Sunday, June 28, 2015

Making Distinctions: Grass-fed, Pasture-raised, Grain-fed and Beyond

[Lifestyle and Dietary]

There are a lot of terms bandied about regarding the manner in which livestock is raised, what it is fed, and the implications to the quality and healthful attributes of the protein that ultimately enters our diet.  Such terms as ‘free range’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘naturally-raised’, ‘corn-fed’, ‘pasture-raised’, ‘grass-fed’ and ‘100% grass-fed’ can be confusing to say the least.

How are we to sift our way through this morass that is riddled with ambiguities resulting from regulatory inefficacies and business/political conflict of interests.  Furthermore, some of these terms are better defined and regulated than others which may even result in misleading the consumer.

For the sake of simplicity, clarity and brevity, let’s explore these terms by narrowing their application to just beef.

Natural Beef and Naturally Raised

By government definition, most beef is natural. According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), ‘natural’ may be used on a label for meat if it does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient (like what you see in farmed salmon), chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (whatever that means). This definition only applies to how the meat was processed after the cattle were harvested and does not apply to how the animals were raised.

Marketers also have been applying the term ‘natural’ to beef labels based on how the animals were raised. In January 2009, USDA published a voluntary standard for ‘naturally raised’ livestock that allows for third-party verification of these claims (Federal Register: Vol. 74, Num. 12).

Beef with a USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)-certified ‘naturally raised’ claim comes from cattle that have never received growth promoters or supplemental hormones, have never been administered antibiotics and were not fed animal by-products.


Cattle called ‘corn-fed’, ‘grain-fed’, or ‘corn-finished’ are typically fattened on corn, soy, and other types of feed for several months before slaughter. As a high-starch, high-energy food, corn decreases the time to fatten cattle and increases carcass yield. Some corn-fed cattle are fattened in feedlots (see more on feedlots a little later in the article).

In the United States, most grass-fed cattle are raised for beef production. Dairy cattle may be supplemented with grain to increase the efficiency of production and reduce the area needed to support the energy requirements of the herd. The USDA defines ‘grain feed’ as follows:

"Under the United States Grain Standards Act (GSA; 57 FR 3274; January 29, 1992) and therefore acceptable to be included in the diet as grain are; barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale, and wheat, and any other food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds for which standards are established under section 76 of the GSA.    Additional feedstuffs that are acceptable to be included in the diet as grain for AMS administered USDA Certified or USDA Audit and Accreditation Programs are rice, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, and distiller’s grain (with or without solubles)."  

A growing number of health and environmental proponents in the United States such as the Union of Concerned Scientists advocate raising cattle on pasture and other forage. Complete adoption of farming practices like grass-fed beef production systems would increase the amount of forage land needed to raise cattle but reduce cropland used to feed them.

Switching cows from grass to grain puts more money in the beef industry’s pockets and cheaper meat on the supermarket shelves. But there is a price to pay for this cheaper beef. The stomachs of cows are naturally pH neutral. A corn-based diet, however, creates an acidic environment that contributes to a host of health problems. Corn-fed cattle are prone to serious health conditions such as bloat, diarrhea, ulcers, liver disease, and a weakened immune system. To combat these health problems, cattle are continually fed antibiotics, which leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that increasingly render modern medicine ineffective.

An acidic intestinal tract also favors the growth of E .coli.  Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, states that the lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. The development of a more acidic environment in cows intestinal tracts created an acid-resistant strain of the pathogen, which is able to survive the acidic conditions of the human stomach and prove fatal. In the documentary Food, Inc., Pollan states that switching feedlot cattle to a grass diet would eliminate most of the E. coli in the cow's digestive tracts.

Today, antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock, poultry, and fish on industrial farms to promote faster growth and to compensate for the disease-ridden and unsanitary conditions in which they are raised.  According to a new report by the FDA, approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals. This means that in the United States only 20 percent of antibiotics, which were originally developed to protect human health, are actually used to treat infections in people, but more importantly, how much antibiotics remain in the beef we consume everyday.


