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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Nearly 1 in 10 Americans Have Serious Anger Problems—and Can Easily Get Guns

| Wed Apr. 8, 2015 4:00 AM EDT

In the United States, most people diagnosed with mental illness are allowed to buy guns. While state laws vary, federal law prohibits only those who have been committed to a psychiatric hospital or adjudicated as "mental defectives" from owning firearms.

In most states, even people who have committed violent misdemeanors or have had restraining orders issued against them for domestic violence are allowed to own guns.

But researchers at Duke University suspect that the law is ignoring a group of Americans who could make for potentially dangerous gun owners: people with a history of angry, impulsive outbursts. In a study published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, the Duke team looked at more than 5,500 interviews conducted in a landmark survey of mental illness by Harvard researchers. From the interviews, they extrapolated that 1 in 10 adults in the United States has an anger management problem—and access to firearms.

One caveat: While it makes intuitive sense that angry people and guns would be a volatile combination, it's important to note that there is no data yet on whether people with anger problems are more likely to commit violent crimes. Still, lead author Jeffrey Swanson believes that the finding is worrisome. "Probably the strongest predictor of violence is previous violent behavior," says Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medicine.

Swanson points to the recent shootings of three students near the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, had a history of threatening behavior. "People who knew him said that he was very angry; they were scared of him," says Swanson.

And yet, in most states, even people who have committed violent misdemeanors or have had restraining orders issued against them for domestic violence are allowed to own guns.

Meanwhile, people with the types of severe psychiatric problems that lead to involuntary commitment, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, commit just 4 percent of violent crimes in the United States. Most people with those acute conditions are not prone to violence.

However, Swanson doesn't believe that isolated incidents of anger should prevent people from buying guns—everyone gets angry once in a while. But "the group that we focus on goes far beyond regular anger," he says. "These individuals are off on the extreme." They often get into physical fights and break or smash things when they become upset.

Some states have tried to address the problem with laws that allow police to temporarily seize weapons from people whom a court deems immediately dangerous based on testimony from those who know the individual and his or her behavior. Currently, just three states—California, Connecticut, and Indiana—have versions of these laws.

In most places, a history of violence isn't enough to make authorities think twice about whether an individual should be allowed to own a gun. "The way the law is set up now, it's missing a lot," says Swanson. "The most volatile people are slipping through the cracks."

Do Your State's Hospitals Serve Big Macs?

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Would you like fries with your hospital stay? If so, you're in luck: Many hospitals house fast-food restaurants. Some even offer delivery to patient rooms. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) isn't wild about this phenomenon and made this map, which shows the US hospitals with fast-food chains inside them:

Image by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Of the 208 hospitals—most of them public—that PCRM investigated in its report, 43 had fast-food chains inside, mostly McDonald's, Wendy's, and Chick-Fil-A. PCRM staff dietitian Cameron Wells told me that some of the fast-food joints have contracts that require them to give a certain percentage of their profits to their hospitals, "meaning the more unhealthful food the restaurant sells to patients and their families, the richer the hospital gets," she said. 

Six of the fast-food-serving facilities in the report were children's hospitals. One of those, Children's Hospital of Georgia, offers delivery service from McDonald's straight to patients' beds. "Seeing this in a children's hospital—that's the most vulnerable population," Wells says. "Fast food is not going to help children get better."

Our Meat Obsession May Kill Us. But Not How You Think.

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The world is using more antibiotics than ever before—and showing no signs of stopping. A new analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science predicts that worldwide consumption of the drugs will grow 67 percent by 2030. Over the same period of time, in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the authors expect that antibiotic use will double.

The reason for the dramatic increase in antibiotic use, say the authors, mostly has to do with the planet's ever-increasing appetite for meat. Since the 1970s, meat producers have been dosing livestock with regular, low doses of antibiotics. For reasons not entirely understood, this regimen helps animals grow bigger. In the United States, 80 percent of all antibiotics already go to livestock, and the practice is becoming the norm the world over. This map shows the current global antibiotic consumption in livestock (in milligrams per 10 square kilometer pixels):

Map courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

As the middle class in the developing world grows, demand for meat—and use of the antibiotics to grow that meat cheaply and quickly—is expected to rise as well.

To get a sense of how quickly our global appetite for meat is growing, take a look at China. There, livestock producers are buying record amounts of corn and soy to feed a growing number of animals:

Jaeah Lee

As antibiotic use skyrockets, experts expect that germs will evolve to resist them. That's scary, considering that some of the same drugs we use on livestock are also our best defense against infections in humans. And suberbugs, several recent studies have shown, can and do jump from animals to people. In fact, another recent study predicted that antibiotic resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050. 

There's also evidence that antibiotics might soon stop working the way that meat producers want them to: A recent analysis concluded that the drugs are no longer making pigs bigger.

The good news: Despite loose federal regulations around antibiotic use on farms, American consumers are beginning to favor meat grown without drugs. And manufacturers are taking notice: Earlier this month, McDonald's pledged to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics, and Costco quickly followed suit.

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California Nutritionists Just Voted Not To Invite McDonald's Back as a Sponsor

| Wed Mar. 18, 2015 2:08 PM EDT

Last year, I attended the annual conference of the California Dietetic Association, the state's chapter of the country's largest professional organization for nutritionists and dietitians. Its premier sponsor—and lunch caterer—was McDonald's. That won't be the case at this year's conference in April: The organization just voted not to invite the fast-food chain back.

Today a member of the California Dietetics Association shared the following letter from conference leadership on the Facebook page of Dietitians for Professional Integrity:

We would like to direct your attention to what the California Dietetic Association (CDA) has done to address our own issues surrounding sponsorship. We heard your concerns regarding CDA Annual Conference sponsorship and we have listened. We voted and McDonalds was not invited as a sponsor in 2015. This decision has impacted our finances; however, we believe it was important to respond to our member feedback. In addition, an ad hoc committee approved by the CDA executive board, reevaluated the sponsorship guidelines. The new sponsorship policy will be posted soon on www.dietitian.org. Any questions regarding the new policy can be directed to Kathryn Sucher, CDA President-elect [email address redacted]
We look forward to seeing you at the CDA Annual Conference.
Your 2014-2015 CDA Executive Board

That's not to say that the conference organizers have ditched corporate funders entirely. According to the schedule (PDF), Kellogg's is sponsoring a panel called "The Evolution of Breakfast: Nutrition and Health Concerns in the Future," while Soy Connection, the communications arm of the United Soybean Board, is hosting a session titled "Busting the Myths Surrounding Genetically Engineered Foods" (and sponsoring a "light breakfast"). A few other sessions sponsored by corporations and trade groups:

  • "Why We Eat What We Eat in America and What We Can Do About It" (California Beef Council)
  • "Probiotics and the Microbiome: Key to Health and Disease Prevention" (Dairy Council of California)
  • "New Research – Understanding Optimal Levels Of Protein And Carb To Prevent Obesity, Sarcopenia, Type 2 Diabetes, And Metabolic Syndrome" (Egg Nutrition Center)
  • "New evidence of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners: Help or Hindrance for Weight and Diabetes Management" (Johnson & Johnson McNeil, Inc, LLC)
  • "Plant-based Meals from Around the Globe" (Barilla Pasta)

Still, says Andy Bellatti, a dietitian and leader of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, ditching McDonald's as a sponsor is a step in the right direction. "There's still a long way to go," he said. "But the McDonald's sponsorship was just so egregious. I'm glad they came to their senses and got rid of it."

Antibiotics Are No Longer Making Pigs Bigger

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 3:17 PM EDT

For decades, it's been thought that low, regular doses of antibiotics help livestock grow big—thus increasing meat producers' profits. So common is the practice of lacing farm animals' feed with the drugs that an astonishing four-fifths of all antibiotics in the United States now go to livestock.

But a new meta-analysis by two Princeton researchers shows that antibiotics aren't as effective at promoting growth as they used to be. Studies from 1950-1985 suggested that antibiotics increased weight of young pigs by an average of about 17 older pigs by 4 percent. But similar studies since 2000 found much less dramatic results: 1 percent increase for young pigs and no measurable increase for older pigs.

No one knows why the drugs have become less effective—and in fact, there's no consensus on how exactly antibiotics increased growth in animals to begin with. One theory is that the drugs fight low-level infections, which allows the animal to use its energy for growing instead of warding off germs. The authors of the new analysis theorize that as hygiene at livestock operations improve, the rate of infections might be decreasing, thus negating the need for antibiotics.

Another (scarier) possibility: Bugs that cause common animal infections are becoming resistant to the antibiotics. The consequences of antibiotic resistance, of course, go far beyond pigs' rates of growth. As my colleague Tom Philpott has reported, superbugs can jump from animals to humans. Antibiotic-resistant infections already kill 700,000 people every year worldwide. A recent UK report predicted that number will rise to 10 million by 2050.

