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Should Your Favorite 'Good Food' Brands Be Lobbying More in D.C.?

Despite lots of big food policy debates swirling in Washington, many progressive food companies don't have skin in the game.

With the crush of news headlines this week, you could probably be forgiven for missing this bit of news, which is that Kind, maker of those increasingly popular wholesome snack bars, has hired a lobbying firm. Should seem like no big deal, right? Happens all the time.

Except, it kind of doesn’t.

At least not when it comes to the purveyors of organic and other purportedly good-for-you/good-for-the-planet foods.

As an in-depth report last year by Politico detailed, when it comes to playing ball in Washington, “there is virtually no ‘good food’ industry lobbying strategy in place.” Even as brands such as Whole Foods, Applegate, Panera, and Chipotle (well, before the food-poisoning scare) have steadily attracted legions of loyal customers and a growing market share, they’ve largely avoided inserting themselves in the tangled business of lobbying for federal policies and legislation that might favor the so-called good food industry.

That all might seem fine, admirable even. After all, who really wants to see the companies they admire enmeshed in the morally dubious business of lobbying for favors? The fact that Chobani stocks congressional offices with its namesake yogurt and then, lo and behold, is awarded a large contract to supply yogurt to schools nationwide seems innocuous at first—yogurt is good for kids, right? If we were talking about Coke, however, it would be a different story.

But from the big farm bill to federal nutrition guidelines to the debate over GMO labeling, the politics of food is big business in Washington—and increasingly, it belongs to big business. Politico notes that during the Obama administration, spending on lobbying by the food and beverage industry has doubled, with companies such as Coke and PepsiCo dropping millions.

That’s left some advocates of the good food movement flustered. As Sam Kass, former food policy adviser in the Obama White House, told Politico regarding the aversion of progressive food companies to engaging in Washington: “You have to show up. Showing up works. You can’t complain that corporations show up and have an impact and then not show up.”

Related: You Probably Shouldn't Go Nuts About the FDA's Kind Bar Crackdown

For its part, Kind appears to have shown up because it was more or less forced to. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration sent the company a stern warning letter, stating that certain of the company’s snack bars ran afoul of the agency’s guidelines on foods that can be labeled “healthy.” That the FDA’s guidelines are outdated and a bit ridiculous doesn’t seem to have mattered, as a cheeky infographic put out by Kind in the wake of the flap attests: Sugary cereal, fat-free chocolate pudding, and low-fat toaster pastries all meet the FDA guidelines for “healthy,” while things like avocados, almonds and salmon, because of their fat content per serving, don’t.

Kind complied by revamping its labels and the claims on its website. But it has gone a step further, filing a petition with the FDA as it considers finally updating its guidance on the use of the term “natural” to urge the agency to bring its rules into alignment with the most recent science concerning the health benefits of consuming foods like nuts and seed. Indeed, it would seem the epitome of bureaucratic absurdity that the recently issued federal dietary guidelines would exhort people to consume certain whole foods like nuts while the FDA prohibits some of those same foods from being marketed as “healthy.”

But pointing to the power of collective lobbying action in D.C., one food policy expert told The Guardian: “FDA is unlikely to take action based on one company’s request. If they had teamed up with the rest of the nut industry, or the olive oil or avocado industry, they’d have a better chance.”

  • Food
  • Can We All Finally Get Over Chipotle’s Bad Case of Food Poisoning?

    Yes, even ‘food with integrity’ has the potential to make you sick—and it always has.

    The food-poisoning saga at Chipotle continues, with the once seemingly unstoppable chain taking the unprecedented step of shuttering all 1,971 of its stores across the country for part of Monday to give employees a refresher course on food safety. Chipotle has also announced it will spend upwards of $10 million to help local farmers and other smaller-scale suppliers meet more stringent food-safety protocols, and it’s increasing the amount of paid sick leave days to further discourage sick employees from coming to work and putting public health at risk.

