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Could Food Trucks Help Feed the Homeless?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Food
  • Chunky Cartoon Characters Could Make for Chunkier Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The so-called DARK Act has turned even darker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Whole Foods, say it isn’t so!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Food
  • Could You Learn to Love Genetically Modified Bacon?

    Two different pork projects point to two different answers to the question.

    Scientific breakthrough or sci-fi nightmare: That’s the question society has been grappling with in regard to genetic modification for more than a generation now, with pro- and anti-GMO camps seemingly ever more entrenched in their respective opinions—leaving a wide swath of the public in the confused middle. But have scientists and other GMO advocates hit on a way to convince a wary public to accept genetically modified livestock as the wave of the future?

    Even as G.M. crops have overtaken the American farmscape since their introduction in the mid-1990s, with genetically modified corn and soy now accounting for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of plantings, the American public at large—and, indeed, consumers worldwide—have remained queasy at the prospect of genetically modified beef or pork or even farm-raised fish. No country in the world has given the regulatory green light to selling G.M. animals for human consumption. The closest prospect, transgene salmon engineered for faster growth, has been waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 20 years.

    But two recent developments half a world apart that hope to bring G.M. pork to market demonstrate just how fluid our opinion of genetically modified animals might be, depending on the circumstance.

    In one key respect, the projects are similar: Instead of inserting genes from other species into the pigs’ DNA to confer a desired trait, scientists employ “gene editing,” which alters the animals’ genetic code. Proponents say gene editing is simply a fast-track version of conventional breeding techniques. After all, farm animals have long been bred for, say, size or fertility. But whereas “perfecting” a breed via selective breeding might take decades, gene editing can introduce a desired trait with what is essentially a snip of the genetic scissors. Because no foreign genetic material is being introduced, it seems that products from such animals may not be subject to the same regulations as other genetically engineered foods.

    “There are some signs that government agencies will view [gene editing] more leniently than they do conventional forms of genetic modification,” Nature reported. “[R]egulators in the United States and Germany have already declared that a few gene-edited crops fall outside their purview because no new DNA has been incorporated into the genome.”

    Does that terrify you? Well, consider the following two real-world examples.

    The first project hails from South Korea and China, and if you’re already skeptical of GMOs, it’s probably going to set your stomach churning. According to Nature, scientists have developed a “double-muscled pig” by interfering with the gene that inhibits muscle growth in the animal. Such a pig could be a boon to pork producers, yielding more meat, that’s leaner to boot. However, “birthing difficulties result from the piglets’ large size,” according to Nature. “And only 13 of the 32 lived to 8 months old.” Just two pigs are still living, and only one is in good health.


    Scientists hope to ameliorate some of those Frankenstein issues by artificially inseminating normal pigs with the sperm of the double-muscled ones—which one imagines would result in not-quite-double the pork.

    In the U.K., a different gene-editing pig project is under way. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute are working to develop hogs that are resistant to African swine fever, which has been dubbed “pig Ebola” and is threatening pork production in Eastern Europe. By precisely “editing” a single letter of the pigs’ genetic code to more closely resemble that of a warthog, researchers hope to confer the warthog’s natural resistance to the fever to domestic pigs.

    “These are happy animals,” Bruce Whitelaw, head of the research team at the institute, told The Guardian as he surveyed a newborn litter of G.M. piglets. “They have a lovely sheen on them; their tails are wagging away.”

    “We’re not trying to make huge pigs, we’re trying to make healthier ones,” he continued. “I’d be staggered if anyone said, ‘No, I don’t want my animal to be healthier.’ ”

    As the welfare of livestock has become the focus of increasing public concern, the tack of Whitelaw and researchers like him is arguably ingenious: If genetic science can convince the rest of us that it’s creating happier, healthier animals—and not just freakish meat factories—might that pave the way to G.M. bacon coming soon to a supermarket near you?

  • Food
  • Big Food Is Trying to Dupe You Into Loving Industrial Agriculture

    A new report shines a light on the food industry's PR tactics.

    Moms campaigning to raise awareness of pesticide use in industrial agriculture are elitist control freaks; organic farming uses dangerous chemicals too. And those antibiotic-resistant superbugs you’ve been hearing about on factory farms? Don’t worry, the livestock industry has it all under control.

    Those are just some of the demonstrably outrageous messages that have been cropping up across the media landscape in relation to the ongoing cultural conversation about the food we eat, how it's raised, and the effects it has on our health and the health of our environment. As more consumers than ever become aware of the staggering social and ecological costs associated with industrial-scale agriculture, they’ve increasingly been turning to things like organic and locally grown food. Guess who’s none too happy about that? 

    A report released Tuesday by Real Food Media Project, Friends of the Earth, and U.S. Right to Know details how ag-tech giants such as Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and DuPont—not to mention corporate heavy-hitters ranging from Coca-Cola to General Mills and powerful lobbying groups such as the American Beverage Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—are spending millions to try to dissuade consumers from leaving their products behind. They’re intent on assuring you, dear reader, that the chemically laden, environmentally destructive, cost-cutting, GMO-reliant system of industrial farming that dominates American agriculture is all A-OK.