A ‘feedlot’ or ‘feed yard’ is a type of animal feeding operation (AFO) which is used in intensive animal farming for finishing livestock, notably, beef cattle, but also swine, horses, sheep, turkeys, chickens or ducks, prior to slaughter. Large beef feedlots are called ‘concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the United States and intensive livestock operations (ILOs) or confined feeding operations (CFOs) in Canada. They may contain thousands of animals in an array of pens. Most feedlots require some type of governmental permit and must have plans in place to deal with the large amount of waste that is generated. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate all animal feeding operations in the United States. This authority is delegated to individual states in some cases. In Canada, regulation of feedlots is shared between all levels of government, and in Australia this role is handled by the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS).

Prior to entering a feedlot, cattle spend most of their life nursing and then grazing on rangeland or on immature fields of grain such as green wheat pasture. Once cattle obtain an entry-level weight, about 650 to 700 pounds (300 kg), they are transferred to a feedlot to be fed a specialized animal feed which consists of corn, corn byproducts (some of which is derived from ethanol and high fructose corn syrup production), milo, barley, and other grains as well as roughage which may consist of alfalfa, corn stalks, sorghum, or other hay, cottonseed meal, and premixes composed of microingredients such as vitamins, minerals, chemical preservatives, antibiotics, fermentation products, and other essential ingredients that are purchased from premix companies, usually in sacked form, for blending into commercial rations. Because of the availability of these products, a farmer who uses his own grain can formulate his own rations and be assured his animals are getting the recommended levels of minerals and vitamins. In the American northwest and Canada, barley, low grade durum wheat, chick peas (garbanzo beans), oats and occasionally potatoes are used as feed.

In a typical feedlot, a cow's diet is roughly 62% roughage, 31% grain, 5% supplements (minerals and vitamins), and 2% premix. High-grain diets lower the pH in the animals' rumen. Due to the stressors of these conditions, and due to some illnesses, it is often necessary to give the animals antibiotics on occasion, and also not uncommon administered as a prophylactic.

Feedlot diets are engineered to encourage growth of muscle mass and the deposition of some fat (known as ‘marbling’ in butchered meat). The marbling is desirable to consumers, as it contributes to flavor and tenderness. The animal may gain an additional 400 pounds (180kg) during its approximate 200 days in the feedlot. Once cattle are fattened up to their finished weight, the ‘finished’ cattle are transported to a slaughterhouse.

Grass (Forage) Fed or Grass-Finished Beef

Similar to ‘naturally raised’ beef, grass-finished beef refers to how the cattle were managed prior to harvest and specifically, to the type of diet the cattle consumed. While most cattle spend the majority of their lives in pastures eating grass before moving to a feedlot for grain-finishing, grass finished beef cattle remain on a pasture and forage diet their entire lives.

Producing grass-finished beef in large volumes is difficult in North America where few regions have the growing season to make it possible. Most grass-finished beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand where grass is in greater abundance than feed corn and grows year-round.

  • Suitable types of grass for grazing can include bluegrass, orchardgrass, bromegrass, tall fescue and, in some situations, alfalfa. 
  • Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, ensilage and post-harvest crop residue without separated grain may be included in some producers’ feeding regimes. 
  • Most cattle go to market weighing between 1,000 and 1,250 pounds, which may take longer for grass-finished animals to achieve than grain-fed beef cattle. 

In 2006, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) proposed a standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The proposal calls for producers to demonstrate 99 percent or more of their animals’ energy came from grass and/or forage, with the exception of milk consumed by animals prior to weaning. 

  • Forage is defined as any edible, non-woody plant material, other than separated grain, which can be grazed or harvested for feeding. 
  • An AMS-verified claim of grass (forage) fed is not the same as a claim of organic or freerange. These claims require additional standards and verification.
  • AMS is reviewing comments received in response to its proposal in order to define a U.S. standard grass (forage) fed claim.
There is a heated debate on the topic of whether cattle should be raised on diets primarily composed of pasture (grass) or a concentrated diet of grain, soy, and other supplements. The issue is often complicated by the political interests and confusion between labels such as ‘free range’, ‘organic’, or ‘natural’. Cattle raised on a primarily forage diet are termed grass-fed. 

