Food News: Fast Food Decoded, From Calories To Wages

This week, fast food and GMOs took center stage — so much so that they garnered two separate articles from The New York Times' good food champion Mark Bittman. In addition to fast food worker strikes, "healthy" kids meals and more debate on GMOs, alarming news came out about MRSA staph infections, and the USDA may have found an answer to budget cut problems.

The longer of Bittman's two articles this week cataloged any and all improvements in so-called "healthy" fast food. He analyzes menu items from Taco Bell's new "fresco" menu to McDonald's latest lower-calorie invention, the "McWrap," to more premium options like vegan chain Veggie Grill and the crowd favorite, Chipotle. His verdict? The fast food world does offer some healthy alternatives to burgers and fries, but there's much room for improvement.

Meanwhile, health advocates at Center for Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) released a study noting (unsurprisingly) that 91% of kids' meals fail to meet the nutrition standards of the fast food industry's Kids LiveWell program. When those same meals were evaluated under CSPI's more stringent nutrition requirements, 97% failed.

With health-focused parents in mind, KFC recently introduced its "Li'l Bucket" meal for kids, which offers applesauce, green beans and grilled chicken alongside mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and fried chicken. Despite the availability of grilled chicken, senior director of marketing for KFC, Cynthia Koplos, tells the Wall Street Journal that she predicts kids will still opt for the fried variety.

Kids' meals aside, NYU professor, Marion Nestle, asks what's the hold-up with the nationwide calories labels on chain restaurant menus? This system was passed into law more than three years ago but has yet to materialize.

In New York City, the fast food fight is about wages, not calories. Hundreds of fast food employees have walked out, in their second strike in the last year in hopes to get their hourly pay raised to $15.

The other newsworthy topic this week — genetic engineering — was compared to nuclear power by Bittman as possibly being safe and productive one day, but perhaps unnecessary altogether.

But assuming GMOs are here to stay, Minnesota's Star Tribune published an editorial calling for labeling, which lawmakers in the state are currently considering. The Tribune makes clear that this is not a debate about food safety, but rather about the need for transparency in the food system so that consumers can be well-informed.

In agriculture news, according to the Washington Post the USDA has successfully avoided the need for meat inspection furloughs thanks to major lobbying from the meat industry, which managed to have $55 million dollars for other agriculture programs reallocated to cover meat inspection costs.

And while meat inspections continue on, so does the rampant use of livestock antibiotics. Health advocates are even more worried after a drug-resistant strain of MRSA (staph) bacteria that cases potentially fatal infections apparently transferred directly from livestock to a woman in Denmark, according to Food Safety News.