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Animal Rights Group Reveals Cruelty Behind McNuggets—and McDonald’s Responds Fast

Is this a case of corporate compassion or just slick PR?

Even by the lightning-fast standards of social media and viral videos, it was enough to make your head spin: No sooner had the activist group Mercy for Animals released a sickening undercover video showing abhorrent treatment of chickens at a Tennessee factory farm that supplies poultry for McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets than both McDonald’s and Tyson Foods, which makes the famed nuggets for the fast-food giant, announced they had severed ties with the offender.

“Based on what we currently know, we are terminating the farmer’s contract to grow chickens for us,” a Tyson spokesman said in a statement. For its part, McDonald’s called the video evidence “unacceptable” and said the company is “committed to working with animal welfare and industry experts to inform our policies that promote better management, strong employee education, and verification practices.”

No doubt the video footage released by Mercy for Animals, which is among the growing number of animal rights groups using ever smaller and more sophisticated digital technology to bring such inhumane conditions on factory farms to light, ranks among the more disturbing in a stomach-turning genre whose power to disgust can be rated by just how many minutes (or seconds) you can watch before having to turn it off.

Here we see an employee of T&S Farm in Dukedom, Tennessee, ask the undercover investigator, “You don’t work for PETA, do you?” before clobbering a chicken with a pole affixed with a metal spike. Another worker strides among the flock of overcrowded birds forced to live atop their own feces, stabbing them with his own spiked pole and tossing them, half dead, into a bucket swinging from his arm as if he were picking up trash along the side of the highway. The birds are also trampled by workers and tossed violently into transport crates, breaking their bones.

It was undoubtedly these images of inexcusable and unmitigated cruelty that prompted both Tyson and McDonald’s to move so quickly—and publicly—to cut their ties with the farm, but here’s where things get tricky. In its statement, McDonald’s says, “We’re committed to animal well-being but don’t believe this video accurately depicts the treatment of chickens by the thousands of farmers who supply us.”

Oh, really?

Sure, both McDonald’s and Tyson can arguably make a case that, say, clubbing chickens with spiked poles is outlier behavior they plausibly had no knowledge of and don’t condone. But if either company had ever inspected T&S Farm at all, there’s no way they could be ignorant of the chronic day-to-day suffering clearly inflicted on the animals there, such as being forced to live in filthy, suffocating, overcrowded conditions and to feed amid the corpses of other birds—conditions that are, after all, more or less endemic at factory farms all across the country.

Thus, what at first may appear like an impressively swift victory for Mercy for Animals and the animal welfare movement at large could very well end up a textbook example for corporate PR flaks on how to deftly defuse a potential crisis. By summarily dropping T&S Farm as a supplier, McDonald’s and Tyson make it seem like they’ve adopted some sort of zero-tolerance stance against animal abuse—something with which millions of chickens out there condemned to the status quo misery of so-called life on factory farms would likely disagree.

  • Food
  • There's Probably Poo in Your Ground Beef—but Should You Care?

    Among the many reasons to avoid beef, this may not be one of them.

    In a burger-loving nation like the U.S., one way you’re sure to generate headlines is to tell people that there’s probably poo in their patties—hence the above. But is that really cause for concern?

    Consumer Reports recently tested some 300 packages of ground beef purchased in 26 cities nationwide, and every single sample “contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination,” according to the final report.

    There are lots of reasons to decry the inanity of American’s penchant for beef: The litany of health ills associated with too much red meat consumption appears to be rivaled only by the litany of environmental ills that come with producing upwards of 4.5 billion pounds of meat from animals as energy-intensive and polluting as cattle.

    Yet that the meat industry can make a semi-credible case that the seemingly shocking results of the Consumer Reports study demonstrate “ground beef is as safe as ever” may serve as evidence that sensationalism—even in the service of a good cause—is still, well, sensationalism.

    “The bacteria identified in the Consumer Reports testing are types that rarely cause foodborne illness,” the industry front group North American Meat Institute complained in a statement. Like it or not, the bacteria that Consumer Reports touts as evidence of fecal contamination—enterococcus and nontoxin-producing strains of E. coli—abound in our everyday environment, and they don’t tend to make you sick. But that Consumer Reports found C. perfringens in 20 percent of its samples—the third-most-common source of food poisoning in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—would appear to suggest that the Meat Institute is engaging in its own degree of spin.

