Food Safety | Food & Water Watch - Part 2
Victory! Cleveland passes resolution against antibiotic misuse on factory farms. more wins »
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Blog Posts: Food safety

April 17th, 2014

USDA Continues to Deceive on Meat Inspections

By Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Further evidence that the USDA is dismantling the meat inspection system as we know it came in an email last night.

At 9:22 pm on April 16, 2014, I received an e-mail from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Office at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) containing a spreadsheet with the number of temporary inspectors the agency has hired and the locations where these temporary inspectors are currently working. The chart was a partial response to a FOIA request we filed on December 23, 2013 to learn where the temporary inspectors were being assigned in response to a job announcement that FSIS had posted, saying: “As the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) looks to transition through modernization and implementation of the New Poultry Slaughter Inspection System, the Agency is announcing temporary Food Inspector positions to facilitate the transition and to help ensure seamless implementation should the Agency decide to proceed with implementation of the new system.”

No one can remember the last time FSIS had advertised for temporary inspector positions, so we became curious as to how the agency was assigning these personnel.

Much to our surprise, the spreadsheet reveals that not only are temporary inspectors working in poultry slaughter facilities, but 35% of them are working in red meat slaughter facilities. (See column C, Establishment Number—all numbers followed by an “M” indicate a meat plant, and all numbers followed by a “P” indicate poultry.) In recent letters to both USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Congressman Robert Aderholt, chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agency Appropriations, Food & Water Watch pointed out that we were hearing that the temporary inspector hiring program was not meeting its goals and in fact exacerbating an already critical inspector shortage problem across the country. The information we received last night confirms that that the policy of not filling inspector vacancies with permanent employees is causing a distortion in the hiring practices at FSIS. Today, I am finding out that the scope of the temporary hiring is broader than what the spreadsheet is showing as I have received information identifying other meat and poultry plants where temporary inspectors have been hired that were not included in what I received last night.

We already know that the FSIS staff in Washington has problems distinguishing between animal species. They have granted equivalency status to privatized inspection systems in Canada and Australia for beef slaughter based on an unevaluated privatized hog slaughter pilot project being run in five hog slaughter facilities in the U.S. that has been roundly criticized by both USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency’s Washington staff issued a directive last year to its inspectors assigned to horse slaughter facilities to code their inspection activities as if they were working in goat slaughter facilities. Now, we find that temporary inspectors being hired under the guise of a privatized poultry inspection rule that has not been finalized are actually being assigned to beef and hog slaughter facilities. The implication is clear: it’s not about phasing out permanent inspectors because of pending plans to implement the rule; it’s about cutting the food safety inspection budget by essentially contracting out what were previously paid, professional career positions with low-paid temps. But we can ill afford the consequences of weakened food safety inspections.

This important public health agency is out of control. Someone needs to bring order to it because the current FSIS leadership has failed.

April 16th, 2014

Passover, Easter and Changing Holiday Foods

By Briana Kerensky

After a winter that felt like it was going to go on forever, I feel like I can justifiably use the cliché “spring has sprung.” Just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t walk to the Food & Water Watch D.C. office without wearing a hat and mittens. And now, I can’t walk to the office without helping tourists find where our city’s beautiful cherry blossoms are located. 

And with the cherry blossoms and warm weather, we have two of spring’s most well known holidays upon us: Passover and Easter. Both are steeped in traditions focused on the season’s delicious bounty, but the encroaching influence of food corporations and Big Ag is making it harder to keep custom alive. Check out three ways these groups are fundamentally changing how we celebrate Passover and Easter.

Eggs: When you’re a kid, Easter is all about eggs. Painting them, going on a hunt for them, eating chocolate versions of them, and maybe even rolling them across the White House lawn. And on Passover, which started on Monday night, the traditional seder plate includes a roasted, hard-boiled egg to represent the ritual sacrifice Jews used to perform at the Second Temple. But when it’s time to buy all these eggs, do you know what all the labels on the crates really mean? Read our “How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?” fact sheet to learn how the food industry uses terms like “cage free” to influence your purchasing decisions and make you think you’re eating ethically.

