NRDC Urges Trader Joe’s to Ban Meat Raised with Antibiotics

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has written a petition encouraging grocery chain Trader Joe’s to exclusively sell meat raised without antibiotics. The issue of meat raised with unnecessary antibiotics has gathered public attention recently, but the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not acted on the issue or taken steps to regulating the use of antibiotics in livestock. While past petitions filed by environmental and health advocates have targeted the FDA, the NRDC’s petition aims to reach a smaller audience in supermarket retailers.

“The Food and Drug Administration is under intense pressure from giant agribusiness and pharmaceutical industries, and is dragging its feet on protecting consumers. That’s why we’re asking the retailers who sell our food to take action, starting by asking Trader Joe’s to commit to selling only meat and poultry raised without antibiotics,” says the NRDC.

Antibiotics used to curb the spread of disease in unsanitary livestock housing or to facilitate faster growth in animals – not to treat diseases, as is their originally intended purpose – are unnecessary and can be passed on to humans through the consumption of food. Prolonged exposure and ingestion of these antibiotics can allow the immune system to build a resistance to them, creating new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are difficult for doctors to treat. Each year, two million Americans catch bacterial infections from hospitals and 99,000 people die from these infections – most of which are a result of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

These preventable deaths have created a strong public outcry in recent years as consumers and public health advocates realize that raising meat with antibiotics is presenting a serious threat to American consumers.

Trader Joe’s is known for its focus on organic and environmentally-friendly ingredients and products, and prides itself on the fact that its products do not contain any non-genetically modified foods, preservatives, artificial flavoring or coloring, trans fats, or MSG. The company buys its food directly from suppliers in the United States and around the world, ensuring quality and freshness. The progressive grocery chain has pledged to sell only sustainable seafood by the end of this year, and uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch – a highly regarded program that informs consumers and retailers of which kinds of seafood to avoid to discourage overfishing, which kinds are safe to buy without risk of damaging their population or environment, and which kinds can carry toxins such as mercury. Hopefully, this eco-conscious company will join Whole Foods (which has already banned meat with antibiotics from its shelves) in leading the grocery industry away from meat produced with unnecessary antibiotics.

The NRDC isn’t the only organization touting this petition – several other groups have endorsed it as well, including national magazine and product testing company Consumer Reports. The SF Gate reported that Consumer Reports said, “Supermarkets have an opportunity – indeed, an obligation – to be a part of the solution in the face of this growing public health crisis.”

Last month, Consumer Reports published a study that found that, while several grocers sell meat raised without antibiotics, many do not, and the labeling on these products is often misleading and confusing. After polling subjects, the report found that 57 percent of shoppers had access to antibiotic-free meat and 61 percent would be willing to shell out an extra five cents per pound for this type of meat.

Whether you’ve been following this issue or are just learning about it, stand up for your own health and sign the NRDC’s petition to Trader Joe’s. In the meantime, avoid this health risk by following Consumer Reports’ labeling guide to choose safe meat products.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Calories

According to a new study, pictures of food may be to blame for some of our guiltiest cravings. As obvious as this may already seem (I, myself, can think of more than enough examples in which this has been the absolute case), researchers hope that this more in-depth analysis can help squelch some bad decisions before they are made.

“Studies have shown that advertisements featuring food make us think of eating, but our research looked at how the brain responds to food cues and how that increases hunger and desire for certain foods,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Page, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

In order to complete this, the team at USC examined and measured the brain responses of 13 obese, Hispanic females from ages 15 to 25, while they looked at a series of low-calorie and high-calorie foods. (This particular group was sought because studies have pointed to women as being more inclined to act on food cues; and women in the Hispanic community tend to have a higher incidence rate of Type II diabetes and obesity.) To gauge brain activity, the women underwent two fMRI scans and asked to rank their cravings for each pictured food on a scale of 1 to 10.

About halfway through the their picture show, the women were asked to drink 50 grams of a glucose-saturated liquid—equivalent to approximately one can of sugary soda-pop. During another similar break, the women were asked to drink 50 grams of fructose. Both fructose and glucose can be found in a variety of everyday substances including standard sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. As the fMRIs measured blood flow in the brain, Page and her team were able to get a better understanding of how each picture (coupled with the glucose and/or fructose drink) affected areas in the brain most closely linked to reward and motivation.

The results found that when the women were looking at images of high-calorie foods, in addition to an increased desire for these foods, brain activity elevated and activity in the reward and motivation centers were particularly elevated. Add the sugary drinks to the mix and the activity increased even more. It was, however, noted that the fructose liquid had an even greater impact.

“We hypothesized that the reward areas in the women’s brains would be activated when they were looking at high-calorie foods, and that did happen,” Page explained of the results. “What we didn’t expect was that consuming the glucose and fructose would increase their hunger and desire for savory foods.”

