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Blog Posts: August 2008

August 26th, 2008

FDA Quick to Zap Food, Slow to Fix Food Safety

In another example of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prioritizing industry interests over consumer safety, the agency announced last week that it will allow fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to be treated with ionizing radiation. This just illustrates once again how misplaced this agency‚ priorities really are, and how easily they cave in to industry pressure.

In fact since 2000, FDA has been working with industry representatives to fast track irradiation.   The National Food Processor‚ Association (representing powerhouses such as Kraft Foods, Inc.) originally filed a petition to FDA to irradiate food ranging from sprouts and seeds, juices, frozen fruits and vegetables, to refrigerated ready-to-eat meat and poultry products (like deli and luncheon meats and hot dogs). But as soon as major E. coli outbreak was linked to California spinach in 2006, FDA asked the association to re-work their petition and separate the leafy greens from the rest of the food, in order to expedite the ruling.

Unfortunately FDA‚ ruling on irradiation holds no water when it comes to preventing foodborne illness. Instead, irradiation is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive technology. Very little testing has been conducted on the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated vegetables, and from the small amount of research that exists, we know treating lettuce or spinach with the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays can ruin its flavor, odor, texture, color, and nutritional value.

And if youre thinking you can just avoid buying irradiated vegetables, think again. While FDA is saying that irradiated fresh produce will be labeled, the agency proposed a rule in 2007 that would destroy the current labeling requirements for irradiated food.  FDA could eliminate those requirements before the Bush Administration leaves office, leaving consumers in the dark.

Rather than pursuing irradiation, FDA needs to focus on how to address the cause of the problem — contaminated water used to irrigate or process crops.
Allowing spinach and lettuce to be irradiated would simply mask unsafe production practices, while supplying lower quality, less nutritious and potentially hazardous food. Vegetable growers and processors should improve flawed sanitation practices and FDA should hire more inspectors to inspect vegetable-processing plants more thoroughly. American consumers expect more and deserve better than questionable treatments like irradiation imposed by a weak FDA.

- Food & Water Watch
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August 21st, 2008

Citizens Coalition Asks Akron Voters: Should a Corporation Control Your Water?

Too often these days it seems that large corporations and powerful individuals can do whatever they want. However, outrage over corporate control of water is causing more and more citizens to mobilize against efforts to profit from our public resources.

Such is the case in Akron, Ohio this week. On Monday, the citizen group Citizens to Save Our Sewers and Water (SOS) succeeded in putting on the November ballot a measure that would put to a public vote any effort by City Council to privatize city utilities.

The initiative drive‚Äîwhich collected nearly twice the signatures needed to order the issue to ballot‚Äîdeveloped after Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic announced in February his intention to lease Akron‚ wastewater system to a private company. The mayor‚ plan, which will also be on the November ballot, has the seemingly virtuous goal of financing a scholarship program for Akron youth.http://www.afsc.net/PDFFiles/mayorsplan0001.pdf

The contract, however, assembled in just a few short months, steps directly into many of the pitfalls of water privatization, not to mention fails to address questions of city and corporate responsibility and the degree and quality of services provided.

While the cause of financing education is a laudable goal, privatizing the city‚ water system would create more problems than it would solve. Besides, the question at hand is not about the (inestimable) value of education, it is about whether or not corporations should control access to water in Akron.

- Jon Keesecker
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August 20th, 2008

Next time you're drinking Fiji water…

A Fijian child isnt.A recent investigation by the BBC states that one third of Fiji‚ population doesnt have access to clean drinking water. Fiji, it says, has problems with typhoid and other diseases caused by a lack of clean drinking water. According to the BBC, ‚Fiji Water would make the case that if you really care about the plight of Fijians you should buy Fiji water as it provides jobs and income for the islands.” The company donates money to fund clean water projects on the island. But it seems we are talking water indulgences here: a little cash to ease the conscience, perhaps? Because, according to another article, Fiji is still in shortage. And when the Fijian government tried to institute a tax on bottled water earlier this summer, they were quickly defeated by a powerful bottled water lobby. Meaning water companies want to give back to the country for its most precious resource, but only on their own terms. This doesnt exactly ring of charity. 

So one way to avoid exploiting environments and people is to take a pass on Fiji water and other bottled brands. Local tap water may not be as exotic, but at least it‚ free of such moral quandaries.

