Archive | November 2013

Turkey. The Other White Meat

I have to agree with Paul Krugman on why Matthew Yglesias is wrong about our supposed hating of turkey.

in 2012, we produced a staggering 49.5 billion pounds of chicken meat worth an aggregate of $24.8 billion.

By contrast, we raised a paltry 7.3 billion pounds of turkey worth just $5 billion.

If everybody likes turkey so much, then why aren’t you buying any?


The key advantage chicken has over turkey isn’t taste, it’s convenience. A chicken is the right size for easy consumption: a leg or breast is comfortably sized as a one-person portion, a cut-up chicken fits easily in a broiling pan. A small chicken fits in an electric rotisserie, where you can leave it for an hour while doing other stuff (which is one of our standby meals) Turkeys, on the other hand, are huge — and so are their parts. So making a meal out of turkey requires special effort — e.g., on Thanksgiving.

When the two kinds of fowl come in equally convenient form, turkey clearly dominates.Turkey burgers are way better than chicken burgers.

Other examples include deli sliced turkey breast, turkey meatloaf, turkey meatballs and turkey breakfast sausage. What I’ve never been able to understand is chicken sausage. Why? Why? Why chicken sausage and not turkey sausage for those avoiding swine?


The REALFOOD.ORG Thanksgiving Reader

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This Thanksgiving, Be More Grateful than Wasteful
Dana Gunders | Switchboard | NRDC | November 13, 2013

Nationwide, consumers will purchase around 736 million pounds of turkey this Thanksgiving, of which about 581 million pounds will be actual meat. The USDA reports that 35% of perfectly good turkey meat in the U.S. does not get eaten after it is purchased by consumers (and that’s not including bones). This compares with only 15% for chicken. Why is so much more turkey wasted than chicken? “Possibly because turkey is more often eaten during holidays when consumers may tend to discard relatively more uneaten food than on other days,” the USDA writes.

And unless we take action to prove the USDA wrong, we’ll be throwing away about 204 million pounds of that meat and about 1 million tons of CO2 and 105 billion gallons of water with it. Per pound, the resources needed to produce that turkey are equivalent to driving your car 11 miles and taking a 130-minute shower (at 4 gallons/minute).* The price tag on that nationwide will be $282 million, according to prices from the Farm Bureau’s annual Thanksgiving price survey. And that’s to say nothing of the vast amounts of antibiotics used to produce turkey meat, leading to antibiotic resistance, which you can read more about here.

This T-Day, Buy Less Than You Think
Dana Gunders | The Switchboard | NRDC | November 20, 2013

Here’s a hint: Buy less than you think. If you’re hosting anything like the average Thanksgiving dinner for ten, almost a third of that dinner will go to waste this year.

In fact, across the nation, about 204 million pounds of turkey will get thrown away over this Thanksgiving. This costs us money – about $277 million as a nation – and is a waste of all the resources it took to get that turkey to our table. Resources for which, in theory, we are supposed to be celebrating on this exact holiday!

How many resources? Depending on which estimate you use, that amount of discarded turkey required over 100 billion gallons of water – enough to supply New York City for 100 days — and created somewhere between 230,000 – 1 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.

And it’s not just turkey. If we apply the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates of how much food is never eaten to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual informal survey of the cost of Thanksgiving dinner, here’s a tally of what actually gets wasted over the average Thanksgiving dinner for ten:

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[Please, by all means save the turkey carcass and all your vegetable scraps to make stock!!! – Marc]

This Thanksgiving, Shop Smart: Buy a Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics
Sasha Lyutse | Civil Eats | November 22, 2013

This Thanksgiving, you can do your part to support farmers who are keeping antibiotics working for people by shopping smart. By choosing USDA Organic or turkey sold under a “No Antibiotics Administered” label, consumers can reward turkey farmers who are using best practices. Under the organic standard, meat producers are not allowed to use antibiotics, with some exceptions. The “No antibiotics administered” or similar labels, such as “No antibiotics ever” are regulated by USDA but are not verified. These claims are more reliable if they are coupled with a “USDA Process Verified” seal. Also consider other labels, such as “animal welfare approved” and “certified humane,” which mean that antibiotics were only used to treat sick animals.

But shoppers beware: “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal is raised.


USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse

Kimberly Kindy | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water, Agriculture Department records show.

Now the USDA is finalizing a proposal that will allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines, with the aim of removing pathogens from the food supply and making plants more efficient. But that would also make the problem of inhumane treatment worse, according to government inspectors and experts in poultry slaughter.

