Tom Philpott

McDonald's Had to Hire a Fact-Checker to Prove It Serves Real Food

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

For McDonald's, 2014 has been like a Happy Meal that's missing a trinket: a major bummer. Its China operations (along with those other US fast-food firms) got caught up in an expired-meat scandal that pushed down Asian sales. Its US sales are down too, and its share price has fallen about 8 percent over the past three months. Strife among workers over low wages has lingered, and took a nasty turn for the company when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that it's responsible for employment practices at its thousands of franchises, which it had been using as a shield to protect it from allegations of labor abuse. Insult to injury, a Consumer Reports survey named Mickey D's signature burgers the "worst-tasting of all the major US burger chains."

What's a beleaguered, ubiquitous burger giant to do? Apparently, take to Twitter with an ask-me-anything attitude and roll out a bunch of behind-the-scenes videos, hosted by Grant Imahara, a former star of TV's Mythbusters, all under a new program called "Your Questions. Our Food."

In this one, Imahara tours a plant owned by Cargill, a vast agribusiness conglomerate, that supplies McDonald's with preformed burger patties. Spoiler alert: Imahara finds everything hunky dory.

On the burger-factory floor, Imahara confronts the Cargill folks about whether they add "lean finely textured beef," a.k.a., pink slime, to the burgers. Pink slime, you might remember, is a slurry made of scraps of beef that have been pulverized, defatted, and subjected to ammonia steam to kill microbial pathogens. No, they assure him. (They neglect to add that McDonald's burgers did contain pink slime until 2012, when consumer outrage inspired them to stop the practice.)

Over at Time, Naomi Starkman has a rundown of some less-than-appetizing practices the fast-food giant has copped to on the campaign.

On beef hormones: "Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth." On feeding animals GMO feed: "Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops."

And while it says it no longer uses so-called "pink slime" in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also uses azodicarbonamide, a.k.a. "the yoga mat ingredient," in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: "Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk." As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? "Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food."

The company even answered one of my questions, about the precise composition of its McNuggets.

It's way too early to tell whether this corporate glasnost campaign will inspire consumers to stampede back through the Golden Arches. The stock market, though, shrugged Monday. McDonald's shares fell 1.7 percent, part of a broader sell-off.

Meanwhile, given recent controversies over wages, I just asked McDonald's a question it presumably isn't eager to answer. I'll update if I get a response.

 

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You Thought California's Drought Couldn't Get Any Worse? Enter Fracking.

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 1:22 PM EDT
Pumpjacks extract oil from an oilfield in Kern County, in California's ag-heavy Central Valley.

I have a great idea. Let's take one of the globe's most important agricultural regions, one with severe water constraints and a fast-dropping water table. And let's set up shop there with a highly water-intensive form of fossil fuel extraction, one that throws off copious amounts of toxic wastewater. Nothing could possibly go wrong ... right? Well...

Almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation, according to state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity. The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants.

The documents also reveal that Central Valley Water Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitratescontaminants sometimes found in oil industry wastewaterin water-supply wells near these waste-disposal operations.

That's from the Center for Biological Diversity. Hat tip DeSmogBlog.

How Monsanto Crashed SXSW—and Brought the Drama to My Panel [UPDATED]

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 5:36 PM EDT

UPDATE: In an emailed statement, SXSW Eco director Scott Wilcox wrote that Monsanto had openly submitted, via Panel Picker, another panel, "Bees: What the Buzz is All About," which the organizers accepted "because we thought it had merit." Monsanto's sponsorship was not noted in the program, but the session did include a panelist, Jerry Hayes, who is identified as a Monsanto employee. As for the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" panel, the organizers "were as surprised as our attendees when the moderator/organizer ... announced at the beginning of the session that Monsanto had paid all the participants' travel expenses to speak on the panel." He added: "Ultimately, it is lack of transparency on the part of Monsanto and the panel's moderator that is the biggest issue for our team. It is essential to our conference that the origins of the viewpoints that will be presented are fully disclosed to maintain the trust that is so valued within our SXSW Eco community."

