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Could You Learn to Love Genetically Modified Bacon?

Two different pork projects point to two different answers to the question.

Scientific breakthrough or sci-fi nightmare: That’s the question society has been grappling with in regard to genetic modification for more than a generation now, with pro- and anti-GMO camps seemingly ever more entrenched in their respective opinions—leaving a wide swath of the public in the confused middle. But have scientists and other GMO advocates hit on a way to convince a wary public to accept genetically modified livestock as the wave of the future?

Even as G.M. crops have overtaken the American farmscape since their introduction in the mid-1990s, with genetically modified corn and soy now accounting for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of plantings, the American public at large—and, indeed, consumers worldwide—have remained queasy at the prospect of genetically modified beef or pork or even farm-raised fish. No country in the world has given the regulatory green light to selling G.M. animals for human consumption. The closest prospect, transgene salmon engineered for faster growth, has been waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 20 years.

But two recent developments half a world apart that hope to bring G.M. pork to market demonstrate just how fluid our opinion of genetically modified animals might be, depending on the circumstance.

In one key respect, the projects are similar: Instead of inserting genes from other species into the pigs’ DNA to confer a desired trait, scientists employ “gene editing,” which alters the animals’ genetic code. Proponents say gene editing is simply a fast-track version of conventional breeding techniques. After all, farm animals have long been bred for, say, size or fertility. But whereas “perfecting” a breed via selective breeding might take decades, gene editing can introduce a desired trait with what is essentially a snip of the genetic scissors. Because no foreign genetic material is being introduced, it seems that products from such animals may not be subject to the same regulations as other genetically engineered foods.

“There are some signs that government agencies will view [gene editing] more leniently than they do conventional forms of genetic modification,” Nature reported. “[R]egulators in the United States and Germany have already declared that a few gene-edited crops fall outside their purview because no new DNA has been incorporated into the genome.”

Does that terrify you? Well, consider the following two real-world examples.

The first project hails from South Korea and China, and if you’re already skeptical of GMOs, it’s probably going to set your stomach churning. According to Nature, scientists have developed a “double-muscled pig” by interfering with the gene that inhibits muscle growth in the animal. Such a pig could be a boon to pork producers, yielding more meat, that’s leaner to boot. However, “birthing difficulties result from the piglets’ large size,” according to Nature. “And only 13 of the 32 lived to 8 months old.” Just two pigs are still living, and only one is in good health.


Scientists hope to ameliorate some of those Frankenstein issues by artificially inseminating normal pigs with the sperm of the double-muscled ones—which one imagines would result in not-quite-double the pork.

In the U.K., a different gene-editing pig project is under way. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute are working to develop hogs that are resistant to African swine fever, which has been dubbed “pig Ebola” and is threatening pork production in Eastern Europe. By precisely “editing” a single letter of the pigs’ genetic code to more closely resemble that of a warthog, researchers hope to confer the warthog’s natural resistance to the fever to domestic pigs.

“These are happy animals,” Bruce Whitelaw, head of the research team at the institute, told The Guardian as he surveyed a newborn litter of G.M. piglets. “They have a lovely sheen on them; their tails are wagging away.”

“We’re not trying to make huge pigs, we’re trying to make healthier ones,” he continued. “I’d be staggered if anyone said, ‘No, I don’t want my animal to be healthier.’ ”

As the welfare of livestock has become the focus of increasing public concern, the tack of Whitelaw and researchers like him is arguably ingenious: If genetic science can convince the rest of us that it’s creating happier, healthier animals—and not just freakish meat factories—might that pave the way to G.M. bacon coming soon to a supermarket near you?

  • Food
  • Big Food Is Trying to Dupe You Into Loving Industrial Agriculture

    A new report shines a light on the food industry's PR tactics.

    Moms campaigning to raise awareness of pesticide use in industrial agriculture are elitist control freaks; organic farming uses dangerous chemicals too. And those antibiotic-resistant superbugs you’ve been hearing about on factory farms? Don’t worry, the livestock industry has it all under control.

    Those are just some of the demonstrably outrageous messages that have been cropping up across the media landscape in relation to the ongoing cultural conversation about the food we eat, how it's raised, and the effects it has on our health and the health of our environment. As more consumers than ever become aware of the staggering social and ecological costs associated with industrial-scale agriculture, they’ve increasingly been turning to things like organic and locally grown food. Guess who’s none too happy about that? 

