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The Plot Twists Continue in the Saga of a Controversial Weed Killer

The cancer debate over glyphosate rages on as the European Union considers reapproving the chemical.

It may not rise to the level of your favorite binge-worthy TV show, but still, who would’ve thought the news surrounding the world’s most widely used chemical herbicide would turn into such a high-stakes drama?

In the regulatory equivalent of a stunning plot twist, on Thursday the European Union delayed a scheduled vote on whether to renew sales approval for the popular herbicide glyphosate, more widely known by chemical maker Monsanto’s trade name for it: Roundup.

The development is something of a cliffhanger, given that approval in the EU expires at the end of June. If the European Commission fails to reauthorize the weed killer, according to Reuters, that would trigger a six-month phase-out period for products containing the chemical across the EU’s 28 member states—a major blow to the agrochemical industry. At Monsanto, a $2.3 billion company, glyphosate-based products accounted for a third of total sales last year.

Related: How Much of the Most Common Weed Killer Are You Eating? The FDA Doesn’t Know

Yet just a couple days ago, the future of glyphosate seemed to appear markedly brighter. An analysis released jointly by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization found that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through diet.” The timing of the release—two days before the now-delayed vote was scheduled—wasn’t the only thing that immediately raised suspicions among glyphosate skeptics.

Get ready for the bombshell—sort of. The professor who chaired the joint FAO-WHO meeting on glyphosate, Alan Boobis of Imperial College London, is also vice president of the International Life Sciences Institute Europe—which in 2012 received a $500,000 donation from none other than Monsanto and another $528,500 from CropLife International, an agrochemical industry front group.

Advocates campaigning for closer scrutiny of glyphosate, or even an outright ban, were quick to pounce. “There is a clear conflict of interest here if the review of the safety of glyphosate is carried out by scientists that directly get money from the industry,” Vito Buonsante, a lawyer for the U.K. environmental group ClientEarth, told The Guardian. “This study cannot in any way be reliably considered when deciding whether to approve glyphosate.”

For his part, Boobis issued what appears to be a rather lame defense, saying that he is not financially compensated for his work with ILSI.

Whether the revelation of Boobis’ industry ties and those of another member of the FAO-WHO panel was responsible for the delay of the EU vote is not clear. What’s almost certain, however, is that it will add fuel to the debate about the human health risks posed by glyphosate, which earlier in the year officially became, according to the Environmental Working Group, “the most widely and heavily applied weed-killer in the history of chemical agriculture in both the U.S. and globally.”

Touted for decades as safe by the agrochemical industry and government regulators, glyphosate has seen its use skyrocket over the past 20 years thanks to Monsanto’s introduction of soybeans and other crops genetically modified to withstand heavy applications of the chemical.

But last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of WHO, declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. This month, a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seemed to directly contradict the IARC by deeming the chemical “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The EPA swiftly removed the report from the web just days after it appeared. The agency released a statement claiming its assessment was not final, though as Reuters reported, each one of the report’s 86 pages was marked “final.”

The EPA’s hedging would seem ominous to an increasingly pesticide-wary public finding out it may be consuming far more glyphosate than thought. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only just recently announced it would start testing for residues of the chemical on food, independent analyses have found glyphosate lurking in a slew of store-bought products, including organic eggs, oats, and beer.

As for glyphosate’s fate in the EU—or, for that matter, the U.S., where a movement to ban glyphosate is gaining momentum—well, we’ll just have to stay tuned.

  • Food
  • Scientists Again Say GMOs Are Safe, but They Might Not Always Be

    A major new report presents a nuanced outlook on the present and future state of genetically engineered crops.

    Genetically engineered crops are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That’s the takeaway, in the broadest possible sense, from a weighty new report released Tuesday by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—and no doubt it’s the conclusion the agricultural industry and other proponents of genetic modification will be crowing about in the days to come.

    But the 408-page report, which examines a wide range of issues related to G.M. crops—from their environmental and human-health risks to their regulation and potential—is peppered with enough caveats and hedging that it is far from likely to settle the debate over the controversial science. That debate has intensified over the two decades since widespread adoption of G.M. staple crops such as corn and soybeans began.

