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If GMO ‘Labels’ Are Buried in QR Codes, Few Consumers Will See Them

A new survey found that just 15 percent of Americans have used their smartphones to scan grocery items in the last year.

When was the last time you used your smartphone to scan a QR code in the grocery store?

If you answered “Never,” “Can’t remember,” or—not unreasonably—“What the heck is a QR code?” you’re by no means alone. A recent survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that just 15 percent of Americans said they had scanned an electronic code to find information about a product’s nutrition or ingredients in the past year.

If all this is starting to sound more than a little confusing, well, that’s kind of the point. In what amounts to an enormous thumbing of the nose to the American public by politicians and industry, consumers who want to know whether a food product contains genetically modified ingredients will now more than likely have to scan the product to find out—despite there being a law on the books requiring the mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients for the first time since the first genetically engineered crops hit the consumer market in the early 1990s.

This is in almost diametric opposition to what an overwhelming majority of Americans—time and again, in multiple polls—have said they want. Upwards of 90 percent of the American public believes products made with GMO ingredients should be labeled—labeled with clearly worded text printed directly on the package. That’s what Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law mandated.

Pretty straightforward, right?

But now Vermont’s commonsense, consumer-friendly law has been superseded, just a month after it went into effect, and replaced by the more lax federal law. While the food industry is sighing with relief, consumer advocates are fuming.

Yes, the United States finally has a federal law that requires food makers to label products made with GMO ingredients. But here’s the rub: That “label” can be a QR code, requiring shoppers to scan it to determine whether or not the product contains GMO ingredients.

How many shoppers are likely to do that? Just 40 percent, according to the Annenberg survey. Let’s face it: That may be wildly optimistic. Remember, a scant 15 percent of those surveyed scanned a product in the past year. Who really wants to be standing in the middle of the grocery aisle scanning one product after another just to find out if there’s anything in the cart that’s been made with GMO ingredients?

What makes the federal GMO labeling law that much more ridiculous is that it not only allows food makers to essentially hide GMO information from smartphone-toting consumers behind a confusing QR code but also allows those companies to ignore a huge swath of the non-smartphone-toting population. As the Environmental Working Group noted last year in its takedown of the not-so-smart “smart label” touted by food makers, “More than 40 percent of consumers—especially low income, less educated and elderly consumers—don’t have phones that can scan QR codes.”

Far from being the sort of no-nonsense mandatory GMO label consumer advocates have long fought for, the federal label is only “mandatory” if you think that printing the surgeon general’s warning on, say, six in 10 packs of cigarettes, or posting stop signs at only about half of busy intersections, constitutes “mandatory.”

So why would big food makers and their allies in Congress push for such a demonstrably asinine label? It becomes clear when you look at further results from the Annenberg survey. Some 90 percent of corn, soy, and other major crops in the U.S. are genetically modified—and the food industry estimates that 75 to 80 percent of food products contain GMO ingredients. But when asked how much genetically modified food they’d eaten in the last week, a third of Americans surveyed said they consumed “not much or none at all,” while another third said they didn’t know. Yet nearly half said they would be less likely to purchase a food if they found out it contained GMO ingredients—giving the food industry a multimillion-dollar profit incentive to keep that GMO info as obscure as possible.

As William K. Hallman, a visiting scholar at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, puts it, “Without mandatory labeling, consumers are unlikely to recognize that many of the foods they buy have genetically modified components.”

  • Food
  • The ‘Bloody’ Battle to Make Veggie Burgers Great Again

    Will the next generation of vegetarian patties be able to disrupt their meat counterparts?

    The “bloody” battle to build the best next-generation veggie burger is heating up this week, with Impossible Foods’ own Impossible Burger set to debut on Wednesday at one of David Chang’s Manhattan restaurants, Momofuku Nishi. The burger is the first product to come to market from the much-hyped, much-VC-funded Impossible Foods, which was founded five years ago by Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown to develop plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products.

    It seems Chang was chomping at the bit to become an early adopter of Impossible Foods’ burger technology. Eater reports that the Momofuku chef sought out the company after hearing about the Impossible Burger a year ago. “I was genuinely blown away when I tasted the burger.... The Impossible Foods team has discovered how to reengineer what makes beef taste like beef,” he told Eater.

