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WHFoods Approach To Controversial Foods

What Are Controversial Foods?

People throughout the world enjoy thousands of different foods! Foods come from every kingdom of living things (especially plants, animals, and fungi) and there are literally hundreds of native cuisines and longstanding culinary traditions on most of the earth's continents.

Nutrient-rich foods can be found basically everywhere. You can find beans that are native to the Kalahari Desert and lichens that thrive on the Arctic tundra. Yet as odd as it might sound, foods that are native to a particular region aren't necessarily staple foods in that region's food supply.

If all people in all cultures foraged for their food, or if they relied on native plants and animals for their sustenance, the natural presence of nutrient-rich foods throughout the earth might define the nature of the food supply in all cultures. But food supplies in many countries—including the United States—have evolved under the influence of many different factors. Today's U.S. food supply, for example, heavily depends highly on a globalized marketplace. Most any country in the world might serve as the source of a popular food in the U.S. marketplace. In addition, different aspects of food supply development may leave no natural food supply practices with respect to food cultivation, food harvesting, food storage, food processing, or food distribution. From our perspective at WHFoods, it is not the nature of foods themselves but the nature of these food supplies that spark controversy. While we are confident that our WHFoods are both nutrient-rich and full of potential health benefits, we also recognize that the best way to eat can be a highly personal decision and that supplying a group of people with food can raise challenging questions for individuals that have far-reaching cultural implications. For more on this subject, please see our article An Overview of Adverse Food Reactions.

Controversy in Relationship to Animal Foods

When trying to understand the idea of a "controversial food," animal foods can be a good place to start. As described in the previous paragraph, our WHFoods approach to eating does treat any natural food as being "controversial" in and of itself, and this lack of controversy applies to all natural foods, including both animal and plant foods. In other words, we would not describe animal foods as being inherently more controversial than plant foods, simply because they are animal foods. If you take into account invertebrate animals (for example, molluscs and crustaceans like shrimp, scallops, oysters, and crabs), you will find that there are many more animal species than plant species on earth, including animal species that were domesticated as many as 10,000 years ago. It is not the nature of animals as animals that we view as a controversial aspect of eating but rather the way in which animal foods are incorporated into a culture's way of eating and its food supply. Even today, it is possible to find cultures where animals are herded, and where animal foods are incorporated into cuisines in a way that is highly sensitive to resource conservation. In these cultures, species vulnerability, state of regional depletion, and other considerations help determine what is eaten and when. In addition, many cultures have developed elaborate rituals, prohibitions, and other practices focused on the uniqueness of animal foods. It is also possible, of course, to find large scale factory farms in which animals are subjected to inhumane treatment, have no remotely natural lifestyle, and are slaughtered to produce low-quality, unnatural foods. From our perspective at WHFoods, it is this problematic incorporation of animal foods into a food supply that makes them controversial.

Controversy in Relationship to Plant Foods

While many food supply controversies have focused on animal foods, plant foods can enter the food supply in an equally controversial way. For example, within the U.S., about 92 million acres of land are planted with corn, 85 million acres with soybeans, and 56 million acres with wheat. The sheer scale of production for each crop brings along with it controversial practices related to large scale, single crop planting. These controversies include involvement of human labor, method of irrigation, method of fertilization, and method of pest control, as well as harvest, storage, and distribution. In addition, for two of the crops mentioned above (soybeans and corn), 75-95% of all U.S. plantings involve genetically engineered (GE) varieties, and the GE status of these foods is an additional factor in the controversy surrounding them.

Controversial Foods and the Environment

Many food controversies can be summarized as environmental in focus. For example, there are many ways of producing food that raise concerns about sustainability, including tillage of the soil in a way that decreases its integrity and diversity of microorganisms, use of herbicides and insecticides that eventually percolate down into groundwater, and lack of crop rotation and cover cropping which are needed to maintain above-ground biodiversity and enable above-ground plant material (especially leaves) to absorb carbon dioxide (in a process sometimes referred to as "carbon sequestration"). Environment-related food controversies may also be food-specific and require detailed knowledge about the individual food in question.