    In his preface to the report, committee chair Fred Gould of North Carolina State University admits as much. “We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about GE crops,” it reads. “Given the complexity of GE issues, we did not see that as appropriate. However, we hope that we have given the public and policy-makers abundant evidence and a framework to inform their decisions about individual agricultural products.”

    Gould and his fellow committee members, primarily academics from major American universities, pored over the scientific evidence, reviewed more than 700 comments from individuals and organizations, and listened to 80 presentations. In the end, they found “no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems,” such as a reduction in plant biodiversity related to the use of herbicide-resistant G.E. crops. Likewise, when the committee compared epidemiological data from the United States and Canada, where G.E. crops are widely consumed, with similar data from the European Union and the United Kingdom, where consumption is far more limited, they found no evidence to support a link between G.E. foods and higher rates of a range of ills—from cancer, obesity, and kidney disease to autism and allergies.

    RELATED:  Battle Purple Tomato: Genetically Engineered vs. Non-GMO

    But the committee also carefully warns that there are limitations to the scientific evidence and that it is difficult to determine long-term effects—standard scientific caveats that will no doubt fuel the suspicions of G.M. skeptics. More troubling, perhaps, is the picture that emerges of our collective G.M. future when we read between the lines of the committee’s cautiously crafted prose.

    To understand what I’m talking about, first we need to reiterate a fact about the current state of G.M. crops: Despite the swirl of controversy surrounding GMOs, precious few strains are being commercially grown. That’s not to be confused with the total amount of American cropland devoted to G.M. crops such as soy, corn, and cotton. The vast majority of these crops grown in America today are GMOs, but they’ve all been designed with a limited number of traits.

    With, for example, upwards of 90 percent of U.S. corn genetically modified, in some ways you could say the G.M. revolution has already happened. But in other important ways, you could say the G.M. revolution has only just begun. After all, we’re really only growing two broad strains of G.M. crops—those engineered for insect resistance and those engineered for herbicide resistance. Even if the committee’s conclusions about the safety of those two types of crops are correct, those conclusions can’t be applied to any of the seemingly countless types of G.M. crops that could be developed.

    The committee says as much, as when it states its conclusion about the health effects of eating G.M. foods: “The committee states this finding very carefully, acknowledging that any new food—GE or non-GE—may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny, and that health effects can develop over time.”

    New technologies, such as genome editing, are poised to make our definitions of what constitutes “genetic engineering” obsolete. That certain problems with G.M. crops— whether regarding health or the environment—may not become evident until those crops are grown on a commercial scale would seem to suggest that we should have a robust regulatory system empowered to impose restrictions or require more testing after the crops come to market.

    But we don’t—at least not in the U.S. While other countries have agencies that continue to monitor G.M. crops after they’re on the market, our own Department of Agriculture has taken a more or less hands-off approach. As the committee notes by way of example, had federal authorities continued to monitor crops engineered to withstand the herbicide glyphosate, they might have been able to impose restrictions that would have thwarted the epidemic of glyphosate-resistant superweeds plaguing certain areas of the country.

    You can be sure the agricultural industry is happy with the status quo—the less meddling by the feds in the regulation of G.M. crops, the better. But who out there is advocating for a better regulatory system? It’s an in-the-weeds policy debate that gets lost in the polarization of the issue into pro- and anti-GMO camps. If the NAS report makes anything clear, it’s that it may be time for GMO skeptics to stop trying to roll back the clock and start fighting for more stringent oversight of a technology that’s already been let out of the gate.

  • Food
  • It’s Time to Talk About Poultry Worker Welfare

    After years of focusing on the birds, we need to pay attention to people tasked with slaughtering them.

    Much attention has been paid to the suffering of chickens raised by the conventional poultry industry—but what about the miseries endured by the legions of poultry workers who toil to process the birds into all the cheap chicken nuggets and boneless breasts Americans love to eat?

    Last year, Oxfam America documented the poverty-level pay, wage theft, and elevated rates of injury that America’s largely nonunionized poultry workers endure working for industry leaders like Tyson, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. Now, in a scathing report released Wednesday, the nonprofit is targeting one outrageous aspect of the job: what appears to be a rampant practice in the industry of denying line workers regular breaks to use the bathroom.