    But really, would you trust the CEO of Monsanto telling you that genetically modified crops are not just environmentally friendly but the answer to feeding the world’s hungry? Probably not. What about if that message came from the seemingly friendly folks at the “Center for Food Integrity”?

    In an effort to take control of public opinion on issues ranging from the proposed mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients on food packaging to whether organic farming really is more sustainable, the conventional food industry is spending tens of millions of dollars a year trying to get inside your head. Its Trojan horse of choice? Front groups with often deceptively innocuous-sounding names—like Center for Consumer Freedom, Protect the Harvest or Alliance for Food, and Farming.

    “The food industry is using a host of covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind the scenes to promote corporate interests,” Anna Lappé, founder of the Real Food Media Project, said in a statement.

    The eye-opening report can only just begin to document the extent to which these front groups, funded in most cases exclusively by the food corporations and overseen by boards of directors packed with industry insiders, are waging a stealth campaign to counter growing consumer wariness about conventional agriculture. Their tactics go far beyond supplying industry-friendly spokespeople as sources for journalists. The Alliance for Food and Farming, for example, launched a website,, that greets viewers with the message “Your fruits and veggies are safer than you think,” while Keep Food Affordable has sponsored conferences for the BlogHer Network with the intent of helping so-called mommy bloggers to “sort through the myths” and “gather third-party facts” about the safety of the conventional food supply. Meanwhile, neither group makes clear that it is founded and funded by Big Ag.

    The report is worth reading, if only to remind ourselves just how insidious the PR machinations of big food and Big Ag can be. As report coauthor Stacy Malkan puts it, “To have an honest conversation about the future of our food system, it’s crucial for consumers and news producers to understand the alarming extent of industry influence on media coverage and to do what we can to make sure we’re hearing the real story, not spin.”

  • Food
  • Roundup’s Lesser-Known Cousin Is Coming to a Farm Near You

    It’s the next wave in a revolution of GMO crops—and it’s happening right under our noses.

    One of the world’s leading groups of cancer experts has just classified the industrial herbicide 2,4-D as a possible human carcinogen, and that’s got one of the world’s biggest ag-tech companies in an uproar. But why should we care about some corporate kerfuffle? 

    Because the U.S. is about to be deluged with 2,4-D—an herbicide similar to Roundup but lacking the comfort of a consumer-facing, trademarked name. 

    This week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, released the results of its evaluation of three agricultural chemicals, including 2,4-D. The agency’s designation of the herbicide as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” is based on a review of the existing scientific evidence, which it deems “inadequate” in humans and “limited” in animal experiments—hence the emphasis on “possibly” carcinogenic. Nevertheless, the agency says, “There is strong evidence that 2,4-D induces oxidative stress, a mechanism that can operate in humans, and moderate evidence that 2,4-D causes immunosuppression, based on in vivo and in vitro studies.”

    No surprise: Ag-tech giant Dow AgroSciences has reacted swiftly, calling the findings hogwash. The company says the IARC’s conclusions are “inconsistent with government findings in nearly 100 countries,” according to the Midland Daily News.

    RELATED: France Bans the World’s Leading Herbicide From Garden Stores

    “No herbicide has been more thoroughly studied, and no national regulatory body in the world considers 2,4-D a carcinogen,” a Dow AgroSciences spokesman said in a statement.

    So, Why Should You Care? It’s not as though Dow is an impartial observer in all this. The company has millions of dollars in profit at stake in keeping farmers from worrying too much about dumping countless pounds of 2,4-D on their fields. Dow is in the midst of rolling out the next generation of genetically modified crops—its Enlist Duo patented line of crops—which are engineered to withstand heavy application of 2,4-D as well as the herbicide glyphosate, itself deemed a possible human carcinogen by the IARC a few months ago. It’s all part of a dramatic escalation of the ag-tech industry’s mad-scientist warfare on Mother Nature. In the late 1990s, Monsanto “revolutionized” agriculture with its introduction of Roundup Ready crops, which were genetically modified to tolerate being soaked in glyphosate.

    American consumers appear to be growing ever more wary of GMO crops, with an increasingly vocal number demanding the government step in and require companies to label any food that contains GMO ingredients. But the absence of such labeling thus far has arguably allowed Big Ag to engineer one of the most sweeping overhauls of agricultural production in the nation’s history—right under our noses. From virtually nothing just 20 years ago, today a staggering 90 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified.

    How has that worked out? As farmers have become more reliant than ever on glyphosate, they’ve unwittingly created a scourge of “superweeds” that have naturally developed their own resistance to the herbicide. Just as the overreliance of the livestock industry on antibiotics has given rise to the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, some areas of the country are now plagued by weeds that glyphosate alone just can’t kill.

