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Michele Simon's Posts


Would you like germs with that? Why food workers need paid sick days

This guy should be at home, not making your food.
This guy should be at home, not making your food.

This week, food-labor advocate Saru Jayaraman is releasing her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which relates heartbreaking stories of just some of the 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S. In a chapter called "Serving While Sick," she tells the disturbing tale of a fast-food worker who had no choice but to come to work with a bad cold since she couldn’t afford to go unpaid. When this worker tried to explain to her manager how perhaps handling food while coughing and sneezing was not such a good idea, she was laughed at. She later wondered how many customers she got sick that day because she couldn’t leave the counter every time she needed to wipe her nose.

As Jayaraman explains, this story is all too typical. Because most restaurant workers do not receive paid sick days, they are coming to work when they should stay home. Remember all the times that, as a full-time salaried worker, you stayed home with a cold, or to take care of a sick child, or just needed a “mental health day”? It’s a perk many of us take for granted, but for workers who handle our food, in jobs where spreading germs is the most risky, calling in sick is not even an option.

That’s in large part thanks to the massive lobbying machine the National Restaurant Association (aka the other NRA). In 2012 alone, the group (designated as a “heavy hitter” by the Center for Responsive Politics, among the 140 biggest donors since 1990) spent more than $2.7 million lobbying at the federal level, and donated more than a million dollars to federal candidates. (State restaurant associations are also very powerful.) The NRA also benefits nicely from the revolving door syndrome: Last year, 31 out of 40 NRA lobbyists previously held government jobs. Among the top issues on NRA’s agenda? Tips and sick leave.


Is a major science group stumping for Monsanto?


With a week to go before California voters head to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 37, which would require genetically modified (or GMO) foods to be labeled, I've been expecting an ugly campaign fueled by $41 million in corporate ad dollars to get even uglier.

But the latest gift to the No on 37 campaign smells especially bad. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released this "statement" [PDF] on GMO labeling that sounds like it was drafted by Monsanto. It ends with the non-scientific but very quote-worthy conclusion that "mandating such a label can only serve to mis­lead and falsely alarm consumers."

While Prop 37 is never mentioned, what purpose could the timing serve other than to persuade Californians to vote no on the measure?

Read more: Food


Pop culture: The industry forces behind New York’s soda war

The new ban could crush McDonald's ongoing cup size creep. (Photo by Mr. T in DC.)

Today, the New York City Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sugary soft drinks.

Motivated by rising diet-related chronic diseases (along with healthcare costs), the mayor’s attempt to rein in out-of-control portion sizes has caused quite a media firestorm. Predictably, the soda lobby came out swinging, complete with an industry front group called, “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.” A better name might be, “Soda Pushers for Continued Profits.”

According to Beverage Digest, fountain sales (versus packaged) make up about 24 percent of the 9.3 billion cases of soda sold each year, or $18 billion in a total market worth $75.7 billion.

Coca-Cola will be especially impacted by cup size limits, as that company controls 70 percent of U.S. fountain sales, followed by Pepsi with 19 percent and Dr Pepper Snapple with 11 percent.

While it’s obvious that the soda industry would be on the defense, largely missing from the debate so far has been the role of the fast food and the restaurant industry as a significant driver of soft drink sales. (Due to legal constraints, the city’s soda proposal would only apply to food service establishments and not retailers, i.e. grocery stores.)

Read more: Food


Monsanto’s 10 most misleading talking points on GMO labeling

Photo by Shutterstock.

The battle in California over Proposition 37, which would require labeling of foods containing GMOs, is really heating up. Millions of dollars are already being poured into the opposition campaign, with much of it going to former Big Tobacco shills. Over at GMO HQ, Monsanto recently posted this missive called “Taking a Stand: Proposition 37, The California Labeling Proposal,” in which the biotech giant explains why it is opposing the measure (to the tune of $4.2 million so far).

Even for a corporation not exactly known for its honesty and transparency, this brief webpage is riddled with deception and outright falsehoods about the initiative and its proponents. Here are the 10 most blatant examples:

1.  The law “would require a warning label on food products.”

No warning label would be required. Rather, the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” would be required on the back of the package -- similar to what is now required for ingredient or allergen labeling. For whole foods, like the sweet corn coming soon to a Walmart near you, a sign would be posted on the store shelf with the words “genetically engineered.” The aim is simply to offer consumers additional information about the contents of the foods they purchase.

Read more: Food


Big Food puts its back into fighting GMO labeling in California

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

In case you had any doubt that California's Prop 37 -- which would require labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- poses a significant threat to the food industry, a top food lobby has now made it perfectly clear that it does.