    This is all on top of a veritable deluge of press coverage in the wake of food-borne outbreaks during the latter half of last year that has dealt a serious blow to Chipotle’s reputation. It’s a PR whirlwind that’s included what has often felt like an apology per day from founder Steve Ells or one of his corporate underlings; armchair pundits weighing the question, “Can Chipotle recover from food poisoning?”; a drumbeat of Chicken Little predictions vis-à-vis the company’s sure-to-plummet profits—followed by news that, yes, Chipotle’s profits declined by 44 percent—and plenty of self-satisfied commentators delighting in the comeuppance of a chain that once bragged about its “food with integrity” now forced to eat crow. We’ve had to endure a spate of “I survived E. coli!” stories complete with bloody diarrhea and hand-wringing over whether it’s more dangerous to eat at Chipotle than at other restaurant chains. Fast Company even dispatched a reporter to blog live from one of the company’s coast-to-coast simulcast food-safety seminars.

    Related: The Limits of ‘the Chipotle of ____’

    But you know what we don’t seem to have heard much of anyone say during this food-borne firestorm? That maybe, just maybe, the whole “crisis” at Chipotle has been ridiculously overblown.

    First, let me say, I don’t have much of a stake in Chipotle’s future—I can’t even remember the last time I ate there. That’s not to say that as a writer who covers the food industry and sustainability, I haven’t respected the chain’s admirable-if-sometimes-smug quest to bring a higher conscientiousness to bear on the food it serves, one that has arguably had a much broader impact—for the better—on the restaurant industry as a whole.

    So it’s not as a die-hard fan of Chipotle’s behemoth burritos that I say this: Enough with the schadenfreude already.

    To put things into perspective, Chipotle’s recent woes can all be tied to a handful of outbreaks involving three different pathogens. The first, norovirus, is notoriously contagious. It sounds exotic to most people until you consider that you’ve probably already contracted norovirus any number of times. After all, it’s more commonly categorized under the generic catchall “stomach flu,” and as such, the vast majority of people who get it—upwards of 20 million Americans each year—experience all the yucky symptoms you’d generally associate with a stomach bug only to recover after a few days.

    Now E. coli and salmonella (which was to blame for a far smaller outbreak) can admittedly be more dangerous—and with Chipotle’s twin E. coli outbreaks, we’re talking not just about any strain of the infamous bacteria, but one that produces a kind of toxin than can be lethal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that it had concluded its investigation into the two outbreaks of illness associated with E. coli tied to Chipotle, and the results were, well, inconclusive—the feds still have no idea what was contaminated.

    In all, the outbreaks connected to Chipotle sickened an estimated 500 people. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a proverbial drop in the bucket when you consider the CDC estimates some 48 million Americans contract a food-borne illness each year—that’s one in six of us.

    Sure, some food-borne illnesses are scarier than others. The two separate outbreaks of Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli tied to Chipotle restaurants sickened 60 people, 22 of whom had to be hospitalized. Gross-out chronicles aside (e.g., “A Chipotle Taco Made Me Deathly Ill”), such strains of E. coli are no joke. But again, some perspective: The CDC estimates 265,000 Americans are sickened by Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli each year. The 60 cases at Chipotle represent a mere fraction of those—a scant 0.02 percent.

    Yet following what has become the standard corporate playbook for coping with a PR meltdown, Chipotle has taken full and unequivocal responsibility for the outbreaks, which includes handing out coupons for free burritos while never even hinting at the fact that you’re still probably more likely to contract norovirus from, say, picking your kids up from preschool than a Chipotle. Among the more substantive measures are the aforementioned $10 million program to help local farms on the food-safety front and the expanded sick leave policy (suggesting that, even in crisis mode, Chipotle is more progressive than many of its competitors), as well as changes in how a number of ingredients are processed, such as having tomatoes and other veggies chopped at a central facility rather than in the kitchens of individual restaurants.

