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It's grown so repetitious across the Internet as to become conventional wisdom: Grilling red meat over hot coals is the fast track to the cancer clinic. But is it really true? Here are six good tips you can use to help reassure shoppers a Fourth of July cookout can and should be in their plans.

1. Keep the risk in perspective. When scientific studies speak of an increased "risk" of cancer associated with eating grilled red meat (or anything else, for that matter), it's important to remember "risk" does not mean "certainty." That identified risk is always relative, often very small, and seldom applicable across the board. Although the scientific literature over the last quarter century has associated the high intake of meat, especially red meat and processed meat, with an increased risk of cancers like colorectal cancer, even most advocates for a reduced-meat diet concede the studies are not conclusive. The same is true of the 35-year-old theory that says the process of grilling and frying cause beef to form cancer-causing compounds in the fat and meat. Although at first glance the theory is attractive, says Nobel Prize winner for medicine and the director of Germany's national Cancer Research Center Harald zur Hausen, we know the same process forms the same carcinogens when white meat and fish are grilled, yet no studies have identified any associated increase in cancer risk when those grilled items are eaten.


So it's important consumers understand the risks they see reported in the media about grilling red meat are not well understood, and they likely are not an imminent danger. They face much higher risk, and more certain risk, driving to the store to buy the meat than they do grilling and eating it, for instance. The bottom line is this, wrote Peter Boyle, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2008, "After decades of research activity, we still do not know how we need to change what we eat to reduce our cancer risk.... The media and the general public need to be told clearly what are the facts and how important they are in the broad scheme of things."

2. Grill meats at a medium temperature, to prevent the charring that can produce higher levels of those carcinogens, even if it means cooking them for a longer time. When charcoal grilling, you have achieved medium heat when coals are no longer flaming, are ash-covered and spread in a single layer. Gas grills often vary widely in heat output, so check your owner's manual, or hold the palm of your hand above the heat source at cooking height. If you can keep it there for about four seconds, you've achieved medium heat.

3. Add some fruits and vegetables. Eating plant-based foods may be associated with lower cancer risk. Mixing meat and vegetables to make kabobs is a great way to have the best of both worlds.

4. Trim, if necessary. Trimming any excess fat from meat and poultry and selecting leaner cuts can both limit the drippings that can cause flare-ups and deposit potential carcinogens on meat.

5. Offer shoppers marinades. Marinating meat before grilling with marinades containing little or no sugar can decrease the formation of some grilling-associated carcinogenic compounds by as much as 96 percent, according to one study. In addition to adding flavor and tenderness to meat and poultry, marinade can also help protect meat from charring. Sugary sauces and glazes can be used, but they require basting during the last few minutes of grilling to prevent charring.

6. Trust the thermometer. An instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into the side of burgers, steaks and chops is every grilling customer's friend. Owning--and using one--is an important contributor not only to preventing unnecessary charring, but also to preventing overcooking that can lead to consumer disappointment.

Source: American Institute for Cancer Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association

The Cornucopia Institute, one of the most vocal advocates for organic farming in the United States, alleges a "conspiracy" between corporate agriculture and the USDA and details what it claims to be a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate exploitation at USDA's organic certification program. The Cornucopia report charges the USDA with "stacking" the National Organic Standards Board with agribusiness executives that all too often have "sold out" the interests of organic farmers and consumers.

In its new white paper, The Organic Watergate, Cornucopia claims the NOSB has "increasingly facilitated the use of questionable synthetic additives and even dangerous chemicals in organic foods," the group said last month, including synthetic nutrient oils in dairy products and other "unreviewed synthetic ingredients."

"We implore consumers not to reject organics because a handful of corporations have acted recklessly and the USDA has failed to do their legally mandated job. Organic farmers, and their ethical processing partners, need your support now more than ever," Cornucopia's director Mark Kastel said in a statement. "And health conscious families deserve authentic organic food."

But the Cornucopia report neglected to note some important paradoxes built into the very definition of that "authentic organic" food. Do your organic-friendly shoppers really understand these common myths about organics?

MYTH: Organics are pesticide-free. Although the exact percentage varies from survey to survey, every study that asks shoppers why they prefer organic finds at least a majority give the same answer: They believe buying organic avoids pesticides. Not true. Like conventional farmers, organic farmers also use pesticides to control plant diseases and damaging pests. More than 20 chemicals are approved by the NOSB and are commonly used in organic production. And because they tend to be less effective on a pound-per-pound basis, some organic pesticides are used at greater rates per acre than common conventional pesticides. Organic pesticides are by definition those made from natural sources; however, research is demonstrating that the traditional assumption that just because a chemical occurs naturally it is safer is not necessarily true. Many naturally derived pesticides, including those like rotenone and permethrins, have been demonstrated to carry serious risks to human health. Organic does not equal pesticide-free.