Controversial Foods Versus Adverse Reaction-Producing Foods

At WHFoods, we do not consider controversial foods to be the same as adverse reaction-producing foods. In fact, we think very differently about these two food categories. As previously described, we view controversial foods as foods that fit into a food supply in some controversial way. The "fit" of these foods into a food supply is what raises challenging and personal questions about the best way to eat. Adverse reaction-producing foods are not challenging because they raise personal questions about the best way to eat. They are challenging because they actually trigger some unwanted physical reaction when we consume them. Instead of placing them into the "controversial" category, we place them into the "food sensitivities" category. From our perspective, food sensitivities are genuine, research-based phenomenon and they remind us that from an individual health standpoint, all foods are not for everyone - even when they are whole, natural, nutrient-rich foods. Our Food Sensitivities Q & A provides extensive information in this regard.

While we like to keep these two categories—controversial foods and adverse reaction-producing foods—distinct, we want to point out that a controversial food could also be an adverse reaction-producing food. As an example, let's consider eggs. Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), food allergy labeling is required on the eight most common allergenic foods in the U.S. food supply, and eggs are included within these eight foods because of specific proteins known to be present in egg that trigger allergic reaction. This allergy risk associated with egg consumption in the U.S. is the reason we include eggs in our discussion of food sensitivities. However, allergy risk associated with eggs is not the reason we include eggs in our discussion of controversial foods. Eggs are controversial because they are the topic of widespread debate about the way that egg-laying hens are raised. This debate includes issues like indoor living conditions, time spent in outdoor pasture, quality of outdoor pasture, quality of food and availability of natural foods like grub, or numbers of hens in any given space. In other words, the controversial nature of eggs involves the ability of hens to live a life that is natural for them. By contrast, the "food sensitivities" nature of eggs involves the presence of naturally occurring proteins in egg white that can trigger allergic reaction. It is this unique combination of circumstances that lands eggs in our discussion of controversial foods as well as our discussion of food sensitivities.

Specific Food Controversies

In the alphabetical list of foods below, we describe some of the key elements of controversy associated with some specific WHFoods. We would like to emphasize the nature of our goal in creating the list of food examples below. In this section of the article, we wanted to provide you with a broad look at food controversies and the types of issues involved. We were not trying to separate out controversial foods from non-controversial foods and provide you with a definitive checklist of WHFoods that fall into the controversial category. The reason that you find all of our animal foods listed below is not because we find most animal foods to be controversial and most plant foods to be non-controversial. The reason that you will find mostly animal foods in the list below is the better ability of these foods to quickly show you the broad range of controversial issues that can be associated with our personal food choices. The list below is designed to help you understand how foods can take on a controversial nature.

Let's take two examples of foods not listed as examples below that some people might view as controversial. As a first example, let's take strawberries. You will find that contamination-related controversies come up several times in our controversial food examples below, and from a contamination standpoint, it definitely might make sense to treat strawberries as a controversial food. This fruit has always appeared on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list due to its high number of pesticide residues, and in 2016, it ranked as the number one food on the list. Or let's take a second fruit—bananas—as an example of a food that has controversial aspects for some people. Most bananas consumed in the U.S. (whether organic or non-organic) come from South America, and especially from Ecuador and Peru. This fruit is non-native to the U.S., and if imported from South America, it will travel over 4,000 miles to reach the grocery store. For some people, their non-native status and high food miles make bananas a controversial food. So as you can see, our list below is not intended to be all-inclusive, but rather to demonstrate the many different ways in which foods can be considered controversial.

We would like to emphasize the very personal nature of decision-making that can be involved when addressing these many controversial issues. At WHFoods, we focus on the nutrient richness of whole, natural foods and the remarkable role that these foods can play in your health. We also recognize that it is not possible for all of the concerns listed below to be addressed exclusively through the section of whole, natural, nutrient-rich foods. Sometimes an individual might decide that the key concerns surrounding a specific food cannot be comprehensively addressed without total elimination of that food from his or her meal plan. At other times, the same individual might decide that key concerns can be met by taking special steps to help offset the concerns. Whatever the situation, we respect the decision-making of our readers in addressing food controversies and creating a way of eating that is not only healthy but feels right for them.