    Everything Chipotle has done, including the seemingly endless series of mea culpas, is probably necessary if the company wants to get back on course. Putting out a press release that places the Chipotle outbreaks in context of the tens of millions of cases of food-borne illnesses the CDC estimates every year would certainly be a disaster, making it appear as if the company was blowing off the threat to its loyal customers’ health.

    But in the process, what we’re missing here is an opportunity to conduct a reality check when it comes to Chipotle’s “food with integrity”—one that applies no less to the wide swath of ethical eating that is loosely described by a bounty of sometimes significant, sometimes meaningless feel-good labels, from “organic” and “antibiotic-free” to “sustainable,” “cruelty-free,” and “locavore.”

    There is a lot of good to be said for thinking more deeply about what we eat and challenging the status quo of big agribusiness and factory farming. Food that is produced more conscientiously is arguably better for the planet, better for the future, and in many ways is probably better for you too. But all food is natural, not supernatural. Organic food can also become contaminated with bad bacteria. Chipotle has learned the hard way, and it appears to be taking meaningful steps to address any lapses in food safety. So rather than continue to act like a bunch of third graders howling over Chipotle’s case of cooties, can the rest of us just grow up, get over it, and move on? 

  • Food
  • The USDA’s New Food-Safety Rules for Poultry Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

    Is salmonella-free chicken and turkey really too much to ask for?

    Just in time for the Super Bowl, your chicken wings are about to get a whole lot safer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—well, maybe by next year’s big game, at least.

    On Thursday, the USDA announced tougher new food-safety rules for raw chicken sold in pieces, ground chicken, and ground turkey—a move it estimates will cut the number of food-borne illnesses by an average of 50,000 cases each year. Specifically, the department is targeting the prevalence of two nasty bugs that have been a problem in the poultry industry: campylobacter and salmonella.

    The rates of infection from both types of bacteria have been a concern for food-safety experts. According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of confirmed infections from salmonella remained stubbornly fixed between 2008 and 2014, while infections from campylobacter rose 13 percent.

    The standards set new limits for the level of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria at poultry-processing facilities. Instead of the current 25 percent contamination rate, processes will have to limit campylobacter and salmonella to less than 15 percent of products. That’s right: The status quo is that one in four pieces of chicken carries a pathogen that can make you terribly sick. Once the new rules have been in place for a year, the USDA says it will start posting the results of testing from each facility online, a sort of shame-them-into-compliance strategy.

    “These new standards, in combination with greater transparency about poultry companies’ food safety performance and better testing procedures, will help prevent tens of thousands of food-borne illnesses every year,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

    As you would expect, the USDA press release is full of self-congratulation, with Al Almanza, deputy under secretary for food safety, exclaiming, “The new performance standards will complement the many other proactive, prevention-based food policies that we’ve put in place in recent years to make America’s supply of meat and poultry safer to eat.”

    Not everyone agrees.

    Sure, a reduction by 50,000 in the number of cases of food-borne illness each year sounds like a lot, but not so much when you consider that the CDC estimates salmonella alone causes some 1.2 million cases each year, with 360,000 of those tied to products inspected by the USDA.

    One critic, William James, no less than the former chief veterinarian for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, thinks the department is taking a more or less scattershot approach to salmonella. As he pointed out in an interview with NPR, there are more than 2,000 distinct strains of the bacteria, and only a fraction of them make people sick. Instead of focusing on the contamination rate for all strains, James said, “the key here is probably to focus on those few types that are causing illness and get serious about trying to eliminate those.”

    Lawyer Bill Marler, who has built a career specializing in cases involving food-borne illness, takes an even dimmer view of the USDA. In a long and apparently coincidental interview with The Washington Post published this week, Marler calls our entire food-safety system “nonsensical.” Case in point? “Like how E. coli is considered an adulterant in hamburgers, but salmonella and many other pathogens are not,” Marler told the Post. “How salmonella is allowed on chickens, which the USDA oversees, but salmonella is not allowed in any product the [Food and Drug Administration] oversees.”