MYTH: Organics are safer. Organic pesticide residue is not the only safety issue organics could potentially raise. Because NOSB standards forbid use of synthetic fertlizer, organic farms rely more heavily on animal manure than do their conventional counterparts. Because many foodborne pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella are carried and spread by fecal contamination, that raises the risk that organic foods may be contaminated by those pathogens. Although the jury's still out on whether the risk is truly higher with organics, research has certainly demonstrated the risk exists: A Minnesota study from 2004, for instance, discovered E. coli in produce sampled from one in 10 organic farms, compared to just 2 percent from conventional farms. An Ohio study in 2007 showed pigs from antibiotic-free farms was more likely to have been carrying several important pathogens before harvest than conventional farms that used those medications forbidden by the organic standards.

MYTH: Organics are healthier.Despite scientific comparisons between organic and conventional farming that now reach back a half decade, scientists still have not found compelling evidence organic makes any difference in consumers' health. A systematic review of more than 160 previous studies from peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008 found no differences in nutritional content of more than 15 different nutrients. Where there were demonstrable differences in nutritional content, none were found to be big enough to impact human health. Joseph Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, writes “….a consumer who buys organic food thinking that it is more nutritious is wasting a considerable amount of money. Even if organic advocates turn out to be correct in their assertions that organic food has more nutrient content than conventional food when tested against each other in valid matched pairs, how is the consumer going to use this information to make the right choice? Except for just a few fruits and vegetables, the consumer can not tell what variety of a crop is being offered for sale, thus making the selection of organic or conventional a crap shoot.”

MYTH: Organics taste better. Safety and health claims aside, then, can organic deliver on the consumers second most common belief that they simply taste better. Not likely, blind taste-testing shows. In one study from 1992, non-expert tasters actually preferred the taste of several conventional over organic. Another from 2002 found that although panelists preferred organic orange juice over conventional, they could tell no difference between organic and conventional milk.

Consumers believe home-grown eggs are less likely to carry Salmonella? Think again, CDC warns

Are backyard chickens safer than commercial ones?

As cities across both the nation and Nebraska debate the wisdom of revising their zoning ordinances to accomodate the growing popularity of small-scale, “backyard” poultry hobbyists, it's important to keep some perspective on the health benefits of that type of chicken farming.

Surveys conducted of small backyard chicken growers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture tend to suggest their sanitation and disease-control practices, known to poultry growers as “biosecurity” practices, are often less strict than those practiced by large farms. For instance:

  • Overall, USDA found, only one in 10 flocks is seen by a veterinarian in the course of year.
  • Only about one-half of the survey respondents were aware of a connection between poultry and infection in people.
  • For flocks that reported having children in the household, the majority permitted contact between birds and children.
  • About one out of every six flock owners reported they had allowed chickens inside their homes at some time in the last three months.

How backyard chicken flock health practices could encourage disease spread

Those types of biosecurity oversights likely contributed to an outbreak of Salmonella last year believed to be carried by newly hatched chicks delivered to small urban chicken growers. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued warnings that small egg growers may be engaging in practices that put them at risk of contracting or spreading dangerous forms of the food-borne bacteria.

At last count, the Salmonella outbreaks had sickened 92 people in 20 states, according to CDC, including nearby Minnesota and Kansas. The government doctors reported the offending poultry had been traced to a single hatchery in Ohio that supplies small egg layers by mail, although the hatchery contended it had not found the organism in its premises; it suspected one of its suppliers may have been to blame. Two different strains of Salmonella were implicated, known to cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and more serious illness in the young and old.

Backyard chicken growing, particularly for eggs, is gaining popularity in cities as people long to get closer to their food and eat local. However, CDC warned, it doesn't guarantee protection for the diseases chickens can typically carry and spread. “Information that promotes raising chickens touts the birds as being good pets, stress relievers, and easy to keep,” says CDC. “Most people…choose to keep flocks because they believe the meat and eggs they grow will be safer and less expensive than store purchased products. [However], keeping chickens poses a potential health risk.”

Live poultry, even if they appear to be perfectly healthy and clean, are a common source of infective Salmonella, CDC cautions. The CDC warning sounded particular alarm about young children handling chickens, as well as handling chicks at farm stores selling the birds. Almost one in three of those infected by last year's outbreak were under the age of 5.

Have a prespective on the new food movement you'd like to share with fellow Nebraska grocers? Use the section below to leave your comment.