Let's face it: While panels at conferences can be fun, interesting, even provocative, rarely do they provide drama, intrigue, or surprise. On Wednesday at South by Southwest Eco in Austin, my colleague Kiera Butler and I sat on a panel that counts as a genuine exception. And it had nothing to do with our own oratorical skills or those of our excellent co-panelists, author and agriculture researcher Raj Patel and Texas A&M cotton breeder Jane Dever.

So here's what happened: Our session, titled, "GMOs Real Talk: The Hype, the Hope, the Science," proceeded as you might expect. I thought we had a pretty robust discussion of the potential and pitfalls of biotechnology in contributing to global food security going forward. Then, at the very end of the hour, during the Q&A session, a SXSW Eco staffer took the mic and dropped a bombshell: She alleged that the GMO seed/pesticide giant Monsanto had sponsored several earlier panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers.

Monsanto had sponsored several panels—paying the travel expenses of  the participants—without disclosing it to the organizers, alleged a conference staffer.

The standing-room-only crowd—which had greeted our biotech-skeptical discussion warmly—erupted in guffaws and gasps. Soon after, Monsanto online-engagement specialist Janice Person bravely took the mic. The room took on the electric charge of a public confrontation in the mythical Old West: the accused party straining to calm a pitchfork-bearing mob. She assured the highly skeptical room that the company had no intention to mislead the organizers and just wanted to participate in the discussion. And thus our panel ended, in glorious chaos. "Once again, Monsanto gets the last word," Patel quipped. As far as I know, no Monsanto employees were physically harmed in the process. Later, Person expanded her thoughts into this blog post and told me via email that "we regret if there was a misunderstanding," and "it was certainly not something we tried to hide."

But I, too, was surprised. While we were preparing our SXSW Eco panel, we had a participant drop out late in the process. I wanted to find a replacement who would cogently defend the industry—I like to be on panels with the frisson of controversy, the energy of open debate. If I had known the Eco conference would be chockfull of Monsanto people, I would have tried to snag one to join us on stage. But when I glanced over the program, the "Farming to Feed 9 Billion" certainly didn't catch my eye. Moderated by Tim McDonald, former director of community at Huffington Post, it featured three farmers, none of whom listed any Monsanto affiliation.

In a later email, McDonald described for me how the panel came to be: "A friend of mine...who works for Monsanto asked me if I would be interested" in pitching an SXSW Eco panel, he wrote. "I told her if they would cover my travel and work on getting the panelists, I would be happy to organize and moderate the panel."

As it happens, I attended that panel, which took place Monday. At the start, the moderator, McDonald, announced that Monsanto had paid for his and the other panelists travel expenses, but promised an open dialogue all the same. I somehow missed his saying that, but I did note on Twitter that several Monsanto-affiliated folks were enthusiastically live-tweeting the discussion, which I frankly found rather vague and diffuse. Apparently, McDonald's disclosure from the stage was the first indication of Monsanto's involvement that the conference's organizers got. And judging from the SXSW Eco staffer's announcement at our panel, they were none too pleased with the lack of transparency. (I've reached out to SXSW Eco for comment; I'll update when I hear back.)

In the end, Monsanto's SXSW Eco kerfuffle takes its place in the annals of awkward corporate PR maneuvers, alongside the company's ill-starred attempt to pay experts to participate in an "an exciting video series" on the "topics of food, food chains and sustainability" as part of sponsored content for the publisher Condé Nast.

Are Your Chicken Nuggets Ruining Your Antibiotic Ointment?

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Last week, the FDA released a report on the gross amount of antibiotics purchased by the livestock industry in 2012. The results are a bit startling. Between 2009 and 2012—a period of increasing awareness about the perils of antibiotic use in livestock facilities—the FDA found purchases of the drugs rose 16 percent. Over the same period, annual production of beef, chicken, and pork barely budged, suggesting that the industry was becoming more antibiotic-intensive each year. Worse still, the FDA deemed 61 percent of the antibiotics sold to the meat industry in 2012 as "medically important"—meaning that they're commonly used in human medicine, and thus in danger of losing their effectiveness through resistance.

Late last year, after decades of foot shuffling, the FDA made its most decisive attempt ever to tamp down the meat industry's habit of dosing livestock with antibiotics to make them grow faster—although being a rather timid watchdog, the FDA chose to make the rules voluntary.

