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The Impossible Burger wouldn’t be possible without genetic engineering

The Impossible Burger has had a charmed honeymoon period. Crowds of foodies surged into fancy eateries to try it. Environmentalists and animal rights activists swooned. So did investors: Impossible Foods brought in $75 million during its latest investment round.

Now the backlash is here. The activist organizations Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group dug up documents which they claim show that Impossible Foods “ignored FDA warnings about safety” — and they handed them over to the New York Times.

The ensuing story depicted Impossible Foods as a culinary version of Uber — disrupting so rapidly that it’s running “headlong into” government regulators. In reality, Impossible Foods has behaved like a pedestrian food company, working hand in hand with the FDA and following a well-worn path to comply with an arcane set of rules.

So why isn’t this story a nothingburger?

In a word: GMOs. You see, soy leghemoglobin, or SLH, the key ingredient that makes the Impossible Burger uniquely meaty, is churned out by genetically modified yeast. “This is a protein produced with genetic engineering; it’s a new food ingredient,” Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told me when I asked why they’d singled out Impossible Foods.

The company has never exactly hidden the fact that they used genetic engineering, but they haven’t put it front and center either. You have to dig into their “frequently asked questions” to catch that detail — and that’s a recent edit, according to Perls. “When I first looked at the Impossible Foods website, maybe back in March, there was no mention of genetic engineering,” she said. (An Impossible Foods spokesperson disputed Perls’s claim, saying the FAQ has included references to genetic engineering for at least a year, since before the burger’s launch in restaurants.*)

By tiptoeing around this issue, Impossible Foods set themselves up for a takedown by anti-GMO campaigners. These groups monitor new applications of genetic engineering, watch for potentially incriminating evidence, then work with journalists to publicize it. In 2014, Ecover, a green cleaning company, announced it was using oils made by algae as part of its pledge to remove palm oil — a major driver of deforestation — from its products. When Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group figured out the algae was genetically engineered, they pinged the same Times writer. Ecover quickly went back to palm oil.

When I asked Impossible Foods’ founder Pat Brown about the GMO question, he said he didn’t think that battle was theirs to fight. After all, the SLH may be produced by transgenic yeast, but it isn’t a GMO itself. He also pointed out that this isn’t unusual: nearly all cheese contains a GMO-produced enzyme.

But now, Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have brought their battle to Impossible Foods’ doorstep. (In a blistering series of responses to the New York Times article, the company charged it “was chock full of factual errors and misrepresentations and was instigated by an extremist anti-science group.”) The FDA documents handed over to the Times include worrying sentences like this one: “FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.”

If FDA officials say your company hasn’t done enough to convince them that a new ingredient is safe, aren’t you supposed to pull it off the market?

That’s not how it works, said Gary Yingling, a former FDA official now helping Impossible Foods navigate the bureaucracy. In the United States, it’s up to the companies themselves to determine if an ingredient is safe. Impossible worked with a group of experts at universities who decided that the burger was safe in 2014. SLH, it turns out, grows naturally in the roots of soy plants, and the proteins in the burger look a lot like animal proteins — a good indicator of safety.

Impossible could have stopped there: Companies, however, can ask the government to weigh in on their research. Sometimes, the FDA asks for more information, which is what happened with Impossible Foods. It’s not unusual for the FDA to determine it can’t establish the safety of a new ingredient — it’s happened more than 100 times, with substances like Ginkgo biloba, gum arabic, and Spirulina. The FDA has called for more information in about one in every seven of the ingredients companies have asked it to review.

In the case of SLH, the FDA suggested more tests, including rat-feeding trials. Impossible Foods has finished these tests, and academics who have studied the new data confirmed that it’s “generally recognized as safe.” Next, Impossible Foods will bring the new evidence back to the FDA, Yingling said.

Each new innovation creates the potential for new hazards. We can block some of those hazards by taking precautions. But how high should we put the precautionary bar?

