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No News Is Good News: McD's Decides to Keep Dismal Sales Figures to Itself

The fast-food giant announces it will no longer release monthly data for same-store sales.

After 11 straight months of declining same-store sales, McDonald’s has come up with a quick and nifty way to stop the monthly spate of headlines chronicling the fast-food giant’s chronic slump: Simply stop reporting monthly same-store sales.

May numbers will be reported on June 8, a company spokeswoman tells Bloomberg Business. After that, rubberneckers captivated by what appears, as of now, to be the slow-motion collapse of a once unassailable American brand will have to content themselves with quarterly reports. So while the company will likely continue to futz with its menu, adding and dropping and changing offers here and there—buns will now be toasted for five seconds longer, by the way—those changes won't be so easy to condemn as failures when the next month's sales figures are reported.

To be fair, other major restaurant corporations, including Chipotle, Starbucks, and Yum! Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC), don’t provide such month-to-month sales data. McDonald's, however, sits directly at the locus of the health and labor concerns that swirl around fast food; a deflection of some of that attention it receives as a symbol of the low-pay-and-unhealthy-food business model could help the world’s biggest fast-food chain's struggles to reverse its fortunes. Industry analysts say the move could shift McDonald’s and its shareholders' focus to the long-term turnaround strategy recently unveiled by the company’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, rather than get fixated on what’s happening one month to the next.

“The monthly reporting just lends itself to more volatility, and I think investors focus on short-term issues,” Jack Russo, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co., tells Bloomberg Business. “It’s a good move. Quite honestly, it’s kind of long overdue.”

Nevertheless, the move can only add to an image of a company that seems increasingly under siege, as the past couple months have been nothing short of a rolling PR nightmare for McDonald’s.

Despite a ban on press reporting from inside the company’s annual shareholders' meeting last week, the event still generated a slew of negative headlines, with thousands of protesters massing outside McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Inside, activist shareholders pointedly questioned a range of company practices, from its low wages and lack of benefits for workers to its marketing of junk food to kids.

Earlier in the month, Easterbrook announced his much anticipated turnaround plan for McDonald’s; a headline over at Fortune would seem to pretty much sum up the general reaction: “McDonald’s fix-it plan fails to impress: where’s the beef?”

If investors shrugged off Easterbrook’s lackluster plan, which Fortune declared short on details and lacking a sense of urgency, the franchisees who operate a vast majority of McDonald’s stores across the U.S. appear to be on the verge of open revolt.

A survey of franchisees conducted by Janney Capital Markets—and following the announcement of Easterbrook’s plan—found relations between franchise operators and their corporate parent to be at a record low, Business Insider reports. In the more than 11 years that the annual survey has been conducted, the six-month outlook of franchisees for McDonald’s business in the U.S. was the worst ever.

“There is no leadership, no plan, no respect for operators or their investment or bottom line,” one survey respondent wrote.

Another: “We will continue to fall and fail.”

Still another, who attended a turnaround summit at McDonald’s HQ, wrote: “Instead of acknowledging and solving the real problems facing us today, they chose to pretend that everything is normal and to look at what the restaurant of the future will be. They did nothing to address what the REAL problems are in our system: significant financial problems for owner/operators and menu complexity.… It’s as if they have NO CLUE of what our world looks like.”

For disgruntled franchise owners, that world has been governed by McDonald’s seemingly schizophrenic efforts to be “all things to all people,” even as the business model that brought the chain to global dominance—from low-paid workers to assembly-line production of cheap, processed food—has become a liability among a generation of more socially conscious consumers.

Needless to say, not announcing monthly same-store sales figures won't solve that problem.

As another attendee of the overhyped turnaround summit griped: "Why go out to cheerleading camp when you don't have a direction in mind and the team is in shambles?"

  • Food
  • Two More Chains Drop Artificial Ingredients and Join the 'Food Revolution'

    Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are the latest in a long line of brands to announce such changes this year.

    There's a revolution happening in the food world, and to hear it from fast-food executives, it is taking place not on some idyllic farm but at the drive-through.

    Taco Bell announced Tuesday that it is booting all artificial colors and flavors off its menu by the end of the year. The chain that built its reputation in no small part on its interpretation of Tex-Mex cuisine in a variety of radioactive hues made the announcement this week, signaling that longtime fans who’ve grown accustomed to the cartoonish palette of shockingly yellow nacho cheese or fire-engine-red tortilla chips may have to settle for something a bit more “natural” from now on.