    The quest to create a plant-based burger that cooks, smells, tastes, feels, and even seems to bleed like real beef has become something of a Holy Grail for a cadre of headline-grabbing food-tech start-ups led by Impossible Foods and its rival, Beyond Meat. The latter debuted its Beyond Burger at a handful of Whole Foods in Colorado and Washington, D.C., in May. Some locations sold out of the raw patties, slyly placed near the meat counter, within an hour.

    For its part, Impossible Foods says it has plans to bring its meatless burgers to as-yet-unannounced restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles “soon.” It will make its faux beef available in grocery stores sometime after that.

    Among the attributes that have garnered oohs and aahs from early tasters of both companies’ plant-based patties is their sanguineous ooze—that gross-if-you-think-too-much-about-it-but-nevertheless-trademark trait of your classic all-American all-beef burger. Whereas the trompe l’oeil effect is achieved via beet juice in Beyond Meat’s burger, Impossible Foods synthesized cow blood using heme, a molecule most often found in hemoglobin but also found in a few plants—thus, presumably, keeping it all vegetarian.

    There would appear to be a dazzling pot of gold waiting for whichever company succeeds in creating a viable veggie burger that is able to pass a blind taste test alongside a run-of-the-mill ground beef patty. But the take-it-slow approach adopted by both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in unveiling their burgers suggests there’s plenty of risk in rushing to market—even as it belies the tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding both companies have received (including from Bill Gates). After all, the American burger is an icon, and the veggie burger market is littered with scores of would-be imitators whose most salient achievement has been to make most consumers wish they were holding the real thing in their hands.

    The new generation of veggie burgers would appear to be a whole different ball game, and they’ve attracted breathless reviews beyond David Chang’s. On the one hand, as Americans are growing more conscious of the disastrous health and environmental consequences of our meat obsession, who among us wouldn’t welcome a guilt-free alternative that tastes—and “bleeds”—the same as the flame-broiled patties on which we were raised?

    Yet for all the wide-eyed wonder inspired by bleeding veggie burgers, it remains to be seen just how well they might be received relative to another dynamic at play in our current food moment. If more of us are going more vegetarian in our diets, we’re also more suspicious of food that’s been processed beyond all recognition—and it’s hard to get more highly processed beyond recognition than plant matter that’s been engineered to bleed.

  • Food
  • The New ‘Ugly’ Apples Sold at 300 Walmart Locations Are More Than Perfect

    The country’s leading grocery retailer is trying something that’s good for the environment and, perhaps, our egos.

    Could learning to love a little imperfection in our fruits and veggies help us love the little imperfections in ourselves?

    The burgeoning “ugly produce” movement got a big boost this week when Walmart announced it was launching a pilot program to sell less-than-perfect apples at 300 of its stores in Florida. Of course, when the country’s largest grocer decides to hop on the latest food-trend bandwagon—as Walmart did when it committed to expand its offerings of organic products or locally grown produce—it pushes said trend solidly into the mainstream.

    There’s a lot of good to be said for championing fruits and vegetables that would never make their way into your favorite glossy food magazine. For starters, farms throw out a staggering amount of perfectly edible produce each year—some 20 percent of their harvest—just because those fruits and veggies don’t conform to retailers’ specifications for how produce should look. We’re talking about everything from crooked carrots to the weather-dented apples Walmart plans to sell. This, in turn, contributes mightily to America’s food-waste problem, which adds up to an estimated 40 percent of food rotting away in landfills.

    Wasted food means wasted water, land, and agrochemicals. But beyond the outsize environmental benefits of cutting down on food waste, the move to sell more ugly produce stands to be mutually beneficial for consumers and retailers. Such produce is often sold at a (sometimes steep) discount, meaning better access to more affordable fruits and vegetables at a time when a nation in the grips of an obesity epidemic is being encouraged to fill half our plates each meal with produce. On the business side of the equation, it allows retailers to capitalize on produce that would not have made it onto the delivery dock.