Basic Lifestyle-Related Concerns

With its relatively large supply of grain and relatively long history of cattle trading, the U.S. stands as the world's largest producer of beef at more than 11 million metric tons (over 24 billion pounds) per year. About 40% of cattle raised for beef in the U.S. come from feedlots housing 32,000 cattle or more. Beef cattle are largely grain-fed, despite the fact that forage grasses and legumes would normally constitute their natural diet. It is not unusual for a calf to be fed approximately six pounds of grain (usually corn) daily post-weaning and as much as 14 pounds of grain (once again, typically corn) per day over the subsequent months. To enhance weight gain, it is also not unusual for beef cattle to be given hormonal (for example, estrogen) implants. These steps can accelerate the growth of a calf from approximately 80 pounds at weaning to approximately 1,200 pounds at 14 months of age. In addition to the above practices, it is not unusual for beef cows to be given an antibiotic supplement in their daily feed as a preventive measure to lower risk of infection.

Time spent in a natural outdoor setting has also been an issue of key concern in the raising of beef cattle. Even within USDA regulations for certified organic beef, required time spent outdoors is limited to 120 days per year and amount of food obtained in a pasture setting is limited to 30% of dry matter intake during those 120 days.

USDA organic standards do prohibit use of antibiotics in the production of certified organic beef. However, no overall stipulation is made in the federal organic rules about type or amount of feed, except for the requirement described above for a minimum intake of 30% dry matter from pasture during 120 days of the year.

It is important to note here that some producers of certified organic beef go far beyond organic requirements and raise beef cattle in a way that provides a far more natural lifestyle and diet, including 100% grassfeeding. In our grass-fed beef, we offer some practical steps that readers can take to locate these producers in their area.

Risk of Contamination

Over the past 15 years, over 250 million pounds of beef have been recalled for contamination reasons by food companies and meat packers across the United States. The largest single recall affected more than 10,000 supermarkets, restaurants, retailers, school districts, and other establishments. Well-known companies like ConAgra have been involved in some of the largest recalls. Several hundred cases of illness and seven deaths were documented over this time period in association with contaminated beef.

By far the most problematic of the beef contaminants has been the bacterium E. coli 0157:H7. Seven different strains of E.coli have been involved in contamination problems (including EPEC, ETEC, EIEC, EAEC, VTEC, DAEC, and NTEC). Contamination has been detected in a variety of different settings, including pre-slaughter, processing and packing, distribution, retail handling, retail cooking, and home storage. One recent study has predicted that over 99% of all beef contamination could be prevented by a combination of comprehensive and aggressive sanitation steps during all stages of the beef production process. These sanitation steps would include more effective use of vaccines, antibiotics, and probiotics prior to slaughter; more consistent use of carcass washes, acid spray chill, and steam pasteurization during processing; improved freezing and chilling during packing and distribution; improved consumer handling and storing post-purchase; and better cooking temperature control in homes and restaurants. However, these pre-processing, processing, and post-processing steps do not adequately address contamination problems in the minds of many experts familiar with beef industry practices. In their view, contamination with micro-organisms like E. coli is inextricably tied to the unnatural habitat and lifestyle in which beef cattle are required to participate.

Irradiation of Beef

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved irradiation of beef in December 1997 following problematic recall of 25 million pounds of beef processed through the Columbus, Nebraska beef packing plant owned by the Hudson Foods Company in Rogers, Arkansas. The beef had become contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. (The Nebraska packing plant had originally been established to supply beef exclusively for Burger King restaurants beginning in 1995.) Irradiation of beef effectively kills micro-organisms (including E. coli 0157:H7) that may be present in the beef. Raw beef is typically passed along a conveyor belt and very briefly exposed to gamma irradiation from in the range of 4.5-7.0kGy. While radioactive isotopes of cobalt-60 or cesium-137 have traditionally been used as sources of irradiation, electron beam irradiation and x-ray irradiation are also possible. In practice, few facilities in the U.S. commonly irradiate large amounts of beef, and approximately 5-10% of all U.S. beef is currently irradiated. When prepackaged and sold by retail groceries, irradiated beef is required by the FDA to carry a label that includes this radura symbol.