"If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or prevent disease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick."

The new report shows just how dire things had become: 70 percent of the "medically important" antimicrobials sold to meat producers in 2012 were destined to be administered through feed, and another 24 percent through water. Just 6 percent were meant to be used topically or through injection—the way small-scale farmers use antibiotics to treat sick animals. "If you talk to a veterinarian, they'll tell you that if drugs are being used in feed, for the most part, they're being used to promote growth or prevent disease, not to treat an animal that's known to be sick," Keeve Nachman, who directs the Food Production and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Liveable Future, told me. Also, 97 percent of the drugs were sold without a prescription from a veterinarian—a practice that the 2013 rules intend to stop.

Even worse, as Keeve Nachman pointed out, sales of cephalosporins, a drug used to treat respiratory-tract infections, skin infections, and urinary-tract infections in people, rose about 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, even though the FDA had moved to scale back their use on January 4, 2012. That doesn't exactly boost confidence.

Before I could fully digest this data, another email arrived in my inbox, this one from the meat-industry trade paper WATT Agribusiness, to which I subscribe. It contained an article sponsored by the ag-pharmaceutical giant Zoetis, titled "How do antibiotics promote growth?"

The piece suggests that Zoetis is still marketing antibiotics as a way to make animals grow faster, while staying within the bounds of the FDA's voluntary restrictions on using  "medically important" drugs for that purpose. The piece cites an antibiotic called bacitracin, which the FDA considers "not currently medically important," as something farmers should consider for growth-promotion purposes.

Bacteria strains that develop resistance to one antibiotic can quickly become resistant to others.

According to Steven Roach, a senior analyst at the group Keep Antibiotics Working, there are two problems with this approach. First, "not everyone agrees that bacitracin is not medically important," he said.  While the FDA doesn't currently list it as important, it hasn't reevaluated its "medically important" list since 2003, he said. Meanwhile, bacitracin is used in human medicine, most commonly as an ointment to prevent infection in minor cuts, scrapes, and burns. And the World Health Organization lists it as an "important antimicrobial for human medicine."

Widespread use in livestock facilities could make it ineffective for current uses—and eliminate the prospects for future treatments that could be developed from it.

The second problem, he said, is that the heavy use of antibiotics that are really not used in human medicine can cause harm through cross-resistance—that is, bacteria strains that develop resistance to one antibiotic can quickly become resistant to others.

Cross-resistance is a well-established phenomenon. Johns Hopkins' Nachman explained cross-resistance like this: Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to survive contact with a chemical intended to kill them. And "in teaching bacteria to survive in the presence of a [non-medically important] drug, we may also be teaching them how to survive in the presence of a drug we do rely on," he said.

Nachman says a shift to non-"medically important" drugs is certainly preferable to the status quo, but won't likely fully solve that our factory farms are now incubating resistant bacteria strains that threaten people.

It Takes HOW Much Water to Grow an Avocado?!

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

We've heard a lot about how the boom in almond and other nut production is straining California's dwindling water supplies amid the state's worst-ever drought. But what about the avocado, another trendy commodity that grows on trees and delivers all-the-rage healthy fats?

US consumers certainly love this unctuous tropical fruit. According to the US Department of Agriculture, avocado production per capita jumped from 1.1 pounds annually in 1999 to 4.5 pounds in 2011.

Avocados don't require nearly as much water per pound as almonds. But they do require significantly more than other kinds of produce, as my colleague Julia Lurie shows in this chart:

(Note that the figures in this chart, and the one later in this post, include only blue water—which comes from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers—and not rainfall or recycled water.)

And as in the case of almonds and so many other crops, California dominates US production, accounting for about 90 percent of the US avocado harvest. Nearly all of it takes place in Southern California, in a five-county region that straddles the coast from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.

Like the rest of the state, the southern coastal region is locked in a drought, and largely cut off from the flow of surface water from the state's big irrigation projects. The result has been strife in the avocado groves—sky-high water costs and a reliance on water pumped from underground aquifers.

