2015 Year End Retrospective

IF50 - Top5This edition of Influence Feed ranks the most highly discussed topics from the past six months as well as recent insight from the top influencers in food and agriculture. GMO labeling took the spotlight, primarily following congressional debates about state and national labeling rules. Food safety grew in volume due to reports about the safety of organic foods as well as an E. coli outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Influencers also addressed the stewardship of farmland resources in the face of climate change and antibiotic use for food animals.

Additionally, this edition covers recent influencer discussions regarding dietary guidelines, Chipotle’s food safety issues, corporate commitments to cage-free eggs and country of origin labeling.

Top Five Most-discussed Topics in the Second Half of 2015

1. GMOs
On July 23, the House of Representatives passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would preempt state GMO labeling laws and create a voluntary label under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Industry groups lauded the bill, while activist groups dissented. In response, actress Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on Capitol Hill along with four senators in an Aug. 5 effort in support of a mandatory GMO labeling bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Although neither bill progressed in the Senate, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced its SmartLabel initiative on Dec. 2. The SmartLabel entails quick-response (QR) codes on product labels that provide consumers with ingredient information when scanned.

Lastly, on Nov. 19, the FDA also released draft guidances for voluntary labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered animals or plants in conjunction with its approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon — a fish genetically engineered to grow faster and more efficiently than standard Atlantic salmon. While several activist groups protested the FDA’s decision to not require labeling for GMO ingredients, Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Gregory Jaffe commended the rigor of the salmon’s approval process.

2. Organic
In September, the USDA reported (PDF) a 72% increase in sales of organic foods since 2008. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition touted the growth as a sign of health. Meanwhile, media outlets highlighted pinched supplies of non-GMO and organic foods.

On Aug. 20, New York Times food writer Stephanie Strom covered a Stericycle report that found (PDF) recalls of organic foods increased at a higher rate than the expansion of organic sales. Bill Gates commented: “Food safety should not be about the process. It should be about the product.”

Helena Bottemiller Evich examines food safety policy.

Helena Bottemiller Evich examines food safety policy.

3. Food Safety
Foodborne illness outbreaks tied to Chipotle led influencer discussions of food safety throughout the fourth quarter. On. Nov. 1, the chain closed locations in Washington and Oregon after it was notified of an outbreak of E. coli. The CDC’s tally of those affected by the outbreak later expanded to nine states and 53 people. An unrelated norovirus outbreak in Boston on Dec. 9 added further criticism.

In a July 14 investigative report, Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich criticized the Obama administration for failing to fund the FDA for its 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). On Aug. 31, the FDA released its Preventive Controls for Human Food and Animal Food — the first two of seven parts of the FSMA regulation — and followed up with standards for produce growers, food importers and accreditation of third-party food safety auditors on Nov. 13. The Dec. 18 omnibus spending bill granted a large increase in funding to the agency.

4. Farm Stewardship
On Oct. 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a nationwide stay (PDF) on the rule defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Environmental influencers remained subdued, while agriculturalists celebrated. The stay is temporary, and invested parties, such as the National Cattlemen’s Been Association, await further developments in what looks to be a protracted legal battle.

In anticipation of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) — held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12 — the White House launched its American Business Act on Climate Pledge on July 27. Thirteen major companies (including Cargill, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Wal-Mart) pledged to reduce nearly 6 billion tons of carbon by the year 2030. During the conference, the USDA released (PDF) a report on food security, about which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated: “Never before has agriculture faced challenges of this magnitude. … This will not be an easy task.”

California Gov. Gerry Brown signs a bill restricting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

California Gov. Gerry Brown signs a bill restricting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

5. Antibiotics
On Oct. 20, Subway announced (PDF) a tiered plan to source meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics. Despite playing a role in the coalition of groups that pressured Subway, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) questioned the extent of the announcement: “The PIRG is not calling for a total ban on antibiotics, which are at times necessary to treat sick animals. What the group seeks to eliminate is the routine overuse of antibiotics.”

On Oct. 10, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-27, a law that largely mirrors the Veterinary Feed Directive. The California bill differs in that it is not voluntary and stipulates that a veterinarian may use antibiotics only when there is evidence that an animal has been exposed to a disease. Influencers noted the lack of objections from industry groups. Indeed, National Pork Producers Council Liz Wagstrom confirmed, “What’s going to be interesting for me to see is how they write the rules. If you look at what the bill actually says … it’s a good thing.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Nov. 16 to 20 World Antibiotics Awareness Week. On Nov. 16, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report that asserted “the indiscriminate use of antibiotics without a prescription or the input of a veterinarian puts the health of children at risk.” Animal Health Institute (AHI) responded that the report “fails to recognize significant changes being made in the way antibiotics are used in food animals.”

Recent Influencer Activity

Dietary Guidelines: The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans on Jan. 7. Aside from adding new limits on “added sugars” and removing limits on cholesterol, the guidelines remain largely unchanged from previous editions. Activist groups, such as Friends of the Earth, protested the lack of advice to decrease meat intake, as recommended by an advisory council last February (covered in Influence Feed “Diet, Deregulation and Drones”), while many agriculture industry groups applauded this decision. Upset by the politics of the process, Washington Post writer Tamar Haspel and NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle proposed their own guidelines: “We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.”

Chipotle Food Safety: Chipotle’s woes — a dominant influencer story in the fourth quarter of 2015 — remained in the headlines into the new year. The issue was worsened by a Jan. 6 subpoena as part of a federal criminal investigation examining a norovirus outbreak this summer at a Simi Valley, California, restaurant. In a widely shared piece, food safety attorney Bill Marler published 12 notes of advice in the voice of Chipotle Co-CEO Steve Ells, saying: “It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the ‘integrity’ of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.” 

Cage-free Eggs: In the past several weeks, influencers commented on a growing trend of foodservice companies announcing plans to source cage-free eggs. NPR: The Salt’s Eliza Barclay observed, “With the exception of Costco, there are no grocery retailers: no Target, no Safeway, no Walmart. … It may only be a matter of time until retailers are no longer the eggception to the rule.” The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) President Wayne Pacelle celebrated: “I don’t quite know when we’ll see the last battery cage in operation, but 2015 was certainly the year when we knew that outcome became inevitable.” In The Guardian, United Egg Producers President Chad Gregory warned, “Choices are being taken away from consumers by animal rights groups like [HSUS]. You are increasing the cost of a high quality protein significantly, sometimes doubling or tripling it.”

COOL: On Dec. 18, President Obama signed an omnibus spending bill that, among other things, repealed country of origin labeling (COOL) for beef and pork products. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) reiterated the threat of WTO-approved tariffs: “It doesn’t matter if you support COOL or if you oppose COOL. You cannot ignore the fact that retaliation is imminent and that we must avoid it.” North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter, and other industry leaders (login required), echoed the sentiment: “This trade dispute’s tentacles extend far beyond agriculture and it’s time to put an end to this costly trade barrier. The marketplace, with consumers as the drivers, should determine what labeling is meaningful and should appear on meat products — not protectionists who fear free and unfettered trade.”

Chipotle Struggles, SmartLabels and Climate Talks

There is no shortage of influencer activity as 2015 draws to a close. Chipotle returned to the forefront of influencer conversations with a second round of foodborne illnesses. The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel and the Paris Climate Conference also garnered remarkable levels of attention. In addition, the “In Brief” section reflects a flurry of activity, covering an extra five topics.

Influence Feed will be take a break for the holidays, but we’ll be back with more coverage of food and agriculture influencers on January 12.

Chipotle continues to respond to E. coli outbreaks and other food safety issues.

Chipotle continues to respond to E. coli outbreaks and other food safety issues.

Chipotle Foodborne Illness: Influencers continued to scrutinize Chipotle as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted further updates of an E. coli outbreak tied to the chain. Additionally, on Dec. 9, the Boston Public Health Commission confirmed an outbreak of norovirus tied to a location near Boston College, and on Dec. 10, a location in Seattle was shut down for repeated food safety violations. Washington Post food writer Roberto A. Ferdman framed the company’s concerns: “The food scare jeopardizes Chipotle’s reputation as a purveyor of high-quality food, which has, at least until now, helped propel the brand into a model for the rest of the industry.”

Reacting to the widespread coverage, Chipotle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung complained, “Because the media likes to write sensational headlines, we can probably see when somebody sneezes that they’re going to say, ‘Ah, it’s E. Coli from Chipotle’ for a little bit of time,” and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized, vowing: “This will be the safest place to eat.” However, Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano commented, “They’re trying to be local and serve food with integrity, but as you grow it becomes incredibly complex and difficult and challenging. When you look at what’s going on, how they’re expanding, the outbreak was almost bound to happen.”

SmartLabel: On Dec. 2, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced its SmartLabel initiative, touting commitments from more than 30 major food companies (listed in the announcement) to place quick-response (QR) codes on product labels that would provide consumers with ingredient information when scanned. Of particular concern to influencers, the ingredient information would include whether products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMA President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey explained, “People want more information and are asking more questions about products they buy, use and consume, and SmartLabel puts detailed information right at their fingertips.”

