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Blog Posts: Food

January 27th, 2015

USDA Defends Weak Food Safety System

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

By Tony Corbo

Last week, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concern over an indisputable increase in recalls involving imported meat and poultry products. It seems that ever since USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) implemented its new information technology system, the Public Health Information System (PHIS), in May 2012 to track imported food, some meat and poultry imported into the U.S. has actually escaped inspection from FSIS personnel, ultimately entering our food system.

In the wee-hours of Saturday, January 17, FSIS issued press releases revealing that two different shipments of imported meat had been recalled for lack of import inspection. This agency is notorious for issuing recall announcements on late Friday nights when most people are getting ready for their weekends and turning their attention away from work. What made these recall announcements even more suspicious was that they occurred on a three-day holiday weekend. One of the recalls involved nearly 170,000 pounds of imported pork products from Denmark that had somehow escaped port-of-entry inspection – not exactly a quantity that someone could hide under a coat and slip into the country without detection, but somehow it did.

In our letter to Secretary Vilsack, we pointed out that since October 2013, there had been ten recalls involving imported meat products that had failed to receive inspection prior to being released into our food system (an eleventh was announced on the night of January 21). There were only four such recalls during the George W. Bush administration.

In the afternoon of January 21, I participated in a regularly scheduled meeting with other consumer advocacy organizations and top FSIS management officials. At these meetings, we usually receive updates on the implementation of PHIS. Right before this meeting, however, I received an e-mail indicating that the agenda had been altered to include a presentation on how PHIS tracks imported meat and poultry products that escape import inspection. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Someone has raised hell about our letter.”

During the presentation, it became apparent that there were still glitches in the system. The coordination between PHIS and the information technology system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection was still not working, forcing FSIS to conduct manual reconciliations of what was coming into the country to determine whether it had received inspection. As we were told, the process is “labor intensive.” Sometimes, weeks can go by before anyone realizes that imported meat has entered the country without receiving inspection. So much for automating the process, eh? We were also told that the President had issued an executive order requiring that the two IT systems be completely compatible with one another by 2016 – so we can expect at least another year of these snafus.

After the presentation, I commented that this item was clearly added to the agenda because of our letter, and was gratified that it had caught someone’s attention. I also noted that when the switch was turned on for PHIS to cover imports in May 2012, we were promised that the coordination between FSIS and Customs would be improved, and that import inspections would be conducted more efficiently. It’s obvious that this has not been the case. In fact, it seemed that the process has gotten worse. The agency claims that while the facts presented in our letter were correct, our conclusions were not. According to the agency, the increase in recalls of uninspected meat is a sign of increased transparency. But if that’s the case, it raises a whole new set of questions about how this agency has conducted its business in the past.

After the meeting, I was asked by a top FSIS official to join him in his office to discuss the matter further. He admitted that glitches remained with PHIS and that they were working to improve the system. He reiterated that the agency was trying to be more transparent with import shipments that failed to receive port-of-entry inspection and that the policy had changed in 2009. But if that’s the case, why couldn’t we find any announcements of recalls for imported meat that had bypassed inspection between 2009 and 2013? Why had the recalls started after PHIS was implemented to cover imported meat products? Were there no problems between 2009 and 2013? I received no response.

I have written before of the problems domestic FSIS inspectors have encountered with the $140 million PHIS. We have raised these issues with members of Congress. The New York Times also exposed some of these problems. Now, the same shortcomings are showing up with import inspections. Until this point, FSIS’s import inspection program has been the envy of the world. One hundred percent of imported shipments are to receive at least a cursory inspection, with intensive inspection scheduled for a portion of those. Some imported meat is detained for visual contaminants; others are detained because they fail microbiological testing conducted for pathogens and chemical contaminants. Bypassing import inspection is a big deal. While we are glad the agency is issuing Class I recalls, the most serious type, there have been far too many holes in the system.

In FY 2014, we imported over 3.5 billion pounds of meat and poultry products. The Obama administration is in the midst of negotiating new trade deals with Europe and Asia. If it gets its way, these trade deals will undoubtedly lead to increased meat and poultry imports. If the import surveillance system can’t handle what is currently showing up on our shores, how can the administration assure U.S. consumers that tainted imported meat won’t reach our dinners tables with these new trade agreements? Instead of fast-tracking the ratification of these new agreements, we say slow-track them to ensure that our food safety system can handle it. At the present time, we are of the opinion that it cannot.

