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April 23rd, 2015

Food & Water Watch Denounces USDA Approval of Apples from China

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

Washington, D.C.—“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approval of imported fresh apples from China could threaten American consumers and apple growers. Thanks to China’s widespread pollution and food safety problems, we could see apples with dangerous chemical residues imported into the United States. A 2014 survey by the Chinese government found that one-fifth of the country’s farmland was polluted with inorganic chemicals and heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium and nickel.

“China’s lax food safety oversight has exposed people in China and worldwide to dangerous foods. The Food and Drug Administration is already unable to monitor the growing flood of imported food, and today’s approval of even more imports will make it difficult for border inspectors to stop apples and apple products from China with residues of pesticides and contaminants, such as arsenic.

“Allowing Chinese apple imports could also pose a risk to American apple orchards because the imports could harbor hidden invasive pests, including the destructive Oriental fruit fly and other insects. USDA approved Chinese apple imports in exchange for China opening its market to U.S. fresh apple exports. But China will be entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that these commercially destructive invasive insects would not hitch a ride to America.

“USDA must halt the approval of these irresponsible approvals of more imported fruit products from China and quickly withdraw the pending decision on allowing importing citrus fruits from China.”

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.

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Monsanto and Big Tobacco’s Legacy

By Tim SchwabGMO_Canola

When an independent, international group of scientists recently determined that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, widely used in conjunction with Roundup-Ready genetically engineered crops, is probably carcinogenic to humans, Monsanto called the science biased and demanded that the World Health Organization (which oversaw the study) retract the finding.

This is a pitch-perfect example of the biotech industry drawing on Big Tobacco’s playbook of denial tactics, used for decades to confuse the scientific discourse that linked cigarettes to cancer. In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen just how deep the ties run between Big Food’s PR machine and that of Big Tobacco. Read more…

April 20th, 2015

GM Mosquitoes: Bad for Business in the Keys

By Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch and
Barry Wray, Executive Director of Florida Keys Environmental Coalition

Aedes_albopictus_on_human_skin copyThis week, local officials in the Florida Keys will decide whether to approve the first ever release of genetically engineered (GMO) mosquitoes in the United States. Yes, you read that right: lab-engineered mosquitoes could be released in one of America’s favorite tourist destinations very soon, even though it’s unclear if any government agency has evaluated the full array of health and environmental risks associated with these new GMO insects.

Unfortunately, the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the Monroe County Board of Commissioners have been conspicuously absent from the conversation about GMO mosquitoes even though this experiment could have a direct impact on business in the Keys. The proposal to release millions of these mosquitoes by British company Oxitec is instead being vetted by a small, local board called the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. This mosquito district has touted GMO mosquitoes as a potential boon to tourism in the Keys because they could reduce dengue fever, though the Keys haven’t had a case in a half-decade.

Of course, Florida’s mosquito problem should not be trivialized. Dengue fever is a leading cause of illness and death for those in tropical and subtropical climates, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But Oxitec has not provided evidence to support that its mosquitoes will be able to effectively control dengue. On the contrary, reports from the field suggest the opposite. Malaysia’s Health Minister recently announced that after field-testing Oxitec’s mosquitos, the country will not be pursuing the program because it was not cost-effective. Additionally, one Brazilian town was still at the highest alert for dengue fever even after Oxitec’s mosquitoes were released there in 2013.

Even if these bugs did successfully wipe out the entire population of the targeted A. aegypti mosquito, the Asian tiger mosquito (also a known vector of dengue and other diseases) could easily take its place. Letting tiger mosquitoes become more commonplace would only make a new dengue fever carrier more prevalent.

Oxitec claims that its mosquitoes are engineered with a lethal gene that is supposed to break the pest’s reproductive cycle because its offspring, for the most part, die before reaching adulthood. The company claims this would theoretically reduce the mosquito population and the prevalence of dengue fever without the need for pesticides. But the Mosquito Control District has not done enough to identify insecticide alternatives. Instead of exploring a range of options, they have hastily and aggressively pursued Oxitec’s GMO mosquito program despite strong public opposition and a lack of peer-reviewed data.