Just Label It!  publishes survey data about GMO labeling.

Just Label It! publishes survey data about GMO labeling.

The same day, activist group Just Label It! released (PDF) poll data finding that consumers prefer on-package labeling to “bar code” labels. Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth argued, “GMO labeling via QR code technology is unworkable, threatens privacy and is discriminatory since more than a third of Americans, many of which are low-income or live in rural areas with poor internet access, don’t own smartphones.” In response, Kansas State University professor Jayson Lusk shared insights from his own research: “More broadly, asking people whether they want mandatory GMO labeling misses a larger question: how seriously do consumers take their own views? Do they even want to have to express an opinion on the issue?”

Paris Climate Conference: Influencers kept a close eye on the proceedings the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21), which was held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. On Dec. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report at the conference, addressing the impact of climate change on food security. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated: “Never before has agriculture faced challenges of this magnitude. … This will not be an easy task.” Echoing Vilsack, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman warned: “No industry in the United States or around the world is more vulnerable to a changing climate than agriculture.”

However, food writer Michael Pollan and Center for Food Safety International Programs Director Debbie Barker called attention to agriculture’s role in causing climate change in The Washington Post: “We think of climate change as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. But a third of the carbon in the atmosphere today used to be in the soil, and modern farming is largely to blame.” While Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future also placed blame on agriculture, Triple Pundit remained optimistic and Grist extolled recent climate-conscious announcements from large agriculture companies: “Big food corporations are uniquely positioned because they’re vulnerable to the risks that a changing climate poses to agriculture — and they have enough sway to actually do something about it. … there’s not just a moral obligation for these corporations to fight climate change. It’s also the right decision from a more selfish business perspective.”

FDA Antibiotic Use Report: On Dec. 10, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a report that showed (PDF) an increase in the use of antimicrobials sold for use in food-producing animals. Activist groups, such as Keep Antibiotics Working, criticized (PDF) the effectiveness of the FDA’s voluntary regulations, while public health journalist Maryn McKenna worried: “This could be recalcitrance, refusing to cooperate; or it could be brinksmanship, waiting until the last moment before the 2016 deadline crashes down. Until we get through 2016, we won’t know. … If agriculture and the veterinary pharma industry didn’t manage reductions in Year 1, they have a hard task ahead of them to create significant change in Years 2 and 3.” A spokesman for the Animal Health Institute countered: “Sales does not equal use and use is not the same thing as resistance. FDA also tracks resistance [sic] pathogens in humans, animals and meats, and those trends have been largely encouraging.” 

FDA VFD Guidance: The FDA issued a draft guidance (PDF) on the Veterinary Feed Directive common format Nov. 30, describing “the requirements for (animal drug) sponsor submission of a VFD to FDA as part of the application process for approval of a new animal drug for use in or on animal feed as a VFD drug.”

Scientists successfully breed pigs resistant to PRRS.

Scientists successfully breed pigs resistant to PRRS.

PRRS-resistant Pigs: On Dec. 7, Nature published research in which a team of scientists from the University of Missouri, Kansas State University, and Genus, plc., successfully bred pigs that are resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus. Industry influencers celebrated the potential benefits. American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman called the news a “critical scientific breakthrough in hog farmers’ battles against the disease and is a real game changer for the pork industry.” Going further, Kevin Wells, Missouri University assistant professor and co-author of the study, suggested, “We had been able to make pigs that are resistant to an incurable, untreatable disease … [this] could have an impact on how we address other substantial diseases in other species.”

WTO COOL Retaliation Tariffs: In retaliation for the noncompliance of U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) with World Trade Organization (WTO) standards, the WTO issued a report Dec. 7 authorizing Canada and Mexico to place tariffs on $1 billion of American-made goods. Jean Halloran of Consumers Union warned, “Lawmakers shouldn’t act in haste. Any broader repeal of COOL standards … would be a seriously misguided and unjustified overreaction.” However, industry organizations — including the National Pork Producers Council and American Bakers Association — advocated for the immediate and complete repeal of COOL. North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter emphasized: “Mandatory COOL is one of the most costly and cumbersome rules ever imposed on the agricultural sector … The only way to remove this lump of coal in the United States’ Christmas stocking is swift repeal of mandatory COOL.”

New York City implements warning labels for foods with high sodium contents.

New York City implements warning labels for foods with high sodium contents.

NYC Salt Warnings: Beginning Dec. 1, restaurant chain menus in New York City are required to feature warnings for high-sodium items. NYC deputy health commissioner Dr. Sonia Angell clarified, “The majority of salt in our diet doesn’t come from the salt shaker — it’s already in the food when we purchase it.” However, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) filed suit against New York City’s Board of Health. An NRA spokeperson explained, “While the Board of Health thinks they are targeting corporate chains, in reality they are dealing yet another blow to many of New York’s small businesses that have been working and continue to work hard to provide nutritional access to their customers.” The American Heart Association rebuffed the NRA: “The Sodium Warning Label rule is aimed at empowering the consumer — particularly the majority of us with elevated risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke — to make healthier choices.”

In Brief

WHO publishes a report on the impact of foodborne illness.

WHO publishes a report on the impact of foodborne illness.

“Until now, estimates of foodborne diseases were vague and imprecise. This concealed the true human costs of contaminated food. This report sets the record straight,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan upon issuing the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases.

On Dec. 11, The Dow Chemical Company and DuPont announced plans to merge. Should the deal receive antitrust approval, the new company would surpass Monsanto Company as the largest seed and pesticide company in the world.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced the Food Recovery Act on Dec. 8. The bill is designed to cut down on food waste, drawing support from many influencers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its final Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) biofuel volume rule on Nov. 30. The rule drew mixed reactions, with National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling calling it “a step forward.”

On Dec. 4, President Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or “FAST Act,” which garnered support from industry organizations.

GE Salmon and Antibiotic Awareness

The approval of a genetically engineered (GE) salmon reignited influencer discussions of GMOs. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Nov. 16 to 20 World Antibiotics Awareness Week, prompting conversations about antibiotics and their role in both human health and animal agriculture. Influencers also took advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday to connect with audiences in a variety ways. Read about these topics and more inside this edition of Influence Feed.

FDA approves a GE salmon and issues guidance for labeling GE foods.

FDA approves a GE salmon and issues guidance for labeling GE foods.

FDA on Genetic Engineering: On Nov. 19, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced approval for the AquAdvantage Salmon, a fish genetically engineered to grow faster and more efficiently than standard Atlantic salmon. Although some special interest groups, such as Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch, objected to the rigor of the FDA’s analysis, Center for Science in the Public Interest’s director of biotechnology, Gregory Jaffe, argued in favor of the approval: “That the salmon’s safety has been affirmatively determined by the agency puts it in contrast to the genetically engineered crops on the market. While the current GE crops grown in the U.S., too, are perfectly safe to eat, developers of GE crops have only been subject to the FDA’s voluntary consultation process where the agency reviews safety data, but does not provide a ruling that foods and ingredients from the crops are safe.” Dr. William Muir, genetics professor in Purdue University’s animal sciences department, commended the process: “The scientific review is clear, there is no credible evidence that these fish are a risk to either human health or the environment. … The answer is now clear, the process works, and all sectors will benefit.”

In conjunction with its approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon, the FDA also released draft guidances for voluntary labeling of foods derived from GE animals or plants. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, protested: “The decision to not require a GE label for this product takes away the consumer’s ability to make a truly informed choice.” In Forbes, Phil Lempert explained: “The fight for and against the labeling of GE foods has been all about using, or not, the proper words and terminology — in the very complicated scientific process that is called Genetic Engineering.”

WHO raises awareness of antibiotic resistance.

WHO raises awareness of antibiotic resistance.

World Antibiotics Awareness Week: The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Nov. 16 to 20 as World Antibiotics Awareness Week, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) celebrated as Get Smart About Antibiotics Week. Many influencers used the opportunity to discuss antibiotic use in agriculture:

  • President Obama: “To fully address antibiotic resistance, we must recognize that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are more connected than ever before.”
  • World Organization for Animal Health: “It is by ensuring the responsible and prudent use of these invaluable medicines in animals … that we will be able to safeguard their efficacy.”
  • National Pork Producers Council: “U.S. pork producers’ three-decade commitment to responsible and necessary use of animal health products to keep their animals healthy and to produce safe food.”
  • American Veterinary Medical Association: “Test your antibiotic IQ with AVMA’s quiz.”
  • Ed Yong, The Atlantic: “The fault, arguably, is on us — science journalists, scientists, doctors, communicators, and everyone else who’s beating the drum about this impending threat. We’re not doing it very well.”
  • Tony Flood, International Food Information Council: “Both physicians and veterinarians agree: there is a need for a collaborative approach. Fully understanding the challenges of antibiotic resistance requires, animal and human health experts working together.”