Impossible Burger could indeed pose some unknown hazard. We just have to weigh that against the known hazards of the present — foodborne diseases in meat, greenhouse gases from animal production, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in farms, and animal suffering. These are problems which Impossible Foods is trying to solve.

There are other companies trying to solve these problems. (Friends of the Earth notes that “the success of non-animal burgers, like the non-GMO Beyond Burger, demonstrates that plant-based animal substitutes can succeed without resorting to genetic engineering.”) But it’s not yet clear that any of these companies — including Impossible Foods — will be successful in just generating a profit, let alone in replacing the global meat industry. No one knows which startups will pan out. And we’ll probably need to try and discard lots of new things as we shift to a sustainable path.

Trying new things can be risky. Not trying new things — and staying on our current trajectory — is even more risky.

*This story has been updated to include a response from Impossible Foods about when references to genetic engineering first appeared in its FAQ.

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The Impossible Burger wouldn’t be possible without genetic engineering

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Why Trump Has You Craving Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Chocolate Cake

Mother Jones

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This week’s political news has left me feeling panicky. The more I scroll Twitter, the more often I find myself craving my favorite snacks: chocolate chip cookies and canned Diet Coke.

I’m not alone in my attachment to specific foods for certain moods. Studies suggest that when we’re sick, tired, sad, or stressed, we often eat in aims of feeling better. And given this year’s political climate, some of us may be experiencing an extra strong hankering for a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza or fresh buttercream frosting. A Market Watch survey of food businesses on election night showed spikes in cupcakes, wine, pizza, and other junk food orders.

On a recent episode of our food politics podcast, Bite, we asked listeners to tell us what dishes they’re turning to under the Trump administration.

There’s some science to suggest that we’re wired to crave certain kinds of foods in times of duress. Common comfort foods usually include a salty, sweet, or fattening element. A study by University of Colorado medicine professor Richard Johnson argues that our preference for these flavors may trace back to our early development as humans. To our Paleolithic ancestors, sweetness was a sign that a fruit was ripe and safe to eat. The excess calories helped us put on weight. “Foods that were good for survival are often things that are cemented in your neural pathways as being good for you, so you want more of them,” said San Diego Miramar College anthropology professor Laura González, who has researched emotional eating and comfort foods.

The stress response is similar. The moment we feel threat or impending doom, our bodies are flooded with chemicals that can affect our appetite and metabolism. Hormones like cortisol and ghrelin flood our system and, for some people, increase appetite and caloric intake. It’s common to look for that boost in calorie-dense dishes. “Foods that we turn to in times of stress reward the pleasure centers of our brain,” González said. “So they actually produce more dopamine and more serotonin.”

In González’s research on emotional eating, she found people linked favorite foods with memories of childhood, family, and holiday traditions. She noted that people across various cultures often reach for warm food. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s theorizes that once our ancestors starting using fire to cook, they used less energy to digest, leading to stronger bodies and bigger brains—in short, cooked foods is what made us human.

It’s possible that Donald Trump himself isn’t safe from the effects of stress on appetite. During a recent visit to the White House, Time reporters noted that the president was the only one to receive extra sauce on his entree and two scoops of vanilla ice cream with his chocolate cream pie.

Here are some more favorite comfort foods from the Twittersphere:


Why Trump Has You Craving Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Chocolate Cake

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Americans Have Officially Reduced Their Beef Consumption by 19 Percent

Turns out, Americans may be making smart, eco-friendly decisions in the grocery store after all.

The National Resources Defense Council recently released a report on American food consumption, which found that Americans reduced their intake of beef famously the most carbon-intense food on the planet by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014. For anyone who cares about the environmental footprint of their food choices, this is decidedly good news.

Americas Changes in Consumption

Americans chose to eat a lot less meat in 2014 than they did in 2005. In fact, they ate about ⅕ less meat in the former year than they did in the latter. According to the NRDC, this will result in a huge reduction in carbon emissions from the US.

