Tom Philpott

Midwestern Waters Are Full of Bee-Killing Pesticides

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about how the US Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting a slow-motion reassessment of a widely used class of insecticides, even as evidence mounts that it's harming key ecosystem players from pollinating bees to birds. Since then, another federal entity with an interest in the environment, the US Geological Survey, has released a pretty damning study of the pesticide class, known as neonicitinoids.

Neonics showed up in all of the water bodies tested, and proved to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment."

For the paper (press release; abstract) published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution, USGS researchers took 79 water samples in nine rivers and streams over the 2013 growing season in Iowa, a state whose vast acreage of farmland is largely devoted to neonic-treated corn and soybeans. Neonics showed up in all of the sites, and proved to be "both mobile and persistent in the environment."

Levels varied over the course of the season, spiking after spring planting, the authors report. At their peak, the neonic traces in Iowa streams reached levels well above those considered toxic for aquatic organisms. And the chemicals proved to linger—the researchers found them at reduced levels before planting, "which indicates that they can persist from applications in prior years,” USGS scientist Michelle Hladik, the report's lead author, said in the press release. And they showed up "more frequently and in higher concentrations" than the insecticides they replaced, the authors note.

Other studies have shown similar results. Neonics have shown up at significant levels in wetlands near treated farm fields in parts of the High Plains  and in Canada, as wells as in rivers in ag-heavy areas of Georgia and California.

These findings directly contradict industry talking points. Older insecticides were typically sprayed onto crops in the field, while neonics are applied directly to seeds, and then taken up by the stalks, leaves, pollen, and nectar of the resulting plants. "Due to its precise application directly to the seed, which is then planted below the soil surface, seed treatment reduces potential off-target exposure to plants and animals," Croplife America, the pesticide industry's main lobbying outfit, declared in a 2014 report.

Yet the USGS researchers report that older pesticides that once rained down on the corn/soy belt, like chlorpyrifos and carbofuran, turned up at "substantially" lower rates in water—typically, in less than 20 percent of samples, compared to the 100 percent of samples found in the current neonic study. Apparently, pesticides that are taken up by plants through seed treatments don't stay in the plants; and neonics, the USGS authors say, are highly water soluble and break down in water more slowly than the pesticides they've replaced.

In another document, Croplife claims that neonicotinoids "have been used in the United States for many years without significant effects on populations of honey bees." But the paper shows that neonic use didn't start in the heart of corn/soy belt until 2004, and then quickly ramped up. The below graphic, lifted from the paper, shows usage data on the three major neonic chemicals, with the chart on the bottom right depicting total use. According to the USDA, colony collapse disorder started in 2006. Correlation doesn't prove causation, but the industry's "many years without significant effects" claim doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Neonic use in Iowa. Chart: USGS

In leaching from farm fields, neonics follow a pattern established by spray-applied herbicides like atrazine, the authors note, which undergo a similar "spring flush" into waterways. That means that each spring in Iowa, critters like frogs and fish find themselves immersed in a cocktail of damaging chemicals.

Meanwhile, the use of seed treatments is surging—it tripled over the past decade. And not just neonics. Fungicides—chemicals that kill fungal pests—are also being applied to seeds at record rates. According to Croplife, "today’s seed treatment market offers pre-mixture products containing combinations of three, four or more fungicides." It also boasts: "The global fungicide seed treatment market is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.2 percent and is expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2018."

And these chemicals, too, are emerging as a threat to honeybees. They also may be fouling up water. In 2012, the USGS released a research review on fungicides and their effect on waterways. The report noted plenty of "data gaps"—i.e. a dearth of research—but also evidence of "significant sublethal effects of fungicides on fish, aquatic invertebrates, and ecosystems, including zooplankton and fish reproduction, fish immune function, zooplankton community composition, metabolic enzymes, and ecosystem processes, such as leaf decomposition in streams, among other biological effects."

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Boy, Hipsters Sure Are Defensive About Their Almond Milk

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 3:27 PM EDT

When I penned my little opus about almond milk last week, I really didn't intend to insult anyone's intelligence, provocative headline aside. What I really wanted to do was encourage people to think about what they're buying when they buy this hot-selling product. My editors chose the title and I went along, because they know more than me about what makes people click. And people clicked! I'm pretty sure that "Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters" is my most-read piece ever at Mother Jones.