    Of the scores of current and former poultry workers Oxfam interviewed for its report, only a handful said that their bathroom needs were respected in the workplace, and these were mostly workers at union plants. Far more common were those workers who reported that their requests to use the bathroom were routinely ignored or that they were made to wait up to an hour or longer, that they were subject to harassment and disciplinary action for asking to use the bathroom or for taking too long, and that they were threatened with deportation or firing. According to one worker’s account, supervisors on his line regularly told workers: “Go to the bathroom, and from there, go to Human Resources.”

    Related: Workers Say Turkey Processing Jobs Are Thankless

    More shocking still is how these degraded workers are forced to cope. As the report states, “Workers urinate and defecate while standing on the line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to a dangerous degree; they endure pain and discomfort while they worry about their health and job security. And they are in danger of serious health problems.” Such problems include elevated risk for urinary tract and kidney infections, which can cause serious complications, particularly for pregnant women and their unborn babies.

    “I’m eight months pregnant, and they’re still treating me the same,” one worker told Oxfam. “I keep doing the same work, with the same effort. I try not to drink too much water, so I don’t have to go. When I ask permission, I have to wait 15 minutes, half an hour, sometimes more.… I hope I don’t have problems with my baby. I have only a month more to go. I’ve had an infection in my urinary tract. It’s been much more difficult being pregnant.”

    Even when workers are given bathroom breaks, they often are not given enough time. A five- or 10-minute break doesn’t account for how long it might take a worker to reach the bathroom, especially racing across floors that are often slick with blood, fat, and chicken guts—let alone to remove the required protective gear and put it back on. In some plants, a 10-minute break might leave a worker just one minute to do what he or she came to the bathroom to do in the first place.

    To what do we owe this shameful mistreatment? As with so many of the social, environmental, and animal welfare problems that plague the conventional chicken industry, it all boils down to the bottom line.

    Just as Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms—the four biggest poultry companies, which control 60 percent of the market—have forced their contract poultry farmers to adopt ever more inhumane farming practices in an effort to reduce cost and increase efficiency, so too, it seems, have they tried to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of the factory processing line.

    According to the Oxfam report, plant processing speeds today are twice what they were in 1979, and it seems companies are unwilling to employ an adequate number of workers who might step onto the line to fill in for someone who has to use the bathroom.

    Of the four big poultry companies, only Tyson and Perdue responded to Oxfam’s request for comment on the advocacy group’s findings. Both companies maintain that the sort of treatment documented by Oxfam regarding woefully inadequate bathroom breaks is at odds with official company protocol; both at the same time attempt to hide behind a classic corporate dodge. “Since Oxfam America has declined to share the real names and locations of those making the allegations,” Tyson said in a statement, “it’s difficult for us to address them or gauge their validity.”

    You can bet whoever wrote that statement most likely has regular access to the office washroom.

  • Food
  • The Case for Banning ‘Natural’ From Food Labels

    The FDA is making another attempt to define the difficult-to-qualify term, but some consumer organizations think it should be done away with altogether.

    It’s an idea that, to anyone who has recently roamed the aisles of your run-of-the-mill grocery store, seems mind-blowing, impossible: The word “natural” should be banned from all food packaging.

    As radical as it sounds, a number of consumer advocates are calling for just that at the very moment the Food and Drug Administration gears up for the unenviable task of trying to come up with a regulatory benchmark for what, exactly, constitutes “natural.” The public comment period on the use of the word in food labeling ended on Tuesday, and the FDA will now begin to sort through some 5,000 varying ideas and opinions in search of a concise definition.

    No such legal definition exists, despite the proliferation of foods marketed as “natural” or “all-natural” or “100% natural,” on which Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year.

    Related:  Bogus Buzzword: This Popular Food Label Is Essentially Meaningless

    This may arguably be one of the most egregious consumer frauds in the country’s history, especially when you consider the polling that’s been done by Consumers Union, a leader in the “ban ‘natural’ ” movement. According to the advocacy group’s most recent survey, nearly 70 percent of consumers believe “natural” foods are cheaper than organic foods, but many mistakenly believe “natural” and “organic” mean essentially the same thing.

