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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 more…

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 14th, 2014

Food & Water Watch Again Raises Questions with USDA Regarding Australian Meat Imports

Washington, D.C.— In an effort to protect Americans from questionable meat imports, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch today pressured USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to explain whether meat products produced under Australia’s newest inspection model will be allowed into the United States. The inquiry came on the heels of revelations that some Australian meat companies have opted to hire private third party firms to perform meat inspections on products destined for the European Union and expressed interest in using this system in plants sending red meat to the United States.

“I don’t understand the contortions that the Australian government is going through to avoid having competent government inspectors in its slaughterhouses,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “The meat industry there should certainly not be allowed to police itself. Moreover, our government has been complicit in this scheme, first by recognizing privatized inspection in Australia, and now by trying to foist questionable imports on U.S. consumers. Every year, the United States imports over 600 million pounds of red meat from Australia, so it’s critical we get to the bottom of this.”

In 2013, the European Union rejected an inspection model, the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AEMIS), that privatized most inspections in Australian red meat plants. The EU argued that AEMIS inspections created an inherent conflict-of-interest. The U.S. granted approval to AEMIS in 2011 for red meat exports. The formation of private third party inspection firms was intended to alleviate the concerns expressed by the European Union. There is no record of USDA recognizing this new inspection scheme.

“In June, Food & Water Watch petitioned the USDA to revoke their approval of privatized meat inspection systems in several countries, including Australia, for import to the United States,” said Hauter. “This latest example of the chaos in the Australian meat inspection program is further proof that we should not be importing meat from companies that do not use government employees for inspection.”

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-2500, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

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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 more…

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 more…

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July 31st, 2014

Food & Water Watch Denounces USDA Plans to Privatize Poultry Inspection

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

Washington, D.C. – “Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the final rule that will transfer most poultry inspection from government inspectors to the companies so they can police themselves. With the poultry industry standing to gain financially due to increased production and fewer regulatory requirements, the plan is a gift from the Obama administration to the industry, one that will undermine consumer and worker safety, as well as animal welfare.  

“One of the changes that has been made to the original proposed rule is to cap the line speed in chicken slaughter facilities at 140 birds per minute, instead of 175 birds per minute. This is not a meaningful victory because there are not accompanying worker safety regulations to deal with the musculoskeletal disorders and other work-related injuries that both the plant workers and USDA inspectors suffer every day working in the poultry slaughter plants. In addition, the one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line under this new rule will still have to inspect 2.33 birds every second – an impossible task that leaves consumers at risk.

“The change in regulations was first proposed in January of 2012, but after strong opposition from consumer organizations, worker safety advocates and animal welfare groups, its implementation was delayed. When the comment period closed on the proposed rule, USDA had received over 175,000 public comments – most of them opposed to the proposal. Since then, other petitions have been sent to USDA and the White House containing hundreds of thousands of signatures urging the withdrawal of the rule. There have also been several congressional letters sent to USDA urging reconsideration of the rule. The non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in August of 2013 that called into question whether USDA had sufficient data to justify this radical change in poultry inspection.

“The fast turnaround on this rule does a disservice to consumers and workers in poultry plants. Rather than making the contents of a revised rule public and creating a new comment period, the USDA and the White House are making a dramatic change to how poultry is inspected based on incomplete data and limited public review. Food & Water Watch is exploring if there are any further options to stop the rule.”

Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable. So we can all enjoy and trust in what we eat and drink, we help people take charge of where their food comes from, keep clean, affordable, public tap water flowing freely to our homes, protect the environmental quality of oceans, force government to do its job protecting citizens, and educate about the importance of keeping shared resources under public control.

Contact:

Tony Corbo, Food & Water Watch, (301) 937-5561; [email protected]

Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905; [email protected]

July 29th, 2014

U.S. Court of Appeals Decision on COOL a Victory for Consumers and Farmers

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch 

Washington, D.C. — “Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously upheld the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority to issue rules implementing the Country of Origin Labeling law for meat and poultry products. This landmark ruling supporting commonsense consumer disclosure rules that are, as the Court noted, ‘purely factual and uncontroversial’ ensures all Americans can know the source of the food they feed their families.

 “The Court repeatedly acknowledged the legitimate consumer safety interest in knowing the origin of their food because the COOL labels enable ‘customers to make informed choices based on characteristics of the products they wished to purchase, including United States supervision of the entire production process for health and hygiene’ to address ‘the individual health concerns and market impacts that can arise in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak,’ according to the decision.

 “Today’s COOL ruling is an important victory for consumers and farmers. Consumers and farmers have fought for decades to get sensible and informative Country of Origin labels into supermarkets to help families make more informed choices about their food. The Court recognized that these consumer choices are longstanding and that ‘Country-of-origin information has an historical pedigree that lifts it well above ‘idle curiosity.’

 “The ruling unanimously upheld USDA’s COOL regulatory authority and held 9-2 that the COOL disclosure requirements were legitimate and that meatpackers did not have a First Amendment right to withhold information about where animals were born, raised and slaughtered.” 

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-2500, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org. 

