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Blog Posts: Food

July 2nd, 2015

This Food Merger Didn’t Save Money 

By Tyler Shannon BlogThumb_ShannonTyler

The giant food company ConAgra announced this week that it would sell off Ralcorp, a private label food manufacturer it acquired just a few years ago for $5 billion after a prolonged bidding war. ConAgra owns a number of processed foods brands like Hunt’s Ketchup, Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Chef Boyardee, and Ralcorp primarily manufactured private label products that supermarkets sell under their own brand names and competed directly with ConAgra’s products.

We objected to the acquisition, since it lead to further consolidation in the food industry and potentially higher prices for shoppers through reduced competition. ConAgra claimed that the merger would eventually lead to cost savings (“synergies” in corporate business speak) of $225 million a year. Federal regulators allowed the merger to go through unhindered.

But ConAgra had it all wrong. It turns out that this merger has actually been dragging the company down over the past two and a half years. In just the last year alone, ConAgra lost almost $1.5 billion. And the company did so poorly after the acquisition that the deal was mentioned in the discussion of why ConAgra’s CEO eventually stepped down.

Merging companies and sadly, federal regulators, often justify these food mergers as good for shoppers because any cost savings from running a supposedly more efficient merged company will be passed on to us in the form of lower prices. But what happens when the mergers lead to higher costs for the companies? Not only do these companies have to make up for their losses somewhere (like by raising prices), but post-acquisition there are fewer competitors in the marketplace, ones that could have helped keep consumer prices down.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice need to learn from ConAgra’s failure, and realize that they can’t just take promises made by merging companies at face value. Because, ultimately, the public ends up paying for these mistakes in the form of fewer options at the supermarket and higher prices for the products on the shelves.

July 1st, 2015

Swindled by Suds?

By Kate Fried Beer_Can

When consumers see that Beck’s beer is “brewed under the German purity law of 1516,” many think they know what they’re getting. But is this popular pilsner really German? Not according to a lawsuit filed by customers who feel they were mislead into drinking a beer imported from Germany, when actually they were downing a beverage brewed in…St. Louis. Whomp whomp. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently reached a class action settlement in the case and could pay out millions to disgruntled customers.

We talk a lot about food labels, typically in regards to GMOs and meat imports, and this incident shows once again that people want to know where their food and drink comes from. If you look at a bottle of Beck’s and squint a little, you can see printed on it: “Product of USA.” But most beer drinkers aren’t going to scour their bottles for this information, particular when Beck’s packaging spins the product as German beer. And many American beer drinkers are willing to pay more for a brew they believe is imported.

By settling the case, Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn’t admit it did anything wrong. But the fact that a major class action lawsuit will result in payouts to consumers based on confusion about the origin of a product should give our lawmakers pause. We didn’t get country of origin labeling for food until we changed the law to require mandatory labeling for seafood, beef, poultry, pork, goat, some nuts and fresh and frozen fruits and veggies. And the meat and grocery industries are even trying to gut those rules for labeling meat.

Maybe lawmakers don’t think we need to know what’s in our food. Recently, comedian Bill Maher brilliantly renamed efforts to ban country of origin labeling altogether the “Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head About it Act.” But the public is worried about where its food comes from, and for good reason.

This case about beer labeling highlights another food industry trend we’ve told you about, and that’s mergers between already large companies. Beck’s was produced in Germany until 2002, when it was sold to a Belgian company, which several mergers later became Anheuser-Busch InBev. In fact, only two companies own most of the brands of beer sold in the United States, controlling 80 percent of sales. This beeropoly not only limits choices for you, it can also block smaller, innovative craft brewers from entering mainstream markets.

While this latest development with Beck’s may not hurt Anheuser-Bush too badly in the long run, it reminds us that fancy packaging can mislead and distract us from the truth about what we’re buying. And if people are this upset about poorly labeled beer, shouldn’t they be downright furious about efforts to rescind country of origin labeling on meat?  If that’s the case for you, there’s still something you can do about it. Click on the link to tell your Senator to protect country of origin labels.

June 25th, 2015

What Makes a Poison?