    Marler offers some stomach-turning insights into why the government treats salmonella differently from, say, E. coli—a baffling double standard he called “the biggest frustration—and maybe the biggest public health threat” when asked to name some of his major beefs with food safety in the U.S.

    It’s enough to make anyone more than a little leery of beating the drum on behalf of the USDA’s campaign to reduce—but not eliminate—salmonella in our poultry supply.

  • Food
  • A Probable Carcinogen Is Now the Most Heavily Used Weed Killer in History

    But don’t expect a new analysis of glyphosate use to derail Monsanto’s plans for its next-generation herbicides.

    One of the promises made at the beginning of Monsanto’s biotech revolution some 20 years ago was that planting crops genetically engineered to withstand weed killer applications would dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals farmers used. So why are we virtually drowning in herbicide today?

    An analysis published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe finds that, rather than herald a bright future where farmers had to rely less on chemical herbicides, broad adoption of Monsanto GMO crops designed to withstand the herbicide glyphosate appears to have instead led to a chemical deluge. Today, glyphosate, which Monsanto markets under the brand name Roundup, stands as “the most widely and heavily applied weed-killer in the history of chemical agriculture in both the U.S. and globally,” according to a statement released by the Environmental Working Group in response to the findings.

    Indeed, the analysis finds that use of glyphosate has skyrocketed 15-fold since Monsanto introduced its line of Roundup Ready crops in 1996. Although the chemical herbicide has been around since the mid-1970s, some 75 percent of all glyphosate applied to crops during the history of its use has been sprayed in the last 10 years. That equates to 2.4 billion pounds sprayed just in the U.S. from 2004 to 2014, the equivalent of 436 million gallons of Monsanto’s Roundup PowerMax formula.

    Put in another, more Web-savvy way, the Environmental Working Group translates that mind-boggling amount as enough to fill some 3 million kiddie pools a foot deep—which, put end to end, would span the country.   

    It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way—at least not according to the vision Monsanto sold farmers a generation ago. The problem with glyphosate was that it had a nasty tendency to kill crops along with weeds, but Monsanto said it had neatly solved that problem with its line of patented GMO crops. Because those Roundup Ready crops were engineered to thrive even when doused with glyphosate, farmers could use the potent herbicide to kill pesky weeds in less amounts than they might with other types of herbicides.

    That’s what happened—at first. But within a decade, something “unexpected” occurred—or rather, it was unexpected only if you believe it never dawned on the experts in life sciences at Monsanto that it might happen. Farmers began reporting that certain weeds appeared to have developed a resistance to glyphosate. Instead of using less herbicide, now some farmers were being forced to use much more to combat a growing epidemic of “monster weeds.”

    Why does all this matter today, even beyond the staggering amount of glyphosate that’s being applied to American cropland and the broken promises of the agrochemical industry that the deluge represents?

    For starters, last year the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, made big news when it classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, raising significant concerns about the safety for the farmworkers around the world who are charged with applying massive amounts of the herbicide to fields, as well as the health of agricultural communities where use is heaviest.

    Second, rather than take a long, hard look at what’s happened in the 20 years since Monsanto sold farmers on the company’s trademarked crop “system,” the big agrochemical giants are instead rolling out a new generation of GMO crops coupled with newly formulated chemical combos.

    Despite the withdrawal of the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency late last year, Dow remains committed to getting its Enlist Duo system to market, while Monsanto is developing Xtend, or what might be dubbed “Roundup Ready 2.0.” In an effort to combat the scourge of super weeds, both companies have developed powerful herbicides that pair more chemicals with—you guessed it—more glyphosate.      

  • Food
  • No, This Isn’t Another Story About Food Poisoning at Chipotle—Except It Kind Of Is

    Why is it that we become obsessed with some outbreaks of food-borne illness and not others?

    What major nationwide food-poisoning outbreak that began last year has so far been tied to at least six deaths, has sickened some 888 people across 39 states, and remains an ongoing investigation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

    Chipotle? Nah—try cucumbers.

