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September 16th, 2014

Pro-GMO Database: Monsanto is Most Common Funder of GMO Research

By Tim Schwab GMO_Canola

The pro-GMO advocacy group Biofortified announced in late August that the group’s much-hyped GENERA database of GMO research is now available for public review in a trial version. Though the database contains only a fraction of the GMO research available (400 of 1200 studies, according to Biofortified), this hasn’t stopped the group from drawing sweeping conclusions about what the science says. Read more…

September 15th, 2014

The So-Called Scientific “Consensus”: Why the Debate on GMO Safety is Not Over

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Biotechnology seed companies, aided by advocates from academia and the blogopsphere, are using their substantial resources to broadcast the myth of a “scientific consensus” on the safety of GMOs, asserting that the data is in and the debate is over. The public relations campaign, helped along by industry groups, has caught the attention of some of the most visible news outlets in the country, with biotech advocates portraying GMO critics as akin to climate change deniers, out of step with science.

September 12th, 2014

Where Corporate Agribusiness Meets Cooperative Extension

By Tim Schwab

Agriculture(2)As this series of blogs in recent weeks has shown, cooperative extension has come a long way since its founding in 1914, when county agents diligently reached out to farmers to address their needs and offer impartial advice on best practices. On its centennial anniversary, extension appears to avoid addressing some of agriculture’s most pressing needs, especially the economic challenges farmers face from intense corporate concentration. Elsewhere, cooperative extension acts as an advocate for the biotechnology industry, offering farmers and consumers biased materials and information about the so-called benefits and necessity of GMOs.

Today’s piece considers the explicit ways that extension, which is facing eroding federal support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reaching out to industry as an active partner and funder of its activities, resulting in projects that aren’t clearly in the public interest. Some of the most egregious examples come from industry support for extension programs about consumer nutrition. Recent highlights include:

The corporate influence also extends to extension programs designed for farmers:

  • The CEO of Tyson Foods donated $3.2 million to endow a professorship at the University of Tennessee that will work on international programs through extension “to find solutions to encourage less-equipped societies to maximize available resources in an effort to provide better nutrition for all of Earth’s inhabitants.”

These examples illustrate the financial ties between industry and extension that could compromise extension’s ability to carry out its role as an impartial source of information and advice to farmers and consumers. Indeed, as this series of blogs has shown, on the most pressing topics of modern agriculture, extension is too often absent or advocating industry positions—and not standing up for farmers and consumers.

On the 100-year anniversary of extension, which follows the 150-year anniversary of our land-grant university system, it’s time that we take a good, hard look at the priorities and mission of our public agriculture infrastructure. Do these public institutions fulfill the role and mission that Congress intended? Do they still serve the public first and foremost?

September 11th, 2014

GM-Uh-Oh? Annie’s Inc. Sells Out to General Mills 

By Patrick Woodall  OrganicsOwnership_WEB

This week, General Mills announced that it will purchase the organic (and “natural”) food company Annie’s, Inc. This is just another in a long line of food company mergers, but it highlights how no matter what foods you love, corporate consolidation is taking over your grocery cart.  Read more…

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Food & Water Watch Sues USDA to Stop the New Poultry Inspection System

Washington, D.C. – Today Food & Water Watch filed suit in federal court to stop the implementation of the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rules—which would turn over key food safety inspection functions to poultry companies with limited oversight by USDA inspectors.

“These rules essentially privatize poultry inspection, and pave the way for others in the meat industry to police themselves,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “The USDA’s decision to embrace the scheme—an initiative lobbied for by the meat industry for more than a decade—flies in the face of the agency’s mandate to protect consumers. What’s more, we believe it’s illegal.”

In its suit, Food & Water Watch charges the new system violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), a law passed in 1957 that gives USDA the authority to protect consumer health and welfare by assuring that poultry products are wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled and packaged. The organization alleges that NPIS violates a number of statutory requirements, including the PPIA’s prescription that federal government inspectors, and not poultry slaughter establishment staff, are responsible for condemning adulterated young chicken and turkey carcasses. The suit states that the NPIS rules also violate the PPIA’s requirement that federal inspectors supervise slaughter establishment reprocessing, which is done to avoid the condemnation of adulterated birds (essentially removing problematic chicken parts to allow the rest of the bird to pass inspection.)

The suit is being brought by Food & Water Watch, on behalf of itself and its members, who include the two other individual plaintiffs, Margaret Sowerwine and Jane Foran. Defendants are Secretary Vilsack and other officials from the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service. The suit states that consumers will be hurt by NPIS, and notes objection with the process by which the rule was implemented. For example, there was no opportunity for oral comments at a public meeting. The group charges that there were also elements that changed in the final rule that were not even hinted at in the proposed rule for public review.

Under the new system, company employees will be charged with removing adulterated product from slaughter lines at their own discretion. The new rules do not mandate training for these company inspectors; whereas USDA inspectors undergo extensive training to allow them to fulfill these tasks under the current inspection system.

