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Blog Posts: Food safety

August 3rd, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About GMO Labeling; We’ve Got Answers

By Sarah Alexander

BlogThumb_GMOkidsWe get a lot of questions about why we need labeling for GMOs, even from staff of members of Congress. Our answers are below. We hope you’ll contact your Senators today, and give them the information below, so they can vote the right way and protect your right to know what’s in your food.

1: What is a genetically engineered food or GMO?

A genetically engineered food is a plant or animal that has been changed by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another species or altering the DNA in a way that could never happen through traditional cross-breeding or in nature.

2: Aren’t genetically engineered foods safe?

The approval process for new GMO crops in the U.S. is extremely weak and relies solely on the safety tests done by the corporations that are creating these crops. Right now, most crops are approved by federal regulators under the “generally recognized as safe” provision, which means that if a GMO corn variety looks and “acts” like the non-GMO version of corn, it is approved.

Currently, biotechnology seed companies and their advocates are oversimplifying the hundreds of factors involved in the GMO production process to broadcast the myth of a “scientific consensus” that GMO foods are safe. To the contrary, most scientific bodies weighing in on the subject openly acknowledge unaddressed safety considerations and gaps in knowledge.

3: But don’t farmers need genetically engineered foods to feed the growing world population?

Most of the GMO crops planted today are engineered to withstand strong chemical applications, or to produce their own pesticides. Often, the chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont that create GMO crops also create the chemicals that have to be used with the crops, so the main benefit of these patented crops is for the companies and their profits. Additionally, most of these GMO crops — like corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — are not grown as food for direct human consumption, but rather for animal feed, or to create ingredients in processed foods.

4: If over 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMOs, why hasn’t Congress or the Food and Drug Administration done anything?

 What we eat and feed our families has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, and we have a right to know if the food we’re eating has been altered in a way that could never happen in nature. Unfortunately, the big food industries spend millions lobbying Congress and federal agencies to keep labels off of GMO foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the biggest food and chemical companies, has spent over $50 million to defeat labeling initiatives in multiple states.

5: Won’t labeling GMO ingredients cost companies a lot of money and raise the price of our food?

 This is one of the biggest industry myths. Consumers Union did a study last year that shows the requirement of labeling genetically engineered food ingredients will cost consumers less than a penny per day or $2.30/person annually.

6: Why should I take action and ask my Senators to oppose this legislation?

Genetically engineered crops are in most processed foods but are unlabeled, so many people who wish to avoid foods with GMO ingredients don’t know where they are lurking. GMOs are untested, and it’s unknown how these engineered foods may be impacting our health and the environment. At the very least, shouldn’t we have a choice to avoid them if we want to? The legislation that Congress is considering will prohibit any states from labeling GMOs and will make federal labeling voluntary, which is what we have already, and not a single product is labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Ask your Senators to support labeling of genetically engineered foods and to oppose any attempt to take away states’ rights to require labels.

July 30th, 2015

Foodborne Illness is Not Funny

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.

The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.

As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.

Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.

The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.

Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it.  However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.

This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.

June 23rd, 2015

Free-Trade Senate Democrats Provide Narrow Margin to Pass Fast Track

By Wenonah Hauter

1504_FBSq_NoFastTrack-C1Today, the Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle on a degraded version of the Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority by the narrowest margin in the legislative mechanism’s history, 60-37. The procedural measure required 60 votes to pass. A smaller handful of Democrats joined with Senate Republicans to pass Fast Track over the will of the American people, who have been clamoring to halt the rush to rubber stamp trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Two Senators switched their votes from yes to no, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

The 13 corporate trade backers included: Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Thomas Carper (D-Delaware), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Diane Feinstein (D-California), Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and, the co-sponsor, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). Senators Bennet, Murray and Wyden are all up for re-election in 2016, and voters will remember this Fast Track betrayal when they go to the polls.

