Growing public awareness about the ways food is modified, treated and processed has put the food industry on the defensive. While some companies are pushing for increased disclosure requirements to win back the public's trust, others are fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain the right to deceive.
Let's take a look at three big lies food companies have been feeding consumers -- and the facts which those companies are still hoping to keep you in the dark about.
1. Your Chicken Has Been to the Pharmacy.
Chickens raised on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, arsenic, and active ingredients from Prozac, Tylenol and Benadryl, according to two recent studies. Even more worrisome is that one of these studies showed that many chicken feathers contained traces of fluoroquinolones -- antibiotics banned in chicken production because of their capacity to breed antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, which pose increasing health risks to humans.
While it's unclear right now how many of these chemicals we ingest and in what quantities, discoveries like these have led to growing concerns about health risks posed by industrial farming.
2. Did You Order Your Hamburger a Little Pink and Slimy?
Recently, public outrage has erupted from the realization that many ground beef products contained "lean, finely textured beef," or LFTB -- disparagingly nicknamed "pink slime." This product is created by taking beef trimmings, separating the meat from the fat, and treating the meat with ammonium hydroxide to kill dangerous bacteria.
Defenders of the product have claimed that it is safe, and that cooking causes the ammonium hydroxide in LFTB to evaporate before the beef product is consumed. Still, the lack of disclosure about this process certainly raises questions.
In the wake of public outrage about pink slime, several companies announced they would stop selling products with LFTB -- among them, major grocery chains Kroger (KR), Safeway (SWY), and SuperValu (SVU). Fast-food giants McDonald's (MCD), Burger King, and Yum! Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell also announced that they would stop using the product.
However, there are some companies, including Tyson (TSN) and Cargill, that apparently wish to continue using LFTB. They've requested permission from the FDA to label the products in hopes that doing so will win back the trust of their consumers.
Consumers who are worried about LFTB products should note that many processed chicken products include mechanically separated poultry, or MSP, which is produced by a similar process that also involves meat trimmings and occasional treatment with ammonia. However, unlike LFTB, products with MSP must be labeled.
3. I'd Like a Genetically Modified Salad, Dressing on the Side.
Vermont lawmakers recently tried to pass a law that would require food manufacturers to label products that include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, but postponed voting on the bill due to a threat from agricultural giant Monsanto (MON) to sue the state if the bill were passed.
The bill would prevent products made with genetically modified crops from being labeled as "natural," "naturally made," "naturally grown," or "all natural."
Why would Vermont want to require foods with GMOs to be labeled? Health and environmental experts have a number of concerns about GMOs. Some worry that these crops have the potential to introduce new allergens and build up resistance to antibiotics, that they may contain toxic substances, and that they can be less nutritious than their "natural" forebears.
Finally, some argue that GMOs have the potential to eliminate genetic diversity among our crops, which can increase dependence on companies like Monsanto to provide seeds and other agricultural materials. Elimination of genetic diversity also increases the risk that a single pathogen will be able to wipe out an entire food source.
While the FDA has deemed all of these products safe for consumption, many activists disagree, and consumers are starting to push for increased transparency so they can decide for themselves.
Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. is the principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She owns shares of McDonald's. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of SuperValu. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's and Yum Brands, as well as buying calls on Super.