food | Food & Water Watch - Part 5
Victory! Cleveland passes resolution against antibiotic misuse on factory farms. more wins »
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Blog Posts: Food

April 30th, 2014

Thank You Food & Water Watch Volunteers!

By Mark Schlosberg

At Food & Water Watch, we take on powerful interest groups to protect our food and water – big agribusiness and chemical companies, massive private water companies, and big oil and gas companies. We might not be able to match these corporations dollar for dollar, but due to the many wonderful volunteers who work with us, we are able to build winning campaigns.

As the Organizing Director at Food & Water Watch I have been fortunate enough to watch our volunteers truly make a difference – by helping out in our state offices, tabling at events and participating in phone banking opportunities. Many of our volunteers also end up leading campaigns and taking on larger organizing efforts – planning rallies, lobby visits and campaign strategy meetings. Leaders like these truly give us the ability to go toe-to-toe with powerful interest groups as we work to protect our essential resources 

April is Volunteer Appreciation Month, and we would like take a moment to thank all of the people who take time our of their day to help us out. Volunteers from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California and all the way to Brussels, Belgium: you guys ROCK. And because words alone do not do your hard work justice, we created a special thank you message from some of our on-the-ground organizers. 

Food & Water Watch is made up of researchers, communicators, organizers and technological wizards, but an equally essential part of this organization and the work that we do are the many passionate and dedicated volunteers who, every day, build power in their communities. Whether you have petitioned, helped plan a local event, organized a rally or made calls to your state legislators – your efforts are critical to growing a movement to protect our food, water, planet and democracy. You inspire your communities and you inspire us. For all of this, we could not be more grateful! 

April 28th, 2014

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It: FDA Weakens Public Process on GMO Animals

Working to Ensure Safe and Sustainable SeafoodBy Tim Schwab

The FDA is taking steps to limit transparency and remove independent review of genetically engineered animals by disbanding its Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. The committee, composed of academics who peer review FDA’s risk analysis of GMO animals, met in 2010 when FDA initiated the approval process for the world’s first biotech food animal, GMO salmon. The agency has still not approved GMO salmon, probably in part because of how critical its invited scientists were.  Though members had different opinions, a clear chorus emerged on several specific safety questions, including telling the FDA there was not sufficient science to demonstrate animal safety. 

FDA is now disbanding that entire review process, claiming it was too costly to maintain. Food & Water Watch filed a records request to find out just how costly the committee is. Turns out, it’s not. The agency spent $0 in 2013 (see here and heremaintaining the committee, including all administrative and labor costs.

Congresswoman Louis Slaughter (D-NY) recently went to bat for consumers, asking FDA to reinstate the advisory committee. FDA again claimed it was too costly. With such bankrupt responses, it’s clear that the real cost is to FDA’s industry-friendly agenda and the agency’s efforts to fast-track GMO animals into our food supply. Read the full article…

April 23rd, 2014

A Shocking, Alternate Universe of “Special Interest” Science

By Tim Schwab

stack of one hundred dollar billsLast week I noticed a bizarre publication in the Journal of Animal Science, whose editors and sponsors include representatives from Merck, Pioneer and ADM: an article about the need for scientists to assert themselves in the public debate on the rules and policies surrounding animal agriculture.

The article, derived from a presentation made at a Monsanto-funded symposium, asserts that “special-interest groups” (quickly identified as “food activists” and environmental groups), routinely misrepresent science to advance a political agenda on issues like the environment, animal welfare and use of animal drugs.   

However, the authors fail to address the most obvious, most powerful “special interest” in animal science: industry. Industry funds hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural research, including millions of dollars given to animal science departments at public land-grant universities, where several of the authors work. This money can influence the direction and outcome of research.

This omission isn’t terribly surprising, given that the authors of the new study include Dr. Jude Capper, whose research routinely helps advance the economic and political agendas of the industry groups that support her work. One Capper study, funded by an animal-health industry group, purports to demonstrate the environmental benefits of industrial beef production through use of dangerous growth-promoting drugs like Zilmax (which was later withdrawn from the market following reports of major animal health problems). Another study Capper co-authored with Monsanto determined that use of Monsanto’s rBGH, a controversial growth hormone, presents environmental benefits to dairies. Several of Capper’s industry studies are cited as evidence that sound science contradicts environmental groups’ “flawed” analyses of the environmental impact of industrial agriculture.

At every turn, the 15-page article strays deeper and deeper into an alternate universe, where the authors correctly diagnose a problem – special interest groups manipulating science to advance an agenda – but incorrectly identify the perpetrators. They appear to invent a mythical landscape where extremely powerful environmental groups and food activists bulldoze public policy and media debates with bogus science. They preach about the role of scientists as “honest brokers of truth” who must remain committed to “objectivity,” “transparency,” and challenging “conflicts of interests,” but,with no apparent sense of contradiction, present industry studies supporting industry positions as evidence that public-interest groups are distorting public policy debates with agenda-driven research.

The authors repeatedly invent non-existent debates around controversial scientific topics, parroting the corporate spin historically used to confuse the media and the public on topics like the health effects of smoking. For example, when attacking environmental groups working on the role of industrial agriculture in climate change, the authors state that there is “considerable debate” over whether climate change is caused by human activity. In reality, there is a clear, international consensus, backed by 97 percent of climate-change scientists, that climate change is real and very likely caused by human activity. (“Very likely” means greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence.)