    Yet it must be said that retailers didn’t dream up those Miss Universe–style standards for perfect peaches and pears for no reason—which is also why Walmart’s embrace of ugly produce, as with similar moves by Whole Foods and a handful of regional grocery chains, so far has been confined to the testing phase. The big question: Will picky consumers buy in?

    Here’s where the topic of bruised apples intersects with the larger one of our collective bruised egos. Among the more interesting non-food-related reads to cross my path this week was Heather Havrilesky’s trenchant takedown of the myth of the supremely self-assured millennial. Havrilesky is the advice-dispensing columnist behind “Ask Polly” over at New York magazine’s The Cut. Rather than being spoiled and entitled, as we so often hear, Havrilesky writes, “What I discover in my email in-box each morning are dispatches from young people who feel guilty and inadequate at every turn and who compare themselves relentlessly to others.” Let’s face it: It’s not just millennials. Anyone who spends any amount of time immersed in our digital-centric media-saturated culture can relate to what Havrilesky calls the “pervasive subconscious longing” that “tells us that no matter what our circumstances might be, we should be dressing like fashion bloggers and vacationing like celebrities and eating like food critics and [having sex] like porn stars.”

    In other words, we’re bombarded by images of a certain kind of perfection, often artificially generated to appeal to our innermost desires but simultaneously leaving us feeling unsatisfied, left out, and wanting. Whatever satisfaction might be had by finding the “perfect” anything is often eclipsed by the nagging thought that there might just be something more perfect to be found. Just think of shoppers endlessly rooting around in a bin of peaches searching for the most picture-perfect, perfectly ripe peach.

    In that context, that Walmart’s damaged apples will be sold under an “I’m Perfect” label becomes kind of profound, as if we might all do well to take that little produce sticker and wear it proud, like preschoolers donning those Chiquita stickers from their breakfast bananas. When we do, we should keep Havrilesky’s prescription in mind: “The best version of you is who you are right here, right now, in this fucked-up, impatient, imperfect, sublime moment. Shut out the noise and enjoy exactly who you are and what you have, right here, right now.” If that’s while you’re savoring the sweet deliciousness of a weather-beaten apple, so much the better. 

  • Food
  • Does Producing More Food Have to Lead to Deforestation?

    A new report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that we don’t need to clear-cut to find more farmland.

    We don’t have to chop down more of the world’s forests to feed the planet’s burgeoning population of people, according to a new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. If that sounds too good to be true, it may very well be.

    To be sure, Earth’s last remaining natural forests could use some good news—especially tropical forests, which during the first decade of this century saw average losses of some 7 million hectares each year. As the U.N.’s report details, more than 70 percent of the world’s forest destruction is being driven by agriculture, whether to create large-scale commercial operations or small subsistence farms. Since 1990, the planet has lost nearly 130 million hectares of forest, and although the rate of loss has slowed worldwide, there remains the looming prospect of nearly 2 billion additional mouths to feed by 2050, according to the U.N.’s population estimates.

    “There has always been the thinking that in order to produce more food to feed the growing population, you need to clear more land for agriculture,” Eva Müller, director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the FAO and lead coordinator of the report, told Reuters. Not so, she maintains.

    At first, the seven diverse countries offered by Müller and her team as case studies for the relationship between forests and farmland would seem to prove just that—and to provide hope that the rest of the world might follow suit. Each country increased its agricultural production and the food security of its people while at the same time increasing the amount of forested area, sometimes dramatically. Both Tunisia and Vietnam, for example, saw their forested areas increase by approximately 60 percent between 1990 and 2015.

    How these seven countries—the others are Chile, Costa Rica, the Gambia, Georgia, and Ghana—protected their forests while boosting agricultural production varied according to their social, political, and economic circumstances. But common themes emerge, some of which merit international attention. More coordinated land planning, for example, means a more holistic approach to coordinating different land uses, while improved land rights gives local citizens an incentive for better stewardship.

    “Secure and clear land title is key, because if people have the right to land, they will treat the land differently than if they don’t,” Müller told Reuters.