    To get a sense of how confusing this all can be, take a look at how both Consumer Reports and the Meat Institute frame the former's findings that 1 percent of the ground beef samples contained salmonella, a key culprit behind thousands of hospital-worthy cases of food poisoning every year.

    As Consumer Reports notes, the figure might not sound troubling, but “extrapolate that to the billions of pounds of ground beef we eat every year, and that’s a lot of burgers with the potential to make you sick.”

    Whereas the Meat Institute declares: “The real headline here is the bacteria that Consumer Reports doesn’t report finding in their testing—Shinga toxin-producing E. coli—and just one percent of samples with Salmonella, a number far below USDA performance standards.”

    Truth is, food poisoning can be notoriously difficult to trace, and what may seem at first the most likely culprit might not always be so. A federal report released earlier this year by staff from the CDC, FDA, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found that beef counted for 46 percent of potentially dangerous E. coli transmissions—but “vegetable row crops” accounted for 36 percent. As for salmonella, beef accounted for just 9 percent of transmissions, 1 percent higher than—are you ready for it?—sprouts. Fruits and vegetables were responsible for a whopping 30 percent of transmissions.

    That’s not to say that there’s not plenty in the Consumer Reports study worth taking heed of, particularly the findings that sustainably raised beef—notably ground beef labeled as organic and grass-fed—appears to have significantly less bacterial contamination than conventionally raised beef.

    But with so many good reasons out there to cut down on beef consumption or eliminate it from the diet entirely—social, health, environmental, take your pick—it hardly seems necessary to resort to bacterial bugaboos and fearmongering.

  • Food
  • Big Food Tech Start-up Faces Unsavory Allegations

    Will the charges of ex-employees derail the eggless revolution hatched by Hampton Creek?

    Is one of the hottest start-up companies in recent memory too good to be true?

    To say the rise of San Francisco–based Hampton Creek has been meteoric is an understatement. The brainchild of 35-year-old Josh Tetrick, a former Fulbright Scholar with a law degree from the University of Michigan who spent seven years working for nonprofits in sub-Saharan Africa, the company combined the verve of a savvy tech start-up with a vision for disrupting our behemoth food system by doing something radical: getting rid of eggs and all the attendant environmental ills that go into producing billions of them.

    Since its launch out of Tetrick’s apartment in Los Angeles four years ago, Hampton Creek has achieved the sort of success most entrepreneurs can only dream about. Its flagship product, Just Mayo, which uses pea protein in lieu of the yolks used in traditional mayonnaise, can now be found in some of the country’s largest chains—not just in stores you might expect, such as Whole Foods, but at Target, Costco, and Walmart. It has attracted scads of high-profile venture capital cash, raking in $90 million in its most recent round of funding, a bonanza no doubt fueled by glowing press reports and accolades from the likes of Bill Gates, who has lauded the company for its bold reimagining of the future of food. Beyond Just Mayo, the company has been working to replace eggs in a host of products in which eggs long seemed indispensable, from cookie dough to pancake mix.

    But on Wednesday, the same day it was announced that Hampton Creek had been named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum—joining the organization’s list of “the most innovative companies in the world,” which in the past has included such tech powerhouses as Google, Kickstarter, and Dropbox—another, much less welcome headline hit the Internet: “Sex, Lies, and Eggless Mayonnaise: Something Is Rotten at Food Startup Hampton Creek, Former Employees Say.”

    The purported exposé, published in Business Insider, chronicles the complaints of “more than a half-dozen” disgruntled ex–Hampton Creek staffers, all of whom would only speak on the condition of anonymity.

    But readers hoping to witness the downfall of a superstar start-up may have trouble satisfying their schadenfreude cravings on the thin offerings here. The grousing of former employees about the skin-of-the-teeth rush to meet production deadlines, outsize demands on staff to perform under stressful and sometimes jury-rigged conditions, and the hard-charging office culture fostered by CEO Tetrick feel more or less like par for the course at any successful start-up. That Hampton Creek appears to have flouted FDA regulations by listing “lemon juice” as an ingredient as opposed to “lemon juice concentrate” doesn’t exactly feel like a smoking gun.

