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February 26th, 2015

USDA Records Reveal Staffing Shortages Undermining Food Safety

Washington, D.C.— Today, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch released an analysis of USDA records documenting the impact of long-standing vacancies in the ranks of USDA meat and poultry inspectors. This release comes just hours before officials from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are due to discuss their budget request for FY2016 before the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee. These records, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, document the number of inspection tasks that were not performed and the most common reasons why over a two-year period, revealing that for meat and poultry, inadequate staffing and turn around times were often to blame.

The documents show that half of the FSIS districts were running double-digit vacancy rates for permanent full time FSIS inspectors for most of FY 2014, and that the number of inspection procedures performed by FSIS inspectors has also declined over the past four years. According to the enforcement reports published by the agency, in FY 2010, 8,048,068 inspection verification procedures were performed. Yet in FY 2014 under the new Public Health Information System (PHIS), that had dropped to 6,795,731 inspection verification procedures – a 15.6 percent decrease. The number of non-compliance reports issued under PHIS decreased by 14 percent when comparing the same two time periods.

“Consumers are at risk thanks to the Obama’s administration’s decision to starve the FSIS inspection program, which has led to violations of the continuous inspection mandate,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “This data confirms what we and inspectors have been saying to the USDA for several years now – long-term inspector shortages are putting consumers at risk.”

The shortages of USDA inspection personnel are tied directly to a hiring restriction policy adopted in 2012 in anticipation of a controversial rule that would radically change the manner in which poultry is inspected. The hiring policy capped the number of permanent federal inspectors. Any vacancies that have developed were to have been filled with “temporary” inspectors who could be terminated when the new rule was finalized. The “temporary” inspector-hiring program has not achieved its goals and has left most parts of the country short of USDA inspectors. Under the new rule, the role of federal inspectors in poultry plants is reduced, turning those responsibilities over to the companies to police themselves. Moreover, problems with the controversial PHIS have further exacerbated the inability of inspectors to complete their assignments.

Today’s analysis follows multiple efforts by Food & Water Watch to alert USDA to this problem. Rather than addressing the shortages, agency leadership has tried to deny the existence of shortages or downplay their impact.

“USDA’s data tells the story—inspector shortages mean that some meat and poultry products are not being adequately inspected,” said Hauter.“It is time for Congress and USDA make sure that meat and poultry inspection get the necessary resources to provide continuous government inspection of meat and poultry products.”

Read the backgrounder here.

Chart 1: Frequency of “not performed” task codes listed in PHIS by establishment number, June 2012 through July 2014. Full list of not performed tasks available on request.

Chart 2:  The top thirty plants listed for select categories of “not performed” codes, June 2012 through July 2014.

Chart 3: Summary of FSIS tables on inspector shortages for FY 2014.  Full set of tables received from FSIS available on request.

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

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February 20th, 2015

Food for Thought With Dr. Dennis Keeney

By Kate Fried KeeneyCoverjpg

When many of us think of farms, our minds conjure idyllic images of small operations tended by friendly farmers, animals grazing freely in dewy pastures, rolls of hay that look like giant Shredded Wheats, bright red barns with silos. But with the advent of large-scale industrial farming, that reality is starkly different.

According to Food & Water Watch board member Dr. Dennis Keeney, the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, “the farm you grew up on, at least for a couple of generations, was named after the family that lived there. It became a sense of place that we really miss, because now agriculture is large corporate farms that have no sense of place. It’s a way of life that is largely gone.” Read more…

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February 19th, 2015

Food & Water Watch Commends FTC Action to Block Sysco-US Foods Merger

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

Washington, D.C. —“Today, the Federal Trade Commission appropriately sued to block the merger between Sysco and US Foods, demonstrating that U.S. antitrust laws can have some teeth. The proposed deal between the top two broadline food distribution firms in the country would have created a national monopoly controlling three-quarters of the foodservice delivery market. The proposed merger could have imposed price hikes on restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals and stadiums that would harm consumers and businesses, undermining market competition.

“Finally, the federal antitrust cops have said ‘enough is enough’ to the wave of mega-mergers sweeping the food industry. The last year has seen the FTC and Justice Departments rubber stamp a host of giant agribusiness and food industry deals that have further consolidated an already over-concentrated sector of the economy.