January 22nd, 2015

Crashing the Pro-GMO Party

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbBy Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) continues its ongoing investigation into GMOs, the group held a two-day workshop last week to discuss a related issue: how to successfully communicate the science of GMOs to the public. I had hoped that the two-day meeting might be instructive—at the very least to hear the perspectives of the scientists working on this issue—but I also had my doubts.

The organizers of the workshop included staff from the Cornell Alliance for Science, an industry-aligned, pro-GMO advocacy group. The invited panelists included a representative from Monsanto and several pro-biotech academics. The only journalist presenting was Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, who has not been shy about trumpeting what she sees as the benefits of GMOs. And NRC’s organizing body overseeing the workshop included representatives from Monsanto and Dupont.

Nowhere among all of the invitees and organizers did there appear to be a scientist critical of GMOs—no one who was likely to act as a robust counterpoint or to challenge false assumptions. Though there is a lively scientific debate about GMOs, with many scientists questioning the safety and merits of the technology, the NRC seemed to have excluded these voices. And it is difficult to imagine how the NRC could not have foreseen the impact that such one-sidedness would have on the conversation.

The pro-GMO sentiment in the room was definitely palpable at times, as participants devolved into a conversation that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—framed the problem at hand as how to convince the public to embrace GMOs or how to challenge GMO opponents. I sat and listened as presenters and panelists mischaracterized GMO opponents as vandalizing labs or threatening and harassing scientists. It was notable that these remarks, which grossly misrepresent GMO critics, including many university scientists, went totally unchallenged. Also notable, I did not hear a single mention of the various abuses of science perpetrated by biotech companies, which censor and restrict unfavorable science—and even engage in attacks on the reputations of scientists pursuing unfavorable research.  Read the full article…

January 15th, 2015

New Study Pokes Hole in GMO Mosquito Plan

By Genna Reed BlogThumb_GMOMostquito

Few things kill one’s experience of the great outdoors like the dreaded mosquito, and in some cases, a nibble could have serious health consequences. That’s why local governments in places like the Florida Keys are always looking for ways to control mosquito populations. But now mosquito control is colliding with biotechnology. Oxitec, the company behind GMO mosquitoes, wants to release its genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat dengue fever as soon as this spring. Read the full article…

December 18th, 2014

USDA Decks the Halls With…New GMOs?

By Genna Reed GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

In 2012, the USDA was considering 23 new GMO crops for approval. Since then, all but four have been approved. The most recent final Environmental Impact Statement and preliminary decision to approve a crop came this week for Monsanto’s “Xtend” dicamba-tolerant and Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton, yet another GMO crop engineered to tolerate multiple herbicides. Read the full article…

December 17th, 2014

Food & Water Watch’s Holiday Gift Guide

BlogThumb_GiftBy Briana Kerensky

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…to start worrying about what to get your friends and family for the holidays. Are you searching for the best gifts to get your loved ones that won’t make you feel like you’re giving in to corporate holiday marketing schemes?

This year, we’ve got you covered. Steer clear of the shopping mall and check out these seven meaningful gift ideas for the holidays.

  1. Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in Americaby Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water WatchRead all about how our food system came to be controlled by a handful of companies—and what you can do to fix it.
  2. Homemade candy or baked goods. Fight the Foodopoly and make your friends and family some sweet treats this season, like peppermint bark or gingerbread cookies.
  3. Food & Water Watch gift membership. Give the gift of safe food and clean water for all… with gift memberships to Food & Water Watch.
  4. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein. In this excellent new book, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein skillfully explains how the climate crisis and gaping inequalities in our global economy are tied together, and what we can do to make a difference.
  5. Cookbooks. A number of chefs and professional foodies are great allies in supporting safe food and clean water. Why not show them your support and purchase some of their cookbooks for your loved ones this year? For example, Chef Alice Waters is not only a culinary legend, but is also extremely active in the fight to ban fracking as a member of Chefs for the Marcellus.
  6. Gift certificate to a local restaurant. Everyone loves being treated to a nice meal, so why not treat your friend and support your local economy at the same time? For sustainably minded restaurant ideas, visit the Eat Well Guide.
  7. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Following the death of her mother, divorce, and a descent into drugs, author Cheryl Strayed decided to take control of her life by hiking solo across a 1,100 mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. While Strayed’s journey is the focus of the story (and a new film featuring Reese Witherspoon), the beauty of the Pacific Northwest is certainly more than a bit part. Spanning 25 national forests and seven national parks, the Pacific Crest Trail is one of our most treasured places – and it’s at risk of getting fracked. Learn more about the danger of fracking on public lands and what you can do to stop it.