Like contamination with micro-organisms like E. coli, many experts who are knowledgeable about the beef industry question the appropriateness of irradiation from radioactive isotopes, electron beams, or x-rays as a solution to problems with beef contamination problems. In their view, potentially contaminated beef should be removed from the marketplace rather than irradiated for future consumption.

It is important to note that USDA policy does not allow for use of irradiation in any certified organic foods, including certified organic beef.

Excessive Greenhouse Gases Released During Beef Production

The potential contribution of commercial beef production to global warming is a further concern for many individuals who try to evaluate the appropriateness of beef in their diet. Manure from commercial beef feedlots is a primary contributor to release of methane gas into the atmosphere from the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy, and along with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, methane gas is one of the primary problematic greenhouse gases (GHGs) that has been increasing at an unhealthy rate in the earth's atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a second GHG that has been tracked to commercial beef production due to heavy use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers used in the production of feedstuffs for beef cattle. One of the reasons we recommend grass-fed beef involves the ability of grass feeding to help offset GHG release by reducing atmosphere carbon dioxide. (When pastures are filled with green plants, these plants can take in significant amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and help lower the level of this GHG in the environment.)

Limitations of Certified Organic Beef in Addressing Key Concerns

At WHFoods, we recommend and support the purchase of certified organic foods. However, as you can see from the list of concerns above, there are some areas in which certified organic beef effectively answers to key concerns and controversies, and some areas in which it does not. In our profile for grass-fed beef, we offer some practical steps that readers may want to consider in trying to address concerns which are not effectively addressed in current USDA organic regulations. However, we can also understand how some readers might choose to avoid beef in their meal plan after weighing all of their options with respect to this WHFood.


In many ways, key controversies surrounding poultry (a term referring to both chicken and turkey) are very similar to key controversies surrounding beef. The United States is not only the world's largest beef producer, but the world's largest poultry producer as well, with over 43 billion pounds of poultry meat per year. Within this poultry section, we will focus more on chickens than turkeys, since over three-quarters of all poultry meat consumed in the U.S. comes from chickens.

Chickens raised for meat are typically referred to as "broilers" and the majority of broiler production in the U.S. occurs in the southern states under contract with broiler processors. Management of the chicken farms partly falls under the responsibility of the "grower," who provides the actual facilities and labor needed to raise the chickens. However, the chicks themselves are typically provided by the processor, who also provides the feed and veterinary supplies. The processor also typically transports the chickens for slaughter.

Like the beef production system, the chicken production system takes place on a very large scale. Some hatcheries witness the birth of 125 million chicks per day, and it is common for a farm to house over 600,000 chickens. (In the early 1990's, chicken consumption in the U.S. overtook beef consumption, leading to the near 1.75 pounds of chicken consumed by the average U.S. adult each week, in comparison with the 1.25 pounds of beef.)

Housing and related lifestyle issues are key concerns related to the above chicken production system, and the issues here are largely parallel to the issues raised by beef production. The status of certified organic poultry (including both chicken and turkey) is also very similar to the status of certified organic beef. Like production of certified organic beef, production of certified organic chicken cannot involve the use of antibiotics or irradiation post-slaughter. However, even within USDA organic regulations, close confinement of chickens is permitted and actual time required in an outdoor setting is limited. For example, USDA organic policy has allowed small porches that may only realistically fit 1-3% of all chickens within a given facility to serve as the chickens' outdoor access. Caging of chickens is not prohibited in USDA organic regulations, and very large numbers of chickens (in some cases approaching 100,000 birds) are allowed to be housed within a facility.