Pediatrics Antibiotics Report: The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report titled “Nontherapeutic Use of Antimicrobial Agents in Animal Agriculture: Implications for Pediatrics” on Nov. 16. In a news release, lead author Dr. Jerome A. Paulson explained, “the indiscriminate use of antibiotics without a prescription or the input of a veterinarian puts the health of children at risk.” Natural Resources Defense Council’s Dr. David Wallinga celebrated the attention to the issue: “Bravo, I say. Will the nation’s top organizations of internists, surgeons and women’s health now be emboldened to speak out on behalf of their adult patients, as well? I sure hope so.” Meanwhile, Animal Health Institute (AHI) responded that the report “fails to recognize significant changes being made in the way antibiotics are used in food animals.” Additionally, AHI underscored industry cooperation with FDA policy implementation: “Animal health companies, farm representatives, feed manufacturers and veterinarians have been working with FDA on the details of these changes. … This is the picture of cooperation, not opposition.”

USDA offers safety tips for preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

USDA offers safety tips for preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving: Influencers from all sectors presented advice and trivia about Thanksgiving; below is a sampling:

  • TIME reported that the price of Thanksgiving dinner broke $50 for the first time.
  • Harvard Chan School for Public Health recorded a podcast “Tips for Cooking a Sustainable Thanksgiving Meal.”
  • Sara Lee shared survey results about Thanksgiving foods and traditions.
  • Feedstuffs dispelled myths about L-tryptophan in turkey inducing “food comas.”
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (USDA FSIS) urged care in order to prepare Thanksgiving dinner safely.
  • The Washington Post investigated the polarizing history of pop-up timers in turkeys.
  • The Food Marketing Institute assuaged fears of a turkey shortage due to avian influenza.
  • U.S. Public Interest Research Group offered (PDF) a buying guide to find antibiotic-free turkeys.
  • Green Mountain at Fox Run suggested tips for “feeling gratitude for your food.”
  • Civil Eats asked “Why are organic cranberries so hard to find?”

Colistin Resistance: Research published (PDF) in The Lancet on Nov. 18 demonstrated the existence of a gene in Escherichia coli resistant to the “last-resort” antibiotic colistin. The China-based study found that “during a routine surveillance project on antimicrobial resistance in commensal Escherichia coli from food animals in China, a major increase of colistin resistance was observed.” Influential media outlets reacted with dramatic headlines, including the BBC’s “World on cusp of ‘post-antibiotic era’” and Grist’s “We’re heading towards a terrifying, post-antibiotics world,” as well as a prepared obituary for colistin featured in WIRED. National Geographic contributor Maryn McKenna wrote, “The bacteria possessing this resistance … are already causing human infections. … This is very bad news.” Two of the study’s authors — David Paterson and Patrick Harris from the University of Queensland — commented: “The links between agricultural use of colistin, colistin resistance in slaughtered animals, colistin resistance in food, and colistin resistance in human beings are now complete.”

Consumer Reports on Antibiotics: On Nov. 18, Consumer Reports released a special report on America’s Antibiotic Crisis (which will run in the January issue of the magazine) featuring a section on antibiotic usage in animal agriculture, titled “Making the World Safe from Superbugs.” Urvashi Rangan, PhD, executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, asserted: “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are all too prevalent in our meat supply. … we’ve tested hundreds of packages of supermarket meat, poultry, and shrimp, and found multidrug-resistant bacteria in samples from every type of animal.” The story did not gain much influencer traction, although it did elicit responses from prominent industry organizations. North American Meat Institute Vice President of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren offered, “The most important finding from Consumer Reports’ work that is continually glossed over is the strong safety of meat and poultry products.”

Food Policy Action releases its annual Food Policy Scorecard.

Food Policy Action releases its annual Food Policy Scorecard.

National Food Policy Scorecard: On Nov. 17, Food Policy Action — an advocacy group founded by Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio — published (PDF) its annual scorecard evaluating members of Congress based how they voted on food and farming bills. Although few influencers responded, those who did were supportive. Members of Congress such as Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) tweeted with pride at having received scores of 100%. New York University professor Marion Nestle dubbed the scorecard, “a great first step in holding legislators accountable.”

Enlist Duo: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) withdrew (PDF) its approval of The Dow Chemical Company’s Enlist Duo herbicide on Nov. 25. EPA explained it “can no longer be confident that Enlist Duo will not cause risks of concern to nontarget organisms, including those listed as endangered, when used according to the approved label.” Judy Hatcher, executive director of Pesticide Action Network, said: “EPA is taking a step in the right direction, but Enlist Duo shouldn’t have been given the green light in the first place.” Dow AgroSciences President and CEO Tim Hassinger reassured customers: “It’s possible that we could see some changes to use conditions on the existing Enlist Duo label. … We believe the questions that have been raised about any potential synergy between 2,4-D choline and glyphosate can be promptly resolved in the next few months, in time for the 2016 crop use season.

In Brief
Taco Bell will serve 100% cage-free eggs by the end of 2016, the fast-food company announced Nov. 16. Roberto Ferdman of The Washington Post noted: “Taco Bell is the last of the major U.S. fast-food brands to announce a switch to cage-free eggs, but it will be the first to implement the change.”

On Nov. 20, a bipartisan group of seven former U.S. Agriculture Secretaries wrote (PDF) a letter urging Congress to pass the Trade Pacific Partnership (TPP), saying: “For American agriculture there is no downside to TPP, and there is substantial upside.”

Chipotle, TPP and ‘Natural’ Food

Food safety and labeling drove recent influencer conversations, especially when news broke of an outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) at northwestern Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., restaurants. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) request for comments on the term “natural” and the carcinogenicity of meats and pesticides, too, stirred discussion. Read about these and more in this edition of Influence Feed.

Chipotle faces backlash after  E. coli was found at several locations in Oregon and Washington state.

Chipotle faces backlash after an E. coli outbreak was tied to locations in Oregon and Washington state.

E. Coli at Chipotle: “We are sorry to those affected by this situation, and it is our greatest priority to ensure that we go above and beyond to make certain that we find any opportunity to do better in any area of food safety,” stated Chipotle Mexican Grill CEO Steve Ellis, upon reopening shuttered restaurants. On Nov. 1, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., closed restaurants in two markets in Washington and Oregon due to an outbreak of E. coli bacteria; the fast-casual chain faced a dozen lawsuits as a result. Craig Hedberg, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, noted, “A company like McDonald’s tends to work with large-scale suppliers that have resources of their own to do the types of assessments … But if you’re working with small, independent farmers, it requires a lot of effort to validate them.” Although Chipotle acted swiftly to rectify the problem, prominent food safety attorney Bill Marler considered Chipotle’s recent history and asked, “Why were you not doing all of these things BEFORE the E. coli Outbreak AND the Norovirus outbreak AND Salmonella outbreak?”

Influencers theorized about how this might affect the company. Fortune’s Beth Kowitt suggested, “Chipotle has capitalized on Americans’ new food priorities, wooing consumers with a message of simplicity and touting its ‘food with integrity’ message … I’m not convinced that this or the other outbreaks will have a meaningful impact on Chipotle.” Conversely, in a widely cited article, Texas State University Professor James McWilliams wondered, “Is the Chipotle Narrative Coming to an End?” Grub Street’s Clint Rainey to warn: “Chipotle better get its act together. Ever since going GMO-free, its preachy marketing has struck people as stilted and stuffy.”

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative releases the full TPP text.

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative releases the full TPP text.

TPP Full Text: On Nov. 5, the Office of U.S. Trade Representative released the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to the public. National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson lamented: “It appears to be as bad for America’s family farmers and ranchers as we had feared.” In addition, Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter worried: “The food and agribusiness industries inserted language into the text of the TPP that will undermine U.S. food safety oversight and expose consumers to risky imported foods.” On the other hand, many industry organizations, including the National Chicken Council and National Corn Growers Association, expressed support. National Pork Producers Council President-elect John Weber argued that, “While no agreement is perfect, the TPP is overwhelmingly beneficial to the United States, and members of Congress need to keep that in mind.”

‘Natural’ Label: On Nov. 10, the FDA requested comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labels. The agency specifically asked for feedback on “Whether it is appropriate to define the term ‘natural’; if so, how the agency should define ‘natural’; and how the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.” The Grocery Manufacturers Association welcomed the approach, and media outlets such as Modern Farmer encouraged readers to add comments. An FDA spokesperson clarified that the request is not an official rule: “The FDA will not make a decision on whether the agency will engage in rulemaking to establish a formal definition or not until after it has thoroughly reviewed all public comments and information submitted.”

Water Regulation: In recent weeks, influencer conversations have turned to several pieces of legislation concerning stewardship of water resources.

  • Clean Water Rule
    The Senate voted for a resolution on Nov. 4 blocking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Water Rule, which would set federal authority over small waterways (the bill did not garner a veto-proof majority). National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition described the vote as, “yet another attack to halt the already finalized regulations.” The bill’s author, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), called the vote, “a major win for our hardworking farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and small businesses,” explaining, “the WOTUS rule is ill-conceived and breeds uncertainty.”
  • Ogallala Aquifer
    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged $8 million in 2016 to the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI), to support the nation’s largest aquifer, which has suffered notable depletion in recent years. Vilsack said OAI “helps landowners build resilience in their farms and ranches and better manage water use in this thirsty region.”
  • Chesapeake Bay
    A group of agriculture organizations and homebuilders asked the Supreme Court to review (PDF) a lower court’s ruling regarding the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act with regard to the pollutant allocations in the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan. The lead plaintiff is American Farm Bureau Federation, whose president Bob Stallman explained, “It’s about whether EPA has the power to override local decisions … As much as we all support the goal of achieving a healthy Chesapeake Bay, we have to fight this particular process for getting there.”
Compassion Over Killing releases a video from a Hormel slaughtering facility.

