But not all beers are created equal, so in the name of fearless truth-telling, I spoke to brewers and beer experts from across the country, traveled to a distant land known as Soho, and of course, drank plenty of beer. I did all of this in hopes that you, the public, might be better equipped in evaluating the virtuousness of your brew.
On the eve of the implementation of one of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most controversial laws -- limiting the allowable size of sugary drinks sold in the city -- Justice Milton A. Tingling, Jr., of the New York State Supreme Court, sided with the law’s challengers, including the National Restaurant Association, the American Beverage Association, and the Soft Drink and Brewery Workers Union, overturning the Portion Cap Rule, aka the Soda Ban. Chiding the mayor, the Board of Health, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) for circumventing the proper legislative channels, the decision was nothing less than a direct smackdown of Bloomberg’s “go-it-alone” style of governance.
The now-invalidated law was, according to the mayor’s office, the board, and the DOH, designed to lower the consumption of “sugary drinks,” and in turn lower the rate of obesity. In general terms, the law banned the sale of sugary drinks sold in cups or containers larger than 16 ounces. But, as its detractors quickly pointed out, the law was far from a panacea for the city’s obesity problem.
First, what fell into the “sugary drink” category was itself a matter of debate, as the definition includes only non-alcoholic, sugar-sweetened drinks with more than 25 calories per eight ounces of fluid, and specifically excludes beverages with a 50 percent or more milk or milk substitute content. So despite the calorie count in 16 ounces of a McDonald’s McCafé Chocolate Shake (700), Starbucks’ Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino (410), or a standard margarita (500+), sale of these drinks could continue unimpeded. Second, there was a consistency problem. While restaurants, theaters, and food carts would have to get rid of their giant sizes, other businesses -- mainly grocery stores, convenience stores, bodegas, and 7-Elevens -- would not fall under the regulation’s jurisdiction. So while a New Yorker like myself would no longer be able to buy a 32-ounce Coke at a movie theater concession stand, I could still theoretically -- and this is entirely theoretical, as I would never engage in such nefarious behavior -- buy a mondo soda at the bodega next door, stick it in my purse, and sip on it through the latest Mark Wahlberg flick. Finally, as Tingling was sure to point out, the law also would not have stopped anyone from getting unlimited free refills or “unlimited sugars after purchase.” (Are people dumping extra sugar into their sodas? Is this a thing?)
While these arguments raise some valid points, the exemptions would hardly have rendered the law ineffective. Even though the court eventually found that “the loopholes in this Rule effectively defeat the stated purpose,” rendering the law “arbitrary and capricious,” a closer reading of Tingling’s opinion quickly reveals that his real problem wasn’t with the law’s substance, but with the process through which it was passed.
Widely seen as Bloomberg’s law -- not the board’s or the DOH’s, and certainly not the people’s -- the soda ban was considered by many as part of the mayor’s last push to, as The New York Times put it, “burnish his legacy as he enters the final months of his career in City Hall.” And the court expressed its animus toward Bloomberg’s personal hand in the law from the outset.
If you’re like most dudes, you probably have yet to make any plans for Valentine's Day. (Frankly, I weasel out of the deadline by subscribing to the philosophy that this is a holiday for receiving gifts, not giving them.) Chances are you’re planning to just stop by CVS on your way home from work on Thursday, buy a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates, and call it a day. But unless you were looking to support child labor, environmental destruction, and other generally despicable business practices, you might want to go a little farther out of your way this year when selecting your Valentine’s Day chocolate.
By now our cold, skeptic, liberal hearts know to question the ethics behind a McDonald’s Big Mac or a four-carat diamond ring. And it's easy to question candy's origins when we're shoveling it by the truckful into our kids' mouths on Halloween. But how many of us would eye a piece of Godiva chocolate with that same level of suspicion? Below is just the beginning of everything you never wanted to know about the origins of your fancy chocolate. And while you might never be able to look at a Hershey bar the same way again, hopefully you will laugh a little less the next time you see a $9 bar of chocolate on sale at Shake Shack.
The drugstore is selling you blood chocolate.
OK, that sounds dramatic, but a day in the African cacao trade isn’t too far from a Blood Diamond outtake (Leonardo DiCaprio not included). For the world’s biggest chocolate makers -- Hershey, Nestle, and Mars account for more than 35 percent of global chocolate production -- practices like child slave labor, rainforest demolition, and heavy reliance on GMOs are just a part of doing business. But lucky for them, the supply chains between the African farmers and the American manufacturers are so long and winding -- links include plantation owners, chocolate dealers, African government officials, and cocoa suppliers -- that companies can claim ignorance. A 2010 documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate laid those supply chains bare and also exposed the major chocolate companies’ willful ignorance; the filmmaker’s repeated attempts to force the truth on them are met with refusal and eventually physical removal from company premises.
If you missed the news about McDonald’s recent sales slump, that’s probably because the company planned it that way. Using the oldest corporate trick in the book, McDonald’s announced its disappointing news on a Friday afternoon, hoping it would get ignored as the weekend started. But the timing of the announcement only underscores how bad the news really was. For the first time since 2003, the company’s global sales rose less than 2 percent, and its net income dropped almost 4 percent.