Do you have other meaningful gift ideas? Tell us in the comments below.

December 15th, 2014

No Surprise: Congress Gets it Wrong on GMO Labels

By Genna Reed

Genna_ReedThe FDA issued voluntary guidance for labeling GMO foods in 2001 and has basically been inactive on the topic ever since. Since the agency has for years neglected citizen petitions to require the mandatory labeling of GMOs, a movement is afoot to introduce bills on the state level. In 2012 and 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed bills with trigger mechanisms that would require additional New England states to pass similar bills of their own. And just this year, Vermont passed a labeling bill, with no strings attached, which is now being fought in court by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA)Read the full article…

December 10th, 2014

How to Burst Monsanto’s Bubble

By Sarah Alexander

BlogThumb_GMOcampus

We need your support to keep legislators from passing Monsanto’s dream bill.

We’re within 800 votes of winning GMO labeling at the ballot in Oregon, and the measure is currently in a recount! Win or lose, coming this close to defeating Monsanto, Dow and other Big Food companies, despite their record-shattering spending to mislead voters, shows that we’re close to winning labeling for everyone!

DONATE

Can you make a year-end donation right now to help make sure we can continue to fight for labeling genetically engineered (GMO) foods? Thanks to a special 2-to-1 match, the impact of your donation right will be tripled!

Food & Water Watch has been on the front lines in Oregon for the ballot initiative to label GMO foods since last January. Along with our allies, as a member of the campaign steering committee in Oregon:

  • We helped plan out the campaign’s grassroots effort, which qualified the initiative for the ballot with volunteers who helped gather more than 150,000 signatures over the summer.
  • We had five staff on the ground working to register people to vote and to get likely supporters to turn in their ballots, including special outreach to young voters on five college campuses.
  • Our national organizers in more than 17 offices throughout the U.S. helped engage volunteers from across the country to make more than 50,000 calls into Oregon voters from outside the state.
  • In the final days of the election, our staff and volunteers helped knock on more than 24,000 doors, make more than 500,000 calls, and turn people out to vote.

Our efforts are what helped make this election so much closer than previous ballot initiatives in Washington and California. We know that the only way we can counter the propaganda of Monsanto, Dow and other Big Ag companies, who have collectively spent more than $105 million to defeat labeling ballot initiatives in the last three elections, is to have one-on-one conversations with voters. But it takes staff and resources to recruit, train and organize volunteers, and we need to have more people working on these types of electoral efforts if we’re going to be able to make sure you can know what you’re eating and feeding your family.

Most Americans are pretty far removed from the production of their food. Grandparents may not realize that the cereal they are feeding to their grandkids is dramatically different from the cereal they fed their own children. Our food system has radically changed within one generation.

By genetically engineering food, these big chemical companies are changing plants and animals in a way that could never happen in nature, or through traditional cross-breeding. It’s crazy for some people to think that they can take DNA from a completely unrelated organism and insert it into the DNA of a plant or animal without having unknown consequences. And most of these crops are engineered to withstand higher applications of toxic chemicals or to actually produce toxic chemicals in their cells that kill bugs that eat the crop. What happens when we eat them?

Even worse, these GMO crops are untested, unlabeled and could be unsafe. The Food & Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, all tasked with regulating different aspects of GMO crops, have no real regulations in place to look at the impacts of genetically engineered organisms on our health or our environment.

We believe that everyone deserves safe and healthy food, and that starts with labeling so people can make informed choices. Can you make a year-end donation today to help us continue the fight for labeling in 2015?