What’s for Thanksgiving? Hopefully Not More Crippling Pain for Poultry Workers
Rena Steinzor | The Huffington Post | November 26, 2013

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ever the mindless booster of corporate profits, that turkey at the center of the table already disappoints both expectations, and if USDA has its way, matters are about to get much worse. Hiding behind disingenuous promises to “modernize” the food safety system, USDA has decided to pull federal food inspectors off the line at poultry processing plants across the nation. No new preventative measures to ensure that poultry is free of salmonella would happen. And already crowded, bloody, stinking lines would speed up dramatically — to as many as 175 birds per minute, or three birds/second. Workers who suffer grave ergonomic injuries from the repetitive motions of hanging, cutting, and packing the birds would endure conditions that are two or three times worse than the status quo.

Sen. Tester asks USDA to postpone plans to finalize poultry inspection program

Kimberly Kindy | The Washington Post | November 12, 2013

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote to the USDA secretary last week, asking that he postpone plans to finalize a new poultry inspection program, saying to move forward now is “misguided and premature.”

Tester (D-Mont.) also asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to suspend agreements with foreign countries that are now allowed to use the alternative inspection program for meat they import into the United States. Millions of pounds of contaminated meat from plants using the system were either recalled or rejected by USDA inspectors over the past two years.


Is The Butterball Turkey Shortage For Real?

Tom Philpott | Mother Jones | November 20, 2013

Butterball is vague about the reasons for the shortage, citing only a “decline in weight gains on some of our farms.” In other words, the turkeys that Butterball’s contract farmers raise aren’t growing as quickly as expected.
Let’s talk turkey! Tom Philpott will be holding a live Twitter chat the Thursday before Thanksgiving—look him up at @TomPhilpott starting at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, November 21. Ask him anything—from cooking tips (two words: dry brine) to the latest dirt on industrial turkey.

This is odd. If there’s one thing the modern poultry industry has mastered, it’s fattening millions of fowl extremely quickly. And turkeys have been getting bigger and bigger for decades. “[T]urkeys have increased in average weight annually for at least the past 40 years,” the US Department of Agriculture revealed in a 2005 report. The USDA added that the average weight of a turkey at slaughter jumped from 18 pounds in 1965 to an enormous 28.2 pounds in 2005—a 57 percent increase. By 2012, the average had inched up to a hefty 29.8 pounds. This is not an industry that’s typically plagued by size issues.

Illinois farmers put the pumpkin in your Thanksgiving pie

Peter Grey | Harvest Public Media | November 26, 2013

Why is Illinois the pumpkin state? Mostly because Libby’s brand is the canned pumpkin king. The company is owned by Nestlé and says 8 of every ten cans of pumpkin sold last year was Libby’s.

So it comes down to fertile pumpkin soil – and gravity.

“Pumpkins are heavy and, of course, expensive to transport.” said Roz O’Hearn, with Nestlé’s prepared foods division. “We have tested growing pumpkin in other areas, and we just find the Morton pumpkin just to be perfect for our purposes.”

In Vermont, A Wild Game Church Supper Feeds The Multitudes
Charlotte Albright | The Salt | NPR | November 26, 2013

The colonists supplied the fowl, including, possibly, duck, geese, and turkey.
Diners head into the Bradford United Church of Christ before the start of this year’s Wild Game Supper. Food writer Calvin Trillin has dubbed the event “the superbowl of church suppers.”

A pretty tame menu, actually, compared to the venison, bear, moose, rabbit, pheasant, buffalo, and boar served up at an annual event in Bradford, Vt., that food writer Calvin Trillin has called “.”

For almost 60 years, adventuresome carnivores from all over New England have lined up outside the white-steepled United Church of Christ in the center of this close-knit hamlet along the Connecticut River. A couple of decades ago, volunteers fed 1,200 people in one day, but that proved unworkable, so now seats, reserved well in advance, are capped at 800 for $25 a plate. Proceeds benefit the church’s capital fund, and charity.

Holiday Classic Dishes: Braised & Roast Turkey
Michael Ruhlman |

My view is why mess with what works? For important occasions, the rule is: go with what works. And of all my years roasting a turkey, I’ve found that the braise/roast method works best, as I wrote last year.

The reason is that this method solves the two great Turkey Conundrums: 1) how to have both juicy breast meat and tender dark meat, and 2) how to serve it all hot to a lot of people.

Answer: the roast/braise method.

Three years ago, I was chatting with my neighbor, the excellent chef Doug Katz (Fire Food & Drink), and he described how he cooks the turkey in stock up to the drumstick so that the legs braise while the breast and skin cook in dry heat. Last year I tried it and it works brilliantly.

[My twist on this is to separate the legs and thighs from the breast and wings. This makes it easier to fit into a container to brine, but more strategically, it allows me to give the dark meat a 45 minute head start in the mire poix and braising liquid. At the 45 minute mark I put my buttered and season breasts right on top with a loose foil cover. 30 minutes before it’s done I take the foil off to brown the skin. Best turkey off my life and one of the most complimented meals I’ve ever served.]
More Ruhlman:
Thanksgiving Dressing
Cranberry Sauce and Thanksgiving Gravy


When Thanksgiving Meant a Fancy Night Out on the Town

John Hanc | Food and Think | Smithsonian

A few years back, when she was the director and librarian of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Peggy Baker came across a fascinating document at a rare book and ephemera sale in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a four-course menu for a luxurious dinner at the Hotel Vendome in Boston for November 29, 1894 – Thanksgiving.

