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Deena Shanker 's Posts


Calling fowl: How to pick the most humane turkey for Thanksgiving

"Before you make a 'bird's-the-word' joke, think about how many of us there are and how few of you."
Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Once upon a time, in a land called the grocery store, customers could walk right in, grab a turkey, and take it home for Thanksgiving. The only choice to make was about size: big, huge, or insanely enormous? It was a time before words like “heritage” and “organic” became part of our food lexicon; back then, a bird was a bird, and feeding it low dosages of antibiotics in every meal had yet to be connected to the spread of antimicrobial resistant superbugs. It was a simpler time for the American Thanksgiving, but not a better one.

The turkey aisle has a lot more variety now, but it hasn’t made picking the best one easy. Free-range? Organic? Heirloom? Heritage? Is there a difference, and does it matter? Yes and maybe.

But before we delve into the specifics of one good bird versus another, it’s worth noting that all of these are better options than your standard Butterball or otherwise-branded factory farmed meal. The overwhelming majority of the 46 million turkeys that will be eaten this year on Thanksgiving will be CAFO-raised Broad Breasted Whites (BBWs) that each spent their lives in a giant, crowded, filthy shed with ten thousand other turkeys, including some that are dead or diseased. Their diets will have included regular dosages of antibiotics, making them more likely to be carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They will grow to be three times heavier than they would have been in 1929, seriously debilitating them as their unnatural weight wears on their crippled feet and swollen joints. Many of these poor birds will have been thrown, beaten, or otherwise brutalized before finally enduring a cruel death. Add to that the environmental damage of industrial farming, allegations of employee abuse, and lurking dangers like salmonella, and your typical Thanksgiving centerpiece becomes a representation of all that is wrong with our food system. So as long as you avoid one of these, applaud yourself: You are doing humanity and turkeydom alike a serious favor.

Read more: Food, Living


Friend or foie gras: Can the infamous delicacy ever be humane?

Jeremy Crow

“There are few nicer things you can do for your holiday guests,” Anthony Bourdain tells us, “than serve them a delicious terrine of foie gras.” But Bourdain says foie gras lovers should watch out. “Strangely enough, a few twisted, angry people would like to take your foie gras away.”

Full disclosure before I take this any further: While I don’t consider myself particularly “angry” or “twisted” (at least not in the way Bourdain means), I am a vegetarian who opposes cruelty to animals -- so much so that I recently exclaimed on a date, in full-on crazy voice, “chickens have families, too!” (Yeah, that guy never called. But for the record: I wasn't into him, either.) For better or for worse, though, I’m also a total hypocrite: I’m not a vegan and I wear plenty of leather. To be completely honest, every once in a while, after making an embarrassing Portlandia-esque call to a restaurant, I even cave to my fried chicken craving. And before I forswore meat, I enjoyed plenty of it -- including foie gras. Five years ago when I went to Paris, I ate it and liked (not loved) it. But I appreciated the novelty enough to smuggle a can home, fry it up, and serve it to my then-boyfriend.

Matters of delectability aside, foie gras lovers face an uphill battle in the quest for kinder meat. Made from the engorged livers of ducks and geese, opponents have been arguing forever that the force-feeding used to enlarge the organ up to eight times its normal size is inherently cruel, not only because of the “gavage” (re: a fancy word for sticking a metal feeding tube down the bird’s throat and pouring grain down the funnel at the top) itself, but also because having a giant, fatty liver causes tons of avian health problems. This was the basis of the lawsuit brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund against Hudson Valley Foie Gras (HVFG), which ended with HVFG removing its “cruelty-free” and “humane” claims from its advertising and website.


That’s the spirit: A guide to sustainable liquor

"If I drink all this sustainable booze, I'm kind of a hero."
"If I drink all this sustainable booze, I'm kind of a hero."
If you’re like me, at the end of the day, all you want to do is cuddle up with something rich, strong, and full-bodied. But if you have also failed to gain access to Channing Tatum's loving arms, then maybe you too sometimes find yourself settling for the next best thing: booze.

Questionable drunk texts aside, many of us believe that our occasional (or frequent, no judgment!) nightcap is basically harmless as long as we’re not doing something stupid or dangerous like operating a motor vehicle. Unfortunately, though, like pretty much everything else we do, what we imbibe has a direct and substantial impact on the environment.  According to the June 2012 Research on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits report by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), a 750-milliliter bottle of liquor produces, on average, 6.30 pounds of CO2. That’s more than six giant exercise balls full of carbon dioxide for every bottle of whiskey, rum, vodka, gin, or tequila that you consume.

If this depressing news has you once again reaching for the bottle, wait: There’s good news, too. Whether you prefer your drinks sweet like The Vow, spicy like Step Up 2: The Streets, or just plain Magic Mike-naked and unadorned, there are a number of environmentally conscious distilleries to choose from.

Read more: Food


Organic beer: Here to stay, or barley there?

"If this beer isn't organic, I'm going to be pissed ... but I'm drinking them anyway."
Cambridge Brewing Co.
"If this beer isn't organic, I'm going to be pissed ... but I'm drinking it anyway."

A few weeks ago I made the following -- surprisingly controversial -- statement:

Despite some well-intentioned efforts to brew and sell organic beer, the overall reaction from both consumers and brewers has been pretty meh.

It was the "meh" that launched a load of comments, a few angry emails, and even a phone call to my editor. I had to wonder: Did I "meh" too quickly? I decided to investigate further to find out.

"Organic" beer: Now actually organic

Until January 2013, the major difference between organic and non-organic beer was the organic barley. Brewers weren’t required to use organic hops (an ingredient that makes up less than 5 percent of a typical brew) largely because they simply weren’t readily available. But in 2010, the National Organic Standards Board announced a change that would take effect three years later: The hops in organic beer would now need to be organic, too.

 So it's organic -- should we care?


Beyond the pale ale: A guide to sustainable beer

Chug, chug, chug — for the planet, of course.
Chug, chug, chug -- for the planet, of course.

After weeks of painstakingly thorough research and dedicating my body to the noble profession of journalism by acting as my own guinea pig, I have come to the following conclusion: Beer is awesome.

From its humble beginning as a brewmaster’s hazy notion until that sweet moment when it hits your lips, your brewski may be part of a master plan to bring you an environmentally friendly, carefully sourced, community minded, local-economy-driving, happiness-inducing good time. (That is, unless you're drinking Coors. They want your money but they don’t really care if you have a good time.)

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.

The basics: Craft beer vs. everything else

Read more: Food, Living


Why Bloomberg’s soda ban fizzled

So much for that early retirement.
So much for that early retirement.

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.

Read more: Food, Politics


A guide to ethical chocolate


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.

Read more: Food, Living


Fallen arches: McDonald’s sales slump blamed on food costs, smarter customers

Duncan C.

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.

Read more: Food


Meet the woman behind the Newman’s Own Organics label

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.

Read more: Food


Is the ‘natural’ label 100 percent misleading?

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.”

Read more: Food