Americans consumed 19 percent less beef, avoiding an estimated 185 MMT of climate-warming pollution or roughly the equivalent of the annual tailpipe pollution of 39 million cars, the report states.

And it wasnt just beef that saw decreased consumption. Milk, pork, high-fructose corn syrup and shellfish consumption also went down.

Image via NRDC

The reason behind the shift is still up for debate. According to the New York Times, some industry experts attribute the changes to steeper prices of red meat. Droughts that plagued the region increased the cost of beef, as did increasing rates of export to other countries. Additionally, about one quarter of consumers attested that it was concerns about cholesterol and saturated fat that had them reaching for alternative protein sources.

Beef vs. Alternatives

Beef is notoriously horrible for the environment. In addition to the methane gasses released by cattle, numerous other factors make beef an unsustainable option (at least, beef as it is raised today). In order to feed cows, farmers must harvest millions of acres of corn and soy, resource-intensive crops that are often heavily treated with fossil fuel-based pesticides and insecticides. Then, of course, there is the loss of arable land associated with massive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, often known as CAFOs.

In fact, even just switching from beef to chicken can have a massive positive impact on the environment. In simplified terms, beef production emits 26.45 kilogram equivalents of CO₂ for every 1 kg of beef, which chicken only emits 5.05.

What Foods to Eat (And What Foods Not to Eat) To Save the Planet

When it comes to a diet that can improve the state of the planet by reducing carbon emissions, the waters are murky. One thing, however, is certain: Eating mainstream beef is bad for the planet. Swap out beef for plant-based proteins whenever possible, but dont swap it out for dairy. (In fact, most types of dairy have a C02 emissions rating higher than chicken or pork!). You should also avoid some resource-intensive vegetables, like asparagus (big shocker: asparagus is worse for the planet than chicken!), as much as possible. Here are some swaps you might consider making, according to the EWG:

Swap out salmon (11.9 kgs carbon emissions) for beans (2 kgs)
Swap out cheese (13.5 kgs) for eggs (4.8 kgs)
Swap out pork (12.1 kgs) for tofu (2.0 kgs)
Swap out turkey (10.9 kgs) for peanut butter (2.5 kgs)
Swap out canned tuna (6.1 kgs) for lentils (our clear winner at 0.9 kgs)

Finally, eating local should be your first priority if youre trying to go gentle on planet Earth. Even if you just cant give up eating a burger once in awhile, youll be doing the earth a huge favor by simply choosing a local, grass-fed producer.

Most beef cattle in the United States today are finished on grain in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), states the NRDC report. Growing this cattle feed (primarily corn and soy) requires large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which, in turn, require significant inputs of fossil fuels. Alternative models of beef production, such as intensive rotational cattle grazing, can help sequester carbon in the soil and provide numerous other health and environmental benefits compared to CAFOs.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Americans Have Officially Reduced Their Beef Consumption by 19 Percent

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This veggie burger is so juicy it literally bleeds

Disclaimer: This burger is not vegetarian. Shutterstock

This veggie burger is so juicy it literally bleeds

By on May 24, 2016Share

At this point, we all know how bad meat is for the planet. A short list of the impacts of meat cultivation on land include deforestation, overgrazing, compaction, and soil erosion. One pound of beef requires about 1,800 gallons of water to produce. And our carnivorous tendencies produce, according to some estimates, as much as 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than cars, planes, trains and ships combined.

But it’s delicious, which is probably why 84 percent of vegetarians eventually go back to eating it (including this writer and at least 20 percent of the Grist staff). A person can only convince themselves that veggie burgers don’t taste like compacted sawdust for so long — until, possibly, now. A Los Angeles-area startup claims to have produced a veggie burger that can meet all your red-blooded desires.

