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Blog Posts: Food

April 20th, 2015

GM Mosquitoes: Bad for Business in the Keys

By Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch and
Barry Wray, Executive Director of Florida Keys Environmental Coalition

Aedes_albopictus_on_human_skin copyThis week, local officials in the Florida Keys will decide whether to approve the first ever release of genetically engineered (GMO) mosquitoes in the United States. Yes, you read that right: lab-engineered mosquitoes could be released in one of America’s favorite tourist destinations very soon, even though it’s unclear if any government agency has evaluated the full array of health and environmental risks associated with these new GMO insects.

Unfortunately, the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the Monroe County Board of Commissioners have been conspicuously absent from the conversation about GMO mosquitoes even though this experiment could have a direct impact on business in the Keys. The proposal to release millions of these mosquitoes by British company Oxitec is instead being vetted by a small, local board called the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. This mosquito district has touted GMO mosquitoes as a potential boon to tourism in the Keys because they could reduce dengue fever, though the Keys haven’t had a case in a half-decade.

Of course, Florida’s mosquito problem should not be trivialized. Dengue fever is a leading cause of illness and death for those in tropical and subtropical climates, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But Oxitec has not provided evidence to support that its mosquitoes will be able to effectively control dengue. On the contrary, reports from the field suggest the opposite. Malaysia’s Health Minister recently announced that after field-testing Oxitec’s mosquitos, the country will not be pursuing the program because it was not cost-effective. Additionally, one Brazilian town was still at the highest alert for dengue fever even after Oxitec’s mosquitoes were released there in 2013.

Even if these bugs did successfully wipe out the entire population of the targeted A. aegypti mosquito, the Asian tiger mosquito (also a known vector of dengue and other diseases) could easily take its place. Letting tiger mosquitoes become more commonplace would only make a new dengue fever carrier more prevalent.

Oxitec claims that its mosquitoes are engineered with a lethal gene that is supposed to break the pest’s reproductive cycle because its offspring, for the most part, die before reaching adulthood. The company claims this would theoretically reduce the mosquito population and the prevalence of dengue fever without the need for pesticides. But the Mosquito Control District has not done enough to identify insecticide alternatives. Instead of exploring a range of options, they have hastily and aggressively pursued Oxitec’s GMO mosquito program despite strong public opposition and a lack of peer-reviewed data.

Significant public opposition defeated Oxitec’s first plan to release GMO mosquitoes in Key West in 2012, but Oxitec is now poised to win approval in Key Haven, a peninsula just a few miles east of Key West. Hundreds of thousands of citizens from across the country have written local, state and federal officials to oppose this plan and last week, hundreds of people called the local tourism council to ask that the Keys be preserved as a national treasure for tourists and residents alike, not for GMO mosquito experiments.

It is puzzling that any local official would sit on the sidelines while GMO mosquitoes were allowed to potentially tarnish the reputation that most Americans have of the Florida Keys as a pristine island paradise. But that is exactly what the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council and the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners have been doing.

It’s high time that local officials took decisive steps to stop this bizarre plan now instead of inheriting the more difficult task of attracting visitors to a place where residents and tourists are the subjects of a science experiment. It’s clear now that GMO mosquitoes could not only harm public health and the environment – they may also be bad for business.

April 16th, 2015

What FDA Can’t Tell Us About Antibiotic Use in Animals

By Sarah Borron Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

Factory farms routinely use antibiotics to compensate for filthy conditions, a practice that promotes the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Food & Water Watch has been fighting to change policies about how antibiotics can be used in agriculture and to demand more information from government agencies about the problem.

Last week, the FDA released a report about antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. What’s interesting is not just what the report tells us, but what it doesn’t. For over two years, we’ve waited for FDA to make some significant changes to data collection and reporting on antibiotic use in livestock and poultry.

Let’s start with what the report does tell us–how many antibiotics producers purchased to use on livestock and poultry in 2013.

  • Overall, antibiotic sales went up by 17 percent over a five-year period.
  • For antibiotics that are important for human medicine, sales for use in animals went up by 20 percent in that same time frame.
  • Medically important antibiotics accounted for nearly two-thirds of total sales of antibiotics for use in animal agriculture.
  • Nearly all the medically important antibiotics given to animals were administered in food or water, a practice that can lead to imprecise dosing and higher likelihood of antibiotic resistance.

So, what important questions remain unanswered? To be able to better understand how antibiotic use in livestock production relates to antibiotic resistance patterns, we at least need to know how antibiotic use breaks down by different types of animals and why the antibiotics are being given to the animals. It makes a difference whether the antibiotics are given to healthy animals to prevent disease or to sick animals to treat disease. It also makes a difference to know which animals are getting which types of antibiotics as we examine, for instance, how Salmonella and E. coli are resistant to different drugs in different types of meat.

