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Blog Posts: Consumers

August 12th, 2014

A “Science-based” Look at GMOs

By Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) sets out on an 18-month, “science-based” study into the safety, benefits and drawbacks of GMOs, it will be interesting to see which science—and which scientists—the NRC will be consulting. 

The initial indications aren’t great. While the NRC boasts that it is aiming to “provide an independent, objective assessment of what has been learned since GE crops were introduced,” several of the scientific experts it has selected to direct the new report have substantial ties to industry—and are clearly in a position to advocate on behalf of biotech companies. 

The reason this matters is because the biotech industry has long had an outsized role in shaping the science surrounding GMOs, with tactics including funding and authoring countless studies, censoring or restricting independent research and attacking unfavorable findings. The result of this influence is a body of scientific literature with substantial industry bias and major gaps—especially in safety research. Industry also uses its unparalleled financial resources to bulldoze the public debate on GMOs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. Do biotech companies really need another platform to advocate their pro-GMO stance? Read the full article…

June 11th, 2014

Ridiculous Cheese Rule Shows Bad Priorities at FDA

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Updated on June 11.

The FDA is currently turning a blind eye to the thousands of pets that have been sickened or killed thanks to pet treats imported from China. It has basically rolled over to the biotech industry in a long and drawn out process over genetically engineered salmon, which if approved, would be the first transgenic animal to enter the food supply—the effects of which have not been studied in humans. It’s done nothing to deal with the 30-year crisis concerning the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

But don’t worry—they are on the case when it comes to barring artisanal cheesemakers from using wood in the process of aging cheese. Rather than concentrating on the food safety crisis caused by the giant food processors, they are focusing on the cleanability of equipment used in making artisanal cheese. In the process, the FDA could end the tried and true traditional practices that have been used by cheese makers around the world for centuries.

Yes, that’s the latest head-scratcher from the federal agency led by Michael Taylor, former Monsanto executive and standard-bearer for the industrial food interests at our nation’s leading food safety authority. Cheese makers and people who want a local food economy are rightfully fighting mad. This decision is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: when it comes to health threats from food, the FDA has much bigger fish to fry. It could be addressing the major prevailing public health crisis posed by the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms—a public health threat that experts have cautioned against for three decades. Or, it could turn its attention to the serious food safety issues posed by food imports from countries with weak food safety standards—which will become even more problematic if trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are put into force.

Any rule that promotes processed, industrial food (like Velveeta) over handcrafted foods is not something we should support. Take action now to tell the FDA to get their priorities straight. Their limited resources should be used to address the major food supply safety problems, not going after artisanal food producers.

UPDATE: The FDA may be rethinking their efforts to stop cheese makers from using the methods they’ve perfected over centuries, but we have to keep up the pressure because their traditional ways of making cheese are still under threat. Sign the petition here.

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June 5th, 2014

100 Years Later, Mergers Still Out of Control

By Patrick Woodall

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Clayton Act, a key statute designed to prevent corporations from swelling in size and power though mergers and takeovers. The Clayton Act was one of a series of reforms from the Progressive Era designed to curb the power of corporations over the people. It supplemented the anti-monopoly 1890 Sherman Act, which had failed to stop a merger wave that created the corporate trusts that ran roughshod over consumers, farmers and workers at the turn of the 19th century.

But a merger wave beginning with the stock market boom in the Roaring 1920s through the consolidation during World War II encouraged Congress to strengthen the Clayton Act in 1950. The Senate legislation noted that the goal was “to limit future increases in the level of economic concentration resulting from corporate mergers and acquisitions.”

It is clearly time to dust off the Clayton Act, given the wave of mergers now sweeping the American economy. Between October 2012 and September 2013, companies announced 1,326 mergers worth $815 billion—nearly four mergers worth an average of $2.2 billion a day.

But the antitrust law enforcers at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated less than four percent of those mergers and challenged less than three percent. The DoJ and FTC initiated enforcement actions against 38 of the mergers, but 29 of them were ultimately approved (with some tinkering around the edges like in the big beer merger or the woefully inadequate US Airways-American Airlines merger settlement), seven of the mergers were abandoned and one case is still pending. Only one of the proposed mergers was blocked outright.