Compassion Over Killing releases a video from a Hormel slaughtering facility.

Pork Processor Video: Activist group Compassion Over Killing uploaded an undercover video of a Quality Pork Processors, Inc., slaughterhouse that supplies Hormel Foods Corporation. Ted Genoways, author of The Chain, asserted that the video reinforces concerns about the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP). Hormel responded, “These actions do not reflect the values of Hormel Foods, its employees or its customers.”

EFSA on Glyphosate: On Nov. 12, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a report that found “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” The findings look likely to supersede (PDF) the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC’s) March designation (PDF) of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.” Center for Food Safety science policy analyst Bill Freese argued that EFSA “bent the rules for assessing studies and rejected valid studies from consideration.” However, Glyphosate Task Force Chair Richard Garnett suggested the EFSA report “confirms the previous evaluations of glyphosate by regulatory authorities around the world.” Pennsylvania State University food science professor John Coupland remarked: “EFSA says glyphosate is safe. Precisely zero people change their minds about it.” In spite of criticism, Jose Tarazona, head of the pesticides unit at the EFSA confirmed: “This has been an exhaustive process – a full assessment that has taken into account a wealth of new studies and data.”

General Mills faces lawsuits for misleading claims in its Protein Cheerios product.

General Mills faces lawsuits for misleading claims in its Protein Cheerios product.

Protein Cheerios: CSPI filed a class action lawsuit (PDF) against General Mills on Nov. 9, alleging Protein Cheerios is misleading, as it contains “a smidgen more protein than original Cheerios” and “17 times as much sugar.” The Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman concluded, “At a time when big food companies are racing to meet the demands of an increasingly choosier customer base, offering new products with sexy labels, the government is struggling to keep up.”

BMJ & Dietary Guidelines: On Nov. 5, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and 180 cardiovascular and nutrition scientists sent a letter to The BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) requesting that it retract a Sept. 23 article written by journalist Nina Teicholz. Teicholz defended her article: “the process and the Guidelines themselves have not been reviewed in 35 years since they were launched. Wherever the science truly leads, we should all follow.”

In Brief
On Nov. 13, the FDA released final rules for three portions of its Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA): Standards for Produce (PDF), Foreign Supplier Verification (PDF) and Accreditation of Certification Bodies (PDF).

A study published in the journal Cancer on Nov. 11 found a link between meat cooked at high temperatures (e.g. grilling or pan frying) and increased risk of renal (kidney) cancer.

Red and Processed Meats Face Scrutiny

Mainstream media coverage of food exploded when a World Health Organization (WHO) agency labeled processed meat “carcinogenic” and red meat “probably carcinogenic” to humans. The announcement dominated influencer discussions over the past week and even prompted The Late Show host Stephen Colbert to put bacon in his pipe and smoke it. Read about this story and more in this edition of Influence Feed.

Bloomberg illustrates the IARC's rankings of carcinogenicity.

Bloomberg illustrates the IARC’s rankings of carcinogenicity.

WHO Declares Meat Carcinogenic: On Oct. 26, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized (PDF) processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans (Group 1)” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).” In a Q&A document released by the IARC, the organization clarified (PDF): “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. … processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous.” The complicated nature of the judgment prompted The Atlantic science writer Ed Yong to suggest: “What we have is a classic ivory-tower mentality … Perhaps we need a separate classification scheme for scientific organizations that are ‘confusogenic to humans.’”

New York University professor Marion Nestle offered: “the evidence reviewed by IARC strongly suggests that if you do eat meat, eat less when you do, don’t eat meat every day, save processed meats for rare treats and be sure to eat plenty of vegetables.” Dietitian Andy Bellati went further, warning “It’s … erroneous to conclude that the best advice is to eat meat ‘in moderation,’” instead suggesting “restriction.” Conversely, in a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association news release, Executive Director of Human Nutrition Research Shalene McNeill explained: “The available scientific evidence simply does not support a causal relationship between red or processed meat and any type of cancer.” Kim Larson, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, emphasized: “There is no one food that causes cancer.” Meat+Poultry reported that, as of Oct. 30, “The World Health Organization plans to reexamine the role of processed meats and red meat in a healthy diet.”

Subway announces plans to source meat raised without the use of antibiotics.

Subway announces plans to source meat raised without the use of antibiotics.

Subway Announces Antibiotic-free Plans: On Oct. 20, Subway announced (PDF) plans to source meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics. Explaining the length of time to transition — the end of 2016 for chicken, 2019 for turkey and 2025 for pork and beef — the executive vice president of Subway’s Independent Purchasing Cooperative, Dennis Clabby, said: “Today’s consumer is ever more mindful of what they are eating, and we’ve been making changes to address what they are looking for. A change like this will take some time … But, we are working diligently with our suppliers to make it happen.” Activist groups, such as Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth claimed success in pressuring the chain, and Center for Food Safety West Coast Director Rebecca Spector lauded the announcement: “Subway has an opportunity to set a high standard for the rest of the industry to follow.”

Despite playing a role in the coalition of groups that urged reform, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) questioned the extent of the policy: “The PIRG is not calling for a total ban on antibiotics, which are at times necessary to treat sick animals. What the group seeks to eliminate is the routine overuse of antibiotics for growth promotion or wide-scale disease prevention.” This contention echoed concerns raised by farmers and farm groups, such as the National Pork Producers Council and National Pork Board, who scolded (login required) the chain in a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 29. While no changes to the policy have been made in publicly available statements, BEEF magazine reported Subway softened its wording in recent statements.

Senate GMO Hearing: The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held an Oct. 21 hearing for “Agriculture Biotechnology: A Look at Federal Regulation and Stakeholder Perspectives.” In the hearing, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) addressed the panel: “I would really challenge all of you to think about how you discuss your findings with the public, so we can advance this beyond regulation, but actually have a conversation with the consumers.” Afterward Grist’s Nathanael Johnson observed: “I heard strong pro-GMO statements, and no senator planted a flag on anti-GMO ground.” GMO critics remained largely quiet after the hearing, although Organic Consumers Association International Director Ronnie Cummins called the hearing “a total mockery of democracy.” Ultimately, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, pledged action: “In order to address legitimate concerns from our farmers, our food companies and consumers, I believe we need to work together, and I am committing myself, Mr. Chairman, to do that in a bipartisan way, to develop a bill that can pass the Senate by the end of this year.”

Sugar Study: In a study published in the journal Obesity on Oct. 26, lead author and pediatrician Robert Lustig concluded that reducing sugar in a child’s diet can improve their metabolic health. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Lustig wrote: “Our research demonstrates that a calorie is not a calorie. Where those calories come from determines how they’ll affect your body. And sugar calories are the worst.” Although mainstream news sources shared the study widely, The Guardian challenged the credibility of the study’s claims. Additionally, Grocery Manufacturers Association Chief Science Officer Leon Bruner warned: “The broad conclusions and policy recommendations in this study only serve to further the author’s policy agenda without a sufficient scientific foundation. … We agree that further research is needed in this area to determine long-term effects of the types of dietary changes recommended by the author.”

The 2016 Budget and Crop Insurance: On Oct. 28, the House of Representatives passed a budget deal in which a proposed $3 billion cut in the crop insurance program was narrowly avoided. As the budget deal vote approached, National Corn Growers Association President Chip Bowling stressed that “slashing the federal crop insurance program is bad policy…. [it] will lead to fewer insurance providers and agents, and that means fewer choices for farmers to manage their risk.” National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director Ferd Hoefner supported the initially proposed cut, calling the crop insurance provision “classic special interest overreach [that] deserves to be scrapped.” After successfully avoiding the crop insurance cut, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) thanked his fellow Representatives: “Our nation’s farmers and ranchers did their part in reigning in our nation’s debt in the 2014 farm bill … It is imperative that we do not undermine their trust by attacking the primary tool they use to manage the tremendous risks involved in producing food and fiber.” The budget is expected to pass in the Senate.

USDA Whistleblower: On Oct. 27, Carey Gillam broke the news that U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service (ARS) entomologist Dr. Jonathan Lundgren had filed a whistleblower complaint against his employer. Lundgren’s work had related to the neonicotinoid class of pesticides, which have been the subject of scrutiny by activists concerned with pollinator health. In his complaint, Lundgren expressed (PDF) that he had received “improper reprisal, interference and hindrance of my research and career” from his superiors. In The Washington Post, ARS spokesman Christopher Bentley stated, “We take the integrity of our scientists seriously, and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policymakers and the general public.” Grist’s Nathanael Johnson considered the context: “It’s always tricky to report on conflicts between employees and their bosses because the bosses generally aren’t allowed to tell their side of the story. So keep in mind that we are just getting one version of events here … It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

The New York Times hosts its Food for Tomorrow conference.