Significant public opposition defeated Oxitec’s first plan to release GMO mosquitoes in Key West in 2012, but Oxitec is now poised to win approval in Key Haven, a peninsula just a few miles east of Key West. Hundreds of thousands of citizens from across the country have written local, state and federal officials to oppose this plan and last week, hundreds of people called the local tourism council to ask that the Keys be preserved as a national treasure for tourists and residents alike, not for GMO mosquito experiments.

It is puzzling that any local official would sit on the sidelines while GMO mosquitoes were allowed to potentially tarnish the reputation that most Americans have of the Florida Keys as a pristine island paradise. But that is exactly what the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council and the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners have been doing.

It’s high time that local officials took decisive steps to stop this bizarre plan now instead of inheriting the more difficult task of attracting visitors to a place where residents and tourists are the subjects of a science experiment. It’s clear now that GMO mosquitoes could not only harm public health and the environment – they may also be bad for business.

April 16th, 2015

What FDA Can’t Tell Us About Antibiotic Use in Animals

By Sarah Borron Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

Factory farms routinely use antibiotics to compensate for filthy conditions, a practice that promotes the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Food & Water Watch has been fighting to change policies about how antibiotics can be used in agriculture and to demand more information from government agencies about the problem.

Last week, the FDA released a report about antibiotic use in livestock and poultry. What’s interesting is not just what the report tells us, but what it doesn’t. For over two years, we’ve waited for FDA to make some significant changes to data collection and reporting on antibiotic use in livestock and poultry.

Let’s start with what the report does tell us–how many antibiotics producers purchased to use on livestock and poultry in 2013.

  • Overall, antibiotic sales went up by 17 percent over a five-year period.
  • For antibiotics that are important for human medicine, sales for use in animals went up by 20 percent in that same time frame.
  • Medically important antibiotics accounted for nearly two-thirds of total sales of antibiotics for use in animal agriculture.
  • Nearly all the medically important antibiotics given to animals were administered in food or water, a practice that can lead to imprecise dosing and higher likelihood of antibiotic resistance.

So, what important questions remain unanswered? To be able to better understand how antibiotic use in livestock production relates to antibiotic resistance patterns, we at least need to know how antibiotic use breaks down by different types of animals and why the antibiotics are being given to the animals. It makes a difference whether the antibiotics are given to healthy animals to prevent disease or to sick animals to treat disease. It also makes a difference to know which animals are getting which types of antibiotics as we examine, for instance, how Salmonella and E. coli are resistant to different drugs in different types of meat.

Antibiotic resistance is a complicated problem. We need more detailed data to understand how antibiotics are being used and how that affects resistance patterns. FDA has waited long enough; it’s time for them to finalize their new rules on data collection so the public can get a clear picture of how the meat industry is using antibiotics. We’ll let you know when they make a proposal so you can weigh in.

In the meantime, ask your Congressperson to protect antibiotics and stop the overuse of these important drugs on factory farms!

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April 14th, 2015

Glyphosate: As Safe as, Well, Poison

By Genna Reed GMO_Canola

Years ago, Monsanto began touting its crown jewel weed killer, glyphosate (Roundup), as “less toxic to rats than table salt.” It was reminiscent of their infamous “DDT is good for me-e-e!” ads showing gleeful fruits and vegetables dancing around with a woman and cow. Now, after Roundup has been on the market for 40 years, a new review of the available data on glyphosate may alter the commonly held belief that it is benign.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put out an evaluation of glyphosate and four other herbicides and insecticides, which determined that glyphosate should be classified as a 2A carcinogen, meaning it is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Just for a measure of comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently rates glyphosate at an E for carcinogenicity, indicating no risk of cancer whatsoever. Read more…

April 13th, 2015

Somerset County Residents Fight Back Against Expanding Chicken Industry

By Michele Merkel and Claire Fitch

Chickens_Farm

Somerset County has been in the cross hairs of the poultry industry for quite a long time, with an inventory of 14.9 million broiler chickens – the largest of any county in Maryland, and the sixth largest in the United States. Big companies, including Perdue and Tyson own these birds, which are raised in large industrial facilities for their entire lives, and produce enormous quantities of waste. With nowhere to put the tens of millions of pounds of manure generated by these birds, the county is now considering poultry litter incinerators while continuing to entertain proposals to build a number of new broiler chicken operations.