If the antitrust cops would investigate more mergers, they would probably find more problems. In 2013, the DoJ and FTC brought some sort of enforcement action against 81 percent of the mergers they investigated. Although many of the settlements have been disappointing, these merging firms have been forced to divest at least some assets, which makes the merged company slightly smaller.

But most proposed mergers receive almost no examination. Food industry analysts estimate there were more than 300 food and grocery mergers in 2013, but almost all of these got rubber stamped by regulators. Food & Water Watch highlighted a handful of big food deals that got short shrift from the antitrust cops including the ConAgra-Ralcorp food manufacturing merger and the takeover of Smithfield Foods by Shuanghui International, China’s largest meatpacker, which appeared to get no official investigation at all.

 Just since January 1, 2014, DoJ and FTC have approved 360 mergers including at least eleven food company mergers that received no investigations, including:

The Department of Justice recently approved a huge flour mill merger without requiring significant divestitures. Other larger mergers like the Albertsons-Safeway supermarket merger and the Sysco-US Foods foodservice distribution merger are currently under review at the FTC.

A century later, it is clear that the merger-maniacs are running the show and the antitrust regulators are barely making a dent in a wave of mergers that threatens to overwhelm the food and farm sectors of the economy. Consumers, farmers and workers need to band together to prevent a small handful of companies from having complete control of the food chain from seed to supermarket.

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April 2nd, 2014

If the Drug Companies Love FDA’s New Guidance, Should We?

drug take-back day

Photo by Tom Varco used with permission.

By Sarah Borron

Last week, FDA pronounced success in its voluntary Guidance to Industry #213 on the use of medically important antibiotics in feed for livestock. Every company but one that makes these drugs said they would participate, covering over 99 percent of the affected drugs. If the companies stick to their word, it means that in three years, medically important antibiotics should 1) no longer be used for growth promotion and 2) be used only under the oversight of a veterinarian. Both of these are long overdue first steps, but they still are not enough to stop the overuse of these critically important drugs for a couple of key reasons:

1) Overlap of Use: Giving healthy animals low doses of medically important antibiotics to make them grow faster is a really wasteful use of antibiotics. This practice promotes the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, putting profits ahead of public health. It’s high time this practice ended. Unfortunately, the same practice of giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics can be done in the name of “disease prevention,” which is still allowed under the new FDA guidance. Of the drugs losing their approvals for growth promotion uses, 63 percent are still approved for disease prevention. So, producers aren’t necessarily going to lose the growth promoting benefit of many of the drugs, even if the purpose of using them is disease prevention. Only 11 percent of the drugs will fully discontinue nontherapeutic uses, any use for a purpose other than disease treatment.

2) Strength of Veterinary Oversight: But what about the veterinary oversight? Won’t that stop the use of antibiotics for routine disease prevention? That’s still unclear. FDA just accepted public comments on the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which spells out the rules around veterinarians approving the use of antibiotics in feed. It’s possible that the rules will be written in such a way that veterinarian approval can carry on for months at time or for multiple herds or flocks of animals, possibly without the veterinarian ever visiting the farm. There is also an important issue that the FDA needs to address, the shortage of veterinarians in rural areas. While we want to ensure that lack of access to veterinarians for small farms is addressed, we do have to make sure that this doesn’t become an excuse for allowing injudicious uses of antibiotics to continue on large operations.

In three years, we’ll have a better sense of whether FDA’s initiative offers more shine than substance in changing practices. Regardless, to save antibiotics, we.need Congress to pass a complete ban on nontherapeutic uses of antibiotic use in livestock, and you can help us by asking for your members of Congress to support this important legislation here.

March 21st, 2014

Field Notes from the Campaign to Label GMOs: Marching Forward

On March 19, 2014, Food & Water Watch and its allies delivered a 2,500-signature petition to New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney to urge him to support GMO labeling legislation. From Left to Right: Katie McCarthy, Jim Wilday, Stephanie Rossi, Jennifer Kolarsick, Steph Compton and Nicole Souza.

By Anna Ghosh

Food & Water Watch has been fighting – and winning – campaigns to defend consumers’ right to know what’s in their food since its inception in 2005. As a result of our campaign, Starbucks committed to make its stores rBGH-free in 2007, and in 2008, we successfully fought in nine states to keep rBGH-Free labels on dairy products. In 2009 we won a campaign to get the federal school lunch program to specifically allow schools to use federal dollars to choose rBGH-Free milk for their students.