It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond. How does an almond's water footprint stack up to other foods'?

Reactions mostly hovered in a range between mild annoyance and blind rage. One guy dropped by the Facebook page of the farm I helped found, Maverick Farms, to inform me that he planned to keep drinking almond milk—and spilling it, even. To drive his point home, he even looked up the farm's phone number and repeated his pledge on the answering machine. Thanks for the update!

The oddest response came from Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who took the opportunity to school me in the art of the "food troll":

This fool is talking about how almond milk is not as good as just eating almonds. False comparison. I eat tons of almonds. Love em. And I drink almond milk too. Love it. I can have both. You love regular almonds so much? Do you eat more almonds than me? Not a chance. I eat more almonds than you. And still drink almond milk. Case closed on that particular argument I guess.

Still not convinced? Nolan adds the coup de grace: "If I puked up almond milk it probably wouldn't even taste that bad relative to other kinds of puke."

On a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein.

Right. Meanwhile, several people thundered that since I dare question the value of almond milk, I must be a tool for Big Dairy. "Were you paid off by the Dairy Farmers of America to write that piece?" one wag wondered on Twitter, adding, helpfully " PS I'm no hipster and I love my Almond Milk!"

Actually, my piece did not purport to judge almond milk against the standards of dairy milk and find it wanting. "I get why people are switching away from dairy milk, I wrote, since "industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business." I did cop to drinking a bit of kefir, a fermented milk product. But my intention wasn't to promote Big Dairy, but just to point out that almond milk is nutritionally pretty vapid compared to other products. An eight-ounce serving of Helios brand organic kefir contains 16 grams of protein, vs. 1 gram per serving in most almond milk brands. That's a remarkable difference. But of course, people consume things for all sorts of good reasons, not just protein content.

Now, I didn’t get into much of an ecological analysis in my piece, but there is an interesting one to make here. Back in May, my colleagues Julia Lurie and Alex Park looked at the literature and found that it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a glass of almond milk and 35 gallons to produce a serving of yogurt. Let's assume that it takes a similar amount of water to make Helios kefir, which is essentially fermented skim milk. On the surface, the almond milk looks a lot easier on the water supply. But if you look at it on a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein—and less than two gallons to produce a gram of kefir protein.

Even though kefir costs more than $4 per quart vs. about $2 for almond milk, it starts to look like quite a bargain on a protein basis.

Almond milk's dilute nature lies at the heart of the critique made by Slate's Maria Dolan, the most thoughtful one I've seen of the piece. My basic complaint against almond milk is that it's a watered-down product: you take something that's quite nutrient-dense and deluge it with water, essentially selling people a few almonds and a lot of water.  

I'm thinking about it in the wrong way, counters Dolan. "Is drowning them in water to create almond milk really a bad thing from an environmental perspective?" she asks. "Just as making meat a garnish, not the centerpiece of your meal, thins the environmental impact of eating beef, so consuming almonds sparingly—by diluting them into milk, for instance—reduces their ecological impact."

But I'm not sure that almond milk works to moderate people's almond consumption. California's rapid, and ecologically troubling, expansion of almond production is largely driven by booming exports, mainly to Asia. But US consumption is booming too. According to the Almond Board of California, the US market consumed 394 million pounds of almonds from the 2007-'08 harvest and 605 million pounds in 2012-'13. That's a 50 percent jump in five years. And as I noted in my post, almond milk sales are surging at an even faster clip. It seems to me that the almond milk craze, whatever else it is, reflects a clever food industry strategy to sell yet more almonds, not a way for consumers to reduce their environmental impact.

The Almond Board also reports that California now provides 84 percent of the globe's almonds. Given the state's severe water constraints, and that current levels of production already require 60 percent of managed US honeybees for pollination, often to disastrous effect, we may all have to ease up—not just on the almond milk, but also on almonds themselves. Hell, even ignorant hipsters like me love almonds.

That Antioxidant You're Taking Is Snake Oil

| Wed Jul. 23, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Plants can't move. They're sitting targets for every insect, two- and four-legged creature, and air-borne fungus and bacteria that swirls around them. But they're not defenseless, we've learned. Under pressure from millions of years of attacks, they've evolved to produce compounds that repel these predators. Known as phyotochemicals, these substances can be quite toxic to humans. You probably wouldn't enjoy the jolt of urushiol you'd get from a salad of toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy) leaves.