Last week, public health scientists, environmental advocates, and local residents joined together for a Town Hall meeting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to express their concerns with the proposed expansion of factory farm chicken operations and the construction of a poultry litter incinerator in Somerset County on the lower Eastern Shore.

Speakers at the Town Hall meeting gave us a snapshot of the public health and community impacts that may result from the expansion of broiler production and the introduction of manure burning facilities.

Brent Kim from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future spoke about the evidence of chemical contaminants and harmful bacteria, including antibiotic resistant strains, in and around broiler operations. These health hazards have been identified several miles downwind from such operations and may be carried into groundwater sources – particularly concerning for the 60 percent of Somerset County’s residents who access their household water supply from private wells. Read more…

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April 9th, 2015

Protect Your Right to Know: Stop the DARK Act

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H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act — sponsored by Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) — would make the already inadequate approval process for genetically engineered (GMO) foods even worse. The bill would make voluntary labeling for GMO foods the national standard and strip away consumers’ right to know by blocking all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods. That’s why many advocates for labeling GMOs refer to this bill as the “Denying Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act.

April 8th, 2015

Groups Challenge Major USDA Change to Organic Rule

Customary Public Comment Process Averted to the Chagrin of Petitioners

Organic stakeholders filed a lawsuit in federal court, maintaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the federal rulemaking process when it changed established procedures for reviewing the potential hazards and need for synthetic chemicals in certified organic food. A coalition of 15 organic food producers and farmer, consumer, environmental, and certification groups asked the court to require USDA to reconsider its decision on the rule change and reinstitute the agency’s customary public hearing and comment process.

When it comes to organic food production, consumers and producers expect a high level of scrutiny and are willing to pay a premium with the knowledge that a third-party certifier is evaluating compliance with organic standards. The burgeoning $35+ billion organic market relies heavily on a system of public review and input regarding decisions that affect organic production systems and the organic label.  The multi-stakeholder National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), appointed to a 5-year term by the Secretary of Agriculture, holds bi-annual meetings to solicit public input and to write recommendations to the Secretary on organic policy matters, including the allowance of synthetic and non-organic agricultural materials and ingredients.

In adopting the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), Congress created standards for organic certification and established the NOSB to oversee the allowance of certain non-harmful and essential synthetic materials in organic for a period of five years, with a procedure for relisting if consistent with OFPA criteria. Plaintiffs in this case maintain that the USDA organic rule establishes a public process that creates public trust in the USDA organic label, which has resulted in exponential growth in organic sales over the last two decades.  The unilateral agency action taken to adopt major policy change without a public process violates one of the foundational principles and practices of OFPA —public participation in organic policy-making.

At issue in the lawsuit is a rule that implements the organic law’s “sunset provision,” which since its origins has been interpreted to require allowed synthetic materials to cycle off the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances every five years unless the NOSB votes by a two-thirds majority to relist them. In making its decision, the NOSB is charged with considering public input, new science, and new information on available alternatives.

In September, 2013, in a complete reversal of the accepted process, USDA announced a definitive change in the rule it had been operating under since the inception of the organic program, without any public input.  Now, synthetic materials can remain on the National List in perpetuity unless the NOSB takes initiative to vote it off the List.