100% Grass-fed

This is a further distinction for grass-fed beef that asserts that the beef has been raised without any grain or cereal supplements or finishing.


Pasture-raised (and free-range), frankly, is a miss-leading term because it evokes an image that is considerably different than what it actually means.  Pasture-raised really says nothing about what the cattle are feed, but rather, where they are feed.  So this could be anything from 100% grass-fed to the same grain-fed program used in feedlots.

Certified Organic Beef

Beef labeled as ‘certified organic’ must be from cattle that meet USDA National Organic Program (NOP) livestock production requirements. Grain-fed beef, naturally raised or grass-finished beef may be eligible for USDA's NOP certification if the additional requirements are met.

The Organic Foods Production Act, effective October 2002, sets the standards for all food labeled organic ( For beef, this means:
  • Cattle must be fed certified organic feed but may be given certain vitamins and minerals.
  • Organically raised cattle may not be given growth promoters or receive antibiotics. Any animal that is treated with antibiotics to ensure its health must be removed from the NOP.
  • Organically raised cattle must have access to pasture, however, they may be temporarily confined for specific reasons. In reality, most cattle in the United States, regardless of how they are raised, meet this requirement.

USDA Beef Grades

At this point, we might as well cover how the USDA ranks the beef you buy:
  • Prime grade is less commonly found in supermarkets, and if it is, it would be a specialty item offered at a full service meat counter. This beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).
  • Choice grade is still of high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib. They are very tender, juicy, and flavorful. They also do well with dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if ‘braised’ ‘ roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
  • Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is grade of sorts but it does not easily fit in this linear scale.  CAB begins with a breed of cattle and further stipulates, the maximum weight, thickness of fat, size requirements for the ribeye, texture, color, and so on. CAB fits in between Choice and Prime with overlap of both.
  • Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
  • Standard grade is frequently sold as ungraded or as ‘store brand’ meat.
  • Commercial grade is much the same as Standard grade.
  • Utility grade is seldom, if ever, sold at retail. It is used to make ground beef and processed products.
  • Cutter grade ’ same as above.
  • Canner grade ’ same as above.


So, what can we take away from all of this’  I would offer the following, though recognizing that standards are not always clear, comprehensive, well defined, nor uniformly applied:
  • Health - If your concerns are in regards to the healthful qualities of what you are eating, then choosing beef that is 100% grass-fed and at least naturally-raised if not organic (no hormones or antibiotics) may address some of your concerns. 
  • Epicurean - If your emphasis is more aligned with traditionally defined flavor and texture, you may still find your requirements better fulfilled by grain-fed beef, though organic 100% grass-fed beef is becoming more successfully ‘finished’ to yield more of the tenderness and marbling that is most commonly desirable.
  • Humane practices - If your concerns lie with the humane practices related to raising animals for food, you are probably kidding yourself, as in the end, the animal will be killed and butchered.  You would be better served going vegetarian or even vegan if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.
  • Ecology - If you are also concerned about the impact to the planet in terms of things ranging from propagation of diseases, levels of methane output, waste by-products and pollutants, potentials for antibiotic resistant super pathogens and so on, then not only might you lean towards, organic and 100% grass-feed, but also locally produced and synergistic (small scale ecosystem) farming rotational systems such as what is exemplified by Polyface farms.
  • Sustainability - If you are concerned with sustainable practices with regards to our food supply while the human population continues to explode, then beyond the ecological considerations described above, you might consider moving to a diet is that is more plant-based because it is highly inefficient and no longer sustainable for all of us to be eating from the 'top of the food chain'.

Final Remarks

I hope this information supports you in making the dietary distinctions that you wish to make in alignment with your personal needs and desires.  This does still require your taking an active role in understanding these distinctions, having a philosophy regarding your food choices and then actively applying those distinctions in alignment with your philosophy.

There is a fair amount of banter laying responsibility solely at the feet of our government and the food industry industry when it comes to addressing our concerns about our food supply whether that concern is labeling (such as country of origin or GMO), cost, health, quality, sustainability or some combination. If you feel somewhat lacking in control and that in reality, your are being helplessly manipulated and controlled by the food industry;  this is a mistake.  Do not abdicate your voice nor eschew your responsibility.