    A report released Tuesday by Real Food Media Project, Friends of the Earth, and U.S. Right to Know details how ag-tech giants such as Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and DuPont—not to mention corporate heavy-hitters ranging from Coca-Cola to General Mills and powerful lobbying groups such as the American Beverage Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—are spending millions to try to dissuade consumers from leaving their products behind. They’re intent on assuring you, dear reader, that the chemically laden, environmentally destructive, cost-cutting, GMO-reliant system of industrial farming that dominates American agriculture is all A-OK.

    But really, would you trust the CEO of Monsanto telling you that genetically modified crops are not just environmentally friendly but the answer to feeding the world’s hungry? Probably not. What about if that message came from the seemingly friendly folks at the “Center for Food Integrity”?

    In an effort to take control of public opinion on issues ranging from the proposed mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients on food packaging to whether organic farming really is more sustainable, the conventional food industry is spending tens of millions of dollars a year trying to get inside your head. Its Trojan horse of choice? Front groups with often deceptively innocuous-sounding names—like Center for Consumer Freedom, Protect the Harvest or Alliance for Food, and Farming.

    “The food industry is using a host of covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind the scenes to promote corporate interests,” Anna Lappé, founder of the Real Food Media Project, said in a statement.

    The eye-opening report can only just begin to document the extent to which these front groups, funded in most cases exclusively by the food corporations and overseen by boards of directors packed with industry insiders, are waging a stealth campaign to counter growing consumer wariness about conventional agriculture. Their tactics go far beyond supplying industry-friendly spokespeople as sources for journalists. The Alliance for Food and Farming, for example, launched a website,, that greets viewers with the message “Your fruits and veggies are safer than you think,” while Keep Food Affordable has sponsored conferences for the BlogHer Network with the intent of helping so-called mommy bloggers to “sort through the myths” and “gather third-party facts” about the safety of the conventional food supply. Meanwhile, neither group makes clear that it is founded and funded by Big Ag.

    The report is worth reading, if only to remind ourselves just how insidious the PR machinations of big food and Big Ag can be. As report coauthor Stacy Malkan puts it, “To have an honest conversation about the future of our food system, it’s crucial for consumers and news producers to understand the alarming extent of industry influence on media coverage and to do what we can to make sure we’re hearing the real story, not spin.”

  • Food
  • Roundup’s Lesser-Known Cousin Is Coming to a Farm Near You

    It’s the next wave in a revolution of GMO crops—and it’s happening right under our noses.

    One of the world’s leading groups of cancer experts has just classified the industrial herbicide 2,4-D as a possible human carcinogen, and that’s got one of the world’s biggest ag-tech companies in an uproar. But why should we care about some corporate kerfuffle? 

    Because the U.S. is about to be deluged with 2,4-D—an herbicide similar to Roundup but lacking the comfort of a consumer-facing, trademarked name. 

    This week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, released the results of its evaluation of three agricultural chemicals, including 2,4-D. The agency’s designation of the herbicide as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” is based on a review of the existing scientific evidence, which it deems “inadequate” in humans and “limited” in animal experiments—hence the emphasis on “possibly” carcinogenic. Nevertheless, the agency says, “There is strong evidence that 2,4-D induces oxidative stress, a mechanism that can operate in humans, and moderate evidence that 2,4-D causes immunosuppression, based on in vivo and in vitro studies.”

    No surprise: Ag-tech giant Dow AgroSciences has reacted swiftly, calling the findings hogwash. The company says the IARC’s conclusions are “inconsistent with government findings in nearly 100 countries,” according to the Midland Daily News.

    RELATED: France Bans the World’s Leading Herbicide From Garden Stores

    “No herbicide has been more thoroughly studied, and no national regulatory body in the world considers 2,4-D a carcinogen,” a Dow AgroSciences spokesman said in a statement.

    So, Why Should You Care? It’s not as though Dow is an impartial observer in all this. The company has millions of dollars in profit at stake in keeping farmers from worrying too much about dumping countless pounds of 2,4-D on their fields. Dow is in the midst of rolling out the next generation of genetically modified crops—its Enlist Duo patented line of crops—which are engineered to withstand heavy application of 2,4-D as well as the herbicide glyphosate, itself deemed a possible human carcinogen by the IARC a few months ago. It’s all part of a dramatic escalation of the ag-tech industry’s mad-scientist warfare on Mother Nature. In the late 1990s, Monsanto “revolutionized” agriculture with its introduction of Roundup Ready crops, which were genetically modified to tolerate being soaked in glyphosate.

