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Forbes reports that “a study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences contains controversial claims about menu items served at McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King.

“Using a technique that identifies carbon and nitrogen isotopes in meat, co-authors A. Hope Jahren and Rebecca Kraft tried to determine the animals' diets and in what conditions they were raised. Based on the high levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes found in the meat products, the authors claim that the cattle and poultry were predominantly fed corn, which makes them as fat as possible in as short a time as possible, and were raised in extreme confinement.”

According to the story, “Farmers use nitrogen-enriched fertilizer to rapidly maximize their output. This is particularly true of corn crops; in 1940 a farmer could expect 70 to 80 bushels of corn per acre. Today, that number has reached 200 bushels. This corn, in turn, has been used to feed livestock and poultry for quick and efficient growth. In 2007, the U.S. produced 48.7 billion pounds of commercial red meat, 90.6 billion eggs, and 8.1 billion chickens, according to the USDA … Based on the carbon isotopic signatures found in the sample meat, the study's authors argue that the cattle had been strictly confined and fed predominantly corn.”

As for a response, “Burger King declined to comment on the study. A spokesman for Wendy's said the company has ‘very strict procedures in place’ to protect animal welfare. A spokeswoman for McDonald's declined to comment and instead referred to a statement issues by the American Meat Institute, a trade association.

“Janet M. Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for AMI, said that carbon and nitrogen isotopes are naturally occurring and are expected to be found in the environment and humans. She also said that while the study's authors had called for greater transparency regarding information about livestock feeding and production practices, consumers ‘appear satisfied’ with the amount of information currently available.”

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