    According to Consumers Union, “the term ‘natural’ is organic’s imposter. Consumers attribute all sorts of benefits to the term—no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMPs, no synthetic pesticides. Organic means all those things but ‘natural’ does not. In fact, there is no standard definition for ‘natural’ foods at all.”

    Yet as any number of writers and thinkers have pointed out, from good-food guru Michael Pollan to religion scholar Alan Levinovitz, once you get past people’s hazy, feel-good associations with the word “natural” and try to give it a legally enforceable definition, you descend into a kind of philosophical rabbit hole.

    In short, you end up trapped in a revolving door, cycling between two equally plausible/implausible extremes: Either everything edible is technically “natural,” or maybe nothing is. A lot of conscientious consumers would seem to agree that the notion of “natural” Cheetos is ridiculous, but is bread made with sodium acid pyrophosphate (which you might know better as baking powder) “natural”? An army of Paleo dieters would argue that our entire system of grain-, corn-, and soy-based agriculture is anything but “natural”—at least when you consider how our bodies may have evolved over millions of years to eat foods foraged from forest and field.

    Hence, the push by Consumers Union and others to persuade the FDA to abandon its quixotic attempt and simply ban the use of “natural” on food packaging entirely. “Our national survey findings consistently show that a majority of consumers are misled by the ‘natural’ label,” the group wrote in its comments to the FDA. “We believe banning the term ‘natural’ would be the least cumbersome and least expensive course of action for the FDA to ensure that consumers are no longer misled by the label.”

    Short of that, Consumers Union wants the agency to come up with a formal definition that reflects what unwitting consumers so often say they expect the label to mean: In effect, make “natural” mean the same thing as “organic,” the use of which has been diligently defined and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than a decade.

    In addition to comments from Consumers Union and its allies, the FDA will be sifting through thousands more—some 4,860 and counting—and you can bet the packaged food industry will be countering with its own hazy take on what “natural” should mean.

    In the end, all those comments and philosophical wrangles could very well be for naught. It’s been 25 years since the FDA last tried to decide what “natural” on food labels should mean, and after it weighed the public input, the agency threw up its hands and gave up: “None of the comments provided the FDA with a specific direction to follow for developing a definition.”

  • Food
  • Mayo Is the Medium for Tackling Food’s Biggest Problems

    From Hampton Creek’s eggless Just Mayo to a new mayonnaise product made from food waste, the sandwich spread has unexpectedly become innovative.

    In the quest to build a better, more sustainable food system, who would’ve thought reimagining run-of-the-mill mayo would emerge at the forefront of reinventing the food we eat?

    Coming in mid-May to an alt-grocery store near you: Fabanaise, the vegan mayo from Sir Kensington’s, makers of such socially conscious condiments as non-GMO, no-high-fructose-corn-syrup ketchup and what the company claims is the only classic mayo on the market made with certified-humane, free-range eggs.

    What makes Fabanaise truly newsworthy, however, is not that it eschews the eggs—there are plenty of vegan mayos on the market that do that. It’s what Sir Kensington’s has found to replace them: aquafaba, which translates roughly as “bean water,” which you might better know as that glop that you’ve long summarily poured down the drain after you open a can of beans.

    Hard-core vegans are likely familiar with aquafaba—just check out The Official Aquafaba Website. But other folks may be surprised that at the right consistency, aquafaba contains a mix of “starches, proteins, and other soluble plant solids” that make for an uncanny substitution for egg whites. The Vegan Society even offers a list of its top 13 aquafaba recipes, from simple meringues to buttercream frosting.

    It would take a heckuva lot of cans of beans to collect enough bean juice to make a vegan mayo that’s set to be sold nationwide. But by partnering with Ithaca Hummus in upstate New York, Sir Kensington’s found an abundant supply of the stuff that otherwise was going to waste. In a press release touting the unveiling of Fabanaise, the company claims it is “the first and only brand to utilize this previously discarded ingredient commercially.”

    “We are thrilled to introduce a truly innovative, delicious condiment in a category that rarely sees groundbreaking invention,” Mark Ramadan, Sir Kensington’s cofounder and CEO, said in the release.  