Beyond Meat creates meat products sans meat, and their latest venture, the Beyond Burger, promises to look, taste, and feel just like the real thing. And apparently there’s an eager market for it: The Beyond Burger launched in the meat aisle — right alongside beef, poultry, pork, and lamb — at a Whole Foods in Boulder, Colo., Monday, and sold out within an hour, according to the company.

Unlike most veggie burgers, which are commonly blends of black beans and soy mash, the Beyond Burger is made of 20 grams of pea protein. The reviews, so far, are positive: A Whole Foods exec said it “tasted, felt and chewed like any other burger.” (Although, given that Whole Foods is selling it, maybe take that with a grain of organic, free-range salt.) It also looks like one — the burger “bleeds” beet juice when you bite into it.

Here it is, in all its flesh-free glory:

Plant-based alternatives to animal products make up a burgeoning trend: The New York Times reports that foods made from plant protein grew almost 9 percent from 2014 to 2015 — nearly three times the growth of overall food sales.

Unfortunately for vegetarians — or anyone — hankering for a convincing slab of pea protein to throw on the grill this summer, you’re going to have to wait: The Beyond Burger is currently only available in the Boulder Whole Foods (know your audience, as they say), but the company hopes to expand to other markets next year.


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This veggie burger is so juicy it literally bleeds

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Organic industry sales put Monsanto’s to shame

Organic industry sales put Monsanto’s to shame

By on May 19, 2016Share

If there was some stock index fund that covered organic food businesses, I’d want to invest my savings in it. In the United States organic food sales have grown steadily at around 10 percent a year since the Great Recession (and at higher rates before that), which puts the stock market to shame.

In 2015 organic product sales revenue grew 11 percent, while the rest of the food market grew at a rate of 3 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association’s annual survey of the industry. Total sales reached $43.3 billion, which makes the organic industry a force to be reckoned with. For comparison, Monsanto brought in just under $15 billion in revenue last year, and Whole Foods brought a little over $15 billion.

When people have the disposable income they’re pretty quick to take a step up the price ladder from commodity food. Organic food still only amounts to five percent of the U.S. market, which suggests that there’s room for more growth.

The term organic doesn’t automatically mean the food is produced with the best environmental practices, or that it’s healthier and tastier, but it often is: The higher prices provide farmers with bigger margins, and that gives them a greater ability to attend to quality and stewardship.

Here’s our explainer on what organic signifies.

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Organic industry sales put Monsanto’s to shame

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3 Green Energy Bars You Can Feel Good About

Lets be honestnot all of us love spending hours in the kitchen on a beautiful Sunday, preparing tasty treats to enjoy throughout the week. While you may have pinned countless tasty-looking energy bar recipes on Pinterest, your baking sheet has yet to peek its head out fromthe depths of your cupboard. But, you want to keep your environmental footprint light, even though you simply do not have the time to whip up Instagram-worthy homemade energy bars every week.

What do you do? Luckily, there are a handful of companies that exclusively use quality, real ingredients while upping the sustainability game. Check out these three good-natured energy bar brands:

ReGrained: Innovative, nutritious and sustainable, ReGrained is making food out of what is often disposed aswaste. Specifically, they harness waste from the beer brewing process in the way of spent grain. In reality, the grain is anything but spent. ReGrained recovers the high quality spent grain from local craft breweries and puts it in their energy bars. Itis still highly nutritious, beinghigh in protein (comparable withalmonds), high infiber (with three times more than oats) and low on the glycemic index.

When you think about it, spent grain seems like the perfect ingredient for an energy bar. ReGrained bars, filledwith spent grain, honey, almond, egg whites and flax, are anutritionally and sustainably unique addition tothe energy bar market.

Exo: If you haven’t heard about cricket protein bars, it’s time to hop on the wagon. Crickets are a powerhouse of nutrition and sustainability.According to Exo, cricket flour has two times more protein content than beef, 2.2 times more iron than spinach and produces 100 times less greenhouse gases than cows. Crickets also take only one gallon of water to produce one pound of crickets, while cows require almost 2,000 gallons to produce one pound of beef.

