Thinly sliced: Largest fire in modern history burns through California, the truth behind a fast-food faux pas, and more

This is the web version of a list we publish twice-weekly in our newsletter. It comprises the most noteworthy food stories of the moment, selected by our editors. Get it first here.

Godspeed, Golden State. Former President Jimmy Carter once said “Whatever starts in California has an inclination to spread.” Surely he couldn’t have imagined this: the Mendocino Complex Fire—actually a pair of fires—which has been spreading in Northern California for close to two weeks, mergedon Monday night. As of Tuesday morning it had officially become the largest fire in modern California history. According to reporting from SFGate at 2 p.m., EST on Tuesday, the blaze has scorched “an area nine times larger than San Francisco, two times bigger than Chicago, and just about the size of San Antonio, the second-largest city in Texas.”

Third strike. A North Carolina jury on Friday handed neighbors of hog farms owned by Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Chinese-owned SmithfieldFoods, a third consecutive win in a series of federal nuisance lawsuits. The $473.5 million award—the largest to date—seems to indicate the momentum is on the side of the plaintiffs. There are 23 remaining nuisance cases awaiting trial in the state. Read our coverage of the first trial, which wrapped in April, here.

Sick leave. A tale of two fast-food faux pas: In Powell, Ohio, nearly 700 people are claiming to have fallen ill after eating at a local Chipotle, Eater reports. The fast-food company—which was hit by a series of food poisoning scandals in 2015 and 2016—shut down the Powell location “out of an abundance of caution” for a day last week. Tests for various contaminations have come back negative so far. Maybe there’s something in that Ohio water? Meanwhile, the number of people sickened after eating McDonald’s salads made with a mix of romaine and carrots that had been contaminated by the Cyclospora parasite, which is spread by human feces, has risen in less than a month from 61 in mid-July to nearly 400. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its numbers late last week.

Crab fakes. James R. Casey, president of major seafood supplier Casey’s Seafood in Newport News, Virginia, has been charged with violating the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law that prohibits trade of plants and animals that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. The Washington Post reports that Casey directed employees to remove foreign crab meat from packing containers and blend it with meat from another processor before placing the meat in containers labeled “Product of the USA,” according to court documents. (Sound familiar?) Fraud in the seafood industry is not uncommon, and senators have urged since 2015 stricter regulations for crab processing. This year, new rules went into effect that require importers to document that the catch is legally and sustainably caught, but they don’t do much to combat fraud that occurs within our borders.

Trust your gut. On Monday, NPR reported on a recently published Mayo Clinic study suggesting gut health is the key to successful dieting. After monitoring 26 participants on low-calorie diets for three months, the authors found that subjects who lost 5 percent or more of their body weight had an increased abundance of a bacteria called Phascolarctobacterium. That might sound like a potential breakthrough in weight loss and wellness—but not so fast. A STAT piece published one day after the NPR story gathered input from several concerned microbiologists, suggesting that startups are racing too quickly to monetize the still-emerging science of gut flora, relying on irreproducible research with small sample sizes to create commercial tests that over-promise and under-deliver. (UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen sneeringly called one prominent startup the “Theranos of microbiome companies” on Twitter.) We’ve already told you 40 percent of dietary research turns out to be wrong, despite the hype. Paint us unsurprised.

Quirky quark. Increasingly, Americans are replacing sit-down meals with snack foods—and the National Dairy Board wants to cash in on the trend. The industry group recently funded a contest at Kansas State University, offering an $8,000 prize for the best new snackable milk treat. The winner, announced on Monday, is “Quick-Quark,” a pouch of flavored, drinkable quark, the tangy, German-style cheese. Does drinkable cheese disgust you? Maybe! But KSU notes the resealable product has a 30-day shelf life, microbiome-friendly live cultures, and sweetness from real blended fruit. Quick-Quark isn’t available in stores yet, but don’t surprised if you see it soon at a retailer near you. We’re addicted to convenience. Pass the cheese pouch.

The Counter Stories by our editors.