Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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Is Your Favorite Organic Egg Brand a Factory Farm in Disguise?

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

The chickens pictured on the egg producer Chino Valley Ranchers' Simply Organic site look pretty happy. And from the description of their digs, it sounds like they'd have good reason to be: "When you walk into the chicken houses and you see all the birds scratching around in the dirt, running around, flapping their wings and hear the soft clucking from each of them, you can feel their contentment," the copy below the little fuzzballs reads. "It is the way nature intended."

An industrial henhouse jam-packed with 36,000 birds, on the other hand, is probably not "the way nature intended." But that is exactly what investigators from the organic food advocacy group Cornucopia Institute found when they visited a Wisconsin henhouse that supplies Chino Valley Ranchers with organic eggs.

And Chino Valley isn't alone. A recent Cornucopia investigation revealed that conditions at many facilities that produce organic eggs are often just as crowded and industrial as those at conventional egg farms. And although US organic standards require outdoor access for laying hens, Cornucopia found that at many organic farms, "outdoors" often consists of nothing more than a tiny concrete screen porch adjoining the tenement-like henhouse.

Last year, a group of organic egg producers (listed below) signed a letter to the National Organic Standards Board opposing the rule that mandates organic operations to grant their chickens outdoor access. They argued that the rule put too much of a financial burden on producers; the Cornucopia report excerpts a comment that Bart Slaugh, Eggland's Best's director of quality assurance, posted to the NASD: "The push for continually expanding outdoor access and decreasing protection needs to stop," writes Slaugh.

Cornucopia plans to file an official complaint to the USDA about the conditions at four farms (listed below), including Hillandale Farms, one of the culprits in the recent salmonella outbreak. While it hasn't been proven that organic eggs are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella than conventional eggs, Cornucopia cofounder Mark Kastel believes that crowded factory-farm conditions can breed disease. "If you are living in these filthy conditions it takes a tremendous toll on your immune system," he says. "And when you are dealing with those incredibly huge industrial scales, you can't pay attention to the health of individual birds."

Cornucopia rates major organic egg producers it investigated on this scorecard. (The setup is a little confusing, since the lowest scorers were those that refused to participate in Cornucopia's survey, not the farms where the most egregious violations were found. That's because Cornucopia rightly believes that producers of organic food should be transparent about their operations.) Here's a list of the organic egg producers that Cornucopia is filing a complaint against, plus the companies that signed the letter opposing outdoor access for chickens:

Are Genetically Engineered Foods (Including Salmon) More Allergenic?

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

You've probably heard that the FDA is considering whether to approve the first-ever genetically-engineered fish. Developed by a Massachusetts-based company called AquaBounty Technologies, this new supersalmon is basically an Atlantic salmon with genes from Chinook salmon and a fish called the ocean pout. In theory, this could be a good thing: The new genes allow the fish, called AquAdvantage, to grow twice as fast as regular salmon, meaning more salmon for everyone, and less stress on wild stocks. 

But a number of consumer, health, and environmental groups say that neither AquaBounty Technologies nor the FDA has enough evidence to ensure the public that the fish—which wouldn't have to be labeled as genetically engineered (GE) on supermarket shelves—is safe for people or the planet. Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen called the company's food safety tests "woefully incomplete," and the group pointed out that the FDA approval panel is mostly comprised of GE cheerleaders, with no fish ecologists or allergists. Why's an allergist important? Because the company's own tests suggest that the new salmon could be much more allergenic than regular salmon.

In order to understand the allergy tests, a bit of backstory on how AquAdvantage salmon are made is necessary. First, genetic engineers create a "diploid" fish, meaning like people, it has two sets of chromosomes. Then, to make the final market product, they add genetic material from other fish and breed a new salmon with three sets of chromosomes—a "triploid" female that can't reproduce. AquaBounty researchers compared the allergenicity—or potential to cause an allergic reaction—of a control group of salmon to both the genetically engineered diploids and triploids. They found (PDF, see page 102) that the diploid salmon were 40 percent more allergenic than the control, while the triploid group was 19 percent more allergenic.