But overall, California's avocado farms have a relatively light water impact. Unlike almonds and pistachios, whose acreage has expanded dramatically in recent years, land devoted to avocados has actually shrunk, from a high of 76,000 acres in 1987 to fewer than 60,000 acres in 2012 (although production has held steady, because yield increases have offset the loss of acres). Also unlike the state's nut growers, California's avocado farmers aren't taking advantage of a boom in demand from Asia. According to the USDA, US avocado exports are so small they're "negligible."

Also, avocados are a perishable, seasonal product, and the California season peaks from May through August—meaning that for the rest of the year, we rely on Mexico, Chile, and Peru to satisfy our guacamole habit. All told, the USDA reports, about 70 percent of the avocados we consume are imported.

And so most of the water impact from our growing appetite for avocados lands on other places. And as Eilis O'Neill recently reported in Civil Eats, satisfying our demand for off-season avocados is causing trouble in another drought-stricken region, Chile's Central Valley—which, like California's, lies between a snowcapped interior mountain range and a coastal mountain range.

In part because of demand from the United States, avocado farmers in Chile have used so much water that some towns' wells have run dry.

This valley is the epicenter of Chile's fruit-and-veg export behemoth that began in the 1980s. As this US Department of Agriculture report states, Chile's Southern Hemisphere location gives it a "counter-seasonal production schedule with the United States"—that is, Chile's summer starts around the time that ours ends. The rapid rise of Chilean produce into the US market is a big reason US consumers can expect bountiful produce aisles year-round—it "extended the availability of certain fruits in the market without direct competition with domestic production, and gave US consumers fruit choices beyond the traditional domestic winter fruits of citrus, apples, and pears," the USDA notes. Chile now supplies a fifth of US fruit, the USDA adds.

Avocados were part of that boom. As O'Neill notes, land devoted to avocados has expanded rapidly—from about 6,180 hectares (15,270 acres) in 1980 to 27,000 hectares (66,700 acres) in 2006, all the way to 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres) in 2014, according to the USDA.

And just as in California, climate change and drought have meant less surface water flowing from mountain ranges to irrigate crops—and a shift to pumping water from underground aquifers. As a result, producers have "used so much of the region's waters that small farmers with shallow wells—and some nearby towns—are left with no water," O'Neill writes, echoing reports of waterless towns in California's Central Valley.

Like our Golden State, Chile takes a laissez-faire approach to groundwater regulation, O’Neill reports—a legacy of the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, a free-market zealot who came to power in a US-backed coup in 1973 and remained dictator until 1990.

And large, export-minded farm operations have the wherewithal to drill larger and deeper wells, squeezing out small farms and nearby communities, O'Neill reports. Meanwhile, the profits from Chile's farm export boom remains pretty concentrated in the hands of large landowners.

Chile's avocado harvest starts in runs from August to March—making it a prime supplier during the football season guacamole blitz.

O'Neill's piece gives us something to think about as we plunge chips into that delicious dip. "When you eat an avocado that comes from [a large producer in] Chile, think about the fact that the water used to produce it is water that homes in the country's most humble communities now lack," water activist Rodrigo Mundaca tells her.

Butterball Goes "Humane" for Thanksgiving. Really?

| Sat Sep. 27, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
This year, more humane?

It's becoming a Thanksgiving tradition as hoary as NFL football or the bloviations of your drunken uncle: days before the national feast, an animal-welfare group releases an undercover video documenting vile conditions within industrial-scale turkey facilities (see 2013, 2012, 2008).

This year, the largest turkey producer of all, Butterball—which churns out a billion pounds of turkey meat annually, a fifth of US production—has made a bold move to get ahead of these appetite-snuffing PR debacles. By fall 2014, presumably in time for Thanksgiving, all of its products will bear the American Humane Certified label, the company announced Tuesday.

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Is Farm Aid Still Relevant?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Neil Young, center, gets busy at Farm Aid

Farm Aid, the annual, roving concert anchored by Willie Nelson and Neil Young, launched in 1985, amid the steepest US farm crisis since the Great Depression. Twenty-nine years later, is it still relevant? Last week, on a muggy day in Raleigh, NC, I got the chance to investigate.

