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Blog Posts: Food safety

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.

December 10th, 2014

How to Burst Monsanto’s Bubble

By Sarah Alexander


We need your support to keep legislators from passing Monsanto’s dream bill.

We’re within 800 votes of winning GMO labeling at the ballot in Oregon, and the measure is currently in a recount! Win or lose, coming this close to defeating Monsanto, Dow and other Big Food companies, despite their record-shattering spending to mislead voters, shows that we’re close to winning labeling for everyone!


Can you make a year-end donation right now to help make sure we can continue to fight for labeling genetically engineered (GMO) foods? Thanks to a special 2-to-1 match, the impact of your donation right will be tripled!

Food & Water Watch has been on the front lines in Oregon for the ballot initiative to label GMO foods since last January. Along with our allies, as a member of the campaign steering committee in Oregon:

  • We helped plan out the campaign’s grassroots effort, which qualified the initiative for the ballot with volunteers who helped gather more than 150,000 signatures over the summer.
  • We had five staff on the ground working to register people to vote and to get likely supporters to turn in their ballots, including special outreach to young voters on five college campuses.
  • Our national organizers in more than 17 offices throughout the U.S. helped engage volunteers from across the country to make more than 50,000 calls into Oregon voters from outside the state.
  • In the final days of the election, our staff and volunteers helped knock on more than 24,000 doors, make more than 500,000 calls, and turn people out to vote.

Our efforts are what helped make this election so much closer than previous ballot initiatives in Washington and California. We know that the only way we can counter the propaganda of Monsanto, Dow and other Big Ag companies, who have collectively spent more than $105 million to defeat labeling ballot initiatives in the last three elections, is to have one-on-one conversations with voters. But it takes staff and resources to recruit, train and organize volunteers, and we need to have more people working on these types of electoral efforts if we’re going to be able to make sure you can know what you’re eating and feeding your family.

Most Americans are pretty far removed from the production of their food. Grandparents may not realize that the cereal they are feeding to their grandkids is dramatically different from the cereal they fed their own children. Our food system has radically changed within one generation.

By genetically engineering food, these big chemical companies are changing plants and animals in a way that could never happen in nature, or through traditional cross-breeding. It’s crazy for some people to think that they can take DNA from a completely unrelated organism and insert it into the DNA of a plant or animal without having unknown consequences. And most of these crops are engineered to withstand higher applications of toxic chemicals or to actually produce toxic chemicals in their cells that kill bugs that eat the crop. What happens when we eat them?

Even worse, these GMO crops are untested, unlabeled and could be unsafe. The Food & Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, all tasked with regulating different aspects of GMO crops, have no real regulations in place to look at the impacts of genetically engineered organisms on our health or our environment.

We believe that everyone deserves safe and healthy food, and that starts with labeling so people can make informed choices. Can you make a year-end donation today to help us continue the fight for labeling in 2015?

Countries around the world do not allow the growing or importation of GMO crops, and 64 countries require the labeling of all GMO foods. Why not in the U.S.? Because big food corporations want to protect their profits, regardless of what’s healthy for you and your family.

We’re standing up to these corporations that want to keep us in the dark about what is actually in our food. In fact, these companies have found support in Congress to introduce Monsanto’s dream bill (aka the DARK Act) that keeps states from labeling GMO foods, and they are having a hearing tomorrow!

We have a plan to help stop this bill from moving through Congress in 2015 by targeting specific members of Congress, but we’ll need your support to work both inside Congress and in states across the country to keep legislators from passing Monsanto’s dream bill.

In addition to fighting at the federal level, we’ll be working with our partners and volunteers in many states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California to further state efforts to label GMOs. We just need your help to make sure we can implement our plans for genetically engineered food labeling.

With your help, it’s onward to victory!

November 20th, 2014

FDA and Pfizer Take a Trip to Spin City

By Wenonah Hauter

Chicken_Drum_StickUntil last year, small, yet significant levels of arsenic may have laced your chicken dinner, but Big Pharma really didn’t want you to know. And once again, industry influence over government prevailed over protecting public health.

In a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop, Alpharma, a former subsidiary of the major pharmaceutical company Pfizer, was recently found to be colluding with the FDA behind closed doors to delay and downplay public release of important information about risks of one of its livestock drugs. Those closed doors have now been thrown wide open.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and having to sue the agency to get the documents, Food & Water Watch recently obtained internal documents ranging from formal letters to e-mails, between Pfizer and the FDA. The trail of breadcrumbs reveals just how far Big Pharma will go to protect its interests, and just how easily the FDA gave in—at the expense of public health and food safety.