    American consumers appear to be growing ever more wary of GMO crops, with an increasingly vocal number demanding the government step in and require companies to label any food that contains GMO ingredients. But the absence of such labeling thus far has arguably allowed Big Ag to engineer one of the most sweeping overhauls of agricultural production in the nation’s history—right under our noses. From virtually nothing just 20 years ago, today a staggering 90 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

    How has that worked out? As farmers have become more reliant than ever on glyphosate, they’ve unwittingly created a scourge of “superweeds” that have naturally developed their own resistance to the herbicide. Just as the overreliance of the livestock industry on antibiotics has given rise to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, some areas of the country are now plagued by weeds that glyphosate alone just can’t kill.

    Big Ag’s answer to this crisis (which only seems logical if you’re, well, a company whose profits depend on selling massive amounts of GMO seeds and the chemicals to go with them) has been to ramp up the chemical assault. Hence, Dow’s Enlist Duo, which combines glyphosate with 2,4-D in a bid to combat those resilient monster weeds.

    According to the USDA, the use of Dow’s new crop “system” will result in a tripling of the amount of 2,4-D being sprayed by 2020, and the increase could be as much as sixfold. Agricultural communities in areas where 2,4-D-resistant crops are planted would be exposed to eight times the amount of the “possible human carcinogen” they are now. Nevertheless, the EPA in April expanded its approval of the use of Enlist Duo across an additional nine states, from North Dakota to Louisiana, bringing the total number of states where the chemical cocktail is approved to 15.

    That may not sound like mad science to Dow—or to the EPA, for that matter—but it does to plenty of others, including Mary Ellen Kustin, a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

    “We have known for decades that 2,4-D is harmful to the environment and human health, especially for the farmers and farmworkers applying these chemicals to crops,” Kustin said in a statement. “Now that farmers are planting 2,4-D-tolerant GMO crops, this herbicide is slated to explode in use much the way glyphosate did with the first generation of GMO crops. And we know from experience—and basic biology—that weeds will soon grow resistant to these herbicides, making GMO crop growers only more dependent on the next chemical fix.”

  • Food
  • Subway Ditches Artificial Colors, but a More Serious Health Concern Lingers [UPDATED]

    The fast-food behemoth may have removed the multiple additives from its subs, but what about all those people dying from antibiotic-resistant infections?

    UPDATED June 24, 2015 
    Subway Public Relations Manager Kevin Kane responded via email to our request for comment after the story was published: “Our commitment to serve high quality, affordable food to our customers has always been a cornerstone of the Subway brand. We support the elimination of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics. This will take time and we continue to work with our suppliers to reach that goal.”

    In a bid to avert what experts warn could be a major public health crisis, a broad coalition of public health, environmental, and other groups is calling on fast-food giant Subway to stop serving meat raised with excessive antibiotics.

    The coalition of nearly 60 groups, including organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, delivered a letter Tuesday to Subway’s president and CEO, Fred DeLuca, urging the chain to act immediately to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics in the production of chicken and to commit to a timetable to phase out such use in all the meat Subway sells, including turkey, beef, and pork.

    RELATED: America's Second-Largest Retail Chain Is Cutting Antibiotics From Its Meat

    No doubt, as the biggest restaurant chain in the history of the world, a major shift by Subway in sourcing meat raised without the egregious use of antibiotics could have a major impact on the livestock industry. But as significant as such a move would be, it only highlights the alarming dysfunction of our elected officials in Washington and the agencies they control in taking a less-than-lackadaisical approach to addressing one of the most urgent—and utterly preventable—public health menaces of our time.

    So, Why Should You Care? As the coalition’s letter to Subway’s CEO cites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 of them die. Worldwide, that total spikes to 700,000 deaths. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that if serious action isn’t taken, some 10 million people a year could die as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050, at a staggering cost of $100 trillion in lost economic output. 

