Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dannon Skirts the Issue Again

In my last inquiry to Dannon (if you've been following the Activa saga), I asked for a definitive reply as to whether the "Bifidus Regularis" bacteria is genetically engineered or not. I'm not rabid anti-GMO, but I do like to know what's in my food. In that letter, I said that if they could not give me a clear "no," that I must necessarily take that as a "yes."

Here is their latest response:

Thank you for contacting The Dannon Company regarding our position on the use of ingredients that have been enhanced through agricultural biotechnology.

Dannon has a 58-year heritage of providing wholesome, safe and good tasting products to its consumers.

All Dannon products are manufactured under strict quality controls and
conditions that meet or exceed all applicable industry and government standards. We take great care to monitor all scientific information related to food safety, including that concerning the assessment of ingredients improved through agricultural biotechnology. To date, no information has emerged suggesting that these ingredients pose consumer health risk.

Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate the safety of food. Each of these government entities as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization stand firmly behind the safety of these products.

For more information, we invite you to visit the following websites: The
Alliance for Better Foods website at, The International Food Information Council at or The Council for Biotechnology Information at You may also contact The Council for Biotechnology Information toll-free at 1-800-980-8660 to obtain an informative booklet. Once again, thank you for your interest.
Sounds like a "yes" to me. "Agricultural biotechnology" can mean any number of technologies, one of which is genetic enginering.

Mind you, I wasn't questioning the safety of the product, only the origin of their magical bacteria. It's the Dannon people who keep harping on safety, while coyly skirting around the real question. And that closing paragraph smacks of, "Go away, kid, you're bothering us."

This again highlights the importance of both clarity and honesty in one's writing. The letter seems to have been written by someone well versed in the art of obfuscation. I ask a clear yes-or-no question, they respond with an essay on food safety. This arouses suspicion. I ask the same question, and they respond with another essay on food safety. Suspicions confirmed? Sounds like.

What bothers me most about this is not the bacteria itself, but the fact that the Dannon representatives will not give me a clear answer. Withholding valuable information about their products limits the consumers' ability to make educated choices. If they're afraid that people won't buy their yogurt because it contains a GM bacteria perhaps -- hey, here's a thought! -- they could use a non-GM bacteria and promote their food as GMO-free.

Oh, Dannon, Dannon, why won't you be honest with me?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

But Did She Use the Imperious Curse to Win?

Rowling's Sixth Potter Novel Named `Book of the Year' in U.K.

The dark and almost surreal sixth installment of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has won Book of the Year in the U.K. Now, opinions vary widely on the Harry Potter books, from rabid fans to rabid Harry-haters. While I personally think that Book 3, the Prisoner of Azkaban, was the best of the bunch and Books 4-6 were in need of additional editing, the series as a whole has been remarkable in taking a familiar theme (unwanted child finds he has unusual skills and has inherited a powerful legacy) and a much-used setting (magical school) and used them to craft a wholely believable world, complete with a government and a wizarding sport played by professionals, interwoven with fresh and compelling plot. Rowling's coup, though , was to weave mysteries into the books. Each book, particularly the early ones, has a mystery that the characters solve, and the series as a whole involves the mystery of Harry's scar and why Voldemort didn't die when his killing curse backfired.

There are two reasons I can look at the manic success of the Harry Potter books and not be entirely consumed with envy:

1) When any children's book tops the book lists, it's good news for children's book writers, whose craft tends to be sneered at by literary types.

2) Success couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

So a hearty congratulations to Ms. Rowling, and could you please, please, please hurry up with Book 7? If you need help with editing the thing, you know where to find me.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dannon Responds

Not that I've been in a complete tizzy about yogurt bacteria. I'm still eating Activa, and my insides are doing quite nicely, thank you.

