People on the streets of New York tell our Mannes on the Street how they spend their tax refunds.
Inexpensive food from an industrialized food system has its downsides+ READ ARTICLE
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.
The lipstick that has sparked controversy among Sephora customers doesn't stand alone in its tastelessness
Consumers are voicing outrage on Twitter about a new shade of lipstick sold by Sephora under the Kat Von D label.
This isn’t the first time Kat Von D has made headlines for a makeup name: Back in 2013, Sephora pulled a lipstick from the line called “Celebutard” after customers complained.
But the brand is not alone in applying objectionable names to cosmetics. MAC also offers a peach lipgloss called “Underage,” and several other companies are guilty of labeling makeup with offensive phrases. Here are five other examples that are—or were—equally terrible. Most, fortunately, seem to have been discontinued.
1. “Miso Happy With This Color” by OPI
Puns that tacitly support an extremely tired stereotype about how Asian people speak? Offensive.
2. “I’m Not Really A Whore” by Naughty Nailz
So much for celebrating womanhood. Even among other polishes named “Dirty Slut,” “Nympho,” “Trophy Wife,” and “Gold Digger,” this one stood out as particularly self-loathing. It doesn’t even have a retro ring to it, like “Brazen Hussy.”
3. “What’s A Tire Jack?” by OPI
According to the copywriter assigned to describe this tire-black color, it “speaks to rule-breaking feminine drama”—whatever that means. What it sounds like is another lame joke about women being bad with tools.
4. “Give Me Moor” by OPI
Clearly whoever named this shade skipped Othello in high school English, or else he or she would have realized it’s in poor taste to name a dark nail polish hue with an old racial slur.
5. “Iris I Was Thinner” by OPI
Just what women and teens need: A reminder that it’s “normal” to hate your body. And let’s not even get into the grammatical error.
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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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month
Drivers recently spoiled by falling gasoline prices are now having to deal with a new reality: Higher costs at the pump.
The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has increased every day for the past 28 days to a national average of $2.30 per gallon, according to AAA. The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month with fuel costs reaching a five-year low of $2.03.
A major drop-off in worldwide oil prices drove the four-month long decline. Global oil oversupply cut oil prices by more than half between last summer and the beginning of 2015, but oil prices have slowly rebounded in recent weeks and the price most drivers pay at the pump has risen accordingly.
After slipping below $45 in January, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil has since climbed by more than 10%. Brent crude topped the $60-per barrel mark earlier this month, but dipped slightly Monday to $58.90.
AAA also notes that fuel prices tend to rise at this time of year due to the fact that seasonal maintenance typically happening at oil and gas refineries tends to put a drag on fuel production.
U.S. motorists are still paying $1.11 less per gallon on average than they were at this point last year. The largest year-over-year savings gap experienced in recent months was $1.25 per gallon. Drivers in Utah and Idaho are currently seeing the lowest price at the pump with an average of $1.95 per gallon in those states. Hawaii, which tends to see the highest gas prices, is the only state where the average price for regular unleaded gas is more than $3, with that state’s residents currently paying $3.04 per gallon.
California is also seeing higher-than-average prices at $2.95 per gallon, while motorists in Texas are paying $2.12 per gallon.
The retail giant's customers are less and less satisfied with its services
Wal-Mart’s announcement on Thursday that it would start paying its employees more and training them better, and would invest more heavily in online operations, almost seems like it could have been a reaction to a survey released a day before, ranking the company as “the most hated retailer in America,” as several news outlets have put it.
It wasn’t, of course. Wal-Mart’s plans had clearly been in the works for quite a while. But those plans, announced as the retail giant issued fairly weak quarterly results, address some of the biggest reasons for Wal-Mart’s ranking at the very bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for 2014: poor service; messy or understocked shelves; and higher prices than many consumers expect.
The survey polled 8,700 consumers. It found overall satisfaction with retailers down by 1.4% over last year, mainly due to higher prices—a sudden reversal after three straight years of rising satisfaction. Wal-Mart’s score of 68 (on a scale of 100) was its worst since 2007, and continues a trend. In four of the past five years, it has scored the lowest of all department and discount stores. This year, it scored the lowest among all retailers. Just a decade or so ago, it regularly scored near the top.
On Thursday, Wal-Mart announced it would boost employee pay to a minimum of $9 an hour, which will put Wal-Mart’s lowest salaries 24% above than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some 500,000 workers, or about a third of Wal-Mart’s U.S. work force (including at the Sam’s Club warehouse-store chain) will be affected. It will, of course, eat into profits. Wal-Mart said the short-term hit would yield longer-term benefits down the road, as happier, better-trained, longer-tenured employees will translate into more customer traffic. The wage hikes and improved training will cost Wal-Mart about $1 billion this year.
The action will result in average hourly full-time wages at Wal-Mart rising to $13 an hour from below $12 an hour. That’s still below the $15 per hour demanded by pressure groups, some including Wal-Mart workers, that have been seeking pay hikes from big retailers and fast-food chains.
Wal-Mart also pledged to invest more in its e-commerce operations. The ACSI report noted that even as overall satisfaction with retailers fell by 1.7%, satisfaction with online retailers rose by 5.1%, to 82 out of 100.
That was due in part to a dip in satisfaction the previous year due to a spate of delivery problems, particularly during the holiday season. Still, it points to a big problem brick-and-mortar retailers — even those, like Wal-Mart, with substantial investments in e-commerce: the convenience of online shopping is tough to beat. There’s no such thing as a surly employee or a messy shelf. And what you’re looking for is generally in stock.
Hence Amazon’s place at the top of the list, with a score of 86. In the discount and department store category that Wal-Mart belongs to, Nordstrom was tops, also with an 86. Target tied with Kohl’s at No. 3, each scoring an 80.
Populous nations like India and China are increasingly becoming fans of coffee
As more of the world turns to coffee, demand for the beverage will increase by nearly 25% over the coming five years, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO).
“Consumption is increasing as societies in India, China and Latin America continue to be Westernized,” the ICO’s executive director Roberio Silva told the Wall Street Journal.
Currently, consumer intake of coffee stands at 141.6 million bags of beans; but by 2020, coffee demand is slated to rise to 175.8 million bags (each weighs approximately 132 lb.).
The high demand coincides with a period of tight coffee supplies globally and currency fluctuations in Brazil. Last year’s high prices were partly precipitated by a drought in the South American nation, currently the world’s largest coffee grower.
Global coffee production has been cut by 5.7 million bags this crop year because of the Brazilian drought, bad weather and a Central American plant fungus.
Other coffee growers like Vietnam, India and Indonesia are not expected to produce enough coffee to ensure a market stabilization next year.