Last month, the Senate passed a different version of Fast Track, but House Republicans eviscerated the delicate Senate policy balances, making the version the Senate passed today considerably worse. Today’s legislation does not include the worker-retraining program that many said was essential to securing their vote. Democrats that supported Fast Track today took a leap of faith that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can actually pass the worker retraining measures. The Senate should have forced the House to act first on the worker assistance program before walking the plank on Fast Track.

Today’s bill also weakened the Senate’s earlier provisions addressing human trafficking and currency manipulation and includes new House language that prohibits trade deals from ever addressing climate change. Corporate interests are being put on a pedestal, while the health and safety of the American people and our environment are being swept under the rug. Tomorrow, the Senate will likely vote to pass Fast Track, which only requires a simple 51-vote majority, far fewer votes than were needed today.

Fast Track will accelerate congressional consideration of the as-yet-unseen Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that will undermine key consumer, public health and environmental protections. The Senate Democrats that voted for Fast Track today did so in part because of the promise that the TPP will be “the most progressive trade deal in history” according to Senator Wyden. This is a pathetically low bar, given how bad all the prior trade deals have been.

The Senate passed Fast Track on the narrowest margin in its history today because of the stalwart nationwide activism and advocacy. Food & Water Watch will continue to push for trade deals that put workers, the environment and commonsense consumer protections ahead of Big Business. We will not stand for trade deals like the TPP that undermine our food safety standards, expand fracking and privatize our municipal water systems.

June 4th, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About Antibiotic Resistance; We’ve Got Answers

The original version of this blog post was published in June 2014. It has been updated to reflect recent statistics and events.

By Sydney Baldwin

Antibiotic-resistant super bugs pose one of the most threatening public health problems.You’ve heard about antibiotic-resistance: that scary scenario when someone is sick with an infection, but the medicine that’s supposed to treat it doesn’t work. Major health organizations around the world warn that antibiotics are quickly losing their effectiveness, and pharmaceutical companies aren’t acting fast enough to create new ones. What’s scary is that, according to our researchers’ analysis of Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, over 20 percent of antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to food.

Even if you don’t eat meat or live near a factory farm, you’re still susceptible. Read on to learn why we’re all at risk to contract an antibiotic-resistant infection. Then tell Congress to stand up for the public, not corporations, by introducing tighter regulations that will help stop the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

1.    Exactly how do factory farms misuse antibiotics?

Factory farms give animals low doses of antibiotics to compensate for overcrowded, filthy conditions that lead to disease.  In fact, 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in agriculture, but not necessarily because the animals ingesting them are sick. Unfortunately, that’s making us sick.

This practice, called nontherapeutic use, creates the perfect stew for bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics to thrive and spread. These superbugs – antibiotic-resistant bacteria bred on factory farms – end up in food and in the environment, which puts everyone at risk, regardless of where you live or what you eat. Read the full article…

May 27th, 2015

New Data Shows Factory Farms are a #LoadOfCrap

FBLP_1505_FacFarmReport-C1By Wenonah Hauter

If you wander through Times Square through July, you will see an electronic billboard we unveiled last week—Factory Farms Are a #LoadOfCrap. That’s because factory farms produce more than just the majority of the meat, milk and eggs we consume—they breed disease, misery and pollution. In fact, every day, America’s factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building.

It’s therefore fitting that following on the heels of this important public service announcement, we unveiled today our latest Factory Farm Map and released a companion report, Factory Farm Nation: 2015 Edition. The Factory Farm Map uses U.S. Department of Agriculture census data dating as far back as 1997 to show how factory farms are getting larger—at the expense of the public, as well as small and medium sized farmers. For instance, the total number of animals on the largest factory farms increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012.

It’s a trend we ignore at our own peril.

Larger factory farms are a symptom of the increasing consolidation of our nation’s food system. Rather than obtaining our food from a large variety of independent companies, most of us get our food from hungry agribusiness giants that are systematically gobbling up smaller companies. In many cases, large companies are merging with one another, creating foodopolies that control every link of the food chain. If you’re wondering why the Jolly Green Giant is so big and happy, it’s because he just ate several other companies for lunch.