"If the benefits of [antibiotics for animal growth] have diminished, then it becomes reasonable to be cautious and avoid the potential public health costs," write the new report's authors. "Antibiotics are not needed to promote growth, but they are essential to treat infectious diseases and maintain animal health." 

McDonald's Just Banned Antibiotic-Laced Chicken. Here's Why That Matters.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 7:49 PM EST

This week, McDonald's pledged to phase out serving chicken raised on antibiotics that can also be used to treat humans. To understand the giant implications this has for the meat industry, consider my colleague Tom Philpott's previous reporting on the topic. For starters, the livestock industry uses an astounding four-fifths of all antibiotics consumed in the United States. Mostly, these drugs are used not to treat infections but to promote growth in animals.

There is evidence that livestock antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistance, lessening the effectiveness of drugs that are medically important to  humans. And scientists have observed so-called "superbugs" migrating from farms to outside communities. It's a major problem—indeed, scientists predict that antibiotic failure will kill 20 million people by 2050. And yet, despite all this, the government still allows livestock producers to dose their animals with antibiotics.

McDonald's chicken move is a tacit acknowledgement that antibiotics are a precious resource. And considering that the chain serves 68 million people a day in practically every nation on Earth, it sends a powerful message indeed.

6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST

The current outbreak of measles that began in California has sickened 86 people and landed 30 babies in home isolation. The California Department of Health has issued an official warning that "any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated."

Not everyone is so concerned. In a Facebook post on January 16, celebrity pediatrician Robert "Dr. Bob" Sears encouraged his followers not to "let anyone tell you you should live in fear of" measles. "Ask any Grandma or Grandpa (well, older ones anyway)," he wrote, "and they'll say 'Measles? So what? We all had it. It's like Chicken pox.'"

Well, Dr. Bob is wrong—measles is serious business. Consider these facts:

  1. Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it infects about 90 percent of people who come into contact with it. The virus can survive on surfaces or even in the air for up to two hours. That means that if an unvaccinated person happens to pass through a room where someone with measles was a few hours before, he or she has a very high chance of contracting the disease. 
     
  2. Some people who get measles become seriously ill. Before the advent of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people contracted measles each year in the United States. Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized, 4,000 developed the life-threatening brain condition encephalitis, and 400 to 500 died.
     
  3. Almost everyone needs to be vaccinated for measles in order to protect the most vulnerable people. The epidemiological concept of "herd immunity" means that enough people in a given community are immunized so that people who can't get vaccinated—infants that are too young to receive vaccines, people who can't get vaccinated because their immune systems are not strong enough, and the small number of people for whom the vaccine doesn't work—are protected. The threshold for herd immunity varies by disease; for measles, it's 92 to 94 percent.
     
  4. In some places in the United States, MMR vaccination rates among kindergartners aren't anywhere near the herd immunity threshold. In Marin County, California, only 80 percent of students are up to date on their vaccinations. In Nevada County, California, the figure is 73 percent. New York magazine reported last year that dozens of New York City private schools had immunization rates below 70 percent. (Californians can check rates at individual schools here.)
     
  5. Worldwide, measles is far from eradicated. According to the CDC, in 2013, more than 60 percent of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia Nigeria, and Pakistan were not adequately vaccinated against measles. Seventy percent of measles deaths worldwide occurred in those countries.
     
  6. Measles could make a major comeback in the United States. It's happened in other developed nations: In the mid-1990s, UK public health officials considered measles eradicated in the country—but in 2008, because of low vaccination rates, measles once again hit endemic status. Between 2008 and 2011, France saw more than 20,000 cases of measles—after virtual elimination of the disease just a few years before.

Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack? The Answer May Lie in Your Twitter Stream

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Of the many illnesses that plague Americans, heart disease is the deadliest—and one of the toughest to predict. Epidemiologists have long used surveys and clinical data to tease out genetic factors from lifestyle risks such as diet, smoking, and stress, with little success. But a new study shows that there might be a better tool to assess heart disease: Twitter.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science analyzed tweets and health data from 1,300 counties across the United States. The researchers found that negative tweets—those expressing fatigue, hostility, and stress—were associated with elevated risk of coronary heart disease (the medical term for clogged arteries) in the counties where the writers of those tweets lived. High volumes of tweets expressing optimism, excitement, ambition, and activity, meanwhile, correlated with lower than average rates of heart disease.

Here are some word clouds with examples of language that predicted higher and lower levels of disease:

Psychological Science

What's more, the researchers found that the language used in tweets correlates much more closely with heart disease rates than traditional predictive factors such as your income and education level, your weight, and even whether you are a smoker:

Psychological Science

Lead author Johannes Eichstaedt, a psychological scientist at University of Pennsylvania, described Twitter as "the perfect tool for figuring out something like heart disease." Researchers have long suspected connections between emotional states and heart disease risk. And while it's not surprising that people with high levels of stress and anger would be at higher risk than their mellower, happier peers, researchers have traditionally relied on surveys to evaluate people's psychological well being. The problem is that survey-based studies can take years, and people aren't always honest about their feelings. Which makes Twitter a researcher's treasure trove. "Twitter is where people talk about themselves, where they express their emotions candidly," Eichstaedt says.

Here's a map showing coronary heart disease deaths by county, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Psychological Science, CDC

Now compare it with this map, which predicts rates of heart disease based on tweet language:

Psychological Science, Twitter

Another bonus of using Twitter as an epidemiological tool: It's much easier and cheaper than going door to door or calling people to conduct surveys. "If I wanted to repeat this analysis I could do it in an afternoon," says Eichstaedt. "With surveys, that would take a year."

No, You Shouldn't Let Fears of a Scary Nervous System Disease Stop You From Getting a Flu Shot

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Despite abundant evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective, only about a third of Americans get the shots each season. Public health experts believe that one reason for the low immunization rates is misinformation about side effects of the vaccine. One is the belief that the vaccine can actually give you the flu (false); another is that it can cause autism in children (also false, as we've said many times).

"Your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

Add that to the worry that it will cause a rare but serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness, or even temporary paralysis. This fear is not completely unfounded—several studies, including a recent one by Italian researchers about the 2010-2011 vaccine—have found that getting a flu shot can indeed very slightly elevate one's risk of contracting the disease, by about one additional case per million people.

But here's where things get complicated: While it's true that the flu vaccine can raise your GBS risk, so can the flu itself. So which is more likely to lead to GBS: Getting the vaccine or getting the flu?

That's the question that Steven Hawken and Kumanan Wilson, epidemiologists from The Ottawa Hospital, set out to answer. The researchers developed a calculator that took into account baseline GBS risk (overall, it's about 10 in a million, though it varies with age and sex—GBS affects more men than women and more elderly people than young adults and children), vaccine effectiveness, and overall incidence of flu. Their findings: For most people, in a flu season where the flu incidence is greater than 5 percent and the vaccine is more than 60 percent effective, says Wilson, "your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

That's good news in most years, when the flu vaccine is well over 60 percent effective. Here's the problem: This year's flu vaccine is only about 23 percent effective. Still, according to Wilson, while this year's total flu incidence isn't yet known, it appears to be greater than that of an average year—much higher than 5 percent. That means that even with the reduced effectiveness of the vaccine, the overall GBS risk is likely still greater for people who contract the flu than for those who get immunized, says Wilson.

What's more, he adds, it's important to keep in mind that the risk of serious complications from the flu outweighs that of acquiring GBS. Last year, according to the CDC, 9,635 people were hospitalized with the flu in the United States. According to the CDC there are between 3,000-6,000 cases of GBS annually (though no hospitalization data is available). Most of those cases aren't caused by flu vaccines or the flu itself; the most common cause of GBS is infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejeuni, usually the result of eating contaminated food.

The takeaway: The GBS risk from the flu itself is most likely greater than that of the vaccine. And while GBS can be a scary disease, it's much less common than scary complications FROM the flu.

3 Medical Conditions That Bacon Can Cure

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 7:00 AM EST

As we all know, the internet is obsessed with bacon. Physicians, however, are usually less bullish about the delicious yet notoriously artery-clogging treat. Until now: Over at the medical blog KevinMD, Dr. Jennifer Gunter combs the scientific literature and turns up three actual medical conditions that bacon can help treat: 

  1. Nosebleeds. Last October, Stanford otolaryngologist Ian Humphreys developed a nasal tampon made out of bacon that cured a young girl's bloody nose, an accomplishment for which he was awarded a 2014 IgNobel Prize in medicine. "Apparently the high salt content of bacon is believed to induce swelling which causes the blood vessels to constrict slowing the flow of blood and helping clotting," writes Gunter. When Humphreys won the IgNobel, Robert Jackler, chair of Stanford's otolaryngology department, told Stanford's Scope medical blog, "We are squealing with pride."
     