    “Far from being an apocalyptic fantasy,” the World Health Organization has warned, “a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill,…is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

    Sounds super scary, right? I mean, we should do something about it—fast. But really, we're not, even though we know what the problem is.

    In essence, the livestock industry has been routinely feeding its animals low doses of antibiotics for decades, including antibiotics used to treat people, to make the animals grow bigger and to counter increasingly unsanitary living conditions as factory farms have sought to crowd ever more living creatures into cramped quarters.

    According to most estimates, 70 to 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used not to treat people, or even sick animals, but simply to boost the productivity and efficiency of livestock operations. As a result, this profligate use of what were once considered miracle drugs for their ability to cure common and sometimes fatal infections has led to an increasing number of microbes that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

    But the Food and Drug Administration, undoubtedly stymied by politicians with close ties to the livestock industry, has taken only halting action to address the problem. A bill introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., and Susan Collins, R.-Maine, would have closed some gaping loopholes in the FDA’s policy. After the predictable self-congratulatory press releases and a flurry of media attention, the bill seemed to almost immediately disappear into the black hole of legislative purgatory. Today the website gives it a zero percent chance of being enacted.

    Thus, public health advocates and other concerned groups have had to resort to a piecemeal battle: They're trying to persuade the food industry itself to take responsible action. There have been some notable successes: Two of the country’s largest poultry producers, Tyson and Purdue, have agreed to stop using medically important antibiotics in their operations, while McDonald’s announced in March that it would stop serving chicken raised with human antibiotics.

    The efforts of these groups deserve a big round of applause, but when it comes to preserving the efficacy of some of the most important medicines known to humankind, should we have to rely on convincing a bunch of corporate CEOs that it’s the right thing to do?

  • Food
  • The FDA's Trans Fat Ban Could Be Killing Orangutans Half a World Away

    The unexpected way french fries in America will affect the rainforests in Malaysia.

    The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration this week that it was banning the use of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats in the American diet, was immediately hailed as a major public health victory—and for good reason. The FDA estimates that the move could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

    “This is the final nail in the coffin of trans fats,” Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times. “In terms of lives saved, I think eliminating trans fats is the single most important change to our food supply.”

    But what’s indisputably good for our hearts may not be so great for, say, orangutans in Borneo or tigers in Sumatra. Or, for that matter, our planet's ever-warming climate.

    Even as food makers have been working for a number of years to eliminate trans fats, they still need to find an alternative for an oil that stays solid at room temperature for products where trans fats are hard to replace. What’s the No. 1 contender for the job? Palm oil.

    You may have caught wind this week of news that the ecology minister of France, Ségolène Royal, called for a weeklong boycott of cult-like fave Nutella for its use of palm oil, which sent fans of the addictive spread into a kind of conniption. But really, why single out Nutella?

    Just as you likely don’t have a tub of “trans fat” in your pantry, you probably don’t have any palm oil either. So just how much of the stuff you consume may come as a surprise. Palm oil is used in everything from fast-food french fries to pizza dough, ice cream and margarine to body soap and lipstick. The Rainforest Action Network estimates palm oil is now in half the products on supermarket shelves, and that’s been something of an environmental disaster for places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where tens of thousands of acres of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

    According to Bloomberg Business, the FDA’s move to eliminate trans fat could translate into an increase of a half-billion pounds of palm oil a year to the U.S., which already imports 2.6 billion pounds annually. That’s been an increase of more than 400 percent over the past decade.

    So, Why Should You Care? Not only does rampant conversion of rainforest to palm oil plantation destroy habitat for scores of wild animals—one-third of all species in Malaysia are endangered, in large part because of the deforestation caused by irresponsible palm oil farming—but it mows down forests that act as enormous carbon sinks, storing million of tons of greenhouse gases. Worse yet, swampy peatlands are also often drained and cleared, and these store up to 22 times more carbon than the forests. Trading in the health problems caused by partially hydrogenated oils for the environmental problems caused by palm oil is still diminishing holistic global health.

    The work of public advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists is more timely than ever. Last year, UCS released its first-ever rating of 30 of the largest restaurant chains and food companies, charting what commitment they’ve made to sourcing palm oil that is deforestation- and peat-free. This year, it followed up and expanded the list to 40 companies.