    Another innovative approach is to pay landowners for the significant environmental services that forests perform. Those range from storing carbon and filtering water to providing habitat for endangered species as well as the vital pollinators that service crops. Such a system not only rewards landowners for keeping forests intact but also transforms the perception of the forest from “untamed”—read: unused—wilderness into a legitimate natural resource.

    Yet for all the good ideas in the U.N. report, there remains a lingering sense that they may not be enough. Many of the countries presented as case studies have seen their economies flourish during the past two decades and the rate of population growth slow, with many rural populations declining—a demographic shift that alleviates the pressure to destroy forests. Also, most countries don’t have the same opportunities to transform their forests into a booming ecotourism industry, as Costa Rica has, for example.

    But what’s unsettling is the more vague discussion by Müller and her team about boosting agricultural productivity, which seems to evoke the specter of a more industrialized agriculture—the likes of which haven’t exactly been a boon to the environment in countries like the United States, where Big Ag reigns supreme.

    It may be that we all need to accept bigger farms, “economies of scale,” more irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and the “application of new technologies in genetics” (by which we can only imagine the authors are talking about GMO crops) if we are to feed more people while protecting the last of the world’s forests.

    But there’s a rather glaring omission in the U.N. report: What about the other side of the equation? What about working to change the worrisome trends in the way people eat, which are tending to the more carnivorous? Trying to feed 9 billion meat eaters is a different proposition from trying to feed 9 billion vegetarians—raising meat, particularly cattle and larger animals, gobbles up more land per calorie produced than any other agricultural use. Close to 65 percent of the deforestation in Brazil, for example, is connected to cattle ranching; a study published last year determined that “consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity.”

    What’s more, while we all might not be able to, say, implement a sustainable land-use policy on a national scale in a developing country, we can do our part to conserve the world’s forests by upping our consumption of plant-based foods and lowering our consumption of meat.

  • Food
  • Kellogg Says Good-Bye to the Cereal Aisle—and Moves In With Produce

    By placing its breakfast products in the produce section, the food company is hoping to look like a healthier option.

    Kellogg cereals are popping up in all sorts of unexpected places. This month, the onetime king of American breakfast opened a snazzy new “branded boutique” in Times Square, where for upwards of $7 a bowl, curious diners can scarf down their Corn Flakes garnished with such trendy ingredients as green tea powder and pistachios. Now Kellogg is making a move that could land it in other previously virgin territory, this time a lot closer to more Americans’ homes.

    Dogged by years of sliding sales for its flagship ready-to-eat cereal brands, Kellogg is looking to break out of the stodgy cereal aisle and sell its boxed flakes alongside fresh fruit, following other big food makers who’ve long cast an envious eye at the bustling real estate surrounding the perimeter of your average grocery store. The cereal giant is working with the Midwestern supermarket chain Meijer to feature Kellogg cereals next to the bananas, strawberries, or blueberries that the company is increasingly featuring in its marketing, Quartz reported.

    Don’t kid yourself, though—this is hardly just about making it more convenient for shoppers to snap up their bananas and Rice Krispies in one fell swoop. As consumers have become ever more wary of the kinds of processed foods that typically choke the middle aisles of most supermarkets, they’ve gravitated to the perimeter of the store, where the fresher fare, such as produce, meat, seafood, and dairy, is placed. “Shop the perimeter” has become something of a mantra for consumers looking to avoid the bugaboos of the processed food industry—artificial ingredients, preservatives, GMOs—so much so that the center of any number of grocery stores has taken on a dying-mall vibe, evidence of the trend that has seen sales of packaged foods decline by 1 to 2 percent a year for the past few years even as sales of organics have grown by double digits.

    Behind the cheery slogans and bright packaging, supermarket product placement has long been a cutthroat business, and as Kellogg’s incursion into the produce section suggests, it’s probably only going to get more competitive. There’s only so much real estate to be had around the perimeter of any given store; move everything there, and you’d not only have the retail equivalent of a doughnut, but the perimeter would become too much like the center that many shoppers are trying to avoid.

