Tom Philpott - June 2013

Why The Atlantic's Defense of Junk Food Fails

| Wed Jun. 26, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
The McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of US adults are overweight or obese. How did this happen? In a long article in the current Atlantic, David H. Freedman offers a mechanistic explanation: People are ingesting too many calories, particularly "energy-intense" fat, sugar, and "other problem carbs." The simple diagnoses leads to an easy solution: The food industry should apply its flavor-engineering wizardry to churn out lower-cal products that people will still scarf up, preserving its own bottom line while solving the obesity crisis. Indeed, he writes, this remedy is already playing out under our noses:

Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further.

Among the examples Freedman cites are McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin, a "lower-calorie, less fatty version of the Egg McMuffin," a "new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains," and Carl's Jr.'s "Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich."

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Did a Slave Process the Shrimp in Your Scampi?

| Mon Jun. 17, 2013 3:20 AM PDT

Over the past 20 years, the rapid rise of South Asian shrimp farms has transformed our relationship to the tasty crustaceans, shifting it from an occasional luxury to an all-you-can-eat commodity *. Twenty years ago, most of our shrimp came from domestic wild fisheries. Today, we import 90 percent of it, almost all of it farmed. But who works on these foreign farms and processing facilities—and under what conditions? A new briefing paper by the well-respected International Labor Rights Forum and the Warehouse Workers United (WWU) alleges serious labor abuses, including illegal use of underage workers, at the Thai shrimp producer Narong Seafood, at least until recently a major supplier of Walmart and a leading shrimp processor for the US market, according to a recent analysis by the consultancy Accenture for Humanity United.

Narong, for its part, disputes the charges in the report. "We insist that Narong is against child labor or any unfair treatment to our staff or workers," a company official wrote in an emailed statement. 

The Scary Side of Synbio Glowing Plants

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 10:49 AM PDT

If you're like me, the concept of synthetic biology—the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life—is pretty hard to get your head around. I get synthesizing, say, material to make clothes out of. But synthesizing new life forms? Apparently, while I stand slack-jawed, the novel technology is quickly going mainstream. Here's the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term "natural light," a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric street lamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

What could be more innocuous than plants that generate useful light? And moreover, the "glowing plants" project isn't the work of a big, bad multinational like Monsanto or a corporate-funded academic lab, the Times notes, but rather a "small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement."

And they're not financing the project by tapping Wall Street or big banks, but rather the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence, the Kickstarter campaign. The project launched April 23 with a goal to raise $65,000; it has already exceeded $480,000 in pledges, aided by glowing—so to speak—reports in Tech Crunch, Fast Company, and Forbes, as well as the promise that anyone who commits at least $40 will "receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home."

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I don't know much about the science of creating living lamps. But I do think it's important to think out the broader implications of synbio—as the novel technology is known—and ask questions about how its release from the lab into the world is regulated. Which is evidently pretty lightly—this consortium is casually promising to distribute glowing seeds to hundreds of people.

I can't think of a better source for examining the promise and perils of synbio than this much-cited 2007 essay by the eminent physicist—and climate change skeptic—Freeman Dyson. In it, he laid out a rosy vision for what he called the "domestication of biotechnology." Here's Dyson:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.

What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems?

And what about the obvious dangers—what if these God-like "housewives and children" (ugh) turned away from conjuring cuddly creatures and start creating ones designed to bare their fangs, monsters instead of pets? You don't even need to presume malicious intent to find reason for concern: What if some novel beast designed for cuteness escapes, goes rogue, and turns out to have unintended malign powers? Then there are the obvious questions: What if these new life forms behave in ways we can't predict—or mutate in ways we can't predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems? Dyson acknowledged the "real and serious dangers" of synbio, and allowed that "rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others." But he waved off that task—not his problem. "I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers," he cheerfully declared.