The New York Times hosts its Food for Tomorrow conference.

In Brief
The New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference took place on Oct. 20 and 21, with followers tweeting at #NYTFFT. The conference featured speakers such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, Chef Tom Colicchio, author Paul Greenberg and Let’s Move! Executive Director Debra Eschmeyer.

Food and agriculture writers Don Carr and Baylen Linnekin recently created Food Fight, a podcast about food issues. The pundits discuss food and agriculture topics with prominent journalists, including National Journal’s Jerry Hagstrom, Bloomberg’s Alan Bjerga and Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich.

Tyson Foods, Inc., fired two employees after Mercy For Animals released an undercover video on Oct. 27.

Limits of Legislation

Regulatory overseers are pushing back on rule-making bodies they say have gone too far. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans will not include sustainability, as the topic is beyond the purview of the Advisory Committee’s expertise. Additionally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has deemed the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule of the Clean Water Act an overreach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These stories dominated conversations in a period that also saw the passage of a California law regarding antibiotics usage in livestock, settlement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and more.

Dietary Guidelines: Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) blog post Oct. 6 explaining they would not include sustainability in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and defended the guidelines at a House Agriculture Committee hearing the following day. Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, lamented, “Sadly, Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell have invoked censorship on a grand scale, again demonstrating the power of the meat industry to distort national policies and priorities.” However, North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter countered: “While sustainability is an important food issue, it … would be more appropriately addressed by a panel of sustainability experts that understands the complexity of the issue.” Food Safety News editor Dan Flynn described the sustainability announcement as, “a big rebuke [by the Obama Administration] for an advisory committee that apparently did not understand that, in Washington, D.C., if you do not stay in your lane, somebody is going to run you over.”

The House Agriculture Committee hearing addressed lingering concerns regarding the dietary guidelines. In The Hill, American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Sandra G. Hassink and American Medical Association President Dr. Steven J. Stack stressed: “Congress should support, not derail, what the science shows and keep the politics out of the guidelines.” However, Grocery Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey disagreed: “We remain concerned that some of the recommendations … are not based on the best available science, particularly in the areas of sugars, sodium, lean/processed meats, and caffeine.” The debate has reached an unprecedented scale: the Advisory Report from February has garnered 29,000 comments, whereas the last dietary guidelines in 2010 had less than 2,000.

California Gov. Gerry Brown signs a bill restricting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

California Gov. Gerry Brown signs a bill restricting antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

California Antibiotics Law: California Gov. Jerry Brown signed “Livestock: use of antimicrobial drugs” (SB-27), which is set to go into effect in January 2018. The bill largely cleaves to the Veterinary Feed Directive, although it is not voluntary and stipulates that a veterinarian may use antibiotics only when there is substantial evidence that an animal has been exposed to, or is at risk of, a disease. National Geographic: The Plate contributor and Superbug author Maryn McKenna suggested, “California’s law could be the lever that tips those consumer movements into a national consensus.” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) concurred, “It seems that the best chance for change will come from the states, and I am so proud that California has taken up this fight.”

Bloomberg observed little industry opposition to the bill. Nathanael Johnson of Grist considered the implications: “The fear of change is gone…. The industry support for — or at least lack of opposition to — the California law suggests that we really have turned a corner on agricultural use of antibiotics.” On behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association, Vice President of Government Relations Justin Oldfield commented: “We’re not routinely feeding animals [antibiotics] all the time for disease prevention. We care about antibiotic resistance, just like everybody else does.”

U.S. Trade Rep. Michael Froman announces finalTrans-Pacific Partnership.

U.S. Trade Rep. Michael Froman announces final Trans-Pacific Partnership.

TPP: U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The USDA extolled the benefits for U.S. agriculture, which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack articulated: “Increased demand for American agricultural products … will support more good paying export-related jobs, further strengthening the rural economy.” Environmental activist groups such as Food & Water Watch warned: “Workers, the environment and public health will come out the loser.” However, agricultural influencers supported the agreement. The U.S. Grains Council President and CEO Tom Sleight contended the agreement “will benefit not just the grain industry that we represent but also the overseas customers that we have sought to serve for more than 50 years.” The full agreement will be made public soon, and President Obama has already begun championing its full passage in Congress.

WOTUS: On Oct. 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a nationwide stay (PDF) on the rule defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalist influencers — often vocal on this issue — remained subdued, while proponents of modern agriculture celebrated. Philip Ellis, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president, lauded the decision: “This is great news for cattlemen and women and all land users who have been at a loss as to how to interpret this rule.” A number of political leaders echoed this sentiment, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who stated, “I am encouraged that the judicial branch has blocked implementation of an egregious regulatory scheme that dooms landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers to a regulatory and economic hell.” The stay is temporary, and invested parties are looking forward to the next step.

Avian Flu Vaccine: On Oct. 13, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) awarded contracts to Iowa’s Harrisvaccines and France-based Ceva Corp. for avian influenza vaccines for the National Veterinary Stockpile. Joel Harris, vice president of Harrisvaccines, explained: “We are very close to people very worried about what could happen,” and reassured, “Harrisvaccines is in a position to rapidly produce additional vaccines if the virus changes or a new strain emerges.”

Rembrandt Foods Cage-free: Rembrandt Foods announced on Oct. 13 that “cage-free egg production will become the company’s standard.” The Des Moines Register’s Christopher Doering noted the company “did not outline how long it would take to make the change.” Wayne Pacelle of The Humane Society of the United States called the announcement “yet another unmistakable indicator that we are moving decisively closer to ending the intensive confinement of farm animals.”

Steven Savage of Forbes examines USDA Organic Survey data.

Steven Savage of Forbes examines USDA Organic Survey data.

Organic Productivity: Steven Savage of Forbes reported on USDA Census of Agriculture data pointing to a significant yield gap between conventional and organic crops. In the Oct. 9 article, Savage felt compelled “to question the assertion that organic farming is better for the environment,” which prompted Nathanael Johnson of Grist to outline and comment on the recent debate of organic yields: “Organic production has a lot to contribute and industrial farming has a lot of room for improvement. … Sometimes it feels as if the divide between organic and industrial farming is too wide to bridge — but we’re almost certainly going to need the best of both for a future that makes sense.”

Union Square Hospitality Ends Tipping: In a move that stirred lively discussions among food columnists and restaurateurs, Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer announced on Oct. 14 that the company will eliminate tipping at its restaurants. In an interview with Eater, Meyer explained the move as an “opportunity to innovate. There’s not too many more ways I know to roast a chicken, or sous vide a chicken, or do whatever you’re supposed to do to a chicken.” Nation’s Restaurant News senior food editor Bret Thorn expressed cautious optimism: “Good cooks rarely make the amount of money they deserve. Something’s got to give, and Danny Meyer has the clout and respect from his fellow restaurateurs to really get the ball rolling.”

Center for Food Safety  releases a report covering medical care for food animals.

Center for Food Safety releases a report covering medical care for food animals.

In Brief
On Oct. 14, the Center for Food Safety released (PDF) “America’s Secret Animal Drug Problem,” which examined existing research on beta-agonists like ractopamine, steroid hormones, antioxidants, arsenicals, coccidiostats and antibiotics. This report could mark a shift in the activist group’s focus from crops and pesticides toward animal agriculture.

Due to heavy summer rains in the Midwest, the pumpkin crop yields are far below the usual. NPR: The Salt noted pumpkin growers are coping “by selling not just pumpkins but family fun — with attractions like corn mazes and petting zoos.”

On Oct. 20, Subway announced (PDF) plans to source antibiotic-free meat. The company said the transition should be complete by the end of 2016 for chicken, 2019 for turkey and 2025 for pork and beef. Coverage of influencer reactions to follow in the next edition of Influence Feed.

Antibiotics Progress and Climate Stewardship

National and international groups are working with stakeholders to develop better strategies for tackling complex food issues. In the United States, antibiotic stewardship is drawing industry feedback. Meanwhile, food waste and climate change are prompting commitments from food companies and governments in preparation for United Nations (U.N.) resolutions. Read about these efforts and more in this edition of Influence Feed.

IF44 - Abx Report Card

Keep Antibiotics Working releases its antibiotic use policy report card.

Antibiotic Stewardship Meetings: Two public meetings recently convened to address antibiotic stewardship policies in animal agriculture. In advance of a Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria (CARB) public meeting, held (PDF) on Sept. 29, activist group Keep Antibiotics Working issued a report card on White House antibiotic use policies, assigning failing grades on most points evaluated. Public health journalist Maryn McKenna, on the other hand, provided a more reserved commentary: “It’s good news that an administration has at last championed the issue, but for the effort to make a lasting difference, it’s crucial that all aspects of the problem get a fair hearing.”