Wheat: Ok, so the Torah is a little too old to say anything about genetically modified wheat. During the week of Passover, Jews don’t eat food that could be “contaminated” with ingredients considered not kosher for the holiday. With organic farmers worried about the threat of GMO wheat contaminating organic wheat in the future, what will happen to our matzah in the years to come? There’s already a growing movement of people within the Jewish community who say that GMOs aren’t kosher under any circumstances.

Big Family Meals: The USDA is on the verge of implementing a new rule that would reduce the number of government inspectors in poultry processing plants and turn over inspections to untrained company employees. When inspectors can’t successfully do their jobs, and potentially dangerous food makes it to our holiday tables, it’s our health and safety on the line. Learn more about the “filthy chicken rule” and what you can do to stop it.

April 14th, 2014

Calling on Congress to Protect U.S. Consumers from Chinese Chicken Imports

By Katherine Cirullo 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the People’s Republic of China are on the brink of finalizing a deal that will allow China to process U.S.-raised chicken and send it back to the United States, an unfortunate scenario where trade might trump the health and safety of millions of Americans.

Last week, opponents of the decision took to Capitol Hill to speak out about the many perils of this plan and to demand Congress support a provision that would lessen the ill effects it would have on consumers. Food & Water Watch’s Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo spoke at the briefing alongside Kelly Horton, Legislative Assistant to Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and several notable experts and advocates. Bettina Siegel, Barbara Kowalcyk and Nancy Huehnergarth’s online petition opposing Chinese chicken imports has been signed by more than 300,000 people so far. Siegel is responsible for initiating the petition that removed “pink slime” from school lunch and stopping Chinese chicken from making its way onto school lunch trays is her latest next crusade. Terry Safranek founded Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China after her beloved dog Sampson died of kidney failure after eating a chicken jerky treat from China. Dr. Peter Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown also participated in the panel. Dr. Li is an expert in Chinese animal husbandry practices.

As Kowalcyk framed it, “Our food safety system is only as strong as the weakest link…are we ready to allow poultry processed in China when we know they already have issues with food safety?” It became clear with each panelist’s testimony that this comment couldn’t ring more true.

Analysis shows that China’s food safety inspection system has a shoddy track record and its poultry products, processed or raw, are not fit to eat. An audit of China’s poultry slaughter system from March of 2013 showed poor management, irregular or no disease prevention measures and abuse of drugs like antibiotics. In fact, the USDA is still concerned about the safety of poultry raised in China, so those products will still be banned. Why, then, does the USDA support importing poultry that has been processed in China?  

Under the USDA’s decision, China would be required to provide government-paid inspectors in the plants that would be eligible to export to the U.S., but the agency would not have inspectors stationed in the Chinese plants to make sure that U.S. chicken is being processed to send back to the U.S.. Here in the United States where foodborne illnesses are all too common and sometimes fatal, our lawmakers should be hearing the warning bells, loud and clear.

Speakers at the briefing brought up another key point of concern highlighting China’s poor food safety record: the massive outbreak of pet illnesses and fatalities in the United States that are linked to pet treats made with meat processed in China. As Kowalcyz stated, this problem is an obvious canary in the coal mine – a telltale sign that if Chinese pet treats are making our beloved animals sick, Chinese chicken may very well make American people sick too.

The Food and Drug Administration has an ongoing investigation and found that pet jerky treats containing poultry and duck products from China have been linked to 3,600 pet illnesses in the United States. Since 2007, around 600 pets have died from these treats. The scientific reason why remains unclear.

The New York Department of Agriculture found five different antibiotics in some of the pet treats (four out of five of them not approved for poultry production in the U.S.) Unfortunately for China’s rap, this tragic problem has not gone unnoticed by the American public. In February, 22,000 Americans signed a petition organized by the Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China urging the FDA to implement a section of the new Food Safety Modernization Act to better inform consumers of dangerous food products, whether for humans or pets. 

It’s time for Congress to connect the dots, listen to the facts and take action to protect Americans. USDA’s decision, which would allow poultry that’s been processed in China to reach American supermarkets, restaurants and the National School Lunch Program, might pave the way to the next worse scenario: raw poultry imports from China. Our representatives simply must make Americans’ food safety a top priority. 