Pills loaded with vitamin E and beta-carotene are at best useless and at worst harmful—that is, they may trigger lung cancer in some people.

But other phytochemicals have emerged as crucial elements of a healthful human diet. Indeed, they're the source of several essential vitamins, including A, C, and E. But according to an eye-opening Nautilus article by the excellent science journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff (author of a recent Mother Jones piece on the gut microbiome), our view of how these defensive compounds benefit us might be wildly wrong.

The accepted dietary dogma goes like this: The phytochemicals we ingest from plants act as antioxidants—that is, they protect us from the oxidative molecules, known as "free radicals," that our own cells produce as a waste product, and that have become associated with a range of degenerative diseases including cancer and heart trouble.

It's true that many phytochemicals and the vitamins they carry have been proven in lab settings to have antioxidant properties—that is, they prevent oxidization. And so, Velasquez-Manoff shows, the idea gained currency that fruits and vegetables are good for us because their high antioxidant load protects us from free radicals. And from there, it was easy to leap to the conclusion that you could slow aging and stave off disease by isolating certain phytochemicals and ingesting them in pill form—everything from multivitamins to trendy antioxidants like resveratrol. "A supplement industry now worth $23 billion yearly in the U.S. took root," he notes.

Taking antioxidant supplements before exercise actually negates some of the well-documented benefits of physical exertion.

And yet, antioxidant pills have proven to be a bust. In February, a group of independent US medical researchers assessed 10 years of supplement research and found that pills loaded with vitamin E and beta-carotene (the stuff that gives color to carrots and other orange vegetables) pills are at best useless and at worst harmful—that is, they may trigger lung cancer in some people. Just this month, a meta-analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that antioxidant supplements "do not prevent cancer and may accelerate it."

And a 2009 study found that taking antioxidant supplements before exercise actually negates most of the well-documented benefits of physical exertion: That is, taking an antioxidant pill before a run is little better than doing neither and just sitting on the couch.

So what gives? Velasquez-Manoff points to emerging science suggesting that phytochemicals' antioxidant properties may have thrown us off the trail of what really makes them good for us. He offers two key clues. The first is that plants produce them in response to stress—e.g., pathogenic bacteria, hungry insects. The second is that exercise itself is a form of self-imposed stress: You punish your body by exerting it, and it responds by getting stronger.  Leaning on the work of Mark Mattson, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, and other researchers, Velasquez-Manoff proposes that phytochemicals help us not by repelling oxidant stresses, but by triggering them.

Consider that exercise actually generates free radicals in our muscles—the very thing, according to current dogma, that makes us vulnerable to cancer and aging. But a while after a bout at the gym or on the running trail, these free radicals disappear, replaced by what Velasquez-Manoff calls "native antioxidants." That's because, he writes, "post-exercise, the muscle cells respond to the oxidative stress by boosting production of native antioxidants." And these home-grown chemicals, "amped up to protect against the oxidant threat of yesterday’s exercise, now also protect against other ambient oxidant dangers" like ones from air pollution and other environmental stressors, he writes. In the exercise study, the supplements may have interrupted the process, the study's main author, Swiss researcher Michael Ristow, tells Velasquez-Manoff—they prevent the body from producing its antioxidants, but what they deliver doesn't offset the loss.

Yet phytochemicals found in whole foods—"the hot flavors in spices, the mouth-puckering tannins in wines, or the stink of Brussels sprouts"—may work on our bodies much as exercise does. Velasquez-Manoff writes: "Our bodies recognize them as slightly toxic, and we respond with an ancient detoxification process aimed at breaking them down and flushing them out."

To bolster his case, Velasquez-Manoff cites the example of sulforaphane, the compound that gives broccoli and other members of the brassica family of vegetables—such as Brussels sprouts—their sulfurous smell when they cook. It's what's known as an "antifeedant"—i.e., it's pungency discourages grazing (and makes many people hate Brussels sprouts, etc). Unlike many phytochemicals, sulforaphane isn't an antioxidant at all, but rather a mild oxidant—that is, it mimics free radicals and thus under the old dietary dogma, we should avoid it. And yet...