Antibiotic resistance is a complicated problem. We need more detailed data to understand how antibiotics are being used and how that affects resistance patterns. FDA has waited long enough; it’s time for them to finalize their new rules on data collection so the public can get a clear picture of how the meat industry is using antibiotics. We’ll let you know when they make a proposal so you can weigh in.

In the meantime, ask your Congressperson to protect antibiotics and stop the overuse of these important drugs on factory farms!

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April 14th, 2015

Glyphosate: As Safe as, Well, Poison

By Genna Reed GMO_Canola

Years ago, Monsanto began touting its crown jewel weed killer, glyphosate (Roundup), as “less toxic to rats than table salt.” It was reminiscent of their infamous “DDT is good for me-e-e!” ads showing gleeful fruits and vegetables dancing around with a woman and cow. Now, after Roundup has been on the market for 40 years, a new review of the available data on glyphosate may alter the commonly held belief that it is benign.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put out an evaluation of glyphosate and four other herbicides and insecticides, which determined that glyphosate should be classified as a 2A carcinogen, meaning it is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Just for a measure of comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently rates glyphosate at an E for carcinogenicity, indicating no risk of cancer whatsoever. Read the full article…

April 13th, 2015

Somerset County Residents Fight Back Against Expanding Chicken Industry

By Michele Merkel and Claire Fitch

Chickens_Farm

Somerset County has been in the cross hairs of the poultry industry for quite a long time, with an inventory of 14.9 million broiler chickens – the largest of any county in Maryland, and the sixth largest in the United States. Big companies, including Perdue and Tyson own these birds, which are raised in large industrial facilities for their entire lives, and produce enormous quantities of waste. With nowhere to put the tens of millions of pounds of manure generated by these birds, the county is now considering poultry litter incinerators while continuing to entertain proposals to build a number of new broiler chicken operations.

Last week, public health scientists, environmental advocates, and local residents joined together for a Town Hall meeting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to express their concerns with the proposed expansion of factory farm chicken operations and the construction of a poultry litter incinerator in Somerset County on the lower Eastern Shore.

Speakers at the Town Hall meeting gave us a snapshot of the public health and community impacts that may result from the expansion of broiler production and the introduction of manure burning facilities.

Brent Kim from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future spoke about the evidence of chemical contaminants and harmful bacteria, including antibiotic resistant strains, in and around broiler operations. These health hazards have been identified several miles downwind from such operations and may be carried into groundwater sources – particularly concerning for the 60 percent of Somerset County’s residents who access their household water supply from private wells. Read the full article…

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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.

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April 1st, 2015

Antibiotic Resistance: Why Senator Michael Bennet is on the Wrong Path

Jeremy.pic.ABX.blog.36

Jeremy, of Denver, is one of millions of Americans who have struggled with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

by Lisa Trope

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet can help protect the health of all Americans by sponsoring the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA), a bill seeking to curb dangerous factory farming practices that undermine the effectiveness of the hammer in our medical toolkit – antibiotics. While Senator Bennet has recently introduced a bill to streamline the approval of new antibiotics – Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health Act, or PATH – it doesn’t adequately address the overuse of antibiotics. Unless he changes course and sponsors PARA, stories like Jeremy’s are likely to become more common.

Jeremy, who lives in Denver, was a healthy thirty-two year-old when he found himself in the hospital unable to walk. Earlier that day, while out on his dry cleaning delivery route, he felt a sharp pain in his left knee. An hour later, he was favoring his right leg. After two hours, he was in full limp mode and his knee was red. Four hours passed and “I couldn’t walk on the leg at all,” Jeremy said. “Too much pain when I tried. It’d collapse under my weight.” Which brings us to the hospital.

“I had no cuts, no abrasions, but nonetheless some type of bacteria managed to enter through my knee,” said Jeremy. “The language got medically technical, but what I had was an extremely aggressive bacterial infection in my leg.” Doctors concluded that the bacteria entered Jeremy’s body while he was kneeling in the back of his work truck; they acted quickly, putting Jeremy on antibiotics.

It soon became clear that the antibiotics weren’t working. The infection spread. “Somewhere during the medical melee,” said Jeremy, “a professional conveyed that if they [antibiotics] couldn’t beat the infection, it could mean the loss of my leg. Meaning amputation. It was also conveyed that if it got into my blood stream, then I could die.”

Jeremy couldn’t understand how this all happened so fast. A handful of doctors began the process of mixing antibiotic cocktails that they believed would be the most effective at fighting the infection. In time, the doctors narrowed down the recipe to two antibiotics, with one crowned the eventual winner; to this day the doctors don’t know which one saved Jeremy’s life.