Exo’sbars are soy, dairy, grain and gluten-free. They area friend to both Paleo eaters as well as the environment. Each bar contains around 40 crickets. Dont worry, you cant taste or see them, the crickets are ground up into a nutty roasted flour. Satisfyingand slightly sweet, Exo bars are making crickets look and taste great.

Kits Organic (CLIF Bar): CLIF, as a company, has been on the block for a while, but you cant deny their continuingefforts in sustainability. Over the years, CLIF has reduced their packaging by 10 percent, switched to operate their trucks on biodiesel, set the barto get 50 of their supply chain facilities operating on 50 percent green energy by 2020, and are on the fast track to go completely Zero Waste at their headquarters and supply chain facilities. Even though their brand is already highly successful,CLIFis relentlesslyfocused on recycling and developing more ways totransition over to renewable energy.

The great thing about theirKits Organic barsis that they aremade entirely with whole, organic foods (like dates, walnuts, unsweetened chocolate, almonds, sea salt and vanilla beans in the Dark Chocolate+Walnut bar). Plus, its nice to see a snack at a gas station rest area that you’ll actually feel good about putting into your mouth.

While making your own bars athome can be fun and may be the most environmentally-friendly option, these three energy bar companies are really upping the ante when it comes to store-bought energy bars. Give them a try if you’re on the run, and feel good about supporting brands that have you and the planet’s best interests in mind.


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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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There’s a Horrifying Pork Factory Video Going Around. The Story Behind It Is Even Worse.

Mother Jones

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Earlier today, animal rights organization Compassion Over Killing released a new undercover video shot at the Quality Pork Processors (QPP) plant in Austin, Minnesota. That cut-and-kill operation is part of the Hormel Foods Corporation’s flagship complex that I first wrote about for Mother Jones in 2011.

QPP processes between 19,000 and 22,000 hogs per day depending on demand, making it one of the most productive facilities in the country. But the video also suggests that the volume and speed of processing results in shocking mistreatment of animals. Downed hogs are shown being kicked and dragged toward the slaughter area. Some conscious hogs are shown shackled to the conveyor chain, while others, still alive, have their throats slit and are sent to the scalding tank. The video also documents hogs with pus-filled abscesses and what appears to be fecal contamination being processed for food—as well as an employee who seems to be nodding off at his workstation.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokesperson Adam Tarr told the Washington Post, “The actions depicted in the video under review are appalling and completely unacceptable, and if we can verify the video’s authenticity, we will aggressively investigate the case and take appropriate action,” but Tarr did not note that this plant has been held up by the USDA as the model for a pork inspection nationwide.

In response to an email query from Mother Jones about the video, a Hormel spokesperson wrote:

QPP as sic a third-party supplier to our company.

Hormel Foods is committed to animal care and has high standards and policies with our suppliers. We have a zero tolerance policy for the inhumane treatment of animals, and we remain dedicated to the highest standards for animal care and handling.

Routine audits are conducted at all facilities, and we hire third-party auditors to ensure the highest animal care procedures are followed.

Our suppliers operate under very visible conditions, including third-party video monitoring and the USDA is present during all operations. We will review the video and will take action if warranted.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that QPP disciplined two of the employees associated with the video; Minnesota’s ABC 6 News reported that one of those two was the filmer.

The QPP/Hormel Foods plant in Austin is one of just five pork processing plants in the country where the USDA was running a pilot program to test the effects of reducing the number of government meat inspectors. The idea sounds crazy on its face: Why would the USDA, the agency created to ensure food safety, propose cutting inspectors? As I reported earlier this year, the pilot program, known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), was presented as a faster, more modern “risk-based, prevention-oriented” approach which could replace slower, manual inspection of all carcasses.