    Other allegations are potentially more damning. Two former staffers claim they caught a senior Hampton Creek employee switching out the second page of their employment contract in the company files, effectively cutting their severance package from three months to three weeks (the original terms were later restored, according to the article). The salacious “sex” part of the article’s headline seems to refer to an affair Tetrick allegedly had with an employee, who staffers say received unmerited promotions as a result. 

    Then there are the charges that Hampton Creek’s vaunted technology apparatus isn’t, well, all it’s cracked up to be. As a Washington Post feature on the company earlier this year reported, “Hampton Creek has a database of 4,000 plant samples and their molecular structures, built in part by ex-Google maps engineer Dan Zigmond. Hampton Creek biochemists extract proteins from those plants and experiment with thousands of powder and liquid formulations in search of the blend that will offer the optimum taste, texture and performance to rival a chicken egg.”

    That proprietary database of “4,000 plant samples”? According to one of the former employees who spoke to Business Insider, “It was probably closer to 400. At least five times less than it was claimed, and that’s conservatively.”

    Whether the allegations published by Business Insider are enough to tarnish Hampton Creek’s stellar reputation, only time will tell. But one person to ask would be the editor in chief of Business Insider itself, Henry Blodget, who, according to the Hampton Creek press release, was among the “notable members” of the committee that selected the company as a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.

  • Food
  • Food Giants Are Spending Big, Big Bucks to Pass Pro-GMO Law

    A new report reveals the lottery-worthy amounts of money big food is dishing out to fight GMO labeling.

    Schoolhouse Rock!’s “How a Bill Becomes a Law” may still reign as a touchstone of grade school edutainment, but anyone old enough to remember watching it is probably also old enough to recognize its most glaring omission when it comes to animating the legislative process of our hallowed democracy: Where the heck are the lobbyists?

    It would be particularly enlightening to reimagine the cartoon classic vis-à-vis the fight over what critics have christened the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act, or DARK Act. The infamous piece of legislation—which would not only bar any effort to require food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients but would allow GMO foods to be labeled “natural” —was recently passed by the House and is waiting to be introduced in the Senate.

    How that bill has found itself well on its way to becoming a law is in marked contrast to the cute story recounted in the Schoolhouse Rock! cartoon, as evidenced by a new, eye-opening analysis released Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group. A remake of the classic could serve as a more realistic but still kid-friendly guide to the ins and outs of Washington, with plenty of cartoon characters to go around.

    You see, according to the EWG analysis, big food has spent a staggering amount of money on lobbyists in an effort to defeat the grassroots campaign to require the labeling of GMO foods. During the first half of this year, six companies alone spent more than $12 million “on lobbying expenses that made reference to legislation aimed at killing state and federal GMO labeling,” EWG reported.

    Thus, rather than little ol’ lonely Bill sitting on the Capitol steps singing the blues in regard to his long-shot chances of becoming a law, our newfangled version would have him swept into the House of Representatives hoisted on the shoulders of an army of lobbyists, symbolized themselves by the iconic brands of the companies they represent.

    Among these, we can imagine Coca-Cola’s adorable Christmastime polar bears (the company has spent more than $5 million to fight GMO labeling laws so far this year), Chester Cheetah for PepsiCo ($3.2 million), the Kool-Aid Man and Mr. Peanut for Kraft Foods ($1.1 million), a gaggle of Keebler elves for Kellogg’s ($1.3 million), and the Trix rabbit and Pillsbury doughboy for General Mills ($1.1 million). Rounding out the top corporate spenders, Land O’Lakes doled out some $720,000 on lobbying against GMO labeling laws this year.

    But wait, there’s more!

    Those are just the six biggest corporate spenders trying to push their pro-GMO agenda through Congress this year. There are plenty of other corporate players (Unilever, Ocean Spray, Campbell’s Soup), in addition to several armored-car loads of lobbying cash being dished out by a legion of industry trade groups representing biotech, big agribusiness, and food makers. At the top of the heap is the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has spent $5.1 million and hired 32 lobbyists to advocate for the DARK Act and to repel any attempt to require the labeling of GMO products.