Promotion of rapid weight gain is a concern in chicken production in a way that parallels this same concern in beef production. Use of food concentrates and other factors have allowed commercial producers to speed up the rate of weight gain in chickens, and it is not uncommon for a commercially raised chicken to reach a weight of four pounds in less than two months. Even within the commercial chicken industry, this process used to take considerably longer, and with backyard flocks, it can be common for this same amount of weight gain to occur in a time period of four months or longer.

Similar to the situation described for certified organic beef, it is important to note that many producers of certified organic chicken go far beyond the organic requirements and provide a much more natural lifestyle for the chickens that allows them to wander and forage, peck for worms and grubs, consume a more natural diet, and grow at a more natural rate. In our pasture-raised chicken profile, we suggest some practical steps that readers can take to locate these poultry farms in their area.

Limitations of Certified Organic Poultry in Addressing Key Concerns

We would describe the regulation of certified organic poultry as being very similar to the regulation of certified organic beef: some of the concerns related to poultry production are addressed in the organic regulations, yet many are not. While it is definitely possible to find poultry farmers who go well beyond the organic standards and raise their flocks in a more natural way, we can also understand how some readers might choose to avoid poultry in their meal plan after considering all of the factors involved.


With the context of U.S. agriculture, corn is primarily grown not for human consumption at all but for production of livestock feed and ethanol. While feed grains produced in the U.S. include barley, corn, oats, sorghum, and wheat, corn is the feed grain produced in the greatest volume and it serves as the primary calorie source in most livestock feed. Nearly 90 million acres of corn are planted in the U.S. each year, and at approximately 160 bushels per acre, the result is over 14 billion bushels of corn!

Approximately 75% of all corn grown in the U.S. is used either for livestock feed or ethanol production. In addition, approximately 80-85% of all corn grown in the U.S. has been genetically engineered (GE). In fact, over 7,500 authorizations for field releases of GE corn varieties in the U.S. have been issued by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and this number is triple the next closest number for total GE authorizations (2,225 authorizations issued for GE soybeans).

The circumstances described above are about as far away as they could get from the circumstances that we would expect for a whole, natural food. Most U.S. corn crops are destined to by-pass the grocery store and our kitchen. And when corn does make its way into our diet, it is more often in a processed form than a whole food form. Adults in the U.S. average 55 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) intake per year and only 24 pounds of whole corn! And of the 24 pounds of whole corn that the average U.S. adult consumes each year, about 25% is canned and 40% is frozen, with only 35% coming in the form of fresh corn.

Concerns About Genetic Modification of Corn

In 1994, no farm acreage in the U.S. had been planted with genetically modified corn plants, but today approximately 80-85% of all U.S. corn acreage is planted with genetically engineered (GE) varieties. The total GE corn acreage in the U.S. currently stands at approximately 72-77 million acres.

Genetic modification of corn has been conducted for a wide variety of reasons. Some corn has been modified to become more herbicide-tolerant (HT). This GE variety of corn is often referred to as HT corn. Other corn has been modified to become more insect-resistant. This GE variety of corn is often referred to as Bt corn. Bt corn gets its name from the transfer of a gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn. A protein toxin produced by this bacterium helps to kill certain insects that might otherwise eat the corn.

All of the combined genetic changes made to corn have allowed corn yield from one acre of land to increase dramatically. In some cases, an acre of land that was planted with corn used to yield 20 bushels, but now yields nine times as much (180 bushels) thanks to genetic engineering (GE).

Consideration of genetic modification has also been stimulated by the demand for "non-food" corn. The enormous rise in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—which the average U.S. adult now consumes in amount of 64 pounds per year—together with the growing market for ethanol-enhanced gasoline have triggered interest in corn crops more efficiently suited for ethanol and HFCS processing. "Non-food" corn is a different variety of corn from the fresh sweet corn we enjoy eating.

There is no large-scale human research on GE corn and its health impact, but we share the concern of many researchers about the introduction of novel proteins into food and their potential for increasing risk of adverse reactions, including food allergies.

