From slimeburgers to oily oysters and salmonella-tainted eggs, 2010 kept dishing up yucky food news like a lunch lady gone postal. In case you’ve forgotten — put down that Four Loko, now! — we’ve rounded up the year’s 10 biggest scandals and travesties, including the very latest exposé from the Humane Society’s undercover investigators.
So tell us: Which of these were you most afraid to put in your mouth this year? Vote for the scariest — or click through the slideshow for explanations of our fears.
This past August, half a billion eggs potentially tainted with salmonella invaded American kitchens. If you weren’t among the estimated 2,000 people who got sick, there was other stuff to scare you: check out what horrors the FDA found when it finally got around to inspecting those factories, and consider that the chick magnate behind the recall had already established himself as a “habitual violator” of environmental, labor, and animal-welfare good practices … and is still probably the largest U.S. producer of eggs.
Update: The results are in:
What were you most afraid to put in your mouth this year?
- 20.9 percent — “Corn sugar”
- 19.5 percent — Hamburgers
- 16.1 percent — Genetically engineered salmon
- 10.3 percent — Smithfield pork
- 9.6 percent — Gulf seafood
- 8.1 percent — Alcoholic energy drinks
- 7.4 percent — School lunches
- 3.5 percent — Eggs
- 3 percent — Bluefin tuna
- 1.7 percent — Raw milk and cheese
Photo: Forty PhotographsHamburgers
Perhaps the risk of mad-cow disease, E. coli 0157, and antibiotic-resistant salmonella have already put you off burgers for life. If not, the news that 70 percent of U.S. ground beef contains a horror-movie mixture called “pink slime” should do the trick. WTF, you ask? Turns out a company called Beef Products has been buying pathogen-rich slaughterhouse scraps, dosing them with ammonia, and selling the resulting pink, slimy product as a “safer” burger-filler to industrial-beef purveyors — a horror-show Hamburger Helper. As the Times reported, the stuff doesn’t even work, possibly adding to the level of nasty bugs in burger meat. Well done, Big Beef!
Ah, high-fructose corn syrup, our old friend. What a year it’s been, no? Hard to believe that little more than 12 months ago, your sugar-daddy Corn Refiners Association’s multi-million dollar “Sweet Surprise” marketing campaign was in full swing and studies seemed to suggest HFCS really was no worse for you than table sugar. But then, a Princeton study revealed you aren’t as innocent as we thought, and we discovered that all that sweet talk about how you were chemically identical to table sugar was false — you have far more harmful fructose. Whoops! As sales dropped and the media turned bitter, what else to do but try for a fresh start? Still, even if you do succeed in changing your name to “corn sugar,” to us you’ll always be our favorite liver-rotting, body-tricking, bee-bamboozling, industrial-food additive.
Photo: John MurdenSchool lunches
Like many gross, painful things in life, the disgusting meals you ate at school have probably receded from memory. But this year, an anonymous teacher named Mrs. Q reminded the world just how scary school lunches really are, by snapping daily pics of the shrink-wrapped, nutritionally suspect, and generally depressing fare served at her school for her blog, “Fed Up: School Lunch Project.” We’d hoped her exposé might help inspire Congresscritters to invest in truly decent school lunches. Unfortunately, they had other priorities. As for Mrs. Q, tireless food figher that she is, she’s back on the front lines, eating in the cafeteria in solidarity with her students and penning daily accounts of the sad junk plopped on trays. Our monstrous school lunch system lurches on, and at least Mrs. Q makes sure it can’t hide the evil it does.
Photo: Liz LawleyGenetically engineered salmon
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2010 was the year of the tiger, but we think of it as the Year of the Frankenfish. And no, we don’t mean that floppy senator from Minnesota. The FDA is still considering whether to approve a new kind of Atlantic salmon called “AquAdvantage,” engineered to grow faster with the
help of genes from the Chinook salmon and the eel-like ocean pout. It’s not the DNA tinkering that gives us the willies, though: it’s the agency’s rush to approve it in the face of misgivings of other government scientists and opposition from numerous consumer groups. Because once that salmon slips through, other GE animals like the Enviropig are bound to come lurching after.
Would you drink milk straight from the cow? The Centers for Disease Control doesn’t advise it, but it’s perfectly legal in a few states, and some people believe (fervently) that pasteurization zaps beneficial nutrients along with the bad bugs. (Here’s a good assessment of the health and safety pros and cons from a cautious raw-milk drinker we know.) More people seem scared this year by over-zealous attempts to protect the public: the FDA and state food safety departments started cracking down on raw-milk distribution rings, messing with what Stephen Colbert called our “right to get dysentery.” These raids make a lot more people nervous than does a little uncooked moo juice — especially now that it looks like the FDA might be going after runny raw cheeses.
Photo: Claudia WedellGulf seafood
Call us retro-’80s nerds, but we still dig the whole “blackened” fish thing. However, we’d prefer the blackening come from the spice shaker — not from a massive, weeks-long, world-historical oil spill right in the midst of our nation’s most productive fishery. Frankly, that scares the hell out of us, as did BP’s dodgy practice of piping in gushers of chemical dispersants to “control” the uncontrollable spill. The government swears the seafood now coming out of the Gulf is OK — and just shipped in 2,000 pounds of Gulf seafood for holiday receptions to prove it ain’t scared. No doubt the feds and their scientists are diligently testing Gulf seafood, but as NRDC shows, the tolerance levels they use for carcinogenic pretrochemical traces is likely too low. Care for an oyster-Four-Loko shooter?
Photo: Justin LittonAlcoholic energy drinks
Hey kids! We’ve got something special for you. It’s this tasty drink that will make you pass out and almost or even really die! Turns out that caffeine-spiked alcoholic beverages such as Four Loko, aka “blackout in a can,” get people way drunker without them realizing it, which despite the thumbs-up from frat boys isn’t always a good thing. In November, the FDA sent a stern warning letter to four manufacturers of such drinks, causing them to be pulled from many markets — and a rush on Craigslist to stockpile them.
Photo: Renee SBluefin tuna
We’re not scared of bluefin tuna — we’re desperately terrified for it. It’s been fished to the brink of extinction, yet the group charged with its “protection” is still setting catch quotas far above limits suggested by its own scientists and countries are refusing to ban its export. And as if the boneheaded decisions by ICCAT, or as marine biologist Carl Safina likes to call it, the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas, weren’t enough, we saw BP poisoning the spawning ground of the Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico.
Just as we were finishing up this list, some late-breaking news knocked KFC’s Double Down fat grenade out of our top ten. Continuing to do the USDA’s job for it, the Humane Society sent an undercover investigator into a Virginia hog-breeding facility owned by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer (and food-world villain). Frankly, we’re too wimpy to watch the video of the heinous abuses he found therein — just reading the report of the misery and suffering endured by breeding sows that spend their entire lives “in an airline seat,” as animal welfare expert Temple Grandin put it, has us curled under our desk in a fetal position. (Paula Deen, do you still think Smithfiield shares your family values?) We’ll be skipping the Christmas ham, thanks.