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April 2005, Volume 11, Number 2

Obesity, Bird Flu, Fish

Obesity. In an effort to head off "Mclawsuits," fast food chains such as IHOP have begun offering brochures that spell out the calorie and fat contents of the food they sell. McDonald's, the largest single buyer of beef (four percent of the US total) and potatoes (over two percent) in the US for its 13,700 US restaurants, could become a major player in the $80 billion a year produce business if its experiments to sell fruit and salads succeed. McDonald's is already the top US buyer of fresh apples (Apple Dippers), and its preference for Cameo and Pink Lady apples is boosting their production. Premium salads that include grape tomatoes account for about 10 percent of McDonald's $6 billion a year in US revenue.

McDonald's menu developers say that many people say they want healthy foods, but less than 10 percent of McDonald's 26 million daily customers buy fresh salads; 80 percent of salad buyers are women. Fresh fruit and salads cost more than meat and potatoes because of their perishability. Newman's Own, owned by actor Paul Newman, supplies the dressings for McDonald's salads.

A 2003 lawsuit, Pelman vs McDonald's, was returned to a federal district court in January 2005 for additional discovery. George Washington University Law School's John Banzhaf, who played a key role in the tobacco suits, believes that there may be documents in the fast-food industry indicating that firms knew that their ads could lead to obesity. If the Pelman teens can show that their reliance on ads led them to overeat, the case may proceed further.

There is speculation that state attorney generals may get involved in the obesity suits, perhaps tackling products sold via vending machines in schools. Some attribute the decision of Kraft to stop advertising certain foods to those under 11 to fears of an effort to link advertising and childhood obesity.

Chiquita Brands International Inc., a leading producer of bananas and fresh-cut fruit, in February 2005 bought Fresh Express, the nation's top seller of bagged salads, from Performance Food Group Co. for $855 million in cash. Fresh Express has a 40 percent share of the bagged-salad market and about $1 billion in annual revenue.

Americans consume an average 3,400 mg of salt daily, up from 2,300 mg or the recommended one teaspoon a day in the early 1970s; 75 percent of US salt consumption is in prepared and packaged food, not added via shakers at the table. Too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease, and there are new efforts to have the Food and Drug Administration regulate salt as a food additive.

Salt was precious for most of human history, so that Roman soldiers receiving payments in salt, which they called a salarium, led to the word salary. In the 20th century, salt became a cheap and essential ingredient in a variety of canned and packaged foods; more salt extends shelf life.

Bird Flu. Experts warn that the combination of people, pigs and poultry in southeast Asia could allow avian flu to become a pandemic that kills millions. They urge changes so that the 40 million small farmers believed to have backyard poultry stop sharing living space with their chickens, ducks and other animals.

Backyard farmers raise about 90 percent of Vietnam's poultry, and the World Health Organization recommended that birds be kept out of homes and that domestic fowl be penned so that it does not mingle with the wild ducks thought to carry bird flu. Vietnam and other hard-hit nations hope that industrial countries will provide the aid needed to make such transitions, but farmers who report sick birds, and have their flocks culled, are usually not compensated, which makes them reluctant to report.

Fish. Farm-raised salmon can be vulnerable to parasites called sea lice, and Canadian researchers in March 2005 reported that fish farms are such prodigious producers of sea lice that juvenile fish become very heavily infested just by swimming near them. Sea lice live in salt water, and juvenile wild salmon first encounter them when they swim down river to the sea; if they pass fish farms, they can encounter unusually large numbers of parasites.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in March 2005, concluded that many of the world's ecosystems are in danger, citing the collapse of fisheries in some parts of the world because of over-exploitation, the creation of "dead zones" around the mouths of some rivers because of nitrogen runoff from farms, and environmental degradation in some dry-land ecosystems.

Melanie Warner, "You Want Any Fruit With That Big Mac?," New York Times, February 20, 2005.