Limitations of Certified Organic Corn in Addressing Key Concerns

Since USDA policy prohibits the use of genetic modification in all certified organic foods, certified organic corn cannot have been genetically modified. For many people, the availability of organic corn helps to offset this key concern about corn production. However, for other people, unusual emphasis on corn in the U.S. food supply is a concern that seems inadequately addressed even with the selection of certified organic corn. Like other food controversies, the controversies surrounding corn may lead to different decisions about the best personal approach to this WHFood.


Dairy-Related Controversies

The controversies surrounding dairy foods—including cow's milk, cheese made cow's milk, and yogurt made from cow's milk—are in some respects very similar to the controversies surrounding beef. It is true, of course, that different breeds of cows are used for production of beef versus production of milk production. Common beef breeds include Angus, Aberdeen Angus, Beefmaster, Brahman (Zebu), Hereford (Whiteface), Jersey, Santa Gertrudis, Shortghorn, and Texas Longhorn. By contract, over 90% of U.S. dairy cows are Holsteins. The other 10% include breeds like Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, and Guernseys. However, despite these breeding differences in dairy versus beef cows, basic lifestyle controversies are very similar for all breeds and most of the issues listed earlier in relationship to beef cows apply to dairy cows. These issues include quality of feed, amount of feed, and outdoor access.

Despite this clear overlap in the controversies surrounding beef and dairy cows, some people see a significant difference between the two. Part of this difference involves the sheer number of dairy cows versus beef cows. The total number of dairy cows in the U.S. is approximately 9.3 million, yet this number is relatively small in comparison to the total number of beef cows. The total number of beef cows—using a minimum estimate based on the strict definition of beef cows as mature females who have calved—is approximately 30.5 million, or nearly three times the number of dairy cows. However, the total number of beef cows could be estimated at an even higher level if it were adjusted to include 14 million beef steers (mature males castrated before the ability to reproduce) , 15.7 million beef heifers (mature females who have never calved), and/or 26.5 million calves. Because there are so many more beef cows than dairy cows in the U.S., some people view the potentially unwanted environmental impacts of dairy food production as being much smaller than the potentially unwanted environmental impacts of beef production, and for this reason, are more comfortable including dairy foods in their meal plan than beef.

In the minds of many people, an even greater difference between beef and dairy production involves the point in time at which beef and dairy foods enter into the food supply. Beef enters the food supply after the beef cows have been slaughtered. Dairy foods enter the food supply while the dairy cows are still alive. For some consumers, this difference takes precedence over other types of controversy.

Egg-Related Controversies

Like beef, dairy, and chicken, egg production is a large scale industry in the U.S. and worldwide. In the U.S., approximately 7.5 billion eggs are produced each year. However, the U.S. runs a distant second to China in terms of total egg production, with China producing more than four times the number of eggs. In the production of non-organic eggs, it is not uncommon to find 500,000 laying hens at a single facility, and as many as 30,000 hens on each floor of the facility. There are approximately 275 million laying hens in the U.S., and nearly 450 facilities with more than 100,000 hens each. All of the lifestyle controversies described earlier for chicken apply to these laying hens, despite the fact that it is their eggs entering into the food supply rather than their flesh. Still, consumption of chicken eggs versus chicken meat represents a dramatic difference for many people, since chicken eggs can enter into the food supply without the chickens being killed.


Controversies associated with seafood typically fall into three basic categories: (1) contamination-related controversies, (2) overfishing-related controversies, and (3) fish farming. Below is a brief overview of each type of controversy.

Contamination-Related Controversies

At the top of the list when evaluating risk of seafood contamination is mercury. This heavy metal is of special concern for pregnant women, women considering pregnancy, and children, but it is of general concern for everyone. Mercury contamination of seafood is a worldwide problem with many contributing factors. On the one hand, industrial practices across the globe have released sizeable amounts of mercury into the air. (The burning of coal at power plants is the single largest emitter of mercury into the atmosphere by humans.) In addition, the manufacture of consumer goods like fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats, and electrical components containing mercury eventually leads to post-consumer waste in landfills and dumping sites, and over time, the mercury in these products will find its way into the soil and groundwater.