    Ring a bell? Early last September, the CDC issued an alert following an outbreak of salmonella poona. While the majority of reported cases were in Western states, the initial alert identified a total of 27 states where illnesses had occurred. The source was traced back to contaminated cucumbers imported from Mexico and distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

    This week, the CDC updated its Web page devoted to the outbreak, noting that since the middle of November, 50 more cases have been reported across 16 states, resulting in two deaths. “The number of reported illnesses has declined substantially since the peak of the illnesses in August and September,” the agency wrote. “However, it has not returned to the number of reported illnesses that we would expect to see (about 1 every month during this time of year). The investigation into the source of these recent illnesses is ongoing.”

    To get a sense of the wide disparity in how the public and the media react to various outbreaks of food-borne illness, just go to Google. Search “cucumbers food poisoning,” and you get a smattering of articles dating from last fall from outlets such as Food Poison Journal. Search “Chipotle food poisoning,” and up come stories from NBC News, The Huffington Post, Forbes, and The New Yorker, the latter’s headlined “Can Chipotle Recover From Food Poisoning?”

    As you likely know, Chipotle suffered from a spate of food-poisoning scares last year—five known outbreaks caused by three bugs. Arguably the scariest was an outbreak of Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli. But even as the illness made some customers dangerously sick (the latest CDC stats report 20 hospitalizations), the outbreak, with 53 cases across nine states, pales compared with the salmonella outbreak linked to the Andrew & Williamson cukes.

    In the aftermath of the cucumber scare, no one appears to have written any articles titled “Can Cucumbers Recover From Food Poisoning?”

    So what gives? Call it a bad case of schadenfreude and comeuppance. As any number of media outlets have recounted with barely suppressed glee, Chipotle has long marketed itself (with some degree of perceived sanctimony) as a fresher, healthier, all-around better alternative to fast food. As one commentator at Newsday put it this week in response to Chipotle’s ongoing efforts to lure back customers in the wake of all the bad PR: “Chipotle needs to transform its business and marketing model and stop with the smug assertions that it ‘serves food with integrity.’ Because, to put it bluntly, no one cares about integrity when they spent the holidays throwing up.”

    What about cucumbers? Should they stop flaunting themselves as “fresh veggies”? The point isn’t that Chipotle shouldn’t be undertaking a deep, thorough, top-to-bottom look at the issue of food safety across the entire chain and its suppliers—five outbreaks of food-borne illness tied to the company last year pretty much says it should. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be pressuring the chain to abandon its ideal of food served with integrity; rather, we should be encouraging its efforts to fully live up to that promise.

  • Food
  • No, It's Not Just the U.S.: Childhood Obesity Is an 'Exploding Nightmare' in Developing Countries

    U.N. report finds 41 million kids around the world are overweight or obese—and no one's doing enough to tackle the crisis.

    Imagine the entire state of California populated by no one except tens of millions of overweight or obese preschoolers. That will give you a sense of the scale of the worldwide crisis of childhood obesity.

    It is, indeed, global. An alarming report released Monday by the U.N. World Health Organization finds that 41 million children around the globe under the age of five were either overweight or obese in 2014—that’s 2 million more than the population of the Golden State, so you can throw a couple of San Diegos into that imagined scenario as well.

    Following years of childhood obesity being framed as a distinctly, uniquely American problem, the focus on kids under the age of five, as well as the worldwide scope of the crisis, would both seem important here.

    Unlike a host of communicable diseases and even diseases like cancer, obesity has long been something of an outlier when it comes to public health debates, too often seen as a first-world problem, the product of poor lifestyle choices and a contemptible lack of self-control.

    But in its report, the WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity deftly dispels those myths. Noting that nearly half the world’s overweight or obese children under the age of five live in Africa, while a quarter live in Asia, the report states that “in absolute numbers there are more children who are overweight and obese in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.” In a news conference, commission cochair Peter Gluckman called childhood obesity “an exploding nightmare in the developing world.”