    Couple that with Kellogg hardly being alone among big food makers in scrambling to cope with a sea change in consumer demand, one that has seen the top 25 food and beverage brands lose close to $20 billion in market share since 2009, as Fortune reported last year. Battling over the limited space on the grocery store perimeter to bask in its perceived aura of freshness may only go so far, but big food needs all the help it can get. Yes, the general public might still be susceptible to the subliminal notion that the color green on food packaging means “healthy.” But more and more, consumers’ suspicions about processed foods have become harder for big food to work around. The new federal dietary guidelines, for example, essentially encourage Americans to shop for fresher whole foods, and a revamped nutrition label requires food makers to list the amount of added sugar in a product. Even the word “natural”—long a favorite in food marketing because it has no legal definition—is coming under renewed scrutiny.

    So don’t be too surprised if in the not-too-distant future, you stumble across sales reps from Kellogg and General Mills duking it out in the produce aisle at a grocery store near you.

  • Food
  • 'Probable Carcinogen' Weed Killer Won't Be Banned in the EU Just Yet

    Instead of a new 15-year license allowing glyphosate's use in the European Union, the controversial chemical is getting brief extension.

    What in the world to do about the world’s most popular weed killer? Not so long ago, the question of whether the European Union would extend its license for glyphosate would have been something of a foregone conclusion—a bureaucratic formality rubber-stamped as swiftly and unceremoniously as a joyless receptionist validating your parking stub. After all, the chemical that’s better known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide Roundup is one of the most heavily applied agrochemicals in history. It’s become such a staple of industrial agriculture around the world, how could its continued use not be approved?  

    Yet the EU came close to doing just that. With the license for glyphosate set to expire on June 30, a number of EU member states refused to vote for an extension, including France and Italy, with Germany abstaining. That left the European Commission scrambling to come up with a solution lest the license expire and automatically trigger a six-month phaseout of glyphosate in products across the EU.

    So instead of what was supposed to be a 15-year extension of glyphosate’s EU license, Monsanto and other chemical makers were given a sort of bare-minimum 18-month extension—one that includes new restrictions, including greater scrutiny of the use of glyphosate prior to harvest (an off-label application for desiccating grain crops and potentially leading to residues on consumer products such as cereal) and minimizing its application around parks and playgrounds, according to Agence France-Presse.

    It is yet another indication of the growing unease surrounding industrial agriculture’s runaway use of the chemical. While Monsanto likes to tout that glyphosate has been used “safely” for more than 40 years, that doesn’t account for the explosion in use over the past decade. A study released this year by the Environmental Working Group found that 75 percent of all glyphosate applied during the history of its use has been sprayed in just the last 10 years.

    While the public has seemed more or less oblivious of this herbicide deluge, news last year that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, had decided to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen appears to have made people sit up and take note. The EU’s 18-month extension is meant, in part, to give the union’s chemicals agency a chance to finish its report on the question of glyphosate’s cancer risk; the report isn’t expected until the end of 2017.

    Meanwhile, in the United States, a simmering controversy continues in Washington, D.C., over the Environmental Protection Agency’s exact stance on the hot-button issue of glyphosate and cancer. A report in which the agency appeared to say the chemical was not likely carcinogenic was posted to the EPA’s website in May and marked “final,” only to disappear days later. Conservative farm belt lawmakers recently hauled EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to Capitol Hill to grill her about the missing report and to press for more information about the links between EPA staff and members of the IARC. (It seems worth noting that two EPA staff members are listed among the participants on the IARC monograph that deemed glyphosate a probable carcinogen.) McCarthy was vague about when the EPA’s glyphosate report might be (re)released, saying only that it would be “as soon as possible, possibly this fall.”

    All this official dithering and delay would seem to do nothing to assuage a nervous public now waking up to glyphosate appearing to be all around it, turning up in trace amounts in a whole lot of unexpected food products and prompting lawsuits over its presence in products marketed as “all-natural.”

    Too bad we couldn’t have had more such scrutiny before Big Ag’s use of glyphosate became a tidal wave. 

  • Food
  • Two Years In, Mexico’s Soda Tax Is Still Working

    Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and other junk food is on the decline—but not as dramatically as some had hoped for.

