This month, McDonald's announced that it plans to start transitioning to sustainable beef by 2016, with the goal of eventually making all of its burgers from sustainable meat. But the fast-food chain has yet to specify what, exactly, it means by "sustainable." The company is working with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a stakeholder group that includes Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund, to come up with a definition, and expects to announce further details of its plans in the spring. But food experts say that unless McDonald's stops purchasing cows that are fed antibiotics to ward off disease in overcrowded feed lots, the promise will be an empty one. It's not an unattainable goal—other chains that buy antibiotic-free beef, including Chipotle and Shake Shack, say they've been able to do so without significantly raising costs. But McDonald's isn't on board yet.
When Mother Jones asked McDonald's whether it plans to cease using antibiotic-fed beef, a spokesman said, "McDonald's will continue to rely on the sound science derived from this group of expert advisers including academia, suppliers, animal health and welfare experts, and the FDA, as we continue to review our policy." According to Hal Hamilton, founder of the Sustainable Food Laboratory, who is helping McDonald's develop its sustainability plan, the company "definitely cares about antibiotics and other feed additives, and they would like to achieve a system that avoids things that worry consumers, but I don't think they've made any specific policies."
Food experts say that could be a problem. "You can't have sustainable production if you're using antibiotics other than very, very occasionally, and only when there's a diagnosed clinical disease," says Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a network of health professionals. "In the case of cattle, they shouldn't be in feed at all." McDonald's has a written policy that aims to reduce antibiotic use, but the policy has been criticized for having major loopholes—such as allowing farmers to feed cows antibiotics for disease prevention, rather than merely treatment. (The McDonald's spokesman says, "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals, using antibiotics to treat, prevent, and control disease in food-producing animals.")
Last December, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that "it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary," given that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock farms, and overuse of these drugs poses a demonstrated threat to public health. For example, some women have been afflicted by antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections that have been linked to overuse of antibiotics in poultry. But sustainability experts say the FDA's new guidance is weak, since not only does it allow antibiotics to be used for prevention, but the recommendations are voluntary.
"The government kind of punted on this issue when it announced voluntary standards," says journalist Michael Pollan, noting that it's hard for the government to tackle two big industries at the same time—Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. "But if McDonald's committed to getting rid of antibiotics, that would be a huge deal, it would change the industry."
Industry experts say that it's definitely possible for McDonald's to make this change. When Chipotle switched to sustainable, antibiotic-free beef, it increased prices by only about 25 to 50 cents per burrito. (The price of antibiotic-free pork is a bit higher.) "Our customers are willing to pay a little more for food they recognize as being better," says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. He notes that Chipotle does have some trouble getting the antibiotic-free supply to meet its demand, but adds: "Having more companies use this kind of meat would likely result in faster changes within the supply system, and that could be a good thing." Shake Shack, which has been serving antibiotic-free beef since the chain opened, says it only costs 15 to 20 percent more than regular beef. The costs are higher, spokesman Edwin Bragg says, but notes that McDonald's could change that. "If a restaurant company of McDonald's size could do this on a large scale, [it] could change the paradigm."
And Pollan says that this change needs to come sooner, rather than later: "I think it's just hitting us. We're now dealing with infectious microbes that are resistant to most antibiotics we have. We're already paying a price and it's going to get worse."
Lately, fitness-minded Americans have started wearing sporty wrist-band devices that track tons of data: Weight, mile splits, steps taken per day, sleep quality, sexual activity, calories burned—sometimes, even GPS location. People use this data to keep track of their health, and are able send the information to various websites and apps. But this sensitive, personal data could end up in the hands of corporations looking to target these users with advertising, get credit ratings, or determine insurance rates. In other words, that device could start spying on you—and the Federal Trade Commission is worried.
"Health data from [a woman's] connected device, may be collected and then sold to data brokers and other companies she does not know exist," Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau for Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said in a speech on Tuesday for Data Privacy Day. "These companies could use her information to market other products and services to her; make decisions about her eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance; and share with yet other companies. And many of these companies may not maintain reasonable safeguards to protect the data they maintain about her."
Several major US-based fitness device companies contacted by Mother Jones—Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike—say they don't sell personally identifiable information collected from fitness devices. But privacy advocates warn that the policies of these firms could allow them to sell data, if they ever choose to do so.
A hospital in Afghanistan's Parwan province, which cost US taxpayers almost $600,000, is so ill-equipped, hospital staff are washing newborn infants using untreated river water, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported on Wednesday. SIGAR's visit, which was conducted in November 2013 (photos here), also found mold and mildew throughout the hospital; a lack of furniture and equipment; a serious risk for earthquake damage; and only enough electricity to operate three light bulbs in the entire facility.
In 2009, a local Afghan contractor, Shafi Hakimi Construction Company, was commissioned to build Salang Hospital as part of a Department of Defense-funded reconstruction program. When a US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) task force first inspected the hospital when it was under construction in 2012, they determined it had major problems and residents of Salang district wouldn't have adequate healthcare until they were fixed. In November 2012, the contractor was paid in full. But when SIGAR inspected a year later, it found "the deficiencies identified by the task force had not been corrected."
NBC News, which recently visited the facility, observed "desperate" hospital staff attempting to administer dental care to a 12-year-old girl—even though they only had access to six pieces of rusty dental equipment. As NBC described it: "The girl was shivering with fear, and began crying after the doctor gave her a shot in her gums. Another man held her still as Sarwy swiftly tilted her head back, opened her mouth and yanked out one of her teeth with a pair of pliers."