A Sept. 30 public meeting on collecting on-farm antimicrobial use and resistance data — hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — garnered significantly more influencer responses. Beth Bell, director of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, framed the purpose of the meeting: “Tracking the use of antibiotics is critical to knowing how we’re doing with stewardship. Good information about where, why and how animal antibiotics are used is the basic information needed to know when stewardship is going well.” U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) supported the agencies’ efforts, emphasizing that “antibiotic resistance is a crisis. We must act, and we must act now. Lives literally depend on it.” But National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Chief Veterinarian Kathy Simmons, DVM, urged caution in determining how data is collected and analyzed: “There must be a way to link antimicrobial drug use metrics with the reason for drug use and animal population parameters rather than simply reporting aggregate quantities for which the only goal is reduction.”

The U.N. adopts food waste resolution as part of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The U.N. adopts food waste resolution as part of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Food Waste Redux: Influencer discussion of food waste surged after the U.N. agreed to a goal on Sept. 25 of cutting global food waste in half by 2030. The plan serves as part of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and follows a similar announcement from the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The announcement generally received approval, with Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council reiterating: “Too many people around the world are going hungry for us to be throwing away as much as we do. … To meet this ambitious new goal, we need everyone who grows, serves and eats food to do their part to ensure a steady global food supply into the future.”

Strikingly, considerably more influencer attention was devoted to the meal served during the U.N. session: Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, and former White House executive chef Sam Kass served a meal featuring items made primarily from food scraps. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained, “[the meal] was prepared to reflect the importance of agriculture — and food waste in particular — as an often overlooked aspect of climate change.” Kass underscored, “It’s just unthinkable, the inefficiency in our system, particularly when you look at something of this [global] magnitude.”

Leaders in the food industry wrote an open letter encouraging policy makers to address climate change.

Leaders in the food industry encourage policy makers to address climate change.

Food Leaders ‘Accelerating Change’: On Oct. 1, CEOs of Mars, Incorporated, General Mills Inc., Unilever, Kellogg Company, Nestlé USA, New Belgium Brewing Company, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar & Company, Stonyfield Farm and Danone USA wrote a letter (PDF) to U.S. and global leaders pledging accelerated action on climate change in advance of the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris (Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, 2015). Triple Pundit observed, “The days of business push-back on environmental legislation are in the rearview mirror, at least for the food industry.” The letter emphasized: “Climate change is bad for farmers and for agriculture. Drought, flooding and hotter growing conditions threaten the world’s food supply and contribute to food insecurity.”

Worker Protection Standard: On Sept. 28, EPA revised the 1992 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard to include — among other points — annual training for farm workers (rather than every five years), better recordkeeping and minimum age restrictions for handling pesticides. In a statement from Earthjustice, United Farm Workers Vice President Giev Kashkooli lauded the move: “Is it ever too late to do the right thing? It’s been a long time coming.” By contrast, Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy for American Farm Bureau Federation, explained, “Farm Bureau shares the agency’s desire to protect workers, but we are concerned that the agency is piling regulatory costs on farmers and ranchers that bear little if any relation to actual safety issues.” On the EPA Connect blog, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez clarified, “It’s simple: this rule helps make sure our food is produced in a way that protects farmworkers’ health and the health of their families.”

Coca-Cola releases a searchable list of its funds it has contributed to research and partnerships.

Coca-Cola releases a searchable list of its funds it has contributed to research and partnerships.

Coca-Cola Funds: On Sept. 22, The Coca-Cola Company published a list of funds it contributed in partnerships with researchers and organizations, following a commitment to transparency made by CEO Muhtar Kent in an Aug. 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, explained, “Our engagement and financial support of these well-respected experts, institutions and organizations were made with the best of intentions.”

Nevertheless, media and vocal nutrition personalities questioned the company’s motivations. Bariatric Medical Institute Director Yoni Freedhoff, MD, wondered, “Why in this day and age would a public health organization create even the possibility for there to be influence that might affect their ability to champion and promote public health?” Hank Cardello, director of the Hudson Institute’s obesity solutions initiative, defended the company’s ability to effect change: “If any organization has the marketing prowess to fuel demand for healthier new products it is Coca-Cola.”

PCA Salmonella Sentencing: On Sept. 21, Stewart Parnell, former president of the Peanut Corporation of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in a Salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened more than 700 others. In spite of possible risks, Parnell had instructed a subordinate by email to ship known contaminated peanut products. Influencer coverage focused on the unprecedented severity of the sentence. David Plunkett, senior food safety attorney at Center for Science in the Public Interest, declared: “The long sentences handed down today … will send a very strong signal to food manufacturers that pursuing profits at the expense of food safety can bring the most severe of consequences.” However, food safety attorney Bill Marler warned: “One of the things I worry about — when you start down this path of criminalization for food production — where are you going to stop? That’s one of the things US attorneys and the public struggle with. Why this guy, and why not others? That’s a tough one.”

Cage-free in MA: Chase Purdy of Politico reported on Sept. 21 that the United Egg Producers does not plan to oppose a proposed ballot initiative in Massachusetts that would ban the sale of meat or eggs from animals raised in cages. Contrarily, United Egg Producers President Chad Gregory told The Boston Globe the following week that “United Egg Producers is not conceding,” and clarified that the group will try different tactics than opposition to a similar law in California: “We’re going to get more strategic, more creative, more clever and try to figure out a different way than raising $10-15 million from egg farmers to try to alter the outcome of this.”

Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publish their State of Obesity report.

Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publish their State of Obesity report.

In Brief
Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published their annual State of Obesity report Sept. 21. TFAH Executive Director Jeffrey Levi summarized the findings: “Stabilizing rates is an accomplishment. However, given the continued high rates, it isn’t time to celebrate. … we still haven’t invested enough to really tip the scales yet.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed suit against Whole Foods Market Sept. 21, claiming the company’s animal welfare policies are deceptive. The Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle countered that the grocery chain’s practices are praiseworthy compared with its competitors.

Trends in Transparency

The public interest in food — where it comes from and how it’s made — has created such a groundswell of demand for transparency, it’s spreading to all corners of the industry. Most recently, media interest in the people behind the food industry is putting academia in the spotlight. See why a series of emails has prompted scrutiny regarding the relationship between food industry groups and academics. You also can read more about the impact of the nation’s largest fast-food chain announcing its intentions to use eggs raised cage-free. 

The New York Times examines relationships between food industry companies and academics.

The New York Times examines relationships between food industry companies and academics.

Industry Funding in Academia: A Sept. 5 New York Times article publicized emails linking food industry organizations and academics involved in the national debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Eric Lipton, the article’s author, emphasized: “There is no evidence that academic work was compromised, but the emails show how academics have shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns.” The coverage followed opinions published by PLOS Biologue (retracted) and The Los Angeles Times in continuing examination of emails unveiled via Freedom of Information Act requests made by U.S. Right to Know President Gary Ruskin in February.

The story riled up the typically quiet sector of academic influencers, as they struggled with the relationship between industry funds, academic research and scientific advocacy. Charles Benbrook, PhD — an anti-GMO advocate mentioned in the article — distilled what he sees as the industry’s intentions: “They want to influence the public. They could conduct those studies on their own and put this information on their website. But nobody would believe them. There is a friggin’ war going on around this stuff. And everyone is looking to gain as much leverage as they can.” Meanwhile, Bruce Chassy, PhD — a pro-GMO advocate mentioned in the exposé — wondered: “Are we working for them, or are they working for us? Probably a little bit of both.” Science communicator and Forbes writer David Kroll offered another perspective: “In similar cases of university-academia relationships, this story would be just another example of the consequences of vanishing state support for universities.”

Food Waste: On Sept. 16, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg announced a new food waste reduction goal challenging Americans to reduce their food waste by 50% by 2030. Across industries, influencers supported the move. Pete Pearson, WWF director of food waste, affirmed the move. Grocery Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey applauded the commitment in a statement. In contrast, Wasted Food blogger and author Jonathan Bloom suggested the move does not go far enough: “There are no real plans or penalties. … Obama Administration representatives can now trumpet its commitment to reducing food waste without having made any real commitments.” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy underscored: “Let’s feed people, not landfills.”

McDonald’s Cage-free Announcement: A week after declaring plans to roll out all-day breakfast, McDonald’s Corporation announced on Sept. 9 that it “will fully transition to cage-free eggs for its nearly 16,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada over the next 10 years.” Mercy For Animals and The Humane Society of the United States both claimed some credit, and Compassion in World Farming’s Leah Garces commended the chain: “When the biggest fast-food company in the world is saying no more cages, you have to play along. … Cage-free will be the new baseline.” However, Forbes contributor Phil Lempert minimized the importance of the announcements: “Marketing at its best. A one-two PR punch that may only be topped if tomorrow brings an announcement to use only ancient grains in their muffins.” In the official statement, McDonald’s USA President Mike Andres explained: “Our customers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from.”

A coalition of activist groups scores restaurant chains based on supply chain policy for antibiotic use.

A coalition of activist groups scores restaurant chains based on supply chain policy for antibiotic use.