    The fast-food giant appears to be betting that there are more customers who are growing wary of artificial ingredients than there are die-hard Taco Bell junkies who’ll defect if they can’t satisfy their cravings with fare as garish and bright as an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

    The Bell’s sister company Pizza Hut also made a similar announcement; both are owned by Yum Brands.

    The double announcements come less than a month after Panera unveiled, to much fanfare, its “No No List,” a tally of more than 150 artificial ingredients that the up-and-coming chain says it is exiling from all its food by the end of 2016, and on the heels of similarly publicized efforts by a variety of fast-food companies recently to try to capitalize on shifting public demand for healthier food—or, at least, for food the public can be duped into perceiving as healthier.

    “We’re part of an exciting time—a food revolution,” Taco Bell Chief Innovation Officer Liz Matthews said in a statement. “Today’s customers are more curious and interested about food than ever. They want to understand what they’re eating and expect to know more about it.”

    Pizza Hut CEO David Gibbs essentially parrots that in his own statement: “Today's consumer more than ever before wants to understand the ingredients that make up the foods that they enjoy.”

    In such corporate pronouncements, you can easily get a sense of just how thin a tightrope these folks are walking, somehow publicizing their menu changes without at all seeming to criticize the food that they've been relentlessly marketing for years.

    Thus, when you get past the rah-rah PR-speak, you realize that what these chains are offering is pretty hollow: “transparency.” Yes, Taco Bell may be willing to rid itself of such scientifically formulated artificial flavors and colors as Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1—ingredients that the chain was all too willing to ply consumers with when we were apparently living in the culinary Dark Ages, supposedly not giving a damn about what we put in our mouths. (That will continue to be on the menu in things like fountain drinks and "co-branded" products, such as those hybrid Doritos taco shells.)

    What goes unsaid is that there are a host of “natural” ingredients—i.e., the same types you cook with at home—that are the real culprits behind the public health crisis in America, the one that centers on the rise in obesity and its related ills. Ingredients such as fat, sugar, and salt—all of which the menus at both Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have in spades, as do, let’s face it, the menus of upstarts like Panera and Chipotle.   

    John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, also appears to recognize that we're living in the middle of a "food revolution," but whether that means we'll come out on the other side any savvier in our ability to recognize food makers' PR gimmicks is open to debate.

    “We’re seeing a changing culture in the way that people look at food,” Coupland told Fast Company. “As a scientist I worry about, what does ‘natural’ actually mean? It’s a vague concept to base decisions on. Removing some ingredients is a way to make food appear more natural without really underlining what is actually a problem.”

  • Food
  • McDonald’s Gets No Love at Its Annual Shareholders’ Meeting

    Yep, being the world’s largest burger chain makes you a pretty big target.

    Have we finally gotten to the point where we should start feeling sorry for McDonald’s? The chain is losing money, closing stores, and forever rejiggering a menu that recently seems to defy success. This week, the fast-food icon is taking even more of a drubbing during its annual shareholders’ meeting—which has drawn plenty of protesters too.

    So are you feeling bad? Well, probably not just yet.

    Shareholder meetings aren’t typically headline-grabbing events, but this week’s gathering has turned into quite the spectacle. On Wednesday, thousands of protesters descended on the Golden Arches’ headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize—no doubt energized by news earlier in the week that Los Angeles would be raising its local minimum wage to $15 (albeit not until 2020).

    While police estimates put the number of protesters at around 2,000, organizers claim it was more like 5,000. A new round of protests is scheduled for Thursday as McDonald’s newbie CEO Steve Easterbrook prepares to address the shareholders. Protesters said they are armed with a petition signed by more than a million Americans calling on the company to up its minimum wage and allow workers to form a union.

    Meanwhile, as NPR reports, the annual confab has attracted many other protesters who want to take the burger giant to task for a range of questionable business practices, from marketing its dubiously nutritious food to kids to promoting a form of fund-raising called “McTeacher’s Nights,” on which “teachers and administrators work behind the counter at McDonald’s on a given night and invite students to come dine.”

    You can only imagine the conversation in the teachers’ lounge when that subject comes up.

    Then there are the folks from Toxic Taters, the Minnesota-based grassroots nonprofit that has been working mightily to raise awareness about all the pesticides that are used to grow the gazillion pounds of potatoes McDonald’s turns into its famous fries.

    Representatives from the organization showed up at the meeting, but in a release they said they were summarily turned away by the McDonald’s security team.

