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Blog Posts: Food

August 22nd, 2014

Hyporkrisy

Meet Scott Edwards of Food & Water WatchBy Scott Edwards

The meat industry knows no shame, and you can put the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) at the top of the list.

Back in 1985 Congress enacted a law that placed a fee on every hog farmer and exporter in the country. The money taken from farmers went into the National Pork Board (NPB), which in turn funneled a considerable amount of the funds to the NPPC. In 2000, NPPC received $36.5 million of the $48.1 million NPB spending budget raised from these required payments. This NPPC pigs-at-the-trough funding scheme became known as the “check-off” program.

In 1999 a group called the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF) submitted a petition to USDA signed by over 19,000 hog farmers in the country who wanted to get rid of the mandatory NPB payments and replace it with a voluntary check-off program. NPPC promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with USDA asking for the names and addresses of producers who signed the petition so they could compile a list of people who threatened their check-off cash cow.

When CFF went to federal court in Minnesota to stop USDA from releasing the petition list, NPPC intervened in the case and tried to force disclosure of the information. The court, though, denied NPPC access to the list of anti-check-off farmers. Undeterred, NPPC took their case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the higher court also sent NPPC packing, stating “[t]o make public such an unequivocal statement of their position on the referendum effectively would vitiate petitioners’ privacy interest in a secret ballot.”

Fast forward to today, and NPPC has a very different view about disclosure of names and addresses of the country’s pork producers.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succumbed to political pressure and withdrew a proposed rule to collect baseline information from highly polluting industrial meat operations. EPA’s knowledge of this industry, which contributes significantly to nutrient impairment of waterways across the country, is so abysmal that the agency can’t even tell us how many facilities exist or where they’re located. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, to Toledo, Ohio where the city’s citizens just recently had their drinking water taken from them because of algae blooms in Lake Erie, communities across the nation suffer from the irresponsible dumping of excess animal manure from these facilities, while EPA wrings its hands.

After EPA’s improper abandonment, a group of environmental organizations filed a FOIA asking for all the documents that EPA relied on to withdraw the rule. Included in the documents were a number of spreadsheets culled from publicly available state databases and websites that listed the names and addresses of many of these factory farms.

Predictably, NPPC threw a fit when this public information was released. NPPC president R.C. Hunt said he felt “betrayed” by the disclosure. Press statements by NPPC and other industry groups verged on hysteria, invoking empty claims of “eco terrorism” and “dangerous militants.” Their uncontrolled fear mongering stopped just short of asking for the Administration to place the nation on red alert.

Last summer, NPPC walked back into the same Minnesota court that sent them back to D.C. with their tails between their legs in 2000 and asked the judge to issue an order to prevent EPA from disclosing the names and addresses of these industrial facilities, the very same type of information they went into court in 2000 seeking to obtain for themselves.

In their recent filing with the Minnesota court, NPPC suggests that the 8th Circuit’s 2000 ruling supports their newly invented position that the disclosure of names and address of industrial farms are disallowed because of “privacy” concerns. But that’s not what the court said. It’s not names and addresses of farms that the court held to be subject to a “privacy interest,” but the check-off program opinion of hog farmers reflected in the “secret ballot.”

Hypocrisy is nothing new to the meat industry. Industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on federal and state taxpayer subsidies while denouncing any governmental interference in their non-control of their vast pollution problem, literally lives off hypocrisy. Their latest hypocritical position on farm data disclosure is not based on any noble notion of sanctity of farmers; they proved they don’t give a damn about that in 2000. Back in 2000, disclosure was good because they were fighting hog farmers who were threatening their funding. Today, it’s bad because they’re fighting environmentalists who are concerned about the adverse impact from modern industrial agriculture on our waterways, communities and public health.

That contradiction tells you where NPPC’s real interests lie. It’s not about farming, or farmers, or about being responsible and accountable; it’s all about using whatever tactic is necessary, including attacking its own base, ignoring the facts and instilling fear to maintain NPPC’s funding and political power.

 

August 19th, 2014

News from the Front Lines of Fighting Antibiotic Resistance

By Sarah Borron Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

I recently spent two fascinating days at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a public meeting on the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). Between the technical jargon and numerous acronyms, what emerges is a story about government scientists working on the front lines to keep antibiotics working for you and me.