When sulforaphane enters your blood stream, it triggers release in your cells of a protein called Nrf2. This protein, called by some the “master regulator” of aging, then activates over 200 genes. They include genes that produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression, among other important health-promoting functions. In theory, after encountering this humble antifeedant in your dinner, your body ends up better prepared for encounters with toxins, pro-oxidants from both outside and within your body, immune insults, and other challenges that might otherwise cause harm.

In this theory, what causes cancer and general aging isn't oxidative stress itself, but rather a poor response to oxidative stress—"a creeping inability to produce native antioxidants when needed, and a lack of cellular conditioning generally." And that's where the modern Western lifestyle, marked by highly processed food and a lack of physical exertion, comes in.

[The National Institute on Aging's] Mattson calls this the "couch potato" problem. Absent regular hormetic stresses, including exercise and stimulation by plant antifeedants, “cells become complacent,” he says. “Their intrinsic defenses are down-regulated.” Metabolism works less efficiently. Insulin resistance sets in. We become less able to manage pro-oxidant threats. Nothing works as well as it could. And this mounting dysfunction increases the risk for a degenerative disease.

While this emerging view of phytochemcials is compelling, Velasquez-Manoff acknowledges that it isn't fully settled. For one thing, it's unclear why isolated phytochemicals in pills don't seem to work the same magic as they do in the form of whole foods. Here's Velasquez-Manoff:

Proper dosage may be one problem, and interaction between the isolates used and particular gene variants in test subjects another. Interventions usually test one molecule, but fresh fruits and vegetables present numerous compounds at once. We may benefit most from these simultaneous exposures. The science on the intestinal microbiota promises to further complicate the picture; our native microbes ferment phytonutrients, perhaps supplying some of the benefit of their consumption. All of which highlights the truism that Nature is hard to get in a pill.

But human nutrition is a deeply interesting topic precisely because it resists being settled. As Michael Pollan showed in his 2008 book In Defense of Food, humans have adapted to a wide variety of diets—from the Mediterranean and Mesoamerican ones based mostly on plants, to the Inuit ones focusing heavily on fish. The one diet that hasn't worked very well is the most calibrated, supplemented, and "fortified" of all: the Western one.

The EPA Dithers While a Popular Pesticide Threatens Ecosystems

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 3:18 PM EDT

Ah, summer—the season when trillions of corn and soybean plants tower horizon-to-horizon in the Midwest. All told, US farmers planted more than 170 million acres in these two crops this year—a combined landmass roughly equal in size to the state of Texas. That's great news for the companies that turn corn and soy into livestock feed, sweeteners, and food additives; but not so great for honeybees, wild pollinating insects like bumblebees, and birds.

That's because these crops—along with other major ones like alfalfa and sunflower—are widely treated with pesticides called neonicotinoids. Made  by European chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta, these chemicals generate a staggering $2.6 billion in annual revenue worldwide—and have come under heavy suspicion as a trigger of colony collapse disorder and other, less visible, ecological calamities.

Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Take almonds and just…wait, why add water?

Almonds are a precious foodstuff: a crunchy jolt of complete protein, healthful fats, vitamins and minerals, and deliciousness. Given their rather intense ecological footprint—see here—we should probably consider them a delicacy, a special treat. That's why I think it's deeply weird to pulverize away their crunch, drown them in water, and send them out to the world in a gazillion little cartons. What's the point of almond milk, exactly?

Evidently, I'm out of step with the times on this one. "Plant-based milk" behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013. In an earnings call with investors in May, reported by FoodNavigator, CEO Greg Engles revealed that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the plant-based milk market in the United States, easily trumping soy milk (30 percent) and rice and coconut milks (most of the rest).

A jug of almond milk containing roughly 39 cents worth of almonds, plus filtered water and additives, retails for $3.99.

Dairy is still king, of course, comprising 90 percent of the "milk" market. But as our consumption of it dwindles—down from 0.9 cups per person per day in 1970 to about 0.6 in 2010, according to the US Department of Agriculture—plant-based alternatives are gaining ground. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that sales of alternative milks hit $1.4 billion in 2013 and are expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2016, with almond milk leading that growth.

Now, I get why people are switching away from dairy milk. Industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business, and large swaths of adults can't digest lactose, a sugar found in fresh dairy milk. Meanwhile, milk has become knit into our dietary culture, particularly at breakfast, where we cling to a generations-old tradition of drenching cereal in milk. Almond milk and other substitutes offer a way to maintain this practice while rejecting dairy. (Almond milk has been crushing once-ubiquitous soy milk, perhaps partly because of hotly contested fears that it creates hormonal imbalances.)