‘Chain Reaction’ Scorecard: A coalition of special interest organizations, led by Friends of the Earth and Natural Resources Defense Council, published “Chain Reaction: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply” on Sept. 15. The report scored fast-food restaurants with letter grades based on sourcing policies for antibiotic use in food animals. Kari Hamerschlag of Friends of the Earth concluded: “This is the future. Restaurants that want to stay competitive will need to change their policies and practices.” Panera Bread (graded “A” by the report) responded: “More than a decade ago, we started serving chicken raised without antibiotics — ahead of the industry. We’re glad to see that others have followed.” Nevertheless, many of the chains did not respond to the groups’ requests, and Dunkin’ Donuts remarked that it followed “stringent food quality standards for all of our products that meet all requirements of the FDA and USDA — complying with all laws, ordinances and regulations.”

Perdue Buys Niman Ranch: On Sept. 8, Perdue Farms announced it will acquire Natural Food Holdings, which includes the Niman Ranch brand. Some supporters of organic practices reacted with concern, including food writer James McWilliams: “Perdue claims it’ll continue Niman’s animal welfare tradition. Very hard to believe.” Tom Philpott of Mother Jones contextualized the move: “The deal stunned the foodie Twittersphere, but it’s really not surprising. … Perdue’s move doesn’t exactly count as a huge company moving a small, purist operation into the corporate maw.” Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and wife of former Niman Ranch owner and founder Bill Niman, expressed optimism: “Bill and I are both very deeply committed to the idea that the mainstream food industry needs to change quite radically. And until these big players get involved, that’s not going to happen.” Indeed, Chairman Jim Perdue explained, “We want to become better, not just bigger.”

The CDC reports data about children's fast food consumption.

The CDC reports data about children’s fast food consumption.

Kids and Fast Food: Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Sept. 16 found that one-third of children and teenagers eat fast food on a given day. Yael Lehmann, executive director of the hunger-focused nonprofit Food Trust, remarked on findings that show no significant difference between fast-food consumption by children in low-income and high-income families: “We know that childhood obesity is a problem everywhere and that fast food does contribute to that. But we also know that it is a worse problem in low-income communities. In a way it just opens up more questions for us.” But Grub Street’s Clint Rainey noted: “The results, therefore, technically complicate blaming the fast-food industry … for the higher child-obesity rates in lower-income communities.”

Sulfoxaflor: On Sept. 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned approval for the use of the neonicotinoid pesticide sulfoxaflor, citing concerns regarding the pesticide’s impact on bee populations. Attorney Greg Loarie from Earthjustice, which represented the beekeeping industry in the case, called the ruling “incredible news for bees, beekeepers and all of us who enjoy the healthy fruits, nuts, and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination.” In a statement, sulfoxaflor manufacturer Dow AgroSciences clarified that the company “respectfully disagrees … [and] will work with EPA to implement the order and to promptly complete additional regulatory work to support the registration of the products.”

CA EPA and Glyphosate: The California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment filed a notice of intent to list the pesticide glyphosate among the chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.” Union of Concerned Scientists’ Margaret Mellon celebrated, while Center for Biological Diversity staff scientist Dr. Nathan Donley called the move an “important step” and determined: “we need much tighter controls on [glyphosate’s] use.” However, most influencer commentary centered on the potential impact of such a move on Monsanto. Food Dive’s Carolyn Heneghan suggested: “California is a key player in U.S. agriculture, so having a Prop. 65 warning requirement on Roundup in this state could impact Monsanto.” On its Beyond the Rows blog, Monsanto affirmed: “As consumers ourselves, the safety of our products is our top priority, and we strongly disagree with the recent announcement by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.”

ALDF  investigates worker and animal treatment in a Tyson facility.

ALDF investigates worker and animal treatment in a Tyson facility.

In Brief
The Animal Legal Defense Fund released an undercover video on Sept. 15 alleging mistreatment of both workers and animals at a Tyson Foods, Inc., facility. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones highlighted the video’s focus on workers.

Food columnist Mark Bittman is leaving The New York Times to pursue a venture with a food startup company. He explained: “I’ve long seen myself as an activist and an advocate as well as a journalist,” and he described the move as “putting philosophy into action.”

The Beef Over Ground Beef

The latest flurry of reports regarding what we eat includes an investigation by Consumer Reports regarding production standards for ground beef. In other food debates, you can read about reaction to a government warning for labeling claims made by the makers of Just Mayo. And see comments by McDonald’s Corporation and Mercy For Animals regarding the practices of a Tennessee poultry supplier accused of animal mistreatment. 

Consumer Reports compares bacteria levels in conventional ground beef to organic and grass-fed ground beef.

Consumer Reports compares bacteria levels in conventional, organic and grass-fed ground beef.

Beef Safety: On Aug. 24, Consumer Reports published results of its tests concerning the safety of ground beef. The authors inspected conventional, organic and grass-fed ground beef for bacteria that may be linked to food poisoning, such as Salmonella and E. coli, as well as for antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” The article suggested organic and grass-fed beef products are safer to eat than conventionally raised beef.

Media coverage focused on the presence of fecal bacteria in the samples, but Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, argued, “The real headline here is the bacteria that Consumer Reports doesn’t report finding in their testing — Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — and just one percent of samples with Salmonella, a number far below USDA performance standards, which are the foodborne bacteria of greatest public health concern in beef.” Doug Powell of BarfBlog countered, “Just cook it doesn’t cut it, and doesn’t deal with cross-contamination.”

Just Not Mayo: In a warning letter posted online Aug. 20, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) informed Hampton Creek, Inc., CEO Josh Tetrick that his company’s products Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha are labeled in a misleading way, as they do not contain egg yolk and therefore are not mayonnaise — among other violations. In a statement to Consumerist, Tetrick responded: “This is larger than a conversation about mayo, as innovation … is important to [the FDA]. We’ll sit down with them shortly, and are excited to talk with them about our approach.” Parke Wilde, associate professor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, expressed disappointment in Hampton Creek: “It’s one thing to enjoy some of the halo for mayonnaise, but it’s another to dupe consumers.”

On Sept. 2, The Associated Press reported email exchanges involving American Egg Board (AEB) employees discussing how to respond to Hampton Creek’s eggless products. Public health lawyer and activist Michele Simon accused AEB of misusing federal dollars based on its status as a checkoff program. AEB President Joanne Ivy retorted: “We remain extremely confident that AEB has not broken any laws.” Nevertheless, Dan Charles of NPR: The Salt quipped: “It’s hard to imagine better publicity for the product that the egg board was trying to fight.”

McDonald’s and Tyson Drop Supplier: McDonald’s and Tyson Foods, Inc., terminated the contract of Tennessee-based poultry supplier T&S Farms on Aug. 27, after an undercover video released by activist group Mercy For Animals revealed workers mistreating chickens. T&S Farms is now under investigation by Tennessee authorities. In a statement, McDonald’s explained: “We believe treating animals with care and respect is an integral part of a responsible supply chain and find the behavior depicted in this video to be completely unacceptable. We’re working with Tyson Foods to further investigate this situation and reinforce our expectations around animal health and welfare at the farm level.” Mercy For Animals stated: “These are not new issues. … We’re hoping this investigation will help them commit to phasing these practices out.”

Antibiotic Data Collection: The FDA closed commentary on a proposed rule that would require reporting species-specific animal antibiotic sales data. A public meeting regarding the plan is scheduled for Sept. 30. As a result, industry groups and special interest groups released a flurry of responses. The American Feed Industry Association contended: “We are not debating the overall goal — to monitor the use of antibiotics within agriculture — we are debating FDA’s legal authority to require new animal drug sponsors to report species-specific distribution estimates. The sponsors do not have that data, and the proposed requirement to ‘estimate’ it from data extrapolation of expected use is a poor use of the available information.” George Washington University microbiologist Lance B. Price, PhD, argued: “We simply must have more data on antibiotic use in food-animal production in order to preserve our life-saving antibiotics and slow this growing public health crisis.”

USDA  releases its 2015 Farm Income Forecast.

USDA releases its 2015 Farm Income Forecast.

Farm Income Forecast: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 2015 Farm Income Forecast on Aug. 25, predicting a 36% decline in net farm income from 2014 levels. An Agri-Pulse survey found the majority of farmers are cutting costs — especially when it comes to purchasing new equipment — and a Forbes contributor deemed it to be the bursting of “an unprecedented bubble in the sector.” However, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remained optimistic: “Despite the fact that farm income is forecast to be down from record levels, today’s projections provide a snapshot of a rural America that continues to remain stable and resilient in the face of the worst animal disease outbreak in our nation’s history and while the western United States remains gripped by drought.”

Subway Antibiotics: On Aug. 28, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that Subway plans to stop serving chicken raised with human antibiotics by 2016. Lacking in details or confirmation from Subway itself, a coalition of eight activist groups — including Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and U.S. Public Interest Research Group — called for a stronger commitment from the sandwich chain. In a joint statement, the groups remarked: “Subway is taking a positive step forward. … However, … the company’s lack of transparency — including its refusal to meet with public interest organizations about this issue — leaves a great deal of uncertainty about Subway’s commitment to change.”

