TIME

WHy People Are Falling in Love With “Ugly Food”

Would you eat an "ugly" cucumber?

The “ugly food movement” is taking off around the world, particularly in Europe and Australia, as an answer to the problem of food waste. So far, it has yet to firmly take hold in the United States, but given this country’s love of solution-driven food trends, it seems a good bet that ugly food might soon take its place beside local food, organic food, and environmentally conscious eating. “Ugly” foods are those that sellers and buyers often reject because of their appearance, like misshapen vegetables and bruised fruits. Farmers dump them. Supermarkets and restaurants reject them. Consumers historically have avoided them.

The problem of food waste is no joke. By some estimates, a third or more of the food produced globally goes uneaten. The costs are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Marketing so-called “ugly” food is one answer to the problem. Until recently, the European Union had rules actually preventing the sale of oddly sized or misshapen produce. Some of the rules were hilariously granular: a spear of asparagus could not be sold unless at least 80% of its length was green. The curve of cucumbers was regulated down the millimeter.

As part of a massive effort to reduce waste (2014 was formally designated the “European Year Against Food Waste”), most of those rules were scrapped a few years ago. Now, grocers there are actively marketing such products, and apparently, people are buying them, though it’s hard to tell at this point how successful the efforts have been.

Despite the popular name of the movement, marketers generally aren’t using the word “ugly.” More artful terms are favored. A French supermarket chain is selling “inglorious” foods. The British chain ASDA uses “wonky” (which to American ears might sound as bad as “ugly.”) Canada’s Loblaws uses “naturally imperfect.” Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who has cast himself as a promoter of the “good food movement,” has signed on with some British chains to support their efforts.

Other chains are approaching warily. Tesco, the biggest British grocer, sells its wonky foods in parts of Europe, but so far hasn’t marketed them in its home country because, it says, British shoppers aren’t ready for them. But the company has called for a public-education campaign to get consumers on board.

The trend is growing in Australia, too, thanks in part to Oliver’s efforts, though several chains there have been somewhat hesitant as well.

While the movement is unquestionably gaining ground, getting the mainstream on board remains a serious challenge. Consumers in developed countries have been conditioned over decades to expect perfect-looking produce (generally, “perfect” means “uniform,” and free of blemishes — “ugly” foods are just as tasty and nutritious as their prettier counterparts). It might take a long time to move people off those expectations. After all, the organic-food movement began in earnest more than 40 years ago, but only in recent years has it started affecting the food business in a big way. “Ugly” food has a big advantage over organic food, though: it’s generally cheaper than mainstream fare, rather than more expensive. That doesn’t hurt farmers or sellers one bit, though, since this is all food that would have ended up in the scrap bin: the revenues represent almost pure profit. And in fact, costs are actually reduced, since the foods that once were rejected had to be shipped back to their source.

The U.S., perhaps not surprisingly, has been slower than Europe to take up the trend, but there are some early indications that it might take off here. Bon Appetit Management, a big food-service company owned by the gigantic Compass Group USA, last year launched Imperfectly Delicious Produce, a program to divert ugly foods from the waste stream to the restaurants and cafeterias the company serves.

But such efforts are rare in the United States so far. Until recently, most “ugly” food that wasn’t simply thrown away has been given to needy people, though efforts like the Food Recovery Network (which Bon Appetit works with) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge. And such efforts of course do help. But if the private sector can be moved to make “ugly” food not only salable, but commercially popular, that would go a long way toward reducing the shocking amount of food we waste.

 

 

TIME Food Safety

Here’s the Terrifying Truth About Metal Shards in Your Food

Inexpensive food from an industrialized food system has its downsides

Kraft Foods is recalling 242,000 cases of its Macaroni & Cheese product because “metal shards” have been found in some boxes. The recall is getting lots of attention both because of the size of the recall and because the product is so popular. But contamination of food with foreign objects, and metal pieces in particular, happens more often than you might think.

In January, Unibright Foods recalled about 50,000 pounds of prepared meat products that were shipped to seven U.S. states after it was discovered that packages might contain what the Department of Agriculture called “extraneous metal materials.” A restaurant in Illinois discovered a piece of stainless steel wire in one of the sukiyaki beef products.

Last June, Wegmans recalled 6,000 bags of ice sold in its stores across the northeast over a period of more than five months that contained metal pieces from a broken machine part. In that case, contaminated bags of ice were discovered by the company itself, and no shards were found in ice that was actually sold.

In 2012, metal pieces in private-label products made by Bay Valley Foods, resulted in a recall of 74,000 cases of boxed pasta mix products, including macaroni and cheese.