All that aside, almond milk strikes me as an abuse of a great foodstuff. Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let's compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds—nutrition info here—contains six grams of protein (about an egg's worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana) and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat. A bottle of Califia delivers six eight-ounce servings, meaning that a handful of almonds contains as much protein as the mighty jug of this hot-selling beverage.

What this tells you is that the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds. Which leads us to the question of price and profit. The almonds in the photo above are organic, and sold in bulk at my local HEB supermarket for $11.99 per pound; this one-ounce serving set me back about 66 cents. I could have bought nonorganic California almonds for $6.49 per pound, about 39 cents per ounce. That container of Califia, which contains roughly the same number of nonorganic almonds, retails for $3.99.

        Click here for more comparisons. Mother Jones

The water-intensive nature of almond milk, of course, is no secret. By law, food manufacturers have to name ingredients in order of their prevalence in the product. For Califia and other almond milk brands, it starts like this: "filtered water, almonds." Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California, where 80 percent of the world's almonds are produced, drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.

Califia does make a couple of splashy nutritional claims: "50% more calcium than milk," the bottle declares, and "50% RDI of Vitamin E." Almonds are a great source of these vital nutrients, but not that great. Our ounce of whole almonds contains 74 mg of calcium vs. 290 mg for a cup of whole milk, and 7 mg of vitamin E, about 37 percent of the recommended daily intake.

How does Califia's beverage manage to outdo straight almonds on calcium and vitamin E when it lags so far behind on protein and fat? Again, the answer lies in the ingredients list, which reveals the addition of a "vitamin/mineral blend." All fine and well, but if you're interested in added nutrients, why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Califia almond milk contains an added "vitamin/mineral blend." So why not just pop a vitamin pill?

Moreover, almond milk isn't just a few nuts packaged with lots of water. It often contains additives. For example, in addition to vitamins, the Califia product, like many of its rivals, contains small amounts of carrageenan, a seaweed derivative commonly used as a stabilizer in beverages. Academic scientists in Chicago have raised concerns that it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

I'm not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey. I just want people to know what they're paying for when they shell our for it. As for me, when I want something delicious to moisten my granola or add substance to a smoothie, I go for organic kefir, a fermented milk product that's packed with protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes. Added bonus: According to the label, it's lactose-free—apparently, the kefir microbes transform the lactose during the fermentation process.

The industry, meanwhile, aims to take its lucrative almond milk model on the road. FoodNavigator reports that White Wave is setting up a joint venture to market its plant-based milks in almond-crazy China.

Tom's Kitchen: Now Is the Time of Gazpacho

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Summer in a bowl.

Gazpacho can be a drag: dull and savoring of the refrigerator. That's because its essential ingredients—tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers—are too often mass-produced and hauled in hundreds of miles from God knows where. However, when those hot-weather staples are in season and grown by talented farmers in your region—or better, in a nearby garden—gazpacho can be a revelation: vibrant, zippy, and as fresh as a sun-baked veggie patch.

Here in central Texas, it's gazpacho time. My own tomato plants are towering and healthy, but a diabolical squirrel is helping itself to all the big ones, leaving me with just cherry tomatoes—delicious, but not right for the gazpacho blender. As for sweet peppers, mine aren’t quite ready yet. I did grow some fabulous cukes, though. So I headed over to Austin's glorious Boggy Creek Farm, now in the midst of an epic tomato harvest, to fill out my gazpacho larder.

Now, my gazpacho mojo hit a snag a few years ago when a close friend dismissed a batch I had whipped up with a soul-crushing assessment: "salsa in disguise." I realized my mistake: not enough cucumber and sweet pepper, and too much hot chile pepper. Since then, I've been using one medium-sized cucumber and one sweet pepper each for every five medium-sized tomatoes. As for hot pepper, I usually reserve it for garnish, in the form of  a few chile flakes. These days, my gazpacho tastes like a summer garden in a bowl, not something you want to plunge a chip into. For a slightly spicy and ligher—but still un-salsalike—version, check out the one I came up with last year.

Essential gazpacho gear.