An FDA researcher described how “whole genome sequencing,” reading the entire DNA strand of foodborne pathogens, is allowing them to create evolutionary trees that demonstrate how bacteria and patterns of antibiotic resistance change over time. In one recent outbreak, whole genome sequences of bacteria from the people affected, the food they all ate, and the nearby plant that produced the food allowed scientists to identify the source of the outbreak, which allowed for quicker closure of the plant in order to solve the problem. Comment after comment pointed to whole genome sequencing as the “next big thing” for addressing illness outbreaks.

Read the full article…

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August 18th, 2014

The Toledo Water Crisis Won’t Be the Last

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer

Algae_Blooms_Blog_ThumbThe recent water crisis in Toledo, Ohio is not an isolated incident, and it won’t be the last. As the annual and increasingly severe algae blooms hit Lake Erie this year, levels of the toxin mycrocystin reached such high levels that the City of Toledo ordered a tap water ban because the toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting or impaired liver function. Residents were ordered not to drink the water or use it for cooking, brushing their teeth or pets. Children and people with compromised immune systems were even warned not to bathe with the water.

Caused by large amounts of phosphorus runoff from excessive fertilizer application on farms, manure from livestock feeding operations and aging wastewater infrastructure, the algae blooms in Lake Erie are nothing new. In fact, water contamination from industrial agriculture and wastewater discharge has repeatedly been a detriment to public waterways and sources of drinking water, causing previous contamination crises.

In 1997, outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a toxic algae, contaminated the Chesapeake Bay, Pocomoke River, Rappahannock River and other waterways of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Excessive nutrient run-off from the high concentration of chicken farms in the region, contracted by companies like Tyson, caused algae blooms and the subsequent spread of Pfiesteria. The outbreak resulted in large fish kills, with thousands of fish dying and showing signs of contamination like sores, ulcerous holes and whole chunks of fins missing. Public health effects also materialized, with several people experiencing neurological problems like short-term memory loss.

In the early 2000s, the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma faced water contamination from excess phosphorus runoff caused by land application of poultry litter and wastewater discharges. The runoff polluted Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw, which supplied drinking water to about half of the city’s 500,000 residents at the time of the incident, causing algae blooms and “foul-smelling and bitter tasting water.” As a result, the city faced substantial treatment costs from the runoff contamination and eventually brought suit against poultry industry companies like Tyson Foods, among others, as well as the city of Decatur, Arkansas for wastewater discharges.

Similarly, Des Moines, Iowa experienced historically high nitrate levels beginning in May 2013, caused by runoff from excessive fertilizer use in agricultural production. The nitrate levels reached as high as 24 milligrams per liter (mg/l), far above the accepted safe level of 10 mg/l. Des Moines Water Works, the municipal water utility for the city and surrounding communities, had to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility at a cost of $7,000 per day to keep nitrates at levels safe for consumption. This ended up costing consumers over $525,000. Left untreated, high levels of nitrates also pose the risk of Blue Baby Syndrome to infants six months old and younger — nitrates can reduce the ability of infant’s blood to carry oxygen, leading to death.

In other cases municipal water supplies have been contaminated with E. coli and other harmful contaminants due to runoff from factory farms and wastewater discharge into our public waterways. In 2000, Canada experienced one of its worst water contamination crises ever when the water supply for Walkerton, Ontario was contaminated with E. coli from nearby farm runoff. Seven people died from the outbreak and more than 2,300 became ill with symptoms like bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms common with E. coli infections.

In a less severe but still serious case, residents of Morrison, Wisconsin also faced drinking water contamination from factory farm and other agricultural runoff. According to the New York Times, in 2009 more than 100 wells used for drinking water had become contaminated with E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants commonly found in manure, due largely to runoff from nearby dairy farms or fields covered with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage. Residents suffered chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

These incidents might leave you wondering why we haven’t learned from the past and prevented future crises. The fact is, it’s well known that runaway fertilizer use, excessive nutrient runoff from factory farms and devil-may-care wastewater discharges from other polluters are responsible for the ongoing occurrence of these water crises. Instead, actors on all sides have knowingly ignored or tried to side-step directly addressing the issue with sub-par policies, largely because of undue influence from industry lobbies and special interests that stand behind those guilty of polluting our waterways.

Despite having policy tools like the Clean Water Act (CWA) that initially provided strong protections for our public waterways, it has since been weakened and little has changed. Industrial agriculture continues to be the highest source of pollution in many of our waterways and simultaneously these polluters remain some of the least regulated and continue to discharge pollution with impunity.

