This has been a big year in the restaurant and food-retail world, with many brands and chain announcing significant overhauls of their supply chains and ingredients with an eye toward animal welfare and public health—or so it might seem. While, for example, it represents a significant step in the effort to curb antibiotic resistance for so many in the poultry industry to move away from buying birds dosed with drugs used in human medicine, the change means approximately nothing for the lives those chicken live.
While the changes announced by Costco, Hershey, and McDonald’s in the past months represent some sort of progress—or at the very least enough savvy to realize that the buying public cares about how its food was raised and what goes into the thing it buys and eats—it’s important to understand what terms such as “cage-free,” for example, mean. If you think that cage-free hens are wandering freely around some idyllic barnyard, pecking at bugs and grass and eating GMO-free corn, the reality of that designation looks far different.
The battery cages used for laying hens in the grand majority of egg-producing facilities are terrible places. Birds have between 67 and 76 square inches to live in—less area than a letter-size piece of paper. (Free-range hens are required to have access to the outdoors.) Getting birds out of such a confined space is good from an animal welfare standpoint, and numerous studies have suggested that giving hens more space reduces the risk of eggs being contaminated with salmonella.
But cage-free birds, which are now roughly 5 percent of the U.S. flock, aren’t required to have access to the outdoors and can still have their beaks clipped, and there are no additional restrictions on their diet or drug regime.
The livestock industry purchases an astonishing amount of antibiotics: 32.6 million pounds in 2013, according to Food and Drug Administration figures, up from 30 million in 2011. Of all the drugs purchased in 2013—the industry doesn’t have to report what it uses—60 percent were medically important to human medicine.
It’s that 60 percent that we’re talking about, in most instances, when discussing antibiotic-free meat. The argument against using regular low doses of antibiotics in livestock—which promotes weight gain and prevents disease—is that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect humans and become either difficult or outright impossible to treat. Such infections already kill 23,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By stopping the use of these medically important drugs in poultry production—cattle and hog production have seen comparatively little movement on this issue—these drugs can continue to be lifesaving.
While antibiotic-free facilities will likely have to be kept cleaner than ones that can rely on drugs to keep infections at bay, getting rid of antibiotics doesn’t mean any change in how livestock is raised.
Chipotle is the only major fast-food chain to make the move away from genetically engineered ingredients, but judging by the way the rest of the industry apes it, others could soon follow in its footsteps. Aside from the question of whether getting rid of GMO ingredients will benefit the health of Chipotle's customers—there is no scientific evidence that foods made with genetically engineered corn or soy present a risk—then there’s this: Chipotle is not GMO-free. Its soda is still sweetened with genetically engineered high-fructose corn syrup; its chickens and hogs are still fed with GMO grains.
(Some breakfast cereals have been reformulated to be GMO-free, but none of them was corn-based, and they only contained a few minor ingredients, such as soy lecithin, that were genetically engineered, making the change rather minor.)
There is the glyphosate issue, however: Non-GMO corn and soy are likely to have been grown with less of the herbicide than the most popular GMO crops have been genetically engineered to withstand. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced that the chemical is probably carcinogenic.
Candy colored with Red No. 40 or mac and cheese turned Day-Glo orange by Yellow No. 40 isn’t exactly in line with consumer sentiments these days. But while “natural,” “whole” foods are all the rage, it’s not clear why some people are caught up on artificial colors and flavors. Some research has been done that links artificial colors with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but it is controversial. And the notion that candy flavored with vanilla instead of vanillin and colored with annatto or turmeric instead of a numbered food dye is healthier is rather absurd. Still, a Nielsen study published last year found that about 40 percent of Americans said the lack of artificial colors and flavors was “very important” when it came to choosing what to buy. In other words, there's a market for naturally colored and flavored junk food. So bring on the no-artificial-anything Hershey products.