Gazpacho
(Serves two)

5 medium-sized tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 medium cucumber (if it's super-fresh, no need to peel), coarsely chopped
1 medium (or too small) sweet pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 slice of good rustic day-old bread, toasted and torn into pieces
Sherry vinegar, one splash at a time, to taste
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Garnish
Extra virgin olive oil
Something green, like chopped parsley and/or garlic chives
Crushed red chile flakes
A few coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes (optional)
 

Place the chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and garlic into a blender, along with the olive oil, a good dash of vinegar, and a healthy lashing of salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Taste. Add more vinegar and salt if need.

To serve, divide into two bowls (there may be a bit leftover). Give them a drizzle of olive oil and top with remaining garnishes.

 

 

 

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Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry

| Mon Jul. 14, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

California farmers will reap a record 2.1 billion pounds of almonds this year, the USDA estimates—about three times as much as they did in 2000. That's great news for the world's growing horde of almond eaters, because the state's groves supply 80 percent of the global harvest. As this chart shows, California has been planting more and more almonds over the past two decades:

And those almonds are miniature cash cows:

But in the long term, the almond boom may prove bad news for everyone who relies on California's farms for sustenance. You might have heard that the state, supplier of half of US-grown produce, is locked in its worst drought on record. Meanwhile, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond, as my colleagues Alex Park and Julia Lurie have shown. You don't have to scramble to figure how many almonds make up 2.1 billion pounds to realize that that's a hell of a lot of water.

Check Out These New Emojis for Foodies

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Can you guess what these images mean? See below.

On a frigid Sunday morning in Manhattan this past March, several dozen people, many of them design students, gathered at the School of Visual Art's building in Chelsea. Their task: to perform a bit of pro-bono marketing for non-corporate food producers—the kind of small and mid-sized farms that grow produce without poisonous chemicals and tend their animals on pasture, not in fetid, polluting feedlots.

The meeting, organized by an innovative Los Angeles-based design firm called the Noun Project (whose founders my colleague Tasneem Raja interviewed here) and an accomplished New York-based sustainable-food advocacy group called the Grace Communications Foundation (the force behind the Meatrix video and Sustainable Table), was modeled on the techie concept of a "hackathon"—a bunch of people getting together to solve some problem. But whereas hackathons typically result in computer code, this "iconathon" would produce images, known as icons, that can wordlessly express concepts like "grass fed" and "heritage breed," free for anyone's use under a creative-commons license.

Are Nanoparticles From Packaging Getting Into Your Food?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

A while back, I wrote about the US regulatory system's strange attitude toward nanotechnology and food.

On the one hand, the Food and Drug Administration is on record stating that nanoparticles—which are microscopically tiny pieces of common materials like silver and clay—pose unique safety concerns. The particles, which measure in at a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair, "can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts," the FDA wrote in a 2012 draft proposal for regulating nanoparticles in food. On the other hand, its solution—that the food industry conduct safety testing that is "as rigorous as possible" and geared specifically to nano-materials before releasing nano-containing products onto the market—will be voluntary.

But what about packaging—the wrappers and bags and whatnot that hold food to keep it fresh? Nano-sized silver has powerful antimicrobial properties and can be embedded in plastic to keep food fresh longer; and nanoparticles of clay can help bottles and other packaging block out air and moisture from penetrating, preventing spoilage. Yet research has suggested (see here and here) that nanoparticles can migrate from packaging to food, potentially exposing consumers.

One list of packaging that could contain nanoparticles includes beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

So how widely is nanotech used in the containers that contact our food? Back in 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency released a "State of the Science Literature Review" on nanosilver (PDF; warning: 221 pages). The report confirms that nano-materials, including silver, are being used in food packaging, but shows why it's hard to get a grip on how just widely. "Current labeling regulations do not require that the nanomaterial be listed as an ingredient," neither in food or in food packaging, the EPA report states. And "manufacture of nanosilver-containing products is shifting to the Far East, especially China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam," making it even harder to track nano-containing products that come in from abroad.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN)—a joint venture of Virginia Tech and the Wilson Center—keeps a running inventory of "nanotechnology-based consumer products introduced on the market." A PEN spokesperson stressed to me that its list isn't comprehensive—it by no means captures every nano-associated item, and some products on the list may no longer contain nanotech. That said, the database includes 20 products in the "food and beverage storage" category, including a couple of beer bottles,  aluminum foil,  sandwich bags, and even a salad bowl.