In its comments submitted to the USDA on May 29, 2012, Food & Water Watch detailed the results of an analysis that it had done with federal government documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The analysis found that for 11 young chicken and three young turkey plants participating in a pilot program used to design this change in inspection rules, for the first shift of production in those plants from March to August 2011, establishment personnel missed more than 30 percent of conditions on chickens that includes blisters, bruises, external mutilation, fractures, sores, and scabs, and 60 percent of dressing defects such as the presence of feathers, oil glands, and trachea. The same analysis found that company employees missed more than 30 percent of conditions on turkeys that includes blisters, bruises, external mutilation, fractures, sores, and scabs, and 87 percent of dressing defects such as the presence of feathers, oil glands, and trachea.

“USDA’s new system will harm consumers and reverse 100 years of effective government regulation of the meat industry,” said Hauter. “It’s essentially a return to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It’s a huge step backwards for our food safety system.”

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

September 5th, 2014

FDA: Playing Chicken With Our Public Health

The USDA is under pressure — due to trade negotiations — to approve Chinese chicken imports.

By Scott Edwards

Public outcry against irresponsible use of antibiotics in the livestock industry continues to mount as the evidence about its impact on antibiotic resistance accumulates. In response, Perdue recently announced that it was reducing the use of antibiotics in its poultry operations. Perdue’s announcement comes on the heels of several recent developments in the ongoing overuse of these drugs by poultry producers, including a 2012 Food and Drug Administration ban on injecting cephalosporins into chicken eggs and the Agency’s recent announcement of its voluntary strategy to curtail the industry’s use of growth-enhancing antimicrobials.

Not only are the regulatory authorities finally making some moves to counter the abuse, but public sentiment against the use of antibiotics is also reaching a fever pitch. A Consumer Reports food label survey just issued shows that 78 percent of consumers think that reducing antibiotic use in food is “important” or “very important.”

The fact is, people are starting to demand better food choices while pointing out the dire human consequences of irresponsible industry actions, and regulators are being forced to respond; industry’s marketing people are also seeing the writing on the wall. It’s no coincidence that Perdue’s announcement comes just as the company is making a move to become the dominant player in the organic chicken market.

A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true. One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to “treat and control illness in sick flocks.”

Chicken Farm, PoultryBut where Perdue’s “we don’t really need to be regulated” argument really falls apart is when you look at many of the other problems associated with its industrialized meat production system. For example, Perdue’s hundreds of Delmarva factory farms continue to be a significant source of water pollution to a dying Chesapeake Bay, where agriculture remains the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. And, while nutrient-caused dead zones continue their annual summer haunt of the Bay, Perdue has spent decades refusing to take any responsibility for the mountains of manure from their own chickens that pile up on the Eastern Shore each spring. The Bay, and the many people who rely on it, simply cannot wait until the company decides that it’s marketable to clean up after itself.

Likewise, with the antibiotic issue, voluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years – that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics – is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.

 

 

September 3rd, 2014

Extension: Now Advocating on Behalf of Industry?

By Tim Schwab Farm

As we’ve detailed in recent blogs, this summer marks the 100-year anniversary of Congress’s implementation of “cooperative extension,” tasked with the mission of “…diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics…”

During World War II the extension system successfully lead 15 million families to plant victory gardens, which in 1943 produced an almost unbelievable 40 percent of our nation’s fresh vegetables. Extension offices located in every county also acted as crucial vehicles for connecting farmers to new research from our burgeoning, public land-grant-university system, an arrangement that benefited farmers and consumers for decades. Read more…

August 29th, 2014

Extension’s Role, and Retreat, in Improving Farmers’ Bottom Lines

By Tim Schwab

IMG_3898Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program represents the best of what our nation’s “extension” program can be — utilizing the technical expertise of land-grant universities to improve farmer livelihoods. Extension, which this summer celebrates its centennial and is the subject of a series of blogs from Food & Water Watch, uses programs like this to connect farmers with university experts, in this case trained economists who conduct careful financial analyses of farm income.

Importantly, universities benefit as much from the program as farmers. From PhD students working on a graduate research to economics professors publishing peer-reviewed articles, academics have used the valuable data produced from the Farm Analysis Program to further their research and propose economic policy changes to help farmers.

This is especially the case for data about poultry production, where little meaningful, independent, financial data related to on-farm income is available. As Auburn University Professor Robert Taylor has noted, Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program “maintains the only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

Using this data, Taylor in 2002 highlighted the gross inequalities that exist in the poultry industry, concluding: “Farm business records show that contract producers who once had acceptable income from their poultry operations now put a few hundred thousand dollars of equity, and borrow several hundred thousand more to hire themselves at minimum wage with no benefits and no real rate of return on their equity. Yet integrators [large chicken processing companies] continue to earn 10-25% rates of return on equity.”

Ten years on, the problem is much worse. Most money generated from poultry production—including that from the 100 million chickens produced each year in Alabama—ends up in the coffers of one of a handful of corporate chicken companies while farmers exist on razor-thin margins, one or two bad flocks away from losing the farm.