The bottom line is that you are the consumer, and the consumer is king!  Just start changing your purchasing habits and the industry will get your message loud and clear.  But also accept the responsibility you have in this; if price is your first criteria, as it is for a lot of people, then the industry will optimize to meet your needs.  Whether those needs are explicitly or implicitly declared, you are telling the industry what they need to do to earn your business. To express concerns and criticisms in one way, yet to act inconsistently with those concerns and criticisms is to be (perhaps unwittingly, but all the same) hypocritical.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Better Ensure Your Produce is Clean and Safe

[Recipes and Technique]

Fresh produce can harbor dirt and debris, pests, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes along with trace amounts of chemicals including pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and wax treatments. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help improve the healthfulness and safety of fruits and vegetables.

Steps to Limit Bacterial and Chemical Contaminants
  • Start clean. Cleanliness and safe produce go hand in hand. Before preparing fruits and vegetables, always wash your hands well with soap and water. Clean counter tops, cutting boards, and utensils with hot soapy water before peeling or cutting produce. Bacteria from the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is being cut or peeled.
  • Buy organic. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides sometimes penetrate the produce, or may even be systemic, so these are not always affected no matter how you wash your produce.  Buying organic at least takes the chemical contaminate out of the equation, however, you will still have to deal with the dirt and debris, fungi, pests and microbes, and perhaps even more so. 
  • Buy local. Reducing transport time and distance can help limit the chances of contamination and bacterial growth. Produce that needs to be refrigerated at home should also be kept cool at the market. Cut melon and salad greens should be kept on ice at the market.
  • Select based on condition. Look for produce that’s not overripe, blemished, bruised or dented. These factors offer pathways for pathogens.
  • Limit quantities. Most fresh vegetables can only be stored for two to five days, although apples, onions, potatoes, and winter squash can last much longer at appropriate temperatures.
  • Wait to wash. Washing produce before storing may promote bacterial growth and speed up spoilage, so it is often recommended to wait and wash fruits and vegetables just before use. Generally, soil has been removed from fresh produce but if not and you chose to wash before storing, dry thoroughly with clean paper towels before storing.
  • Store safely. Produce that requires refrigeration can be stored in vegetable bins or on shelves above raw meats, poultry, or seafood to prevent cross contamination. Storing fresh produce in cloth produce bags or perforated plastic bags will allow air to circulate. Do not keep cut, peeled or cooked fruits and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90F) and store in the refrigerator in covered containers.
  • Trim well. Cut tops and the outer portions of celery, lettuce, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables that may be bruised and contain more dirt and pesticide residues.
  • Be diverse. Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This is not only nutritionally beneficial but may help limit exposure to any one type of pesticide and/or herbicide residue.

Washing Fresh Produce

No washing method completely removes or kills all microbes which may be present on produce but studies have shown that thoroughly rinsing fresh produce under running water is an effective way to reduce the number of microorganisms. Washing fruits and vegetables not only helps remove debris, dirt, bacteria, and stubborn garden pests, but it also helps remove residual pesticides.

Under running water, rub fruits and vegetables briskly with your hands to remove dirt and surface microorganisms. If immersing in water, a clean bowl is a better choice than the sink because the drain area often harbors microorganisms. Produce with a hard rind or firm skin may be scrubbed with a vegetable brush (obviously it is important to keep your vegetable brush clean and dry).

Wash water should be no more than 10 degrees colder than produce to prevent the entrance of microorganisms into the stem or blossom end of the produce. Do not wash fruits and vegetables with detergent or bleach solutions. Many types of fresh produce are porous and could absorb these chemicals, changing their safety and taste.

Wash Your Food Properly

Wash all your fruits and vegetables. According to the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment), washing them with 2% of salt water will remove most of the contact pesticide residues that normally appear on the surface of the vegetables and fruits. Almost 75 to 80 percent of the topical pesticide residues are removed by cold water washing. Also, be more thorough with specific fruits and vegetables such as: grapes, apples, guava, plums, mangoes, peaches and pears and vegetables like tomatoes, and okra as they might carry more residue in their crevices. 