CEO Don Thompson blamed the economy for the fast food giant’s lackluster performance, pointing to “the external environment including declining consumer sentiment, high commodity and labor costs and heightened competitive activity.” Translation? Between the rising price of food (thank you, climate change), growing consumer awareness of McDonald’s bad business practices, and competition from the likes of Taco Bell, McDonald’s was having trouble maintaining its normally high rate of growth. Thompson said the company would respond by promoting its Dollar Menu and bringing back the shockingly unhealthy McRib in December, as a way to show the “value” of eating at McDonald’s. But Thompson is either missing the point or playing dumb.
You’ve probably seen Nell Newman, even if you don’t know very much about her.
Ever since she and a business partner founded Newman’s Own Organics as a division of Newman’s Own in 1993, the image of Newman and her father, Paul, dressed up in their best country gothic guises has appeared on the labels of everything from pretzels (their first product) to their signature Fig Newmans. After becoming an independent company in 2001, Newman’s Own Organics went far beyond the basics, bringing us surprises like organic pet food and fair trade coffee at McDonald’s.
Behind that famous image is a remarkably down-to-earth sustainable food advocate from Santa Cruz, Calif., known for her friendship with Alice Waters, and a regular gig as a judge for the Good Food Awards.
Grist had the chance to chat with Newman recently about her environmentalist roots, her father’s tendency towards wild PR stunts, and her thoughts about the upcoming election.
Q.You are a strong environmentalist, with experience working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and several wildlife and wilderness projects. Why did you decide to start an organic food company?
A. I’ve always been an environmentalist. I grew up in Westport, Conn., when it was very rural. My parents would go back and forth between Connecticut and Beverly Hills -- they would make a movie one year and then go back to Connecticut. And my time was spent running around the woods with a pack of dogs, fishing. I was fascinated by nature, particularly birds, and I was really crushed at the age of 10 or 11 to discover that my favorite bird, the peregrine falcon, fastest animal on the planet, had gone extinct east of the Mississippi. They had no idea why, and it was spreading across the United States, this mass disappearance of peregrine falcons. I knew what extinction was -- I knew that we had eaten all the dodo birds and shot all the passenger pigeons and I was really horrified. Within the next couple of years they began to figure out it was this thing called DDT, which my mother had to explain to me was something that we sprayed on our food to kill insects. So I guess that was really the catalyst.
What do Juicy Juice fruit punch, Tyson chicken, and Nature Valley granola bars have in common? They're all branded with the same mysterious, ubiquitous term: natural.
The natural label's takeover is not just anecdotal. In 2008, Mintel’s Global New Products Database found that “all-natural” was the second most used claim on new American food products. And a recent study by the Shelton Group [PDF], an advertising company focusing on sustainability, found that it's also the most popular. When asked, “Which is the best description to read on a food label?” 25 percent of consumers answered, “100 percent natural.”
When Sadie Scheffer decided to start her own vegan, gluten-free baking company, the logistics were not her top priority. Like many small food companies without retail spaces, she started Bread SRSLY by delivering her breads and muffins on a bike, using a makeshift online ordering system through email and Etsy, and taking cash on delivery. Scheffer’s system worked when she was fielding a few orders at a time, but when it came time to scale up, it was less than ideal.
Enter Good Eggs, a San Francisco-based startup that provides online tools for small and sustainable food producers. Now Scheffer’s orders come through the Good Eggs online platform, and on top of taking orders from house to house, she now also drops off a lot of product at once at community pickup spots arranged by the company. She sells three times as many loaves of bread as she did before Good Eggs. Scheffer admits that she’s had trouble keeping up with orders, but adds: “That's the fun part, the scary part, and the only way I’m going to grow.”
For farmers all over the country, growing more than they can sell is just a part of doing business. As is routinely tilling surplus produce back into the soil. And because space is limited and time is of the essence, most farmers don't have many other options --- even if it usually means thousands of pounds of uneaten food.
“Nothing is lost when you turn something under; it just goes back into the dirt,” says Andy Griffin, owner of Watsonville, Calif.-based Mariquita Farm. “For us, loss comes when we’ve spent money to pick something, wash it, pack it, refrigerate it, and put it in a box, then [have to] take it out of the box and throw it away.” Of course, one could argue that the water and fertilizer required to grow the food -- as well as the labor -- is indeed lost, even if these are standard costs to farmers.
As much as Griffin says he’d like to see every vegetable he grows find a home, he has to be realistic. “Sometimes you need a bunch of stuff out of the way. Rather than wait and lose the opportunity to put the next crop in, I turn whatever's out there under. There’s a choreography to moving stuff through the fields.”
Yet in this tightly timed dance, local food entrepreneur Larry Bain saw a chance to cut in. Owner of a Bay Area-based grass-fed beef hot dog company called Let’s Be Frank, Bain saw an enormous surplus of organic produce and an eager market looking to buy it, but a scarcity of good distribution options. What would happen, he wondered, if someone were to create minimally processed, shelf-stable products out of this extra produce?
This summer, Bain has teamed up with San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market and several other Bay Area businesses to find out. He'll buy the surplus produce at a reduced price from California farmers like Griffin, in an effort to “capture the food at its very best moment,” preserve it, and sell it under their new label, The Gleaning Project.