AquaBounty says that the triploids' allergenicity level wasn't statistically significant, and although the diploids' level is significant, it doesn't matter because only triploids will be sold. But Hansen of the Consumers Union finds a few problems with this argument. For starters, the test wasn't double blind, meaning the researchers knew which fish were part of which test group. Second, the sample size of triploid fish was tiny—only six fish in all. Third, although AquaBounty is going to try to turn all its market-bound fish into triploid sterile females, the process isn't perfect, and some 5 percent could end up as the more allergenic diploid. Especially scary when you consider that unlike the triploids, the diploids aren't sterile. So if they escaped, they could breed with wild salmon.

The FDA simply doesn't have enough information to determine whether AquaBounty's salmon are likely to cause more allergic reactions than their non-GE counterparts. But there is good reason to be concerned about the potential allergenicity of all GE foods, says Margaret Mellon, director of the scientist Union of Concerned Scientsts' Food and Environment Program. "You have this technology that allows you to essentially move proteins around from food to food," she says. "You can move a highly allergenic protein into a new food, and no one will know to avoid the new food."

Indeed, a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to soy beans that had been implanted with a Brazil nut protein. There is also some evidence that even proteins don't usually cause allergies can become allergenic when they are moved to a new food. A 2005 Australian study found that mice who were fed peas containing a typically non-allergenic protein from kidney beans experienced allergic reactions.

Another worry is that potentially allergenic GE crops might "escape" into foods. In the late '90s, the pharmaceutical giant Aventis introduced StarLink, a genetically engineered variety of corn. StarLink was approved for sale in the US, but only for non-food uses, since it contained a potentially allergenic protein. But then, traces of it started turning up in food (most famously, Taco Bell taco shells), and 28 people claimed they had suffered allergic reactions to foods containing StarLink. Although the CDC later found no medical evidence that any of those people had an allergy to the corn, an EPA advisory panel acknowledged that the CDC's tests did "not eliminate StarLink...protein as a potential cause of allergic symptoms."

The bottom line: It's not that genetically engineered foods are inherently more allergenic than traditional foods, but transfering genes does make it more likely that allergens might pop up in unexpected places. "There can be a lot of unintended side effects when you do genetic modification, which means you have to test very carefully," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. "In the case of salmon, one test on six fish just seems very insufficient for something that will open the floodgates to other GE meat and fish."



How Do You ID the Body of a Border Crosser?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that so far this year, the bodies of 170 border crossers have been found in Pima County, Arizona. That means 2010's body count might break recent records: By the end of 2007, 218 bodies had been found.

Of the 170 bodies that have turned up so far this year, two thirds were anonymous. The identification of migrants' corpses is the subject of Andi McDaniel's "The Juan Doe Problem" in the September/October 2010 issue of Mother Jones. McDaniel writes:

A dead body without a name can't be buried, not in good conscience, at least, until efforts to identify it seem completely hopeless. And each person who deals with border bodies has a different definition of hopeless. That's the Juan Doe problem.

McDaniel spent time with the people who attempt to put names to border crossers' remains—which are often little more than piles of bones by the time they are found. She hung out with border agents who recover corpses in the desert, talked to technicians at the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, and visited the cemetery that is the final resting place for unidentified bodies.

McDaniel also interviewed Chelsey Juarez, a UC-Santa Cruz grad student in physical anthropology who, for the past several years, has been analyzing teeth from Mexico to figure out how their chemical makeup varies by region. She's used her data to create a map, which she hopes medical examiners will one day use for clues to where unidentified crossers might have come from.

Read "The Juan Doe Problem" here, and check out the accompanying photoessay by Matt Nager here.

Do 'Hypoallergenic' Products Really Cause Fewer Allergies?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Since I have lots of allergies, and my skin is prone to bouts of itchiness, I've always chosen soaps and lotions labeled "hypoallergenic." That label means they won't cause me to have an allergic reaction, right?