    Mexico’s calculated—and controversial—gamble to curb the country’s out-of-control obesity epidemic by taxing junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages appears to be paying off—though the taxes haven’t been the magic pill some folks expected.

    In a study published this week in the online journal PLOS Medicine, researchers found that the 8 percent tax imposed by Mexico’s national government on an array of “nonessential” calorie-dense foods (i.e., junk food) starting in January 2014 led to an average 5.1 percent reduction in purchases of those foods in urban areas across the country (data for rural areas wasn’t available). The study was conducted jointly by researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the same team that reported last year that Mexico’s 10 percent tax on soda and other sugary beverages appeared to be responsible for a 6 percent drop in consumption of those items.

    Taken together, the two studies offer the best empirical evidence yet that such taxes work to limit consumption of the types of foods and beverages that have been linked to excessive weight gain and its related ills, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. That’s because Mexico’s taxes are by far the most ambitious to have been enacted in any country. Even as a wide range of public health organizations have advocated for such taxes (see the World Health Organization’s recent report on childhood obesity), their support has generally been based on best-guess scientific predictions on whether the taxes would work. Until now, they haven’t had any real-world taxes to study, at least not on the scale of Mexico’s.

    Although the researchers behind the current study on Mexico’s junk food tax describe their findings as “significant,” media reports have so far tended to pooh-pooh them. Should we have expected a more dramatic double-digit drop in Mexicans’ consumption of potato chips, ice cream, and the like? The drop of 5.1 percent is more or less equivalent to skipping a candy bar once every other month, but the researchers take pains to point out that the actual reduction could well be higher, as the data for a number of types of junk food was limited or nonexistent.

    To carp that Mexico’s tax didn’t lead to a greater reduction in junk food consumption only plays into the hands of the big food lobby, which has long obfuscated on the issue by pleading that the obesity epidemic plaguing Mexico (and the U.S.) is “complex” and that taxes alone won’t solve it. No duh. But as the twin studies on Mexico’s two taxes demonstrate, they can work as part of a more comprehensive campaign that includes initiatives to encourage more exercise and to educate the public about healthier eating habits—initiatives that can be funded by money raised from taxing unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. How sweet is that?

  • Food
  • Congress Is Still Trying to Undo Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law

    The state now requires mandatory labeling for products containing genetically modified ingredients, but the Senate is working on a bill to override it.

    Power to the people—or power to the big food companies? It seems a poignant question to ask while Independence Day hangovers are still lifting and as a wildly popular Vermont state law requiring food makers to clearly label products made from GMO ingredients is poised to be squashed by lawmakers in Washington acting under the influence of the food and agriculture industries.

    Last Friday was a banner day for advocates of GMO labeling. More than two years after it was passed overwhelmingly by the state’s legislature, the Vermont law finally went into effect, having survived a barrage of scare tactics and legal attacks lobbed at it by big food and big ag. It is the first law in the nation to require mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Hailing the landmark moment at a rally in front of the statehouse in Burlington, Gov. Peter Shumlin told celebrants “Vermont had the courage to say ‘If it’s the right thing to do, what are we waiting for?’ ”

    Most Americans would seem to agree. Poll after poll has found that 80 to 90 percent of Americans think food companies should be required to label products made from GMO ingredients.

    The Vermont-mandated GMO labels have started cropping up in grocery stores and, for some companies, across the country. Not all companies will comply with all products sold in state, and local news station WCAX reports that some 3,000 products will slowly disappear from shelves as retailers sell off existing stock over the yearlong window allowed by the law. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have opted to label their more popular products, such as their flagship colas, while Pepsi Wild Cherry, for example, simply won’t be sold in Vermont.

    But with the likes of General Mills, Kellogg, Campbell’s, Mars, and ConAgra responding to the state-level law with nationwide labeling for products, there is ample evidence that the kind of clear, direct GMO labels Americans say they want are not as impossible as the industry has made them out to be. Yet the momentum on Capitol Hill appears to be moving against the popular will.