  2. An incredibly disgusting-sounding infection called furuncular myiasis in which the larvae of an insect called Dermatobia hominis nest in the human soft tissue or skin, resulting in boils and sometimes tissue destruction. Shudder. "The treatment largely consists of manually picking out the larvae with tweezers," writes Gunter. "Apparently bacon fat can be used as bait to lure the larvae to the skin surface for faster and more effective removal."
     
  3. Scabies. Apparently, bacon fat was once used in topical sulfur and salicylic acid creams used to treat this itchy and highly contagious skin infection. A 1991 study compared the bacon fat formulation to the more modern cold cream version and finds, Gunter writes, that "while the cold cream combination was 100% effective versus 88 percent for the bacon fat base the authors noted that the bacon fat concoction was 238 times less expensive than the cheapest scabicidal medication in the U.S."

So there you have it: bacon as medicine. Something to keep in mind if you have any left over after you make that gross bacon lattice thing for your Super Bowl party.

I Am Being Followed By an Army of Twitter Lady Bots

| Wed Oct. 22, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

I've been making a real effort to be better at Twitter lately. I've been tweeting more, striking a conversational tone, and trying to "just be myself," like people who know more about Twitter than me told me to. So I was thrilled this week when my follower count zoomed up from 3,030 to 3,066 over the course of just a few days. My efforts must have paid off, I thought.

But then, I looked at my new followers. They all seemed pretty annoying. IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. Check it out:

"Hipster-friendly music practitioner"? "Total travel advocate"? "Beer practitioner"? Ew!

The formula for the handles seems to be: first name, middle initial, last name. And the bio items look like they're generated from a list of bland hobbies and jobs or something. All over the backdrop of some irrelevant stock art.

Here are some of their tweets:

Creepy Twitter lady bots, what do you want from me?

Drinking a "Medium" Soda Every Day Can Age You As Much As Smoking Does

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

Just as soda companies plunk down millions of dollars to defeat local soda-tax ballot measures, researchers have found a link between regular soda consumption and premature aging.

Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health, a study of 5,300 adults compared the cells of people who drink soda every day to those of their non-soda-drinking counterparts. In the soda group, the ends of the chromosomes—known as telomeres—were shorter, a sign of their cells' diminished ability to regenerate. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, but scientists have discovered that a few behaviors—including smoking—can shorten them prematurely.

And here's the really interesting part: People who drank a 20-ounce soda every day experienced an additional 4.6 years of telomere aging—the same amount observed in smokers. "The extremely high dose of sugar that we can put into our body within seconds by drinking sugared beverages is uniquely toxic to metabolism," lead author Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at University of California-San Francisco, told Time.

The researchers didn't find the same effect in those who drank diet sodas or 100 percent fruit juice.

People Are Trying to Sell Cinnamon Bark as an Ebola Cure

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 3:57 PM EDT

Marion Nestle reports that several supplement manufacturers are selling vitamins that promise to prevent or treat Ebola. The claims caught the attention of the FDA, which has issued warning letters to three of the manufacturers: Natural Solutions Foundation, Young Living, and DoTERRA International LLC. The agency lists specific claims it finds worrisome; for example, on a Young Living consultant's website, "Ebola Virus can not live in the presence of cinnamon bark."

Here's a screenshot from Natural Solutions Foundations' website:

An article on the Natural Solutions site talks about "the intentional introduction of Ebola into the United States by what will appear to be ISIS terrorists." It continues, "And it will happen soon, since we know from Dr. Rima's research that Ebola can become an airborne disease in temperate climates, such as North America's coming winter." It urges readers to prepare by stocking up on supplements that contain nanoparticles of silver: "The only protection we have against this new level of tyranny is making sure we do not get sick!!! The best way to do that is to make sure that EVERYONE you can reach has Nano Silver and knows how to use it."

Another supposed natural Ebola cure making the rounds: Vitamin C. Nestle found this gem on an alternative health information site called NaturalHealth365, which claims that a giant dose of vitamin C can cure Ebola (though it doesn't actually sell Vitamin C):

NaturalHealth365

It's not terribly surprising that supplement manufacturers have seized on Ebola. A new Harvard School of Public Health poll has found that 38 percent of Americans (up from 25 percent a few months ago) "are now concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola over the next year." That's quite a market.

Are Your Kids' Rainbow Bracelets Toxic?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

Bracelets and other trinkets made on the wildly popular Rainbow Loom—a toy that allows kids to weave together brightly colored elastic bands—could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a British laboratory has found.

In a study commissioned by a British toy retailer, the Assay Laboratory in Birmingham, United Kingdom, tested charms meant to be attached to bracelets and necklaces woven on the looms. The researchers found that while Rainbow Loom's own name-brand products were safe, some charms made by knockoff brands contained high levels of phthalates, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Some of the knockoff charms were composed of as much as 50 percent (by weight) phthalates, the Irish blog Mummy Pages reports. (It's currently illegal in the United States to sell a toy that contains more than 0.1 percent of six kinds of phthalates, though some products still slip through the cracks.)

Marion Wilson, a spokeswoman from the lab, told Mummy Pages that while only the charms were tested, it was likely that the bands themselves also contained phthalates. In an email to Mother Jones, Wilson declined to share the names of the brands that were found to have high phthalate levels. "We would never share our customer information as it is clearly commercially sensitive," she wrote. "However, please note that the customers that have received test results like this will have tested the product prior to it going on the market." It's unclear whether the brands tested at the lab are sold in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Phthalates aren't the only dangerous thing about Rainbow Looms: BuzzFeed notes other horrors, including injuries to children. Animal advocates in the Philippines say that the bands can harm creatures that swallow them.

Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 5:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

Study Finds Kids Prefer Healthier Lunches. School Food Lobby Refuses to Believe It.

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 3:29 PM EDT

From all of the commotion around the new federal school lunch standards, you'd think they were really Draconian. Republican legislators have railed against them. Districts have threatened to opt out. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the industry group that represents the nation's 55,000 school food employees, has officially opposed some of them—and doubled its lobbying in the months leading up to July 1, when some of the new rules took effect.

Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches.

Here's who doesn't mind the new standards: kids. For a study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity, researchers asked administrators and food service staff at 537 public elementary schools how their students were liking the meals that conformed to the new standards. Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches. Rural districts were the least enthusiastic about the new meals—there, some respondents reported that purchasing was down and that students were eating less of their meals. But respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards: They found that "more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year."

"Kids who really need good nutrition most at school are getting it," says Lindsey Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author and a research scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "That's really good news."

SNA's response? To issue a statement declaring that "these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality." The group cites USDA data that participation in school meals has declined by 1.4 million since the new rules went into effect in 2012. But Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author, notes that this is only about a 3 percent drop. She also points to a Government Accountability Office study that found that most of the drop-off was among students who pay full price for lunch.

What makes SNA's stance on the new rules even stranger is that they actually are not all that strict. For example: Foods served must be whole grain rich, but as I learned from my trip to SNA's annual conference last week, that includes whole-grain Pop Tarts, Cheetos, and Rice Krispies Treats. Students are required to take a half cup of a fruit or vegetable—but Italian ice—in flavors like Hip Hoppin' Jelly Bean—are fair game.

Not all members of SNA consider the task of tempting kids with healthy foods onerous. As I reported last week, Jessica Shelly, food director of Cincinnati's diverse public schools, has shown that all it takes is a little creativity.

HT The Lunch Tray.

Chick-Fil-A's Twee New Food Journalism Site

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT

Perhaps hoping to distance itself from its horrendous display of homophobia in 2012, the fast-food chicken chain Chick-Fil-A has launched a folksy new food journalism site called Let's Gather:

Image from Let's Gather

Yes really. Check out the actual site, which is now hosting the project's second issue. Push past the animated bees buzzing around scenically, and don't get so distracted by this homey idyll that you forget to click on the shabby chic nav tool in the upper right.

Once you do, you might venture over to the about page, which says this: "By exploring the winsome themes found in the everyday blend of our meals, hobbies, and relationships, each issue inspires readers to try a new recipe, think a new thought, and join a new conversation. Ultimately, these are stories that remind us of the joy we experience when we make time to do life together." (Emphasis added.)

But wait, it gets better. Nestled among the features about stair climbing and giving up groceries is a Q&A with Chick-Fil-A on-staff registered dietitian (don't even get me started) Jodie Worrell:

Image from Let's Gather

SunnyD's New Teen Energy Drink Has More Calories Than Coke

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

From the people who brought you the "fruit-flavored beverage" SunnyD comes a brand new product: SunnyD X, a caffeine- and taurine-free energy drink just for teens. For now, it's available only in convenience stores in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. But Sunny Delight Beverages Co. said in a press release that it has big plans to market it at "venues and locations of interest to teens, such as concerts, sporting events, skate parks and beaches."