    In contrast, groups advocating for GMO labeling laws reported combined lobbying expenditures of just $2.5 million for the first two quarters of 2015, and the longer-term tally is even more lopsided. “Since 2013,” EWG reported, “industry lobbyists have outspent GMO labeling advocates by 25-to-1.”

    And that, kids, may very well end up being how a bill really becomes a law.

  • Food
  • Could Food Trucks Help Feed the Homeless?

    A humble Kickstarter campaign poses an intriguing solution to a stubborn social ill.

    A 26-year-old aspiring chef-cum-philanthropist in Massachusetts wants to retool the food truck trend as a way to feed the homeless—but will he be able to get his Helping Hand Food Truck gassed up and ready to roll?

    Last month, Corey Phelan launched a Kickstarter campaign with a noble goal: to serve up fresh food made from locally sourced ingredients out of a food truck to anyone who shows up curbside, regardless of their ability to pay.

    “While the truck will operate as a business to paying customers who are able to afford their food, I would like to take this opportunity to try and change the way business is done,” Phelan writes on his Kickstarter page, citing his experience as a volunteer at a homeless shelter when he was younger, combined with his lifelong desire to own his own business. “Instead of fixed prices for meals, I am going to implement a Pay What You Can/Will policy, which will allow our customers to set the price they think is appropriate for our food and services.”

    It all sounds a bit starry-eyed, to be sure, which is perhaps why Phelan has only managed to raise $635 (as of this writing) toward his goal of $90,000, despite having started his campaign at the end of June. But at a time when a startling number of municipalities across the country are going so far as to criminalize feeding the homeless, Phelan may very well have hit on a promising way for people do to some good on their lunch break without ending up in handcuffs.

    Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, made headlines last fall when he was arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, simply for distributing food to homeless folks in a city park. Abbott ran afoul of Fort Lauderdale’s ban on giving food to homeless people on public property, and the city is far from alone in enacting such restrictions. At least 22 cities, ranging from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Salt Lake City, have passed similar ordinances, with at least 50 more bans attempted or proposed in municipalities nationwide.

    The flawed rationale behind these bans seems to equate the complex social issue of homelessness with, say, pesky pigeons or Canada geese in city parks: If you feed them, they’ll just stick around.

    But because we cannot underestimate the American public’s susceptibility to believing in simple legislative solutions to remedy complicated social ills that then take years to reveal their wrong-headedness (see, for example, the proliferation of tough-on-crime laws during the 1990s and today’s burgeoning prison crisis), we can probably expect more cities to jump on the “don’t feed the homeless” bandwagon before all is said and done. In the meantime, a roving band of food trucks like the one Phelan envisions could have the potential to do much good.

    Cynics may very well be surprised, but there is a rather robust body of scientific literature that demonstrates most people will, in defiance of conventional economic theory, not only pay something when confronted with a “pay what you want” option, but will pay more than their fair share if they think it’s for a good cause.

    How to best put this altruistic impulse to use, however, has seemed to bedevil any number of similar PWYW enterprises, with the launch of the Panera Cares Community Cafés being the most salient example. Restaurant goers can pay nothing or something at these eateries, which are seemingly indistinguishable from the 1,600 other ordinary Paneras across the country, save for the fact that the prices are “suggested.” Or they can volunteer an hour’s work in exchange for a meal voucher.

    The company launched the first nonprofit café in 2010 in St. Louis, but to say progress has been incremental is an overstatement. Panera has opened only an additional four cafés in the past five years, one of which, in suburban Chicago, was shuttered in January.

    As any number of food truck entrepreneurs have enthused since the whole upscale meals-on-wheels trend burst on the foodie scene years ago, however, food trucks have a lot of benefits over brick-and-mortar restaurants when it comes to starting your own business, not least of which is the reduced overhead—and that might just be the secret to fuel Phelan’s success.

  • Food
  • In the News
  • Soda Industry Says San Francisco Ad Ban Violates Free Speech

    Can beverage makers convince a federal court they're entitled to the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us?