In a joint statement, the plaintiffs, representing a broad cross-section of interests in organic, said:

We are filing this lawsuit today because we are deeply concerned that the organic decision making process is being undermined by USDA. The complaint challenges the unilateral agency action on the sunset procedure for synthetic materials review, which represents a dramatic departure from the organic community’s commitment to an open and fair decision making process, subject to public input. Legally, the agency’s decision represents a rule change and therefore must be subject to public comment. But equally important, it is a departure from the public process that we have built as a community. This process has created a unique opportunity within government for a community of stakeholders to come together, hear all points of view, and chart a course for the future of organic. It is a process that continually strengthens organic, supports its rapid growth, and builds the integrity of the USDA certified label in the marketplace.

The plaintiffs in the case, represented by counsel from Center for Food Safety, include: Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Equal Exchange, Food and Water Watch, Frey Vineyards, La Montanita Co-op, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, New Natives, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Northeast Organic Farmers Association Massachusetts, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, PCC Natural Markets, and The Cornucopia Institute.

Contact: Abigail Seiler, Center for Food Safety, 202-547-9359

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“Science” or Spin?

By Wenonah Hauter WenonahHauter.Profile

Today we released a report on the corporate influence behind animal science research, which got me thinking about the role that science plays in public debates over controversial issues, particularly the ones we focus on here at Food & Water Watch.

When I think of science, I think of information that has been proven true from extensive research. Modern science explains the physical universe in real and concrete terms. It’s supposed to be unimpeachable. Yet over the years, corporations have co-opted the use of the term “science” to skew debates and influence public policy towards outcomes that favor their interests.

Corporations use scientific claims to sell the public on controversial products and practices such as GMOs; drugs given to food animals like Zilmax and rGBH; and fracking. They stand to profit if these technologies and drugs are allowed, so they use science as a cloak of validation, skewing public perception of these questionable practices, when in reality, we should be very skeptical.

While it might seem that the science on these practices is unbiased, corporations with a direct financial stake heavily influence much of the research that policy makers use to approve or reject them. Corporate Control in Animal Science, released this week, documents the great extent to which drug companies and corporate agribusiness shape the debate around their own products, authoring and funding journal articles at the same time that they sponsor and edit influential scientific journals.

While highly troubling, it’s not terribly surprising to learn that the animal drug industry operates like the human pharmaceutical industry. Both use immense resources to capture and control the scientific research around their products. It’s similar to the ways in which corporations influence agriculture research at universities, as we outlined in our report Public Research, Private Gain.

Take for example, the drug Zilmax, developed to build muscle in cattle, which enjoyed years of commercial success despite animal safety concerns. Zilmax was approved for cattle in 2006 based on industry science and only one animal safety study. In August 2013, the nation’s largest meatpackers announced they would no longer accept cattle treated with Zilmax because of significant animal health problems. Cattle were arriving at slaughterhouses already dead, or with missing hooves. Yes, you read that correctly. Merck, the company that manufactures Zilmax, withdrew the drug from the market to a loss of as much as $160 million a year.

There was plenty of evidence that Zilmax was unsafe, even before Merck voluntarily removed it from the market. As many as 160 foreign countries had banned the class of drugs to which Zilmax belongs. Nearly 300 reports submitted to FDA documented cattle that died or had to be destroyed after receiving the drug. Yet despite these obvious red flags, FDA continued to let favorable research from the drug’s makers Merck and Intervet guide its decision-making.

As our report shows, 78 published articles examined the effects of Zilmax on cattle, and three-quarters of those studies were authored or funded by industry groups or corporate agribusiness. Most of these studies focused on the commercial aspects of Zilmax, like how easily a diner could cut meat from an animal treated with the drug, or what the meat would look like. In our research, we didn’t find a single independent, peer-reviewed study designed to examine animal health prior to Zilmax’s removal from the marketplace. After Zilmax was taken off the market, a study published in the independent journal PLOS ONE revealed that cattle treated with the drug had dramatically increased mortality rates along with other animal health issues.