    “I’m doubly disappointed—at McDonald’s failure to meet its 2009 commitment to cut potato pesticides, and at its unwillingness to listen to us today,” Larry Heitkamp, an organic potato farmer from northern Minnesota, said in the statement. “Right now, McDonald’s potatoes are grown with pesticides including carcinogens, endocrine-disruptors, and neurotoxins. I came to share stories of conventional potato farmers who have begun to transition to farming that enhances the entire system and creates nutrient-dense, healthy food. I’m angry that McDonald’s is stifling the possibility for positive change, instead of making the first steps toward more sustainable farming.”

    Toxic Taters claims that the rampant use of pesticides on the potato farms that supply McDonald’s with its spuds are having a deleterious impact on surrounding communities, where residents must endure weeks of chemical drift during the growing season. Tests have shown residues of hazardous pesticides inside nearby homes and schools, according to the organization.

    It seems like McDonald’s can’t do anything right these days. The company’s recent efforts to generate a little more love, such as announcing it would stop selling chicken raised with the same antibiotics people take or its decision to bump up minimum base wages at its company-owned stores to a dollar above the local minimum, have done little to quell critics. Instead, they’ve tended to dismiss such moves as the rearguard maneuvers of a corporate giant desperately trying to stay relevant, even as it keeps its calculations in check so as not to damage its fragile bottom line.

    After all, McDonald’s most recent sales figures showed a 0.6 percent decline in April at stores open at least a year, extending a downward drift in sales that has gone on for almost two years.

  • Food
  • Berkeley Is Making Money off People Drinking Soda

    After delays in implementation, the city's tax is generating revenue and on track to pull in $1.2 million this year.

    After a bit of a rocky start that delayed its full implementation by a couple months, the country’s first—and only—municipal soda tax is generating revenue. City officials in Berkeley, California, announced Monday that the landmark tax brought in $116,000 in its first month. Now the city just has to decide what to do with the money.

    Berkeley projects its penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages is on track to bring in $1.2 million in its first year, which is still less than half of what the soda industry spent trying to defeat the ballot measure in the run-up to last November’s election, according to local news site Berkeleyside. Despite that influx of campaign cash, an overwhelming majority—75 percent—of Berkeley voters approved the initiative.

    “We’re well on our way to a smooth implementation,” Berkeley Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said at a press conference yesterday. “We wanted to get it right.”

    While taxes are still largely untested as a way to combat soda consumption, extensive research shows that the sugary drinks present a significant public health risk. Drinking one to two cans of soda a day can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 26 percent, according to a 2010 study published in Diabetes Care. Soda has also been linked with obesity, heat disease, and other diet-related health problems.

    Even with the initiative implemented and the money coming in, both sides of the campaign are still battling over the tax.

    In March, Berkeleyside reported the grumbling of local beverage distributors, who complained about the city’s lack of guidance on the tax and what they claim are the its confusing loopholes.

    This prompted a quick op-ed rebuttal from Capitelli, along with former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Dr. Vicki Alexander, Berkeley’s former health officer. The trio noted that the grousing of the distributors seemed to echo the beverage industry’s antitax propaganda, which aimed to create confusion when in truth, the tax is very simple. “It focuses on those high-calorie, low-nutrition sugary drinks that are a leading cause of diabetes and that Big Soda markets directly to our children, especially children of color,” the trio wrote.

    Yet the beverage industry continues to catcall from the sidelines. Following the city’s announcement Monday of the first month’s revenue from the tax, the Twitter feed of the industry front group Californians for Food and Beverage Choice lit up.

    “Kind of ironic that they need ppl to drink more soda in order to generate the $$ to stop them from drinking soda,” read one snarky Tweet, while another tried to turn the $116,000 figure on its head, needling tax supporters for, in effect, celebrating that Berkeley residents had to guzzle “1,160 oz” of sugar-sweetened beverages “in the first quarter” to generate the revenue.

    You have to be suspicious of any group that gets its facts and basic math so wrong. The revenue wasn’t for the first quarter but for a single month. At a penny per ounce, Berkeley had to consume 11.6 million ounces of sugary drinks to generate $116,000.

    Which points to the larger, unanswered questions about Berkeley’s soda tax experiment. It’s too soon to tell whether the tax will substantially decrease consumption. Reports from Mexico have been mixed over whether that country’s widely hailed soda tax, adopted in 2014, is responsible for a recent downturn in consumption or whether other factors have come into play.

