesity and related illnesses during the past 30 or so years—a period when our collective sugar consumption boomed, whether in the form of supersize soda or of low-fat snacks that favored sugar over fat.

    In the new study, Lustig and his team didn’t eliminate all added sugar from the kids’ diets but cut the amount of added sugar consumed by an average of about two-thirds, to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories. That's the same amount that a panel of experts has recommended should be an official part of the federal dietary guidelines, which are in the process of being revised this year.

    It’s all part of what’s shaping up to be a sea change in how we think about sugar. Whether coincidence or not, the timing of the study’s release couldn’t highlight that more, as what was once seen as not much more than a harmless indulgence not so long ago—plying kids with candy—seems like it could lead to some truly scary health consequences indeed.

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