How A Fight Over Beef Jerky Reveals Tensions Over SNAP In The Trump Era

A sign in the window of a New York City market advertises the acceptance of food stamps.

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For roughly 40 million Americans, SNAP benefits are a lifeline.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, delivers about $60 billion in aid each year. And retailers that accept SNAP benefits are required to stock a variety of staple foods — including a minimum number of fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and grain options.

Now, there’s a controversy brewing over which foods count as staples. Should beef jerky, spray cheese and queso dip count? The Trump administration has proposed a rule that would allow retailers to include these items.

“The Trump administration would weaken what stores would have to offer,” says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. She says this could result in fewer healthy options in convenience and corner stores where SNAP recipients spend about $3 billion in benefits each year.

A rule written during the Obama administration would require retailers to stock at least seven different products in each of four key food categories — fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and grains.

Under the change proposed by the Trump administration, retailers could stock dried meats — such as beef jerky — and shelf-stable, processed cheese products to help them meet their meat and dairy requirements. And this may offset the need to offer as many fresh meat and dairy products. Wootan’s beef with this policy: “Very few families would serve up a Slim Jim as the main course in a meal,” she says. It’s a snack.

As Wootan and I tour a convenience store in Washington, D.C., she points to aisles filled with snack food. “Almost all of this is chips, snack cakes, candy,” she says.

She says SNAP benefits are intended to provide people with foods they can cook at home. And it would be helpful if convenience stores made it possible for families to do “a real shop for foods they can prepare into meals,” Wootan says — more like a grocery store.

Studies have shown that a lack of easy access to healthy foods — whether it’s due to living in an urban “food desert” or a rural area with no supermarket — is one contributor to poor nutrition and obesity.

And it’s also true that in some areas, convenience stores fill a gap. “We offer the majority of healthy foods,” says Robert Forsyth, who operates the MotoMart chain of convenience stores across six mid-Western states, including Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio. His family has been in the business for decades.

He says there was a time when you’d only see cigarettes and candy bars at gas-station stores. “We’ve been in the business so long, we remember before convenience stores were really a thing,” Forsyth says.

Now, people come in “to buy orange juice and milk and — in our stores — apples, oranges, bananas,” he says. He also points to an array of nuts, whole-grain breads and yogurts that his stores stock. “Lots of good, healthy products,” he says.

Forsyth supports the Trump administration’s proposed rule changes. In a letter to the USDA, he asked the agency to give retailers even more flexibility in determining which foods meet the requirements. He also defends products such as beef jerky — which he says are popular, nutritious and affordable.

“Affordability is a huge aspect,” Forsyth says. He says he can only stay in business if he sells items that people want to buy. “It doesn’t do me any good to sell almond milk and goat cheese,” because he says his customers don’t want them.

“You’ve got to meet SNAP recipients where they are,” Forsyth says. And he doesn’t like the idea of beef jerky or processed cheese being singled out. “I think it’s an elitist attitude.” He says the rules written during the Obama administration would have hurt his business. “The situation is the law would have squeezed out convenience store operators” from being able to accept SNAP benefits.

He agrees that people should be taught more about good nutrition. “We need to educate people on their choices and we need to make sure they have a variety of healthy choices to choose from,” Forsyth says. But the rules shouldn’t be so strict that they undermine his business. He says if convenience stores were squeezed out in some of the small towns where he operates, such as Plover, Wis., and Galion, Ohio, some of his customers who live miles from a major supermarket and don’t have easy access to transportation would be left with fewer food-shopping options.

The public comment period on this proposed rule ends today.

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New York Is One Step Closer To Becoming First State To Ban Cat Declawing

Griselda, a domestic long-haired cat, already declawed when she was surrendered by her owner for adoption, plays inside her enclosure at the Animal Haven pet shelter in New York on Tuesday. The state legislature has passed a bill that would make the state the first in the U.S. outlaw declawing a cat.

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Bebeto Matthews/AP

New York lawmakers have voted to ban the declawing of cats, and the state will be the first in the country to prohibit the controversial practice if the governor signs the measure.

The bill sailed through both houses of the legislature on Animal Advocacy Day, though it has been several years in the making with previous efforts falling short.

“Cat declawing is a horrific, yet often-practiced surgery that leads to a lifetime of pain and discomfort for thousands of cats,” Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill told NPR.

“Today though, every cat and kitten in New York State lands on its feet as we prepare to make New York the best state for cats to live in the United States. I want to thank the advocates and my colleagues who together with me have fought to see this bill become law since 2015. I look forward to it being signed into law.”