In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is GMO), Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), said that defeating the initiative “is the single highest priority for GMA this year.”

You may not know the GMA, but its members represent the nation's largest food producers -- those with the most at stake in the battle over GMO labeling. Soft drink and snack giant PepsiCo, cereal makers Kellogg and General Mills, and of course, biotech behemoth Monsanto all belong to the GMA.

According to state filing reports, GMA has already spent $375,000 on its efforts to oppose the labeling measure, with its members adding additional out-of-state lobbying power in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Read more: Food


Three ways to protect food stamps from a cruel Congress

As expected, the House version of the 2012 farm bill contains deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). With its $16 billion proposed cut in this critical safety net, the House leadership is about three times as cruel as the Senate, which already approved a $4.5 billion reduction over 10 years. If the House gets its way, two to three million Americans could go hungry. In addition, 280,000 kids could get kicked off the school meal program because their families’ eligibility is tied to SNAP. And speaking of kids, almost half of all SNAP participants are children.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Congress has plenty of options for saving money, it’s just easier to reduce the deficit on the backs of poor people. The Environmental Working Group summed it up succinctly: “the bill would give unlimited taxpayer dollars to farmers who are already enjoying record profits and less support to hungry kids who depend on federal assistance.”

Read more: Farm Bill, Food


HBO’s ‘Weight of the Nation’ should have taken focus on food system change further

Editor's note: For another perspective on this series, see this post.

The Weight of the Nation -- a four-part mini-series that ran this week on HBO (and online) -- has received a lot of attention. Produced in coordination with several federal government agencies and paired with a major national conference, the show has been heralded as “groundbreaking” and “bold.” But it’s really just the same old story.

The Weight of the Nation trailer alone smacks of tired stereotypes, but colleagues implored me to watch the entire series, so I did. And it was even worse than I feared.

I’m all in favor of bringing more attention to the nation’s diet-related health crisis. But the HBO series distracts us with the usual scare tactics, dances around the hard political issues, and leaves the viewer with the misguided impression that if we all just worked harder in our own communities, we could fix this mess.

Read more: Food


The man who blew the whistle on ‘pink slime’

"Pink slime" whistleblower Kit Foshee (Photo by Government Accountability Project)"Pink slime" whistleblower Kit Foshee. (Photo by Government Accountability Project.)

This past week, the media woke up to the shocking reality that our meat supply is in fact industrialized. Long gone are the days of the friendly local butcher grinding meat for kids’ hamburgers. Instead, most hamburger now comes from a corporate behemoth you've probably never heard of called Beef Products Inc. (BPI), or “the world's leading producer of lean beef processed from fresh beef trimmings.”

BPI now finds itself on the receiving end of consumer outrage over the ammonia-treated ground beef filler that one former United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) official famously dubbed “pink slime.” The news surfaced last week that this scary stuff is currently being served in school lunches, and a petition aimed at getting current USDA officials to stop serving “pink slime” has garnered more than 200,000 signatures in about a week. [Update: As of March 15, the USDA has announced that schools will be able to "opt out" of pink slime. What they'll be able to replace it with if they do is another question.]

All the hullaballoo reminded me of a dramatic talk I witnessed about a year ago on this very topic at a conference organized by the Government Accountability Project (GAP)'s Food Integrity Campaign called “Employee Rights and the Food Safety Modernization Act.” The event’s focus was on the little-known but critical aspects of the newly enacted food safety law, which would give whistleblowers new protection.

Read more: Food, Scary Food


Protein propaganda: It’s what’s for dinner

This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

Early USDA guidelines highlighted the "meat group."

Most vegetarians are tired of being asked, “Where do you get your protein?” by a seemingly concerned family member, friend, or even stranger.

I know many vegetarians and none of us have come close to suffering from Kwashiorkor. Never heard of it? It’s a form of malnutrition from lack of protein, found in areas of famine and extreme poverty. Protein deficiency is rare in the developed world, despite a significant portion of the population eschewing meat.

So where did this idea come from that vegetarians and vegans are doomed to a life of protein deficiency?

Read more: Food


Live and let dioxin: Big Ag is worried about scaring us off meat and milk

It doesn't take much for the food industry to freak out over potential government action, but this latest corporate outcry is especially galling and self-serving. This month, after more than 20 years of "assessment," the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to finally release limits for safe exposure to dioxins, nasty industrial pollutants that cause cancer, among other health harms [PDF]. You may have heard of dioxin as the military herbicide Agent Orange used in Vietnam, where it earned its distinction as "the most toxic compound synthesized by man." Unfortunately for the food industry, dioxins accumulate in the fatty tissues of …

Read more: Food, Scary Food