    RELATED: Chinese Palm Oil Plantations Are Destroying the Home of Africa's Great Apes

    In the packaged food sector, giants like Nestlé, Danone, and Kellogg’s stand out, and in the personal care sector, Colgate-Palmolive, P&G, and L’Oréal get kudos. The situation is fairly dismal in both the fast-food and the store-brand sectors, with only Dunkin’ brands in fast food and Safeway store brand demonstrating any laudable commitment to sourcing their palm oil responsibly.

    Among the rogue’s list of companies that get a big fat zero from UCS are DQ, Domino’s, Wendy’s, and Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut), as well as store brands CVS, Walgreens, Target, and Costco.

    But as UCS points out, many of the companies that score high on the list do so because they’ve made a stated commitment to responsibly sourcing palm oil. In practice, none of the companies—not one—sources 100-percent deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil.

    “Real action is needed now, especially given that a number of companies have committed to eliminating the use of irresponsible sources of palm oil by the end of [2015],” write Lael Goodman and Asha Sharma, two UCS staffers working on the issue, in a recent report.

    In a follow-up blog post this week, Goodman calls on the public to keep the pressure on these companies: “American consumers have been demanding that the palm oil in their favorite products is free from the destruction of tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands. As companies continue to use palm oil to fill the gap left by the removal of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, an increase in demand for palm oil should in fact be an increase in demand for only deforestation-free palm oil.”

  • Food
  • Mediterranean Residents Trading Healthy Diet for Burgers and Fries

    A new U.N. report sounds the alarm about the region’s endangered way of eating.

    As researchers continue to amass scientific evidence showing the remarkable health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet, people around the globe are developing a taste for the region’s cuisine. They’re trading out sugar-laden processed foods and red meat, for example, in favor of healthier choices such as olive oil, whole grains, legumes, and fish. It’s a diet craze that’s spread like wildfire over the past few years—everywhere, that is, except the Mediterranean.

    A new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization details a dispiritingly ironic trend: Despite the heaps of praise that have been lavished on the Mediterranean diet, for its benefits both to human health and to the environment, it’s a way of eating—and a way of life—that appears increasingly at risk in the very countries where it has long thrived.

    “The evolution of food consumption in the Mediterranean countries is not encouraging,” wrote the report’s authors, “as these countries have followed the trend towards higher proportions of energy-dense foods,” i.e., cheap processed foods. “Paradoxically, just as the Mediterranean diet is becoming more popular in the world and increasingly recognized by the international scientific community, the Mediterranean populations are moving further and further away from this dietary model.”

    The authors go so far as to describe the diet as “endangered” across the entire Mediterranean region. That would seem to make the diet’s designation by UNESCO in 2010 as an official asset of “intangible cultural heritage” less celebratory and more depressing—similar to those lists that enumerate imperiled ecosystems or landmark sites on the verge of destruction.

    So, Why Should You Care? The reasons for the diet’s decline in its native lands are many and complex, but they follow a pattern that has become all too familiar in other parts of the world. As increased urbanization, cultural assimilation, and rising affluence (at least in some areas) combine, people are trading the traditional recipes of their grandparents for the convenience of more “Western” fare, from fast-food burgers to frozen dinners from the supermarket.

    This hasn’t been good for public health. The rates of overweight and obese people in the Mediterranean region, in countries ranging from Albania to Turkey, are coming ever closer to rivaling those of the U.S. In Egypt, for example, nearly 68 percent of the population is overweight, and one-third is obese. In Greece, whose bountiful olive trees and fresh seafood have long been associated in the public imagination with the Mediterranean diet, more than half of the country is overweight, with 20 percent obese.

    RELATED: These 10 Countries Lead the World in Childhood Obesity

    Yet, the evidence supporting the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet has never been stronger. A blockbuster study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, in which more than 7,000 people in Spain at increased risk for heart disease were randomly assigned to follow either a Mediterranean diet or a low-fat one, was called off early. Why? Because the benefits of the Mediterranean diet were so conclusive, researchers determined it was unethical to keep the participants on the low-fat diet from switching to the Mediterranean one.

    And the environmental benefits of the Mediterranean diet’s emphasis on foods that have a lower ecological impact continue to be well documented. According to researchers at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute in Italy, people who follow a more typical “North American” diet, with all its sugars and fats, have double the ecological footprint and are responsible for more than twice the global warming pollution of those who adhere to the Mediterranean diet. (It’s hard to overstate the environmental consequences of heavy meat consumption, particularly red meat.)