But it is unclear if that will happen. A representative for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, told the AP “he will review the bill before deciding if he will sign it.”

Declawing a cat, or onychectomy, is more complicated than simply removing the nail. It usually involves amputating part of the bones to which the claws are attached. Animal advocates contend it is a cruel practice.

It has been banned in many parts of the world, including a number of European countries. It has also been outlawed in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and several other California cities.

Veterinarians would still be able to perform the procedure for medical reasons, such as infection or injury. However, those who violate the ban could face $1,000 fines.

One of the most vocal critics of the bill has been the New York State Veterinary Medical Society. The group has argued there are several legitimate applications of the procedure, including in cases where the pet’s owner has a weakened immune system and cannot risk a potential infection from a scratch. They also pointed to cases in which elderly pet owners moving into assisted living facilities are required to declaw a cat for the safety of other residents. A ban in such cases would result in the owner being forced to give up the animal.

The veterinary society also contends a ban is unwarranted because overall declawing is waning in popularity as veterinarians educate clients against unnecessary operations.

“The large majority of cats who are declawed have a very high quality of life without pain or negative consequences,” the group said in a fact sheet.

President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States Kitty Block, in a statement to NPR, called the bill’s passage in New York “a watershed moment.”

“We hope other states will follow suit by prohibiting this unnecessary convenience surgery,” Block said.

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I’ll Take Spoilers For $2,000, Alex

Game show host Alex Trebek rehearses his lines on the set of the “Jeopardy!” Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational Tournament Show Taping on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California.

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When is a “spoiler alert” not a spoiler alert? One clue: when the alert is actually a spoiler itself.

When reviewing or reporting on movies, TV shows and the like, NPR’s arts desk and the newsroom overall are generally quite good about not revealing plot endings. Or, at least, they give listeners and readers a heads up that a spoiler is coming (so they can turn off the radio or not read the article).

Thus on Monday, when news came out early in the day that James Holzhauer had been dethroned on Jeopardy! after his phenomenal 32-win run, NPR prepared a report for All Things Considered that — because it would air before many viewers had a chance to see the game show episode for themselves — included a warning.

Host Ari Shapiro told All Things Considered listeners: “Spoiler alert — if you are a ‘Jeopardy!’ fan and you’re planning on watching tonight’s episode, you might want to turn your radio down for the next two minutes.” (Of course, a careful listener might have guessed that this spoiler alert suggested Holzhauer’s remarkable run had come to an end.)

Over at the hourly newscasts, staffers also debated what to do in reporting the news. Executive Producer Robert Garcia said, “I decided that while it was a good story, it wasn’t that incredibly urgent. We ran the first spot at 11 p.m. ET after Jeopardy! had aired across the time zones.”

Online readers, including those who follow NPR on Facebook and Twitter, had no such luck. The headline for the NPR.org story shared there just before 8 p.m. ET (mid-show in some time zones and hours before the show aired in others) read: “Spoiler Alert: There’s A New ‘Jeopardy’ Champion In Town.”

Reigning champ James Holzhauer saw his luck run out on “Jeopardy!” in tonight’s episode.

The new champ: Emma Boettcher, a Chicago librarian. https://t.co/81QAnOo1gN

— NPR (@NPR) June 3, 2019

As some unhappy Jeopardy! fans let NPR know in the comments and replies Monday, this “spoiler alert” defeated the purpose. The problem (if it’s not obvious): The spoiler itself is in the headline. “Worst spoiler alert ever,” wrote one disgruntled Facebook commenter.

Terence Samuel, an NPR deputy managing editor, called the headline “kind of a mechanism to deliver the news, not so much a serious warning.” He noted that by the time NPR’s story was published, news of Holzhauer’s dethroning had been widely reported elsewhere, starting Sunday, when an apparently pirated clip of the episode began to leak.

“He had had a long run and it was news,” Samuel said. “It was a story that was much bigger than the show itself. He had become this cultural phenomenon and when it was over it was big news and we treated it, I think, in context.”

Given how widely it had been reported, he said, “We didn’t really think we were spoiling anything. The spoiler alert had become part of the meme of the day.”

“We’re sorry that it happened,” Samuel added, “but we don’t really take responsibility for ruining it for everyone.” And he said, in the context of the day’s news (the Virginia Beach shooting, the president’s London trip, the federal disaster bill, violence in Sudan), “this didn’t feel like the most crucial decision.”