Since 2010, we’ve collected more than 150,000 signatures opposing the FDA’s approval on AquaBounty’s GE salmon, and in 2011 and 2012, along with our allies Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Sum of Us, Corporate Accountability International and CREDO Action, we collected more than half a million signatures from consumers refusing to purchase genetically engineered (GMO) sweet corn and asking Walmart not to sell the biotech corn. We’ve also been involved in collecting and submitting official comments to oppose dozens of new GMO crops that have been considered since we started in 2005.

Over the past few years, our focus has been on the fight to label GMOs. Despite the narrow defeats of Prop 37 in California in 2012 and I-522 in Washington last year, momentum around GMO labels has never been stronger. Food & Water Watch is on the ground in over 12 states, joining with national, regional, and local allies to make GMO food labels the law once and for all. Here are the latest updates from our field team: Read the full article…

March 11th, 2014

How the FDA’s Voluntary Guidance Fails to Curb Antibiotic Misuse in Livestock

Click to enlarge.

By Sarah Borron

Last December, FDA released voluntary guidance to industry (GFI #213) that would limit certain nontherapeutic uses of what the agency deems “medically important” antibiotics in livestock and put those drugs under the guidance of a veterinarian. Currently, many antibiotics are available for livestock producers to use for nontherapeutic reasons and without veterinary oversight. FDA’s action to curb these uses is long overdue.

But that guidance comes with a catch. It only limits the use of medically important antibiotics for promoting faster growth in livestock. Giving livestock low doses of antibiotics necessary to treat human illnesses to make the animals grow faster – all the while creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in those livestock – is a pretty terrible use of an important resource. However, the FDA guidance still permits low doses of antibiotics to be given to healthy animals as disease prevention. Whether for growth promotion or disease prevention, the result is the same: this practice is creating more bacteria resistant to antibiotics that we need to protect human health.

Food &Water Watch analyzed FDA’s list of over 400 antibiotic drug products affected by GFI #213 to find out just how much overlap exists between growth promotion uses, which are being limited, and prevention uses, which remain unchecked. Each drug has a list of “label indications,” or reasons the drug can be used in certain conditions. Using FDA’s search function and also reading each label, we identified overlapping indications that demonstrate significant loopholes in GFI #213. Read the full article…

March 7th, 2014

Supermarket Stranglehold: Albertsons Takeover Bid for Safeway

Food & Water Watch report advises local governments to seek better solutions.By Patrick Woodall

This week, the Albertsons supermarket chain announced it was buying the Safeway supermarket chain, which would be one of the largest grocery store mergers in 25 years. The combined chains would be the third largest grocery retailer (after Walmart and Kroger) with more than $58 billion in sales from more than 2,400 stores all across the United States. Albertsons operates the Acme, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Starmarket, United Supermarket and Amigo stores as well as the namesake Albertsons stores. Safeway stores include Vons, Pavilions, Tom Thumb and Randalls.

The $9.4 billion merger is being financed by Albertsons’ owner, the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. You know the company is neighborly because it is named after the mythological three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell. The supermarkets claim the merger is needed to cope with both big box stores like Walmart as well as new grocery delivery companies, including internet grocers. The companies also claim the merger will save consumers money and improve the quality and freshness of the products the stores offer. This seems unlikely. Any cost savings from the merger are more likely to be pocketed by Cerberus than passed onto consumers in the form of lower prices.

The Federal Trade Commission should block this merger. The combined supermarket would operate in more than 100 metropolitan areas and overlap in more than 40 according to a preliminary Food & Water Watch analysis. In some places, the merger will join two of the top local supermarket chains, which means that consumers will have fewer store choices and face rising prices as the supermarket stranglehold tightens further. Read the full article…

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March 5th, 2014

California Factory Farms are No Chicken Shangri-La

By Wenonah Hauter

For the Presss: High Resolution Image of Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director