    In a move that would appear as unsurprising as it is ridiculous, the beverage industry has swiftly filed suit to challenge San Francisco’s tough new restrictions on ads for sugar-sweetened beverages, which were approved unanimously in June by the city’s Board of Supervisors. Why does the American Beverage Association, the industry’s largest trade group and lead plaintiff in the case, think the restrictions ought to be tossed out like so many empty soda cans? Because, the ABA claims, they infringe on soda makers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

    “The city is free to try to persuade consumers to share its opinions about sugar-sweetened beverages,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, the city is trying to ensure that there is no free marketplace of ideas, but instead only a government-imposed, one-sided public ‘dialogue’ on the topic—in violation of the First Amendment.”

    And you had no clue that your average bro-studded billboard for Mountain Dew served such a noble purpose as to contribute to the “free marketplace of ideas.” Meanwhile, Coca-Cola outspends the entire food and beverage industry when it comes to lobbying dollars—political speech, as the Supreme Court likes to remind us. In 2014, it put $9.3 million toward lobbying Congress, according to OpenSecrets, far more than the runner-up, PepsiCo, with its $3.5 million.

    No one could expect that an industry as large and powerful as the one that plies the average American with upwards of 30 gallons of liquid candy every year would allow the San Francisco regulations to go into effect uncontested. If the legislation passes legal muster, it will ban soda ads on all city property and, even more alarming to soda makers, require all outdoor ads for sugary drinks to carry an explicit warning label that would state: “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay”—the first warning label ever mandated to appear on soda ads anywhere in the country.

    The beverage industry’s claim that such restrictions effectively deny Pepsi, Coke, and other big soda makers the First Amendment rights guaranteed them by our Constitution may, at first glance, seem appalling—or laughable, depending on your level of cynicism. After all, hasn’t the government long been able to restrict advertising for otherwise legal products that have nevertheless been shown to adversely affect public health—i.e., tobacco and alcohol?

    But American jurisprudence appears to have been ever more receptive to the once audacious claim that corporations should enjoy the same constitutional rights as individual Americans. You’ve got your Citizens United case, of course, which upended any commonsense reform of campaign financing by effectively ruling that the government can’t restrict campaign spending by corporations because that spending is a form of protected speech. Then there’s the infamous Hobby Lobby case, whereby a company being required to provide its employees access to certain forms of birth control under the Affordable Care Act somehow equates to an infringement on the craft-and-tchotchke chain’s freedom of religion.

    More to the point, when the Food and Drug Administration, in response to a 2009 law passed by Congress, upped its antismoking game to require graphic warning labels to appear on packs of cigarettes, it was dealt a knockout blow by the D.C. Circuit Court for supposedly trampling big tobacco’s right to free speech. No doubt the words of the majority opinion are ones the American Beverage Association is hoping to hear in a favorable ruling in its latest suit: “We are skeptical that the government can assert a substantial interest in discouraging consumers from purchasing a lawful product, even one that had been conclusively linked to adverse health consequences.”

  • Food
  • Chunky Cartoon Characters Could Make for Chunkier Kids

    New research suggests kids who see overweight cartoon characters may consume more unhealthy food.

    A scene of kids sacked out on the couch devouring cartoons has long been a sort of stock image that comes to mind when we see stories surrounding “the health crisis afflicting America’s children.” They’re inactive, snacking on chips, and being subjected to endless ads marketing high-calorie, low-nutrient foods to them. But what about the cartoons themselves? Could your kids’ favorite characters be fueling their junk-food cravings?

    In a novel study published this week in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers led by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder conducted a series of three related experiments to see whether something as simple as the physical appearance of a fictional character could make kids eat more unhealthy food.

    For the first experiment, individual middle school students were shown a picture and asked for their opinion on the quality of the printout—though the researchers could have cared less about the response. What they were really interested in is what happened next, because while a third of the kids were shown a neutral image, another third were shown an image of a “normal weight” cartoon character, and the rest were shown the same cartoon character with more than a few pounds packed on. (Which cartoon character, you ask? Eh, no Nickelodeon star here, just some generic red-colored thing that, in the press release, looks like a cross between Gumby and one of those annoying “air dancers” at a used-car lot.)