Appetizers consisted of Blue Point oysters or oyster crabs in béarnaise sauce. The soup is consumee Marie Stuart, with carrots and turnips; or, a real delicacy, terrapin a la gastronome (that’s turtle soup to you).

The choice of entrees included mousee de foie graise with cauliflower au gratin, prime ribs with Yorkshire pudding, Peking Duck with onions and squash and…a nod to the traditionalists…roasted turkey with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.

Then, salad—at the end of the meal, as they do in Europe—followed by a plethora of desserts: Petit fours, plum pudding with maple brandy sauce, Neapolitan ice cream; mince, apple and pumpkin pie, and almond cake with maple frosting. To round out the meal, coffee or sweet cider with assorted cheeses and nuts.

Baker’s discovery of this belt-busting tour de force sent her on a mission to shed light back on a long forgotten chapter of the history of this holiday; a time when wealthy Americans celebrated their Thanksgivings not in the confines of the home with family, but at fancy hotels and restaurants, with extravagant, haute cuisine dinners and entertainments.

“I was thoroughly entranced, having no idea any such thing existed,” recalls Baker. She began collecting similar bills of fare from other establishments, in other cities.

“It was like an anthropological expedition to a different culture,” recalls Baker, “I wasn’t aware people dined out as a regular annual event for Thanksgiving. It was just so foreign to me.”

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If The Science Was For Sale Why Did The Meat and Dairy Industries Get Rolled?

Marion Nestle had a piece earlier this week on how the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), (the organization that publishes the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) and the Journal of Nutrition) should deal with conflicts of interest, especially in the journals that they publish. Her points are sound and I don’t have much to add except that I’ve never understood how the sugar industry has been able to warp the conventional wisdom via sponsorships of organizations, research and research departments but the meat and dairy industries got rolled on fat and cholesterol.

The evidence against the evils of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol was always thin, and yet these supposedly powerful industries got pummeled by the nutrition community for decades.

The dairy industry I can understand, because they actually benefited from the low-fat milk nonsense. The admonishment to eat low fat dairy functions more like punctuation than actual advice in standard nutritionspeak. You’d think this would drive the dairy industry crazy until you look at the price of milk in the grocery store. A gallon of full fat, 2% and skim are all the same price. They got to sell people crappy reduced fat milk for the same price as the good stuff and sell the fat as butter, cream and half & half without skim milk as a by product. (Health conscious humans trying to watch their weight are willing to pay more for skim milk than hog farmers looking to fatten their hogs [pdf].)

But it’s seems weird that if the science was for sale, why didn’t the meat and egg people buy it? It should have come cheap as the evidence was mostly on their side when it came to fat and cholesterol.

Conflicts of interest in nutrition societies: American Society of Nutrition
Marion Nestle | Food Politics | November 20, 2013
Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies
Gary Taubes and Cristen Kearns Couzens | Mother Jones | November 2012
A Big Fat Debate
Kristen Wartman | Civil Eats | March 4, 2011
What’s Cholesterol Got to Do With It?
Gary Taubes | The New York Times | January 27, 2008
New Review Paper by Yours Truly: High-Fat Dairy, Obesity, Metabolic Health and Cardiovascular Disease
Stephan Guyenet | Whole Health Source | July 22, 2012
How to Fatten Hogs for Market [pdf]
Oregon State Agricultural College | 1930

522 Postscript: Lack of Polarization in the Population and Thoughts About Polarization Among Egalitarian Communitarians

I can’t say as I was particularly surprised about the outcome of the 522 vote in Washington earlier this month. I don’t think there is all that much interest by consumers in GMO’s or GMO labeling. Here’s what I said about that in August:

Economists have a pair of concepts, stated preference and revealed preference that say a lot about this issue:

Revealed preference theory, pioneered by American economist Paul Samuelson, is a method for comparing the influence of policies on consumer behavior. These models assume that the preferences of consumers can be revealed by their purchasing habits.

It’s very easy to tell a pollster that you want something and another to put a little effort into it. The stated preference is that people want labeling. The revealed preference; judging from the shelves at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, two chains whose customers are ostensibly the most passionate about the issue and whose supply chain is in the best position to be responsive to these demands; shows that people apparently don’t really care that much about labels. Enough to say yes to a pollster or sign a petition, but not enough to change their shopping habits. Markets aren’t perfect, but one thing they do really well is match consumer goods to consumer preference. Clearly producers in the natural and health segment of the market don’t see a enough demand to respond to the most motivated anti-GMO consumers or it wouldn’t take Whole Foods until 2018 to shift their product mix over.