The newsroom is, of course, right to report news as it happens. For example, the newscasts generally report on major sports scores as they come in, and without spoiler alerts (to the dismay of some fans who tape games to watch later). The main exception is for the Olympic games “that will be rebroadcast on TV later and may have considerable interest and appeal,” Garcia said. For those, “we don’t go crazy with spoiler language, but we do make it clear in our intro that we are headed toward scores; folks are going to have a good 15 seconds or so to decide whether they want to hear the rest of it.”

Still, in the Jeopardy! case, I’m with the fans. As Samuel said, the story was indeed hard to escape by the time NPR posted that headline on Facebook and Twitter, at least for those who are heavy news consumers. But why spoil it for those who aren’t?

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House Committee Votes To Continue Research Ban On Genetically Modified Babies

Some scientists oppose a prohibition of studies that could help determine whether editing embryonic genes would be safe and effective in preventing inherited disease.

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Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A congressional committee voted Tuesday to continue a federal ban on creating genetically modified babies in the United States.

The House Appropriations Committee voted to retain the ban after the prohibition had been lifted last month by a subcommittee. The vote was part of debate over routine funding legislation for the Food and Drug Administration.

“This is a prohibition that is accepted by nearly every nation in the world due to the unknown risks,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., during a hearing where the ban was restored. “The risks of harm are real.”

The ban prohibits the FDA from considering any proposals to study whether genetically modified embryos could be used to try to establish pregnancies.

Some scientists oppose the ban because it bars them from conducting the studies necessary to determine whether it might one day be safe and effective to create genetically modified babies. The goal would be to prevent devastating genetic diseases.

During the hearing, several Democratic committee members said they were reluctantly agreeing to reinstate the ban but hoped the issue would be reconsidered at some point.

“I recognize the controversy surrounding the ethical and moral issues of genetically modifying human embryos,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., who proposed lifting the ban. “There is certainly a case to be made for advancing lifesaving research. But there’s also a case to be made for the possible misuse of this procedure and a robust discussion is absolutely needed. That was what I was trying to achieve.”

“I believe there is a therapy that is prohibited by this language that could possibly address some devastating and terrible diseases of children,” he added.

But some continue to oppose the ban.

“This is not 2001: Space Odyssey or 1984 or a mad scientist playing games with genetic material,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., whose family carries genetic mutations that increase the risk for breast cancer. “There are real opportunities … to try to cut off the passing on of genetic mutations that can have dramatic life-altering implications.”

The prohibition, which was quietly attached to funding legislation in 2015, gained heightened attention after a Chinese scientist announced last fall that he had created the world’s first genetically modified babies, twin girls.

The Chinese scientist’s actions were widely condemned as unethical and irresponsible. While many scientists think the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR he used might someday be able to prevent genetic diseases, most say it’s far too soon to know whether it would be safe.

In fact, a study released Monday indicated that the genetic change the Chinese scientist tried to edit into the DNA of the twin girls to protect them from the AIDS virus could actually shorten their life spans.

Still, some scientists and bioethicists have criticized the congressional ban because it was implemented with virtually no public debate and prohibits what could be invaluable scientific research.

“We are disappointed,” said Sean Tipton, chief advocacy, policy and development officer for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “To be clear, nobody’s going to go to work producing gene-edited babies if Congress lifted this ban. What they would be allowed to do is submit a carefully designed and evaluated research protocol.”

That would “allow the FDA to do the work it’s supposed to do, which is evaluate new techniques and new inventions to see if they’re safe and effective,” Tipton says. He called on the full House to remove the ban.

At least two groups of scientists in the United States would like to study the procedure that originally prompted the ban. That procedure, known as mitochondrial replacement therapy, involves creating embryos with the DNA of three different people, leading to what are known as “three-parent babies.”

That procedure, which is being offered in other countries, is highly controversial. But many U.S. scientists say it should be studied to see whether it might safely prevent a range of mitochondrial diseases with genetic causes. Such research is underway in Britain.

“Thousands of people are affected by mitochondrial disease around the world, and even more could benefit from this technique to treat infertility,” says Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “We’re ready to move to the next step, to provide an avenue for parents who are eager to have a healthy child. So it’s unfortunate that the existing congressional rider means that the FDA is unable to oversee clinical trials, even as desperate families find their way to countries with much less rigorous oversight than the U.S.”

But others worry lifting the ban would open the door to scientists rushing ahead too quickly.

“It would be irresponsible for us to fund FDA’s review of this very risky research,” Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said during the hearing.

“There are just too many unknowns,” agreed Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. “Many of us believe it’s just a step too far too soon.”