    As such, the new U.N. report is a warning cry. “The Mediterranean diet is nutritious, integrated in local cultures, environmentally sustainable, and it supports local economies,” Alexandre Meybeck, coordinator of the FAO’s Sustainable Food Systems Program, says in a statement. “This is why it’s essential that we continue to promote and support it.”

  • Food
  • Health & Beauty
  • Lifestyle
  • Taking Aim at Restaurant Salt Bombs Isn’t Going to End Obesity

    New York City’s proposal would require chain restaurants to label menu items that pack too much sodium.

    Even if, like me, you generally applaud the efforts of public health advocates to educate consumers about healthier eating in what is ultimately a David-versus-Goliath battle against the marketing juggernaut unleashed by big food and the restaurant industry, you could be forgiven if you find the latest proposal from the New York Health Department a little ridiculous.

    The watchdog agency is urging the city’s Board of Health to adopt a plan that would require chain restaurants to add a little saltshaker symbol next to menu items that exceed the federal recommended daily amount of sodium, which is 2,300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon.

    “The new rule will simultaneously educate consumers about the dangers of high sodium as well as the identity of food items with high sodium content,” a statement released by the health department said.

    No doubt there’s a lot of salt lurking in some of that mouthwatering fare at many chain restaurants. T.G.I. Friday’s Crispy Chicken Fingers clock in at 2,760 milligrams, for example, while the Olive Garden’s Seafood Alfredo packs 3,200 milligrams. New York is far from being alone in singling out sodium: Uruguay recently passed a federal law banning saltshakers and other high-sodium condiments from being placed on restaurant tables.

    But how much “education” you can accomplish with a saltshaker symbol is highly debatable, as is the dubious strategy of singling out chain restaurants and, more specifically, those items that contain an egregious amount of salt. While it’s not clear whether fast-food combo meals would be treated as a single “item,” a quick scan of the nutrition chart at Burger King, for example, yields only a single item delivering more than 2,300 milligrams of salt—though if you order a Double Whopper with cheese and a medium fry, you’re there.

    More bewildering, however, is that New York health officials would appear to be targeting the wrong nutritional bugaboo. But salt’s culpability in the ongoing epidemic of obesity and other diet-related ills has recently been subject to intense scrutiny.

    For a growing number of doctors and other health experts, you see, salt is not considered as great of a danger as it used to be.

    That’s not to say you should start heaping salt on that order of already oversalted fries. As Peter Whoriskey detailed in The Washington Post earlier this year in his account of the great salt debate, nearly everyone agrees that eating too much salt, particularly if you have high blood pressure, can be dangerous.

    “The critical disagreement,” Whoriskey wrote, “concerns how to define ‘too much.’ ”

    While studies continue to affirm that excess salt can raise blood pressure and lead to heart disease, more recent evidence suggests “too much” salt may be more like 7,000 milligrams per day. Assessing such evidence in The New York Times last year, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, described a “safe zone” of sodium intake of 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams per day—in part because some studies suggest eating too little salt may not be good for you either.

    Any way you look at it, that’s far above the current federal guideline of 2,300 milligrams per day and far higher than the 1,500 milligrams per day that remains the recommendation of the American Heart Association. As Carter points out, most Americans fall well within that range, consuming, on average, 3,400 milligrams of salt a day.

    The point here is not to settle the salt debate, or even to entirely dismiss the latest proposal in New York. After all, if you go ahead and scarf down an entire serving of that Seafood Alfredo at the Olive Garden, you’re likely well on your way to overshooting even the most liberal interpretation of the science concerning how much salt you should be consuming in a day.

    But it’s worth acknowledging some of the criticism that has already been lobbed at the proposal. As Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association, complained to the BBC, “The composition of menus may soon have more warning labels than food products.”

    Fleischut’s criticism is clearly not coming from the most objective place. Yet, it’s not hard to imagine consumers becoming ever more weary owing to “warning label fatigue.” And if it turns out that one label is compromised by conflicted science, the public might just lose trust in all of them.

  • Food
  • The Next Soda Battleground: Warning Labels on Soft Drink Ads

    Get ready for Round 2 of the Bay Area soda wars.

    The beverage industry may have fended off a soda tax in San Francisco last year, but can it ward off the city’s latest push to curb consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages?