I wrote my book Foodopoly to take on the handful of companies that control most of the food we eat and also profit from factory farms. Poultry, dairy and eggs are produced in an industrialized system that values profit and “economic efficiency” over food safety, animal welfare or fairness for farmers. So, it was with a critical eye that I read the recent New York Times article about how good factory farmed hens in California have it because their cages are slightly more roomy than chickens raised in factory farms in other states.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that increasing the size of hens’ cages in giant warehouses where they never see the light of day and are forced to produce year long in their short lives is still a bad system. While the small boost in size is slightly better, we should be working hard for a different type of agriculture. We shouldn’t miss the larger point; it’s not just the size of the cage, it’s the size of the farm. Factory farms are bad, not only for animals, but for the environment, public health and consumers too. And this system of agriculture makes it impossible for smaller family run egg operations to compete. Let’s face it: California hens are still mostly raised on factory farms without access to pasture. A slightly better factory farm is still a factory farm.

Why do factory farms exist? Thanks to decades of agricultural and economic policy that helped companies swallow up other companies, a handful of huge corporations have become so big that they’re able to write all the rules (for example, just four companies process 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S.) Their contract farmers (especially in the case of meat chickens) go into debt just to keep their farms thanks to the demands of Tysons, JBS and other mega-companies to produce more, more quickly, more cheaply. Their industry trade groups lobby congressmen so that they get what they want from Washington, for the most part. So the reasons these chickens are stuck in cages (whether they are in “economy class” ones in other states or “business class” sized-ones in California) is so that these few companies can grow their profits.

I have nothing against fair profits, but when it comes to our food system, some things are more important and it’s time for the food movement to force policymakers to regulate the industry, including the highly consolidated industry that brings us factory farms. We already know factory farms raise animals in ways that are bad for public health and the environment. Factory farms feed animals 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country, and most of those are nontherapeutic—meaning that they are simply given to healthy animals to grow them faster or keep them from getting infections in the tightly cramped, unhygienic conditions. No wonder we now have a crisis of epic proportions when it comes to antibiotic resistance in humans. Factory farms also release obscene amounts of concentrated animal waste into nearby communities.

California law might have made things ever so slightly better for chickens, but those chickens are still raised without access to pasture, or room to roam freely and exercise natural chicken behaviors like running, foraging and perching. California factory farms are no Shangri-La for chickens. And they’re no picnic for the rest of us, either.

February 19th, 2014

Third-Party Science and the Soft Lobby

Money and BooksBy Tim Schwab

The industrial producers of corn syrup have been busy the last decade defending their product’s good name against increasingly clear science showing public health problems related to obesity and diabetes.

But agribusiness corn refiners like Archer Daniel Midland and Cargill, which produce much of the ubiquitous sweetener, recognize they can’t just say their critics are wrong. They need credible allies, preferably those that look independent, to convince regulators, consumers, manufacturers and the scientific community that corn syrup is all right.

According to court documents recently released, that’s exactly what the corn refiners did. The New York Times and the Washington Post both reported last week on how “Washington-based groups and academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns,” using the debate over sweeteners as a case study. Read the full article…

February 18th, 2014

Justice Department Should Sink Titanic Flour Merger, Even with Rearranged Deck Chairs

By Patrick Woodall

Last week, ConAgra Foods, Inc. confessed to its shareholders that it had to delay its proposed wheat flour merger with Cargill because of the ongoing antitrust review by the U.S. Department of Justice. The proposed merger would create a dominant wheat flour milling company that would be twice the size of its next biggest rival, ADM, and more than five times bigger than the third and fourth largest flour milling firms.

The proposed merger (which would create a company called “Ardent Mills”) would have a near stranglehold on buying wheat from farmers and selling flour to bakeries and other food manufacturers. Because Ardent would be so large and have such a heavy footprint across the country, farmers would likely get paid less for their wheat while bakeries would probably pay more for flour, ultimately raising prices for consumers.

Cargill and ConAgra knew this mega-merger would raise eyebrows, so now the companies are talking about selling a few of the flour mills involved in the deal to help make it easier for the Justice Department to swallow a merger resulting in a company that is just too big. ConAgra told its shareholders that the merging companies were “prepared to divest” four flour mills (two in California and one each in Texas and Minnesota). That minor concession just puts lipstick on a pig of a market for wheat and flour that looks a lot like a monopoly in many parts of the country. Read the full article…

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