That same year, Kellogg recalled 2.8 million boxes of Bite Size Frosted and Unfrosted Mini-Wheats when “due to the possible presence of fragments of flexible metal mesh from a faulty manufacturing part.” The boxes were distributed across the country.

And those are just a few of the cases of metal contamination over the past few years. Nobody knows exactly how often that particular problem occurs. But while food recalls involving disease-causing agents like E. coli and salmonella get the most attention, recalls due to the contamination of foreign objects are far from rare.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that metal pieces end up in food products, given our industrialized food system. When a piece of machinery breaks off in an electronics factory or an automotive plant, that’s a problem. When it happens in the food chain, that’s downright dangerous, though apparently few deaths or serious injuries have been reported from such contamination.

Some companies are taking steps to reduce the problem, including some highly sophisticated ones like ultrasound and nuclear magnetic resonance techniques. Production lines have been reconfigured and redesigned to minimize the number of parts that have metal moving against metal. |

But as long as we want a the wide variety of inexpensive food we get from our industrialized food system, the hazards of metal and other foreign objects making their way into our food supply will remain.

Read next: How Kraft’s Mac and Cheese Recall Will Affect Its Stock Price

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TIME Consumers

This Is the Drink People Are Getting Instead of Coffee

Man on desk holding cup of coffee, close up
Getty Images

Consumption of coffee is declining

Coffee remains by far the most popular caffeine-delivery mechanism in the United States, but tea is making serious headway against its beverage rival, especially among young people.

The National Coffee Association reported Tuesday in its annual survey that coffee consumption overall slipped a bit over the past year. Last year, 61% of respondents said they drank at least one cup of coffee per day. This year, that number is 59%. It’s clearly a trend: the number was 63% in 2013’s survey.

Meanwhile, tea consumption continues to grow, with the total wholesale value of tea sold in the United States reaching $10 billion last year, up fivefold from 1990. The demographic breakdown is stark: a survey by YouGov last month found that among people over 65, 70% prefer coffee to tea. Among people 18 to 29, meanwhile, the two drinks are about even.

Some observers are guessing that the trend toward healthier options, especially among young people, is driving people to tea. There might be some truth to that, given that tea very generally contains less caffeine than coffee, and is largely perceived as the healthier option. But several studies in recent years have indicated that coffee might be much healthier than previously thought — not only not as bad for us as we thought, but actually good for us.

It’s possible to make too much of this trend. The Coffee Association survey points out that more than three-quarters of Americans still drink coffee at least sometimes, and coffee is still wildly popular in general. One indicator: the rising popularity of one-cup coffee machines (like those made by Keurig Green Mountain), which are now owned by more than a quarter of Americans.

Still, ebbing demand is troubling for the coffee growers, where wholesale prices, after a spike last year, have been trending downward. In February, the wholesale price for arabica beans fell by 5.8% from the previous month, part of a downward trend that began in October.

Read next: 7 Reasons to Have a Cup of Green Tea

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TIME Retail

Why the Supplements Industry Is So Powerful

It's not because it takes its vitamins

After tanking on Tuesday, the stocks of supplements retailers GNC Holdings and The Vitamin Shoppe recovered somewhat on Wednesday. Thanks to a federal law that protects the industry, there’s only so much law enforcement can do about a business that, on one hand, is widely characterized as dicey and, on the other hand, reports $5 billion in sales a year.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Tuesday announced that his office is leading a coalition of state attorneys general to widen his examination of the industry with the goal to “enhance transparency” and ensure that the products actually contain what their labels claim to contain, and nothing more.

The coalition includes the attorneys general of three states—New York, Connecticut, and Indiana—along with Puerto Rico.

In February, Schneiderman announced that tests solicited by his office determined that nearly four in every five herbal supplements tested at major retailers in New York didn’t contain the ingredients stated on the label. And more than a third of them contained “contaminants” such as rice, pine, beans, and asparagus. Schneiderman’s office said the supplements were purchased at GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s. Schneiderman ordered those retailers to stop selling some store-brand supplements, including ginseng, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea and garlic, and requested information from the companies about how those products are processed.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition—a lobbying group whose members are makers of supplements—claimed the tests used were not accurate. GNC said its own testing, along with what it claimed was an independent, third-party test, “confirm in no uncertain terms that our products are safe, pure, properly labeled and in full compliance with all regulatory requirements.” Wal-Mart, meanwhile, insisted that the products it removed from shelves “contain accurately labeled ingredients and are safe.”

The Herbal Plus brand products named in Schneiderman’s letter will be back on the shelves soon, GNC promised.