    As for obesity being simply a matter of personal responsibility, a function of a rational consumer’s exercise of his or her fundamental God-given liberty to crack open another can of Coke to wash down that side of cheese fries instead of getting outside and going for a walk, well, tell that to a dangerously overweight four-year-old. “What’s the big message?” Gluckman told reporters. “It’s not the kid’s fault.”

    In short, an increasing number of the world’s children are being born into what the report calls an “obesogenic environment”—or more accurately, conceived in an environment that is conducive to developing obesity, since evidence suggests some risk factors for becoming overweight or obese, such as poor maternal nutrition, can be tied to prenatal health.

    While the report cites an overall decline in physical activity among the world’s children as an important factor in the crisis—81 percent of adolescents don’t get the WHO’s recommended daily amount of physical activity—it’s clear the authors see the rising ubiquity of high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages as the primary culprit. Couple that with inadequate efforts to effectively educate parents and kids about making healthier eating choices, particularly in the face of a relentless barrage of junk food advertising, and you have a serious global public health crisis.

    Amid the commission's slew of policy recommendations are some that are bound to raise the ire of the processed food industry, including further reducing kids' exposure to junk food marketing and—close to the top of the list—for governments to start taxing soda and other sugary drinks.

    “Obesity prevention and treatment requires a whole-of-government approach,” the report states. Nevertheless, as the statistics show, “progress in tackling childhood obesity has been slow and inconsistent.”

  • Food
  • Come One, Come All: Three More Chains Announce Cage-Free Egg Commitments

    Time may be running out for companies to capitalize on the feel-good PR surrounding better conditions for laying hens.

    They say birds of a feather flock together, and when it comes to the move toward cage-free eggs, more companies are flocking. Better late than never.

    Jumping on the bandwagon this week are breakfast stalwart Denny’s, second-tier Tex-Mex chain Taco John’s, and retail behemoth Target. While consumers might not have expected the first two to be the vanguard of promoting animal welfare, it may surprise some loyal fans of Target that the chain that likes to brand itself as the more “with it” alternative to Walmart has only now committed to switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs. Meanwhile, Walmart’s private-label Great Value eggs have been cage-free since at least 2010.

    The announcements by the three companies have each promising to go entirely cage-free in the sourcing of its eggs by 2025 or 2026. Does that sound familiar? Surely it’s no coincidence that McDonald’s set the same goal for itself last September, in an announcement that perhaps single-handedly marked the tipping point in the battle over more humane treatment for the country’s more than 270 million egg-laying hens.

    Indeed, it would seem the window for generating feel-good PR is swiftly closing for those laggards still out there that haven’t made a commitment to switching over entirely to cage-free eggs. If McDonald’s can do it—and General Mills…and Subway…and Starbucks…and Panera…and institutional food-service giants Aramark and Sodexo—then what on earth is stopping the rest of the restaurant and retail industries?

    True, some chains have been able to make a splash by setting more aggressive deadlines. Earlier this month, Wendy’s announced that its switch to cage-free eggs would be complete by 2020—five years earlier than rival McDonald’s. Taco Bell has proved more eager still: It’s set to go cage-free by the end of this year. But in the fast-food cage-free scramble, Burger King probably deserves the most kudos: Way back in 2012, the chain announced all its eggs would be cage-free by 2017.

    Taken together, the rising number of commitments from corporations to go cage-free is poised to substantially transform the egg industry in the United States over the next decade. Fewer than 9 percent of egg-laying hens in the country live cage-free, according to the American Egg Board. The vast majority of the rest—some 250 million hens—are typically confined to battery cages, where they are forced to spend their sad lives confined to an area that is, on average, smaller than a single sheet of letter-size paper.

    But even as animal welfare groups are hailing the apparent tidal shift toward cage-free eggs, they have been careful to caution consumers that “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” The Humane Society of the United States, which has consulted with a number of major brands on making the cage-free switch, has a short, handy guide for consumers who are searching for the most humanely produced eggs on the market today.

