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Five Outrageous Food Stories of 2011

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Five Outrageous Food Stories of 2011

Food & Water Watch

By Rich Bindell

There’s never a shortage of interesting and incendiary stories about food issues to choose from at the end of the year. This year is no exception. As we continue to build our campaign to improve the Farm Bill in 2012, we can see examples of why this work is so important just by taking a look at some of the most outrageous food stories of 2011…

1. Attack on Food Safety Budgets

2011 started out with a bang. Our food safety programs got banged up by threatened budget cuts. In addition, we witnessed a number of food recalls due to contamination that threatened public health with serious illness and, in some cases, even death. It’s not a surprise that a large and complex food system such as ours requires an aggressive approach to food safety. Unfortunately, federal and state governments’ ability to use that strategy was weakened when food safety budgets were slashed. While the meat and poultry inspection program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) escaped relatively unscathed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t fare as well. FDA’s budget only allotted about half of what it needed to put the newly passed Food Safety Modernization Act into action. In 2012, Congress needs to get their food safety priorities in order.

2. Fair Livestock Rule

2011 gave USDA another opportunity to level the playing field for livestock producers in a marketplace controlled by large meatpackers and chicken processing companies. But along with Congress, they blew it again. When USDA submitted the final version on the long-awaited GIPSA rule for final White House approval, they cut out the most critical parts that would have equalized competition for independent cattle and hog producers. USDA has had the authority to crack down on unfair practices meatpackers and processing companies use to put farmers and ranchers at a disadvantage since 1921. But the department has never used the authority it had. As a result, the livestock marketplace has become highly consolidated to the point where a mere four companies supply most of the meat sold in supermarkets. The 2008 Farm Bill included a provision that told USDA to finally use its authority and stop the most abusive practices in the meat industry. But as soon as that bill passed, the meat industry went to work in Washington, D.C., and three years later they succeeded in gutting the proposed rule. House republicans, Big Ag and President Obama’s lack of leadership are to blame for this failure to change agriculture policy for the better. Which is why we need to keep building a powerful movement that can take this industry on.

3. Taxpayers funding Genetically Engineered (GE) salmon

AquaBounty’s GE salmon is controversial enough on its own merit—we certainly weren’t thrilled to learn that the FDA continues to fund further research by the company that wants to bring the first genetically engineered animal to our dinner tables. The FDA themselves questioned some of AquaBounty’s claims that their GE salmon eggs were 100 percent sterile and that it would be virtually impossible for GE salmon to invade the natural habitat of wild salmon, yet they still managed to round up some money—$494,000 in a troubled economy, no less—to give to the Massachusetts-based company for further research on sterilizing the eggs. In fact, since 2003, the federal government has provided AquaBounty with $2.4 million in federal research grants. That’s taxpayer money being thrown at an experiment that most Americans have insisted they don’t want. And who would blame consumers for their concerns? AquaBounty’s egg production facility in Canada had tested positive in 2009 for what appears to be a new strain of Salmon Anaemia virus, which can be deadly to salmon. Its presence at the AquaBounty facility casts serious doubt on their production practices. Let’s hope that 2012 is the year when the FDA abandons GE salmon.

4. Arsenic in Apple Juice

According to ABC News, one of the top five health stories of 2011 was the unfortunate discovery that many of the biggest brands of apple juice products contained arsenic. This summer, Food & Water Watch and Empire State Consumer Project shared some test results with the FDA regarding the amount of arsenic that was found in several popular brands of apple juice. The amount of arsenic found was higher than the level allowed in drinking water. Moms around the country were understandably concerned and many expressed outrage over using a poisonous chemical in a food product primarily consumed by kids. Dr. Mehmet Oz from The Dr. Oz Show invited Food & Water Watch Deputy Director Patty Lovera to appear on his show and blog on his website in order to discuss how arsenic ended up in apple juice, as well as why consumers should pay close attention to where their food is coming from. In the case of apple juice, much of it comes from China, where food safety standards are not as high as they are here in the U.S. It’s time for the FDA to set a limit for arsenic in juice so there is no more confusion about how much is acceptable. In 2012, let’s get rid of the arsenic. That’s so 2011.

5. Beaver Anal Glands (A rude awakening from a former food exec.)

This year, we found out about something so horrific and so wrong that it seems to defy logic. We found out the hard way what it means to the food industry when they include “natural flavors” in the ingredients list. Thanks to the blog of former food executive Bruce Bradley, it’s clear that some natural flavorings are best left alone. Some processed food companies, somehow (I don’t want to know exactly how), extract (gracefully and gently, I hope) bodily fluids from the back door of those loveable, semi-aquatic mammals known as beavers. That’s right, we learned that beaver anal glands are a somewhat common substance found in processed food, used to replicate or enhance the flavor of raspberry or vanilla. Yuck. Advice for 2012? Use raspberries for raspberry flavor and leave the beaver butts alone.

For more information, click here.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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