David Zellen, the company's associate marketing director, touted the beverage as "carbonated energy that is uniquely provided by a combination of three carbohydrates, as well as seven B-vitamins to help metabolize the carbohydrates into energy." He added, "Simply put, SunnyD X offers the energy teens crave without the ingredients moms tell us concern them, such as caffeine and taurine. It's a win-win."

Here's what he didn't mention: SunnyD X's mega-dose of sugar, a whopping 50 grams per 16-oz. serving. That adds up to a lot of calories: SunnyD X has 200 calories per 16-oz. serving, while an equal amount of Coca-Cola Classic has 187 calories and 52 grams of sugar.

I asked company spokeswoman Sydney McHugh whether the company was at all concerned about the teen drink, which contains just 5 percent juice, contributing to childhood obesity. "I can tell you that we chose to use sugar as a safer source of energy," she wrote to me in an email. Then, she pointed me toward a press release in which Ellen Iobst, the company's chief sustainability officer, bragged that the company had reduced its average calories per serving from 92 to 48 since 2007. "Socially, we need to be taking care of the communities where we do business and our employees," she said. "This is a way to help alleviate the obesity epidemic." Mind you, the calorie count in SunnyD X is more than quadruple that average.

Here's the nutritional information for SunnyD X's orange flavor. Check out the tongue-twisting list of ingredients, too.

Image from Sunny Delight Beverage Co.

HT Consumerist.

An Open Letter to My Sexist Dentist

| Fri Apr. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Dear Dr. B.,

I'm writing to tell you why I'm taking my business to different dental office. Let me explain:

The last time I had my teeth cleaned at your office, your hygienist told me that the bonding on two of my teeth was coming off, and that I should come back so that you could fix it.

"You have bunny teeth," you said. "It's distracting."

So I made an appointment to do just that. I asked you to take a look at the bonding, and you did. Then you took off your glasses and said, "Forget the bonding for a minute. Let's have some fun."

You asked me if I ever felt like no one was paying attention to me when I was in a group, or if I was shy about talking to people.

"No," I replied. "I'm a journalist. I love talking to people."

You said that you suspected that my colleagues were ignoring me—and that maybe I should try to observe this behavior over the next few weeks. If I did feel ignored, you said, you knew why: my smile.

"You have bunny teeth," you said. "It's distracting."

You took out your camera and asked me to smile. Then you took a few photos.

You applied some plastic goop called composite to my teeth, which you then dried with what looked like a UV light. When you were done, you asked me to smile again and took more photos. Then you showed me both sets of pictures, and led me over to a mirror where you asked me to admire my fixed smile. You had closed two small gaps and made my teeth more evenly sized.

Even though I could barely see a difference (and honestly didn’t care enough to look that closely) I told you that I liked how it looked, because it seemed like the easiest thing to do.

You told me that the composite made me look more "refined." Then you told me about two women patients whose smiles you had fixed. One of them had been out of work, and the very afternoon that she left your office, she went on a job interview and got an offer. The other woman’s boss asked her to manage "a team of 36 people" right after you worked on her teeth.

"Does the same thing happen to men?" I asked.

You told me that you wouldn’t know, because men are not as chatty with you as women.

I told you that I had to get back to work, so you removed the composite from my teeth. While I was lying down in the chair with my mouth open, you told me that if you fixed my smile, you firmly believed that I would start "dressing better." I would also wear more make-up, you predicted. You told me that I was a beautiful woman, but that my smile was distracting.

While I was lying down in the chair with my mouth open, you told me that if you fixed my smile, you firmly believed that I would start "dressing better."

On my way out, as I was saying goodbye, you told me that I was smiling with my mouth closed, and that you guessed it was because I was feeling self-conscious about my smile. "We can fix that right up," you said. "Sorry I made you nervous!"

"You couldn't make me nervous," I said. I wanted to say more, but that would have meant that I had to stand there and keep talking to you. And I never wanted to talk to you again.

But it wasn’t because you had made me nervous about my smile. It was because I was offended by your use of the tired and sexist old sales technique of making a female customer feel bad about her appearance so that she will buy something.

As sexual harassment goes, it could have been so much worse. You didn't grab my butt, or even give me the "ol' elevator eyes" that they talk about in sexual harassment training videos. But it is shit like this—behavior and comments that just barely stay on the right side of the harassment line—that we let slide. And that makes the people who do this kind of thing believe that they can get away with it. And that's a problem.

Can I stop you from behaving unethically with the rest of your patients? No. But I can certainly stop giving you my business. And that is exactly what I will do.

And about those "bunny teeth?" I think I'll keep them, thanks.

Sincerely,

Kiera Butler

This post originally appeared on Feministing.

How Do San Franciscans Really Feel About Google Buses?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A tech shuttle protest in San Francisco, December 9, 2013.

Earlier this month, the Bay Area Council, a coalition of Bay Area businesses, commissioned EMC Research to ask 500 likely voters in San Francisco how they felt about the much discussed commuter shuttles that take people from The City, Oakland, and Berkeley to tech-company campuses in Silicon Valley. The EMC researchers wrote in the ensuing report (PDF), released this week, "Despite what it might look like from recent media coverage, a majority of voters have a positive opinion of the shuttle buses and support allowing buses to use MUNI stops." (MUNI is San Francisco's municipal transportation agency.)

The survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll.

But I'm not so sure that rosy conclusion is warranted. For starters, Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, which contracts with several tech companies to provide bus service, is a member of the Bay Area Council. So are Google, Facebook, and Apple. There's also the fact that the survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll. Six percent of respondents said that they rode one of the shuttle buses. Now, estimates of shuttle bus ridership vary wildly, but San Francisco's total population is only about 836,000—six percent of which is about 50,000. A spokeswoman from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency recently told me that an estimated 4,125 San Franciscans ride the tech buses. That's closer to 0.5 percent of city residents. The San Francisco Examiner points out that the survey excluded Spanish speakers.

And then there's the delicate phrasing of the survey questions. Last week, Pacific Standard had a great little post explaining why surveys are not always accurate measures of public opinion. The post looks at a recent survey conducted about the movie Noah. The group Faith Driven Consumer asked respondents: "As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood?" Unsurprisingly, 98 percent said they were not satisfied. Variety reported the survey's findings in a story titled "Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied With Noah, Hollywood Religious Pics."

I thought of the Noah survey as I read the the tech-shuttle survey's script. Here are two examples of the questions, plus the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the given statements.

Please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

Image courtesy of Bay Area Council

Now, thinking specifically about employee shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with each of the following statements:

To be fair, the survey did include a few questions that allowed respondents to express negative opinions about the buses. But those questions tended to include loaded language. For example:

Now, thinking specifically about shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

I'm guessing that if the word "causing" had been replaced with "contributing to," more people would have agreed with the statement. Same if the word "ruining" had been replaced with "changing."

Rufus Jeffris, the vice president for communications and major events at the Bay Area Council, wrote to me in an email that the Council stands by the survey. "The poll was intended to provide some broader context and perspective on some of the wrenching and painful issues we're dealing with," he wrote. "We feel strongly that scapegoating a single type of worker and single industry is not productive and does not move us forward to solutions."

Giant Slaughterhouse Recalls Fancy Grass-Fed Beef After Processing "Diseased and Unsound Animals"

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Last month, Rancho Feeding Corp., a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California, issued a small recall notice, for beef it had processed on a particular day in 2013. That much was routine—meat processing facilities have to pull back product with some regularity when contamination is discovered. But the Rancho recall was different: Earlier this month, the company announced that it needed to recall all the beef it processed in 2013—8.7 million pounds in all, found in more than a thousand grocery stores in 30 states. The most famous of the recalled items are Nestlé Hot Pockets, but the plant produced a lot of other beef products for wholesale, including cheeks, lips, liver, oxtail, and other parts. So have you eaten any of that beef? Here's some background:

What is Rancho Feeding Corp.? Before it ceased operations last week, Rancho Feeding Corp. was the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse within about a three-hour radius of Petaluma. According to Stephanie Larson, the livestock and range adviser at the University of California's Cooperative Extension system, about 25 percent of Rancho's customers were "niche market" operations—many of which raised grass-fed and organic beef. The other 75 percent of the company's business was meat destined for burgers, tacos, chili, and other processed foods for supermarkets and restaurants. Many of Rancho's clients were dairies seeking to slaughter cows that were no longer giving milk.

Just how much meat is 8.7 million pounds? A few years back, my colleague Tom Philpott calculated that Cargill's 36 million pounds of recalled ground turkey was enough to make burgers for the residents of the world's six most populous cities. By the same logic, the 8.7 million pounds of Rancho recalled beef could make burgers for every resident of New York City, London, and Tokyo. As Gwynn Guilford at Quartz points out, letting that much potentially dodgy meat slip through the cracks is what happens when the government skimps on inspectors.