The event, at the outdoor Walnut Creek Amphitheater, on the outskirts of town, started with the most star-studded press conference I've ever attended. Arrayed in chairs on the stage before us were the headliners: Nelson, wizened face framed by a black baseball cap and those eternal red, frizzy ponytails; Young, somber in bushy sideburns, a black wide-brimmed fedora, and black t-shirt emblazoned with the word "Earth" in ominously faded white lettering; John "Cougar" Mellencamp, appropriately '80s in a white t-shirt under black blazer, graying hair done up in what Vanity Fair once called that "rooster comb of a pompadour"; and Dave Matthews, looking like a concerned dad with his trim beard and blue polo shirt, 100 times more conventional-looking than his much-older peers on stage.

Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Instead of breaking into song, this quartet of platinum-selling crooners delivered earnest pleas against the abuses of corporate-dominated agriculture. Young spoke longest—to the whoops of the crowd, he denounced the Citizens United decision and tied it directly to industrial agriculture, and suggested that corporate power shapes federal farm policy. "The corporations are the villains," Young told the crowd, and painted a picture of family farms writhing under the heel of massive seed and input companies.

And rather than hog the attention of the assembled, they ceded the spotlight to several North Carolina farmers and farm advocates who joined them up there. And these weren't new-wave farmers singing the delights of consuming local, organic food.

Kay Doby, speaking in a Piedmont NC twang as no-nonsense as her t-shirt and jeans, spoke of the debt spiral faced by poultry farmers who work under contract with massive meat processors—companies that provide birds and feed, but require farmers to constantly invest in upgrading their facilities. Poultry giant Pilgrim's Pride revoked her contract during the economic downturn, she says, leaving her with huge, suddenly useless investments in chicken houses. "I think being cut off had a lot to do with [how] I spoke out against the practices that were being used against the growers," she said. But she survived by converting her chicken houses into barns for pasture-raised meat goats. "That kept me on the farm," she said.

Later we heard from Dorothy Barker, who runs Olusanya Farm in Oxford, NC with her husband Phillip Barker. By the 1980s, after decades of being denied fair access to loans both by private banks and the USDA, the Barkers found themselves running one of the state's last two remaining black-owned dairy farms, Barker recounted in forceful, measured, and blunt tones. "It didn't take long for me to realize they were pissing in my face—it wasn't raining," she said. Ever since, the Barker's have been organizing against this ag-based version of racist redlining, as well as developing infrastructure and building markets for black farmers in a region still marked by the historical legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.

After watching these bracing displays of real talk on the state of farming, I spent much of that long day in Raleigh thinking of ways in which Farm Aid is different from most other farming-and-food conferences I have attended over the years. Sure, Farm Aid preaches to the choir, but also gets beyond it in ways that most gatherings don't.

Quite a crowd for a farm fundraiser Photo: Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

For one, people come out for superstar musicians. I've been to some of the largest organic-farming confabs in the country—California's EcoFarm, the Northwest's Tilth conferece. I attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008—a spectacular event that drew some 85,000, but dispersed over three days and in venues across the city. That same year, I and 8,000 others attended Terra Madre, the biannual global food-activism event put on in Turin, Italy, by Slow Food International.

But I've never seen attendance like Farm Aid's. By the time the music started in the early afternoon—the lineup included the above-named headliners, plus Jack White, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Gary Clark, Jr. and eight other acts­—the venue was packed. It was a brutally humid day that constantly threatened rain, and the arena's cover only extended to the numbered seats, sheltering a small fraction of its total capacity. Yet that didn't daunt the crowd of 20,000, most of whom sat unsheltered, on blankets on the up-sloping lawn. In the vast crowd, I saw farmers, activists, the requisite hippy-dancing youth, and families.

"Farm Aid is a whirlwind that blows through town, and we all hope to catch some of it in our sails," Chris Rumbley, a 30-something farmer who runs Raleigh City Farms told me. "It was good to see a food organizing platform that emphasizes farmers, giving us the spotlight for a minute."