-Erica Schuetz
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August 18th, 2008

The Whole Deal Behind the Whole Foods Recall

Whole Foods proudly asserts that it is “highly selective about what [it] sell[s], dedicated to stringent Quality Standards, and committed to sustainable agriculture.” Consumers have responded to these promises of quality, as the chain has experienced tremendous growth in the last couple of years.  Which is why so many consumers, who choose to pay more at Whole Foods based on its promises of quality, were troubled to find out that that the company had to recall ground beef from its stores on August 8th.

The decision to pull the beef from the stores was made after learning that seven people infected with E. coli 0157:H7 had recently purchased ground beef from Whole Foods. How did this happen given the market‚ commitment to safety and health? In all fairness, it wasn’t entirely Whole Foods fault. The meat was from Coleman Natural Foods, which produces natural and organic products that are supposed to meet the high standards at Whole Foods. However, what Whole Foods didn’t know is that Coleman was getting some of its meat processed at Nebraska Beef, a company that has a long history of safety violations.

In the past two months alone, E. coli contamination has led to two large recalls from Nebraska Beef. Last month, over 5 million pounds of ground beef were recalled, and this month‚ recall totals 1.2 million pounds. Sadly, these types of problems are nothing new. Back in 2003, USDA tried to shut down the plant, citing unsanitary conditions. But Nebraska Beef filed a lawsuit and USDA backed down, agreeing to simply increase monitoring. However, since then there have been numerous food borne illness outbreaks traced to the company, including these most recent two, which show that whatever system is in place to regulate contaminants is inadequate.

The fact that Whole Foods didn’t know that it was selling meat processed by Nebraska Beef undercuts the claims about their stringent standards.

Whole Foods should be responsible for knowing where the products they sell were processed and making sure they buy from plants with good food safety practices.  And the USDA needs to crack down on plants with repeated food safety problems.

Lets hope that Whole Foods learned a lesson about checking out their suppliers.  And in the meantime, remember that there are lots of places you can find healthy and sustainable food.  Check out the Eat Well Guide to find them.

- Darcy White
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August 15th, 2008

Government By the People, For the Bottled Water Companies?

Food & Water Watch-sponsored Assembly Bill 2275, which requires water bottling companies to reveal the source and volume of water they’re taking, has recently been opposed by the California Department of Public Health ( Download the PDF file. ) on the grounds that the information is a ‚trade secret.” No, were not kidding.

It‚ no secret that water bottlers exploit local water resources while contributing to global warming and creating plastic waste. But we know what they dont want people to know, and that‚ how much water theyre taking in a region already notorious for water shortages. With an already-taxed water system and ever-expanding demand, California isnt drowning in clean water. So the ‚important business information” were talking about here is simply an indictment for wastefulness.

The California Department of Public Health isnt doing its job here. Bottling companies already have the upper hand‚Äîseeing as they profit off a substance they obtain for practically nothing‚Äîand the Department of Public Health‚ job is to stand up for citizens. What remains to be seen is whether Governor Schwarzenegger, who has recently been touting efficient water management and conservation, will straighten out the department or keep his head under the water.

-Erica Schuetz
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August 12th, 2008

Smaller is Not Similar

Nanotechnology.  It’s a word we’ve been hearing for a while, describing what sounds like the wave of the future, building stuff tinier and tinier, so eventually we can have miniscule robots to climb into our mouths and brush our teeth for us. Right?

Well, no. It’s not quite like that.  Nanotechnology is the process of manipulating matter at a molecular level‚ or nanoscale. Nanomaterials have at least one dimension that is 100 nanometers or less. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter – approximately 1/100,000 of a human hair.

So while there is some research afoot to build tiny machines, the type of nanotechnology were talking about consists of engineering materials at the molecular level to create smaller versions of substances.  The technology has potential applications in healthcare, electronics, water filtration, food and agriculture, and consumer goods, to name a few. It can be used to create advanced materials that can make a surface water-repellent, anti-microbial, or electrically conductive, among other things. Nanomolecules are already being used in products from sunscreen and stain-resistant clothing to food and food packaging‚ over 600 nanoproducts are already on the market, with sales of over $50-88 billion in 2007. Products that contain nanotechnology are not required to be labeled, and they go largely unregulated.