Why did they recall it? According to the USDA' s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Rancho issued the recall after FSIS inspectors determined that it had "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." It was a Class I recall, which means the FSIS considered it "a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death." Beyond the recall notice, though, FSIS has offered few details. So far, there are no reports of people getting sick after eating tainted beef processed by Rancho.

How does the recall affect ranchers? Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Marin Sun Farms, an artisanal meat producer in Point Reyes Station, California, has bought Rancho Feeding Corp. If the company reopens the facility as a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, Rancho's former clients will likely be relieved, since Rancho was the only game in town. (Consolidation of slaughterhouses is a problem for ranchers across the nation.)

Bill Niman, the founder of sustainable meat company Niman Ranch who now runs a grass-fed operation called BN Ranch, told the Village Voice that Rancho's closing would be "a great loss to the Northern California food community."

Sally Gale and her husband own Chileno Valley Ranch, a 600-acre, 100-head beef operation in Marin County that sells grass-fed beef directly to consumers. The Gales, who have owned their ranch for 15 years, used to hire a slaughterer to dispatch their steers on their property. (A few years ago, Bonne Azab Powell profiled a traveling slaughterer in Mother Jones.) But about five years ago, they received a notice saying that the practice was illegal and that they must take their animals to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse. The only one in the area was Rancho.

Because of the recall, the Gales have had to dispose of three adult steers—worth about $1,600 each—that Rancho had slaughtered. If Rancho closes, Sally Gale worries that the long drive to the next closest slaughterhouse, more than 150 miles away, will stress the animals and add an extra expense to what Gale describes as an "already marginal business." California's drought has hit ranches like hers hard, she says, and she expects that many will have to charge their customers more to make up for the losses. 

Typically, Chileno Valley Ranch sends about six cows to slaughter every week. Now, the Gales will be waiting until they have 30 ready to make the long trip worthwhile. "The government told us that we couldn't slaughter our own meat," says Gale. "And now they're telling us that we can't bring them to Rancho either."

These 11 Popular Sodas Tested Positive for a Potential Carcinogen

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 7:05 AM EST

The chemical compound that gives some sodas a caramel-brown color could be a carcinogen—and according to a new study by Consumer Reports, it's in many popular soft drinks at levels that exceed what many experts consider safe. Between April and December of 2013, researchers tested 110 bottles of various brands of soda for the 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MeI for short. They found the highest levels of the substance in Goya Malta, a malt-flavored soda popular in Latin American communities, and in various Pepsi products:

Consumer Reports Chart
Click for a larger version. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

4-MeI is not federally regulated, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a potential carcinogen (PDF). In California, products that expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI are supposed to have a warning label, according to the state's Proposition 65—yet none of the sodas that the group tested carried such a label. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, believes that one reason for the New York samples' relatively high levels of 4-MeI might be that New York doesn't have a similar warning-label rule.

The researchers found that the Coca-Cola products had relatively low levels of 4-MeI. On the other hand, some of the samples of Dr. Snap, a soda sold at Whole Foods with a "natural" label, had levels that exceeded the California warning-label threshold.

PepsiCo representatives told Consumer Reports that they don't attach the warning label to their products in California because their research shows that consumers drink only about a third of a can of their products a day, on average—an amount that contains less than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI. The other brands whose products Consumer Reports tested have not yet responded to the findings.

Rangan notes that 4-MeI is present in some foods as well: barbecue sauces, soups, imitation pancake syrup, gravy, and canned mushrooms, among others. While Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to regulate 4-MeI, in the meantime, consumers should consider avoiding foods and beverages with caramel color, Rangan says. "We just don't think coloring your food brown should give you cancer."

Quick Reads: "Junkyard Planet" by Adam Minter

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Junkyard Planet

Junkyard Planet

By Adam Minter

BLOOMSBURY PRESS

In this satisfying investigation-cum-travelogue, journalist Adam Minter treks around the globe to discover what actually happens to our garbage. From the posh Los Angeles offices of a trash czar who made his fortune selling American scraps overseas to a Chinese village whose sole industry is extracting wire from Christmas lights, Minter, raised amid his own family's junkyard business, reveals a $500 billion economy built on wringing every last cent—or yuan—from the rich world's refuse. It's a story you don't see in the grim e-waste stats. "If—like me—you have a television that you'd like to see recycled in the most environmentally sound manner possible, with the most material harvested from its guts," he writes, "Hunan Province might very well be the place for it to go."

This review originally appeared in our November/December 2013 issue of Mother Jones.

The Shutdown Could Make This Serious Salmonella Outbreak Even Worse

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Update: On Tuesday, the CDC recalled some of its furloughed employees to work on the salmonella outbreak. It also discovered that the strain of salmonella seems to be antibiotic resistant. Tom Philpott has the full story here.

Over at Wired, Maryn McKenna reports on a major outbreak of the foodborne illness salmonella. So far, 278 people in 18 states have been sickened with the pathogen, which causes fever, cramps, diarrhea, and in severe cases, even death. In a press release the USDA identified the source of the outbreak as contaminated raw chicken from a producer called Foster Farms and said that the products were sold at supermarkets in Washington State, Oregon, and California. As of 11:30 AM EDT Tuesday, Foster Farms had a note up saying, "No recall is in effect. Products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked." Foster Farms' chicken was linked to another salmonella outbreak—134 illnesses in 13 states—in July, the CDC reported.

Usually when there's an outbreak of this scale, the CDC mobilizes to pinpoint the source of the contaminated food. However, McKenna explains that the shutdown "means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening." Individual states can use their own resources to trace the outbreak, but so far it looks like they won't be able to use the federal government's databases.

Of course, this is hardly the first recent outbreak of salmonella linked to poultry; Tom Philpott writes about how crowded conditions and overuse of antibiotics on farms make for perfect bacteria breeding grounds here. This CDC graphic shows the growing number of salmonella cases over the past two decades:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

The Scary Truth About Antibiotic Overprescription

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 3:54 PM EDT

When a patient complains of a sore throat or bronchitis, doctors prescribe antibiotics much more often than is medically necessary. That's the main takeaway of a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Findings from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey reveal that doctors prescribed antibiotics to 60 percent of sore throat patients—despite the fact that the drugs are only thought to be necessary in about 10 percent of cases. For acute bronchitis, antibiotics are not recommended at all, yet the researchers—a team from Harvard—found that doctors prescribed antibiotics to an astonishing 73 percent of patients diagnosed with the condition. 

"We use azithromycin for an awful lot of things, and we abuse it terribly," one doctor told the New York Times.

The number of doctor visits for acute bronchitis tripled between 1996 to 2010, from about 1.1 million visits to 3.4 million visits. The number of sore throat visits actually declined from 7.5 percent of all visits in 1997 to 4.3 percent in 2010—and yet the rate of antibiotic prescription remained consistent.

Another interesting finding: the growing popularity of expensive, broad-spectrum antibiotics such as azithromycin over tried-and-true strep-targeting drugs like penicillin. Last year, the New York Times noted that azithromycin "may increase the likelihood of sudden death" in adults who have or are at risk for heart disease. In that piece, Dr. John G. Bartlett, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Times that he believed that overprescription of azithromycin could also contribute to antibiotc resistance. "We use azithromycin for an awful lot of things, and we abuse it terribly," he said. "It's very convenient. Patients love it. 'Give me the Z-Pak.' For most of where we use it, probably the best option is not to give an antibiotic, quite frankly."

If the looming threat of antibiotic resistance isn't reason enough for concern about doctors' free hand with antibiotics, there's also the considerable cost to our health care system—an estimated $500 million for antibiotics prescribed unnecessarily for sore throat alone between 1997 and 2010. If you include the cost of treating the side effects of unnecessary antibiotics such as diarrhea and yeast infections, the study's authors estimate that the cost would increase 40-fold.

OkCupid's Awkward Response to Boulder Floods

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 2:28 PM EDT

A friend of mine in Boulder received this message from OkCupid the other day:

1,000 people are still stranded due to the flash floods in Colorado. Maybe not the best time for this spam, OKCupid.

WTF Is Google Doing Raising Money for Congress' Biggest Climate Denier?

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 12:36 PM EDT

Google is taking some serious flak from environmentalists over its recent fundraiser for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OKla.), climate denier extraordinaire. Today, protesters are convening in Mountainview to, as a press release from the climate change activist group 350.org put it, "raise awareness among Google's environmentally-minded and science-oriented employees and management of their company's fundraising for one of the most prominent climate change deniers in the country." We thought we'd take a trip down to check it out:

Brad Johnson (@climatebrad) of Forecast the Facts says Google rejected the petitions and suggested they submit a business proposal instead. Johnson says they will next see what members want to do. "This is not over," he said following this video. Watch:

 

Bruce Jones' (@BMcCJ) message to Google:

 

 

The Truth About Bagged Lettuce

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

I'm a major salad enthusiast. I'm not just saying that to sound virtuous—I really like the stuff, especially when it's drizzled with balsamic and a good olive oil and paired with a crusty piece of toast. Since we've already established that I'm a lazy cook and that I love Trader Joe's, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I usually opt for TJ's bagged lettuce mixes instead of whole heads. Packaged greens are perfect: all the salad, none of the tedious salad spinner.