It also delivers more than just rhetoric. Those 20,000 revelers paid $49 a pop for a place on the lawn, and as much as $175 for a seat near the stage. The musicians forsake a cut, and the bulk of the haul is distributed by Farm Aid to groups across the country that work directly to keep struggling farmers on their land. Since 1985, Farm Aid has delivered more than $42 million to farm advocacy groups.  

And while the most extreme pressures of the 1980s farm crisis have receded, US farmers—especially ones in the middle, too big to sell directly to consumers through channels like farmers markets, but too small to hold their own with large agribusiness—remain under steady pressure. The USDA's latest ag census, released in May, looked at US farm numbers by size, and changes between 2007 and 2012. The only category that saw growth was farms 2,000 acres and bigger, which inched ahead by 2 percent or so over the period. Farms between 100 and 500 acres saw the steepest losses—there were about 5 percent fewer of them in 2012 than there had been five years earlier. This ongoing hemorrhage of mid-sized farms is part of a decades-long hollowing out of rural America—the very problem Farm Aid exists to address.

As I took in Jack White's searing, guitar-driven set, among 20,000 others rapt at the former White Stripes frontman's virtuosity, I became fired up  about all these issues in a way I hadn't been for years.

How Superbugs Hitch a Ride From Hog Farms Into Your Community

| Sat Sep. 13, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
If you walk this line, you might just get MRSA in your nose.

Factory-scale farms don't just house hundreds of genetically similar animals in tight quarters over vast cesspools collecting their waste. They also house a variety of bacteria that live within those unfortunate beasts' guts. And when you dose the animals daily with small amounts of antibiotics—a common practice—the bacteria strains in these vast germ reservoirs quite naturally develop the ability to withstand anti-bacterial treatments.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria leave these facilities in two main ways. The obvious one is meat: As Food and Drug Administration data shows, the pork chops, chicken parts, and ground beef you find on supermarket shelves routinely carry resistant bacteria strains. But there's another, more subtle way: through the people who work on these operations.

The Rich Are Eating Richer, the Poor Are Eating Poorer

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Over the past decade, the number of farmers markets nationwide has approximately doubled, and the community-supported agriculture model of farming, where people buy shares in the harvest of a nearby farms, has probably grown even faster. Has this explosion of local produce consumption improved Americans' diets? A couple of new studies paint a disturbing picture.

Häagen-Dazs Says It Won't Use Fake DNA in Ice Cream

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
Vanilla beans, or "natural flavoring solution"?

The Swiss firm Evolva is on the verge of bringing a novel vanilla-flavoring ingredient into the world: one neither grown on a tropical tree nor synthesized from petroleum. Evolva's version of vanillin—the most important of the many compounds that give vanilla beans their famous flavor and aroma—will be grown in yeast engineered through a process know as synthetic biology. (See my recent pieces on synbio here and here).

Will the market embrace this innovation? Is your ice cream, as the headline to one of my pieces recently had it, about to get weirder?

It's still way too early to tell, but one iconic ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs, says it's taking a pass. Contacted by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, both Nestle, which markets Häagen-Dazs in the US, and General Mills, which does so in all other markets, affirmed that the brand "will not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Evolva downplayed the importance of Häagen-Dazs' no-synbio stand:

Regarding this recent press release by Friends of the Earth (FOE) related to vanillin, Evolva would like to reiterate that its vanillin is not intended to replace vanilla that is grown in Madagascar, Mexico or elsewhere. Madagascan vanilla is a great product. And if ice cream makers are currently using this vanilla, by all means they should keep using it. Our focus is the 99% of vanillin (NOT VANILLA) in the world that actually does not come from the orchid in Madagascar, etc., but rather from petrochemical plants or chemically treated paper pulp waste. We want to give people a better alternative to THAT vanillin. Further, as has been stated previously, our vanillin has been reviewed for safety and has been found to be safe for its intended use. FOE is fully aware of our approach because we have shared it with them several times, already.

But Evolva appears to be engaging in a bit of hairsplitting here. In its own press release, it trumpets its product as "natural vanillin for commercial application," produced "through a cost-effective, natural and sustainable route." And in a recent statement to the trade website Food Navigator, Evolva reiterated the "natural" claim: "For most markets, our vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor as part of a natural flavoring solution."