“Today’s FTC action gives consumers, farmers and small and medium-sized businesses a ray of hope that antitrust authorities can act decisively to prevent mergers that create monopolies in the food system.”

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

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An Apple Lover’s GMO Apple Lament

By Genna Reed Apple

What is it about an apple that makes it such a beloved and culturally important fruit? For some it might be its bright red color, its sweet, juicy crunch, its association with the brisk beginnings of fall or perhaps its fabled ability to ward off visits to doctors’ offices.

When I was growing up, my mom packed a home-sliced apple for me every single day for lunch. Though slicing the apples took more time, my mom got into the habit when braces made biting into the skin of an apple an arduous feat. The apple slices were sometimes a bit browned by lunchtime, but it never deterred me from devouring this healthy snack. Furthermore, I never stopped before biting into the apple slices to think to myself, “Gee, if only these slices could be modified somehow to prevent browning.” Read more…

February 13th, 2015

Congress: Don’t Mess With Meat Labels

By Katherine Cirullo

COOL_Labeling_USDA_MeatThis week brought progress for consumers, ranchers and food safety advocates who want to know where their food is produced. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has dropped an anti-consumer lawsuit filed by meatpackers and industry groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), that would have denied U.S. shoppers the right to know where the meat they purchase was born, raised and slaughtered. The dismissal marks a major victory in the long history of industry attacks on country of origin labeling (COOL), but the battle to this labeling law isn’t over just yet, as the rule remains vulnerable to the whims of Congress.

The lawsuit, filed in July of 2013 by the American Meat Institute (AMI) et al. (a conglomerate of domestic and international meatpacking and commodity groups) sought to strike-down COOL, a popular meat labeling law that gives consumers basic information about the origin of meat products. The court entertained three rounds of challenges by the industry groups. And those groups lost at every round.

First, in September of 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the meatpackers’ request that the USDA stop using an updated version of COOL requirements that gave consumers more precise information about the origin of meat. Then, in March of 2014, a three-judge panel of the court affirmed the lower court’s ruling. And in July, the entire circuit appeals court upheld the legitimacy of USDA’s rules for the popular COOL labels – rejecting the industry’s claim that companies have a First Amendment right to not give consumers basic information about where food comes from. Read more…

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USDA Approves GMO Apples Despite Opposition from Apple Industry and Consumers

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

Washington, D.C.— “Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ genetically engineered Arctic Apples. These apples are engineered to resist browning when sliced. The USDA’s environmental review received 73,000 comments that overwhelmingly opposed the commercialization of Arctic Apples. This decision marks the first approval of an aesthetically-improved genetically engineered food and will expand the reach of GMO products into the produce aisle, which currently only offers a small number of GMO foods.

“The USDA has neglected to look at the full range of risks from these apples. In its environmental assessment, the USDA glossed over the possibility of unintentional effects associated with the technology used to engineer these apples, potential economic impacts on the U.S. and international apple market, effects of potential contamination for non-GMO and organic apple growers and the impact of the non-browning gene silencing which also can weaken plant defenses and plant health.

“This apple was produced using a relatively new method of genetic engineering, known as RNA interference. This technology uses RNA to silence a target gene, but mounting evidence has shown that meddling with the genes could have unintended effects within the plant and also on organisms that eat the plant. The particular gene targeted by this technology allows the apples to be sliced without turning brown, which could mislead consumers into thinking they are eating fresh apples when they might be eating apples on the verge of rotting. Browning is an important indicator to consumers in determining the freshness of an apple or apple slice. The silenced gene is also heavily involved in a plant’s natural defense against pests and pathogens, which could lead to trees that are less healthy than non-GMO apples and rely on more chemical treatments to ward off pests and disease.

“The domestic apple industry is opposed to the commercialization of GMO apples and some food companies have already said they would not sell Arctic Apples. The U.S. Apple Association, Washington Apple Commission and other grower groups have voiced their disapproval due to the negative impact GMO apples could have on the apple industry, and in 2013 Gerber and McDonald’s announced that they would not use GMO apples in their products.

“This GMO apple is simply unnecessary. Apple browning is a small cosmetic issue that consumers and the industry have dealt with successfully for generations. The USDA has let down U.S. apple growers and the public by wasting resources on this useless and risky food. To make matters worse, these apples will not be required to be labeled and consumers will not know that the sliced apples they pack in their children’s lunches were made through genetic engineering.”