Clean Water Rule: On Aug. 27, a federal judge in North Dakota prevented the Clean Water Rule — which redefines “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act — from being implemented in 13 states that sued to stop the act. The judge cited (PDF) the states’ evidence of “irreparable harm” due to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “[violating] its Congressional grant of authority in its promulgation of the Rule.” On its Switchboard Blog, Natural Resources Defense Council protested: “Every day the rule is not in force in a given place, the streams, ponds, and wetlands that people swim in, fish from, boat on, and depend on for drinking water are at unnecessary risk of being polluted or destroyed.” Industry organizations such as the National Corn Growers Association supported the ruling: “We believe EPA is incorrect. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. … Clean water is important to all of us. [We’re] committed to working with the EPA, the Corps, and other stakeholders to protect America’s water resources.”

School Lunch: With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act set to expire Sept. 30, politicians and food industry groups have presented their cases for whether the law should be renewed, reformed or done away with. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stressed the importance of renewal, pointing out: “Seventy-six per cent of America’s teachers report that children come to school hungry. I know that I don’t perform well when I’m hungry, and the reality is, neither do children. If we are going to expect our children to be at their best in terms of educational achievement, we have to make sure they’re well-fed at schools.” Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reported that several food companies that opposed the bill when it was first introduced five years ago are now in favor of it — barring any changes to the regulations.

Television personality Steve-O asks Costco to source cage-free eggs.

Television personality Steve-O asks Costco to source cage-free eggs.

In Brief:
Jackass actor Steve-O wrote (PDF) a letter urging Costco Wholesale Corporation to switch to cage-free eggs. This follows similar requests from other celebrities and The Humane Society of the United States.

On Aug. 28, a law firm filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., alleging the company’s claims of removing foods made with GMOs from their menu are false. Chipotle has since responded, calling the suit “meritless” and “filled with inaccuracies.”

Criticism Flows Against Coca-Cola

Critics were quick to jump on The Coca-Cola Company for its role in funding a nonprofit organization that blamed obesity on lack of exercise. See what detractors had to say about the soda maker and how Coca-Cola’s CEO responded. You can also see what beta-agonist growth promotant was caught in the crosshairs. 

The New York Times investigates research funded by The Coca-Cola Company.

The New York Times investigates research funded by The Coca-Cola Company.

Coca-Cola Research Funding: On Aug. 9, The New York Times Well blog reported The Coca-Cola Company has funded a nonprofit organization that suggested a lack of exercise is the primary cause of obesity in America. After Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) received $1.5 million from Coca-Cola last year, it produced a video (retracted Aug. 19) in which the organization’s vice president said, “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Nutritionists and public health influencers, such as Yoni Freedhoff and Marion Nestle, objected on the grounds of conflict of interest. However, Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University disagreed: “Obesity science relies on committed scientists and funds for wide-ranging research. Money comes from multiple stakeholders, many of whom have vested interests. Checks and balances exist for research to advance ethically. Of course, it could be better. Ultimately, scientists serve people. If the funding stops, research evaporates and hope is lost.” In response to the criticism, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent pledged increased transparency in a Wall Street Journal editorial: “I am disappointed that some actions we have taken to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have served only to create more confusion and mistrust. I know our company can do a better job engaging both the public-health and scientific communities — and we will.”

Ractopamine: In an Aug. 11 article, Quartz’s Deena Shanker underscored the role of the beta-agonist growth promotant ractopamine in pork trade with China. She referenced an earlier AgriNews piece in which National Pork Board CEO Chris Hodges emphasized China’s wariness of the feed additive. However, Shanker noted: “There are certainly no guarantees that removing ractopamine would open China back up to all the pork American producers wants to sell it, but Smithfield Foods … just weeks after announcing that half of its pork would soon be ractopamine-free … announced an impending takeover by China’s Shuanghui Group.”

Later in the week, Dan Charles of NPR: The Salt reported the approval of a new label for pork products: “no ractopamine — a beta-agonist growth promotant.” Charles concluded: “If consumers are willing to pay more for pork labeled ‘ractopamine-free,’ that’s how [farmers will] raise their pigs.”

A W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll finds support for school nutrition standards.

A W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll finds support for school nutrition standards.

School Lunch Survey: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) released results of a school food poll Aug. 19. WKKF President and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron explained the findings: “People in the U.S. overwhelmingly support strong nutrition standards and believe school meals are healthier and on the right track because of these standards.” With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (the current version of the Child Nutrition Act) in review by Congress before its Sept. 30 expiration date, the results of this survey caught traction with influencers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition claimed “substantial support for the farm to school movement” and Grist suggested, “The tide has shifted.” The Lunch Tray contributor Bettina Elias Siegel asserted: “These findings are great news for those who support staying the course on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But will Congress pay attention to ordinary Americans’ support for strong school food standards, or will their voices be drowned out by lobbyists and powerful organizations like the [School Nutrition Association]? Stay tuned.”

Herbicides and Public Health: On Aug. 19, The New England Journal of Medicine published a commentary piece linking genetically modified organisms (GMOs), herbicides and public health. Pediatrician and epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, MD, and organic foods proponent and researcher Charles Benbrook, PhD, argued that “developments suggest that GM foods and the herbicides applied to them may pose hazards to human health that were not examined in previous assessments. We believe that the time has therefore come to thoroughly reconsider all aspects of the safety of plant biotechnology.”

Academics and industry groups contested the claims of the opinion piece. Genetic Literacy Project questioned Dr. Benbrook’s objectivity. In a statement, Dow AgroSciences told HealthDay: “No national regulatory body in the world considers these herbicides a carcinogen.” University of Wyoming weed biology and ecology professor Andrew Kniss concluded: “Regardless of the headlines that will eventually accompany reporting on this opinion piece, there is nothing new presented here. And in fact, the information that is presented doesn’t really support the actions Dr. Landrigan and Dr. Benbrook are proposing.”

RNAi: The MIT Technology Review explored uses of biotechnology known as RNA interference (or RNAi), which can temporarily block certain genes from working, in crop agriculture. RNAi is subject to much debate at this time. Monsanto Chief Technical Officer Robb Fraley described the technology as a way to “open up a whole new way to use biotechnology [that] doesn’t have the same stigma, the same intensive regulatory studies and cost that we would normally associate with GMOs.” Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture at Center for Food Safety, warned: “These are very complex biological systems, and their interactions evolve, and are not static. So it is really impossible to predict all the things that could go wrong. That does not mean we should be paranoid about them, but we should be at least reasonably cautious and skeptical about claims of both safety and efficacy, since there is little experience or research to rely on.”

Ted Genoways examines agricultural espionage.

Ted Genoways examines agricultural espionage.

Corn Wars: The New Republic’s Ted Genoways penned “Corn Wars: The farm-by-farm fight between China and the United States to dominate the global food supply,” published on Aug. 16, in which he examined the issue of agricultural espionage. Genoways cites a 2011 report prepared by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive that stated, “Surging prices for food … may increase the value of and interest in collecting U.S. technologies related to crop production, such as genetic engineering, improved seeds, and fertilizer.” Numerous influencers shared the story with followers, including writer Robyn O’Brien, Grist’s Nathanael Johnson, Food & Environment Reporting Network’s Sam Fromartz and chef and media personality Tom Colicchio. Genoways clarified: “The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI now contend, in effect, that the theft of genetically modified corn technology is as credible a threat to national security as the spread to nation-states of the technology necessary to deliver and detonate nuclear warheads.”

Crop Buffers and Food Safety: On Aug. 10, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published (PDF) a study that found the removal of vegetation around crops does not reduce the number of pathogens on the produce, as had been previously thought. Study coauthor Claire Kremen of the University of California, Berkeley explained: “There is strong evidence that natural habitats surrounding crop fields encourage wild bee populations and help the production of pollinated food crops. There have also been studies that suggest that a landscape with diverse plant life can filter out agrichemical runoff and even bacteria. Changing this dynamic shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

In Brief:
In the weeks following the an Idaho judge’s ruling that an “ag-gag” law is unconstitutional, some media outlets’ editorial boards continued to publish official opinions on the matter, including Food Safety News and The New York Times. The Des Moines Register editorialized: “it’s encouraging to see that at least one federal judge recognizes the very real danger posed by these laws.”

Presidential candidates attended the Iowa State Fair, with a few discussing (audio) agricultural policy and renewable fuel standards. The New York Times described the scene: “There are 75 foods on a stick, including apple pie and gluten-free corn dogs. There is a cow sculpted from butter. And there are 18 presidential candidates in a bipartisan stampede to the Iowa State Fair.”

Astronauts on the International Space Station took the first bites of space-grown lettuce on Aug. 10. The red romaine lettuce, known as “Outredgeous,” is just the start of what NASA hopes will be many vegetables grown in space, as future astronauts will need to be as self-sufficient as possible on longer missions.

In anticipation of a possible resurgence of avian influenza, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed plans to stockpile vaccines for the virus, despite the fact that no vaccines have been approved at this time.

Responding to increased concerns regarding artificial ingredients, Starbucks announced its popular pumpkin spice latte will be “made with real pumpkin and without caramel coloring.”

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