Hospital staff told SIGAR that they are paying about $18 a month of their own money to a neighbor, in order to get enough electricity to operate the three light-bulbs in the hospital. Additionally, SIGAR found that the contractor built the hospital two stories high, instead of one, without authorization from US officials or further study. "The hospital does not serve the medical needs of the people of Salang district as intended and may be a danger to its patients and staff because of the potential for the structure’s collapse in an earthquake," the report reads.
This account differs sharply with a press release put out by US Forces-Afghanistan yesterday, which argued that despite the SIGAR report, "the facility is currently providing improved medical services" and noted that, "local ministry officials are currently in the process of hiring a surgeon and other staff and have installed a solar power generation unit." John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told NBC, "either no one from USFOR-A has actually visited this facility recently or USFOR-A is living in an alternate reality."
Mother Jones has reached out to US Forces-Afghanistan to find out when they last visited the facility. According to a January 21 US Army document obtained by Mother Jones, US forces have been unable to conduct a physical re-inspection of the hospital since the SIGAR notified them of their findings on January 3, due to "reduced combat forces [and] threats in the area."
If you're in a monogamous relationship and you come home at 4 a.m. with no explanation, your significant other may wonder where you've been. According to the FBI, some jealous lovers are going straight to the nuclear option: hiring hackers to find your email password.
On Friday, federal prosecutors charged two Arkansas men, Mark Anthony Townsend and Joshua Alan Tabor, with operating a business that illegally obtained email passwords for customers who hoped to catch cheating spouses. The pair's company, needapassword.com, breached nearly 6,000 email accounts, including some hosted by Google and Yahoo, according to the indictments. Townsend, 49, allegedly established the website, which operated as recently as July 2013 and asked $50 to $350 per password. Tabor, 29, allegedly helped Townsend hack into the accounts. Both men are charged with accessing a protected computer without authorization and facilitating further access by others, a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence.
"Is your spouse cheating with someone? Do you know who they are? You have the right to read the personal thoughts your spouse is writing to others," Townsend and Tabor's website advertised last April, according to the FBI. The men allegedly offered to obtain passwords to Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and other accounts. (You can view a version of the site here.) Tabor and Townsend were caught hacking into Yahoo and Gmail accounts, according to the indictments. Attorneys for the two men did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
In the indictments, the FBI notes that the scheme was dependent on a target logging into his or her email and checking it. A Google spokeswoman says that it appears that its servers weren't directly hacked; instead, users' individual Gmail accounts were hijacked using a technique called spear phishing, in which a hacker sends a fake email that tricks an account owner into providing sensitive information. "We have a wide variety of protections in place at all times to guard our users against account hijacking," the Google spokeswoman said. A Yahoo spokeswoman adds, "Yahoo takes the security of our users very seriously."
After gaining access to an email account, the hackers would send a screenshot of the inbox to the customer as proof, and then solicit payment via Paypal for the password, according to the indictment. One bank account the FBI believes to be associated with the defendants received approximately $150,000 in about a year and a half. According to the FBI, Townsend used a computer system that belonged to the fire department in his home town of Cedarville, Arkansas, where he was a volunteer for the local search and rescue team.
The FBI notes that the scheme wasn't always successful: An agent from the Los Angeles field office interviewed a customer identified in the indictment and search warrant as, "J.B.," who suspected her boyfriend of not being faithful. She signed up for the site, but received a message saying that although the site had obtained a password, it wasn't working: "Maybe he typed it wrong or he's suspicious."
The feds aren't just cracking down on people who allegedly do the hacking, they're going after customers too: indictments unrelated to the "needapassword" case were issued last week against three Americans who paid between $1,011 and $21,675 to hackers in order to obtain email passwords.
Up until now, tech companies have only been allowed to report a very rough figure on the number of national security letters they receive, and the number of users affected. (The FBI and other agencies use these secret requests to force businesses to hand over certain customer records.) Meanwhile, firms like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others have been forbidden from sharing any information on orders they receive via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. Now, the New York Times reports:
Companies will be able to disclose the existence of FISA court orders. But they must choose between being more specific about the number of demands or about the type of demands. Companies that want to disclose the number of FISA orders and national security letters separately can do so as long as they only publish in increments of 1,000. Or, companies can narrow the figure to increments of 250, but only if they lump FISA court orders and national security letters together.
"It's a pretty absurdly tiny incremental increase in transparency," Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who focuses on privacy and civil liberties issues, tweeted Monday. Not only are tech companies still barred from reporting the government requests they receive in real time—there's a six-month delay—but the information they are now allowed to disclose still tells Americans little about the requests the government is making. For example, the administration's now policy only allows FISA orders to be reported under "content" and "non-content" categories. And the number of accounts affected can still only be disclosed in ranges of 1,000.
This week, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated that, "We need to say what data is being given," after revealing that his company is under a government gag order. The president's surveillance advisory board recommended in December that he reform the process by requiring judicial approval before sending national security letters. (Judicial approval is currently not required.) And members of Congress have introduced a bill that would limit the kinds of records that can be obtained. But the administration has yet to take meaningful steps at surveillance reform.
UPDATE, Tuesday, January 28, 2014: Nate Cardozo, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sent Mother Jones another reason Obama's announcement doesn't go far enough: "The deal won't allow the companies to disclose which legal authorities the government is using in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We need that information especially, since we're currently trying to reform those very laws. True transparency—as well as the First Amendment—requires that companies be allowed to map the scope of the United States government's surveillance apparatus, including the legal authorities it claims to rely on."