While it may not seem a ‘gift’ now, this attraction to foods may have served a greater purpose in the past. In times when food was less available, and the next meal was oftentimes not a guarantee, craving foods with a high fat content was a great way our bodies could prepare in uncertain times. “Our bodies are made to eat food and store energy, and in prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming,” surmised Page.

But as great as that may seem, much of American culture today is centered on food—food that is, generally speaking, far from being great for us. Junk-food advertising has become the norm; and even without a sugary drink in hand, this consistent stream of images can lead to some bad choices—dietarily speaking.

So maybe, if it is ever possible tune out to junk food advertising. Your waist line may thank you for it.


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Starbucks Ditches Bugs as Dye in Drinks

Back in March, news outlets stirred up a storm when they reported on an unusual ingredient creeping in Starbucks’ strawberry drinks: insects.

Now, about a month later, Starbucks is announcing that it’s scrapping the bugs from its drinks, replacing the dye-producing critters with lycopene, a tomato extract, instead.

“We fell short of your expectations,” said Starbucks president Cliff Burrows in an online statement. “We are reformulating the affected products to assure the highest quality possible.”

The switch from bug-based to tomato-based dye is slated to happen by June. It was actually only January that the insects were originally added to Starbucks fare, meant as an alternative to artificial coloring.

The move comes in response to a wave of public outrage, particularly from vegan and consumer advocate groups, that rose when Starbucks admitted to using Dactylopius coccus, tiny white insects that produce a red pigment, cochineal, when ground up. The bugs have proven perfect for keeping pretty-in-pink products, such as strawberry smoothies and fraps, red velvet whoopee pies, birthday cake pop, and frosted mini-donuts, “all-natural.”

Cochineal has been used for centuries, especially in paints, makeup, and yes, food too.

Yet while Starbucks touted the insect-based dye’s status as a “safe product that poses no health risk,” the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) begged to differ, requiring goods containing cochineal to be labeled accordingly. The concern stems from the potential side effects of consuming the dye, including asthma attacks and severe allergic reactions for some.

But also playing a part in the anti-insect uproar was the lack of information given to customers, particularly vegans, who felt tricked into consuming animal products. As it turned out, a dairy-free frap wasn’t safe territory after all.

With Starbucks’ latest change, however, fury is fading into forgiveness.

“Through this move, Starbucks has shown that it cares about the opinions of its consumers,” said blogger Daelyn Fortney of, who broke the bug story in the first place.

Animal rights’ organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has also praised the company’s move.

Yet other consumers are waiting until June to celebrate, and for now, hold the Starbucks scandal as a reminder that with purchased food, you can never be too careful.

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The Impact of Your Daily Cup O’ Joe

Oil consumption is by far the most discussed environmental issue in the United States. We are saturated with information about how it impacts our environment, controversy about where it comes from, and the often harmful practices that are used to harvest it. There is just cause for this discussion though; oil is, after all, the worlds most traded commodity. However, we often ignore the worlds second largest commodity and important human fuel source: coffee.

The International Coffee Organization (ICO) works as the main intergovernmental organization for coffee who not only works to strengthen the worlds coffee markets, but also keeps track of the amount of coffee bought and sold across the world. In 2010, the ICO recorded that the United States purchased 21,340,853 60 kilo bags of green (unroasted) coffee. That’s 2,816,992,596 pounds of coffee brought into the United States in one year. Starbucks bought 269 million pounds of that coffee. Coffee is a truly massive industry that grows even lager year by year. So, how does it impact the environment?

The potential impact that coffee has on the environment begins at the source. Coffee provides a livelihood for literally millions of people across the globe from tiny community farms producing less than 1,000 pounds of coffee per year, to huge “factory farm” style plantations that produce millions of pounds of beans. The impact of these small farms is much smaller than that of the larger ones for other reasons than just size. It is much easier and more cost effective for a small farm to use organic practices, causing less of an impact on their environment due to fertilizers and pesticides as well as increasing the return to the farmer. Larger farms that produce huge quantities of coffee almost always employ the use of chemicals to stop various bugs and diseases from invading their crops. Because these chemicals are usually under-regulated, the chemicals often negatively impact the surrounding communities. Pesticides and fertilizers can contaminate ground water and, with high enough concentration, can cause birth defects, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.

Deforestation is also an area of concern in the coffee industry. Seven of the ten countries with the highest rates of deforestation are in coffee producing countries in the Caribbean and South America. Farms looking to produce massive quantities of coffee find it easier to simply clear out the forest and plant coffee shrubs in rows where they can be easily maintained. Small farms often either have coffee already growing from past generations and are carrying on the family business, or they plant trees among the already present vegetation of the area. “Shade-grown” coffee is often use as a descriptor on coffee bags. This means that there is a canopy of trees around where the coffee is harvested that maintain the biodiversity of an area, as well as protecting the hundreds of birds and other species that call them home. Coffee is also a lover of shade and naturally occurring varieties will thrive and produce a higher quality fruit with proper shade.    