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April 11th, 2014

Ending the Factory Farm Drug Addiction One City at a Time

Antibiotics Campaign, Cleveland, OH

Clevelanders pose with our cow mascot to send a message to council members.

By Katy Kiefer

This spring, something important is stirring in the movement for good food and healthy families. Food & Water Watch volunteers and allies have passed seven resolutions through city councils across the country, calling on Congress to take action to stop the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Many more resolutions are in the works. Today, we’re releasing a map to track these resolutions – the grassroots movement to save antibiotics.

Most of us know that doctors should only prescribe antibiotics when we really need them in order to prevent resistance. But many people don’t realize that a whopping 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in agriculture, primarily to make animals grow faster in stressful, crowded, filthy factory farms. That’s not the way antibiotics should be used, and it’s resulting in a serious public health crisis.

Food & Water Watch has been advocating for legislation to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms for years. With little action in Congress, and too little, too late from the FDA, we thought, let’s empower communities to take matters into their own hands. Which is why we’ve launched a nationwide effort to help communities educate and organize at the grassroots level to build support for a national ban on antibiotics abuse.

It all started in Providence, RI, in early February when the first of these resolutions passed. Red Bank, NJ, Cleveland, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA quickly followed. In each city, council members stepped up to take this on and sponsor each resolution, and most passed the same day they were introduced. But we knew it was only a matter of time until the factory farming industry caught wind and started fighting back.

In Seattle, they sent a letter to council members right before the vote, to try to derail passage of their resolution. But after hearing from hundreds of their constituents, Seattle council members did the right thing, and just this week passed the resolution with full support. Seattle’s resolution passed on Monday followed quickly by Madison, WI, on Tuesday and St Paul, MN, on Wednesday. All were passed unanimously – a testament to the power of concerned community members coming together to advocate for commonsense policies.

Despite what Big Ag wants you to think, we don’t need to put up with this dirty, unsustainable system of producing food. An alternative is possible, and it’s necessary. The European Union has banned the irresponsible use of antibiotics on factory farms and the EU hasn’t stopped producing food. We can do the same here in the U.S. and we’re proving it one city at a time. 

If antibiotic resistance has affected you or a loved one, please share your story with us. And if you’re ready to pass a resolution in your town, we’re ready to help. Sign up here!

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 20th, 2014

USDA: Start Telling the Truth About Inspector Shortages

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Yesterday afternoon, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a blog written Aaron Lavallee in the public affairs office, who challenged assertions made by Food & Water Watch (that were subsequently printed in the New York Times last month) that inspector shortages were leading to problems for the agency’s inspection program.

On February 10, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concerns that inspector shortages were causing severe strains on the inspection program, pointing out that these shortages seemed to be related to the policy that FSIS adopted in 2012 to hire “temporary Inspectors” instead of permanent inspectors in anticipation of implementing a privatized poultry inspection system that would lead to the elimination of 800 permanent inspector positions. The temporary inspector hiring program has been less than successful as the agency has not been able to attract enough applicants to take the jobs. So, with open permanent inspector positions remaining vacant and no temporary inspectors to fill them, inspector shortages have developed all across the country.

Read the full article…

February 13th, 2014

ALEC Goes After Your Food

stack of one hundred dollar billsBy Anna Meyer

The anti-regulation, pay-to-play group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is infamous for pushing “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, anti-worker and anti-voter legislation, and trying to repeal renewable energy laws. But lately ALEC’s been busy trying to help the Foodopoly maintain its stranglehold on the American food system, despite the fact that it’s making us sick.

ALEC is pushing hard to thwart attempts to rein in antibiotic abuse on factory farms with its Resolution on Animal Antibiotic Use. Their resolution supports the continued overuse of antibiotics for nontherapeutic reasons in livestock feed, a practice that is commonly used to make up for filthy and inhumane living conditions on factory farms and has been linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.   

Continued overuse of antibiotics has resulted in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, which decrease antibiotics’ effectiveness in fighting infections (read about our campaign to end the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms here). Despite a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report linking superbugs with antibiotic misuse on factory farms and nearly 40 years of medical research including DNA analysis, the ALEC resolution tries to blame the 2 million people who become infected with resistant bacteria and the 23,000 people who die as a result of these infections every year solely on the use of antibiotics in human medicine. Doctors disagree.