    Then, as if to thank them for participating, the researchers allowed the kids to help themselves to bowls full of candy. “Kids who saw the overweight cartoon character took more than twice as many candies as those who saw either the control or the normal-weight character,” the researchers reported.

    The next experiment built on the first and was similarly structured. But this time, in addition to viewing either an image of the overweight or normal-weight character alone, some kids were also shown an image of the overweight character together with the normal-weight character—after all, in the real world of make-believe animation, chunky characters often have skinny friends.

    Again, when the kids were exposed to the overweight character—either alone or with his svelte comrade—they tended to help themselves to almost twice as much candy as those who simply saw the normal-weight character.

    This all would seem to feed into parents’ most deep-seated anxieties about the barrage of media influences their children are exposed to every day. Is anything safe for your kids to watch if you’ve got to start worrying about the near subliminal impact of, say, the portly physique of SpongeBob’s best bud, Patrick?

    So, Why Should You Care? Over the course of a lifetime, childhood obesity costs $19,000 in additional medical costs per child compared with normal-weight kids, according to the Duke Global Health Institute. When one out six American children is considered obese—a figure that has tripled since the 1980s—it’s important to understand how diets are influenced beyond what parents tell kids to eat.  

    The research team offers hope here, backed by empirical evidence—though how useful parents find its suggestions may depend on how dedicated they want to be about quizzing their kids about good eating habits. (Get out the flash cards!)

    In their final experiment, researchers invited elementary school kids to participate in a cookie taste test. Once again, some kids were shown an image of either the normal-weight or the overweight Gumby-esque character, and all were allowed unfettered access to the sweet treats after. This time, some kids were asked to answer questions about their knowledge of healthy foods before seeing the character and eating the cookies, while the rest answered the questions after having their fill.

    “When kids didn’t think about their health knowledge until after, we got the same results as prior studies; kids ate more cookies after seeing an overweight than a normal-weight character,” the researchers reported. “However, when kids first answered some questions about health, they ate the same number of cookies regardless of whether they saw the overweight or the normal-weight character.” And, it’s worth pointing out, no matter which of the characters they saw, kids who were quizzed about healthy eating first ate fewer cookies than kids who answered the questions after. 

    Thus, rather than engage in some sort of fat-shaming campaign against America’s animation industry and putting our cartoon characters on a low-carb diet, the researchers suggest a more positive, proactive approach.

    “Kids don’t necessarily draw upon previous knowledge when they’re making decisions,” Margaret C. Campbell, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “But perhaps if we’re able to help trigger their health knowledge with a quiz just as they’re about to select lunch at school, for instance, they’ll choose the more nutritious foods.”

  • Food
  • GMO Foods Could Be Labeled 'Natural' Under Proposed Law

    The so-called DARK Act has turned even darker.

    The battle over GMO labeling in Washington, D.C., has taken a substantially darker turn.

    This week the House Agriculture Committee will likely vote on the euphemistically named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, or what opponents have rechristened the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act.

    That’s because the bill would effectively quash any and all state efforts to require labeling of foods that contain GMO ingredients, such as the laws that have already passed in Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. Instead, the House bill would create a GMO-labeling program that would be entirely voluntary. Food makers would get to choose whether to label any products that don’t contain GMOs, basically taking a fight that was intended to force the processed food industry to be transparent about the GMOs it’s using and turning it on its head, giving food makers a snazzy new government-sanctioned “GMO-free” label to use at their discretion.

    That’s been the crux of the bill ever since it was introduced by pro-industry lawmakers. The current version of the legislation is arguably worse.

    “This bad bill just keeps getting worse,” Mary Ellen Kustin, a policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group, told EcoWatch. “The DARK Act has always been an infringement upon the well-established rights of states to regulate food labeling, but the most recent version of the bill takes that overreach to a new level.”

    Indeed, the DARK(er) Act would go much further than its earlier incarnations by prohibiting state and local governments from regulating the production of GMO crops, such as by protecting communities from the effects of things like pesticide drift (many GMO crops have been engineered to withstand heavy applications of agrichemicals). It would also bar food companies from suggesting that non-GMO foods are in any way superior to their GMO counterparts, and it would put control over any non-GMO claims a company might make squarely in the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency widely perceived as GMO-friendly.