A strong supporter of the plan, back when it was implemented in the early 2000s, was Hormel’s then-CEO Joel W. Johnson. Advocates argued that if plants hired their own quality-assurance auditors to sort out diseased animals before they reached USDA inspection stations, that would reduce the chance of cross-contamination, and inspectors could focus on spots along the line where contamination was most likely to occur and perform random microbiological tests in those places. Five pork-processing facilities nationwide were selected for the program—and Johnson managed to get the head of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), to include both of the slaughter operations that Hormel operated into that select handful. (And Hormel bought a third plant in the program soon after.)

As I reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, Pablo Ruiz, a former process-control auditor at QPP, told me that the production line in Austin was running so fast that the lone government inspector just sat in a chair watching carcasses rush by, because he only had time to do visual inspections. I wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek:

USDA inspectors are typically required to check the tail, head and tongue, thymus, and all viscera of each hog. They palpate the lymph nodes of the large intestines and lower abdomen to feel for tuberculosis nodules, feel the intestines themselves for parasites, and turn over every set of kidneys to check for hardness resulting from inflammation or hidden masses.

At QPP, Ruiz said, the inspectors just visually double-checked the work of process-control auditors. And even QPP’s auditors didn’t have time to inspect viscera.

“We just check at the head,” Ruiz says, adding that he doesn’t think there is enough government oversight and that the USDA should double-check the work of process-control auditors. But the lack of oversight, he says, is “why the line goes so fast. When I was there, it was 1,305 per hour. This means 10,000 hogs achieved every eight hours. That’s money in the bank—easy, quick.” (QPP did not respond to telephone requests for comment, as well as a more detailed e-mail. Two messages left on Quality Pork CEO Kelly Wadding’s voicemail also went unreturned.)

About that same time, Elsa Murano, who had left her post at the USDA as Undersecretary for Food Safety soon after HIMP was approved, was hired by Hormel Foods to serve on the board of directors. (Nearly ten years later, she still holds that position—at an annual salary of more than $200,000 with total stock holding valued at over $2 million.)

In January of this year, as Mother Jones‘ Tom Philpott reported, four inspectors from Hormel-controlled facilities filed affidavits attesting to violations of food safety standards with the whistleblower protection organization Government Accountability Project (GAP). Joe Ferguson, who retired last September as an on-line USDA inspector inside QPP, was the most pointed. In discussing HIMP, Ferguson said, “It is my personal opinion that there is no inspection of carcasses under this program.”

Like Ruiz, Ferguson attributed the decreased attention to food safety to the desire to increase line speeds. And, he said, at the same time, USDA was reclassifying food safety violations so that they no longer required work stoppages for cleaning. “We used to stop the line for bile contamination, chronic pleuritis, hair/toenails/scurf . . . Under HIMP,” he said, “we are no longer allowed to stop the line so they may be removed. Put ’em in the cooler and ultimately out to the consumer.” As for the reason that such changes were occurring, Ferguson didn’t mince words. “FSIS hierarchy is in bed with the regulated industry,” he said. He pointed to Murano’s move to Hormel as an example of the kind of sway that industry now held over the USDA. “The companies are now calling the shots,” Ferguson said. “Pretty soon the agency will have no authority.”

In a report issued in May 2013, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General said that the kinds of problems allegedly occurring in those facilities should have resulted in a written warning or even a plant suspension, but few actions were taken. The report concluded that the Inspector General’s investigation “revealed a systemic failure and not a sporadic problem” and warned: “It is critical that plants work towards preventing violations from occurring in the first place because recurring, severe violations may jeopardize public health.” Stricter enforcement, the report concluded, is necessary to ensure that “the nation’s commercial supply of pork is safe and wholesome.” Instead one year ago, FSIS not only approved the continuation of the HIMP pilot project but called for the start of a review period to determine if the program “could be applied to additional establishments.” And in today’s Washington Post article, Phil Derfler, the deputy administrator at FSIS, is quoted defending HIMP. “It’s an improvement on the traditional system,” he is quoted as saying, even though the USDA is still supposed to be reviewing data to make that determination.