Business journalist Chris Leonard’s new book “The Meat Racket” brilliantly describes the abuse and economic exploitation that poultry growers suffer under the thumb of companies like Tyson. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice’s antitrust enforcement office offered a cursory acknowledgement of anti-competitive practices in the poultry industry with a public workshop at Alabama A&M in 2010, which has spurred talk of possible action from Congress and the USDA.

With the public spotlight finally shining on the rampant abuses in the poultry industry, it’s an awfully odd time for Alabama to jettison the Farm Analysis Program, as it did last May. An extension officer there told me that the state decided to shift resources to broader educational efforts. Farmers can still take classes on how to use QuickBooks and learn the basics of agricultural accounting, he told me, but extension now has greater time and flexibility to perform a range of functions that serve the public interest. But consider the public value that’s been lost with the demise of the “only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

The kind of economic concentration that exists in the chicken industry also exists elsewhere in the food system, with a handful of companies selling most of the seeds and agrochemicals, slaughtering most of the pigs and cattle, processing most food products, and selling food to consumers at grocery stores. This system greatly enriches the handful of companies at the top, but hurts farmers, workers, communities and consumers.

So, where is extension on this issue? Largely absent. This, again, raises questions about how relevant this institution is today, and to what extent extension is fulfilling  the mission Congress laid out for it in 1914. All too often, extension avoids the most pressing economic and social issues facing farmers.

Stay tuned for Food & Water Watch’s continuing analysis of the hundred-year anniversary of cooperative extension.

August 28th, 2014

Is Cornell the Go-To University for Industry Science?

By Tim Schwab

GMO_CanolaCornell University announced last week that it is embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to “depolarize the charged debate” around GMOs. Can you guess who’s behind this effort? The biotech industry and its supporters.

The website for this project, the Cornell Alliance for Science, is pretty sparse, but it does note its pro-GMO partners, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which is funded by Monsanto, CropLife and Bayer.

This use of surrogates is par for the course with the biotech industry. Sometimes called the soft lobby, corporations routinely engage neutral-appearing scientists and impartial-sounding front groups to help advance their political and economic agendas. Food & Water Watch detailed the enormous amount of industry research coming out of our public land-grant universities in our 2012 report, Public Research, Private Gain.

Cornell is no stranger to this science-for-sale approach. Earlier this year, Cornell economist William Lesser took money from a biotech front group to produce a questionable analysis showing that GMO labeling will be very costly for consumers. While he noted that the study reflected his personal opinions, not those of Cornell, GMO supporters began publicizing the findings of “the Cornell study” in their campaign to defeat state-labeling initiatives around the country. Independent studies, meanwhile, show that GMO labeling will not increase costs significantly—and perhaps not at all.

Cornell’s newest foray into the GMO debate, the “Alliance for Science,” will add to the confusion and distortion in the public discourse around GMOs. Rather than trying to promote a civil, honest, impartial dialogue about GMOs—as you would expect from a university like Cornell—the school has chosen to partner with some of the biotechnology industry’s most prominent supporters and defenders. Read more…

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August 27th, 2014

Federal Approval of Tyson-Hillshire Merger Harms Consumers

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter 

Washington, D.C.—“Today, the U.S. Justice Department approved the merger between Tyson Foods and Hillshire Brands, requiring an important divestiture, but nonetheless allowing one of the largest meat processing mergers in years. The Justice Department forced Tyson to sell its sow-buying business that competed head-to-head with Hillshire’s sow slaughter business. The Justice Department should be commended for recognizing the buyer-power that pork processors and marketers have over hog farmers and taking a necessary step to protect farmers from increased consolidation in the pork packing industry. The pork packing industry remains overly concentrated, but at least the Justice Department prevented it from getting any worse.

“Although this divestiture is vitally important for farmers, the merger approval leaves consumers vulnerable to higher prices from a more consolidated pork-processing sector. The Justice Department should not have approved this merger until its anticompetitive impacts on consumers could be fully assessed. One month is insufficient time to analyze a merger that joins the largest meat processing company with the eleventh largest firm and creates a vertically integrated pork powerhouse that can exert market power from squeal to sausage.

“The merger disadvantages both consumers and rival manufacturers. Tyson has struggled for years to develop credible value-added pork product brands and by approving this merger Tyson seizes a leading position in the sausage, breakfast sandwich, hot dog and lunchmeat markets. Because Tyson can align its pork slaughter business with Hillshire’s branded processing business, Hillshire products will have a leg up on competitors, who will likely have to raise prices. Consumers are especially vulnerable today, as pork prices are rising due to a widespread outbreak of a disease affecting piglets. A larger Tyson is unlikely to reduce pork prices as quickly or as fully when hog prices decline. The Justice Department should have investigated this merger more fully and divested more businesses before rapidly approving this mega-meat-merger.

Read Food & Water Watch’s white paper to the Justice Department on the anti-competitive effects of the Tyson-Hillshire merger here.

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

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