    No doubt an equally important mark of success will be how effectively Berkeley puts its soda tax revenue to work. A newly convened “sugar-sweetened beverage product panel of experts” is scheduled to start meeting this week to come up with recommendations on how to spend the money, both to best combat the public health effects of too much sugary-drink consumption and to counter the industry’s outsize marketing prowess. It’s a tall order. While the beverage industry may continue to deride soda taxes as a “money grab,” in reality, the $1.2 million per year Berkeley’s tax is predicted to bring in is a pittance compared with the estimated $860 million and more that beverage makers spend to advertise their liquid candy every year.

  • Food
  • The USDA’s New GMO-Free Label Is a Gift to Big Food

    Millions of Americans have petitioned for a federal GMO label. When a ‘leading global company’ asks for one, it gets what it wants.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing its own GMO labeling program, according to a Thursday report from The Associated Press.

    Considering that for years, activists have been pushing for a federal standard for foods made with genetically modified ingredients, action from the USDA would appear to be big news. But even with a USDA labeling program, which would be both voluntary and geared at products that are GMO-free, the battle over what kind of label—if any—will be required in the U.S. on food made from genetically modified ingredients is far from over. 

    The whole thing sounds a bit suspect, starting with the fact that the USDA apparently doesn’t want you to know about the program—at least not yet.

    The Associated Press learned about it from a letter that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent on May 1 to department employees outlining the plan, which would be the first government program to certify foods as GMO-free. (There is a federal labeling standard for meat produced without GMO feed.) The letter was leaked to the AP, and while a USDA spokesman confirmed to the news service that the letter was authentic, he declined further comment.

    The second red flag comes from Vilsack’s letter. “Recently, a leading global company asked [the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service] to help verify that the corn and soybeans it uses in its products are not genetically engineered so that the company could label the products as such,” he wrote. “AMS worked with the company to develop testing and verification processes to verify the non-GE claim.”

    Even without the eyebrow-raising reference to the “leading global company” that shall not be named, there’s plenty that seems suspect here. When you boil it all down, here’s what’s at the crux of the fight over how we should be labeling GMO foods: Should such labels be developed on the basis of consumer protection, in accordance with the public’s right to know what’s in the food it’s eating, and thus be required on all foods that contain GMO ingredients? Or should these labels be designed as essentially yet another marketing gimmick in the overflowing arsenal of marketing gimmicks employed by food makers, allowing companies to pick and choose which products to slap a GMO-free label on, depending on whether their marketing department thinks said label will boost sales?

    According to a recent letter sent to members of Congress by a coalition of more than 300 groups that support mandatory labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients, more than a million Americans have petitioned the FDA—which has jurisdiction over the veracity of a number of food labels—to come up with a federal label identifying products that contain GMOs. So far, the FDA has failed to respond.

    Compare that with when a “leading global company” asks the USDA for help developing an arguably pro-industry GMO label, and the department jumps at the chance. It’s galling, but not surprising.

    A bill introduced in March by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., would make voluntary labeling the law of the land, superseding state-level mandatory labeling laws such as the one passed in Vermont and set to take effect next year. More than 370 corporations and industry groups (including biotech giants such as Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, and Monsanto, and food makers such as General Mills, ConAgra, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola)—lobbying under the banner Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food—have come out in support of the bill.

    It seems there’s a reason these titans of the agri-tech food industry would prefer the USDA over the FDA to implement any type of federal GMO-labeling program.

    As Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, told Environment and Energy News recently, “I think [the USDA] would be better suited to deal with inputs into agricultural products than the FDA would be.” As the news site reports, “[Conaway] added that there would be ‘risks’ that FDA would not work in agriculture’s favor, but he declined to elaborate on that point.”

    Apparently, another member of the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was a little less circumspect. Environment and Energy News reports, “Peterson is worried that popular opinion might influence FDA more than USDA.”

    Heaven forbid that in a democracy, popular opinion should influence any government agency.

  • Food
  • A Tale of Two All-McDonald's Diets

    Depending on who is doing the eating, living off nothing but burgers and McNuggets has wildly different outcomes.

    Just when McDonald’s thought it may have found its very own Jared Fogle—the “Subway Guy”—to prove you can go on a steady diet of Mickey D’s and still be healthy, here comes news that eating too many Big Macs may be more like declaring war on the good bacteria in your gut.

    Ever since the phenomenon of the popular documentary Super Size Me more than a decade ago, plenty of Internet memes surrounding the question of “What crazy things happen to your body when you eat a ton of McDonald’s?” have been spawned. The sheer ubiquity of the once indomitable fast-food chain swiftly made it the lumbering target for everything that’s gone wrong with how we eat, and thus, the prime culprit behind Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines and related health issues.

