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July 30th, 2015

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 “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act,” or DARK Act. In July, the bill passed out of the House. The next step in the process is the Senate.

Farm, Consumer and Competition Groups Oppose JBS-Cargill Pork Merger

Deal Would Concentrate Buyer and Seller Power in Pork Industry

Washington, D.C. — Today, American Antitrust Institute, Food & Water Watch, Iowa Farmers Union, Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Farmers Union demanded that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate the proposed JBS-Cargill pork packing acquisition. The proposed $1.45 billion acquisition would create the second largest pork processing company in the U.S. The groups are concerned that increased concentration in the pork packing industry would harm hog farmers and consumers.

“The wave of mega-mergers sweeping the food and agribusiness industries encourages a cascade of consolidation throughout the supply chain,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director. “The rampant consolidation is raising consumer prices, reducing consumer choices and undermining the economic livelihood of farmers.”

Food & Water Watch, Iowa Farmers Union, Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Farmers Union also submitted a joint white paper documenting the anticompetitive effects of the proposed JBS-Cargill acquisition. The proposed deal would significantly increase the pork packing industry’s power over hog farmers.

A combined JBS and Cargill would accelerate vertical integration and reliance on hog production contracts. It would also, the white paper concludes, concentrate the wholesale pork product market, disadvantaging grocery stores and restaurants and ultimately raise pork prices for consumers. Post-merger, the largest two pork packing firms operating in the U.S. — Smithfield and JBS — would be controlled by foreign companies.

“The JBS-Cargill merger would combine the third and fourth largest pork packing companies in the United States, further concentrating an industry that is already run by just a handful of firms,” said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. “The rapid consolidation of market power in the hands of just a few pork processors has resulted in the loss of more than 90 percent of all hog farms since 1980. The JBS-Cargill merger certainly warrants further investigation by the Department of Justice and should be stopped.”

If the proposed acquisition were approved, the four largest pork packers would slaughter about three-quarters of hogs, up from about two-thirds today. The white paper extensively examines how the proposed acquisition would increase the economic market power of pork packers over farmers in the Midwestern hog belt. The proposed merger would reduce the number hog buyers and marketing options for hog farmers. After the proposed acquisition, the top four pork packers would control 94.5 percent of the market in Iowa alone, 85.5 percent in Iowa and surrounding states and 82.3 percent in Illinois-Indiana and surrounding states.

“The JBS-Cargill merger would reduce the number of hog buyers in the Midwest and allow the pork packers to further depress the prices farmers receive for their hogs,” said Rhonda Perry, Program Director at Missouri Rural Crisis Center and livestock and grain farmer in Howard County, Missouri. “The pork packing monopoly has already driven almost all the independent hog farmers out of business. The Justice Department has to stand up for America’s farmers and rural communities and block this merger.”

Rapid consolidation in the food and agriculture sectors has been of rising concern to farmers, consumers and federal regulators. Since the economy began to recover from the recession, the pace of mergers has accelerated and threatens to increase concentration in the already over-consolidated food and agriculture sectors.

AAI’s President, Diana Moss, explained “This merger could also create ripple effects throughout the food chain by spurring additional mergers to push back against the greater market power of JBS and Cargill. With less and less competition, we should be gravely concerned about the safety and stability of our important food supply chain.”

The letter to the U.S. Department of Justice is available here.

The Anticompetitive Effects of the Proposed JBS-Cargill Pork Packing Acquisition white paper is available here.

For more information, contact:

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

Andrew Jerome, National Farmers Union, (202) 314-3106, ajerome(at)nfudc(dot)org

Diana Moss, President, American Antitrust Institute, (202) 536-3408, dmoss(at)antitrustinstitute(dot)org

Tim Gibbons, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, (573) 449-1336, timgibbons(at)morural(dot)org

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Foodborne Illness is Not Funny

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.

The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.

As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.

Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.

The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.

Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it.  However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.

This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.

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July 28th, 2015

Food & Water Watch Calls on SEC to Reject GMO Salmon Stock Filings

AquaBounty Misleads Investors in Efforts to Join NASDAQ

Washington, D.C.—Food & Water Watch called on the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) today to reject the stock registration filings of AquaBounty Technologies (ABTX), the maker of genetically engineered salmon, based on misleading and erroneous claims the company is making in its attempts to join the NASDAQ stock exchange. The letter asks SEC to compel AquaBounty to revise the document to apprise investors of new scientific evidence showing that GMO salmon cannot grow as quickly as AquaBounty claims and also experience unique disease concerns.