The federal government doesn’t have much power over the supplements industry thanks to a 1994 law, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which prevents the products from the scrutiny and approval given to other drugs. “I could pretty much create something this afternoon in my kitchen and sell it and not have to do any kind of testing ahead of time,” author Catherine Price told TIME last month. Price is the author of Vitamania, a new book about the supplements and vitamins industries.

The chief sponsor of the 1994 is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose state is home to the headquarters of many marketers of supplements, who also happen to be major campaign donors. He continues to boast of his sponsorship of that law, and claims that supplements help keep him spry at age 77.

Despite the industry’s worries about a new assault on their business practices, it’s not clear, given the protections the industry enjoys whether much will be done to crimp sales in the long term. Changing labels or ensuring that labels match the actual ingredients might be all the industry has to do to call off the dogs. But it’s still perfectly legal, for example, to sell St. John’s Wort, which is widely believed to relieve symptoms of depression despite a lack of science backing up that notion. The label on GNC’s Herbal Plus St. John’s Wort claims the product “promotes positive mood balance.”

The FDA has a pretty good guide to the regulation (or lack thereof) of dietary supplements.

Read next: A New Treatment for Migraines Is Showing Promising Results

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TIME Consumers

5 Times Big Business Actually Bowed to Pressure from Consumers

McDonald's golden arches signs
Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

Elephants at the circus are only the latest in a string of victories

Given the power enjoyed by American corporations, it might seem impossible that ordinary people can effect change other than via government force, a.k.a. legislation or the courts. But when sufficient organized pressure from consumers (otherwise known as citizens) is brought to bear, corporations can, and often do, change their ways. That’s especially true when, as in many of these cases, business isn’t great. Here are five recent examples of consumer pressure forcing big business to change its ways:

Antibiotics

This week, McDonald’s announced that it would phase out the use of chickens raised with antibiotics that are used in human medicine—a practiced that has resulted in the rise of drug-resistant “super-bugs.” Meatpacking companies had already been cutting back on the use of the agents, but McDonald’s move is seen as a major step toward ending their use altogether. On Friday, Reuters reported that Costco is, according to Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety, “working towards” ending the sale of meat treated with such “shared use” antibiotics.

Elephants

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this week said it would stop using elephants in its shows. Animal-rights groups have complained for decades about what they have described as abuse. While the Feld family, which owns the circus, says Ringling Bros. isn’t reacting to critics, that seems like a bit of spin—if it weren’t for those critics, few people would realize how badly elephants are often handled by circuses, such as the use of “bull hooks” to tow them around. And without the critics, fewer laws would have been passed restricting the use of elephants—Los Angeles has prohibited the use of bull-hooks, for example. Such laws have made incorporating elephants into circuses cost-prohibitive.

Artificial ingredients

Nestle last month announced that it would remove artificial colors and flavors from Nestle Crunch and Butterfinger candy bars in the United States. This is a case not so much of pressure from organized groups, but pressure from consumer behavior. U.S. consumers are increasingly buying “natural” and organic products, and Nestle is simply responding to that demand trend. Nestle competitor Mars is also considering removing artificial food dyes from M&Ms. All these products will still be loaded with sugar and fat, but it will be all-“natural” sugar and fat (well, if you consider high fructose corn syrup to be “natural”—but see the next item).

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite the fact that there’s no solid indication that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you than sugar (which is to say, not good for you at all), the substance is a favorite bugaboo of many food activists, some of whom go so far as to call it “poison.” And Big Food has responded, replacing HFCS with “real sugar” in many products. Sometimes, consumer pressure provides companies with new marketing opportunities, and doesn’t really solve any problems.

GMOs

Genetically modified crops present a similar case of possibly misdirected pressure. The GMO issue is far more complicated than HFCS (with GMOs, there are real concerns about seed patents, and how much market power they accrue to corporations like Monsanto, further supporting our highly problematic industrial food system), but the anti-GMO movement, which is partly driven by the unproven assertion that GMOs present direct health risks, has similarly created marketing opportunities for big food companies. Unilever, Chipotle, General Mills, and scores of other companies have begun selling some products based on their being “GMO free.”

TIME food industry

McDonald’s Is Making a Huge Change to Its Chicken

McDonald's golden arches signs
Kristoffer Tripplaar—Alamy

The fast food giant is changing its sourcing policies

McDonald’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, has pledged to reform the world’s largest restaurant chain into a “modern, progressive burger company.” He has taken a major step in that direction with today’s announcement that McDonald’s will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics that are also used in drugs prescribed to humans. The overuse of those antibiotics is likely a major cause of the rise of “super bugs” that increasingly resist such drugs. Public-health advocates are hailing McDonald’s announcement as a major victory.