As the Zilmax example shows, when industry dominates scientific research, no useful counterpoint is offered that might expose the weaknesses or biases of that research. Because many journals have weak disclosure rules, lawmakers and regulators often don’t know that the literature they consult is paid for by industry or authored by deeply conflicted university scientists.

We can’t let executives at major agribusiness corporations be the only ones making critical decisions that affect our food system. Congress needs to tell FDA to revamp its process for approving new animal drugs, basing its decision on independent science. While they’re at it, the federal government should expand funding for animal drug safety research so reliable information is available in the first place. In the meantime, agriculture journal publishers should disclose the funding of studies they publish.

As we’ve reported with the phenomenon of food company mergers, and as I wrote in my book Foodopoly, a handful of corporations are seizing control of the food system. But we can’t let them take over science, too, or exploit the term for their own gain. Just as science needs to remain objective and unbiased, every level of our food system, including the drugs used in livestock and poultry production, should remain free from corporate influence.

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Controversial Animal Drugs Backed by Corporate Science

Food & Water Watch Report Finds Drug Companies Control Key Scientific Research

Washington, D.C.— The peer-reviewed, scientific research on controversial drugs used in livestock and poultry production is very heavily influenced by corporate drug companies, finds a new report released today by the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. Through a review of the scientific literature surrounding several animal drugs, Corporate Control in Animal Science Research documents the great extent to which drug companies and corporate agribusinesses author and fund scientific research while also sponsoring and editing influential scientific journals.

“It’s not terribly surprising to learn that the animal drug industry operates like the human pharmaceutical industry does, using its immense resources to capture and control the scientific research about its products,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Companies like Merck have been able to dominate and skew the scientific discourse around controversial animal drugs like Zilmax, helping to allow this growth-promoter to enjoy years of commercial success despite obvious animal safety concerns.”

Key findings in the report include:

  • When the growth-promoter Zilmax was removed from the marketplace in 2013 due to animal safety concerns, there had been virtually no independent, peer-reviewed studies into the safety of the drug for cattle. Most of the available research examined commercial dimensions of Zilmax (such as the drug’s impact on beef quality) and more than three-quarters of the 78 peer-reviewed studies Food & Water Watch examined were authored and/or funded by industry groups – almost all of which were published in scientific journals sponsored and edited by industry groups.
  • A top destination for peer-reviewed studies authored and funded by animal science companies are the high-profile journals published by the Federation of Animal Science Societies, like the Journal of Animal Science and Journal of Dairy Science, where corporate agribusinesses and drug companies act as sponsors, directors, editors and frequent authors.
  •  Many academic journals have failed to establish or enforce rules requiring scientists to publicly disclose financial conflicts of interest or the funding sources of their research, which has allowed deeply conflicted research to distort the scientific discourse.

“As this report shows, powerful business interests exercise the same level of influence over the scientific discourse as they do the political discourse,” said Hauter. “It’s time that we put an end to the damaging and pervasive industry bias that exists throughout agricultural research.”

In 2012, Food & Water Watch’s report Public Research, Private Gain documented the millions of dollars industry groups are pouring into public universities, which distorts and biases scientific research. Corporate Control in Animal Science Research builds on this research by investigating industry influence over scientific publications, examining the science surrounding three animal drugs: Zilmax, used in beef cattle production; arsenic-based drugs, used in poultry production; and rBGH, an artificial growth hormone used in dairy production. Just last week, the FDA announced that the last arsenic-based drug would be removed from the marketplace by the end of the year—following decades of widespread use by the poultry industry.

To address the outsized corporate influence over animal science research, Food & Water Watch recommends:

  • Congress should instruct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to dramatically revamp its animal drug approval process to be based primarily on independent science, instead of depending entirely on research furnished by drug sponsors.
  • Congress should also instruct the FDA to issue a ban on the use of all beta-agonists, including Zilmax, given the evidence of animal welfare issues.
  • Every agricultural journal should require authors to publicly disclose all of their research funding sources and all financial ties that authors have to industry.

Read Corporate Control in Animal Science Research here.

Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot).org

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