On the subject of whether and to what extent widespread use of antibiotics as growth-promoters in animal agriculture is having an impact on public health, the authors assert that this topic is “vigorously debated.” They don’t mention that the debate is between the veterinary medicine industry and the scientific community working on public health. For decades, scientists have identified the use of antibiotics as livestock growth-promoters as a public health problem, as it creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria that make infections harder to treat. Even the CDC and FDA recently agreed on this point. But the authors cite a contrary point of view from the American Veterinary Medical Association, failing to mention that this high-power trade group has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, including on many industry causes like favorable legislation to allow continued, widespread antibiotic usage.

Unlike the consumer and environmental groups that the Capper article vilifies, corporations and industry groups have the power, the money and the demonstrated will to bully, intimidate, censor and attack science and scientists they don’t agree with. They also use their deep coffers to overwhelm our public universities with donations, endowed faculty positions, research funding and lucrative consulting gigs for professors. Using the stick and the carrot, industry has created a powerful system of incentives and disincentives that has long helped cultivate favorable academic research and academic shills to advance corporate agendas that mislead consumers in fields like tobacco, pharmaceutical and agricultural research

The rare scientists who dare to openly challenge industry practices or products find their personal lives and professional careers subject to aggressive attacks and public relations campaigns, their tenure challenged, their research access and funding limited or their articles retracted. In one case, dozens of scientists, fearful of retaliation from corporate agribusiness, anonymously complained to the EPA that industry restricts and limits independent research, creating a scenario where industry can potentially “launder the data.” If that’s not misuse of science, I don’t know what is. 

For more on this topic, check out Food & Water Watch’s report on the outsized role that corporate money plays in agricultural science, Public Research, Private Gain.

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April 17th, 2014

Monsanto’s Dream Bill is a Nightmare for State GMO Labeling Efforts

By Genna Reed

Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432), a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that would serve as a real road block to the thousands of people who have been fighting for the right to know what’s in their food. This piece of legislation would make voluntary (not mandatory) labeling for genetically engineered foods the national standard, ensure that GMOs can be ambiguously labeled as “natural,” create its own rules for non-GMO labeling and, most heinously, preempt all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods.

We have been aware of the GMA’s plot to move into the GMO labeling policy world since Politico leaked its proposed bill language in January and then the GMA launched its “Safe and Affordable Food Coalition” in February. Unsurprisingly, the GMA found a sponsor who would support all of its original intended language in the bill, resulting in an extremely industry-friendly final version.

So, what is the GMA and why is it so powerful that congressmen do its bidding? Well, this massive trade organization represents 300 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies as well as agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The GMA and its member companies have poured over $50 million into political action committees to help block GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state over the past two years. To illustrate the type of political power GMA is wielding with its big pockets, here’s a paragraph from Food & Water Watch’s new profile on the GMA:

“Between 2001 and 2012, the GMA political action committee donated more than $1 million to federal candidates, political parties and other campaign committees. But it is a much bigger presence roaming the halls of Congress. From 2004 to 2013, the GMA spent $38.9 million lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal officials. In 2013 alone, the GMA spent $14.3 million lobbying on food labeling, country-of-origin labeling, labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as GMO labeling), food marketing to children and other regulations affecting the food and beverage industry.” 

This kind of spending activity on the GMA’s part makes the food movement’s state-level efforts that much more significant. Not only does it show that grassroots organizing is working to hold elected officials accountable on food issues, but it also shows how work in the states is truly bothering the industry and impacting national policy. It gives us even more reason to keep pressuring our lawmakers to protect consumers because they want the right to know if GMOs are in their food. What consumers definitely don’t want is a voluntary labeling policy created by the very companies who have kept that information from them for 20 years.

Now is the time to stop the GMA from getting its way and fueling its own profit-driven interests. Food & Water Watch will continue to work with the grassroots movement to fight for  GMO labeling around the country. You can take action by telling your members of Congress not to pass Monsanto’s dream bill. For more information on the GMA, you can view our industry profile, here

Railway Ruckus: Oil and Gas Development is Throwing American Farmers Off-Track

By Katherine Cirullo

Fracking affects our food. In fact, it affects our entire food system. The national fracking debate has remained somewhat quiet around this issue, but that’s all starting to change, and for good reason. Chefs who rely on fruits, vegetables and dairy from heavily-fracked states like California and Pennsylvania are becoming involved in campaigns to stop fracking from contaminating the water needed to grow our nation’s food. Ranchers are concerned that nearby fracking operations contaminate local water supplies, causing their livestock to fall ill. And now, farmers are publically speaking out about how the oil and gas industry is hindering them from transporting their crops and fueling America’s food supply.

In a hearing last Thursday, farmers revealed the recent oil boom in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota is pitting agriculture in the northern United States against the oil and gas industry as they compete for space on the rails. According to farmer testimonies, Big Oil and Gas seems to be winning, while some of our nation’s farmers (whose livelihoods depend on moving their commodities to buyers) are being thrown off the tracks.

At the hearing, 39 people from the agricultural industry (farmers, grain elevators, etc.) from states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana complained to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) about rail shipping delays that have hindered the movement of crops. They claimed the railways serving the region (Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Pacific (CP)) are not fairly allocating railcar space between the agricultural industry and the oil and gas industry, choosing oil as the favorite. Favorite or not, the reality is that Big Oil is not fit for sharing. Read the full article…

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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.

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