August, 2006 | Food & Water Watch
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Blog Posts: August 2006

August 27th, 2006

Who owns your water?

On August 15, the British newspaper The Independent wrote: “Thames Water has become undisputed holder of the title of Britain’s most hated utility — the competition is generally tough, so it took some doing.”

Thames Water is, at least for now, one of nearly 600 subsidiaries of RWE, the German energy and water conglomerate. But RWE is hoping to unload this troublesome British utility, and its U.S. counterpart American Water, by 2007. RWE recently received two bids for Thames Water, one from a group led by British private equity firm Terra Firma, and another from a group headed up by Qatar‚ national investment fund.

What experience do these two firms have in providing people with essential water? The agency that regulates water in Jakarta, Indonesia, is asking that very question. The new owner of Thames will also win a share in Jakarta‚ water system. The Indonesian water authority also wants Thames to settle its $3.78 million debt before the sale, so that the people of Jakarta wont get stuck with the bill.

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August 25th, 2006

Do You Know What's in That Shrimp You're Eating

This week, Italian officials issued a food safety alert after discovering an excessive amount of sulphites in shrimp imported from Brazil. In Belgium, two EU-illegal, but commonly used antibiotics were discovered in black tiger shrimp shipped from India.

Sounds gross, right? Well, these chemicals turn up more frequently than we would like in imported farm raised shrimp, which constitutes about 80% of the shrimp we eat as Americans.

Worse still, the FDA only examines 1-2% of imported seafood, including farm-raised shrimp , which means, more often then not, we have no idea what we are eating.

Even though the U.S. has banned a number of drugs and chemicals commonly used in shrimp farming (some are known carcinogens while others contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans) these drugs are not prohibited in many shrimp producing countries.

So, while the U.S. government may say that these substances aren’t acceptable for human consumption, it‚ a little hard to enforce when they’re only examining one one-hundredth of what comes across the boarder. Yuck!

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August 23rd, 2006

Moo Y'all

A group of British farmers claim that cows have regional accents and phonetic experts agreekind of. According to John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at University College London, this idea might not be too far off, as a similar phenomenon has been found to occur in birds.

Dom Lane, spokesman for a group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers, believes that the cows accents are developed much like they are among humans, especially for those farmers who spend a lot of time with their herd.

“Apparently the biggest influence on accents is peer groups — on children in the playground, for example,” he said. “Herds are quite tight-knit communities and don’t tend to leave the area.”

Wow, this really clears up the conversation I overheard while visiting a local farm recently:

‚This is some grass, eh?” Alanis, the Canadian cow, exclaimed while chomping on a delicious piece of turf.

‚Best grass by fah!” agreed Willy, who was mostly raised in Western Massachusetts.

‚Mais oui! Je taime legrass,” declared the French-bred cow, Pierre.

‚Can yall keep it down, Im tryin to eat,” the bossy Texan, Bessy, yelled.

End scene. [End stereotypes.]

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August 22nd, 2006

So Much for Happy Cows

The organic milk industry, which began as a counterculture movement in the 1970’s, is now large enough to attract the interest of major food companies. Gone are the days when you had to wait until the Saturday farmer’s market in order to get organic milk. However, now that Walmart, General Mills, and even Dean Foods have placed their hat into the race over the organic milk market, large suppliers, such as Horizon Organic dairy farm, are battling to keep prices down — and being charged with cutting corners.

Recent claims by organic groups have charged some large,scale organic dairies with violating organic requirements, in particular by not allowing cows enough time outside munching grass. In order for foods to be considered organic, they must meet certain criteria set in place by the USDA, including access to pasture. Additionally, the Organic Standards Board has recommended that dairy cows get about one-third of their diet from pasture for close to 4 months a year in order to be considered organic, although that has not been implemented by the USDA yet.