Others fear the research could lead to the creation of gene-edited babies for many reasons. That includes the creation of “designer babies,” in which parents pick and choose the traits of their children.

“There is no compelling medical argument for heritable genome editing, and no need to subject our children to the risks it would entail, because we already have ways to prevent transmission of inheritable disease,” says Marcy Darnovsky, who runs the Center for Genetics and Society.

“We need to weigh the societal risks of opening the door to those who aim to genetically ‘enhance’ children,” Darnovsky says. “This is especially concerning in the U.S. context of commercial incentives and lack of regulation in the fertility industry.”

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The ‘Great Dying’ Nearly Erased Life On Earth. Scientists See Similarities To Today

An artist rendering of the mass extinction of life that occurred toward the end of the Permian Period, about 250 million years ago.



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Lynette Cook/Science Source

There was a time when life on Earth almost blinked out. The “Great Dying,” the biggest extinction the planet has ever seen, happened some 250 million years ago and was largely caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Now scientists are beginning to see alarming similarities between the Great Dying and what’s currently happening to our atmosphere.

Scientists are highlighting that similarity in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The new Deep Time exhibit in the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

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Smithsonian

The crown jewel of the Deep Time exhibit is the museum’s first real Tyrannosaurus rex. Its skeleton stands over the bones of a prone triceratops, with one clawed foot holding down the hapless herbivore and jaws clamped onto its head, ready to take a bite the size of a manhole cover.

“We like to say come for the dinosaurs, stay for everything else,” says Scott Wing, one of the curators.

The theme of the exhibit is actually the interconnectedness of life through geologic time. The exhibit shows, for example, how plants at the bottom of the food chain supported everything from insects to 20-ton apatosauruses. And how insects helped shape the kind of forests that evolved and changed over millions of years.

Wing likes that — he’s a botanist. “I’m a photosynthesis chauvinist,” he says. “The whole ecosystem is based on photosynthesis.” And because life, from toadstools to tyrannosaurs, is connected from the bottom up, the whole fabric can disintegrate when something big happens to the Earth. And that happened due to global warming.

Scott Wing, research geologist and curator of paleobotany, in his office at the Smithsonian museum.

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Ryan Kellman/NPR

It’s explained in the exhibit’s section on the Great Dying. About 250 or so million years ago, an enormous volcanic field erupted in what is now Siberia. It spewed lava that burned though limestone and coal beds and filled the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and pollution, possibly for millions of years. That in turn warmed the planet, made the oceans acidic and robbed them of oxygen. More than 90 percent of species in the oceans died out as did two-thirds of those on land.

There have been other mass extinctions, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, but this one, at the end of the Permian Period, was mostly caused by too much carbon dioxide rising into the atmosphere. And the Smithsonian notes often in its exhibit that the current warming of the planet is déjà vu all over again.

“We can learn from studying the past,” Wing says. “They’re also the processes that are being observed by earth scientists today.”

A portion of the Deep Time exhibit is dedicated to the mass extinction called the “Great Dying.” More than 90 percent of species in the oceans died out, as did two-thirds of those on land.

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Smithsonian

One of them is Curtis Deutsch at the University of Washington, whose research helped inform the Smithsonian curators. “The very same things that caused the Great Dying are happening right now in our ocean today as a result of human activities,” he says, “not to the same degree, but in the same direction.”

Currently, the planet has warmed to almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average above what it was before the industrial revolution, though at the current rate it could warm several degrees more. The Great Dying saw a warming increase of four or five times that.

But it happened gradually. So Deutsch thought, why not recreate the hothouse of the Great Dying in a computer, a model that simulates the warming, and see how present-day species in the ocean would fare? He could crank up the carbon dioxide — that would in turn raise temperatures and lower oxygen in the oceans. Then he could watch as parts of the ocean started to become deadly.

The first thing that happens is that you start to see a local loss of species as they begin to move in response to the climate heating up,” he says.

But some parts of the planet were more forgiving. “We discovered something that was kind of surprising and new, I think,” Deutsch explains, “and that is that extinction was very strong everywhere, but it was even stronger near the cold parts of Earth, near the polar oceans, than it was in the warmer tropical oceans.”

It makes sense, he says. Animals that live near the equator can migrate toward the poles to find cooler water, but those that already live in cold, oxygen-rich waters nearer the poles have very little room to run.

Deutsch says the experiment is a window on the future — even the present: Marine species are already migrating. And to Deutsch, that migration looks familiar. “We see responses of marine species to those changes today that look like what we think happened at the end of the Permian,” he says.