By Genna Reed airplane spraying pesticide

The chemicals that we’re exposed to in our daily lives are often approved by the government under the assumption that they’re safe in small doses, even over a long period of time. For years, regulators relied on the old adage “the dose makes the poison” to try to explain their logic. While that might have appeared true for certain chemicals for many years, we now live in a world where exposure to a large variety of chemicals is unavoidable and it’s finally becoming clear that we can’t evaluate these chemicals in isolation. Read the full article…

June 24th, 2015

Consumers Score Huge Victory As Federal Judge Blocks Sysco Merger

By Tyler Shannon Fork_Plate_Spoon

In a stunning victory for people, independent restaurants and public cafeterias, a federal judge struck down the proposed merger of Sysco and US Foods, the only two national food distribution companies in the United States. Food & Water Watch opposed this merger when it was announced nearly two years ago.

Sysco and US Foods are the only companies that provide national distribution networks to foodservice customers such as schools, restaurants, and hospitals. If the merger had gone through, these establishments would have had essentially only one supplier, and the merged company could have raised prices with impunity. Ultimately, you and I would have paid the price for this merger. Thankfully, the Federal Trade Commission prevailed in its suit to block the merger and there will still be some resemblance of competition in this market.

The February FTC lawsuit argued that if the proposed merger went through it would substantially increase prices for customers, and the judge agreed. The merged company would have controlled three quarters of the national food service distribution market and have a stranglehold over the entire industry. This ruling is likely to have put a complete stop to the merger, and although Sysco is looking at other options it recognizes it may have to terminate the merger agreement.

Although the court blocked the merger, those that stood up to the proposed merger may face retribution from Sysco down the road. During the court proceedings, Sysco requested and subsequently received the witness list of the people and organizations that opposed the merger, including customers, competitors and even its own employees. In a highly disappointing ruling, the judge granted the request, despite the high likelihood that Sysco would use this information to retaliate against its customers and competitors for speaking out against the merger.

The Federal Trade Commission must now monitor Sysco’s treatment of those that stepped up and provided the agency crucial information in its antitrust investigation. The federal antitrust authorities must establish an ironclad guarantee of anonymity for those that provide evidence in merger cases, especially the rumored Monsanto-Syngneta deal. Otherwise the antitrust witness list can easily become a retaliatory blacklist.

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 10th, 2015

Artisanal Bulls**t: Antibiotic-Free Marketing

By Briana Kerensky

BlogThumb_ArtisanalBS-C1Late this spring, McDonald’s unveiled a new item on their menu: the “Artisan Grilled Chicken” sandwich. Simply seasoned with salt, garlic and parsley, the company says the grilled chicken breast contains “nothing but lovin’.”

In an effort to combat flagging sales and court more health-conscious eaters, McDonald’s recently announced plans to require its chicken suppliers to stop feeding the birds antibiotics that are used to combat human infections by March 2017. Other poultry purveyors, such as Costco and Chick-fil-A, have also publicized strategies to eventually phase out unnecessary use of some antibiotics. But once you get past the surface of these commendable plans, the truth about restaurants and other food corporations is pretty unsavory.

Let’s backtrack: why have McDonald’s and other restaurants been feeding chickens antibiotics in the first place? These companies grow and process their poultry in factory farms, which are notoriously overcrowded and filthy. In order to compensate for these deplorable conditions, many factory farms give animals low, daily doses of antibiotics.

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.

As science continues to point out the toxic relationship between factory farms and antibiotic-resistant infections, more and more people have said they’re not “lovin’ it” and taken their business from McDonald’s and other fast food giants. Using the hot term “artisan” and limiting antibiotics in its chicken is a blatant attempt by Mickey D’s to get diners back on its side and in its drive-thrus, without enacting progressive, organization-wide change. What about the nontherapeutic antibiotics they’re feeding cows and pigs? “Artisanal” chicken nuggets might be on the value menu soon, but the factory farm status quo remains for burgers and McRibs.