But with my curiosity piqued regarding exactly what "Bifidus Regularis TM" is exactly, I was pleased that Dannon did finally respond to my query. Amongst some boilerplate statements about how the company strives for excellence, etc., yes, fine, thank you, here is what they said about the bacteria:

"Bifidus Regularis" is the commercial name for the proprietary strain of Bifidobacterium in Activia. Dannon is the only worldwide manufacture that can use this specific probiotic strain. One way we protect our probiotic patents is to trademark the name of the culture (give this living species a commercial name).
Ahem. Hmm. Well, that explains the "TM" mark after the name. Proprietary strain. Yes.

But it fails to answer the primary question: is "Bifidus Regularis TM" a genetically-engineered bacteria or not? I've written back to inquire. Stay tuned.

Pat Roberston is Off His Meds Again

Crooks and Liars: Pat Robertson on College Professors

In case you didn't know it, college professors are killers. Yep. Pat said so. Dangerous, killer termites. Pinko commie killer termites who beat people up.

Damn, why isn't my university that exciting?

Maybe Pat just fell asleep at the theater while watching Starship Troopers. Ya think?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Plain-Vanilla, Soft-Serve Libraries?

The Daily Collegian, 21 Mar 2006: Local author emerges from controversy with a new book

Author Martha Freeman has just published her newest children's book, Mrs. Wow Never Wanted a Cow (to be released in June), a comeback from her last and most controversial book, The Trouble With Babies.

What's so controversial about the book? Does it feature young, unmarried girls having babies? No. Violence against babies? No. Babies in war zones, babies in crack houses, babies as "collateral damage" in the Middle East? No, no, nothing like that.

The book, pitched at early elementary-age students, has amongst its side characters -- brace yourselves -- a neighbor boy whose parents are gay!

Are you shocked? Outraged? Ready to start a book burning?

Yeah, neither am I. A same-sex couple raising a child next door. Ho, hum.

Yet the book put some parents into enough of a tizzy that they called their school libraries and had the book banned from libraries.

Now, last I heard, public libraries were instituted to provide free information and education to all the members of the community. No one promised that libraries would screen said information to remove all references to anything that might possibly offend even the thinnest of the thin-skinned. True, some topics are inappropriate for young children. First graders are probably not developmentally ready for The Kama Sutra. They're probably not developmentally ready for Foundations of Differential Calculus, either. Librarians are right to create children's collections that are age-appropriate and developmentally-appropriate.

The Trouble With Babies fits those criteria. It is written for children ages 7-8 in language that is appropriate to the average reading skills of children at those ages. It's about a girl who has moved into a new neighborhood and is learning to make friends, a common situation that children must deal with.

So what should parents do if they don't want to have to "explain" the fact that the main character's neighbor has two dads? They could choose not to read the book. That's always an option. Or if Junior asks, "Why does that boy have two dads?" they could simply explain, "Different families are different, honey."

People who object to gay couples or who don't "believe" in gay marriage are already making these kinds of choices in their children's literature. A fundamentalist Christian family may choose, for example, not to buy Jewish children's books. Should Jewish children's books be banned from libraries because some people, even a majority of the people, in a community don't "believe" in the teachings of Judaism? I haven't heard a great hue and cry for that yet (emphasis on yet, considering today's climate). Yet people will stomp and shout to have other books removed that deal with subjects they don't "believe" in: homosexuality, Halloween, ghosts, multiculturalism.

People, people, get a clue: when you raise the hue and cry against a book, all you do is call attention to it. Heck, I wish someone would ban one of my books. Imagine what it would do for sales!

Ignoring homosexuality won't make it go away, any more than ignoring Rush Limbaugh will make him go away. Information about homosexuality and Rush Limbaugh are both freely available in public libraries. And that is how it should be.

But for those who are concerned about what material their children are able to find at the library, perhaps they'd like a warning about one book in particular. This book, which I've actually found on the shelves of the public library in my town, features adultery, graphic sex scenes, homosexuality, incest, witchcraft, abundant graphic violence, torture, and some anatomically-detailed erotic poetry. Not only is it freely available, but I've actually heard people encouraging children to look at it, and actively trying to inculcate these children into the culture that this book encourages. Shocking, but true, despite the fact that these topics are hardly appropriate for children. Check out this controversial book here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bad news for research-based writers?