  • Food
  • School Lunches Would Stay Healthy(ish) Under New Law

    Bipartisan Senate bill wouldn't toss out school nutrition standards for fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods.

    Could the nation’s long and embarrassing food fight over school lunches finally be coming to a relatively happy end?

    Later this week, the Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill that would reauthorize federal child nutrition programs, the most far-reaching of which are those that provide federally subsidized meals to kids in school. The cumbersomely named Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 was hammered out by agriculture committee chair Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich.

    Public health advocates had been steeling themselves for significant rollbacks of the landmark Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was passed by Congress in 2010. Although bringing federally subsidized school meals and what millions of kids eat every day in line with the government’s own dietary guidelines (e.g., more fruits and veggies; less processed junk) wouldn’t seem all that controversial, especially when nearly a third of American kids are either overweight or obese, the law created a political firestorm. The so-called lunch lady lobby (aka the School Nutrition Association) balked, claiming the requirements were too onerous—and much to the delight of Big Ag and the processed food industry, which had long enjoyed what amounted to a huge government subsidy as schools plied students with heaping trays of fat-, sodium-, and sugar-laden junk.

    So it's rather remarkable that much of what made the 2010 act so unpalatable to the status quo remains largely intact in the bipartisan proposal put forth on Monday. The requirement that kids get a half cup of fruits or vegetables with every meal would remain unchanged. Schools would continue to receive federal assistance in trying to meet the nutritional standards. And the bill doubles down on funding for the Department of Agriculture’s surprisingly progressive Farm-to-School Grant Program.

    The bill is not all rainbows and happily-ever-afters, though. While the original revamp of the nutritional standards in 2010 required that 100 percent of grain-based foods, such as bread and pasta, served in schools be made with at least 50 percent whole grains, the new bill drops that to 80 percent, and schools will now have more time to comply with tougher restrictions on sodium.

    Still, health experts who have been fighting the efforts of industry-friendly conservatives to roll back the school nutrition standards would seem to have good reason to cheer. As the folks over at the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest put it, “Given all the aggressive lobbying against school nutrition over the past few years, it’s remarkable that the new Senate bill is as strong a way forward as it is.” In a blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an analyst for the group’s Food & Environment Program, acknowledges that even if the bill is “not perfect,” there’s cause to be “cautiously optimistic.”

    The stakes are high. In a 2015 report on the importance of a strong, nutritionally sane federal school meals program, Haynes-Maslow and her coauthor note that obesity-related health care costs account for 16.5 percent of our country’s annual health care spending—a staggering $210 billion. Healthier school meals have the potential to dramatically reduce that. “Children consume approximately half of their daily calories in school, and for lower-income children, a school meal may be their only meal of the day,” the authors wrote. “The foods children eat at school influence their lifelong eating habits, so it is essential that school foods are healthy and built around fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

  • Food
  • Both Researchers and the Public Think Warning Labels on Soda Will Work

    A new study finds parents are significantly less likely to buy sugary drinks for their kids when they carry a health label.

    Just one day after a statewide poll found a staggering majority of California residents support mandatory warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages, the results of a new study suggest that those Californians may be on to something: In short, the labels seem to work.

    A bill that would have required beverages that contain more than 75 calories' worth of added sugar per 12 ounces to carry a health warning label stalled in the California legislature last year, yet the new Field Poll found 78 percent of California voters support such labeling. Their backing would appear to be supported by science. In a study published Wednesday by the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that parents who saw a label warning that drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay were 20 percent less likely to say that they would purchase such beverages for their kids compared with those who saw no label.

    The study—which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by public health researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada—used an online survey to present 2,300 parents with a scenario in which they were selecting among 20 popular beverages at a vending machine to purchase for their child, with more than half the choices containing added sugar. Participants were divided into six groups: One group saw no warning label, another saw just a label that disclosed the number of calories (like those displayed on most sugary beverages), and the other four groups saw some variation of the label that has been proposed in California, which reads, “SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

    The parents who saw one of the four warning labels were significantly less likely to say they would buy a sugary beverage for their kids than those who saw no label, and they were also less likely to say so when compared with those parents who simply saw the calorie label—results that would seem a pointed rebuke to the beverage industry, which has long claimed that disclosing total calories along with ingredients should be sufficient for consumers.