    The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is slated to vote this week on three measures that directly take aim at taking some of the fizz out of soda’s mass appeal, the most conspicuous of them being a first-in-the-nation requirement that ads for soda be slapped with a warning label. As The Associated Press reports, the proposed label would read, “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”

    The warning would be mandatory on ads within the city limit, meaning on billboards, walls, and the sides of cabs and buses. The two other soda-busting measures would prohibit soda ads on city-owned property and prohibit municipal funds from being used to buy soda.

    Predictably, the beverage industry has swooped in with its objections.

    Related: Mexico’s Soda Tax Is Working

    “It’s unfortunate the Board of Supervisors is choosing the politically expedient route of scapegoating instead of finding a genuine and comprehensive solution to the complex issues of obesity and diabetes,” a spokesman for the state beverage association, CalBev, told the AP.

    Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association complained to Business Insider that “important facts were missing from [the] discussion”—namely, the myriad other factors that have been linked to Americans’ collective weight gain and associated health problems, such as lack of exercise and too much unhealthy food.

    It’s interesting that the soda industry appears to have largely abandoned trying to attack the science that has linked soda consumption to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health risks, instead falling back on the old PR standby: “The problems are complicated, so why just single out soda?”

    Well, because cutting back soda consumption would be as good a place as any to start.

    Indeed, there is arguably no single bigger source of superfluous sugar in the American diet than sugar-sweetened beverages, which have zero nutritional value. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released its recommendation that people should get no more than 10 percent of their daily calorie intake from added sugars. For the average adult consuming 2,000 calories a day, a single 20-ounce Coke, with 65 grams of added sugar, puts you well over that limit.

    Warning labels or no, the public may be getting the message. Voters in neighboring Berkeley became the first in the country to pass a soda tax last year, and while the beverage industry crowed about the defeat of a similar tax in San Francisco, it was a victory with an asterisk: A solid majority of city voters, 55 percent, approved the tax, but two-thirds were required to pass it.

  • Food
  • How Do You Tally the Real Costs of Walmart’s Low Prices?

    A new report says the chain is falling short when it comes to labor and environmental sustainability.

    Oh, what a tangled web Walmart weaves. It’s hardly news that the combination of low, low prices and the convenience of one-stop shopping that has made the company the largest retailer in the world has often come at a high social and environmental price—but how high a price, exactly? A new report from a coalition of labor groups proves just how difficult it is to calculate the impact of Walmart’s decades-long experiment in cost-cutting.

    Walmart at the Crossroads: The Environmental and Labor Impact of Its Food Supply Chain is a noble effort. Compiled by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the 115-page report, complete with more than 460 footnotes, seeks to expose the retail giant as, essentially, a big old hypocrite. “So far Walmart’s commitments to improving standards appear to be mostly a public relations stunt and haven’t translated to improvements in conditions for most of its food supply chain,” the authors write.

    At root, according to the report, is a wide discrepancy between the company’s official standards for how it and its vast network of suppliers should operate, in terms of things like fair labor conditions and environmental stewardship, and reality.

    In essence, the report charges that the official standards are more or less like your average employee handbook: “required” reading that just gathers dust.

    Instead, it’s Walmart’s relentless focus on driving down costs that dictates the rules by which its suppliers must play. “The price limitations imposed by Walmart create incentives to cut corners, rather than establish high standards, in order to keep Walmart’s business,” the report states.

    The company did not respond to a request for comment.

    It might seem that Walmart would be an easy target. It’s big enough: more than 11,000 stores in 27 countries, with a new one built about every eight hours. In the roughly 25 years since it opened its first supercenter, the retail juggernaut has come to dominate the grocery business: Nearly $1 out of every $4 that Americans spend on groceries is spent at Walmart.

    Therein lies the challenge: Where do you begin in taking on such a sprawling enterprise? 

    The Food Chain Workers Alliance report raises a host of troubling issues, from the unfair labor practices of the companies that supply Walmart with its fresh produce to the retail giant’s fostering of corporate consolidation in spite of its much-publicized commitment to support more small and midsize operations. Just two bread companies account for nearly 50 percent of the overall bread market in the U.S., for example, and these count as Walmart’s primary bread suppliers.