Lawyer: Da Vinci Code author's testimony should be treated with suspicion

The lawsuit lodged against Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code (link to illustrated edition, which is the way to go if you haven't read this yet), sends a chilling effect across writerdom.

The claim is that Brown borrowed heavily from a nonfiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The authors assert that Brown "appropriated the architecture" of their book -- their purportedly nonfiction book.

Now think about that. Brown writes a novel and draws from multiple nonficiton sources, weaving them together into a fictional story. The driving premise of the story is that the Holy Grail isn't a cup as most people believe, but is, rather, a person. (I won't add any more spoilers here, in case you haven't read the book and haven't been reading the news articles regarding this suit.)

But wait -- isn't that what all writers do? As a nonfiction writer, of necessity I must read many, many sources, especially original sources, as I can before I write my books. In fiction, too, I do my research ahead of time. Even when writing fantasy, authors can't slack on their research, lest they have Gnormous the Brave riding in full armor at full gallop all day on a brave pony, and later horse lovers everwhere write in to tell the author why that's impossible.

Delving into nonfiction works as part of one's research is an absolute necessity. Yet the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail seem to be saying that Brown stole the plot of their book.

Is their book nonfiction or is it not?

If Brown had written a nonfiction work that closely resembled the work of Baigent et al., the authors would have a case. If theirs were a work of fiction and Brown's novel resembled theirs in every way, they'd have a case.

But what they've produced is a work that they claim is nonfiction. Brown's novel turned their primary claim into the answer to the mystery that runs through The Da Vinci Code. Brown's characters and plot line are nowhere to be found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

If I were the judge in this case, the first thing I'd establish in this case is whether Baigent and his colleages believe their work is a scholarly and factual piece of nonfiction -- or if they believe it is fiction disguised as fact.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review: Stein on Writing

Stein on Writing, St. Martin's Griffith, 2000.

I have my suspicions about Sol Stein. I think that somewhere down deep inside literary Mr. Stein there lurks a sleazy adventure writer trying to get out. At least, that was the impression that I had from the samples of his work.

And oh, how scathing he is of genre writers, those he denigrates as writers of "transient" fiction. That is, writers you've actually heard of and have read, some of whom have books in print decades after they were written.

Yet if one can let the "my way is the only way" attitude slide by, Stein's book contains much of great value for novelists and nonfiction writers alike. Stein discusses resonance, a concept that I've not found in many other books on writing, yet a concept that has great power to create memorable fiction. He warns against using cliches, and shows examples of cliches from modern genre fiction -- and yet in a sample from his own fiction, Stein describes a character as walking across a room "naked and unashamed." Even Stein can slip on his own rules.

The chapters on editing are perhaps the most valuable in the book. Stein has the writer search a manuscript for the weakest chapter, and either pump it up or cut it entirely. It's all too tempting for writers, once past the exciting opening scene, to think, "Okay, now that the reader is hooked, I can get away with putting in the boring bits." Yet losing the reader on page 36 can be worse than losing the reader on page 1. The latter will leave the book behind in the bookstore and stroll on to other selections. The former will fling down the book and go tell friends -- or an entire blogging community -- about how boring it was.

One thing lacking is a discussion of writing for one's audience. Stein quotes a passage from Thomas Huxley and chastizes the writer for using convoluted language and altogether too many words. But had Huxley, a Victorian scholar, written as Stein does today, he would have lost his audience. His Victorian readers expected no less of a scholar. Stein also complains that academic journals are written in dull, passive voice. True enough, but if today's scholars wrote their research papers with the voice of a literary fiction writer, their manuscripts would never get past the review process. Voice is important to the writer, but voice must also be appropriate to the audience.