    Well, that might be overstating the case. Just look at Hampton Creek and the wild success of its flagship product, Just Mayo. The Silicon Valley start-up has been waging its own personal campaign to revolutionize the food system by ridding it of eggs, the production of which generally wreaks environmental havoc—e.g., enormous amounts of chicken waste—while making life for egg-laying hens downright miserable.

    After a bumpy year of fending off lawsuits from big food maker Unilever and the threat of federal action by the Food and Drug Administration, Hampton Creek has emerged seemingly unscathed, announcing in March that it’s set to launch more than three dozen egg-free products, ranging from creamy vegan salad dressing to cookie dough, this year.

    But by turning to what has long been a thrown-out by-product of the bean business, Sir Kensington’s can rightfully make a claim to genuine innovation. Not only does Fabanaise allow consumers to slather their sandwiches sans the guilt vis-à-vis the egg industry, but it goes a step further in salvaging an edible ingredient that would otherwise go to waste. That’s happy eating, indeed.

  • Food
  • McDonald’s Is Cutting the Lengthy List of Ingredients That Go Into McNuggets

    The chain is promoting the new version of the item as food that ‘parents can feel good about.’

    Need further proof that changing course at a corporate behemoth like McDonald’s is akin to trying to turn an aircraft carrier on a dime? The mega fast-food chain announced that it is testing—“testing,” mind you—a “simpler recipe” for Chicken McNuggets in response to consumer demand for food made with more recognizable, easier-to-pronounce ingredients.

    Oops, did I say “announced”? More like admitted. The news was first reported by Crain’s, and while a corporate spokeswoman confirmed that McDonald’s began testing the new McNuggets at approximately 140 outposts in the Pacific Northwest in early March, she would not say whether the company plans to roll out the revamped nuggets nationwide. “We’re not making any announcement,” she said.

    At first glance, the diminutive chicken tenders, seemingly designed for greedy little fingers, might seem the simplest of foods—but not to a nation of eaters who have grown ever more conscientious about what they’re eating and what they’re feeding their kids. The current formulation of Chicken McNuggets clocks in with more than 30 ingredients, including such get-out-your-chemistry-textbook tongue twisters as sodium acid pyrophosphate, thiamin mononitrate, and monocalcium phosphate. You should always take such a profusion of polysyllabic words, so often listed without explanation, with a grain of sodium chloride—aka table salt. Not being able to recognize an ingredient doesn’t make it bad for you.

    McDonald’s has been slowly and unevenly trying to figure out how to position its drive-through grub in relation to a culinary zeitgeist that has consumers turning their backs on food they perceive as unhealthy and unsustainable. The company’s bumbling efforts to get with the times have allowed chains like Panera (and, until recently, Chipotle) to grow wildly by emphasizing their commitment to supposedly healthier, fresher, more natural fare. Such smaller competitors have been seen as partly responsible for McDonald’s lackluster financial performance the past couple years.

    Have the Golden Arches turned a corner? Last week the company reported a 35 percent increase in profits for the first quarter, exceeding analysts’ expectations and marking the third consecutive quarter of gains. Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s CEO, attributed the bonanza primarily to the company’s decision to make certain breakfast items available all day, as well as new promotional deals such as “McPick 2,” according to The New York Times. But he also said the chain’s ballyhooed commitment to sourcing cage-free eggs—another “feel-good fast food” move—was responsible for bringing more Mickey D’s customers back into the fold.

    He’s probably right, but you’ll pardon my eye rolling. Just as the cage-free-egg commitment can be argued to be a bit deceptive, as the changeover won’t be complete until at least 2025, so too does McDonald’s appear to be counting on consumer confusion in hawking its new Chicken McNuggets. As Crain’s reports, promotional material in the test markets highlights that the revamped nuggets don’t contain artificial colors or flavors—but neither does the current recipe.

    While the McDonald’s corporate rep declined to provide Crain’s with the new recipe—so much for transparency—it’s highly doubtful that the McNuggets have been reformulated to improve their nutrition profile: A six-piece order of original Chicken McNuggets paired with ranch dipping sauce and a side of medium fries packs in 730 calories and a hefty 46 grams of fat.

  • Food
  • We Aren’t Winning the Fight Against Obesity

    New data show that increased public awareness and policy changes have not succeeded in lowering rates.