If, indeed, the USDA still intends to proceed with HIMP, the release of Compassion Over Killing’s video should dramatically complicate those plans. When the public sees that the project has resulted in the kinds of animal cruelty and food safety risks recorded there, they may think twice about consuming Hormel products. Joe Ferguson, the USDA inspector who certified meat from that plant for more than ten years, said, “Personally, I will not eat any products that bear the name of the company for which this meat is produced.”

But the conditions portrayed in this horrifying video cannot be brushed aside as an isolated series of events in a single pork plant or even a single company. The bigger issue is that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is saying QPP is a model plant. After seeing this video, it’s hard to imagine that consumers will agree.

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There’s a Horrifying Pork Factory Video Going Around. The Story Behind It Is Even Worse.

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"Employees Are Bitter" as Whole Foods Chops Jobs and Wages

Mother Jones

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Whole Foods Market co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey has never hidden his disdain for labor unions. “Today most employees feel that unions are not necessary to represent them,” he told my colleague Josh Harkinson in 2013. That same year, Mackey echoed the sentiment in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s the Daily Ticker. “Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of Fortune‘s 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”

On September 25, the natural-foods giant gave its workers reason to question their founder’s argument. Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs—about 1.6 percent of its American workforce—”as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure.” The focus on cost-cutting isn’t surprising—Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.

Sources inside the company told me that the layoffs targeted experienced full-time workers who had moved up the Whole Foods pay ladder. In one store in the chain’s South region, “all supervisors in all departments were demoted to getting paid $11 an hour from $13-16 per hour and were told they were no longer supervisors, but still had to fulfill all of the same duties, effective immediately,” according to an employee who works there.

I ran that claim past a spokesman at the company’s Austin headquarters. “We appreciate you taking the time to reach out and help us to set the record straight,” he responded, pointing to the press release quoted above. When I reminded him that my question was about wage cuts, not the announced job cuts, he declined to comment.

Another source, from one of Whole Foods’ regional offices, told me the corporate headquarters had ordered all 11 regional offices to reduce expenses. “They’ve all done it differently,” the source said. “In some regions, they’ve reduced the number of in-store buyers—people who order products for the shelves.”

I spoke with a buyer from the South region who learned on Saturday that, after more than 20 years with the company, his position had been eliminated. He and other laid-off colleagues received a letter listing their options: They could reapply for an open position or “leave Whole Foods immediately” with a severance package—which will be sweetened if they agree not to reapply for six months. If laid-off employees manage to snag a new position that pays less than the old one did, they are eligible for a temporary pay bump to match the old wage, but only for a limited time.

Those fortunate enough to get rehired at the same pay rate may be signing up for more work and responsibility. At his store, the laid-off buyer told me, ex-workers are now vying for buyer positions that used to be handled by two people—who “can barely get their work done as it is.”

My regional office source told me that the layoffs and downscaling of wages for experienced staffers is part of a deliberate shift toward part-time employees. Whole Foods has “always been an 80/20 company,” the source said, referring to it ratio of full- to part-time workers. Recently, a “mandate came down to go 70/30, and there are regions that are below that: 65/35 or 60/40.” Store managers are “incentivized to bring down that ratio,” the source added.

Employees working more than 20 hours per week are eligible for benefits once they’ve “successfully completed a probationary period of employment,” the Whole Foods website notes. But some key benefits are tied to hours worked. For example, employees get a “personal wellness account” to offset the “cost of deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket health care expenses not covered by insurance,” but the amount is based on “service hours.”