“It’s one thing for AquaBounty to peddle fairy tales about its magical fish at industry conferences, but when you are playing with other people’s money, there’s no room for mythology,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Investors need to know that GMO salmon doesn’t grow faster than conventional Atlantic salmon and that it may experience unique health issues, which raise environmental, animal health and food safety concerns.”

Food & Water Watch’s complaint letter highlights the findings of a recently released Canadian government risk assessment of GMO salmon, which noted dramatically diminished growth rates of GMO salmon in the company’s commercial facility.This finding adds to the evidence that GMO salmon cannot grow more quickly than existing commercially produced Atlantic salmon, contrary to AquaBounty’s claims.

“If investors want to put their money into GMO salmon, that’s their prerogative, but they need all the facts,” said Hauter. “Again and again, we see that AquaBounty is unwilling to provide the public a truthful, accurate accounting of limits and risks of GMO salmon.”

Today’s complaint letter follows several others that Food & Water Watch submitted to the SEC, which noted AquaBounty’s failure to alert investors about a major disease outbreak with GMO salmon and also a $9,500 fine that the company paid for environmental safety violations. After Food & Water Watch highlighted these and other omissions, misstatements and misleading information that would harm investors, AquaBounty amended its SEC filings several times.

“The reality is there is no appetite for this fish,” said Hauter. “Even if the FDA approves it, the salmon industry has stated that it won’t produce GMO salmon, and consumer polls show widespread public opposition.”

AquaBounty’s GMO salmon is currently undergoing regulatory review by the FDA and not yet in commercial production. No regulatory agency anywhere in the world has declared GMO salmon safe to eat.   

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

Coalition Urges Senate to Reject COOL Repeal

Urges Senate to Reject So-Called Voluntary COOL Compromise

Washington, D.C.—Today, a coalition of 142 rancher, farmer, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the United States delivered a letter urging the Senate to reject both the effort to repeal the country of origin labeling (COOL) law and the so-called compromise to convert COOL into a voluntary labeling program for beef, pork and chicken. Congress enacted COOL for beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, seafood and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills and expanded COOL to cover venison in the 2014 Farm Bill. Consumers overwhelmingly support these labels.

Rather than bow to pressure from the meatpacker lobby, the letter urges the Senate “to defend consumers’ right to know where their food comes from and the ability of farmers and ranchers to proudly identify their livestock as born and raised in America.”

In 2008, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), contending that these commonsense labels were a barrier to trade. Canada and Mexico have threatened an absurdly high penalty designed to frighten the U.S. Congress into rashly repealing COOL rather than allowing the WTO dispute process to be completed.

“It is premature for Congress to unilaterally surrender to saber-rattling from our trading partners in the midst of a long-standing dispute. COOL opponents have highlighted Mexico and Canada’s threats of retaliation as if their aspiration to seek billions of dollars in penalties were already approved by the WTO. But these unapproved, unrealistically high retaliation claims are merely aggressive litigation tactics designed to frighten the United States, a standard practice in WTO disputes. Congress should not fall for it,” the letter observes.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to repeal COOL for muscle-cuts of meat and ground beef, pork and chicken. Last week, dueling COOL amendments were offered on the Senate highway bill. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) introduced an amendment to totally repeal COOL that was identical to the House repeal bill. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) introduced legislation that repealed mandatory COOL for beef, pork, chicken and ground meat but gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the discretion to establish a voluntary COOL labeling program for only some of those meat products. The Stabenow-Hoeven measure was also offered as an amendment to the highway bill being considered this week in the Senate.

Both the full repeal and voluntary COOL measures inappropriately include chicken and ground meat even though the WTO ruled that the COOL labels for ground meat were WTO-legal and the dispute never considered chicken. The letter notes, “the legislation would repeal COOL for ground beef and ground pork as well as for chicken, but the WTO explicitly ruled that the COOL label on ground meat was WTO-legal, and the WTO never addressed chicken or other covered commodities.”

The broad-based coalition vehemently opposes any effort to repeal COOL but also opposes any effort to weaken COOL, including converting it into a voluntary labeling program. The United States had a voluntary COOL program for meat prior to implementing the mandatory labeling program under the 2008 Farm Bill, but the meatpackers refused to participate in the voluntary program.