The Smithsonian exhibit makes explicit references to the threat from human-caused climate change; it also received funding from industrialist David Koch, who is known for supporting groups that contest the scientific consensus on climate change.

Wing, the curator, says making the connection between the Great Dying and what’s happening now is a message that needs to be heard. “We have exceeded the frame of our own history,” he says of the human race. “Because we are so powerful, we are basically a geologic force now as well as a human force.”

A force that’s changing the conditions for life on the planet.

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Judge Removes Lead Prosecutor In Navy SEAL War-Crime Case

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego with his wife, Andrea Gallagher, on May 30. Accused of war crimes, he was released from custody after a military judge cited interference by prosecutors.

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A military judge has removed the lead prosecutor in the high profile case of a decorated Navy SEAL accused of war crimes in Iraq.

The rare ruling comes a week before the trial is scheduled to begin, and after President Trump said he is considering pardons for members of the military who are charged with war crimes.

Lawyers defending Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher accused prosecutors of spying. They uncovered a digital tracking device that was sent in an email to defense attorneys and a journalist covering the case.

The lead prosecutor, Navy Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, admitted in court to emailing the hidden software. He said the code simply tracked the location and time of messages as recipients opened their emails.

It was embedded beneath his e-signature, in the logo of a U.S. flag and a bald eagle “perched on the scales of justice,” according to Navy Times.

Prosecutors said they were trying to uncover the source of leaked court documents, which persisted despite a gag order. They enlisted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to look into the leaks.

But the judge, Navy Capt. Aaron Rugh, said he had not been made aware of the prosecutor’s plan to use trackers on the defense’s emails, KPBS’ Steve Walsh reports. The judge ordered Czaplak to step away from the case on Monday because of a potential conflict of interest.

Rugh said in a motion that he could not conclude whether the prosecutor had violated rules, but that “the danger of investigation is sufficiently real,” according to Navy Times.

Phillip Stackhouse, a military defense attorney who formerly represented Gallagher, told NPR that his team had complained repeatedly to the judge about leaks. “Most of the leaks were not favorable to the defense,” Stackhouse said.

“It appears that [prosecutors] independently began investigating the defense, which is horribly inappropriate,” he added.

Stackhouse said he uses a program that identifies digital tracking devices in his email, and that “it was not ongoing” when he was representing Gallagher. Other attorneys representing Gallagher have said their emails were tracked.

Navy spokesperson Brian O’Rourke told NPR that Czaplak immediately complied with the judge’s order. “When the judge issued his ruling, the prosecutor was informed and at that point was no longer part of the prosecution team,” O’Rourke said.

He said he texted Czaplak afterward and that the prosecutor was unlikely to speak to reporters. (Czaplak did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment.)

At least four bar associations have denounced the use of such tracking software. The New York State Bar Association, of which Czaplak is a member, said it “may violate federal or state law.”

It is unclear whether the trial, slated for June 10, will move forward as planned or be delayed.

It is also unclear whether the NCIS probe into the leaks has concluded or remains ongoing. Jeff Houston, a spokesperson for the federal law enforcement agency, told NPR, “NCIS does not comment on ongoing investigations.”

Gallagher, a 19-year veteran, faces life in prison. He is accused of committing multiple crimes while serving in Mosul, northern Iraq.

Prosecutors contend that in 2017, Gallagher sat on sniper’s perch and shot an elderly Iraqi man and a young woman. They say he used a knife to execute a captured 17-year-old ISIS fighter while a U.S. medic was treating his wounds — stabbing the teenager in the head and throat. He then allegedly posed for photos next to the fighter’s body.

Gallagher has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. His attorneys say the teen died from injuries during an airstrike and that the SEALs testifying against him, under immunity, are resentful subordinates in his platoon.

The case took a turn in late May, when the judge unexpectedly freed Gallagher from custody as he awaited trial. The move came after the defense argued that prosecutors had violated Gallagher’s rights to a fair trial through misconduct.

His wife, Andrea Gallagher, told Fox News he had been “entrapped in this nightmare” and “persecuted by our own government.”

In May, Trump floated the idea of pardoning Gallagher and other service members convicted of war crimes, The New York Times first reported. The president tweeted his support for Gallagher, who was later relocated to a less-restrictive confinement. Some conservative lawmakers have criticized how he has been treated and support a potential pardon from Trump.

One of Gallagher’s civilian defense attorneys, Marc Mukasey, has also worked as a lawyer for President Trump. Mukasey said in court that he received an email tracker minutes after joining the case.

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