    But last year, a high school science teacher from Iowa became a viral sensation by touting an all-McDonald’s diet that allowed him to shed more than 60 pounds in six months. It started as a class project: John Cisna challenged his students to come up with a diet consisting entirely of food from McDonald’s yet still within the federal government’s 2,000-calorie-a-day guideline for adults, and he gamely became the class guinea pig.

    This week, McDonald’s confirmed that Cisna is now an “official brand ambassador” for the chain: He’s not an employee, but he gets paid for his appearances, according to ABC News.

    Alas, the gods that govern the sphere of clickable headlines are fickle indeed. Just as McDonald’s moves to embrace Cisna, here come the father-son duo of Tim and Tom Spector with their own “McDonald’s diet” story—and it’s hardly the kind of PR the burger giant wants going viral.

    Tim is a well-regarded professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London; his 23-year-old son Tom, apparently following in his dad’s footsteps, is a genetics student at Aberystwyth University. The elder Spector recruited his son for a one-man experiment: What would happen to the young man’s gut bacteria if he subsisted on nothing but McDonald’s for 10 days?

    Whereas Cisna’s students devised a diet for him that took full advantage of McDonald’s more recent healthier-for-you options, such as a couple of Egg White Delight sandwiches for breakfast or a fruit parfait and salad for lunch, Tom Spector ate nothing but chicken nuggets, Big Macs, fries, and Coke.

    The results? “Before I started my father’s fast-food diet, there were about 3,500 bacterial species in my gut, dominated by a type called firmicutes,” Tom told The Australian. “Once on the diet, I rapidly lost 1,300 species of bacteria, and my gut was dominated by a different group called bacteroidetes. The implication is that the McDonald’s diet killed 1,300 of my gut species.”

    One man eating McDonald’s for 10 days does not make for the most convincing scientific evidence. Yet Team Spector’s headline-grabbing story does add to the growing body of research that suggests our modern, often junk-food-heavy diet may be wreaking havoc on our gut microbiome, killing off any number of the countless species of bacteria that keep our metabolism in balance. A recent study of artificial sweeteners in diet soda, for example, found that aspartame and sucralose change gut bacteria in such a manner that blood-sugar levels increase—kicking off a process that can lead to weight gain and other diet-related health problems.  

    Far from a microbiologist’s flourishing Garden of Eden, some research suggests that the guts of modern-day humans appear more like a patchy, weedy vacant city lot. 

    “What is emerging is that changes in our gut microbe community, or microbiome, are likely to be responsible for much of our obesity epidemic, and consequences like diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” Tim Spector told The Australian. “It is clear that the more diverse your diet, the more diverse your microbes and the better your health at any age.”

    But just as research on the microbiome and its impacts on health is a burgeoning field, medical procedures aimed at repopulating a diseased or depleted gut with healthy bacteria are also on the rise.

    It appears McDonald’s has yet to respond to the Spectors’ experiment. But like most purveyors of junk food these days, the company that once single-handedly made “supersizing” a verb has been taking a different tack. Commenting on the company’s newest brand ambassador, a McDonald’s spokeswoman told ABC News that Cisna’s story reflects “the importance of choice and balance.”

  • Food
  • Attention, Bargain Shoppers: Whole Foods Is Opening a New Chain for You

    The famously expensive retailer wants to sell cheaper organic groceries to cash-strapped millennials.

    Socially conscious penny-pinchers with a penchant for organic tomatoes and hormone-free chicken, this one’s for you: Whole Foods has announced plans to launch a chain of stores next year geared to—gasp!—lower prices.

    Although targeting the value-conscious consumer is hardly revolutionary in the American marketplace, it is for Whole Foods—better known to some as “Whole Paycheck.” So much so that apparently the company’s top brass thinks it has hit on a grocery-store concept that will blow…your…mind.

    “You can’t envision it yet because it hasn’t been created yet,” John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods, told Supermarket News. “We’re creating it, and it will be new and different and unlike any other stores you’re seeing out there.”

    That may be so, but at this point, the early details about the spin-off chain hardly defy the imagination. While the emphasis will still be on organic and sustainable food, the stores will be smaller, with a more limited selection—a “curated selection,” as the company describes it—of products. The concept is focused on convenience to a certain extent, making the stores easier to pop in and out of, but it’s also no doubt part of a larger strategy to reduce overhead and, thus, reduce prices.