To make matters worse, the proposed solution to this has been to allow water quality trading as a way to comply with the CWA. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a giant step away from the public trust approach of the CWA when they created a plan that gives polluters the option to buy the right to pollute our waterways. The EPA is allowing polluters like coal-fired power plants to purchase “credits” from other polluters, like industrial agriculture, in lieu of controlling their discharges.

Until public and environmental health is put before industrial agriculture and other polluters’ interests, we stand to face more of the same crises at the cost to consumers. How do we go about changing this? First, water quality trading cannot stand as an option. It is a false solution and to date there is not one documented case of its success. Second, runoff from industrial agriculture must be regulated. Full stop. In 1977, amendments to the CWA set a strong and simple standard that polluting is illegal, and that the national goal is zero discharge of pollution into our public waterways. Our rivers, lakes and estuaries do not exist as dumping grounds for the pollution that comes from irresponsible and unsustainable industrial practices. There is no substitute for water — not polluting it is our only option.

Take action today to protect Ohio’s water from factory farms!

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…

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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 18th, 2014

Iowa Goes Bananas for GMOs

By Genna Reed 

Iowa happens to have planted more genetically engineered corn and soybeans than any other state this year. In part because of this agricultural trend, Iowa’s land-grant university, Iowa State University, can’t help but remain loyal to the industry that sustains much of its agricultural research funding. 

If you’ve read Food & Water Watch’s “Public Research, Private Gain”, then it’s probably not a total surprise to you that there’s a very close tie between Iowa State University and the genetically engineered seed business. Iowa State University has its own Monsanto Student Services Wing; in recent years its $30 million plant sciences institute has been directed by representatives of Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta; and between 2006 and 2010, the university’s agronomy department took $19.5 million in research grants from private-sector donors (including the Iowa Soybean Association, Dow and Monsanto), representing close to half of its grant funding.

As far as extracurricular relationships, one Iowa State University representative has been parroting industry talking points in an effort to discredit the growing GMO labeling movement. Ruth MacDonald, a food science professor, was quoted in a Des Moines Register in a recent article, along with the Iowa Farm Bureau, discussing the supposed time-tested track record of all GMOs and the complications and costs that would come with mandatory GMO labeling. The article went on to describe the results from the Iowa Farm Bureau Food & Farm Index survey, which asked consumers about various labels, including GMO labels. The survey questions displayed in the article were convoluted, touted the proclaimed benefits of GMO foods and were clearly crafted to garner the desired results for the Farm Bureau: that consumers don’t want GMO labeling.

Iowa State’s symbiotic relationship with the biotech industry might be why it has decided to take on the first-ever human feeding trials of a banana, genetically engineered to have elevated levels of vitamin A. The ultimate goal of the project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be to grow these bananas in Uganda by 2020 to fight Vitamin A deficiency, much like the notorious Golden Rice project. NPR recently reported that Iowa State University’s food science department will host the feeding trial, and will pay volunteers $900 each to eat the vitamin-A-enriched, orange hued bananas. 

Much like the Golden Rice feeding trials, the results will be inconsequential because measuring Vitamin A expression in healthy, adult volunteers will not adequately reveal whether these bananas will raise vitamin levels in the target population: Ugandan children. And, as NPR reported, “for the banana to have any impact at all, governments would have to approve it, farmers would have to grow it, and ordinary people who have to be persuaded to eat orange-tinted bananas.” Once again, development agencies, foundations, and universities are investing in uncertain technological solutions to a problem that has a more practical solution: providing low-income, rural families with the capacity to grow crops that provide balanced nutrition.

Despite what Iowa State University and the Iowa Farm Bureau might think about the need for GMO labels, one thing is for sure: consumers want the right to know what’s in their food and will continue to fight for mandatory GMO labeling. Whether you’re from Iowa or anywhere else, click here to tell your representative to support mandatory GMO labels.

 

 

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…

July 3rd, 2014

FDA’s Six Month Update Shows There’s Still More to Do

By Sarah Borron 

As of this month, twelve U.S. communities have taken action to urge Congress to ban the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms. While many are urban centers that will probably never see an industrial farm, these cities and towns are standing in solidarity, shedding important new light on a growing problem — the fact that misuse of antibiotics on factory farms can make us sick. 

It was therefore extremely timely that this week, the FDA released a six-month update on the progress of its voluntary efforts to change how antibiotics are used to raise livestock. But despite the agency’s upbeat tone, not much has actually changed. 

Read the full article…

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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…

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