    There’s the story of one farmworker at a Walmart supplier who says he and his fellow workers were ordered to pick 65 pounds of blueberries in a day—or else. “Workers could not afford to go drink water or even go to the restroom because of the tremendous fear of losing their jobs,” he said. Abel Mendoza, a worker at another supplier, this one for packaged salad greens, said that after he slipped from a machine and crushed his foot, he was fired. “Perhaps the most disturbing part of Borja’s story is that this termination did not surprise him,” the report’s authors write. “He said his first thought after his fall was that he was going to be fired because he had seen co-workers suffer a full range of injuries, ‘and one thing always happened. If they reported it, they would get fired.’ ”

    That’s the overwhelming—and frustrating—effect of the report at large: a sense that what you’re reading is just the small tip of a much bigger iceberg of violations unreported, fines not levied, and pollution discharges swept under the rug. And the world’s largest retailer working behind the scenes to keep Americans hooked on everything from cheap bananas to cheap boneless chicken breasts while never revealing the true cost of it all.

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  • KFC Is Going to Court to Dispel Rumors of GMO Spider Chickens

    Fried-chicken giant sues to stop persistent claims that it sells meat from mutant birds.

    KFC wants the world to know: There’s no such thing as an eight-legged, six-winged chicken.

    Among the urban legends that have dogged the fried-chicken chain for years, it seems a particularly stubborn one alleges that the company has created a mutant strain of arachnid chickens capable of producing a bumper crop of drumsticks and hot wings.

    Apparently, the rumors have proved so persistent in China, where KFC is the largest fast-food purveyor of fried chicken, that parent company Yum Brands has filed suit against three companies, according to Reuters, that it charges have been among the most persistent online rumormongers: Yingchenanzhi Success and Culture Communication, Shanxi Weilukuang Technology Co., and Taiyuan Zero Point Technology.

    Lost in the translation here is why, exactly, these three companies might have fueled a widespread campaign of chicken disinformation on the Internet. Neither Reuters nor any of the news organizations that have picked up the story appear to speculate about what might have motivated the corporate triad to try to bring down KFC with stomach-turning allegations of monster spider chickens.

    The chain says it has found upwards of 4,000 messages online containing libelous claims—including photos—that have been viewed more than 100,000 times. KFC is seeking the equivalent of $242,000 from each defendant along with an apology. The Shanghai Xuhui District People’s Court has accepted the case, according to The Associated Press.

    Even as KFC pursues tough legal action to defend its reputation, its PR response would appear at once dismissive and also possessed of a healthy dose of online snark—though again, there may be something off in the translation here. As Reuters reports, a statement on KFC’s China website reads, “The rumors about KFC using chickens with six wings and eight legs have been around a long time,” and it goes on to chide the gullible for entertaining the notion that such a thing were scientifically possible, saying that if the company had managed the feat, “it could be in the running for a Nobel Prize.”

    As recently as February, KFC found itself on the defensive yet again in the U.S., fending off similar rumors about Franken-chickens as well as the decades-old canard that the federal government had ordered the chain to switch its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because it had stopped serving up “real chickens” in favor of test-tube-generated, genetically engineered creatures that are a far cry from a barnyard bird.

    “There is absolutely no truth to this ridiculous urban legend, which has been debunked many times,” a KFC spokesman told Business Insider via email. “KFC uses top quality poultry from trusted companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride—the same brands customers know from their local supermarkets.”

    Yet in a bizarre way, could the rumors about spider chickens turn out to be not such a bad thing for KFC? Sure, some conspiracy-minded sliver of the population will no doubt continue to want to enlighten the rest of us about the “truth” regarding what those mad scientists are up to over at KFC and other fast-food chains. But next to outlandish rumors like the eight-legged chicken, the scary reality of what big food is actually doing on its factory farms comes to seem, well, normal.  

    “Modern factory-farmed chickens look very little like their wild chicken ancestors,” as the ASPCA describes it. “Thanks to selective breeding—combined with low-dose antibiotics, excessive feeding and inadequate exercise—factory-farmed meat chickens grow unnaturally quickly and disproportionately. While their breasts grow large to meet market demand, their skeletons and organs lag behind. Many suffer heart failure, trouble breathing, leg weakness and chronic pain. Some cannot support their own weight and become crippled, unable to reach food and water.”

    The truth can be just as unappetizing as fiction.

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