    Other adjectives Mackey tossed out about the new stores: “streamlined, hip, cool, technology-oriented.” Yep, you guessed it: Whole Foods’ cut-rate concept is targeting millennials.

    Even as the up-and-coming generation consistently expresses a preference for buying the kind of feel-good food Whole Foods has built its reputation on, its take-home pay continues to struggle to break free from the economic doldrums. Thus, the company’s bid to create a kind of Whole Foods Jr. for the iPhone-and-Snapchat set, in the hopes that once today’s twenty-somethings graduate to bigger paychecks and a bigger house in the burbs, they’ll transfer their brand loyalty to the mother chain.

    As for further details about the new stores, including what they’ll be called, eager shoppers will just have to wait until the end of the summer, when the company says it will release more info. But a recent spate of trademark applications filed by Whole Foods might offer some hints. As Bloomberg Business reports, the company appears to want to call dibs on a number of names, including Dailyshop, Clever Egg, Small Batch, Swiftgoods, Greenlife, and 365—which loyal Whole Foods customers will recognize from the chain’s private-label brand, 365 Everyday Value.

    Whatever name Whole Foods picks, the move sounds pretty smart, right? So why did shares in the company fall 11 percent in the hours after Mackey and his co-CEO, Walter Robb, made the announcement to investors?

    Therein lies the rub. Wall Street has been taking Whole Foods to task of late for what investors see as less-than-stellar growth. It’s not that the market for organics is shrinking; on the contrary, it continues to expand by double digits. It’s that Whole Foods is facing more competition than ever, as conventional grocery stores double down on organics as a way to counter measly profit margins in other aisles and as big-box stores such as Walmart and Target have rolled out their own lines of organic products.

    In other words, Wall Street thinks Whole Foods may have tapped out the number of consumers willing to pay premium prices for organic goods. Luring more customers would seem to require the company to go after those who pay attention to the total that pops up on the credit card scanner before they sign. But how to do that without “cheapening” the Whole Foods brand is tricky, as Robb admitted on a conference call to investors in appropriate CEO-speak.

    “At Whole Foods, we can continue to do a better job on our expense discipline, and we can continue to be aggressive and gradually lower some prices,” he said. “But the Whole Foods brand stands for the highest quality, the best selection, and the highest degree of service, which means that brand can bend a little bit, but we can’t break it, and we’re not willing to break it.”

    As a publicly traded company, Whole Foods would appear to have no choice but to go chasing after Wall Street’s approval—but if you think about it, isn’t that a big part of what got us into the mess we’re in with our food supply in the first place? After all, “value” is just another way of saying “cheap,” and big agribusiness, backed by Wall Street, has done a bang-up job over the past half century getting us addicted to cheap (junk) food—and we have the environmental and public health problems to show for it.

    Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country and less than we ever have in our history. In 1900, Americans spent 45 percent of their disposable income on food; today, it’s less than 10 percent.

    The picture is more complicated than that. No doubt efficiencies from improved technology and the like can be used to produce sustainable food at lower costs. But on the whole, as the market for organics continues to explode, it’s worth asking: How cheap can food be and still honestly be called “sustainable”?

  • Food
  • The 'No No List' of Artificial Ingredients: Good for You or Just Good PR?

    Panera looks to one-up the competition by banning scary-sounding ingredients.

    Is it a food industry revolution—or a circus of PR stunts? That’s the question you have to ask as yet another splashy press announcement hits the media touting a company-wide overhaul intended to give comfort to a public increasingly wary of processed foods. This week it’s Panera and its new cutesy-titled “No No List,” the equivalent of a food police “most wanted” poster of more than 150 artificial ingredients that the chain says it will banish from all its food by the end of next year.

    “We’re trying to draw a line in the sand in the industry so that consumers have an easy way to know what’s in the food they buy,” Panera CEO Ron Shaich told The New York Times.

    At first glance, the move wouldn’t seem anything but good. Anytime the media report on anything related to artificial ingredients, it seems, you can expect a list of tongue twisters up front—“acesulfame K,” “ethoxyquin,” “azodicarbonamide”—a polysyllabic soup that conjures the specter of mad scientists engineering the Frankenfood that so many consumers have come to fear.

    No doubt, Panera is kicking some chemical doozies off its ingredient list. The preservative butylated hydroxyanisole is classified as an endocrine disruptor by the European Union and considered a possible human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Working Group, while the nitrates found in cured meats have likewise been deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

    Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ken Cook, president and cofounder of the Environmental Working Group, is lavishing praise on Panera.