In May, Food & Water Watch joined a group of organizations to petition the FDA to stop the sale of nano-silver because it is potentially dangerous to human and environmental health. Nano-silver, currently the most commonly commercialized nanomaterial, can act as a pesticide and an antimicrobial, and can leach into water and negatively affect marine ecosystems, killing off both harmful and beneficial microorganisms.

Now, preliminary reports have shown that carbon nanotubes, another type of nanoparticles used in sporting goods (tennis rackets, bike frames, etc), are carcinogenic in the same way as asbestos.

Not enough is known about nanomaterials for them to be widely used in commercial products. Some evidence shows that nanoparticles can be more completely absorbed by the body and may be taken up by organs and tissues. We have certain barriers in our bodies that function to keep dangerous things out of delicate places‚ for instance, the blood-brain barrier, and the placental barrier. Those barriers have been pretty good at protecting our brains and our fetuses thus far in the history of people. But when you have tinier particles, those barriers may not be as effective. Imagine rinsing couscous in a regular pasta strainer.

And it‚ not just their size in relation to us –nanoparticles interact differently with the whole environment. Nanoparticles have different properties than their macro-sized counterparts. Food & Water Watch‚ fact sheet “Sweating the Small Stuff” explains that nanoscale particles have “distinct electronic, magnetic, chemical, and mechanical properties.” They are more reactive and can even be explosive.

Food & Water Watch recommends that the government (EPA, FDA, and other relevant agencies) regulate all nanotech products as new chemicals, and the substances should be subject to more research and testing before being released into commercial products.  The Senate is currently considering a bill to reauthorize the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (S. 3274) which allocates over $1.6 billion in taxpayer funding for nano research with no funds specified for environmental, health and safety protection. Take action here to ask the Senate to include adequate funding for health and safety research on nanotechnology.

-Erica Schuetz
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August 11th, 2008

Monsanto Gives Up on rBGH

Last week, Monsanto , the corporation that produces recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in order to increase milk production in cows , announced its intention to sell the division that handles the artificial hormone, marketed under the brand name Posilac. This is a small victory for consumers on the path to eliminating potentially harmful and dangerous methods of producing milk.

Although Monsanto denies that consumer pressure had anything to do with its decision to abandon its ‚leading dairy animal production product,” it is clear that they are feeling the pressure of consumer demand for clean, safe, healthy milk. However, the battle is not over. It is yet to be decided who will take over rBGH, so we must keep campaigning for rBGH-free milk to ensure that it will be unprofitable for any company to sell.

Recently, Monsanto attempted to greenwash rBGH with claims that it allows fewer cows to produce the same amount of milk, thus reducing the industry‚ carbon ‚hoofprint.” While this is a nice theory, the only study to support this assertion was conducted by scientists on the Monsanto payroll. But consumers who demand rBGH-free milk have shown that they know that Monsanto‚ bottom line is profit, not environmental protection or consumer health. Faced with this strong opposition, Monsanto is finally tossing in the towel, hoping for someone else to step in. Let‚ keep up the good work and convince any potential successors that pushing artificial hormones is a battle they wont win.

- Sally Goodman and Eric Hoffman
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August 1st, 2008

Greenwashed: Cargill Snags ISO Environmental Certification

Everyone wants to be green, and these days it seems like anyone can.  We recently saw Fiji attempt to advertise itself as sustainable, and now, having just received environmental certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Cargill is projecting an image of itself as an environmental steward.

Before we dole out our praise, let’s review a few of Cargill‚ other claims to fame:

  • In the past decade, Cargill has managed to spill toxic waste into San Francisco Bay and nearby marshes six times.
  • Emissions from its processing plants have violated the Clean Air Act.
  • By expanding production in Latin America, Cargill has destroyed acres of valuable rainforest.

So what are we to make of this environmental certification?  It turns out that it means very little in terms of the corporation‚ overall environmental impact.  According to the ISO website, the standard that Cargill met (ISO 14001) “does not itself state specific environmental performance criteria.”  Instead, it establishes requirements for an environmental management system that “applies to those environmental aspects which an organization identifies as those which it can control and those which it can influence.”  Cargill gets to choose the issues that it thinks it should work to improve, and as long as it works on them it is up to par and gets a pat on the back.

In a press release, Cargill Meat Solutions president Bill Rupp proudly states that the certification “allows us to assess what we’re doing so we can continuously improve.”  Let’s hope that this is true and that they take advantage of it, because Cargill has a lot of room for improvement before it can honestly qualify as an environmental steward.

- Darcy White
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