Five years in five stories

The “clean” label myth. The bison-bar empire built on Native appropriation. Online food delivery’s “shadow site” scam. Here are the stories that have defined The Counter.

Five years in the life of any media startup is both a lifetime and a blip. But survive this long in a medium still deciding what to be when it grows up, and you’ll have grappled with enough virality, trend, and reactive innovation to last you well into the industry’s next iteration.

We have tales to tell, to be sure. About reporting the news as enemies of the people. About being the smallest voices in very loud rooms. And about how to scale when scale seems both overrated and essential.

Those are entertaining stories. But they’re not really our speciality. What we do here is journalism. And we use that word intentionally because our profession —“journalism”—isn’t universally understood or financially supported the way it was even a decade ago. 

All of our lives are in flux. Our business is in flux. Stories, though? They persist. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the themes underpinning this anniversary collection—access, racism, best intentions and unintended consquences, technocracy—have no expiration date. 

These are pieces that patiently investigate what is unseen. They are essential reading for people who want to understand food. And, taken together, they tell an ancillary story—about what it takes to enthrall and inform the public in a time when mistrust and misinformation are as ultra-available as processed food.

Enjoy them in good health. And, thanks for reading.

Joe Fassler

Clean label’s dirty little secret

How the biggest trend in processed food exploits confusion about what “natural” and “artificial” really mean. (This story won a 2019 James Beard Media Award for health and wellness reporting.)

By Nadia Berenstein | February 2018
How a General Mills-owned bison bar start up eclipsed the story and business a Native-owned food company. Credit: Flickr / Michael Janke, November 2018

(Photo credit: Flickr / Michael Janke)

Flickr / Michael Janke

Bison bars were supposed to restore Native communities and grass-based ranches. Then came Epic Provisions

Tanka, a Native-owned business, invented the commercial bison bar. But Epic took credit, built an empire on a foundation of misleading claims, promised ranchers investment that never materialized, and left an industry struggling in its wake. 

(This story appeared in the Best American Food Writing 2019 anthology.)

By Marilyn Noble | November 2018

Alison Goyer

GrubHub is buying up thousands of restaurant web addresses. That means Mom and Pop can’t own their slice of the internet

The online food-delivery platform published shadow pages without owners’ consent—sometimes in direct competition with real websites. (This story was the recipient of a 2020 “Best in Business” reporting award, given by the Society for the Advancement of Business Writing and Editing.)

By H. Claire Brown | June 2019

PubChem / The Counter

The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked “forever chemicals.”

Testing by The Counter revealed an industry secret: All fiber bowls contain PFAS, a troubling class of chemicals with no known half-life, even when they’re certified compostable. It got worse from there. (This story was the recipient of a 2020 “Best in Business” reporting award, given by the Society for the Advancement of Business Writing and Editing.)

By Joe Fassler | August 2019

Madeline Gray

How USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers

An investigation by The Counter found that USDA promoted misleading data to depict a fictional renaissance in Black farming. That narrative falsely inflated the department’s record on civil rights—and ultimately cost Black farmers land, money, and agency. (This story was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Media Award for investigative journalism.)

By Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki| June 2019