The larger factory farms get, the more problems they create. Larger factory farms mean more animals crammed into disgusting, cramped quarters. To compensate for these tough conditions, industry relies on constant use of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics on factory farms breeds resistance to antibiotics elsewhere, meaning that these life-saving medicines are less effective when we most need them.

Factory farms also generate waste, and by that we mean crap. It’s not something to which the general public is usually privy. That’s because factory farms are usually set away from the public eye, but also because of ag gag laws that are intended to obscure the terrible conditions on factory farms. In 2012, alone, livestock on factory farms produced 369 million tons of manure—about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This is enough manure to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times. Unlike sewage produced in cities, the waste on factory farms does not undergo any treatment.

With nowhere to put this waste, it’s stored in giant pits or lagoons, and then eventually spread on fields as fertilizer, often in amounts that far exceed what the land can absorb or crops need to grow. It’s also important to note that manure from these operations contains nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria that can endanger the environment and public health. You don’t want this stuff anywhere near your drinking water, but that’s often where it ends up.

Waste from factory farms is an enormous problem, one that we cannot begin to curb through market-based approaches such as pollution trading, which should really be called “Pay-to-pollute.” These schemes don’t actually stop factory farms from polluting; they just spread waste around, even to other impaired watersheds. Factory farms concentrate too many animals – and too much waste – in one place. The only solution is to regulate factory farm pollution.

I could go on for days about factory farms, and how they’re both indicative of, and caused by a corporate foodopoly run amok. But instead I’ll leave you to read our report and to explore our map. Click over to www.factoryfarmmap.org to take a look at factory farms in your area and how they affect you and your community. And don’t forget to join the conversation on social media—tell us why you oppose factory farms using the hashtag #LoadOfCrap.

May 20th, 2015

Factory Farms Make Me Sick: Times Square Edition

Factory farms produce more than the majority of the meat, milk and eggs we consume—they breed disease, misery and pollution. We’re bringing this message to Times Square this week with this advocacy ad, which will run through July.

Watch below and tweet why you oppose factory farms to the hashtag #LoadOfCrap.

 

Take action to tell the EPA to regulate factory farms:

TAKE ACTION

 

And tweet why you oppose factory farms:

Tweet: U.S. factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building every day. What a #LoadOfCrap. Take action: http://ctt.ec/nH04p+ U.S. factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building every day. What a #LoadOfCrap.

 

Tweet: #Factoryfarms breed disease, misery and pollution. That’s a #LoadOfCrap. Take action: http://ctt.ec/cvlRc+#Factoryfarms breed disease, misery and pollution. That’s a #LoadOfCrap.

May 13th, 2015

Ice Cream Listeria Scare Reveals Cracks in FDA’s Inspection System

By Tony Corbo

Over the past two months, there has been a food borne illness outbreak involving Blue Bell ice cream products, primarily concentrated in western states. Ten people have been sickened, including three senior citizens who died from eating contaminated ice cream in a Kansas hospital.

The pathogen involved in this outbreak is listeria monocytogenes a nasty bug that is especially virulent in the very young, the elderly, the immunocompromised, pregnant mothers and fetuses. It can even cause stillbirths. An infected person usually exhibits fever, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems. Even scarier than listeria itself? The fact that Blue Bell knew its products were tainted as far back as 2013. Read the full article…

May 4th, 2015

Keep School Lunches Safe: Reject Chinese Chicken

By Kate Fried Cafeteria_Kids

When parents send their children off to school, they expect a few things. Among them that their kids will receive a complete education, and that schools will provide their kids with healthy, wholesome meals. Yet ensuring that kids eat well at school is more complicated than some might expect, as major corporations target kids as potential future junk food customers, and attempts to set higher nutrition standards for school lunches become the subject of endless debate. Read the full article…

April 8th, 2015

“Science” or Spin?

By Wenonah Hauter WenonahHauter.Profile

Today we released a report on the corporate influence behind animal science research, which got me thinking about the role that science plays in public debates over controversial issues, particularly the ones we focus on here at Food & Water Watch.