    Perhaps most egregious, the House bill would allow foods containing GMOs to be labeled “natural.” If that seems wildly Orwellian to you, you’re not alone.

    According to a 2014 survey conducted by Consumer Reports, a whopping two-thirds of consumers think a food labeled “natural” does not contain any pesticides, artificial ingredients, or GMOs. But in reality, the “natural” food label is more or less meaningless—the federal government has no strict regulations regarding its use by manufacturers.

    That Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., the chief sponsor of the DARK Act, and his pro-industry allies in the House appear to be flouting the will of the American public to do the bidding of the food industry is further evidenced by the fact that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed by Consumer Reports—85 percent—say foods labeled “natural” should not contain GMOs. Other recent polls show near universal support—upwards of 90 percent, for example, in a Consumers Union poll conducted last fall—among Americans for GMO labeling.

    To that, no doubt, supporters of the DARK Act would probably say, “Let them eat GMO cake.”

  • Food
  • Whole Foods Accused of Suckering Customers With Sugar Synonym

    Angry shoppers claim the grocer is trying to disguise the sweetener by calling it ‘evaporated cane juice.’

    Whole Foods, say it isn’t so!

    The upscale national grocer has built its reputation on transparency, almost single-handedly catapulting foods that are arguably better for you (and better for the planet) to prominence beyond your crunchy local mom-and-pop health food shop. Despite that, it appears to be taking a page from the playbook of big food and is vigorously defending itself against allegations that it misled customers into believing they were getting something healthier than sugar when they bought cookies made with “evaporated cane juice.”

    In a class-action lawsuit filed in Missouri in April, plaintiffs charge that “evaporated cane juice” is just another healthy-sounding way of identifying sugar, and that by using such a euphemism on the ingredient label for its nutmeal raisin cookies, Whole Foods is engaging in false and misleading advertising, Food Navigator–USA reported.

    The Food and Drug Administration would appear to agree—sort of. The agency issued a draft guidance in 2009 in which it advised the food industry that “sweeteners derived from cane syrup should not be listed on food labels as evaporated cane juice because the sweetener is not juice as defined in federal regulations.” Yet, because the FDA never finalized the rule, it’s not legally binding—which is why you’ll find “evaporated cane juice” instead of sugar on countless ingredient lists. The agency reopened the comment period for the rule in March of last year, but it doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to settle the confusion. An FDA spokesman told FoodNavigator–USA that the agency has “no firm date” for finalizing the rule.

    The ongoing uncertainty has led to a spate of class-action lawsuits over the past few years, such as the one Whole Foods now faces. The grocery chain’s line of defense is more or less the same as that of companies that have fought similar suits, which essentially boils down to incredulity that customers could be so, well, stupid.

    In court papers filed last week, Whole Foods asserts that buyers instinctively “associate the word ‘cane’ with ‘sugar cane’ and thus know it to be a sweetener.” If you didn’t think it was sugar, what the heck did you think it was? the company seems to ask when it asserts, “The complaint contains no factual allegations regarding what the plaintiff (or any other consumer) thought [evaporated cane juice] to be if not a sweetener.”

    Despite whatever cynicism might be inspired by learning that the plaintiffs in a number of these class-action lawsuits have been represented by the same handful of lawyers, you’ve still got be suspicious of the claims of Whole Foods, et al., given that the companies charged with misleading customers into thinking evaporated cane juice is some sort of better alternative to sugar all benefit from a perceived halo of goodness.

    Among the food makers that have faced similar challenges in recent years are yogurt makers Chobani and Wallaby, as well as Late July Snacks, Blue Diamond, and the makers of Zola acai and pomegranate drinks, Steaz Ice Teas, and Santa Cruz Natural Lemonade Soda and Orange Mango Soda—in other words, just the sorts of products you tend to find in your local Whole Foods. Surely it’s no accident that these purveyors of purportedly “healthier” (processed) foods ended up identify their sweetener of choice as “evaporated cane juice,” with its vague ring of some kind of old-fashioned artisanal process in which sugarcane is juiced and then left to crystallize amid gentle breezes beneath the warm tropical sun.