    Big Ag’s answer to this crisis (which only seems logical if you’re, well, a company whose profits depend on selling massive amounts of GMO seeds and the chemicals to go with them) has been to ramp up the chemical assault. Hence, Dow’s Enlist Duo, which combines glyphosate with 2,4-D in a bid to combat those resilient monster weeds.

    According to the USDA, the use of Dow’s new crop “system” will result in a tripling of the amount of 2,4-D being sprayed by 2020, and the increase could be as much as sixfold. Agricultural communities in areas where 2,4-D-resistant crops are planted would be exposed to eight times the amount of the “possible human carcinogen” they are now. Nevertheless, the EPA in April expanded its approval of the use of Enlist Duo across an additional nine states, from North Dakota to Louisiana, bringing the total number of states where the chemical cocktail is approved to 15.

    That may not sound like mad science to Dow—or to the EPA, for that matter—but it does to plenty of others, including Mary Ellen Kustin, a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

    “We have known for decades that 2,4-D is harmful to the environment and human health, especially for the farmers and farmworkers applying these chemicals to crops,” Kustin said in a statement. “Now that farmers are planting 2,4-D-tolerant GMO crops, this herbicide is slated to explode in use much the way glyphosate did with the first generation of GMO crops. And we know from experience—and basic biology—that weeds will soon grow resistant to these herbicides, making GMO crop growers only more dependent on the next chemical fix.”

  • Food
  • Subway Ditches Artificial Colors, but a More Serious Health Concern Lingers [UPDATED]

    The fast-food behemoth may have removed the multiple additives from its subs, but what about all those people dying from antibiotic-resistant infections?

    UPDATED June 24, 2015 
    Subway Public Relations Manager Kevin Kane responded via email to our request for comment after the story was published: “Our commitment to serve high quality, affordable food to our customers has always been a cornerstone of the Subway brand. We support the elimination of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics. This will take time and we continue to work with our suppliers to reach that goal.”

    In a bid to avert what experts warn could be a major public health crisis, a broad coalition of public health, environmental, and other groups is calling on fast-food giant Subway to stop serving meat raised with excessive antibiotics.

    The coalition of nearly 60 groups, including organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, delivered a letter Tuesday to Subway’s president and CEO, Fred DeLuca, urging the chain to act immediately to end the routine use of medically important antibiotics in the production of chicken and to commit to a timetable to phase out such use in all the meat Subway sells, including turkey, beef, and pork.

    RELATED: America's Second-Largest Retail Chain Is Cutting Antibiotics From Its Meat

    No doubt, as the biggest restaurant chain in the history of the world, a major shift by Subway in sourcing meat raised without the egregious use of antibiotics could have a major impact on the livestock industry. But as significant as such a move would be, it only highlights the alarming dysfunction of our elected officials in Washington and the agencies they control in taking a less-than-lackadaisical approach to addressing one of the most urgent—and utterly preventable—public health menaces of our time.

    So, Why Should You Care? As the coalition’s letter to Subway’s CEO cites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 of them die. Worldwide, that total spikes to 700,000 deaths. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that if serious action isn’t taken, some 10 million people a year could die as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050, at a staggering cost of $100 trillion in lost economic output. 

    “Far from being an apocalyptic fantasy,” the World Health Organization has warned, “a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill,…is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

    Sounds super scary, right? I mean, we should do something about it—fast. But really, we're not, even though we know what the problem is.

    In essence, the livestock industry has been routinely feeding its animals low doses of antibiotics for decades, including antibiotics used to treat people, to make the animals grow bigger and to counter increasingly unsanitary living conditions as factory farms have sought to crowd ever more living creatures into cramped quarters.

    According to most estimates, 70 to 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used not to treat people, or even sick animals, but simply to boost the productivity and efficiency of livestock operations. As a result, this profligate use of what were once considered miracle drugs for their ability to cure common and sometimes fatal infections has led to an increasing number of microbes that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

    But the Food and Drug Administration, undoubtedly stymied by politicians with close ties to the livestock industry, has taken only halting action to address the problem. A bill introduced on Capitol Hill earlier this year by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., and Susan Collins, R.-Maine, would have closed some gaping loopholes in the FDA’s policy. After the predictable self-congratulatory press releases and a flurry of media attention, the bill seemed to almost immediately disappear into the black hole of legislative purgatory. Today the website gives it a zero percent chance of being enacted.

    Thus, public health advocates and other concerned groups have had to resort to a piecemeal battle: They're trying to persuade the food industry itself to take responsible action. There have been some notable successes: Two of the country’s largest poultry producers, Tyson and Purdue, have agreed to stop using medically important antibiotics in their operations, while McDonald’s announced in March that it would stop serving chicken raised with human antibiotics.

    The efforts of these groups deserve a big round of applause, but when it comes to preserving the efficacy of some of the most important medicines known to humankind, should we have to rely on convincing a bunch of corporate CEOs that it’s the right thing to do?

  • Food