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

Food & Water Watch Seeks Overturn of Court Decision Allowing Implementation of New Poultry Inspection System

Washington, D.C. – Today, the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch filed notice that it would ask a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court’s decision earlier in the week that ruled it lacked jurisdiction to stop the implementation of the USDA’s New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rules. These rules turn over key food safety inspection functions to poultry companies with limited oversight by government inspectors.

“The program allowing the poultry industry to police itself is simply not allowed under law, which is designed to protect consumers,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “We are still hopeful that a court will review and reject this scheme, which is designed at the behest of the poultry industry and only benefits its bottom line.”

Food & Water Watch’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in September of last year on behalf of itself, its members and two individuals, charges that the new system violates the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), a 1957 law giving USDA the authority to protect consumer health and welfare. The organization asked the federal district court to immediately enjoin the program.

On Monday, the federal court took a pass on the lawsuit altogether, deciding it could not review the agency’s authority to issue the rules, dismissing the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to maintain their challenge. Food & Water Watch is now asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit to review the validity of this decision.

“The new USDA scheme, which reverses 100 years of effective government regulation of the meat industry, does great harm to consumers, and should be sent back to the drawing board,” said Hauter. “We hope that the court of appeals will reverse the lower court’s decision to the contrary.”

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

February 12th, 2015

Advocates Urge FDA to Halt Risky GMO Mosquito Release

Washington, D.C.— Today, the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch urged the FDA to prevent the British biotechnology company Oxitec from releasing millions of unregulated GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys this spring and to require the company to submit to a formal agency review. GMO mosquitoes are not adequately regulated, either by federal or local agencies, and may pose significant risks to human health and the environment.

“GMO mosquitoes are nothing but a science experiment run amok,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Releasing them into the environment will not be worth the effort, expense or potential risk.”

Despite growing public concern about the mosquitoes raised by residents of the Florida Keys, there is no indication that FDA or any other federal or state agency has adequately evaluated the safety of the company’s plan to release genetically engineered insects. Nor does any agency seem to know who is actively responsible for considering it.

The Oxitec mosquitoes would be the first genetically engineered insect to be introduced in the United States with the intent to wipe out a wild population in the name of disease control. While they would purportedly be used to control dengue fever, it has not been proven that the engineered mosquito would be effective in controlling disease, and may even allow other types of disease-carrying mosquitoes to flourish, according to a study recently released in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

The study looked at the spread of the Asian Tiger Mosquito in Panama and concluded that “GM strategies might have only short-term effects on vector population sizes.”

The public is also skeptical of GMO mosquitoes. Over 145,000 people have signed a petition opposing their release.

“The lack of regulatory oversight here is appalling, and it means that nobody is looking out for unintended consequences to human health or the environment,” noted Hauter. “If FDA does not take action on this, Oxitec will, and we cannot allow a biotech company to police itself. FDA needs to exert some authority and regulate GMO mosquitos, rather than leaving that crucial role to a corporation.”

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

February 9th, 2015

Ranchers, Consumers Applaud Dismissal of COOL Lawsuit

Washington, D.C. – In papers filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, industry opponents to the U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) law dropped their longstanding case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This ends the lawsuit, American Meat Institute (AMI) et al. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al., originally filed in July 2013 by domestic and international meatpackers and trade groups that sought to strike-down the popular labeling law that informs consumers where the meat they purchase was born, raised and slaughtered.

“South Dakota Stockgrower members are proud of their USA born and raised cattle and we’re happy the courts have ruled that consumers can continue identifying USA beef with the COOL label,” said SDSGA President Bob Fortune.

The challengers to the COOL law (including meatpacking and allied livestock commodity groups in the United States, Canada and Mexico) lost three rounds of court decisions. The initial request for immediate injunctive relief was rejected by the U.S. District Court in September 2013; a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed that ruling in March 2014, and the entire circuit appeals court overwhelmingly upheld the legitimacy of COOL labels in July. The meatpacker plaintiffs choose not to appeal these recurring defeats to the U.S. Supreme Court and agreed to have their case dismissed.