    Even as Vermonters celebrated their law going into effect, the U.S. Senate was moving ever closer to passing its own GMO “labeling” law. Why the scare quotes? Because while the Vermont law pretty much does what the vast majority of Americans say they want such a law to do—require clear, on-package labels identifying food products made from GMO ingredients—the Senate’s version would do anything but.

    For starters, it wouldn’t do anything for at least two years—maybe more—but it would immediately nullify any state-level legislation, like Vermont’s, that requires GMO products to be labeled. It’s got more (loop)holes than Swiss cheese. As written, it could exclude a vast array of processed foods as well as any food that has meat as the main ingredient, according to Consumers Union. Far from the sort of no-nonsense label required in Vermont, food makers could opt for a lesser evil, such as using a label only scannable with a smartphone or printing a toll-free number that a customer can call “for more information.” The Vermont bill may have its own problems (it doesn’t apply to products that feature meat, for one), but it offers no way around on-package labeling.

    The Senate legislation is a compromise bill that emerged from the Agriculture Committee. It was hashed out by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich., who together have received more than $2.1 million from agribusiness donors during this election cycle alone, as Consumers Union noted. The Senate is scheduled to vote this week to end debate on the bill, which would clear the way for a final vote for passage. As Politico reported, an earlier test vote hardly bodes well for labeling advocates: 68 senators, including a fair number of farm-state Democrats, lined up to support the measure, with only 29 senators voting against it.

    If the Senate’s bill makes it into law, those GMO labels featured on Vermont shelves today could end up as nothing more than collector’s items on eBay.

  • Food
  • Cereal Makes a Novel Play for Hip Young Americans

    Breakfast has changed over the years, moving away from shredded wheat, but a new restaurant in Times Square hopes to change that.

    Times Square has seen a lot of outrageous things over the years, but a $7 bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes may very well take the cake.

    This isn’t simply a story of “Everything’s more expensive in Manhattan.” It’s about a 110-year-old company that started out making old-timey medical claims about its dry-as-dust cereal flakes and catapulted itself to iconic American status. But today, with cereal consumption on the decline, Kellogg has become a dinosaur trying to find a way to be hip again—that is, if Corn Flakes were ever hip in the first place.

    Behold Kellogg’s NYC, the “branded boutique” scheduled to open on Monday that will be entirely dedicated to Kellogg’s venerable stable of breakfast-cereal staples—from classic Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, and Rice Krispies to nostalgic childhood sugar bombs such as Froot Loops, Honey Smacks, and Apple Jacks.

    The move into hipster territory is likely less about convincing NYC’s bright young things to start their day with a bowlful of Frosted Mini-Wheats than it is about convincing a legion of out-of-towners that Kellogg is cool. Serving hip cereal in Manhattan could help create that sort of Grandma-in-a-biker-jacket sensation that’s provoked by seeing staid Middle America brands juxtaposed against the zoom and zip of the bright lights in the big city. (If you’ve ever taken a peek in the Olive Garden in Times Square, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

    But Kellogg has more in mind for its Times Square experience than simply serving up the dubious novelty of scarfing down your milk-sodden Frosted Flakes as you’re being serenaded by the Naked Cowboy. The menu features your favorite Kellogg cereals garnished with such irresistibly with-it ingredients as green tea powder, pistachios, and lemon zest. There’s the Circus, with Raisin Bran, toasted peanut, and banana chips, or the Corn Blues, which combines Corn Pops, blueberry jam, lemon zest, and a “pinch of salt.” Regular bowls run $7.50, and the small size costs a dollar less. Reached by phone for an interview with The New York Times, Anthony Rudolf, the store’s operator, was in Spanish Harlem buying a week’s supply of passion-fruit jam.

    For the role of menu wizard, Kellogg has signed on no less than Christina Tosi, the über-hip chef-owner of the über-hip Milk Bar, the sweet offshoot of the über-hip restaurant Momofuku. It seems like a match made in marketing heaven. After all, Tosi is the genius behind such irony- and nostalgia-laden treats as the Fruity Cereal Milk Soft Serve, described as “a fun soft serve that tastes just like the milk at the bottom of a bowl of Fruity Pebbles” (admittedly made by Kellogg archrival Post), and the Cereal Milk Cream Soda Float, topped with cornflake crunch.