When USDA released its new Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass in March, an online interactive U.S. map showing local food infrastructures, farm to institution programs, health food access for underserved communities, and other aspects of the $65 million program, it wasn't difficult to notice one important link in the food chain was missing from the map. You.

Community food security and small farmers market advocates continue to try to draw a bright line between community-focused supermarkets and small, local "farmers markets." In doing, so they attracted the attention of many farmers, small and large, who obviously want to see markets flourish that encourage sales of farm products. However, we think it would be a mistake to overlook the longterm implications of the "us vs. them" mentality that's developing around the 6,100 farmer’s markets which USDA now reports exist across the country -- a full 16 percent increase since last year and double the number of a decade ago.

Watch for these dozen farm and food trends to heat up in the coming year

1. Animal welfare
2. Mission: to divide
3. Technology vs anti-technology
4. Food-safety bait-and-switch
5. Antibiotics
6. The local push
7. Farmers markets
8. Organic vs. more-ganic
9. Access to food
10. Bigger farms/fewer farms
11. Food safety and the promise of Nirvana
12. 'Responsible food'


Animal welfare. From the country’s largest hog farmer pronouncing it would finally follow through on a promise to stop housing pregnant pigs in small individual stalls, to new developments in this summer’s deal between the nation’s egg farmer association and the largest animal-rights group HSUS, the spotlight will continue to illuminate shoppers’ perceptions and misperceptions about how farm animals are treated. Expect additional state legislation to be introduced, increased pressure on USDA to expand standards critics believe are lacking to improve how livestock live, and increasing (and periodically meaningless) label claims saying one food is raised “more humanely” than another. Guess who gets to explain what it all means to consumers. Are you prepared?

Mission: to divide. When small-farm advocates complain about “Big Ag” and “Big Food,” they’re right in one sense. When the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal—consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. Therefore, they understand the ultimate mission is to divide the food chain against one another. Just as the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals did with its July “undercover video” of Iowa hog farms, look for vocal critics of the food chain to continue inundating food companies with so-called “consumer complaints” about their farmer suppliers. By pressuring large food retailers, they hope to succeed in the market where they’ve failed in the political arena. That success will often be measured by how much they can add significant costs to food producers, impose burdensome regulation by supplier dictate, or even win de facto outright product or practice bans. Although it may strike retailers as the safest and quickest response to yield to such pressure, it’s a dangerous path for you to strike out upon. It can hurt the bottom line, as supply costs increase. But beyond that lie additional risks: In the short term, demanding suppliers abandon a cost-effective and safe technology only implies to consumers that some justifiable reason exists to reject it, making consumers distrustful of you for using it in the first place. In the longer term, feeding the activist machine hampers the overall food chain when it comes time to adopt future technologies that improve production efficiency, quality and food safety. And finally, case history demonstrates capitulation often only makes you a more attractive target for future, less “reasonable” demands.

Technology vs. anti-technology. Continuing infatuation with “natural,” “free-range,” “local,” “sustainable,” and even the old standby “farm raised” and “farm fresh” are short-hand labeling terms to signal an underlying discomfort with the scientific technology that has made U.S. agriculture the world’s most productive. Expect to see the trend continue, masked in even more creative terms like “from family farms” and “not from factory farms.”

The food-safety bait-and-switch. Many critics and political opponents of modern farming express frustration at the general public’s stubborn unwillingness to buy the message that their food is killing them and the federal government’s built-in hesitance to rubber-stamp rash legislation. So they will continue to adopt another approach they believe will gain them more advocates in the mass market: Look for them to morph individual food-safety questions into broader environmental-safety issues. Some examples?

  • Genetically engineered foods, which although studiously proven to be of no risk to human health are increasingly painted by environmentalists as a threat to the planet’s plants and animals.
  • Arguments that American diets are only affordable to individuals because farmers push “externalized” costs like pollution and community destruction off onto the general public at large (even as the critics ignore the externalized costs of expensive food).
  • Manure from farms that use antibiotics and growth promotants as an environmental risk. Unable to prove such products pose any meaningful risk to the health of individuals who eat the food produced by such farms, political opponents of the technology will attempt to make the case they are seeping into the public through pollution of the soil, air and water.

As is the case with childhood obesity, such bait-and-switch strategy depends on studiously misdirecting the eye of the public and regulators from clear issues of personal choice and personal responsibility to murkier, shadowy threat to the general public as a whole. 