The phase-out will occur over the next two years, as McDonald’s works with its suppliers, which include the meatpacking giant Tyson Foods. Chickens used by McDonald’s will still be treated with antibiotics that aren’t used in medicine for humans.

Easterbrook started his new job just three days ago. This move is clearly intended to set the tone for his tenure as he takes on the massive challenges McDonald’s is facing.

A big part of that challenge is to revamp the company’s image. Mainly thanks to its size, McDonald’s is often made the whipping-boy for the ills of corporate America, and particularly the food industry. In any discussion of our unhealthy diets or our growing wealth disparities, it’s a safe bet that McDonald’s will come up, often along with Wal-Mart.

The decision on antibiotics, though, shows that McDonald’s still enjoys formidable industrial power. Few institutions can dictate terms to the powerful meatpacking industry, but that’s essentially what McDonald’s is doing here. And it means that other meat buyers will likely follow suit.

When it comes to chicken in particular, Chik-fil-A, as the country’s largest buyer of chicken, has even more clout. It announced a year ago that over the following five years, it would stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics of any kind.

The number of bacterial infections that resist antibiotics has leaped in recent years, with more than 2 million reported each year. About 23,000 people die from the infections. Public-health experts have long warned that the use of antibiotics in livestock is the main culprit.

Read next: 5 Reasons Why McDonald’s Will Win in 2015

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TIME Consumers

Why Annoyed Americans Are Signing This Online Petition

Vintage Cell Phone Collection
Jim Golden

People hate robocalls and want them to stop

More than 200,000 Americans have signed a petition asking telecom companies to provide tools for people to block commercial robocalls. Which is about as surprising as 200,000 people signing a petition against legalized murder.

The Consumers Union launched the petition at endrobocalls.com, just a week or so ago. The Federal Trade Commission says that if phone companies want to provide robo-blocking tools, they can. “Americans are fed up with being harassed by robocalls and they are demanding relief,” said Christina Tetreault, staff attorney for Consumers Union, in a statement. “The phone companies need to start listening and provide their customers with effective tools to block unwanted robocalls.”

The Consumers Union is the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

In 2014, the FTC received more than 3 million complaints about robocalls. Many of them (you might have heard from “Rachel from account services”) ran afoul of existing laws and regulations, such as the federal Do Not Call list. And many such calls originate overseas, out of the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities. About the only recourse consumers have is blocking numbers, when that’s possible.

In November, attorneys general from 39 states complained to the Federal Communications Commission, asking why phone companies don’t just block the calls. The phone companies responded that regulations forbade them from doing so. So the FTC sought input from the FTC, which in January said

Last month, though the FTC weighed in with an opinion: call–blocking by telcos is just fine since it would “make a significant dent in the problem of unwanted telephone calls.”

Hence the petition. The telcos have argued that blocking calls would run afoul of “common carrier” rules, which in general require them to accept all traffic, regardless of origin (similar to the concept of net neutrality). The FTC says that as long as customers opt-in and request the feature, telcos “can offer call-blocking services to their consumers without violating their common carriage obligations would be in the best interest of American consumers.”

The FCC is considering whether to issue an order forcing the telcos to make blocking technology available The FTC opinion will surely weigh heavily on that decision. It’s not clear when the decision will be made.

For now, other than making use of the call-clocking features offered by some handsets, consumers can file a complaint with the FCC, which has recently improved its help center.

TIME Companies

The Fascinating History of the Coca-Cola Bottle

Manufacture Of Coke Light Soft Drinks At The Coca-Cola Hellenic Plant In Cyprus
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Empty glass bottles of Coca-Cola Light, also known as diet Coke, travel along a conveyor belt ahead of filling at the Lanitis Bros Ltd. bottling plant, part of the Coca-Cola Hellenic Group, in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Tuesday, June 10, 2014.

The anniversary comes at a difficult time for the soda maker

Coca-Cola is making a lot of the 100th anniversary of its iconic bottle. Given what’s happening with soda sales generally, and Coke sales in particular, the festivities come at a delicate time.

The celebration of the bottle includes an ad campaign in more than 100 countries featuring Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Ray Charles, and an exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta called “The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100.” The exhibit will include “more than 100 objects, including more than 15 works of art by Andy Warhol and more than 40 photographs inspired by or featuring the bottle,” the company said in a statement.