Jeremy is alive and well today, but stories like his have become too common. Why do two million people like Jeremy all across the country fall ill, and 23,000 die each year from infections that for decades have been treated effectively with antibiotics?

What’s the problem?
Antibiotics have long been prescribed improperly to people and livestock animals as a preventive measure. That’s not how they’re supposed to be used. This abuse is creating “superbugs” – bacteria that are not killed off by antibiotics like they once were. That’s why Jeremy’s infection got out of control.

It is shocking that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are not prescribed to people, but fed in low daily does to animals on factory farms to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. This wrong-headed practice creates the perfect conditions for superbugs to grow, thrive and spread.

PARA is the solution
Senators have introduced a bill to address this growing public health threat. The Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA) would allow farmers to give animals antibiotics when they’re sick, but not on a daily basis in their feed and water. It is critical for the Senate to pass PARA.

Senator Bennet is on the wrong PATH
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet seems concerned about antibiotics, but he’s taken the wrong PATH to solve the problem. Bennet has introduced the Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health Act, or PATH. PATH helps the pharmaceutical industry create new antibiotics by speeding up their approval process. Unless we address the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms, bacteria will continue to develop antibiotic resistance. It will only be a matter of time until new antibiotics become resistant and no longer work for people; the number of people each year who contract and die from antibiotic resistant bacteria could continue to rise.

Tell Senator Bennet to Sponsor PARA
No one should have to go through the scare that Jeremy and millions of other Americans have experienced. In order to protect Coloradans like Jeremy, in order to protect all Americans, Senator Bennet must be a true public health champion and help fix the root of the problem. Take action today to ask Senator Bennet to sponsor PARA to end antibiotic abuse on factory farms.

March 25th, 2015

A Mega-Merger Too Far: Kraft Foods-H.J Heinz Announce Merger

By Patrick Woodall Ketchup_Kid

Do you like ketchup with your mac and cheese? H.J. Heinz and Kraft sure appear to. This morning, processed food powerhouse Kraft Foods and ketchup kingpin H.J. Heinz announced a merger that will create the world’s 5th largest food company. The post-merger company would sell $28 billion worth of food annually and control eight brands with sales over $1 billion and five more brands with sales between $500 million and $1 billion. Read the full article…

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March 24th, 2015

Rep. Slaughter Again Takes on Antibiotics in Factory Farms

By Kate Fried Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

It’s difficult to pick up a newspaper these days without being reminded of the escalating public health threat posed by super bugs and antibiotic resistance. That’s in part due to the fact that a whopping 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are actually used in factory farms to compensate for stressful, filthy, crowded conditions. That’s why last year Food & Water Watch launched its campaign to save antibiotics for medicine, not factory farms.

Since then, we’ve seen some great developments in the movement to keep these vital drugs working for us when we need them most. In February, the city council of Olympia, Washington became the 51st local government to pass a resolution calling for federal action to end the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Today, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) stepped up and reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). Read the full article…

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March 18th, 2015

Beware of the Corporate GMO Spin Doctors

By Wenonah Hauter

This piece originally appeared on Food Tank.

BlogThumb_BillNyeYou may have heard that popular scientist Bill Nye has mysteriously revised his outlook on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Several years ago, the children’s show host advocated for the labeling of genetically modified foods, citing concerns about what GMOs could do to ecosystems. But now his position on the controversial technology has flipped. This development is the latest in a trend spearheaded by agribusiness giants to discredit the GMO labeling movement, and it’s especially hard to disassociate his reversal from this PR blitz since it coincided with Nye’s recent trip to Monsanto’s headquarters.

We’ll never know what actually went down during Nye’s visit, as Tom Philpott at Mother Jones notes, but we do know that Monsanto has poured millions of dollars into public relation efforts to sell the public on GMOs. Because that’s what you do when you are a corporation with deep coffers and a product that the public is wisely skeptical of.

Read the full article…

March 2nd, 2015

The War on Genetically-Modified-Food Critics: Et tu, National Geographic?

By Timothy Wise

GMO_CanolaTimothy A. Wise is at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts University. This piece originally appeared at Food Tank.

Since when is the safety of genetically modified food considered “settled science” on a par with the reality of evolution? That was the question that jumped to mind when I saw the cover of the March 2015 National Geographic and the lead article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

The cover title: “The War on Science.” The image: a movie set of a fake moon landing. Superimposed: a list of irrational battles being waged by “science doubters” against an implied scientific consensus:

“Climate change does not exist.”

“Evolution never happened.”

“The moon landing was faked.”

“Vaccinations can lead to autism.”

“Genetically modified food is evil.” WHAT?

Genetically modified food is evil? First of all, what business does “evil” have in an article about scientific consensus? Sure, some people think GMOs are evil. But isn’t the controversy about whether genetically modified food is safe?

Read the full article…

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