Stein may be better known for his books on writing than for his novels themselves, but the advice he offers is solid. Ignore the attitude, stay true to your voice and your own writing goals, but do try his advice on plotting and editing. It will make you look at your writing in a whole new way.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tempest in a Yogurt Pot

Last time I questioned the origins of Bifidus Regularis (TM!) found in Dannon Activa yogurt. That bothersome TM symbol suggested something sinister, but a link from an anonymous comment put me onto a page that gave me the necessary information.

Genetically engineered bacteria? That's still unclear.

A very special strain? Well... perhaps... a strain. Maybe. Still not clear.

A trademarked name to make a dull little intestinal bacteria sound even friendlier and more helpful?


That would indeed explain why both words in the scientific-sounding name are capitalized. It's a proper name, not a scientific name (for if it were a scientific name, the second word -- the specific epithet -- would be small-case, and both words would be in italics). In truth, the lowly bacteria bears the name Bifidobacterium animalis DN 173 010, a rather long and slightly scary name to print on an ingredients label. Sooo much friendlier to call it "Bifidus Regularis" for the American market, suggesting that it helps promote regularity (the "reduced transit time" as the advertising so tactfully puts it). In other countries where Activa is marketed, Dannon uses other names derived from comforting terms in the appropriate language.

Ah, Dannon, Dannon, do you not understand the importance of written communication? Of full disclosure? Of educating the consumer? Do you not comprehend the anxiety produced when important details are left out of your communication, such as, "Now, what exactly is it that you want me to eat?" Do you fear "confusing" the consumer, so that you only disclose what you want them to know? I hope not, for that approach does not inspire confidence.

Thank you, Anonymous, for the tip. You were ever so much more helpful than the Dannon company, which hasn't bothered to answer any of my emails. So helpful, they are. So friendly. So communicative.

Too busy dancing the hoochy-coochy around their offices, perhaps, filled with Activa joy, to get around to their emails.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Magical Yogurt, Bacteria of Mystic Origin

After my bout with the intestinal virus, in the interest of soothing the insides into some semblance of normality, I bought a box of Optimum Zen cereal (it DID promise "inner harmony" -- okay, so maybe that wasn't quite what they meant, but it does taste good in an unusually gingery way) and tried a new product, Activa Yogurt. The label promised that it had special bacteria made to "regulate" your digestive system. If you go to their website, you can watch a lady in a green suit do what used to be called "the hoochy-koochy" across the room because, presumably, she feels so amazingly good after eating the yogurt.

Eating the stuff for a few days really does "reduce transit time" as the label so delicately puts things. Curious about why that might be, I tried to find more information about their star player in their lineup of probiotics (fancy name for "nice bacteria"), Bifidus Regularis. The one teensy little slightly disturbing thing in all the smooth berry taste and lovely nature-green packaging is the tiny "TM" after the name of this organism.

Dannon is very cagey about what Bifidus Regularis (don't forget the TM mark) is, except a strain of probiotic bacteria that were "selected" by "specialists" at Dannon. Now, to the best of my knowledge, the only organisms that bear a TM mark after their scientific names, the only organisms that can be trademarked, period, are genetically modified organisms. I could be wrong about that. This could be a strain specially picked out of culture after culture. But can something that exists in nature be patented? There is something I should find out more about.

Now, I'm not fanatically opposed to GMOs myself, but I know some folks are, and personally, I'd like to know more about what it is that I'm eating and why this particular food has this particular "transit time" effect. Currently there are those in the American political scene who would like to actually reduce the information on food labels, with the presumptuous and patronizing excuse that people might be "confused" by too much information. In this context, "confused" translates to "informed about things they might be worried about." So I have no high hopes that Dannon's labels nor even their website might carry more information about their bacterial superstar than what is there already.

Dannon "specialists" care to comment?

Yah, I didn't think so.

UPDATE: Found a PDF on the website aimed at health professionals that has a better explanation of what bifidobacterium can do for "transit time," here: For Health Care Professionals. It also has some cute little graphs to summarize Dannon's own studies on Bifidobacteria animalis DN-173 030 (the little numbers after the scientific name inspire such confidence, do they not?). But it still doesn't explain why Bifidus Regularis has a trademark symbol by it.