    “With this bold commitment, Panera is showing impressive leadership in the restaurant industry to give consumers what they increasingly demand: food with fewer artificial ingredients and additives,” Cook said in a statement. “We are grateful that the Panera team reached out to our experts and listened to our recommendations to improve their fare, eliminating EWG's ‘dirty dozen’ food additives from their food and using other information from our Food Scores database. We commend Panera for stepping up in support of healthier food made with ‘cleaner’ ingredients.”

    But Panera’s “bold” decision is likely to face some of the same criticisms that greeted Chipotle last week, when it made its own big announcement that it was eliminating all GMO ingredients from its food.

    As NPR has pointed out, adopting its no-GMO policy really wasn’t too difficult for Chipotle—and the policy contains some significant loopholes. For example, the chain will still serve up meat that may have been raised on GMO feed.

    Likewise, Panera’s “No No List” appears impressive. But of the “Dirty Dozen” the Environmental Working Group cites, only about half are used at Panera. Indeed, Panera’s list is padded with more than 30 artificial ingredients, such as the scary-sounding acesulfame K and ammonium chloride, that the chain admits its food doesn’t contain.

    Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the advocacy organization that has been a big old thorn in the side of the processed food industry, pretty much sums up the more cautious appraisal of Panera’s headline-making news.

    While applauding the chain for tossing a number of additives, such as artificial food dyes and the aforementioned BHA, overboard, Jacobson goes on to say: “Just because something is artificial or its name is hard to pronounce doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. Some of the additives Panera is ditching are perfectly innocuous, such as calcium propionate or sodium lactate—so those moves are more about public relations than public health.”

    Even more broadly, whether we’re talking about Panera or Chipotle, or about similar moves by big food companies like Kraft and Nestlé to remove certain artificial ingredients from their products, the danger lies in lulling consumers into a false sense of security. Whatever halo of wellness might be conferred on a brand through such highly publicized campaigns, that still doesn’t mean a 1,000-calorie lunchtime burrito bowl at Chipotle, say, or a similarly calorie-packed panini at Panera is good for you.

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  • Doctors and Environmentalists Are Fighting for a Ban Against Monsanto

    A big medical group joins the chorus calling for the company to be kicked out of Argentina.

    Multinational ag giant Monsanto may seem like an unstoppable force—but don’t tell that to the growing coalition of environmentalists and public health advocates in Argentina. They are fighting toward one audacious goal: to kick the company out of their country.

    This week, the movement to oust Monsanto was joined by Fesprosa, one of Argentina’s leading medical unions, which represents more than 30,000 of the country’s doctors and other health professionals. The coalition is calling on the Argentine federal government to ban Monsanto’s products following last month’s bombshell announcement from the World Health Organization that the key chemical component in Monsanto’s widely used herbicide Roundup “probably causes cancer.”

    That chemical, commonly known as glyphosate, has become dominant in both Argentina and the U.S. ever since Monsanto launched its line of genetically modified crops designed to withstand heavy application of the herbicide back in the mid-1990s.

    At the time, Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crops were touted as revolutionary: Because the crops could tolerate glyphosate, the company said, farmers would end up using less weed killer. And in any case, glyphosate was considered a much safer alternative than other chemical herbicides on the market.

    Oh, what a difference a couple decades make. As a number of the weeds glyphosate was supposed to kill have developed their own chemical resistance, many farmers have been forced to dump ever-increasing amounts of the herbicide on their fields to combat a growing epidemic of “superweeds.”

    As for glyphosate’s supposedly benign impact on human health, the WHO’s recent declaration that the chemical is probably carcinogenic has only added to what critics say is mounting evidence that overuse is wreaking havoc on the lives of those who live and work in agricultural communities.

    A 2013 investigation by The Associated Press found cancer rates in Argentina’s Santa Fe province, the center of the country’s soy industry, were two to four times higher than the national average, while rates of birth defects in another growing region were four times higher. As one pediatrician and public health activist put it, “The changes in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases. We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before.”

    For its part, Fesprosa issued a statement saying that glyphosate “not only causes cancer, it is also associated with increased spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin diseases, and respiratory and neurological disease.”

    To say that Argentina serves as a cautionary tale for the dangers of allowing a corporate giant like Monsanto to run amok seems like an understatement. While the introduction of Roundup Ready crops eventually catapulted Argentina to the world’s third-largest producer of soybeans, lax enforcement of spraying regulations has meant that entire communities have been doused in potent herbicides and other ag chemicals.