When I think of science, I think of information that has been proven true from extensive research. Modern science explains the physical universe in real and concrete terms. It’s supposed to be unimpeachable. Yet over the years, corporations have co-opted the use of the term “science” to skew debates and influence public policy towards outcomes that favor their interests.

Corporations use scientific claims to sell the public on controversial products and practices such as GMOs; drugs given to food animals like Zilmax and rGBH; and fracking. They stand to profit if these technologies and drugs are allowed, so they use science as a cloak of validation, skewing public perception of these questionable practices, when in reality, we should be very skeptical.

While it might seem that the science on these practices is unbiased, corporations with a direct financial stake heavily influence much of the research that policy makers use to approve or reject them. Corporate Control in Animal Science, released this week, documents the great extent to which drug companies and corporate agribusiness shape the debate around their own products, authoring and funding journal articles at the same time that they sponsor and edit influential scientific journals.

While highly troubling, it’s not terribly surprising to learn that the animal drug industry operates like the human pharmaceutical industry. Both use immense resources to capture and control the scientific research around their products. It’s similar to the ways in which corporations influence agriculture research at universities, as we outlined in our report Public Research, Private Gain.

Take for example, the drug Zilmax, developed to build muscle in cattle, which enjoyed years of commercial success despite animal safety concerns. Zilmax was approved for cattle in 2006 based on industry science and only one animal safety study. In August 2013, the nation’s largest meatpackers announced they would no longer accept cattle treated with Zilmax because of significant animal health problems. Cattle were arriving at slaughterhouses already dead, or with missing hooves. Yes, you read that correctly. Merck, the company that manufactures Zilmax, withdrew the drug from the market to a loss of as much as $160 million a year.

There was plenty of evidence that Zilmax was unsafe, even before Merck voluntarily removed it from the market. As many as 160 foreign countries had banned the class of drugs to which Zilmax belongs. Nearly 300 reports submitted to FDA documented cattle that died or had to be destroyed after receiving the drug. Yet despite these obvious red flags, FDA continued to let favorable research from the drug’s makers Merck and Intervet guide its decision-making.

As our report shows, 78 published articles examined the effects of Zilmax on cattle, and three-quarters of those studies were authored or funded by industry groups or corporate agribusiness. Most of these studies focused on the commercial aspects of Zilmax, like how easily a diner could cut meat from an animal treated with the drug, or what the meat would look like. In our research, we didn’t find a single independent, peer-reviewed study designed to examine animal health prior to Zilmax’s removal from the marketplace. After Zilmax was taken off the market, a study published in the independent journal PLOS ONE revealed that cattle treated with the drug had dramatically increased mortality rates along with other animal health issues.

As the Zilmax example shows, when industry dominates scientific research, no useful counterpoint is offered that might expose the weaknesses or biases of that research. Because many journals have weak disclosure rules, lawmakers and regulators often don’t know that the literature they consult is paid for by industry or authored by deeply conflicted university scientists.

We can’t let executives at major agribusiness corporations be the only ones making critical decisions that affect our food system. Congress needs to tell FDA to revamp its process for approving new animal drugs, basing its decision on independent science. While they’re at it, the federal government should expand funding for animal drug safety research so reliable information is available in the first place. In the meantime, agriculture journal publishers should disclose the funding of studies they publish.

As we’ve reported with the phenomenon of food company mergers, and as I wrote in my book Foodopoly, a handful of corporations are seizing control of the food system. But we can’t let them take over science, too, or exploit the term for their own gain. Just as science needs to remain objective and unbiased, every level of our food system, including the drugs used in livestock and poultry production, should remain free from corporate influence.

January 27th, 2015

USDA Defends Weak Food Safety System

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

By Tony Corbo

Last week, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concern over an indisputable increase in recalls involving imported meat and poultry products. It seems that ever since USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) implemented its new information technology system, the Public Health Information System (PHIS), in May 2012 to track imported food, some meat and poultry imported into the U.S. has actually escaped inspection from FSIS personnel, ultimately entering our food system.