But regulating novel technologies has proven difficult here in the United States. Genetically modified seeds burst onto US farm fields in the mid-'90s with a notoriously lax regulatory process, as I showed in this post. Still, the process is time-consuming, and it has been known to occasionally at least delay particularly problematic crop varieties, like new ones genetically rigged to withstand not one but two herbicides. Next came nanotechnology, which takes advantage of the fact that common substances like silver behave differently when they're really, really small. Nanotech is now ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from underwear to toothpaste. But as the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider showed in an eye-opening 2010 series, the small stuff poses significant risks, has received little independent testing, and is barely regulated.

The excellent watchdog org ETC Group, which seeks to place novel technologies under democratic oversight, has launched a rival "Kickstopper" campaign to halt such projects until a proper regulatory regime can be put into place.

In the spirit of Professor Dyson, let me offer a prediction for the future. I imagine that synbio's current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over, eventually dominating the research and deployment of Dyson's wondrous toys. Monsanto has already bought its way into the space—in January, it bought an R&D lab from and entered a research collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, a company that uses synthetic microbes to "improve crop productivity."

Unless we have a serious national reckoning on synbio, what we risk leaving our children and grandchildren is the knotty problem of trying to convince an entrenched, little-regulated industry that the power of generating life forms should be used for the broad interests of society, not the narrow ones of shareholders.  

Why Coffee Is (Still) Good for You, and 4 More Bites of Food News

| Fri Jun. 7, 2013 3:56 AM PDT
Here's the beef: the US and its CAFO ways go global.

There's been so much food news this week that I didn't know where to begin. So I decided to try to do as many as possible, digest style.

China's Appetite for US Pork May Extend to Beef

The takeover of US pork giant Smithfield by Chinese meat behemoth Shuanghui International is the latest data point in a long-term trend: The US, with its hyper-consolidated meat production system, is emerging as a CAFO to the world.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that beef could be next. The nation doesn't consume much beef per capita—pork and chicken are much more common—but its popularity is surging. The nation's beef imports are soaring, too, but remain a tiny fraction of its overall consumption. The country doesn't accept US meat—at least legally—but that could soon change:

The United States, the world's fourth-largest beef exporter, hopes a recent downgrade of its mad cow disease risk status by the UN World Organization for Animal Health will boost its chances of gaining a foothold in the growing Chinese market. Significant quantities of U.S. beef are already smuggled into China through Hong Kong, and the industry is pushing for new talks on formal approval when U.S. President Barack Obama meets President Xi Jinping in California later this week. "If China opens its market to U.S. and Indian beef, the growth rate (in imports) will exceed double-digits," said Rabobank analyst Pan Chenjun.

The Reuters piece sheds light on one reason China is suddenly so interested in meat imports: "spreading urban sprawl that is rapidly swallowing up agricultural land and pushing up farmers' costs."

Cargill and McDonalds Team Up for Russian McNuggets

The US meat industry isn't just gearing up to export loads of factory-farmed meat. It's also setting up shop in foreign markets, replicating its model right down to the McNuggets. More from WattAgNet:

Cargill officially opened a chicken processing facility at its complex in Efremov, Russia. This $40 million facility, Cargill's first primary chicken processing operation in Russia, will predominantly supply McDonald's restaurants in Russia with Chicken McNuggets as well as other chicken products.

Diet Soda: More Bad News

As I've written before, diet soda may not be the health-neutral elixir it seems at first glance. Recent headlines about artificially sweetened drinks being as bad for your teeth as a meth addiction seem overblown, but links to type-2 diabetes recently got stronger. In a paper (abstract) published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Japanese researchers tracked a group of around 2000 factory workers over seven years and found that regular diet soda drinkers have significantly higher rates of type 2 diabetes than non-drinkers. Meanwhile, Washington University, St. Louis, researchers have published a paper on the effects of sucralose, a popular no-calorie sweetener marketed as Splenda, on the insulin response of 17 obese patients who don't normally consume diet drinks. The results, from a University of Washington press release quoting one of the researchers:

When study participants drank sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose Insulin levels also rose about 20 percent higher. So the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response.