    But behind all this madcap zaniness lies the uncomfortable truth that the cereal biz has been more than a little soggy lately. Last year marked yet another decline in cereal sales; since 2012, the ready-to-eat cereal market has shrunk by a not-so-grrrreat 9 percent, as Tony the Tiger might say. Blame a host of newfangled breakfast options, or even the demise of breakfast itself, along with a growing chorus of myth busters challenging the oft-repeated notion that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

    Also, in our increasingly frenzied and fast-paced fast-food culture, the shelf-stable stalwart that was once the epitome of convenience (just pour and add milk!) is seen as “too difficult to eat” by some 40 percent of millennials. Not to mention that in an era when “fresh and local” has become something of a mantra for how we aspire to eat, even what were once perceived as the most wholesome of cereal brands have come to suffer from their association with packaged, processed foods and the swirl of concerns surrounding industrial agriculture, pesticide residues, GMOs, and the like.

    Whether the magic of Manhattan can make consumers forget all that remains to be seen. But another longtime American brand has likewise found itself out of step with today’s food culture and is looking to reboot with a dose of Big Apple cool: Word has it that Kola House, an “experiential lounge” with an “artisanal menu,” is expected to debut soon in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. It’s brought to you by...Pepsi.

  • Food
  • Die-Hard Diet Soda Fans Can Once Again Enjoy Aspartame’s ‘Classic’ Flavor

    A year after reformulating its zero-calorie soda to use sucralose, PepsiCo is bringing back the original artificial sweetener.

    Aspartame is back! It’s one of the oddest exclamations to come out of the food and beverage industry in a while, not only for its open embrace of an artificial sweetener that has been dogged by concerns about its cancer risk but also for putting a brave face on what amounts to a rather embarrassing about-face for Pepsi. Yes, a little over a year after the soda giant announced with much fanfare that it was reformulating Diet Pepsi to get rid of aspartame, the company is bringing the controversial sweetener back.

    In April 2015, PepsiCo Vice President Seth Kaufman said, “Aspartame is the No. 1 reason consumers are dropping diet soda.” At the time, the company maintained that it was bowing to overwhelming customer demand by switching from aspartame to sucralose, known better by the brand name Splenda.

    Yet sales of Diet Pepsi continued to nose-dive, dropping 10.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to The Associated Press—nearly double the 5.7 percent drop for competitor Diet Coke, which continues to be made with aspartame.

    So Pepsi has decided to have it both ways, kind of like Coke did back in the 1980s when it infamously tried out New Coke—only to be forced to bring back the original recipe after one of the biggest product flops of all time.

    Diet Pepsi made with sucralose will continue to be sold in silver cans marked “aspartame-free,” while its aspartame-laced sister soda will come in light-blue cans euphemistically labeled “classic sweetener blend.” That kind of seems like hawking MSG as a “classic” flavor enhancer.

    The return of aspartame may mollify die-hard Diet Pepsi fans who just couldn’t stomach the new taste, but it does nothing to quell concerns about the possible health effects of a long-term diet soda habit. As with so many suspect food additives, aspartame has been the focus of a tug-of-war between industry and federal regulators—who say there’s plenty of science to support their assertions that the artificial sweetener is safe—and public health advocates such as the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who maintain that a lot of that science is funded by industry and that independent studies have linked aspartame to certain types of cancer in mice.

    Beyond that, there’s the larger question of whether regular consumption of diet soda, no matter what brand, has a counterintuitive effect. That is, does drinking diet soda cause people to gain rather than lose weight? A growing body of scientific evidence has supported the phenomenon, although researchers have generally been at a loss to explain it. While some scientists have argued that consuming zero-calorie beverages has the psychological effect of encouraging people to eat more—e.g., “I’m having a diet soda, so I’ll get a larger order of fries”—others have posited a more physiological explanation. One possibility is that artificial sweeteners may interfere with our brain chemistry to cause us to crave more sugar or that they might alter our gut bacteria to make us more susceptible to glucose intolerance.

    All in all, it’s enough to give an ominous ring to aspartame’s celebrated return.

  • Food