So you can imagine my disappointment when, last week, I heard author Jo Robinson trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air. (My colleague Tom Philpott recently wrote about her new book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.) "Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old," said Robinson ruefully. "They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them." Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. "If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you're going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold."

"What I know is that the bagged, triple-washed variety is enormously water costly."

I'm not sure that the promise of an antioxidant payoff could carry me through the doldrums of lettuce washing and tearing. But Robinson's reality check also got me wondering: What about the potential environmental benefit of bagged lettuce? Isn't it much more efficient for all that washing to be done in bulk, rather than leaf by annoying leaf in my kitchen sink? I decided to call some experts.

Now, no one I talked to was aware of any actual studies about lettuce and the environment, and they were careful to emphasize that their responses were just speculation. But they brought up some interesting points. Gidon Eshel, a professor at Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy, reminded me that ever since the great bagged spinach E. coli scare of 2006—which sickened 205 people and killed 3—produce companies have been triple washing most of their packaged greens. "What I know is that the bagged, triple-washed variety is enormously water costly," Eshel said. "I visited such an operation and saw for myself. I don't have numbers sadly, but the washing was just staggering."

But Eshel noted that the location of such washing is a key factor: If it's in the Northeast, where there's generally water to spare, it's not such a big deal. "If, on the other hand, it's in [California's] Central Valley, then it most likely becomes the single most important environmental consideration, and the triple-washed thing becomes very difficult to defend." According to the federally funded Agricultural Marketing Research Center, 90 percent of US lettuce is produced in California and Arizona.

And water isn't the only resource that bagged lettuce uses. Sean Cash, an associate professor of agriculture, food, and the environment at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition and Science and Policy, pointed out that bagged salads require much more mechanical prep work than heads of lettuce. (Machines require electricity to tear lettuce into bite-sized pieces, whereas us people who do it require only zenlike focus and patience.) "The processing and packaging of bagged salad would still outweigh the cost of making the plastic bags that a consumer might use [to carry home whole heads of lettuce] at the store," Cash said. "And it's not clear to me that for bagged salad there would be less food waste at an industrial processor (although they may handle it more efficiently)."

And what about that E. coli threat? Even in this age of triple washing and rigorous germ testing, should we still worry that our greens may harbor dangerous pathogens? A 2010 Consumer Reports investigation suggests that the answer is yes. Researchers tested 208 containers of greens from 16 different brands; while they didn't find any of the big-name food-borne pathogens like E. coli or salmonella, they did turn up evidence of coliforms and enterococcus, "bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination." More than a third of the samples tested contained coliforms that surpassed levels deemed acceptable by food safety experts, and about a fifth had unacceptable levels of enterococcus. Just this past February, Salinas, Caliornia-based Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. voluntarily recalled its prepackaged organic baby spinach in 36 states because of potential E. coli contamination. (Meanwhile, in cuter/weirder news, in 2011 a woman in Pasadena found a live frog in her Costco organic bagged greens, took him home, and named him Dave.)  

I couldn't find any literature on pesticide residues in bagged greens, but it's likely that the triple washing gets rid of most of the chemicals. Still, lettuce is a notoriously pesticide-intensive crop—the Environmental Working Group lists it as number 14 on its tally of the most chemical-laden produce.

So do I have to ditch my beloved bagged salads? Not if it's going to mean I ditch my daily serving of veggies altogether, says Cash. Packaged greens are "a big win for some (not all) consumers in terms of convenience—folks who might not eat as many leafy greens if the convenience wasn't there." I don't think I fit into the latter category—so I should probably start buying my lettuce whole and spend an extra few minutes washing and cutting my lettuce at home to cut down on water, energy use, and maybe even nasty bugs. Okay, okay, Jo Robinson and salad spinner, you guys win.

Quick Reads: "Any Way You Slice It" by Stan Cox

| Mon May 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing

By Stan Cox

THE NEW PRESS

In this lucid and lively book, Stan Cox, an environmental writer whose last book charted the effects of air conditioning on the American landscape, explains how "rationing" has become a dirty word. Through examples ranging from post-Hurricane Sandy gas shortages to China's one-child policy, he depicts a society anxious about our right to consumer choice. "Whenever there's a ceiling on available goods, no one is happy," Cox writes. But sooner or later we'll almost certainly have to ration food, water, and fossil fuels. "If rationing becomes unavoidable, the way it happens—justly or harshly—will depend very much on whether we have managed to build a more just society."

Kraft Mac & Cheese Is Nutritionally Equivalent to Cheez-Its

| Mon Mar. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

We taste-tested Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese, Cheez-Its, and a simple, homemade pasta-and-cheese dish. Watch the video to see how they stacked up.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent outcry over the use of yellow dyes 5 and 6 in Kraft's popular Macaroni & Cheese. A couple of food bloggers have petitioned the food giant to ditch the artificial colors, calling them "unnecessary" and "potentially harmful."

The petition has already racked up more than 250,000 signatures. That isn't surprising, since Kraft's cheesy, gooey dish is a childhood staple. (I subsisted on a strict diet of it and Eggo waffles until about age 10.)

So just for fun, let's pretend that the petitioners succeed, and Kraft replaces its artificial dyes with natural coloring—or (gasp!) no coloring at all. Would the stuff then be healthier?

Well, let's consider the ingredients list for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese:

Enriched Macaroni product (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate [iron], thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); cheese sauce mix (whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, cheese culture)

Now compare that to the ingredients list for Kellog's Reduced Fat Cheez-Its:

Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], roboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); soybean and palm oil with TBHQ for freshness, skim milk cheese (skim milk, whey protein, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto extract for color), salt, containst two percent or less of paprika, yeast, paprika oleoresin for color, soy lecithin

To me, the list looked pretty similar—except for one thing: Instead of yellows 5 and 6, Cheez-Its uses annato extract and paprika for color. Yes, you read that right: Cheez-Its uses natural coloring, while Kraft Macaroni & Cheese uses artificial. Indeed, agreed Jesse Jones-Smith, a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Kraft actually has a few extra additives, even compared to Cheez-its." She added, "If you gave a kid two servings of Cheez-its and a glass of milk, you would actually have more sodium in Kraft Mac & Cheese. Otherwise, the two meals are pretty nutritionally equivalent."

Nutritionist Marion Nestle isn't a fan of the stuff in the blue-and-yellow box, either. "Kraft Mac & Cheese is a delivery vehicle for salt and artificial colors and flavors," Nestle wrote in an email. "It is a non-starter on my list because it violates at least three of my semi-facetious rules: never eat anything artificial; never eat anything with more than five ingredients; and never eat anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce."

Right. But that got me wondering: What about Annie's Homegrown, the supposedly healthier brand of packaged mac and cheese? When Jones-Smith compared Annie's and Kraft's nutritional information labels and ingredients lists, she found that their dry pasta and sauce packets weren't too different:*

The real difference, she says, was in what the two manufacturers recommended adding: Kraft suggests making the dish with four tablespoons of margarine and a quarter cup of two-percent milk, while Annie's recommends two tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of lowfat milk. "Margarine often has trans fat—why would they recommend margarine?" wondered Jones-Smith. The result is that when prepared, Kraft packs substantially more calories and fat into a serving than Annie's:

So what's a healthier alternative? I asked Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, for a recommendation. She suggested a simple cheese, pasta, and cauliflower dish. Basically you mash up two cups of boiled cauliflower with a cup of parmesan, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper. Add it to a pound of pasta with a little of the pasta's cooking water, and you have a creamy, cheesy dish that Jones-Smith says is also more nutritious than both boxed versions: It's lower in sodium, fat, and calories, and slightly higher in protein. (It's slightly higher in saturated fat because of the real parmesan.)

It also tastes good. That's not to say that boxed mac and cheese tastes bad; it's hard to go wrong with cheesy, starchy comfort food. But I'm willing to guess that Adler's concoction is a few more steps removed from a bowl of Cheez-Its. Which is, well, comforting in its own way.

You can watch our taste test in the video at the top of this post.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated some of the values for Cheez-Its' nutritional information.

"They All Look Like a Vatican Version of the Tea Party Movement"

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

"Even on a good day, I get discouraged thinking about the election of a new pope," laments Maureen Fiedler, a nun and blogger at the progressive Catholic newspaper National Catholic Reporter. "They all look like a Vatican version of the tea party movement."

On Tuesday, three weeks after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 28, the world's cardinals will begin their conclave to choose a new pope. The past few decades have been rough ones for a church struggling with the widespread sex abuse scandal and an ever-worsening shortage of clergy. But with 1.16 billion members worldwide, the church is still massive—and it's actually in a perfect position to help save the planet, should it choose to do so.