    Truth be told, “all sugar is evaporated cane juice,” Judy Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Sugar Corp., told NPR a while back. As the news organization reported: “Sanchez says all sugar is made by taking the liquid out of the sugarcane plant, evaporating it and then putting it in a centrifuge to separate the gooey molasses from the crystallized sucrose. She says the only difference between evaporated cane juice and common white sugar is that the white sugar is stripped of all traces of molasses, while evaporated cane juice still has some little flecks of molasses that give it a darker caramel color.”

    “It’s got negligible amounts of nutrients or anything like that,” the sugar rep continued. “Healthwise it’s not any better or worse for you.” 

  • Food
  • Don’t Buy the Hype: The Revolution in Cage-Free Eggs Hasn’t Happened Yet

    Lots of corporate promises haven’t exactly upended factory farms.

    With all the recent headlines surrounding corporate commitments to sourcing cage-free eggs, you could be forgiven for thinking that U.S. farms have swiftly been transformed into something of a pastured paradise for egg-laying hens.

    Joining the ranks of companies such as Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Starbucks, and the food-service giants Aramark and Sodexo, General Mills announced on Tuesday that it plans to switch to nothing but cage-free eggs. “We commit to working toward 100 percent cage-free eggs for our U.S. operations,” the behemoth food maker, which owns iconic brands such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Progresso Soups, and Hamburger Helper, said in a statement.

    To be sure, this would appear to be good news for chickens, and for the growing number of Americans who are concerned with the often-inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms. According to the Humane Society, the battery cages in which most egg-laying hens in the U.S. spend their miserable lives provide the birds with a mere 67 square inches of space—a smaller area than a single sheet of letter-size paper. In addition to serving as a breeding ground for salmonella, this crowding prevents chickens from engaging in such basic natural behavior as spreading their wings, perching, or nesting to lay their eggs. As Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz puts it on the Humane Society’s website, “The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act. For the person who knows something about animals, it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover.”

    Thus, the spate of headlines touting the switch of big-name corporations to cage-free eggs would make it seem as if there’s been nothing short of a full-fledged revolution in the egg industry—except there hasn’t been. At least not yet.

    While such announcements make for good PR, when you read the fine print, it’s clear that what we’re talking about is often the equivalent of a hazy promise, not a fact. Yes, some companies have set a firm deadline to switch to 100-percent cage-free eggs (by 2020 for Aramark, say), but many don’t, including General Mills and Starbucks. A brief statement from Kellogg’s on the subject states: “As a first step in the journey away from cages, by the end of 2016, we’ll have switched to 1 million cage-free eggs within our MorningStar Farms brand.” One million sounds like a big number, but tellingly, Kellogg’s doesn’t provide a figure for the total amount of eggs it buys every year—presumably far more than a million—nor what the next step on its “journey” specifically entails.

    But surely no self-respecting company would renege on its promise to go cage-free after making such a big PR splash, right? In 2007, Costco seemed to be the vanguard of the cage-free movement, partnering with the Humane Society to transition to selling only cage-free eggs. Yet last month, just a few weeks before the Humane Society was helping General Mills to publicize its newfound commitment to cage-free eggs, the animal advocacy group was raking Costco over the coals, releasing a damning video that purported to show shockingly cruel conditions at one of the retail giant’s egg suppliers. Amid the press fallout, Costco doesn’t even appear to have bothered to make any attempt—no matter how feeble or transparent—to reassert its cage-free commitment.

    The reality is that of the staggering 296 million egg-laying hens in the United States, less than 10 million, a mere 3.2 percent, are cage-free, according to the industry’s leading co-op, United Egg Producers. Even California’s landmark animal-welfare ballot initiative, Proposition 2, which went into full effect at the beginning of this year after passing in 2008 with 60 percent of the vote, doesn’t outlaw cages; it simply requires that the cages be roomier.

    So for now, if you’re keen to make sure your breakfast eggs are cruelty-free, your best bet may very well be to ignore the corporate hype and instead scramble up a couple of eggs of your own, bought at your local farmers market from a source whose commitment to animal welfare you know isn’t just spin.

  • Food