In the wee-hours of Saturday, January 17, FSIS issued press releases revealing that two different shipments of imported meat had been recalled for lack of import inspection. This agency is notorious for issuing recall announcements on late Friday nights when most people are getting ready for their weekends and turning their attention away from work. What made these recall announcements even more suspicious was that they occurred on a three-day holiday weekend. One of the recalls involved nearly 170,000 pounds of imported pork products from Denmark that had somehow escaped port-of-entry inspection – not exactly a quantity that someone could hide under a coat and slip into the country without detection, but somehow it did.

In our letter to Secretary Vilsack, we pointed out that since October 2013, there had been ten recalls involving imported meat products that had failed to receive inspection prior to being released into our food system (an eleventh was announced on the night of January 21). There were only four such recalls during the George W. Bush administration.

In the afternoon of January 21, I participated in a regularly scheduled meeting with other consumer advocacy organizations and top FSIS management officials. At these meetings, we usually receive updates on the implementation of PHIS. Right before this meeting, however, I received an e-mail indicating that the agenda had been altered to include a presentation on how PHIS tracks imported meat and poultry products that escape import inspection. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Someone has raised hell about our letter.”

During the presentation, it became apparent that there were still glitches in the system. The coordination between PHIS and the information technology system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection was still not working, forcing FSIS to conduct manual reconciliations of what was coming into the country to determine whether it had received inspection. As we were told, the process is “labor intensive.” Sometimes, weeks can go by before anyone realizes that imported meat has entered the country without receiving inspection. So much for automating the process, eh? We were also told that the President had issued an executive order requiring that the two IT systems be completely compatible with one another by 2016 – so we can expect at least another year of these snafus.

After the presentation, I commented that this item was clearly added to the agenda because of our letter, and was gratified that it had caught someone’s attention. I also noted that when the switch was turned on for PHIS to cover imports in May 2012, we were promised that the coordination between FSIS and Customs would be improved, and that import inspections would be conducted more efficiently. It’s obvious that this has not been the case. In fact, it seemed that the process has gotten worse. The agency claims that while the facts presented in our letter were correct, our conclusions were not. According to the agency, the increase in recalls of uninspected meat is a sign of increased transparency. But if that’s the case, it raises a whole new set of questions about how this agency has conducted its business in the past.

After the meeting, I was asked by a top FSIS official to join him in his office to discuss the matter further. He admitted that glitches remained with PHIS and that they were working to improve the system. He reiterated that the agency was trying to be more transparent with import shipments that failed to receive port-of-entry inspection and that the policy had changed in 2009. But if that’s the case, why couldn’t we find any announcements of recalls for imported meat that had bypassed inspection between 2009 and 2013? Why had the recalls started after PHIS was implemented to cover imported meat products? Were there no problems between 2009 and 2013? I received no response.

I have written before of the problems domestic FSIS inspectors have encountered with the $140 million PHIS. We have raised these issues with members of Congress. The New York Times also exposed some of these problems. Now, the same shortcomings are showing up with import inspections. Until this point, FSIS’s import inspection program has been the envy of the world. One hundred percent of imported shipments are to receive at least a cursory inspection, with intensive inspection scheduled for a portion of those. Some imported meat is detained for visual contaminants; others are detained because they fail microbiological testing conducted for pathogens and chemical contaminants. Bypassing import inspection is a big deal. While we are glad the agency is issuing Class I recalls, the most serious type, there have been far too many holes in the system.

In FY 2014, we imported over 3.5 billion pounds of meat and poultry products. The Obama administration is in the midst of negotiating new trade deals with Europe and Asia. If it gets its way, these trade deals will undoubtedly lead to increased meat and poultry imports. If the import surveillance system can’t handle what is currently showing up on our shores, how can the administration assure U.S. consumers that tainted imported meat won’t reach our dinners tables with these new trade agreements? Instead of fast-tracking the ratification of these new agreements, we say slow-track them to ensure that our food safety system can handle it. At the present time, we are of the opinion that it cannot.

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