Vinegar Soak

Whip up a solution with 10% white vinegar and 90% water and soak your veggies and fruits in them for 10-20 minutes. Others recommend 30% white vinegar for maximum effectiveness, just washing with cold water is proposed to be 98% effective.  Yet others recommend a presoak in a baking soda solution first, and then a vinegar solution, all in the attempt to remove chemical residues.  In any case, stir them around and rinse thoroughly. Be careful while washing fruits like berries, and those with a thin peel as the solution might damage their porous outer-skin. 

Commercial Fruit and Vegetable Rinses

Chemical rinses and other treatments for washing raw produce, usually called fruit and vegetable washes, are often advertised as the best way to keep fresh fruits and vegetables safe in the home. But are these washes effective? The FDA advises against using commercial produce washes because the safety of their residues has not been evaluated and their effectiveness has not been tested or standardized.

In the fruit and vegetable product industry, chlorine is commonly used to remove microbes such as bacteria and mold from produce. In the home, a water wash, either with or without the help of a produce brush, is typically used to clean fruits and vegetables. So how do water washes hold up to the new “fruit and veggie” washes?

In the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine, researchers tested three commercial wash treatments:
  • Fit® (Proctor & Gamble, Cincinnati, OH)
  • Ozone Water Purifier XT-301 (Air-Zone Inc., Leesburg, VA)
  • J0-4 Multi-Functional Food Sterilizer (Indoor Purification Systems, Layton, UT)

All three products were tested according to product directions. They used low-bush blueberries as the produce. A water wash was also tested, using blueberries soaked in distilled water for one to two minutes. Here are the results:
  • Fit® washes got rid of roughly the same amount of microbes as distilled water. Both Fit® and distilled water reduced the level of residual pesticides compared to the unwashed samples.
  • Both ozone systems—the Ozone Water Purifier XT-301 and the J0-4 Multi-Functional Food Sterilizer—removed microbes from the blueberries. However, the distilled water wash was more effective than either of the ozone washes.
  • Because some produce washes are costly, we advise consumers to wash fresh fruits and vegetables with distilled water. Soak all produce for one to two minutes to reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

Clean Water

In the end, clean cold water (not more that 10 degrees colder than your produce, so you do not inadvertently draw contaminants in through the stem or blossom remnants) is very effective, especially if you are starting with organic produce.  If you want to go one step further, you could consider using distilled water because distilled or bottled water has been filtered and purified to remove contaminants.

Washing Techniques

Here are some different groups of produce and some recommendations for washing:
  • Leafy green vegetables. Separate and individually rinse the leaves of lettuce and other greens, discarding the outer leaves if torn and bruised. Leaves can be difficult to clean so immersing the leaves in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes helps loosen sand and dirt. Adding vinegar to the water (1/2 cup distilled white vinegar per 1 cup water), followed by a clean water rinse, has been shown to reduce bacterial contamination but may affect texture and taste. After washing, blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture. 
  • Apples, cucumbers and other firm produce. Wash well or peel to remove waxy preservative.
  • Root vegetables. You can peel potatoes, carrots, turnips and other root vegetables (though this removes the nutrient rich skin), or clean them well with a firm scrub brush under lukewarm running water.
  • Melons. The rough, netted surfaces of some types of melon provide an excellent environment for microorganisms that can be transferred to the interior surfaces during cutting. To minimize the risk of cross contamination, use a vegetable brush and wash melons thoroughly under running water before peeling or slicing. 
  • Hot peppers. When washing hot peppers, wear gloves and keep hands away from eyes and face.
  • Peaches, plums and other soft fruits. Wash under running water and dry with a paper towel.
  • Grapes, cherries and berries. Store unwashed until ready to use but separate and discard spoiled or moldy fruit before storing to prevent the spread of spoilage organisms. Wash gently under cool running water right before use. 
  • Mushrooms. Clean with a soft brush or wipe with a wet paper towel to remove dirt.
  • Herbs. Rinse by dipping and swishing in a bowl of cool water and dry with paper towels.