    The news in early 2014 was heartening, a rare bright spot in the steady, dismal drumbeat of statistics surrounding what seemed to be a nation increasingly on the losing side of the battle of the bulge. A headline in The New York Times proclaimed “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade,” with the article declaring that the numbers offered “the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic.”

    Not so fast.

    Results of an analysis published today in the journal Obesity paint a decidedly different—and more alarming—picture. As the team of scientists, led by public-health researchers from Duke University, conclude: “There is no evidence of a decline in obesity prevalence in any age group, despite substantial clinical and policy efforts targeting the issue.”

    The study, which was based on data collected from a large, biannual federal health and nutrition survey, found that the prevalence of obesity among children ages two to 19 has, at best, hit a plateau during the past few years, but the trend lines do not appear to be reversing. More troubling yet, the rate of children with severe obesity—roughly defined as a body mass index of 40 or above—appears to have increased nearly every year since 1999.

    Addressing the numbers overall and what they seem to say about the crisis of childhood obesity in America, the study’s lead author, Asheley Cockrell Skinner, a researcher in the department of medicine at Duke, told Politico: “Maybe we’re seeing a leveling off, but we’re certainly not seeing a decline. If we assume that our goal out of policy is to reduce the prevalence [of childhood obesity], that’s a goal we’re not meeting.”

    Indeed, that would seem somewhat surprising, what with any number of highly publicized initiatives specifically targeted to stem the crisis—the most notable of which has arguably been first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the commensurate revamping of federal policy to get schools to stop serving soda and other junk food to kids.

    But it would be a mistake, the researchers argue, to conclude that such programs have failed. The prevalence of childhood obesity may very well have been even higher in the absence of targeted interventions. Yet, in the face of numbers that show more than a third of American children are overweight and more than 26 percent are obese—numbers that have hardly budged over the past decade, according to the most recent analysis—the most logical takeaway would seem to be that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to combat the crisis.

    So what would a get-serious approach to fighting childhood obesity look like? For starters, how about adopting a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages like the one implemented in Mexico? While the Supreme Court–sanctioned notion of “corporate free speech” makes it difficult to restrict junk food advertising in the U.S., surely we don’t need to subsidize it, right? We should eliminate the corporate tax write-off for ads that market unhealthy foods to kids. An analysis published last year by a team of leading public-health experts found both interventions were among the most cost-effective ways to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity while saving billions of dollars in health-care costs.

    No doubt trying to implement such measures would provoke the full fury of the soda and junk-food industries, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Children who are overweight or obese at three to five years old, for example, are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults—meaning that if we don’t double down on our efforts to fight the childhood obesity epidemic, we could be dealing with the fallout for decades.  

  • Food
  • What’s for Breakfast? How About Some Monsanto Weed Killer?

    A study finds the world’s most widely used herbicide turning up in a bunch of morning favorites.

    Just how much of Monsanto’s most popular weed killer are you eating every morning for breakfast?

    In an unsettling report released Tuesday by the Alliance for Natural Health, the nonprofit advocacy group details the results of a study that shows a host of breakfast foods—from cereal to eggs to coffee creamer—contain residues of glyphosate, the chemical herbicide more commonly known by Monsanto’s trade name for it, Roundup. The report comes one year after the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization made headlines by classifying glyphosate, which has long been regarded by U.S. regulators as posing little risk to public health, as a probable human carcinogen.

    The ANH tested 24 store-bought breakfast items, including organic products, and found glyophosate residues in almost half of them. Given that glyphosate is the most widely used agrochemical on the market, sprayed on upwards of 90 percent of staple crops such as corn and soybeans, the findings might at first glance seem like a surprise that really comes as no surprise.

    But what’s alarming is that glyphosate residues were found on a bunch of products that either in and of themselves or based on their primary ingredients aren’t typically associated with heavy use of the herbicide. Conventionally grown wheat, for example, which would be used to make whole-wheat bread, isn’t a crop on which glyphosate is often heavily applied, and you’d certainly expect organic multigrain bagels to be free of the chemical. Yet both were shown to have traces of the herbicide. Furthermore, the ANH analysis found glyphosate in organic dairy-based coffee creamer and eggs—and the amount detected in cage-free organic eggs actually exceeded the federal government’s tolerance levels for the chemical. Overall, the results further underscore the out-of-control pervasiveness of glyphosate across the American farmscape.