One of the ways that dairies can cut corners is by keeping cows in a barn for most of the day so that they can be fed energy,rich food, which ups milk production. Yet keeping cows indoors is contrary to the public‚ notion — and the requirements — of organic food. The Cornucopia Institute is accusing Horizon Organic‚ company,owned dairy on Maryland‚ Eastern Shore of breaking the rules by denying cows sufficient access to pasture. A former employee of Horizon, Jacob Tice, notes in a Chicago Tribune article by Andrew Martin that his managers were less interested in the more humane system of rotational grazing and rather more concerned about boosting profits by ensuring that ‚the highest,producing milk cows mostly remained in the barn.” The question remains open as to how the organic dairy industry will grow to meet demand, and whether it will be able to maintain customer confidence in its methods.

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August 18th, 2006

Urban Fish Farming- the Wave of the Future?

New York City might not be the first place you would think of for an experimental fish farm, but indeed it is happening.

In the basement of Brooklyn College, professor and director of the institution‚ Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center, Martin Schreibman is growing fish. Tilapia to be precise. In an attempt to promote a food source that will not contribute to over fishing, Schreibman has bred thousands of the mild tasting freshwater fish, which now live in a number of jam-packed aquariums in the heart of his New York City laboratory.

Unfortunately, however, the fish are also fed fishmeal pellets, which come from, you guessed it, wild fish populations. So, while urban fish farming sounds like a good way to feed a city, it wont actually reduce over fishing until these fish are grown happily and healthfully without the use of wild fishmeal.

But we’re certainly not going to deny it’s a fascinating idea: fish grown on pavement!

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August 17th, 2006

H to the 2-O

Rapper, businessman and global trend-setter Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter announced last week his new partnership with the UN and MTV to bring attention to the world water crisis.
Our favorite quote at the press conference went something like this:

:: Reporter:
“Jay-Z, at a concert before your alleged retirement about 2 years ago, you said ‘I’m like the United Nations of this rap game.’ Are we now to believe that you had this planned all along?”

:: Jay-Z:
“I wish I could say I’m that smart, but I was just bragging.”

Today, 1 in 6 people lacks access to clean, affordable water, and 2 in 5 lack adequate sanitation. The UN expects that number to increase. But not if Jay-Z has anything to say about it. During his worldwide tour starting Sept. 9, he’ll visit people struggling to get by without adequate access to safe water, as well as communities using innovative, green solutions. MTV will be following him with cameras, and will air their documentary special, “Jay-Z: Water for Life” on Nov. 24 in more than 179 countries. Jay-Z is also exploring ways to alleviate some hardship, by donating “play pumps”— a combination merry-go-round/water pump that draws water as children spin around on it–and soliciting donations from his colleagues in the music industry.

Jay-Z isn’t the only rap star giving airtime to the world’s most popular beverage; in 1999 Mos Def released the song New World Water, with some hard-hitting lyrics. It’s about time our world leaders started listening to some hip-hop.

“There are places where TB is common as TV Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five.” –Mos Def, “New World Water,” 1999

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August 16th, 2006

Take the Katrina Money and Run

In addition to devastating the Gulf Coast‚ residential neighborhoods, Hurricane Katrina also pummeled its grain transportation system. This region is vital to the trade of grains, as Midwestern and southern farmers rely on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast ports to ship soybean, corn, and wheat. (Think of all the Wheaties breakfasts at risk.) Last September, the USDA proposed a plan to help farmers in the Gulf Coast. This plan called for helping farmers by giving $22.7 million to slow down the flow of grain until the Mississippi River could absorb it again. Sounds like a noble use of taxpayer money, no? And yet, like so many other government initiatives, this program largely fattened the wallets of large agribusiness companies.

To be more precise, 87% of the funds – an estimated $19.7 million- went to three of the world’s largest grain merchandisers: Cargill, ADM, and Louis Dreyfus. According to Alan Guebert in the PJ Star, the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland received $1.03 million to divert shipments to other ports, and another $4.5 million to store grain. Cargill, the multinational that earned $2 billion in 2005, received $7.2 million from the government to move its grain barges upriver, and so on. So where does the small farmer fit into this equation? Nowhere, as they were left high and dry in search of funds to rebuild their destroyed businesses. In the words of Richard Sauder, the general manager of the Tremont Cooperative Grain, ‚you can get a lot of money out of Washington by just saying [that] this will help the farmers.” While the intentions of this program sounded good, enormously profitable agribusiness giants got the vast share of the loot, leaving small farmers down on their luck in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.