Wrong! Siobhan O'Connor, author of the new book No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, recently clued me in that the label 'hypoallergenic' is virtually meaningless. "Unless the product makes a medical claim, the definition of 'hypoallergenic' is entirely up to the company that makes the product," she says. But allergies are a medical problem, so isn't the term "hypoallergenic" a medical claim? Not according to the FDA, which has this to say on its site on the issue:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic." The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

(A word of clarification about the word "cosmetics": It refers to any product that you put on your skin—soap, shampoo, lotion, etc.—not just makeup.)

The site is dated October 18, 2000, but labeling ruling hasn't changed since then. "Dermatologist tested" is also an unregulated claim.

I decided to ask cosmetic companies how they define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested." Of the seven major manufacturers that I asked, only three—Johnson's (the baby products division of Johnson & Johnson's), Colgate-Palmolive, and Novartis—responded. A Novartis publicist said the company's Keri Basic Essentials lotion qualifies as hypoallergenic "because it is fragrance free and contains ingredients such as vitamins E and Aloe Vera." She also cautioned that despite the label, "we always suggest trying a small amount of any new product before applying all over to ensure they do not have a reaction." 

Publicists from Johnson's and Colgate-Palmolive assured me that external dermatologists tested their products, and that they used ingredients that had low allergen potential. But when I asked who the dermatologists were, and what standards they used to do determine an ingredient's allergic potential, neither company would cough up the goods. Check out the frustrating email exchange I had with a publicity rep from Johnson's:

Me: How does Johnson define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested"? Are the dermatologists who test products in-house, or independent?

Rep: JOHNSON'S scientists work with independent dermatologists and testing facilities in the evaluation of our products. To ensure the product is hypoallergenic, JOHNSON'S carefully chooses ingredients known to have a low potential for allergy and then further evaluates the final formula to ensure that the product has a low potential to cause allergy.

Me: Any way you could give me the names of the independent dermatologists or testing facilities?

Rep: I'm sorry but J&J does not disclose that info. Anything else you need?

Me: Does the company disclose its standards for determining whether a product is hypoallergenic?

Rep: No, they don't but regarding that, they have this to say: JOHNSON'S only selects ingredients that have low allergy risks and performs rigorous safety evaluations on the final product.

Right. Back to square one. Next I consulted veteran dermatologist Patricia K. Farris, a clinical assistant professor at Tulane University who has more than 20 years of experience in her field, about her understanding of the term "dermatologist tested." She wrote to me in an email, "I have actually asked this question myself many times but nobody seems to know the answer as to how they make these claims 'dermatologist tested' or even 'dermatologist recommended.' I personally do not know of any criteria that need to be met to claim dermatology tested or dermatologist recommended."

Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of groups dedicated to reforming the cosmetics industry, says that misconceptions about the meaning of these terms are common. "People think 'hypoallergenic' means there are no allergens," she says. "That is just not the case." Malkan also recommends that consumers be wary of the term "organic," since the food rules don't apply to cosmetics. "You can't call a food 'organic' unless it meets USDA standards, but a lot of cosmetics on the market are labeled 'organic' and they have all kinds of synthetic ingredients," she says.

The good news is that new legislation aims to update the FDA's rules for the cosmetics industry, some of which have not changed since 1938. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, introduced in July by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), would require companies to disclose all the chemicals in their products—including fragrance, about which companies are notoriously secretive. It would also require safety assesments and the phasing out of ingredients suspected of causing cancer and reproductive harm. Unfortunately, the new legislation would not crack down on labeling claims, but ingredient transparency would certainly be a step in the right direction, says Malkan.

Siobhan O'Connor says she'd love to see the new legislation pass but is worried that lobbying by the mighty industry group Personal Care Products Council will squash it. "You can't underestimate how powerful and well-funded the PCPC is," she says. "The last time legislation like this came along, it went away very quickly and quietly." Sure enough, the PCPC is already on the case, claiming that the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 is "not based on credible and established scientific principles."

Want to learn more about the cosmetic industry's dirty secrets? O'Connor's book is a great place to start. Malkan has written another one called Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. And the Story of Stuff Project produced this eight-minute video that really pissed off the PCPC.

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