The resolution to pad the meat industry’s pocketbooks by perpetuating antibiotic abuse on factory farms is not the only ridiculous resolution to come out of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. The group also promotes widespread use of chemicals with minimal regulation with the Resolution on Chemical Policy Principles and promotes a model bill to take away the right of local governments to regulate genetically engineered crops. ALEC also tried to attack Country of Origin Labels (COOL), which gives consumers more information about where their meat comes from.

Then there’s ALEC’s notorious model bill, the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which has served as inspiration for the many ag-gag bills that have been circulating through state legislatures over the past few years. Ag-gag bills are extremely hazardous for multiple reasons. They shield factory farms from public scrutiny, even though they put animal welfare at risk, and increase risks to food safety and environmental damage.

ALEC’s positions on food would put everyone’s health at risk and allow big food and ag corporations to hide what they are doing. Policy makers at every level of government should be drafting legislation that protects the health and well-being of all citizens, not just the bank accounts of a few rich executives.

Help us hold big food and ag corporations accountable by supporting commonsense legislation that puts people first. Join our list to take action

 

Anna Meyer is a communications intern for Food & Water Watch.

February 12th, 2014

Stay Safe in Snow Storm Pax While You Learn, Laugh and Take Action

Constance Zimmer, Raphael Sbarge and Samantha Ressler star in our new videoBy Royelen Lee Boykie

First and foremost, everyone at Food & Water Watch is about safety during weather warnings.

Please stay warm, comfortable and most of all safe during Pax (apparently named to add “peace” to the event) and all other severe weather-related encounters.

Your well-being secured, take the time to get smart (and maybe get a laugh, too) with our best “fowl” weather information.

We hope by the time you’re finished, the weather and related news will be clear and your routine will be hassle-free.

February 11th, 2014

Intimidation and Bullying: How Industry Steamrolls the Scientific Debate

By Tim Schwab

For anyone who’s ever wondered why the “science-based” rules and regulations coming out of Washington are so consistently industry friendly, Tyrone Hayes’ story recently in the New Yorker, but told first by 100Reporters and Environmental Health News last June, is enlightening.

A biology professor at the University of California, Hayes took research funding from Syngenta to study its herbicide atrazine. When his study found environmental and health problems with the widely used herbicide in the late 1990s, Sygenta balked and stalled his findings. Hayes ended the funding relationship, feeling that his peers may eventually think that he was “part of a plan to bury important data” and that his reputation might be injured. Little did Hayes know. Read the full article…

February 7th, 2014

Factory Farmed Chicken: Not Fit to Eat

By Darcey Rakestraw

Low in cholesterol and saturated fat, chicken has been touted as a healthy alternative to red meat. You may think you’re making a good choice by choosing chicken when you go out to eat or shopping at the supermarket, but one thing’s for sure: the way we produce chicken today is something our grandparents would never recognize—and it’s even making us sick.

That’s why we’ve created this new video in partnership with Appeal To Reason Productions featuring Environmental Media Association board members Constance Zimmer, Raphael Sbarge and Samantha Ressler.

How often do you sit down at a restaurant and order the chicken? If you asked questions about how the chicken was raised and processed, you probably wouldn’t get very clear answers. Inspired by this hilarious Portlandia skit, these are the answers you’d get if your server knew the real story behind most of the chicken served in the U.S.

But unlike the diners in the video, you’d probably not be amused if your waiter told you that your chicken was raised on a factory farm controlled by one of four giant corporations. Or that it was dunked in bleach to remove visible signs of fecal matter. Or that the animals were raised in crowded conditions raised on antibiotics (which is contributing to a public health disaster—antibiotic resistance in humans.)

Now, we have a handful of days or weeks to put pressure on the USDA not to allow the privatization of poultry inspections. Given the unhealthy way that chicken is raised and processed, proper food inspections are vital. But could you inspect 175 birds a minute? We couldn’t either. That’s why the USDA’s plan to cut USDA inspectors and to put the job of inspections in the hands of the poultry companies is a bad idea. What’s worse, is it’s the first step towards deregulating our meat inspection system entirely—with beef inspections next on the list.

Share the video and take action today to pressure the USDA to stop the plan before it’s too late.

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