The flock is increasingly centered in the developing world, where people are most likely to bear the brunt of environmental destruction and climate change. The church has a strong tradition of social-justice work, including the United States' Catholic Worker movement and Latin America's liberation theology. Indeed, National Catholic Reporter notes that even the notoriously socially conservative Benedict XVI famously delivered a World Day of Peace speech called "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation," and named pollution among the world's "social sins."

So will Benedict's successor keep up the ecocrusading? Fiedler is right that on social issues like birth control, gay rights, and celibacy among priests, the papabili—or likely contenders—are predictably conservative. Nevertheless, some have spoken out on climate change, conservation, and other hot topics. Here's my extremely unscientific look at a few of the most environmentally aware:

Cardinal Peter Turkson, Ghana: Turkson is probably the most controversial of all the papal candidates. In 2011, he really riled anti-UN types by calling for a "true world political authority." Then, during a meeting of bishops at the Vatican last year, he showed a ridiculous video warning about the spread of Islam in Europe. Most recently, when asked about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour:

"African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency," he said. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa, homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society."

So, yikes. Nevertheless, in the past few years Turkson has often expressed interest in protecting the planet. Here he is talking about environmental stewardship in 2012:

In this 2010 interview with U.S. Catholic magazine, Turkson talked about how surface mining devastates Ghanaian ecosystems, and why Americans should care. In a 2011 address during a visit to Wasnhington, DC, he emphasized that protecting the environment can help the poor:

…despite the naysayers, economic resources exist that could help wipe the tears from the eyes of those who suffer injustice, who lack the basics of a dignified life, and who are in danger from any deterioration in the climate. The poor do benefit from champions in solidarity who believe that injustice can be reduced, that harmonious relationships can be fostered, that our planetary ecology can be made sustainable, that a world of greater communion is possible.

Cardinal Scola

Cardinal Angelo Scola, Italy: In a recent speech to twentysomethings in Italy, Scola showed hipster cred of sorts by quoting Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy. In his 2005 book The Nuptial Mystery, however, he alienated both feminists and the gay community by arguing, as the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal put it, "that feminism is responsible for homosexuality, because the more women act like men, the more men are likely to want to have sex with other men." Right. For those of you who still care what he has to say about the environment after that doozy, consider his elegantly stated thoughts in a 2010 article called "Protecting Nature or Saving Creation?":

The way for the urgent, collaborative convergence between ecology and theology is to continue the logic of creation with love. This logic is scientific, religious and political all in one. And consequently it is the logic of justice and of the complete development of humanity.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, Brazil: Like many of the other candidates, Scherer is extremely conservative on issues you'd expect; for example, he has vociferously opposed abortion and gay marriage, the AP reports. But he's also been a champion of the poor and outspoken on deforestation, writes National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen Jr.: 

Scherer has also embraced the strong environmental concerns of the Brazilian bishops, especially with regard to the Amazon. In 2004, he called on the Brazilian government to strictly control the expansion of farmland in the Amazon, "so that measures are no longer taken after the problem is already there, after the forest is felled and burned."

Cardinal Rodriguez

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, Honduras: If I were electing the pope, Rodríguez would probably get my vote. This guy doesn't just pay lip service to environmental stewardship. As the president of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's social-justice NGO, Rodríguez has spoken out strongly on climate change, calling it a "faith issue." Last year Rodríguez's team advocated for a legally binding treaty that would force world nations to reduce carbon emissions.

Rodríguez is progressive in other ways; he once said that "neoliberal capitalism carries injustice and inequality in its genetic code." He has also advocated immigration reform in the United States. Rodríguez is not without controversy, however. Here's National Catholic Reporter on a particularly low point:

In 2002, Rodriguez set off a tempest in the United States by comparing media criticism of the Catholic Church in light of the sex abuse scandals to persecutions under the Roman emperors Nero and Diocletian, as well as Hitler and Stalin. He suggested that the American media was trying to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of the Jewish lobby.

Cardinal Tagle

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Philippines: At 55, Tagle is probably the youngest of the candidates. He's also one of the more progressive (though not as much as Rodríguez). Tagle is known for his work with the poor, and he recently supported an anti-development protest in an eastern coastal region of the Philippines. And then, there's this tidbit from the AP:

Even as a bishop, Tagle did not own a car. He took the bus or "jeepney," the popular working-class minibus, to church and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Tagle has strongly opposed the use of birth control among Catholics, as have almost all of the other candidates. One could argue—and Julia Whitty does a great job of it in this Mother Jones piece—that the best gift that a pope could give to the poor and the environment would be to allow Catholics to use birth control. But even though the Vatican once almost took that route, there's little support for it among today's cardinals. That's too bad, considering the views of the faithful, at least in the United States: A recent New York Times and CBS News poll found that 71 percent of American Catholics would prefer a pope who favors modern birth control.

MAP: 2012 Was the Hottest Year on Record in the US

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 6:34 PM EST

Just saying.

This NOAA map shows a sampling of places where weather records were broken last year. You probably guessed that red indicates heat. Yellow represents dryness; orange is a double whammy record for heat and dryness.

Image courtesy of NOAA

Lisa Jackson Leaves the EPA

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EST

EPA chief Lisa Jackson has stepped down after four years on the job. The NY Times puts her resignation in the context of what many perceive as a lack of climate-change action on the part of the Obama administration:

Ms. Jackson's departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Mr. Obama's commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his re-election, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Mr. Obama said that his first priority would be jobs and the economy and that he intended only to foster a "conversation" on climate change in the coming months.

Here's Jackson's statement:

I want to thank President Obama for the honor he bestowed on me and the confidence he placed in me four years ago this month when he announced my nomination as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time I spoke about the need to address climate change, but also said: "There is much more on the agenda: air pollution, toxic chemicals and children’s health issues, redevelopment and waste-site cleanup issues, and justice for the communities who bear disproportionate risk." As the President said earlier this year when he addressed EPA’s employees, "You help make sure the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are safe. You help protect the environment not just for our children but their children. And you keep us moving toward energy independence…We have made historic progress on all these fronts." So, I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.

More at NY Times.

Butterball's PR Staff Mysteriously Absent Pre-Thanksgiving

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 3:03 PM EST

A while back, the animal advocacy group Mercy For Animals turned up some alarming footage of workers at a Butterball facility kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. MFA sent out a bunch of emails yesterday reminding reporters of that awful footage. I thought this might be a good opportunity to ask Butterball a few questions about its operations—including its reaction to MFA's allegations. So I sent the company a few questions, including: 

  • How many turkeys does Butterball sell every year?
  • How long does it take for an average Butterball turkey to reach slaughter age?
  • Are Butterball turkeys fed antibiotics? How about ractopamine (Topmax)? Any other growth enhancers?
  • How has Butterball responded to Mercy For Animals' allegations of abuse at factories?

I got an away message from the first spokeswoman I tried, so I forwarded it along to someone else. Here's what I got back:

I hope you're well today. I received your note below from my colleague, Bridget.
Unfortunately, resources who are appropriate to answer these questions are limited this week and are unavailable to respond by your deadline.

I wrote back:

Okay, but it does seem like this week of all weeks would be a crucial one for answering these questions! I'd really like to include Butterball's input if at all possible.

No dice. The spokeswoman responded:

Thanks, Kiera. Due to scheduling, we just won’t be able to make it work. Re: the MFA allegations, I can share with you the company statement if you’d like – let me know.

I wrote:

Okay. Can you at least tell me whether Butterball uses antibiotics, ractopamine, and/or other growth enhancers?

And...crickets. No company statement, no answers on growth-enhancers, nada. Mind you, this is the same company that runs a fully-staffed hotline to tell you how to cook your turkey. The company's website boasts that "No question is too tough for these turkey talkers, and they are ready and excited to tackle any challenge you throw at them." 

Except, it seems, when it comes to the turkeys themselves.

Watch Live: Climate Change's Sleeper Role in Election 2012

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 8:30 AM EDT

Today, a panel of pollsters, analysts, campaign operatives, and journalists will gather for the very first "Climate Desk Live" breakfast briefing in Washington, DC, hosted by award-wining science journalist Chris Mooney. Speakers include Joe Romm of Climate Progress, analyst Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, and Paul Bledsoe, a Washington-based consultant who was the chief staffer on climate change communications in the Clinton White House. The fun starts at 9:30 a.m. in Washington, DC, but don't worry if you can't make it to the event—you can see the livestream here:

Watch live streaming video from climatenexus at livestream.com

VIDEO: "Farm It Maybe"

| Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:02 PM EDT

Just when I was about to give Cookie Monster the award for best parody of "Call Me Maybe," this kid comes along:

"Hey, I just milked you. This cow is crazy! But here's her udder. So milk her maybe."