    So how do the results of the ANH tests compare with the federal government’s own tests of the amount of glyphosate lingering in our food? Good question. In a classic case of the feds’ all-too-typical cart-before-the-horse approach to regulating agrochemicals, big chemical makers like Monsanto have been allowed to nearly flood the market with glyphosate for the past 20 years, yet it wasn’t until this past February that the Food and Drug Administration announced it would finally begin testing food sold in the U.S. for glyphosate residue. (Meanwhile, the level of acceptable residue, which is set by the Environmental Protection Agency, was relaxed a few years ago.)

    Thus, it’s hard to say how worried the average American should be about scarfing down his morning bowl of glyphosate-laced corn flakes or sipping his coffee spiked with glyphosate-laced creamer. The ANH freely acknowledges that the amounts of glyphosate found in the products it tested all fall well below the levels the federal government deems acceptable for each specific food, with the exception of those eggs. Yet whether those levels are stringent enough to protect public health is a topic of increasingly intense debate, especially in the wake of glyphosate’s designation as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. As the ANH report points out, the standards set by the EPA for glyphosate “have not been rigorously tested for all foods and all age groups. Nor have the effects of other [chemical] ingredients in glyphosate formulations been evaluated.” 

    “Evidence linking glyphosate with the increased incidence of a host of cancers is reason for immediate reevaluation by the EPA and FDA,” the authors added.

  • Food
  • Big Soda Wins in California: Beverage Tax Dies in Legislature

    Health advocates will likely have to wait until next year to try again.

    It appears the effort to pass a statewide two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has died in California, at least for this year. As the Sacramento Bee reported on Wednesday, the bill’s demise occurred with the legislative equivalent of a whimper: Its sponsor in the state assembly pulled the bill before it could even come up for a vote in committee, owing to a lack of support among fellow lawmakers.

    It’s a sad, if not unsurprising, setback for public health advocates who have become increasingly vocal in pressing for a meaningful tax that might cut consumption of sugary drinks while at the same time raising money to fight a raging epidemic of obesity and its related ills. Because despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, and an overwhelming scientific consensus that the empty, excess calories in soda and other sugar-laden beverages are linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, the population at large appears to remain stubbornly opposed to taxing soda. One survey found that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor such a tax.

    RELATED:  National Soda Tax Would Save Half a Million Kids From Obesity—and Save Money Too

    Big soda’s tooth-and-nail fight against soda taxes and other efforts to rein in consumption has long drawn comparisons to the battle big tobacco waged a generation ago against similar regulations. But it’s funny how a chance encounter with a stack of old magazines could give a sort of Technicolor resonance to those comparisons.

    This past weekend as my husband and I were browsing in a used bookstore, we came upon a trove of TV Guides from the mid-1980s. To quote my grandmother: What a hoot! Yet even as we indulged in a kind of trippy time travel, sifting through the dusty pop culture vestiges of our analog youth—“How to Tell TV’s Good Music Videos from Bad Ones” and “NBC’s The Golden Girls: The Best New Comedy of the Season”—a dawning realization occurred: Holy crap, there are a lot of cigarette ads.

    Amid the flurry of full-color ads of happy smokers sailing yachts, playing in the snow, and racing motorcycles, plus one hunk seeming to rappel out of a helicopter onto a mountaintop—amid the promises of lower tar, more flavor, or a new “crush-proof” box—one ad stood out the most: a double-page, black-and-white, all-text ad from R.J. Reynolds that was headlined, “Passive smoking: An active controversy.”

    After several paragraphs trying to debunk the “sensational media coverage” of studies showing that secondhand smoke might be harmful even to nonsmokers, the tobacco giant concludes: “For today, many nonsmokers who once saw cigarette smoke merely as an annoyance now view it as a threat to their health. Their growing alarm is being translated into heightened social strife and unfair anti-smoker legislation. We believe these actions are unwarranted by the scientific facts—and that it is rhetoric, more than research, which makes passive smoking an active controversy.”