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August 14th, 2006

Oprah, Stop the Madness!!

Creekstone Farms, a Kansas beef producer, wants you to rest assured and eat their beef despite all the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) talk in our neighboring country of Canada. Creekstone will calm any fears by testing every single one of their cattleor so they thought. Using an obscure 1913 law, the federal government could be evoking another Oprah fiasco by saying no to extra testing.

The U.S. has detected 3 cases of BSE, informally known as Mad Cow Disease, since 2003 while Canada, a country with whom we share a border and similar cattle feed regulations, has discovered four cases this year. The USDA response? Cut testing by 90% and ban anybody from doing more. I suppose their logic is the less you test, the less likely it will turn up.

Under the new program, 110 of the 100,000 cows slaughtered daily will be tested. That makes the current testing of 1% of cattle slaughtered seem generous. On the slightly brighter-than-pitch-black side, this cut in testing will save the USDA $35 million a year. I suggest they start putting it in a jar and call it the ‚Keep Oprah Quiet Fund.”

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August 2nd, 2006

The Case of the Missing Goose Intestines

Grab the goose intestines and go!

The United States Department of Agriculture is finding new meaning in the term wild goose chase. The USDA is investigating the disappearance of 100 pounds of smuggled goose intestines from a Michigan warehouse. Smuggled in from China, the goose guts were marked for destruction by USDA inspectors, as part of their crackdown on the

warehouse, where 2,000 pounds of illegal frozen poultry from China were also found. However, when the inspectors returned to destroy the goose guts, they were gone.

Why the fuss? In the U.S., it is illegal to import uncooked poultry from China, because bird flu has been found in the country. People can get bird flu from live birds or from infected poultry that was not cooked properly. The USDA, hoping to quell the controversy over the disappeared goose intestines, says “We have no reason to believe this was infected by avian influenza, and we have no reason to think this is on the average American’s dinner plate.” (What about the less than average American? Are they eating it?) While technically true, the Agriculture Department did not even bother to test the frozen poultry that they did seize and destroy from the warehouse. So yes, if you never test for something, then you won’t know whether or not it’s there.

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August 1st, 2006

California Cows Soak Up the Sun

And Not in a Good Way.

Since late July, California’s Central Valley has been suffering under an intense heat wave as temperatures have risen past 110 degrees on a consistent basis. In addition to over 100 tragic human deaths, the searing heat has killed thousands of dairy cows. Many fear that independent dairy farmers may lose up two percent of their herd due to the onslaught of the heatwave.

Although California is the number one dairy producer in the nation, the heat wave has resulted in milk production falling by as much as 15 percent. According to dairy farmer John Ferreira in the San Francisco Chronicle, cows ‚know [that] by eating their body produces more heat. But if they are not eating, they are not producing milk.”

The sheer number of dead cows is causing stress in the affected areas. Normally, state law requires that dead animals be taken to rendering plants for disposal. However, several counties have taken emergency measures to allow farmers to bury dead animals on their property. (Note to kids: please do not attempt to find buried treasure on these properties.) The situation is so horrendous that in certain counties, such as San Joaquin, over 120 cows die per day from the heat. In an article posted by the cattlenetwork.com, farmer Brian Pachecho chronicles the long delay he endures as he waits for these rendering plants to pick up his dead cows. ‚When they[the plant] do come, they only take the ones that died that day,” proclaims Pacheco. “I’m left with the old bodies.”

This crisis in California sheds light on the conditions that livestock endure on dairy factory farms. Typically, these farms value profit over any humane treatment of the animals , and as the cows are already under stress, high heat can be the tipping point that leads to their deaths.

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