    The growing movement against Monsanto in Argentina has attracted a number of NGOs, reports Telesur, including the environmental group Greenpeace Andino. As Franco Segesso, coordinator of the anti-Monsanto campaign for the organization, said in a statement: “We cannot allow the business interests of a North American multinational to be more important that the health of the people of our region. Governments should promote the technology and practices of organic farming to protects growers, consumers and the environment.”

    Meanwhile, in the U.S., the menace of superweeds has spawned a chemical arms race among Big Ag companies as they try to outwit Mother Nature. Monsanto competitor Dow is eagerly rolling out its own line of GMO seed to be used with an even more powerful herbicide, Enlist Duo, a combination of glyphosate and the toxic chemical compound 2,4-D, which has been linked fertility problems, birth defects, and thyroid disorders.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently expanded its approval of the new chemical cocktail across 15 Midwestern states.

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  • Eat Your Yogurt, Kiss Your Dog: Could Canines Be as Good for You as Probiotics?

    New study seeks to find out whether being a pet owner is good for the gut.

    There’s the cost of those high-end probiotic supplements on one hand; then there’s the cost of dog food on the other. But in the strange cost-benefit analysis comparing keeping a healthy gut with caring for a pet, there's one thing canines definitely have going for them: You’ll never get wet, slobbery kisses from those supplements.

    In one of the more surprising directions in the burgeoning scientific quest to understand the importance of all the trillions of microscopic bacteria and other tiny organisms that make our bodies tick, researchers at the University of Arizona are embarking on a novel study to see whether man’s best friend might just be as potent of a probiotic force as, say, your morning cup of yogurt or a swig of kefir.

    “We’ve co-evolved with dogs over the millennia, but nobody really understands what it is about this dog-human relationship that makes us feel good about being around dogs,” Kim Kelly, an anthropology doctoral student and one of the lead researchers on the study, said in a statement. “Is it just that they’re fuzzy and we like to pet them, or is there something else going on under the skin? The question really is: Has the relationship between dogs and humans gotten under the skin. And we believe it has.”

    Kelly is talking about more than just the uncontrollable urge to slip into baby talk the minute we see Fido’s tail wagging. A 2013 study out of the University of Colorado found that people who owned dogs shared a significant amount of skin microbes—so much so that in households with dogs, parents appeared to share more microbes with the family pet than they did with their kids. Likewise, couples who owned a dog shared more of the same skin bacteria than couples who didn’t.

    In some ways, that hardly seems surprising: What loving dog owner hasn’t been momentarily arrested mid-smooch by the unsettling question of where else that sandpapery tongue licking your face has been today?

    But whereas just a few years ago that question would trigger images of marauding germs, those cartoonish green goblins that have long been featured in ads for bathroom cleaners and antibacterial soap, today science is leading us toward an understanding that we might do well to show a bit more respect to the legions of microscopic organisms that call our world—and our bodies—home. Not only are many of them harmless, but many appear vital to our overall good health and well-being. Hence the rising popularity of yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and probiotic-filled products.

    Dogs, the researchers believe, could be a strange cousin of these fermented foods.  

    “This ‘good’ bacteria can be thought of like a ‘probiotic,’ ” the Arizona researchers write on their website. “Through research, we’ve learned that people who own dogs are much more likely to share the same kinds of these ‘good’ bacteria with their dogs. We have also learned that children who are raised with dogs are less likely than others to develop a range of immune-related disorders, including asthma and allergies, suggesting that maybe dogs are enhancing the ‘good’ bacteria in our bodies, and possibly improving our health.”

    To test their hypothesis, the University of Arizona team is looking for adults 50 or older who have not taken antibiotics or lived with a dog for the past six months. Participants will be paired with a dog rescued from a shelter, and both will have their gut bacteria (non-invasively) analyzed at the outset. Follow-up evaluations will occur at monthly intervals for three months to see what kind of impact, if any, cohabitation has on the microbiome. At the end of the study, the humans will have the option to adopt their canine companion—though the researchers stress “that isn’t a requirement for participation.”

    Those soulful brown eyes and panting smile, however, would beg to differ.

    For all those ardent dog lovers out there who don’t live in Arizona or otherwise meet the study criteria, you can help out as well. Owing to declines in government funding for biomedical research, the research team has launched an online campaign to crowdfund its work. A donation today might just be a small price to pay in the hope that someday soon we’ll discover that yes, kissing your dog might be healthy for you.

  • Food