    Thirty years—and a host of tobacco taxes—later, it can be hard to imagine just how entwined big tobacco and its products were with American culture. Furthermore, the industry was wildly successful at capitalizing on its ubiquitous presence and slick, ad-driven messages of fun, freedom, and harmless pleasure in order to convince the public to cast a skeptical eye on the warnings of a bunch of egghead doctors and to object to government efforts to curb smoking, for years—decades even—after the first studies began to link smoking to cancer and other diseases.

    No, that science never determined that smoking was the only cause of cancer, or even lung cancer, just as big soda has (correctly) pointed out that there’s no evidence drinking soda in and of itself is the sole cause of excessive weight gain or, say, type 2 diabetes. But as David Just, codirector of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics, put it bluntly late last year: “There are no good arguments for soda in your diet.” And that was after he’d released a study that seemed to support big soda’s claim that we can’t just pin the entire obesity epidemic on Coke and Pepsi.

    There’s little doubt that soda and other sugary beverages are at least partly to blame, however. As such, it only seems fair that they be taxed to help shoulder at least a fraction of the staggering health care costs associated with the epidemic of obesity-related disease, estimated at between $147 billion to $210 billion each year. California’s proposed soda tax would’ve been a step in the right direction. Let’s hope its supporters take heart and try again next year.

  • Food
  • Buyer Beware: The 12 Most Pesticide-Contaminated Fruits and Veggies

    The Environmental Working Group’s annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ list helps chemical-wary shoppers navigate the produce aisle.

    With farmers market season upon us, anyone looking for extra incentive to get up early on Saturday to check out the organic offerings from local growers might want to take a gander at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” the organization’s annual roundup of conventionally grown produce most likely to be contaminated with pesticides.

    That plural—pesticides—is no joke. Despite growing consumer demand for healthier, more sustainably grown food, many samples of the most contaminated produce tested positive for residues from not one but two or more chemical pesticides. A single sample of strawberries contained residues from a whopping 17 different pesticides.

    The EWG’s new list, released Tuesday, is based on tests conducted in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on close to 7,000 samples. While nearly three-quarters of those samples contained residue from at least one pesticide, the advocacy group crunched the numbers to once again come up with its list of the dozen different fruits and veggies that chemical-conscious consumers should be most wary of. So, without further ado...

    1. Strawberries
    2. Apples
    3. Nectarines
    4. Peaches
    5. Celery
    6. Grapes
    7. Cherries
    8. Spinach
    9. Tomatoes
    10. Sweet bell peppers
    11. Cherry tomatoes
    12. Cucumbers

    This year, the group awarded what might be called two dishonorable mentions as well, or what the EWG categorizes as “Dirty Dozen Plus.” Neither hot peppers nor leafy greens (including kale and collard greens) technically meets the group’s criteria for the “Dirty Dozen,” but both types of produce were shown to be frequently contaminated with pesticides that are considered to be particularly toxic.

    No doubt responding to past criticism that such lists are liable to scare shoppers to steer clear of the produce aisle altogether, the EWG takes pains to point out that the health benefits of consuming at least three recommended servings of vegetables per day and two of fruit far outweigh the risk of eating pesticide-laced produce. Nevertheless, federal regulations governing pesticide use remain much less stringent than what many independent experts believe would adequately protect public health—“tolerance” levels are set by the Environmental Protection Agency based on exposures that could cause injury in a worker-related incident—and do not protect against the health risks attributed to low-level pesticide exposures, such as cancer, hormone disruption, and neurological development problems in children. As the EWG put it: “Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500 mph speed limit. If the rules of the road are so loose that it’s impossible to violate them, then nobody can feel safe.”

    In the absence of stronger federal safeguards against pesticide abuse, the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list and its companion “Clean Fifteen” list of relatively pesticide-free fruits and vegetables continues to provide shoppers with the kind of transparency and information with which to make the educated choices consumers increasingly want.

    No, not even I, who write about this sort of thing for a living, buy all organic all the time. But I’ve long carried the EWG’s list around in my head, opting to spend a bit more, say, for strawberries that are organically grown (and thus pesticide-free) while settling for conventionally grown onions—number six on the EWG’s “Clean Fifteen”—so as not to break the bank. Although I do love those sweet yellow onions at my local farmers market.

  • Food