Both Yale’s Dan Kahan and Grist’s Nathanael Johnson extend this line of thinking to an analysis of the vote.


And as soon as the money began to flow, Elway saw a shift in his polling numbers: The measure had a huge 45 percent lead in September. Then the ads began to run, and that lead dropped to 4 percent in October.

“There was a 41 point swing in six weeks, which is unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve been tracking politics in this state for 30 years and I’ve never seen such a big swing in such a short amount of time.”

Among the people who had seen the ads, the measure was losing.

“When we asked them why they were voting no, people were reciting the talking points from the ads back to us,” Elway said.

It’s clear that, in this case, advertising swayed public opinion. But at the same time economists have established that it’s hard to change opinion with political spending. So what gives? Well, there’s an exception to the rule. While it’s nearly impossible for advertising to shift core values — like getting a lifelong Democrat to vote Republican or vice versa — it is possible for advertising to change the mind of someone who hasn’t fully committed. When people haven’t encountered the arguments on each side, those arguments tend to work.

One poll found that 93 percent of Americans favor labeling GM food. But half of the people questioned in that poll weren’t aware that GMOs were already widespread in processed foods — in other words, they were concerned, but brand new to the debate. In previous Washington polls Elway conducted on food safety, GMOs had come in sixth out of six potential problems with the food supply. So, while it’s clear that there’s widespread anxiety about GMOs, it doesn’t seem to be deep-seated.

Kahan writing ahead of the vote:

They help to illustrate that GM foods in US is not a focus for cultural polarization in the public *as of now*. I am comparing “Hierach individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” b/c those are the cultural groups that tend to disagree when an environmental issue becomes a focus of public controversy (“hierarch communitarians” & “egalitarian individualits” square off on public health risks; they are not divided on GM foods either).

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The panel on the left shows that cultural polarization on climate change risk grows as individuals (in this case a nationally representative sample of 2000 US adults) become more science literate — a finding consistent with what we have observed in other studies … I guess that is happening a bit w/ GM foods too– interesting! But the effect is quite small, & as one can see science literacy *decreases* concern about GM foods among members of both of these portions of the population (and in the sample as a whole).

It’s pretty clear that the general population is neither polarized or energized by the GMO issue.

It’s the final chart of Kahan’s that I find the most intriguing. It points to a need for a different axis to gauge cultural polarization than “Hierachical individualists” & “egalitarian communitarians” in order to track GMO polarization, not in the population maybe, but in the debate. What caught my eye is the surprise result that perception of risk DECREASES among both groups as scientific literacy increases. This is the opposite of what you see with most culturally polarized issues. The more numerate and scientifically literate people are, the better they are at convincing themselves that their culturally determined position is supported by the evidence. It’s certainly a reassuring sign and one that I see mirrored in the nearly complete lack of support 37 and 522 got from newspaper editorial boards.

WITHIN the debate I’ve experienced the same increased polarization as numeracy and scientific literacy increase. GMO critics are able to convince themselves of the correctness of their narrative with greater confidence the greater their fluency with scientific concepts and the ease with which they navigate the technical literature. (It’s beyond the scope of this post, but what GMO critics get wrong about the science is a misunderstanding of macro scientific method issues: what a scientific consensus is, the way scientific consensus functions as the null hypothesis, single study syndrome, a lack of understanding why human trials aren’t warranted, misapplication of the precautionary principle, etc)

The fault line seems to flow from people’s relation to the Natural Fallacy and levels of what I refer to as Pastoral Sentimentality. Pastoral Sentimentality breaks down into:

a. A rejection or discomfort with the corporate sphere intruding into agriculture.
b. A rejection or discomfort with the technological sphere intruding into agriculture.
c. A rejection or discomfort with the legal sphere intruding into agriculture.

These attitudes represent a fault line mostly within the Egalitarian Communitarian value cluster that Kahan identifies, so polarization isn’t going show up along the HI/EC divide. I’d love to see some work done to tease this out. It would be working in the other direction. Taking the polarization as a given amongst Egalitarian Communitarians and sussing out what the differences in the underlying attitudes on each side of the fault line within that value cluster. The other value among Egalitarian Communitarians that make them more susceptible to the arguments of GMO critics is anti-corporate sentiment. But that runs across the value cluster and wouldn’t seem to provide a distinction between anti-GMO EC’s and non anti-GMO EC’s.

Nuts to Soup?

A recent Wonkblog post looked at the drop in supermarket soup sales and asked the question: “Is America Over Soup?”