“Voluntary COOL labeling is no solution to the WTO dispute: Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it, farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it and Canada and Mexico have already bluntly rejected this so-called compromise. Voluntary COOL is indistinguishable from repealing COOL,” the letter states.

Providing commonsense information to consumers is not something that should be left solely to the discretion of the meatpacking, food manufacturing and grocery retailing industries that have long-opposed consumer labeling disclosures. The letter states: “We do not believe that the interests of producers or consumers can be served by granting to the opponents of COOL the exclusive right to decide whether or not to affix voluntary COOL labels.”

The next phase of the WTO COOL dispute is expected to take up to six months and will consider the extent to which a simple consumer label has prevented Canada and Mexico from exporting cattle and hogs to the United States. Cattle imports are now higher than when COOL went into effect and hog imports are rapidly rising, severely undercutting the contention that COOL is a trade barrier.

“COOL is extremely important to our organizations and to the American public. We oppose any legislation that would undermine any portion of the COOL law, whether by outright COOL repeal or by converting the mandatory COOL law to a voluntary program,” the coalition letter states. “We urge Congress to stand up for America’s consumers, farmers and ranchers by rejecting any effort to unilaterally repeal or weaken a popular food label even before the WTO process has concluded.”

A copy of the letter is available here.

Contacts:

Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA: (406) 252-2516, billbullard(at)r-calfusa(dot)com

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

Kevin Dowling, Western Organization of Resource Councils: (406) 252-9672, kdowling(at)worc(dot)org

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July 23rd, 2015

Senate “Compromise” on Country of Origin Labeling Unacceptable

Statement of Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation introduced today by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) repeals an overwhelmingly popular food label, surrenders to over exaggerated threats by our trading partners and creates more international trade problems than it solves.

“The legislation is aimed at solving an ongoing World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute, but the WTO process is far from complete. The Senate has never repealed a statute that was challenged under international trade rules before the dispute was completed.

“The legislation introduced today fully repeals mandatory COOL for beef, pork, chicken and ground meat and gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discretion to establish a voluntary domestic label for beef, pork or chicken. It is considerably weaker than the discussion draft circulated last month because it repeals COOL labels for ground meat, which the WTO ruled were trade legal, and COOL labels for chicken, which were not even considered in the dispute.

“The legislation is a full repeal of COOL with the window dressing of a voluntary labeling option. But before mandatory COOL labels were re-enacted in 2008, meatpackers did not use voluntary COOL labels. In practice, a voluntary COOL label is the same as no label at all. Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it and farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it.

“Even if voluntary COOL labels went into widespread use, a voluntary labeling program could still face a challenge under international trade deals. The voluntary “Dolphin-Safe” tuna label has been successfully challenged at the WTO. Today’s voluntary COOL label is especially subject to challenge because it only applies to domestic livestock, there are no provisions for a voluntary label on imports, which creates the presumption that unlabeled and potentially imported meat is less desirable or less safe. That distinction runs afoul of every trade agreement’s rules prohibiting discrimination against imports.

“Consumers deserve to know where their food comes but today’s proposal puts meatpacking giants back in control of what we get to know about the food we buy. The Senate should not let international trade tribunals and big meat companies run roughshod over Congress’ authority to enact American laws. We urge the Senate to reject this bill and stand up for mandatory COOL.”

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

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July 10th, 2015

Big Voices Rally To Support Beleaguered Chicken Farmers

By Patrick Woodall

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the budget for fiscal year 2016 for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and finally, there was some progress in the long plight to seek justice for poultry farmers.

For those of you who remember John Oliver’s recent piece on how unfairly chicken farmers are treated by big chicken processing companies, this is the House committee he highlighted by flashing members’ pictures on the screen (famously hurling the epithet we won’t repeat here). So the good news is that finally, the bill passed by the House committee did not include a provision found in previous years that had blocked the USDA from implementing important measures to protect farmers from unfair and abusive practices by meatpackers and poultry processors. These rules had been stalled since 2011 by a long-standing amendment pushed by the meatpackers and poultry companies.

Although Food & Water Watch and our allied farm organizations successfully pushed to get these measures included in the 2008 Farm Bill, the meatpacker and poultry processing lobby had kept the rules from ever going into effect, often through the limitations they put in previous years’ appropriations bills.

While Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) have been championing this issue for years, the dam began to break starting with John Oliver. And this week, Rep. Kaptur and Farm Aid president Willie Nelson penned a strong op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting the plight of America’s chicken farmers and urging the Appropriations Committee to let USDA get moving to protect chicken farmers.