Countries around the world do not allow the growing or importation of GMO crops, and 64 countries require the labeling of all GMO foods. Why not in the U.S.? Because big food corporations want to protect their profits, regardless of what’s healthy for you and your family.

We’re standing up to these corporations that want to keep us in the dark about what is actually in our food. In fact, these companies have found support in Congress to introduce Monsanto’s dream bill (aka the DARK Act) that keeps states from labeling GMO foods, and they are having a hearing tomorrow!

We have a plan to help stop this bill from moving through Congress in 2015 by targeting specific members of Congress, but we’ll need your support to work both inside Congress and in states across the country to keep legislators from passing Monsanto’s dream bill.

In addition to fighting at the federal level, we’ll be working with our partners and volunteers in many states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California to further state efforts to label GMOs. We just need your help to make sure we can implement our plans for genetically engineered food labeling.

With your help, it’s onward to victory!

November 20th, 2014

FDA and Pfizer Take a Trip to Spin City

By Wenonah Hauter

Chicken_Drum_StickUntil last year, small, yet significant levels of arsenic may have laced your chicken dinner, but Big Pharma really didn’t want you to know. And once again, industry influence over government prevailed over protecting public health.

In a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop, Alpharma, a former subsidiary of the major pharmaceutical company Pfizer, was recently found to be colluding with the FDA behind closed doors to delay and downplay public release of important information about risks of one of its livestock drugs. Those closed doors have now been thrown wide open.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and having to sue the agency to get the documents, Food & Water Watch recently obtained internal documents ranging from formal letters to e-mails, between Pfizer and the FDA. The trail of breadcrumbs reveals just how far Big Pharma will go to protect its interests, and just how easily the FDA gave in—at the expense of public health and food safety.

Here’s the deal: Decades ago, FDA approved the use of drugs containing arsenic for use in chickens, turkeys and pigs. It says these drugs can be used for growth promotion and to treat and prevent disease. The catch is, the FDA recognizes the organic form of arsenic as safe, while inorganic arsenic is considered a carcinogen that may lead to health effects from lung, bladder or skin cancer, to heart disease, diabetes, neurological problems in children and more. Read the full article…

October 28th, 2014

Sysco-US Foods Merger More Trick Than Treat

Fork_Plate_SpoonLast December, Sysco, the United States’ largest food distribution company, announced it wanted to buy its largest competitor, US Foods. These two firms are really the only national chains that deliver food to restaurants, cafeterias, stadiums, hotels, nursing homes and other foodservice locations. The deal would give Sysco unbelievable dominance in foodservice delivery that would ultimately drive up prices for consumers and reduce the prices farmers receive.

Food & Water Watch called on federal antitrust regulators to block the mega-merger back in January, but the Federal Trade Commission has taken nearly eleven months to decide what to do. Recently, the FTC’s wall of silence began to melt and there are now inklings that the antitrust agency will decide whether or not to block the merger by the end of the month. Will it be a Halloween with a spooky antitrust enforcement surprise?

Federal regulators are trying to see whether Sysco would sell enough warehouses and distribution centers to make sure that the post-merger Sysco cannot run roughshod over its rivals and price gouge restaurants, cafeterias and ultimately, consumers. Sysco and US Foods are already so much bigger than their regional rivals, that it would be hard for these firms to either buy many warehouses or step up to provide real competition to the new, even bigger Sysco.

Recently, the leaders of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Ranking Member Mike Lee (R-Utah), sent a letter to the FTC that raised concerns about whether these rivals could viably compete against the behemoth, post-merger Sysco. Hopefully, the FTC will heed the Senators’ warning and file suit to block this merger, because another mega-merger would be really scary for consumers.

 

 

October 3rd, 2014

Making Big Ag Bigger Is Not “Climate-Smart”

By Genna Reed GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

Combatting climate change was on everyone’s radar recently when the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit spurred the White House, governments and food corporations to pledge to make changes to address the biggest environmental concern of our time, specifically with respect to agriculture. Led in part by corporate behemoths like Walmart and McDonald’s, a new project was born out of this summit: the UN’s Global Alliance for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA). Read the full article…

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