And concluded, Maybe, but maybe not:

Campbell’s soup figures, though, may be deceptive. Soup is actually selling well elsewhere: People are opting for organic and non-GMO lines from companies like Pacific Foods and Amy’s, while grocery stores are offering more and more private label varieties. Frozen soup sales were up 17 percent in 2012, General Mills’ Progresso soups have gobbled up market share with a boomer-friendly healthful message, and fast-casual restaurants — some soup-only! — carry the perception of quality (even if they’re just reconstituted from the same powdered stuff that goes in cans).

“The soups served in Panera and Au Bon Pain benefit from the consumer perception that they are fresher as well as from the accompaniment of freshly-baked bread,” Euromonitor wrote in a January report. The “freshness” fetish also affects juices; Campbell’s V8 line took an even bigger dive than soups, as consumers go for just-squeezed over shelf-stable.

What surprised me in the post, was that it was never considered that maybe more Americans are making soup from scratch. It seems the natural extension of that impulse to freshness and quality. Given both that we are 5 years into the worst economic downturn since the 30’s and 20 years into a renaissance in American cooking that has increased on a log scale the during the last decade, it seems a reasonable variable to consider.

That hypothesis turned out to be harder to test than I expected. Then only recent polling only offered a snapshots, nothing about changes over time. Neither CBS or Harris asked the same questions over time to get an accurate sense of the change over time. A May 2012 Harris poll did find 71% of respondents saying that they were cooking more at home to save money.

And this from Danny Meyer’s summary of last year’s Cooking Matters poll:

Seventy-eight percent of families reported cooking and eating dinner at home five or more nights a week (on average they reported eating takeout or at a restaurant less than once a week.) The typical breakdown of a week included four dinners made from scratch, two made at least in part from packaged foods like boxed macaroni and cheese, or boxed flavored rice, and one fast food dinner. Note this: the lower a family’s income, the more they cooked from scratch.

But between the recent increases in both American’s shopping at farmers markets and the 47 million Americans trying to make due with a diminished SNAP allotment, it’s worth pointing out that scratch made soup is far and away the best way to stretch your food dollar and to put all those random farmer’s market vegetables to good use.

Soup is the grand champion for putting scraps and odd bits to good use. Keep a bucket or a bag in your freezer for collecting onion skins, carrot peels and other vegetable scraps and herb stems. Keep another for bones and meat scraps. Simmer what you’ve saved for a few hours to make a simple, flavorful broth. Simmer what you have on hand in that broth, and ‘Baby, you you’ve got a stew going.’ Potatoes, yams, cabbage, carrots, dried beans, frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes: all dirt cheap, all perfect for soups and stews.

Carl Weathers may have said it best:

When researching how to cook something, I always start at Saveur. Here’s the link to their collection of soups and stews. The recipes may not always be the simplest or the cheapest, but they are always sound and almost always the best, most authentic recipe for a given dish. Remember, you can always simplify and substitute. Especially with soups and stews.

My secret weapon for flavorful, easy cooking on the cheap is something we call The Singularity in my household. It’s essentially caramelized bacon and onion confit. Cheap, easy and intensely flavorful, it improves nearly anything it comes into contact with. The name came about because I had started cooking it without a plan and just kept going and going until we thought we might collapse the universe if we went any further.


1 Lb. Bacon ends and pieces, chopped
6 Medium yellow onions, chopped

Add bacon to crockpot. Allow to render while chopping onions. Add onions with out stirring. After 20 minutes or so stir onions and bacon together. Stir every 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cook for 5 – 10 hours. You will need to stir more frequently after 4 or 5 hours to prevent onions from burning on the side.

“Is America Over Soup?” | Lydia DePillis | The Washington Post | November 20, 2013
Seven in Ten Americans Cooking More Instead of Going Out to Save Money | Harris Interactive | May 16, 2012
Three in Ten Americans Love to Cook, While One in Five Do Not Enjoy It or Don’t Cook | Harris Interactive | July 27, 2010
How And Where America Eats | Sean Alfano | CBS | November 20, 2005
How Americans Eat Today | CBSNews | January 12, 2010
Cut in Food Stamps Forces Hard Choices on Poor
| Kim Severson and Winnie Hu | The New York Times | November, 7 2013
Wait. So People Are Cooking? | Daniel Meyer |The New York Times | February 1, 2013

Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It

On November 6th, Washington voters will decide the fate of Prop 522 which would require labeling of some GMO foods under certain conditions. The problems specific to Prop 522 of consistency, enforcement and usefulness have been explained well by others. These include the warning style, front of the package label; the numerous and substantial exemptions; the lack of funding for enforcement, etc.

Some of my objections are broader and relate to the proper role of government. Others have to do with strategic concerns about the use of progressive time, energy and resources. If you want the Reader’s Digest version, I laid it out in 12 tweets in a conversation with Grist’s Nathanael Johnston.

My biggest problem with mandatory labeling is this:

Why would you want to create new government regulation and bureaucracy to do something that can already be accomplished with a free phone app?