Coffee has a very specific growing region. While you could hypothetically grow it just about anywhere, it thrives between the tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) and at high altitudes. The highest coffee producing countries are currently Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. The countries with the highest number of coffee imports are the United States, Germany, and Japan. This is where the environmental impact of coffee continues: there is a lot of space between these producers and consumers.

Most often, coffee is shipped in huge shipping containers that carry about 37,500 pounds of coffee each. These containers can be “mixed” meaning they contain coffee from multiple farms (a typical purchase of large, mass market roasters) or only one specific farm or region (more characteristic of specialty coffee roasters). The fact of the matter is it takes a lot of fuel to get that kind of weight across the ocean and numerous steps must be taken to get the coffee in to your cup every morning.

When a mass market roaster buys a lot of coffee, it passes through many hands before it actually reaches the consumer. Every country’s government has different stipulations when it comes to selling coffee, but the chain follows a pretty standard operation. In a situation where a farm is producing large amounts of coffee, the coffee cherries are picked, sometimes by machines, and brought to a larger sorting facility where the fruit is processed and dried. After reaching a state suitable for shipping, the coffee is placed in burlap sacks and brought either to auction or a shipping facility, depending on the country it is in. The coffee is purchased from farmers by exporters, who ship the coffee to where ever it will be consumed. Some extremely large farms export their own coffee or have previous arrangements with transnational coffee distributing or processing companies. The coffee is then purchased again by importers. The importers then sell the coffee again for a third time to roasters who will prepare the green beans for sale. After roasting and packaging the beans, roasters will either sell directly to customers or sell to retail shops who will then sell the coffee again to their customers. So, when you buy a bag of coffee from the grocery store, there is a good chance that you may be the fifth or sixth person to actually purchase those coffee beans. Not only does this process require a lot of steps and a lot of fuel, it leads to lower prices being paid to farmers and, in turn, lower quality coffee.       

The final impact comes from brewing coffee. Consider what goes into buying one cup of regular coffee from a coffee shop. The coffee must first be ground and brewed. If the cup is coming from a big batch of coffee, there are usually time limits for freshness that result in old coffee being thrown out, sometimes by the gallon. If the cup is brewed to order, heating up excess water to brew the coffee can nearly double the amount of energy being used. The coffee is then put in to a plastic-lined paper cup with a plastic lid and a cardboard sleeve. The coffee grounds that have been used are usually just thrown away, along with the paper filter.

So, how do we become better coffee consumers?

The first step is to ask questions. Any coffee shop that says they sell “sustainable” coffee should be able to answer a few basic questions: Where does this coffee come from? (not just the country, but at minimum the region and perhaps the specific farm). How was it produced? (organically, shade-grown, type of process, etc.) How much are the farmers paid? (Any coffee company worth their salt should be transparent about how their farmers are paid) Not only will these questions help you better understand what you are consuming, you will also find much higher quality coffee.

While a high percentage of mass market coffee is not sustainably produced, there are numerous companies that do things right and consider their impact in everything they do. Counter Culture Coffee is a great model of what a sustainable coffee company should look like. Their focus is on producing some of the highest quality coffee in the world while maintaining strong relationships with farmers, paying above Fair Trade prices to farmers, keeping 100% transparency with their customers, and leaving a tiny carbon footprint throughout it all. They have established their own direct trade certification, cut out all middle men when shipping, and are even on their way to carbon neutrality. Not to mention, all of their coffees are pesticide free, if not certified organic, are grown in naturally shaded environments and are characteristic of some of the most prized coffees in the world.

After buying coffee from a reputable company that has gone through the proper steps to ensure an environmentally friendly and high quality product, try brewing your coffee by the cup instead of using that old inefficient brewer you have had for 20 years. Using a product like a french press or manual drip brewer (see, Chemex, BonMac, or Beehouse) will not only make a delicious cup of coffee, it will allow you to control all variables behind brewing the coffee and will save energy. Only heat the amount of water you need. Only grind the amount of coffee you will actually use. Drink from a reusable mug. Compost your coffee grounds. All these steps will lead to a smaller footprint and far less waste from your morning coffee.

Companies like Counter Culture should be the first stop for the environmentally conscious coffee consumer. So often, people care about buying local produce and meats, join CSAs, and are conscious about buying organic, but still buy coffee without considering what goes in to it. Coffee is a massive part of world commerce and should be treated with the same care and consideration that people put into other food and drink. If we all were to consider where our coffee was coming from and who was producing it, not only would the worlds coffee farmers be much better off, but the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the coffee industry would be greatly decreased.

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