Huffington Post has a good summary of recent research on diet soda and health.

Coffee: More Good News

My own vice for getting through the day is coffee. I'm not sure what I'd do if it, too, were the subject of a steady stream of bad health reports. Happily, most of the research around coffee finds positive effects—perhaps not surprising given that people have been enjoying it for hundreds of years (whereas artificially sweetened drinks have been widely used for little more than a generation). The New York Times' Gretchen Reynolds reports that a spate of recent studies suggest that "moderate" coffee consumption—"the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks"—delivers a range of benefits, including a "reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate cancer, oral cancer and breast cancer recurrence." And then there are the brain benefits of caffeine:

In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

Other research, Reynolds reports, has found that coffee has more of an anti-dementia effect than isolated caffeine: She points to a 2011 study by University of South Florida researchers finding that "mice genetically bred to develop Alzheimer’s and then given caffeine alone did not fare as well on memory tests as those provided with actual coffee."

Should Wine Ingredients Be Listed on Labels?

Wine—another one of my cherished vices—is just naturally fermented grape juice, right? Not these days, reports the ace wine writer Eric Asimov:

Forget about the often poisonous chemicals used in the vineyards, which can leave residue on the grapes. In the winery alone, before fermentation even begins, enzymes may be added to speed up the removal of solid particles from the juice, to amplify desirable aromas while eliminating disagreeable ones, to intensify the color of red wines and to clarify the color of whites.

It doesn’t stop there. Other additives can be used to enhance a wine’s texture, to add or subtract tannins or simply to adjust quality. Winemakers can select specific yeasts and special nutrients to keep those yeasts working. They can add oak extracts for flavor and further tannin adjustment, and compounds derived from grape juice to fix color, texture and body. They can add sugar to lengthen the fermentation, increasing the alcohol content; add acid if it’s lacking; add water if the alcohol level is too high. Or they can send the wine through a reverse-osmosis machine or other heavy equipment to diminish the alcohol and eliminate other undesirable traits, like volatile acidity.

As a result of all this manipulation, Asimov writes, wine often turns out to be a "manufactured product, processed to achieve a preconceived notion of how it should feel, smell and taste, and then rolled off the assembly line, year after year, as consistent and denatured as a potato chip or fast-food burger."

Designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background.

Asimov doesn't get into it in this piece, but designer yeasts have emerged as the engines of flavor in many wines, shunting grapes to the background. A 2008 article from a wine-industry trade magazine tells the story. It focuses on Linda Bisson, a professor of enology at UC Davis, an enormously influential institution in the California wine trade. The article describes Bisson as a "renowned yeast geneticist." Here is her message to winemakers: "You can tailor your product to reach your customer by identifying consumer preferences, the effect that a choice has on a customer, and its genetic composition."

And how can winemakers achieve this customization? It’s easy: "Once we've identified the flavor compounds, we can manipulate the taste. We derive flavors from the yeast, not the grapes." And here's a little-known fact: US winemakers may be using genetically modified yeasts.

Asimov laments that "unlike processed foods, wine is not required to have its ingredients listed on the label." As a result, only a few US winemakers—Bonny Doon Vineyard, Shinn Estate Vineyards and Ridge Vineyards—let you know on the bottle what you're getting along with the grape juice.

China Could Actually Improve US Pork. Here's How.

| Mon Jun. 3, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

China doesn't have the globe's most sterling food safety reputation, and its fast-growing pork industry provides an apt example of why. A few months ago, dead pigs were showing up by the thousands in a Chinese river—the result, apparently, of a scandal involving the slaughter of diseased pigs. In 2011, hundreds of people became ill after eating pork tainted with clenbuterol, a growth-enhancing chemical the Chinese government had banned from hog feed nearly a decade earlier.

All of which makes it odd that the decision of a massive Chinese meat processor called Shuanghui Group—the very company at the center of the clenbuterol fiasco—to buy US hog giant Smithfield might actually clean up one dirty aspect of our domestic pork industry.