People have objected to this question by saying that not everyone has a phone. Agreed. But, compare that problem with all the problems with 522 not the least of which is the lack of funding for enforcement. Secondly, imagine what the Non GMO Project could have accomplished with the $14 million that labeling proponents raised between California’s failed Prop 37 and Washington’s Prop 522. Think about that. In California, they gambled and lost $9.2 million dollars that they could have invested in a sure thing. In Washington they currently have $4.8 million dollars on the table with a 50/50 chance of going bust. That money could have gone to extend the Non GMO Label and develop and market the phone app and there is nothing Big Food or anybody could have done about it.

If the goal was to inform consumers and give them choices, these two initiative campaigns were an incredibly bad investment. If they had been made by a membership organization with those goals, it would have been grounds for the impeachment of the leadership.
(image courtesy of Richard Green)

The model of the Non GMO Project is the same model as Fairtrade and Kosher. I believe that this is the correct model for GMO’s. Why? Because, just because “People have a ‘right’ to know what is in their food” government isn’t always the proper mediator or ensurer of that ‘right’.

“People are usually surprised to learn that there is no legal right to know,” said Michael Rodemeyer, an expert on biotechnology policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

A variety of rules and regulations control the words that appear on food packages. Such rules must be balanced against companies’ constitutionally protected right of commercial speech, experts said.

“It’s an unsettled area in the law,” said Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences in Palo Alto. “If I were a betting man, I think the odds are good that the Supreme Court would … strike down a GMO labeling requirement.”

Consumers do have the right to know some things about foods, and it’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the various rules. Labels must carry an accurate name for the food, as well as its weight and manufacturer, a list of ingredients and, since 1990, that panel of calories and breakdown of basic nutrients that some people pore over and others blithely ignore.

And labels cannot be false or misleading. Consumers have a right to know that a product contains the nutrients they’d reasonably expect to find in a food with that name: An orange lacking vitamin C (should anyone desire to create such a thing) would have to be labeled as such.

They also have the right to know when a food contains something new that makes it materially different, such as an allergen or unexpected nutrient. Soybean varieties that are genetically engineered to contain high amounts of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid must bear labels that make that property clear, said FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky.

But there is no requirement that food producers use those labels to say how they raised those oleic acid levels, according to the FDA. They could have done it through conventional breeding or by irradiating plant tissue to create mutations or by fusing cells together in a dish — or with genetic engineering.

The government should only step in and compel companies to provide information when there is a compelling public health interest. This is clearly not the case with GMO’s. The scientific consensus is clear that the GMO’s on the market present no different risk than their conventionally bred counterparts. You can disagree with the consensus. You can try to make the case for how 98% of the scientists working in the relevant fields got it wrong or why the recent meta review of 1,783 research papers, reviews, relevant opinions, and reports published between 2002 and 2012 was mistaken in its conclusion:

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops

What I’d haven’t yet heard is an argument for basing government policy on the denial of a scientific consensus. Is that really how we want to conduct policy in general?

When there are demonstrated health concerns, as with transfats or certain pesticides, you could could make a strong case for a mandatory label. Trans fats have been part of nutrition labels since 2006. I could be convinced that a front of the box label is warranted. I could imagine supporting labeling requirements for Type I pesticides (those requiring the label of “Poison”) as an addendum to ingredient labels. What’s the difference between those examples and GMO’s? There is research that supports the concern of a health risk.

For people who wish to vote with their dollars to support a version of agriculture that fits their values, then the Fairtrade label is the perfect analogy. It is not the government’s responsibility to help you vote with your dollars. Do I really need to start providing thought experiments to illustrate where that logic could lead? I didn’t think so.

Why do I care so much about the proper role of government?

Is it because I’m some sort of libertarian? Well, sort of. I do have a libertarian streak running through my hatred of bureaucracy and regulation. I get really tired of the impulse to legislate everything. I just want to say to my liberal brothers and sisters, “Haven’t you ever been on the receiving end of unreasoning bureaucracy? Is there anything you are in favor of that you don’t want the government to support? Is there anything you are against that you don’t want outlawed?”

At bottom it is because I am left of liberal and I want government to do BIG IMPORTANT THINGS and creating a morass of bureaucracy and a thicket of regulation makes that harder. Progressives and the food movement do not have an endless well of political capital to draw upon. It would be easier to push for single payer health care if people weren’t sick of long unpleasant lines at the DMV or if small business owners didn’t feel put upon by fees and permits and mildly clueless inspectors. Why create another way for different groups to feel put upon by the government for so little return on the investment?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda cap was an instructive case in point. I was sympathetic to it’s goals, I didn’t believe it limited personal freedom in any meaningful way to set up a nudge regarding the default settings for the size of a serving of soda. But, I opposed the policy because I thought it would generate a political reaction that would outweigh the modest benefits the policy might generate. When you have Jon Stewart lampooning your efforts, you might not be contributing to the good will liberals draw on to remake society in their vision.