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July 25th, 2014

Meat Plant Previously Passing USDA Audits Now Implicated in Chinese Food Safety Scandal

Advocacy organization urges USDA to stop equivalency process for Chinese poultry imports

Washington, D.C. – In light of the recent scandal in China involving Shanghai Husi Foods Company consumer advocacy organization Food & Water Watch has sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to stop all activities that would pave the way for China to export their poultry products to the U.S. The company, which sold expired meat and poultry products to Chinese fast food restaurants and exported some of those products to Japan, had been audited by the USDA in 2004 and 2010—in an effort to establish equivalency status with U.S. processing plants and pave the way for imports.  

“It has been nearly a decade since China made its initial request to send its poultry products to the U.S. and it still cannot get its act together,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Now, we have this scandal involving a subsidiary of a U.S. poultry processor that sold rotten poultry meat to fast food restaurants in China. Unless the USDA reverses course, food from this processor could land on our plates in the not too distant future.”

In 2006, USDA adopted a rule that granted China equivalency status to export processed poultry products to the U.S. provided that the raw poultry came from “approved sources.”  At that time, the only “approved sources” were the U.S. and Canada. When USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducted on-site visits of poultry processing facilities in China in 2004, the Shanghai Husi Foods plant was one of the plants the agency audited and found that there were no food safety issues. Those 2004 on-site audits served as the basis for the 2006 equivalency determination. In 2010, FSIS returned to that plant and gave it a clean bill of health again.

Because of congressional action that blocked the importation of poultry products from China for two years and because China never certified any plants under the 2006 regulation, no processed poultry products have been imported yet. China has been pressing the USDA to allow it to process its own poultry for export to the U.S. The agency will be sending auditors to China in September to determine whether the country has made changes to its slaughter inspection system to comply with U.S. requirements.

“The food inspection program is so weak that China’s own food safety officials concede that the system does not work. The USDA is unnecessarily putting U.S. consumers at risk by continuing to entertain China’s request to export its unsafe poultry to the U.S.,” said Hauter.

Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467; [email protected]

July 24th, 2014

More Than 80 Farm, Consumer, Rural and Faith-Based Organizations Call on Justice Department to Extend Review of Proposed Tyson-Hillshire Merger

WASHINGTON (July 24, 2014) — Today, a coalition of 82 farm, ranch, consumer, rural and faith-based groups sent a letter demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice extend its review of the proposed Tyson Foods (Tyson) takeover of Hillshire Brands, Co. (Hillshire). The proposed merger would join the largest U.S. meat and poultry company, Tyson, with the 11th largest meat company, Hillshire, and would substantially undermine competition in the pork processing and hog purchasing sectors, disadvantaging farmers and consumers and undermining rural communities.

“Fewer buyers of hogs and sows result in a less competitive market for family farmers,” said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union. “The rapid consolidation of market power in the hands of just a few pork processors resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of all hog farms since 1980. Tyson’s takeover of Hillshire certainly warrants further investigation by the Department of Justice and should be stopped. It’s time for the Justice Department to enforce our anti-trust laws.” 

Tyson won a protracted and expensive bidding war to initiate the hostile takeover of Hillshire. The Justice Department reviews hostile takeovers on an accelerated 14-day timeline, rather than the typical 30-days to consider a more thorough merger review. The letter notes that the complexity of the proposed merger warrants a much more comprehensive review because of Tyson’s significant hog and sow purchasing and marketing and because the proposed merger would enable Tyson to undermine Hillshire’s sausage and lunchmeat rivals by disrupting their access to pork supplies. Tyson’s substantial and largely opaque role in private label processed pork production is another aspect of this deal that warrants further scrutiny from regulators. 

“Consumers have witnessed an onslaught of food company mergers over the past few years that reduced consumer choices and contributed to higher grocery store prices,” said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. “The Justice Department should not rubber stamp a $9 billion hostile takeover by America’s biggest meat company that is not in the best interests of consumers or farmers.”

The proposed merger strengthens Tyson’s grip on all livestock producers. It would give the company broader control of the entire hog production sector by combining Tyson’s breeding operations, its hog and sow marketing business, and its slaughter capacity with Hillshire’s sow and boar packing plants, which would give it greater leverage over hog farmers to push down the prices they receive for their market hogs and cull sows and boars. The proposed merger also would improve Tyson’s ability to pit all livestock producers against one another by manipulating the supply of chicken to undermine the consumer demand for beef or pork and thus lower the prices cattle and hog producers receive. 

“Studies confirm that beef and pork are protein substitutes and when dominant meatpackers like Tyson have control over each, they can readily pit one commodity against another to maximize their shareholder profits at the expense of U.S. livestock producers,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.

The food and agribusiness sectors are already excessively consolidated, but there has been an accelerated wave of agribusiness and food mergers over the past 18 months that threatens to accelerate the tight monopolistic control over the entire food and farm sector. The letter concludes, “The proposed merger would significantly impair competition throughout the hog and processed pork marketplace, harming farmers, consumers, rival processors and rural communities. The Department of Justice must not grant an early termination of the merger review.”

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The coalition letter to the U.S. Department of Justice is available here: http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/coalition_letter_to_DoJ_on_tyson-hillshire_merger.pdf 

 

For more information, contact:

Darcey Rakestraw, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-2467

David Thews, National Farmers Union, (202) 554-1600

Laurel Masterson, R-CALF USA (406) 252-2516

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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 more…

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