The globalization of the food supply brings U.S. consumers into contact with seafood from many of the world's oceans and seas, and it is common for U.S. consumers to be exposed to mercury from contamination not only in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, but from other oceans and seas as well. For example, some fish swimming in the Mediterranean Sea have been found to contain high levels of mercury.

Our article entitled "Should I be concerned about mercury in fish and what fish are safe to eat?" will provide you with many more details related to mercury contamination of fish. Other heavy metals (including arsenic and cadmium) as well as potential toxins like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) can pose contamination problems with seafood. However, from a research standpoint, mercury stands out as a contaminant of special concern.

Overfishing-Related Controversies

A second major area of controversy for seafood is overfishing. Overfishing simply means pulling too many fish out of oceans, rivers, lakes, and seas. If too few fish remain in the water for reproduction and replenishing of their population, entire species can become endangered or even extinct. Based on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1973, over 2,000 species of fish worldwide are currently endangered or threatened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over more than 100 of these endangered/threatened fish that swim in U.S. waters. Many species of salmon, for example, are included on the current ESA-based list and seasonal quotas or outright bans on salmon fishing (both commercial and recreational) have been put into practice for nearly a decade. Protection and conservation of marine resources—including seafoods like cod, shrimp, scallops, and salmon—is a topic of widespread interest and debate, with differing assessments of the relationship between overfishing and personal seafood consumption. At WHFoods, we agree with the approach taken by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and definitely recommend this resource to readers wanting to learn more about overfishing-related controversies.

The Controversy Over Fish Farming

Depending on your definition of "fish farming," it is possible to describe this practice as having been around for several hundred years, and even longer if the focus is placed on oysters or clams. Yet present-day fish farming has taken on uniquely large-scale dimensions; for the first time, in 2012, global farming of fish (at 66 million tons) exceeded global farming of beef (at 63 million tons). Fish farming—also referred to as "aquaculture" —has usually come to mean some type of land-based system (pond system) in which up to 10,000s of fish may be raised under partly or comprehensively controlled conditions, or some type of water-based system (inshore or offshore, and typically involving cages or pens). The flow through of water within these systems may be relatively unregulated, or it may be highly regulated as in the case of a recirculating system where filters and other controls are used to maintain water quality and flow-through water is only used to help offset splash out and evaporation. Regulated conditions may include water temperature and quality, as well as feed volume and quality. Fish farming is controversial for many reasons, and these reasons include the many pros and cons that different organizations associate with fish farming. In comparison to open water fishing, the parameters of fish farming can often be identified and controlled. For example, it is not possible for humans to control ocean temperatures, but it is possible for humans to control water temperature in an inland pond system facility. This potential for control has led many organizations—including the U.S. National Organics Program—to consider fish farming as a potentially more reliable way to guarantee fish quality than open sea fishing. In short, it is often evaluated as one of the "pros" associated with aquaculture. In addition, many organizations view fish farming as a way to meet consumer demands for fish while avoiding endangerment of fish populations that are swimming in the wild. Once again, this aspect of fish farming is often evaluated as a beneficial factor. In sharp contrast, other organizations view aquaculture as artificial at best, and ecologically destructive at worst. These organizations view the goal of pond control as ill-founded, and believe that the farming of fish is destined to cause more problems than it solves. We expect this third area of seafood controversy to become especially intense in the years ahead.

Aquaculture controversies have been especially heated with respect to shrimp farming. We provide more details about shrimp farming in our article, "Are there any environmental concerns when it comes to shrimp being raised in non-natural habitats?"