You should ideally start with organic produce.  This is an ideal though, as not all produce is readily available as organic, and, truthfully, organic is currently more expensive.  Secondly, good practices for cleanliness and appropriate washing techniques will help to ensure that your and your family will be eating the cleanest and safest produce possible.  It really does not take all that much effort, and you will develop techniques for multi-tasking such that it will not take much, if any more time to apply these best practices.  

All of us live busy lifestyles, and this is one more thing that we can hardly imagine performing ongoing research and study upon, but the alternative of outsourcing our health to various food suppliers in not an effective solution for sustained long term health.

Sidebar: Produce Wax

What Why are wax coatings used on fruits and vegetables? 

Many vegetables and fruits make their own natural waxy coating. After harvest, fresh produce may be washed to clean off dirt and soil - but such washing also removes the natural wax. Therefore, waxes are applied to some produce to replace the natural waxes that are lost.

Wax coatings help retain moisture to maintain quality and also visual appeal.  This may occur:
  • when produce is shipped from farm to market
  • while it is in the stores and restaurants
  • once it is in the home

Waxes also help inhibit mold growth, protect produce from bruising, prevent other physical damage and disease, and enhance appearance.  In fact, some produce produce their own natural protective wax coating.  Still, the bottom line is, do you want to ingest commercially applied wax with your produce?

How are waxes applied? 

Waxes are used only in tiny amounts to provide a microscopic coating surrounding the entire product. Each piece of waxed produce has only a drop or two of wax.
  • Coatings used on fruits and vegetables must meet FDA food additive regulations for safety. 
  • Produce shippers and supermarkets in the United States are required by federal law to label fresh fruits and vegetables that have been waxed so you will know whether the produce you buy is coated. Watch for signs that say: "Coated with food-grade vegetable-, petroleum-, beeswax-, or shellac- based wax or resin, to maintain freshness."
  • Although the FDA considers these coatings to be safe for consumption, many consumers prefer to remove them before using the produce. This has the additional benefit of removing the majority of micro-organisms that can cause food-borne illness and pesticides as discussed earlier.

Sidebar: Topical and Systemic Pesticides, Fungicides and Herbicides

Does washing conventional produce really remove its agrochemical residues?

The short answer is no, not entirely. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, washing produce reduces pesticide levels but doesn’t completely remove them. Some fruits and vegetables, for example, may have their residues sealed under a coating of shelf-life-extending wax. Others have soft or waxy skins that help chemicals stick to their surfaces.

A study done at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station confirms that washing is only partially effective. Researchers looked at the residues of 12 different pesticides on foods and discovered that three types were unaffected by washing.

There’s also the issue of systemic pesticides; these are chemicals designed to be absorbed by plants to kill any bugs that eat them. These poisons are inside the produce itself and won’t be affected by washing. Tests conducted by the Pesticide Action Network found the problem to be common—74% of tested conventional lettuce and 70% of broccoli, for example, had internal residues. Systemics were also found inside treated potatoes, strawberries, sweet peppers, and collard greens.  This borders on the topic of genetically engineered systems such as those found on Bt Corn.

Now you’re probably wondering if those products sold specifically for washing produce can help. The answer is, only sometimes. A 2003 study examining the use of various non-toxic washing treatments on nectarines and found that three ingredients, ethanol, glycerol, and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), removed about half of the total residues. But other ingredients were no more effective than water. And you might not want SLS residue on your stone fruit. 

A similar 2010 study on cucumbers and strawberries found that acetic acid, the active component of vinegar, was also helpful. If you’re interested in using something other than water to clean your fruits and veggies, vinegar seems preferable to a produce washing product; you’re likely already eating vinegar and won’t have to question or research its ingredients.