 

Kitties, Rabies, the Plague, and You

| Tue Sep. 18, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

In the neverending war between cat people and bird people, troops on either side gather ammunition in the form of research. Add this one to Team Bird's quiver: a new study that shows how that feral cats carry deadly diseases like rabies, toxoplasmosis, and the plague(!). Published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, the study finds that rabies in particular is a much bigger problem among cats than dogs. In 2008, cats had four times the rabies rate of dogs, and in 2010 cats accounted for 62 percent of all rabies cases in domestic animals. 

The study also casts doubt the feral-cat control technique known as Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR, wherein feral cats are rounded up, fixed, and released back to where they were found. Feral-cat advocates have long favored TNR, claiming it humanely reduces the feral cat population. But the new study suggests it's not effective in stopping cats from spreading rabies. From the abstract:

...some studies have shown that TNR leads to increased immigration of unneutered cats into neutered populations as well as increased kitten survival in neutered groups. These compensatory mechanisms in neutered groups leading to increased kitten survival and immigration would confound rabies vaccination campaigns and produce naïve populations of cats that can serve as source of zoonotic disease agents owing to lack of immunity.

The bird advocacy group American Bird Conservancy crows in a press release:

"This is a significant study that documents serious wildlife and public health issues associated with 125 million outdoor cats in the United States.  Decision-making officials need to start looking at the unintended impacts these animals have on both the environment and human health when they consider arguments to sanction Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) cat colonies. These colonies are highly detrimental to cats, wildlife, and people, and only serve to exacerbate the cat overpopulation problem," said Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy at American Bird Conservancy.

Oh no they didn't! Team Cat, what have you got?

Gay Marriage Seed Art at the Minnesota State Fair

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 11:12 AM EDT

There's lots to see and do here at the Minnesota State Fair. And most importantly, eat: It's before noon, and already I've sampled the (allegedly) world's smoothest ice cream, a Norwegian delicacy called potato lefse, and a mini donut. But the coolest thing I've seen so far is tucked away in a small room in the agriculture building: seed art. Minnesotans have painstakingly employed a variety of common seeds—flax, lentils, poppy, adzuki, millet, and sunflower, to name just a few—to create incredibly detailed artistic masterpieces. The themes are many: cute animals, aphorisms, and affirmations of Minnesota pride abound. A bunch have political messages; this November there are two controversial measures on Minnesota's ballot: a gay marriage ban and a voter identification requirement. Here are some of the ways that fair entrants expressed their opinions on these matters:

And here's a detail:

Mood Lighting at Fast Food Joints Makes You Less Fat

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

Soft lighting and smooth jazz not only add romance to your fast-food dining experience, they also make you less likely to overeat, says a new study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Researchers transformed part of a Hardee's in Champaign, Illinois into a swanky fine-dining establishment. They left the rest of the restaurant as it was. The (very breathlessly reported) results:

Researchers hypothesized that participants in the fine-dining part would consume more as the relaxed atmosphere would cause them to linger longer and order more food than those in the fast food environment. Interestingly results showed that even though participants in the fine-dining area ate for longer than those in the main eating area they actually consumed less food! Those in the fine dining area were also no more likely to order extra food. Another surprising result is that even though participants in the fine-dining part ate less food they actually rated the food as more enjoyable, so changing the atmosphere can change food consumption and food satisfaction!

The fancy-pants diners consumed 18 percent less food than their casual counterparts. Classy!

Butterball Turkey Employee Admits to Animal Abuse

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Back in February, the nonprofit animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals posted a video documenting workers at a North Carolina Butterball turkey facility abusing the birds. (Warning: The video is extremely graphic.)

On Tuesday, reports Mercy For Animals, one of the workers caught on tape, Brian Douglas, pled guilty to felony cruelty to animals. His sentence, according to MFA:

Douglas will serve a sentence of 30 days imprisonment, followed by 6 months intensive probation and 36 months of supervised probation. Douglas was also ordered to pay $550 in fees and fines, and provide a DNA sample to the state, and will be subject to warrantless searches. Four other Butterball employees were also charged with cruelty to animals. Their cases are still pending.

The video shows Douglas and other workers kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. Pretty hard to imagine, especially if you've ever hung out with turkeys. My hens were some of the most endearing animals I've ever known. Read about my turkey adventures here.

CHART: What's a Polar Bear Worth?

| Thu Aug. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Via the excellent Jon Mooallem, a chart by the Canadian government (PDF) that (kind of creepily) sums up exactly how much a polar bear is worth:

Wash Your Organic Produce. No, Really.

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Bugs can easily carry bacteria onto organic produce.

This summer I've been on a blueberry tear. I buy a little container from the farmers market or supermarket and open it up as soon as I get home, popping the sweet little orbs into my mouth as I'm putting away my groceries. Only occasionally do I give rinsing them more than a passing thought. After all, I usually splurge for the organic kind. How bad could a little chemical-free dirt really be? Do I really have to wash my innocent-looking blueberries?

According to Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, the answer is an unequivocal yes, for several reasons. One is what the produce industry refers to as "pesticide drift": The wind can—and frequently does—blow chemicals from nearby conventional fields onto organic crops.* Pesticide contamination can also happen in the warehouse, since many produce companies use the same facilities to process organic and conventional products. In that case, companies are supposed to use the label "organically grown" instead of "organic," which can mislead consumers. "The labels are really confusing," Lunder says. "When people say they're transitional organic, there might be traces left in the soil. If you see no-spray, they still might be using synthetic fertilizer, for example."

But the main reason to wash organic produce is to get rid of germs. "Bacterial contamination is huge," Lunder says. You might remember, for example, that one of the culprits in the giant E. coli spinach outbreak of 2006 was bagged organic spinach.

Do Menstruating Women Attract Sharks?

| Thu Aug. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After yesterday morning's important news that menstruation doesn't increase your risk of being attacked by a bear, a friend tweeted a great question at me: "Ok, but it's SHARK WEEK! What about swimming with your Aunt Flo?"

I immediately set about emailing shark experts. The Monterey Bay Aquarium declined to comment. The Vancouver Aquarium was more willing to put a toe in the water. "Honestly, I think the jury is still out on this question," emailed Ann Dreolini, a spokeswoman. "According to what I have read so far, there are people who believe the chance of a shark attack is greater while menstruating…and others who think this has absolutely no impact on shark attacks at all."

But Ralph S. Collier, a shark behavior expert who has been documenting shark attacks since 1963 and now heads up the nonprofit research and conservation group Shark Research Committee, told me about a study that his friend and fellow shark expert H. David Baldridge conducted in the late '60s. I couldn't find the study online, but according to Collier, Baldridge introduced several human body fluids—including menstrual blood—to captive wild sharks in open ocean pens to see if any would elicit a feeding frenzy. The only one that did cause such a reaction was peritoneal fluid, the liquid found in our abdominal cavity. (Unfortunately, said Collier, Baldridge's grant money ran out before he could figure out what was so bewitching to sharks about our gut fluid.)

Collier noted that blood from animals native to the marine environment do elicit feeding frenzy reactions in sharks. "But our blood is different from a sea otter's blood or cetacean blood," he said. "Our blood is from a terrestrial environment." He theorizes that the scent of human blood doesn't send the message to sharks that there is an animal in distress nearby, fit for a meal.

Still, he said, Baldridge's study was not comprehensive, and he advises people with abrasions not to go into the ocean. "If it's a young lady for whom it's that time of the month," he added, sounding somewhat uncomfortable, "it's better to be safe than sorry. Better to wait till everything is back to normal to go into the ocean."

Tell that to Marie Levine, founder and executive director of another nonprofit called the Shark Research Institute. "I've been diving for decades and even got my period while underwater with a school of hammerheads—the sharks were not interested and I had to fin like crazy to get close to them," she wrote to me in an email.

And then there's this page over at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Ichthyologist George H. Burgess writes:

Menstrual blood almost certainly can be detected by a shark, and I'm sure urine can be as well. Do we have positive evidence that it is a factor in shark attack? No, and until some menstruating and non-menstruating divers volunteer to take part in a controlled test we'll never prove it. In my opinion it likely is attractive to sharks in certain situations.

Interestingly, according to Burgess, 90 percent of recorded shark attacks have involved men. But that doesn't necessarily mean that sharks are gender-biased:

This reflects a historic pattern of more males engaged in marine aquatic activities, especially those that put humans most at risk, e.g. surfing, diving, long distance swimming, warfare. It in no way can be attributed to sharks "preferring" males over females. In recent years proportionately more females are being attacked because more females are engaging themselves in riskier, formerly males-only activities.

In conclusion, Burgess advises: "Don't worry about it. Lots of women safely dive while menstruating." On the other hand, if you prefer not to participate in freezing and dangerous sports made more dangerous by the presence of sharks, "I'm having my period" seems as good an excuse as any.

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