In contrast to the very large scale production of beef in the U.S. (24 billion pounds per year, with 40% of all beef coming from feedlots with 32,000 cows or more) and very large scale production of poultry (including both chicken and turkey, at a level of 43 billion pounds per year with very large facilities housing over 600,000 birds), lamb production in the U.S. takes place on a relatively small scale. About 150 millions pounds of mutton and lamb are produced per year from approximately 2 million sheep and lambs. At any single farm or ranch, it is common to find less than 100 head of sheep and goats combined, and 82% of all sheep in the U.S. are raised under these circumstances. In addition, over 90% of all sheep are raised on family farms. The relatively small scale lamb production in the U.S. is also in keeping with the average U.S. consumption of lamb, which is less than 1 pound per person per year. For some people, the above differences between production of beef and poultry versus lamb make lamb a less controversial food choice.

However, despite the above differences between commercial production of beef and poultry versus lamb in the U.S., some of the same controversies surrounding beef and poultry surround lamb as well. Both in the U.S. and on a global basis, the "finishing" of lamb has become more common and during the finishing process, lambs consume feed concentrates rather than being exclusively pasture-fed. Finishing concentrates often consist of processed meals like soybean meal, cottonseed meal, or safflower meal, and these meals are combined together with grains like corn or wheat, dried forage legumes like alfalfa, and vitamin/mineral supplements. While a finishing period for lambs may be relatively short (1-2 months), it can still be a substantial portion of the lamb's lifetime, since lambs are usually slaughtered between 6-12 months of age. (Meat obtained from sheep that are older than 12 months—or in some instances 14 months—is referred to as mutton rather than lamb.) It's worth noting here that U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for production of certified organic lamb allows for finishing and the feeding of concentrates, provided that ingredients used in the concentrates have been certified organic. So the purchase of certified organic lamb does not necessarily mean that the sheep were exclusively grass-fed. In addition, since legal use of the term "grass-fed" does not require 100% grassfeeding, it is not possible to know whether lamb has been finished unless the packaging label stipulates "100% grass-fed." In the absence of this labeling, your best option if you enjoy lamb and are a regular consumer of this food is to contact the grower and ask how the sheep were fed.

For some people, age at slaughter—all by itself—makes lamb a controversial food. Since the average lifespan of a sheep is typically 6-11 years, the vast majority of its natural lifespan is cut short in production of lamb.

Like non-organic commercial production of beef and chicken, non-organic commercial production of lamb may involve routine use of antibiotics as well as hormones. The purchase of certified organic lamb is one way to avoid exposure to these substances, since both are prohibited in the production of certified organic lamb.


Similar to its global role in production of corn, the United States is the world's largest producer of soybeans, with over 77 million acres planted each year. (After corn, soybeans are the most planted field crop in the U.S.) At approximately 45 bushels per acre, this number translates into nearly 3.5 billion bushels of soybeans per year. Like corn, the vast majority of U.S. soybeans are genetically engineered (GE). On a percentage basis, GE soybeans currently account for about 90% of all U.S. plantings. As mentioned earlier in our discussion of corn, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued 2,225 authorizations for field releases of GE soybean varieties in the U.S. The best known of these GE varieties are Roundup Ready (TM) soybeans that have been genetically modified to be cultivated along with routine use of the glycophosphate herbicide Roundup (TM) as a way of increasing the likelihood of a strong yield.

Like corn, relatively few soybeans are cultivated for consumption as fresh foods. Due to their high oil content (about 18% of dry weight) and high protein content (nearly 38% of dry weight), most soybeans are processed for extraction of soy oil, conversion of crude soy protein into ingredients like soy protein isolates, textured soy proteins, or textured vegetable proteins, and direct use in livestock feed.

Limitations of Certified Organic Soybeans in Addressing Key Concerns

Since USDA policy prohibits the use of genetic modification in all certified organic foods, certified organic soybeans cannot have been genetically modified. For many people, the availability of organic soybeans helps to offset the GE aspect of soybean production. However, for other people, unusual emphasis on soybeans in the U.S. food supply, coupled with the very limited presence of soyfoods in their whole, natural form is a concern that seems inadequately addressed even with the selection of certified organic soybeans. Like their corn counterpart, soybeans are a food that we expect to remain controversial in the U.S. food supply, and one that will remaining challenging at a personal level in decision-making about an everyday meal plan.

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