Having been a journalist for nearly 20 years, I've had plenty of practice in detached objectivity. No human can be robotically impartial, of course; but for me and the other reporters I have worked with over the years, we really do take this credo seriously.
This is why two otherwise ordinary news reports that came to light in October still have me reeling, weeks after the fact. I knew immediately I needed to report on them, and I knew with the same certainty that I could never possibly be objective about them.
Sometimes, the news we encounter doesn't just hit too close to home. Sometimes it comes flying through our front doors and socks us in the kishkes.
Yes, these were those kind of stories.
Story one: rancid krill
The first revelation was a product review released by ConsumerLab.com on"Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements." It was here I faced the shocking discovery -- four months into my pregnancy -- that the NOW Neptune Krill Oil I had been taking since the baby's conception not only failed to contain the omega-3 levels advertised on the label (and upon which I based my dosing), it was probably rancid!
According to the lab tests, the softgels contain only 79.1% of the claimed EPA, 88.8% of the claimed DHA, and 78.4% of the claimed total omega-3s. In the freshness category, TOTOX values above 26 indicated spoilage, and my supplements registered in at a stunning 57.4.
Suffice it to say, three bottles of NOW Neptune Krill Oil are still sitting on my shelf, and I am now taking one of the fish oil products that passed ConsumerLab's tests.
Story two: unethical eggs
Then, as if this weren't bad enough, only days later the Cornucopia Institute released its Organic Egg Scorecard, which showed that the "organic" eggs for which I have been paying a premium for years from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are not humanely raised at all. Both groceries scored the lowest of 1 out of 5 possible "eggs" in the ratings.
They weren't the only violators. Private-label, or store-brand, eggs sold by such grocers as HEB Grocery (Central Market), Costco (Kirkland Signature), Safeway (O Organic) and Nature's Promise (Giant) also failed the test.
"Our research indicates that the vast majority of organic eggs for private-label brands are produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant birds meaningful outdoor access," the report's authors stated.
In a press release, the institute's codirector and senior farm policy analyst, Mark A. Kastel, added: "After visiting over 15 percent of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, it's obvious that a high percentage of the eggs on the market should be labeled 'produced with organic feed' rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo."
Some 80 percent of all organic eggs are produced by a handful of the United Egg Producers' largest members, and most of these henhouses provide no legitimate access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations, the report says.
The report was presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at its October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board, the expert citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy.
The timing is significant. The board has been debating proposed new regulations that would establish housing-density standards and clearer establishment of what 'outdoor access' really means. These same large operators are vehemently opposing these proposals via lobbyists.
Purchasing "organic" eggs costs, on average, 30 percent to 50 percent more than conventional eggs, and my family has spent hundreds of extra dollars over the years paying for these "more ethical" eggs. Now we find out that we have not only been wasting our money, but have been unwittingly participating in the ghastly farm practices we were paying extra money to avoid.
Can I report this news with detached impartiality? No way. I'm a consumer too, and wow does it make me mad!
My score card
I did contact the three companies in question—not as a journalist, but as a consumer. Without identifying my association to the natural products industry, I simply explained why I had been purchasing their product, and my distress upon learning the analysts' reports.
In the case of NOW Foods, I asked them what remedy they were going to offer consumers who, like me, had unconsumed krill oil on their shelves. In the case of the grocers, I asked how they intended to remedy their egg labeling issue, and how I could find cage-free eggs in my local community.
Now, I would like to add my own score card to the debate:
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Five days after receiving my email, I received a stock response thanking me for my "valuable feedback." I was assured that the Trader Joe's Buying Department "works really hard to source a wide variety of unique, high quality, delicious and affordable products from our very reputable suppliers."
Blah blah blah blah blah. It never answered my questions about if or how they would change their use of "organic" on their egg products, nor how I could find humanely produced eggs in my area. Clearly, it was a stock-written response.
Trader Joe's, is this really the best you can do?
Whole Foods Market
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Eight days after receiving my email, I received a personal reply from an associate store team leader at my local Whole Foods grocery in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, explaining that Whole Foods organic brand eggs do meet NOS standards for "organic." The reason for their low score, she explained, was because the grocer did not participate in the survey. They do not claim, however, that these eggs are "free range."
But she also gave me the brand name of certified pasture-raised eggs my local store does carry, and even included a link to a Youtube video of the farm where the happy chickens can be seen milling about.
Whole Foods, thank you for being an exemplary representative of our industry. These Vital Farms eggs cost a whopping $6 a carton, but I am willing to pay it.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Upon receiving an email from a distressed pregnant consumer who learned that the krill oil she had been taking was both underdosed and rancid, NOW Foods drug its heels and took more than three weeks to reply.
When they did, this is what they said: "NOW Foods appreciates your concern and wants you to know that we have been doing considerable investigation into this matter. The whole situation surrounding the testing of the NOW Neptune Krill Oil is quite complex as the NOW Krill Oil was the only pure krill oil in the Consumerlab test. The other krill oil tested is actually not pure krill oil, but is in fact a blend of fish oils and krill. We would like to tell you more about the actions that we are taking to clarify the results of the Consumerlab test. Due to the complexity we would appreciate if you would call ... ."
Am I glad they finally wrote back? I guess. It sure took a long time. Am I happy that I now have to call and talk to some unnamed "nutritionist" to get more information? Not really.
The company's "commitment to quality" is touted on page after page of its website, and yet its press archive offers no official response to the results of the ConsumerLab report, even now, more than one month after it came out.
Mistakes happen, I get that. Things slip by the controls and no system can be perfect. But it would be nice for NOW Foods and any company to offer a more forthright and proactive response when they do.