And part-time employees tend not to stick around. My regional source said that annual turnover rates for part-timers at Whole Foods stores approach 80 percent in some regions. According to an internal document I obtained, the national annualized turnover rate for part-time Whole Foods team members was more than triple that of full-timers—66 percent versus about 18 percent—in the latest quarterly assessment. “Whole Foods has always been a high-touch, high-service model with dedicated, engaged, knowledgeable employeesâ&#128;&#139;,”â&#128;&#139; the source said. “How do you maintain that, having to constantly train a new batch of employees?”

Of course, Whole Foods operates in a hypercompetitive industry. Long a dominant player in natural foods, it now has to vie with Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and regional supermarket chains in the organic sector. Lower prices are key to staying competitive, and in order to maintain the same profit margins with lower prices, you have to cut your expenditures. Whole Foods’ labor costs, according to my regional source, are equal to about 20 percent of sales—twice the industry standard.

It’s not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its “core values,” Whole Foods claims to “support team member employee happiness and excellence.” Yet at a time when the company’s share price is floundering and its largest institutional shareholder is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs—which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock—that value may be harder to uphold.

Workers join unions precisely to protect themselves from employers that see slashing labor costs as a way to please Wall Street. “There’s a fear of unions coming in, because employees are bitter,” the regional-office source said. “People talk about it in hushed tones.”

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"Employees Are Bitter" as Whole Foods Chops Jobs and Wages

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Is the new Whole Foods rating system creating an inferiority complex for zucchini?

Is the new Whole Foods rating system creating an inferiority complex for zucchini?

15 Oct 2014 6:37 PM



Is the new Whole Foods rating system creating an inferiority complex for zucchini?


On Wednesday, Whole Foods started issuing ratings for its fruit, veggies, and flowers to measure the quality of farming practices. The rating system is simple: Fresh food is divided up as “good,” “better,” and “best.” It’s like getting gold, red, or green stars from your kindergarten teacher! Except it’s Whole Foods, instead of Mrs. Carter, grading you — and it’s judging greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystem management, and farmworker treatment, instead of coloring book pages.

Here is some of what Whole Foods is measuring (click here for the full list):

[F]arming practices that evaluate, protect and improve soil health. Examples include composting, rotating crops and using the latest science to measure and enhance nutrients in the soil.

[F]arming practices that create better working conditions. Examples include reducing pesticide risks, providing protective equipment and participating in third-party auditing programs to promote safe conditions and fair compensation.

[F]arming practices that protect and conserve water. Examples include rainwater collection and drip irrigation.

[F]arming practices that protect native species. Examples include planting “bee-friendly” wildflowers, improving conservation areas and taking steps to protect beneficial insects from harmful chemicals.

Fruits, flowers, and vegetables that come from overseas also have to comply with the rating system — yes, Whole Foods imports produce from overseas — even when the country’s standards for pesticides and soil composition are different.

Retrieving the information to issue the labels is complicated, too, and some farmers have insinuated that the system may be taking things a teeny bit too far. Sellers have to undergo a thorough certification process, answering questions about the minutia of each farms’ practices. Reports the New York Times:

“For instance, they want to know about earthworms and how many I have in my soil,” said Mr. Lyman, whose family has grown apples, peaches, pears, and various berries on their farm in Middlefield, Conn., since 1741. “I thought, How do I count every earthworm? It’s going to take a while.”

So while farmers are counting worms in the dirt to scramble for the coveted “best” title, Whole Foods says that it’s just trying to be more honest. Or, here comes the buzzword, more transparent. Plus, the fancy organic food seller now has to compete with cheaper super-companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, General Mills, and Cargill, who are starting up similar transparency campaigns (*cough* marketing ploys) — like McDonald’s recent social media blitz — in order to appeal to curious consumers such as those meddling kids, millennials.

Whether the transparency campaign will make a difference for Whole Food’s sales is still up in the air, but farmers can rest assured that they will be certain to score, at the very least, “good.”

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Is the new Whole Foods rating system creating an inferiority complex for zucchini?

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NOW Foods Rosemary Oil, 4 ounce


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