Jon Stewart on the Bloomberg Soda Cap: It combines the draconian government overreach people love, with the probable lack of results they expect.

I actually agree with Matthew Yglesias that we are both overregulated and underregulated.

The way I would put this is that the American economy is simultaneously overregulated and underregulated. It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I’m sure there are more problems than I’m even aware of.

At the same time, it continues to be the case that even if you ignore climate change, there are huge problematic environmental externalities involved in the energy production and industrial sectors of the economy. And you shouldn’t ignore climate change! We are much too lax about what firms are allowed to dump into the air. On the financial side, too, it’s become clear that there are really big problems with bank supervision. The existence of bad rent-seeking rules around who’s allowed to cut hair is not a good justification for the absence of rules around banks’ ability to issue no-doc liar’s loans. The fact that it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit is not a good justification for making it easier to poison children’s brains with mercury. Now obviously all these rules are incredibly annoying. I am really glad, personally, that I don’t need to take any time or effort to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury emissions rules. But at the same time, it ought to be a pain in the ass to put extra mercury into the air. We don’t want too much mercury! We don’t want too much bank leverage!

The problem is that in the real world, fact that it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit BECOMES justification for making it easier to poison children’s brains with mercury.

And “ME WANT’ is not sufficient justification for passing a law.

Could we just give it rest and keep our powder dry once in a while?

We might need it if we want to defend SNAP from draconian cuts. Or extend solidarity to striking fast food workers. Or ban the most toxic pesticides. Or trans fats. Or properly fund the school lunch program. Or do something for pollinators. (That $14 million sure would come in handy.)


One of the things that confuses me is the people who say that they accept that the GMO crops that are on the market are safe, but they want to be able to vote with their dollars against the excesses of industrial agriculture. But what practices exactly are you able to endorse through purchasing food that is non-GMO conventional and not certified organic? If conventional farmers aren’t using Round Up and Bt traited corn and cotton, then they are using more toxic, broad spectrum pesticides. (It similiar to the circular reasoning that holds that a draw back of Round Up traited crops is the development of herbicide resistant weeds leading to the use of more toxic herbicides. If it wasn’t for Round Up, that’s what they would have been forced to use in the first place. What exactly is your point?)

Another line of reasoning is that, Yes, the organic labeling is a good proxy for GMO free, but not everyone can afford organic food. But if many people are shopping organic to avoid GMO’s and you give them another option that is cheaper, you’ve just disincentivized organic purchases for a lot of people who could afford it, while steering the market towards conventional farmers who are not using the best tools at their disposal.

If those two things are what you want to accomplish, knock yourself out. But don’t expect me to support you and don’t get the government involved.


Finally there is a line of thinking that I do find very persuasive. I goes like this: Yes, GMO’s are safe. No, labels wouldn’t provide any useful information. But, at least we could put all the fear and hysteria behind us.

I’ve seen a number of thoughtful writers make this case:

Nathanael Johnson writing in Grist:

It could help heal the rift of misunderstanding and mistrust between food producer and food consumer. It might not provide information that would allow an individual to make better choices at a grocery store, but it would provide precisely the sort of information needed to span this divide. And that would allow all of us to make better food policy choices.

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

There’s a simple, almost magical, solution to both these problems: labeling. Labeling makes the unknown known; it puts people in control of what is currently uncontrollable.

Mark Lynas speaking at the Center for Food Integrity Summit:

As Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association has said, “If we pass this initative [meaning the labelling law in California] we will be well on our way to getting GE-tainted foods out of our nation’s supply for good.” Having a GMO label, Cummins thinks, is a “kiss of death” for any iconic brand like Kelloggs.

Now, as we know, much of the funding and drive behind these GMO labelling campaigns has come from the organic lobby. And I have to hand it to them: this is good old-fashioned American capitalism, red in tooth and claw. If you can demonize your competitor’s products, then you can increase the market share of your own alternatives, even if they cost more and don’t deliver what you claim they will.

And of course, the pro-labelling advocates don’t want the systems to be workable, which is why they are completely comfortable with a patchwork of state initiatives, which by any judgement would be a mess and cause havoc and raise costs throughout the food supply chains. They want to wreck biotechnology, and any collateral damage is just fine with them. Affordable food is no priority for the anti-GMO lobby.

But let’s also be honest about why they will likely win in Washington, and why the pro-labelling campaign has successfully changed the debate in the last couple of years, not just in the US but further afield too.

The reason is very simple. They have come up with a winning argument. It may be bad science, but it is good politics. Who can disagree with the right to know what is in your food? On just about any issue, if you stood on a street corner and asked people whether they wanted to know what was in their food, most people would sign up. People don’t want to be taken for fools, and don’t want to be denied knowledge that other people tell them is important, particularly when it comes to something as emotive as what you eat.