    Even more damning were the results of the follow-up questions that study participants were asked. As the authors note, “Warning labels led parents to believe that [sugar-sweetened beverages] were significantly less healthy, less likely to make their child feel energized, less likely to help their child to focus, and more likely to increase their child’s risk of weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.”

    As with the California poll, the study found nationwide support for mandatory labeling, with a substantial majority of participants—more than 73 percent—in favor of such labeling.

    Yet as we’ve seen all too often, an overwhelming majority of Americans across party lines may support more transparent labeling, but don’t expect the industry to bow to the will of the people anytime soon.

    Just as any number of food makers remain adamant in their opposition to mandatory labeling of products made with GMOs—in spite of the 90 percent of Americans who say they want such labeling—the beverage industry appears to be digging in its heels. Responding to the results of the California poll, Bob Achermann, executive director of the industry group CalBev, simply echoed the industry’s tired talking points in a statement: “The best way to promote balanced lifestyles is through fact-based information rather simplistic approaches that target just one product but don’t ultimately address complex health challenges.”

  • Food
  • N.C. Farmworker Convicted of Animal Cruelty, but How Many Others Won’t Be?

    The state’s new ag-gag law turns heroes into villains and shields animal abusers.

    A North Carolina farmworker who was shown in an undercover video brutally abusing chickens has been convicted of animal cruelty, but for animal activists, it’s a case of bittersweet American justice.

    First, the good news: The worker, Danny Miranda, has been sentenced to 45 days in the Richmond County jail and a year’s probation, and he has been barred from working with animals. The conviction comes less than a month after the nonprofit group Mercy for Animals released undercover video footage of horrendous abuse by Miranda and other workers at two factory farms that supply chickens for poultry giant Perdue.

    Supplied chickens, that is—a company spokeswoman told the local Richmond County paper that Perdue had severed ties with the farms and that any subcontractor seen on the video “mishandling” (i.e., terrorizing) birds had either been fired or “retrained.”

    You probably don’t even need to subject yourself to the video to get an idea of how egregious Miranda’s treatment of the chickens was. I mean, you know it had to be bad to secure a conviction for animal cruelty in rural North Carolina. The state ranks among the country’s top chicken producers; poultry farming there is big business.

    Which is where the bad news comes in: Miranda may well be the last sadistic farmworker in North Carolina to be held accountable for his actions for a long time. Why? Because today, it wouldn’t be Miranda who would land in hot water but the undercover investigator who filmed him.

    Owing to the very success of investigations such as the one that exposed Miranda, a number of Big Ag states have adopted so-called ag-gag laws, which subject whistle-blowers—not animal abusers—to stiff fines and even jail time. North Carolina’s own ag-gag law went into effect on Jan. 1, just days before Miranda was sentenced. If the video were released today, the folks at Mercy for Animals would be subjected to punishment to the tune of $5,000 in fines for each day they were found to be in violation of the law.

    Thankfully, any number of animal welfare and environmental groups, as well as consumer rights organizations, haven’t been content to let these ridiculous laws stand. The Animal Legal Defense Fund persuaded a federal judge to strike down Idaho’s ag-gag law last summer, arguing that it violated the First Amendment. Just last week another federal judge, responding to a case brought by a coalition of groups, signaled that a similar law in Wyoming was also likely unconstitutional.

    But animal welfare activists may be in for a long and difficult court fight to see all of these laws struck down. In the meantime, the group at the center of the North Carolina controversy has some simple advice: “Ultimately the best way to protect chickens and other farmed animals from needless cruelty and suffering is to leave meat, eggs, and dairy off your plate,” Mercy for Animals posted on its blog

  • Food