Two American food crops, leafy greens and hot peppers, are of special concern for public health because residue tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found these foods laced with particularly toxic pesticides. Among the chemicals at issue are organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. These are no longer detected widely on other produce, either because of binding legal restrictions or voluntary phase-outs.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

GMOs and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Bt Delta Endotoxin protein sequence

[Food and Technology]  [Business and Politics]

Let’s begin by narrowing the discussion to just a single GMO field crop (from the likes of Bt-potatoes, Bt-corn, Bt-sweet corn, Roundup Ready soybeans, Roundup Ready Corn, and Liberty Link corn) and the ‘unintended consequences’ associated with its widespread use.


Bt-corn is a plant that has been genetically modified through the addition of a small amount of genetic material from other organisms through molecular techniques. In this case, the genetic material gives the plant with the genetic traits to provide protection from pests.

A donor organism may be a bacterium, fungus or even another plant. In the case of Bt-corn, the donor organism is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, and the gene of interest produces a protein that kills Lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars), in particular, European corn borer. This protein is called the Bt delta endotoxin. Growers use Bt-corn as an alternative to spraying insecticides for control of European and southwestern corn borer.

Bt-corn rapidly came into popularity among U.S. farmers after first being planted commercially in 1996. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt delta endotoxin.

Without digressing into the hotly debated arguments regarding ‘substantial equivalence , the FDA, and whether BT-corn has any adverse affects on the humans that consume it, let’s just touch on a couple of facts and then return to the central focus of this article:
  • Approximately 90% of soybeans, maize, cotton and sugar beets grown in the US have been genetically modified to produce a protein that kills common insect pests or to make them highly tolerant of an herbicide used to control weeds.
  • Corn has found its way into so much of our food and in ways that you might not evern imagine (estimated to be 60%-70% of our food products). The list of foods extend way beyond the obvious.  For example, just think how widely high fructose corn syrup is used.  For a provocative list of food products, check here.
Un-intended Consequences

Just a few years later, by the turn of the millennium, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

These scientists strongly urged effective management that consisted of refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they would prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

However, when an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges, these recommendations were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers did not even follow those recommendations.

By 2009, there were reports of extensive rootworm damage in Bt cornfields in northeast Iowa. Populations there had become resistant to one of the three Bt corn varieties. (Each variety produces a different type of Bt toxin.) This resistance was described in a 2011 study At the same time, additional reports of root worm-damaged Bt-corn came in from parts of Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. These didn’t represent a single outbreak, but rather the emergence, again and again, of resistance. 

Further Consequences to Human Health

Bt delta endotoxin in our food, via Bt-corn, is also cited as one of many causes of LGS (leaky gut syndrome).  The human gastrointestinal wall is only one cell thick and this toxin is thought to be one of the causes for microscopic holes that allow undigested food to pass into the abdominal cavity. This event compromises the liver, the lymphatic system, and the immune response including the endocrine system.

This is commonly called auto-immune disease.  It is often the primary cause of the following common conditions: asthma, food allergies, chronic sinusitis, eczema, urticaria, migraine, irritable bowel, fungal disorders, fibromyalgia, and inflammatory joint disorders including rheumatoid arthritis are just a few of the diseases that can originate with leaky gut. It also contributes to PMS, uterine fibroid, and breast fibroid.


You could conclude that farmers were enjoying the benefits of a higher crop yield and did not want to suffer any reduction in that yield by adopting the recommendation to plant  50 percent non-B-corn. The seed companies did not want reduce their profits by supporting a split of Bt and Non-Bt-corn.  The EPA is totally ineffective, and more of a tool of the biotech and agrochemical companies.  As a result, in just over 10 years, we have facilitated the evolution of a new Bt resistant pest.

The law of unintended consequences will play out in various ways that we can not even imagine. It might be something very similar to what has happened with Bt-corn, such as what is occurring right now with RoundUp ready GMO crops that are starting to see the emergence of a Roundup resistant ‘super weed’. Or might be something we have not even considered, such as the result of our exposure to various GMOs and GMO related substances such as residual RoundUp that may spawn and new super-cancer.  I am not trying to inflame ungrounded paranoia, but on the other hand, we really have no idea what we are doing, and at least in the US, we seem to be awfully blasé about letting our citizens serve as guinea pigs for foods and farming practices that have only undergone limited and short-term testing in the name of higher production and profits.