Antibiotics. Despite failing in the last seven Congresses in a row to convince legislators that farm antibiotics pose enough threat to ban them, despite FDA’s dismissal this year of a decade-old legal petition that it circumvent Congress and regulate the practice out of existence, the question of farmers’ use of antibiotics and what lawmakers should do about it will not be going away soon. Be ready for additional consumer questions, and bear in mind two important aspects:

  • One, if you carefully study the language lobbyists use to frighten the public and pressure lawmakers, you’ll notice they speak not of certain harm to human health, but of risk of harm. And, yes, even defenders of the practice admit use of antibiotics in farm animals does carry risk. The risk you’ll die from an untreatable disease because farmers use penicillin, for example, is about one in 4 billion—or more than seven times less likely than getting hit by lightning. Shoppers driving to your store to buy antibiotic-free meat to avoid that risk are about 600,000 times more likely to be killed behind the wheel on the way there.
  • Meanwhile, even the most vocal opponents of farm antibiotics will concede that, far and away, the No. 1 cause of human drugs losing their effectiveness is that too many people take too many antibiotics for the wrong reasons. Grocers who point out the antibiotic issue to shoppers in their meat and dairy cases and then send them across the store to their pharmacies for discount antibiotic prescriptions may be sending mixed messages to consumers concerned about the issue of antibiotic resistance.

The local push. USDA predicts food sales through direct-to-consumer channels and intermediaries, including grocers, will rise to about $7 billion for 2011. However, the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. If consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community that purchasing from local farmers brings, few retailers are in better position to lead that trend than the community focused grocer. If true, grocers may discover the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

Farmers markets. The visible result of that local push will be continued official sanction of farmers markets as direct competition to you. USDA now numbers 7,173 farmers markets for 2011, up 17 percent over the year before. A good portion of that growth is being subsidized by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, through its Farmers Market Promotion Program. Funding farmers markets expansions since 2006, the program this October announced another $9.2 million in funding. Allotted about $33 million by the last farm bill, the program expects to make available another $10 million for 2012.

Organic vs. more-ganic. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) its continuing growth in market share, organic is suffering an identity crisis that stands to further erode its credibility in the years ahead. Co-option by corporate giants, most notably Wal-Mart, as well as dependence for credibility upon a bureaucracy as deep and loathed by the new movement as USDA, the organic brand is now, ironically, being attacked from within by those who question the need to be more than organic. “For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it’s healthier,” author Felicia Mello wrote in a recent issue of the politically liberal magazine The Nation, “but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits.” The infighting between the organic and the more-ganic wings of the “sustainable” farming fashion has the potential to add to growing consumer confusion over exactly what they’re getting when they willingly increase their food bill to purchase products that science has yet to prove offer any real, meaningful health benefit in return.

Access to food. Promises of further food inflation ahead, impending reduction of benefits to the unemployed and poor even as the economy continues to drag, highly public infighting over how to divide up the safety net benefits like WIC and EBT between grocers and other food outlets—it’s all going to mean continuing media focus on those who don’t have sufficient access to good food every day. In the political season of next year, watch for the highly vocal and well-organized “community food security movement” to ramp up attacks on conventional food distribution by fostering a creeping paranoia that the grocer-centered, for-profit food system is no longer up to the task of feeding everybody fairly and sustainably.

Bigger farms/fewer farms. Despite a bump in the number of small farms counted in the last national farm census, related to the expansion of local farms around cities, the longterm trend toward larger and fewer farms will continue unabated in the years ahead. For better or worse, the United States will never return to the small, local diversified farms of yesteryear, any more than it will return to the corner grocer as the model for retail. Yet, according to USDA, about 99 percent of U.S. farms and ranches remain in hands of individuals, families or partnerships, not large corporations.

Food safety and the promise of Nirvana. The coming fight isn’t about whether or not to make food safer. It’s about how to best accomplish it. As the political dialog in the election year polarizes the philosophies of government-as-solution vs. government-as-problem, look for the food-safety debate to take on similar tones, pitting the government solution against the system created by profit incentives of a properly functioning free market. Case in point: USDA’s capitulation this year to add the non-STEC strains of E. coli to its list of illegal food adulterants. As government steps in to visibly stamp such realities of food production as no longer allowed, with little to no regard for the practical realities of delivering on such promises, it risks setting the consumer up for further disappointment when the system inevitably fails to deliver.

“Responsible Food.” Today’s fight over food hides a lot of political and social undercurrents, undercurrents that will create some significant undertows in the political season of 2012. If you’re defining “good” food as food that’s simply nutritious, safe and wholesome, you’re risking being blindsided by entirely new definitions of “good.” Those definitions include socially just in how food rewards both the workers who deliver it and the poor consumers who can’t afford to eat it, environmentally sound in how it impacts the planet, culturally sensitive in how it forces minorities to abandon the foods of their unique cultures, and animal-sensitive in terms of how it ensures animals it originates from enjoy “enriched” lives before they meet their demise.

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