Meanwhile, environmental watchdog groups warn that nanotech-imbued packaging will soon become ubiquitous. "Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and nanopackaging," Friends of the Earth stated in a 2014 report. Tom Neltner, a food additives researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me in an email that, "we believe nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

One researcher says that he believes that "nano-engineered particles are being extensively used in food packaging."

When I asked Neltner for specifics, he sent me to Joseph Hotchkiss, director of the School of Packaging and Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability at Michigan State University, and a close watcher of the food-packaging industry. Hotchkiss told me that while nano-materials are quite attractive to the food industry as a way to cheaply prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, they currently "aren't widely used" because "no one knows for sure what kinds of risks from ingesting exquisitely tiny amounts of nano-materials may or not represent." As a result, the food industry is "waiting on the sidelines" until more safety research emerges.

Indeed, the above-noted EPA report reveals significant health concerns around nanoparticles. They "can pass through biological membranes," the report states, including the blood-brain barrier. And they're "small enough to penetrate even very small capillaries throughout the body."

What harm nanoparticles cause when they move about our bodies remains murky, though. "There are very limited well controlled human studies on the potential toxicities of nanosilver," the EPA states; but animal studies have shown potential toxicity for the liver, kidneys, and the immune system.

Back in March, the EPA  moved to block a company called Pathway Investment from marketing plastic food storage containers laced with nano-silver to the public. But what ran the company afoul with the EPA wasn't its use of nano-silver per se; rather, it was the claim that its product would kill microbiota in stored food. "Claims that mold, fungus or bacteria are controlled or destroyed by a particular product must be backed up with testing so that consumers know that the products do what the labels say,” the EPA's press release states.

Meanwhile, no one seems to know for sure how widely nanotech is being used in packaging, or what the health consequences are. And that's potentially a big problem stemming from some very small stuff.

Over Easy: An Egg King Gets Dethroned

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 2:08 PM EDT

Remember the salmonella outbreak of 2010, the one that that sickened 2,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs?

A federal investigation has pulled the curtain back on the way the man at the center of the outbreak, Jack DeCoster, ran his massive egg empire. He and his son Peter DeCoster have pleaded guilty to the "distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce," resulting in the 2010 outbreak, the US Department of Justice reports.

And that's not all. One of DeCoster's companies, Quality Egg, also copped to attempting to bribe a USDA inspector, not once but twice in 2010, to allow it to send out eggs that didn't meet the agency's quality standards. The company also admitted to falsifying expiration dates on egg cartons "with the intent to mislead state regulators and retail egg customers regarding the true age of the eggs," between 2006 and 2010. 

Even before these revelations, the episode had revealed gaps in how the US regulatory system handles massive livestock operations. DeCoster's own company-run tests had found salmonella in its facilities before the outbreak, but it continued churning out eggs. Shortly before the outbreak, US Department of Agriculture inspectors had noted  filthy conditions but didn't act to halt them—they were there to inspect egg size, not cleanliness. The Food and Drug Administration, which does regulate food safety in large egg operations, filed a damning report on DeCoster's facilities—but only after those half-billion suspect eggs had been trucked out to supermarkets nationwide.

And though DeCoster ran no corporate empire along the lines of Tyson or Smithfield Foods, his egg fiefdom was quite large. My reporting at the time established that the companies he controlled accounted for more then 10 percent of US laying hens—more than any other egg producer.

DeCoster pere et fils face prison sentences of up to one year; fines of $100,000 each; and a "term of supervised release after any imprisonment for up to one year," the DOJ reports.

Thus, presumably, ends an illustrious career at the heights of industrial-scale agriculture. Previous highlights include:

 • In 2002, one of DeCoster's companies paid a $1.5 million settlement after women at one of his Iowa plants "alleged they were subjected to sexual harassment (including rape), abuse, and retaliation" by supervisory workers.

• In 2000 he got himself declared a "habitual offender" of Iowa's manure management laws by the state's attorney general.

• In 1996, Robert Reich, then the US labor secretary, slapped a $3.6 million fine on DeCoster's Maine egg operation for labor violations. Reich denounced the company as ''an agricultural sweatshop" where the workers are treated like ''animals."