Here’s the deal: Decades ago, FDA approved the use of drugs containing arsenic for use in chickens, turkeys and pigs. It says these drugs can be used for growth promotion and to treat and prevent disease. The catch is, the FDA recognizes the organic form of arsenic as safe, while inorganic arsenic is considered a carcinogen that may lead to health effects from lung, bladder or skin cancer, to heart disease, diabetes, neurological problems in children and more. Read the full article…

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…

August 4th, 2014

Setting the Record Straight on the Obama Administration’s Privatized Poultry Inspection System

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference last week to announce the final rule for the “New Poultry Inspection System” (NPIS). I listened in, and noted that he made certain statements that were not completely accurate. Some of the written materials provided to the press did not tell the whole story either. Unfortunately, this is par for the course, regardless which party controls the executive branch. That’s because the poultry industry influences much of the policies that come out of the USDA, and the powers-that-be don’t even try to disguise this fact. 

Let’s take a closer look at what this new inspection system will actually do: 

At the present time, chicken slaughter plants that are subject to conventional FSIS inspection can run their line speeds to 140 birds per minute (bpm). Current regulations limit what each USDA inspector can inspect to 35 bpm. So, if a plant were operating its slaughter lines at 70 bpm, there would be two FSIS inspectors stationed on that line – with each inspector looking at every other bird. If a plant were running its lines at the maximum 140 bpm, there would be four FSIS inspectors stationed on each line – with each inspector inspecting every fourth bird. In a young turkey plant, the current maximum line speed is 52 bpm, with each USDA inspector looking at a maximum of 26 bpm. Read the full article…

July 24th, 2014

Q&A With “Resistance” Filmmaker Michael Graziano

By Katy Kiefer

“Resistance” filmmaker Michael Graziano and his daughter, Tess

Michael Graziano, the filmmaker behind Resistance, a ground-breaking new film on the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, took time to answer some of our burning questions. Like many of us, Graziano isn’t a scientist or a doctor, but decided that this was a story the public urgently needed to hear. Keep reading to learn more about his experience making the film and what you can do to help curb antibiotic resistance. 

Q: What made you decide to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance?

A: Our previous film Lunch Line was about the history and politics of the National School Lunch Program. In the process of making and touring that film we learned a lot about public health and became acquainted with a number of agriculture and public health advocacy groups. Through that work we started hearing about MRSA (resistant staph) infections in school locker rooms, day care centers and the like. At the same time we also started hearing about the overuse of antibiotics on farms. I decided to look more into the issue and was shocked by what I learned. I thought the problem deserved a closer, and more generally accessible examination than I could find at the time.   

Q: What was the biggest or most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film?

A: There are a few. One is that there are basically no new antibiotics in the pharmaceutical pipeline, and even if a new compound were discovered today it could easily take 10 years and $1 billion for that compound to become a clinically useful medicine. To make matters worse, the large investment in time and money required for antibiotic development, along with some other factors addressed in the film, has caused many pharma companies to shutter their antibiotic development units so there are now only a small handful of companies actually doing this critical research.   Read the full article…

July 11th, 2014

Six Books Our Staff are Reading This Summer

By Elizabeth Walek

Nothing beats lounging by the pool with a really great book! Summer is a perfect time to get caught up on reading that you’ve been putting off for weeks. Plus, books are a great way to learn more about the issues Food & Water Watch handles every day. I asked around our offices to find out which socially, politically and environmentally conscious books our staff love lately. Check out our top picks, and share your own summer reading recommendations in the comments!

Read the full article…

June 27th, 2014

Cities Come Together to Save Antibiotics


By Katy Kiefer

Volunteers in Alexandria, VA, wear red to show their support. The resolution to protect antibiotics passed unanimously on Tuesday

A few months back, we launched our national effort to save antibiotics from factory farm abuse. Despite efforts by Big Ag and pharmaceuticals to block regulations, there’s no debate here — factory farms are irresponsibly squandering antibiotics and cities across the country are calling on Congress to act.

On Tuesday, Alexandria, Va. and Carrboro, N.C. (and on Wednesday, Chicago, Ill.) joined eight other cities in passing city council resolutions calling for federal action to ban factory farms from using antibiotics on healthy animals, bringing the national total to 11 resolutions.

Before antibiotics, simple infections could be deadly. Now, the medical community is warning that these life-saving medicines may no longer work when we need them, and this is in large part due to irresponsible use on factory farms — feeding daily, low doses of antibiotics to healthy animals to boost profits and keep animals from getting sick in filthy living conditions. That’s not the way antibiotics should be used, and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria being bred by the meat industry are making us sick. 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.

June 4th, 2014

Can Factory Farms Make YOU Sick?

By Briana Kerensky

It’s really easy to believe that factory farms aren’t your problem. If you don’t eat meat, limit yourself to only local and organic meat, or live in a city, it can be tough to draw a connection between yourself and a factory farm. But with the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections, they’re quickly becoming everyone’s problem.

Follow Food & Water Watch’s flowchart and find out: can factory farms make you sick? Click the image below to get started.

When you’re done, take action: Tell Congress to save antibiotics for medicine, NOT factory farms.

Click to go to the full flowchart.


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