McDonald’s, Costco, Chick-fil-A and other corporate restaurant chains voluntarily limiting some antibiotic use in chicken is not enough to stop the overuse of antibiotics in factory farms. The problem is too big to rely on individual companies to make the right decision. Consumers deserve a baseline of good practices when it comes to antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production, and it shouldn’t be left up to consumers to try to keep track of which brand is using which practices. We need Congress to end the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms and create enforceable standards across the industry. 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.

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 29th, 2015

Merger Mania Spring Updates

By Tyler Shannon Grocery_Shopping_Dairy_Aisle_Woman

2015 is shaping up to be the year of food mega-mergers, which is bad news for consumers. Recently, Hormel announced its intention to acquire Applegate Farms. Over the years, Food & Water Watch has intervened in several of these deals to let shoppers know these mergers impact their wallets. It is difficult for most people to stay up to date on the host of changes sweeping through the food and agribusiness industry, so here are a handful of updates on some recent deals, long-standing food antitrust cases and a few rumored mergers. 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 22nd, 2015

Iowa State University goes Bananas over GMOs

By Tim Schwab University_Building

When news circulated that the first people to consume a new GMO banana would be student guinea pigs at Iowa State University, the university community had questions.

A recently released, redacted copy of the initial “informed consent document” that ISU lead researcher Wendy White gave to students doesn’t appear to mention that the GMO banana has never been approved as safe to eat by any regulatory agency anywhere in the world, that there have been documented human health risks associated with some GMOs or that there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs.

After public controversy swelled around the feeding trial, ISU’s ethical review boards worked with White to revamp the informed consent document to include some additional “bulleted points” about GMOs. What appears to have resulted is a list of one-sided science, misleading citations and industry-funded research, not an honest, accurate, impartial assessment of the potential risks associated with the GMO banana.

From what we can see in these redacted documents, it’s hard to believe that cash-strapped students, tempted by the $900 stipend, have all the information they need about the risks associated with eating the GMO banana. In December of last year, Food & Water Watch joined more than 100 groups on a letter sent to Iowa State University, questioning the ethical dimensions of the university’s experiment with student subjects and highlighting fundamental scientific flaws in the research.

ISU has quietly delayed the research—but only because of quality problems with the bananas it had shipped to ISU—and refused to engage with stakeholders or answer basic questions about the research and how it fits into the mission of a public university. University administrators, who have rebuffed good-faith invitations from concerned ISU students and faculty, recently penned an oddly defiant op-ed in the local newspaper that defended the research project and extolled the virtues of the GMO banana.

What are the supposed virtues? The banana—actually a cooking banana (think plantain) that is a staple in the East African diet—is supposed to give consumers a dose of Vitamin-A. GMO supporters at ISU have made extraordinary claims about the banana’s potential to improve public health in countries like Uganda, a target destination for the banana, where many people are Vitamin-A deficient.

The GMO banana is following in the footsteps of the biotech industry’s last Vitamin-A GMO, “golden rice.” This crop has so far proven to be a colossal scientific failure, unable to deliver adequate amounts of Vitamin-A.

Syngenta and Monsanto, which helped develop Golden Rice, hoped this “humanitarian” GMO would help break down the well-founded resistance that many Asian countries have to GMOs, which has kept the biotech industry shut out of these lucrative agricultural markets. The GMO banana, like golden rice, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a pro-GMO group that partners with biotech companies. If the GMO banana is successfully commercialized, the primary beneficiaries will not be Vitamin-A deficient Ugandans, but rather the biotech industry.

While it may be true that many Ugandans need more vitamin-A, the solution to the problem isn’t high-tech, risky, expensive, ineffective GMOs. The solution is a balanced diet.

So why is ISU promoting a technological solution that would require a radical shift in Uganda’s agricultural policy (the introduction of GMOs)? Could it have something to do with the millions of dollars that the biotech industry is pouring into the university’s research apparatus? Or the fact that corporate agribusiness representatives sit on governing boards of the university?

As conscientious and thoughtful ISU students and faculty continue to call on the school to have a conversation about the GMO banana feeding trial, including through a recent petition (which you should sign), it’s time that the school stop its stonewalling and start engaging with the public. Founded by Congress and still largely funded by taxpayers, ISU should first and foremost be serving the public, including the farmers and consumers that depend on solid, independent science that improves the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

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