With labelling the antis have discovered a clever wedge issue that levers ordinary people – who don’t necessarily share the naturalistic ideology and anti-capitalist worldview of the activists – onto their side. It’s a ‘right to know’, one of the most powerful political demands of our time.

It seems so reasonable that almost everyone I talk to who isn’t deeply involved in the pro-biotech argument agrees with it – of course people have a right to know what is in their food.

Dan Fagin writing in Scientific American:

Their adoption of a profits-first strategy was a fateful decision because the seemingly endless furor over Roundup Ready and other first-generation GMOs, fomented by green campaigners and Monsanto’s own missteps, have turned world public opinion decisively against bioengineered foods. Even in the U.S., whose citizens are more open-minded about GMOs than Europeans, the signs are ominous. We are all reaping what Monsanto has sown, and it is a bitter harvest for those of us who think that humanitarian-driven GMO projects such as drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-fortified cassava, developed by nonprofits and thoroughly tested by local researchers, should already be in wide use in countries that want them. Whereas GMOs should never be seen as a panacea, they can do a world of good as important tools within a broader strategy to combat starvation, disease and environmental degradation in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

We can only dream about how different the outlook for GMO foods would be today if the world’s first extensive experience with the technology had been a product like golden rice, engineered specifically to address a critical malnutrition problem, vitamin A deficiency, that blinds hundreds of thousands of children every year in Africa and Southeast Asia. It’s no coincidence that golden rice, which has been tragically caught up in the larger uproar over GMOs, was developed not by a private corporation, but by foundation-funded academic researchers and a nonprofit organization supported by governments and philanthropies. (To be fair, Monsanto assisted by giving the rice’s developers royalty-free licenses to use some of its patent-protected processes, and its charitable arm has helped to support several of the independent nonprofits.)

. . . Scientists who spend their time fighting labeling also risk eroding their standing with a distrustful public, especially those in the middle who are suspicious of GMOs but may yet be persuaded the technology is worthwhile—unless they sense that information is being withheld from them. Transparency is a hallmark of good science (and good journalism), but when we push for more of it only when it benefits us directly, yet oppose the types of disclosure the public overwhelmingly wants, we look like hypocrites or worse. History is littered with the consequences of this type of duplicity; I describe a particularly horrifying example in my most recent book about long-hidden pollution in an American town.

So instead of resisting labeling laws that are almost certainly coming anyway, Scientific American and the broader science community should respond to the crisis of public confidence in food biotechnology by speaking up much more aggressively in support of GMOs that have obvious humanitarian benefits. For GMOs whose benefits are not as clear, let’s be just as aggressive in expressing well-founded reservations instead of acting like any criticism is a betrayal.

Those are all arguments that I am sympathetic to. I especially hate seeing independent scientists spending their cultural credibility on the issue. They are trying to defend science based labeling laws, but they are seen as defending big business. They are also engaged in a nearly impossible task. If there is anything that is harder to fight with reason than fear, it’s common sense. Common sense is the mother of all logical fallacies, the tar baby in the briar patch that will never let go.

If the GMO issue was the last issue that we would ever need a clear line between which labels should be mandated by the government and which should be handled voluntarily, I’d be willing to throw Monsanto and Pepsico under the bus in heart beat. But it’s not. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know it’s coming.

I also believe that the Arctic Apple, citrus greening resistant Oranges and Golden Rice and the rest of what’s in the pipeline will provide the opportunities to leave the fear and the mistrust behind us. That’s a few years out, but it is preferable than the precedent set by abandoning the principle of science based labeling for the slippery slope of satisfying curious consumers. Like I said, they already have an app for that.

Analysis of Washington State GMO Labeling Initiative I-522
Bill Price | Biofortified | 15 February 2013
The case against labeling in 12 tweets
Marc Brazeau and Nathanael Johnson | Twitter | 22 October 2013
Genetically modified foods: Who has to tell?
Rosie Mestel | Los Angeles Times | 23 February 2013
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research.
Nicolia A, Manzo A, Veronesi F, Rosellini D. | 16 September 2013 | Critical Review of Biotechnology
So Did Nudging Work?
Graham Lawton | Slate | 30 June 2013
Drink Different
Jon Stewart | 31 May 2103 | The Daily Show
How we overregulate and underregulate at the same time
Matthew Yglesias | 4 February 2013 | Slate
GMO Labeling: Trick or Treat
Nathanael Johnson | 31 October 2013 | Grist
Why we need to label GMO’s
Mark Lynas | Speech to The Center for Food Integrity Summit | 15 October 2013
Why we should accept GMO labels
Dan Fagin | Scientific American | 24 October 2013