The meatpacker challengers alleged the COOL law violated their constitutional right to free speech by requiring meat processors to affix these sensible labels. They also alleged that USDA had overreached its statutory authority by requiring retailers to affix labels specifically denoting the country where each of three production steps — born, raised and slaughtered — had occurred.

R-CALF USA, Food & Water Watch, Western Organization for Resource Councils and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association intervened on behalf of the USDA in the lawsuit along with other farm, commodity and consumer groups. This legal intervention is only part of a longstanding nationwide campaign to enact, implement and protect COOL.

“It is about time the meatpackers abandoned this anti-consumer lawsuit,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Three separate court rulings rejected the industry’s absurd contention that it has a constitutional right to deceive consumers about where food is produced,” said Hauter.

The courts not only upheld USDA’s authority to issue regulations to implement COOL under the 2008 Farm Bill but also affirmed that COOL was designed to satisfy a legitimate consumer disclosure objective as well as promote food safety and public health. The court further rejected the meatpacker-plaintiffs’ contention that labeling meat products with factual and uncontroversial information about livestock production steps would violate their First Amendment free speech rights.

R-CALF USA COOL Committee Chair and Kansas cattle rancher Mike Schultz also welcomed the dismissal of the COOL challenge stating, “COOL is necessary to support marketplace competition because only it can empower consumers to act on their choice of where they want their food produced.”

Efforts by consumer and producer groups to defend COOL in the courts have paralleled efforts to defend COOL from meatpacker-backed attacks to eliminate or weaken the integrity of the COOL labels in the U.S. Congress.

“Congress must abandon its efforts to meddle with meat labels, which are overwhelmingly popular with ranchers and consumers,” said Mabel Dobbs, a rancher from Weiser, Idaho, and member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils. “Even the meatpackers have given up now on their effort to stop COOL in the courts. It’s time for Congress to leave these commonsense labels alone.”

Contact:

Bill Bullard, R-CALF: (406) 252-2516; [email protected]

Kevin Dowling, WORC: (406) 252-9672; [email protected]

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

Silvia Christen, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association: (605) 342-0429; [email protected]

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Two New Bills Will Bring Equity to Farmers and Bay Restoration Efforts

Maryland Sen. Madaleno introduces the Bay Tax Equity Act and the Farmers’ Rights Act

Annapolis, MD—Maryland Senator Richard Madaleno (D-18) introduced two pieces of legislation on the Senate floor today that will create new protections for poultry contract growers while also bringing equity to ongoing efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by requiring some of the biggest polluters of the Bay to contribute to conservation measures.** Madaleno’s sponsorship of the Farmers’ Rights Act and the Bay Tax Equity Act is a critical first step toward correcting injustices within Maryland’s agricultural sector that have had a negative impact on the livelihoods of local growers and the health of the Bay.

The Farmers’ Rights Act will help Maryland lawmakers take meaningful steps toward protecting the region’s contract growers from the often-abusive practices of giant poultry companies by putting forth a set of guaranteed grower’s rights, while prohibiting many of the abusive practices, that force contract growers into poor working conditions and leave them with a tremendous amount of debt.

The Bay Tax Equity Act, which is a new version of legislation introduced last year, will hold Maryland’s poultry companies, some of the biggest polluters of the Bay, partially accountable for their contribution to nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay by requiring them to pay their fair share towards the necessary costs of Bay restoration. The bill would require poultry companies to contribute to the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Cover Crop program, a $20 million per year initiative designed largely to address the massive amounts of excess chicken waste produced on the Eastern Shore where the chicken companies operate. Presently, this program is funded entirely by state taxpayers, including the diversion of funds from the annual $60 tax placed on the state’s septic users. By shifting the financial burden of the Cover Crop program over to the profitable companies who create the problem in the first place, the BTEA would allow 100 percent of the septic money collected to go towards the critical need of upgrading the state’s septic systems.

“Maryland taxpayers are subsidizing the big chicken companies that pollute for free,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “Perdue alone has received several millions of dollars in grants and payments from the state of Maryland since 2008, while the company leaves its waste behind for others to deal with. Meanwhile, Eastern Shore growers struggle financially while tolerating poor working conditions and unfair contracts. These two separate pieces of legislation will go a long way toward bringing equity and accountability to an Eastern Shore agricultural system that currently leaves big chicken companies free to pollute the Bay and treat its contract growers unfairly under one-sided contracts. ” Read more…

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