Warhol, of course, was pilloried for his seeming embrace of consumerism though works like the Campbell Soup Cans and Coke Bottles, though of course it wasn’t that simple. The result was that the counterculture had infiltrated consumer culture, and vice versa. Warhol, who saw consumer products as having a leveling effect, said this about Coke:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

The original bottle was designed by the Root Glass Company in Indiana, nearly 30 years after the product was launched in 1886. Root won a contest where participants were challenged to “develop a container recognizable even if broken on the ground or touched in the dark.” Root’s design allowed consumers to recognize the product “even if they felt it in the dark,” according to Coke.

The celebration comes during a rough period for Coke. It has implemented a massive cost-cutting campaign. Its quarterly profits were down by 55%, it reported earlier this month. Meanwhile, sales of sugary soft drinks in general are plunging, having dropped by more than 20% between 2004 and 2014. In an effort to capitalize on consumers’ move away from sugar and toward protein, Coke has introduced Fairlife milk products. The bottles are pretty cool, but one can wonder if anybody will be celebrating them 100 years from now.

TIME Mobile

Beware Apps That Promise a Cancer Diagnosis

Apple Productivity Apps
Sean Gallup—Getty Images A shopper tries out the new Apple iPhone 6 at the Apple Store on the first day of sales of the new phone on Sept. 19, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.

The government is cracking down on so-called "educational" apps

Given the questionable sales pitches that seem to drive Internet marketing for some apps, this statement uttered by an FTC official on Monday might seemed understated: “Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace.”

But some messages are beyond the pale. The official, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, was referring to a couple of mobile-phone apps whose providers have claimed, without offering any proof, are able to detect the presence and severity of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

The regulator on Monday announced actions against the makers of two such apps: Mole Detective and MelApp. The apps have been marketed with claims that, by analyzing user-taken photos, they can determine whether the risk of melanoma his high, medium, or low.

Although the apps, which were sold for $4.99 in 2011 and 2012, advised users to see a doctor if they had any serious concerns about their health, the FTC says they were sold as “diagnostic” tools. (The caveat about seeing a doctor apparently didn’t contain a caveat of its own, stating that if you should see a doctor if you’re worried about cancer, there is obviously no reason to buy and download an app.)

According to the FCC, thousands of people downloaded the pieces of software.

The company that marketed MelApp, Health Discovery Corp., will pay $17,063 as part of its settlements. New Consumer Solutions, which developed and marketed Mole Detective, will pay $3,930. That app was later purchased by the British firm L. Health Ltd., which has elected not to settle the FTC’s case against it because, it says, the original developer had guaranteed the app didn’t violate U.S. law.

Mole Detective shot up in popularity after it was featured on “The Dr. Oz Show,” according to a report in the Washington Post. L. Health Ltd.’s Avi Lasarow said that the app “always stated that it should be used for educational purposes…”

None of this activity means that smartphone apps aren’t already becoming powerful aids for diagnosis and health management. In the case of something like skin cancer, a doctor could surely review photos to determine whether or not a patient should come in for an examination. The key word there is “doctor.”

TIME Executives

Starbucks CEO: Giuliani’s Obama Remarks ‘Vicious’

Howard Schultz
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz participates in a forum in Washington on Nov. 10, 2014.

The outspoken chief executive responded forcefully to the former New York mayor's comments

Though he recently told TIME he has no personal political ambitions, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz hasn’t stopped stepping into the political fray.

On Friday, Schultz issued a statement lambasting former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for Giuliani’s recent declaration that President Obama doesn’t love America. The comments were “vicious” and “profoundly offensive,” Schultz said.

Politico reported that on Wednesday, Giuliani was speaking at a private dinner for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker when he said: “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Schultz issued the following statement: “As an American, I find Rudy Giuliani’s vicious comments about President Obama ‘not loving America’ to be profoundly offensive to both the President and the Office.”

A Starbucks spokesperson on Friday morning said: “We are not providing any additional commentary around it.”

Schultz doesn’t hesitate to weigh in on political issues. In December, he raised some eyebrows when he addressed the shootings of black suspects by police offers. During an Open Forum at the Starbucks Support center in Seattle, he encouraged employees to talk about their own experiences with racism He released a video of that event, and, in a letter sent exclusively to TIME, he expressed his dismay over the situation. “I’m deeply saddened by what I have seen, and all too aware of the ripple effect,” he wrote.

Schultz has often decried the political gridlock in Washington. He has also addressed the federal minimum wage, now at $7.25 an hour. On that issue, he tends to be circumspect. Starbucks pays more than the minimum wage and offers healthy benefits packages. Schultz supports raising the federal minimum, but he has said that raising it by too much—say, to $15 an hour, as some activists have demanded—would put a crimp on businesses, and lead to lower benefits and layoffs.

 

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