And contract fairness for farmers wasn’t the only topic the committee dealt with on Wednesday. A few other highlights (and lowlights):

  • The bill contains a provision that would prohibit USDA from purchasing any poultry products from the People’s Republic of China for use in the nutrition programs the department administers, including the National School Lunch Program.
  • The bill contains a provision that prohibits USDA from implementing rules that permit fresh beef imports from Brazil and Argentina until a risk assessment on the presence of foot and mouth disease in those two countries is completed and a report is filed with Congress on the status of their respective meat inspection systems.
  • The bill prohibits the elimination of the USDA catfish inspection program that was established by the 2014 Farm Bill in any trade negotiations with foreign governments.
  • The bill directs FDA to report semi-annually on the status of its investigation of pet illnesses and deaths caused by pet food imported from the People’s Republic of China.
  • The final bill includes cuts in the budget for the Food Safety Inspection Service to reduce inspection workforce to implement a new privatized poultry inspection system that lets chicken companies perform inspection tasks now performed by USDA employees.
  • The bill only provides approximately 40 percent of the requested funds to implement FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act.

But this process isn’t finished. The House Committee dropped the bad pieces of the bill that would block farmer contract protections from being finalized, but they could still show up later on the House floor, in the Senate or somewhere along the long road to the president’s desk. The same holds true for the prohibition against Chinese chicken in school lunches, the reaffirmation of USDA’s catfish inspection, reporting on pet illnesses from Chinese pet treats and the prohibition against beef imports from Argentina and Brazil. And this year could see Congressional gridlock devolve into near government shutdown, as in years past, which means all the good work done this week could get swept away by last minute Congressional deal cutting.

Stay tuned and we’ll tell you when it’s time to weigh in with your members of Congress as the bill moves through the process.

July 8th, 2015

Will The White House Fix The GMO Approval Process?

By Genna Reed

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbThe White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986, which laid out how the EPA, FDA and USDA would share responsibilities for regulating GMOs to ensure their safety. But this framework has never managed to provide an adequate review of genetically engineered foods. The current system relies on analysis and data from companies seeking approval for their new GMO crops and fails to do any post-approval monitoring once these foods hit the market or even require labeling.

Just before the July 4th holiday weekend began, the White House released a memo to the EPA, FDA and USDA announcing a planned update to the coordinated framework, even though they claim that the current process “effectively protects health and the environment.” The memo says the goal of the updated process is to reduce the “costs and burdens” and delays for biotech companies trying to get products to market, increase transparency for the public and advance innovation. Besides updating the coordinated framework, the administration will also come up with a long-term plan for regulating GMO products and any other new technologies that will be introduced in the future. Additionally, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has been called upon to complete a study looking at the “future landscape” of biotechnology products that will inform future regulatory strategies.

Though we agree that the current regulatory system for GMOs is broken, it’s not clear if this new memo is going to fix it. A major red flag about the White House memo is that the administration’s motivation appears to be less concern about the safety of new biotech products and more about helping biotech companies navigate the regulatory system in a quick and painless manner.

We do have ideas about how the EPA, FDA and the USDA should change the current regulatory system:

  • No GMO product should be approved for commercialization without the agencies themselves, not the patenting company, conducting a full review of its unique risks to agriculture and the environment;
  • Use of the precautionary principle for the evaluation of new GMO crops, animals and food;
  • Mandatory labeling of GMO foods;
  • Prioritization of independent research that studies the human health impacts associated with long-term GMO consumption, including realistic levels of herbicide residues;
  • Improve monitoring and inspections of experimental field trials to avoid contamination incidents that are continuing to occur due to a lack of oversight;
  • Require post-commercialization monitoring of GMOs to avoid contamination and to protect consumers from accidental exposure to risky experimental crops; and
  • Include contamination prevention measures in addition to compensation of parties harmed by contamination events. This burden should not be borne by the farmers who are contaminated by GMO presence through no fault of their own. Instead, patent-holding companies should create a fund that will compensate economically harmed farmers.

Hopefully the White House will not blow its chance to improve upon an inadequate regulatory system for GMOs which has allowed over 100 crops to enter the food system with little scrutiny and minimal transparency.

Food & Water Watch will be following this White House commitment closely over the next year, including three public engagement sessions that have been promised, starting with one in Washington, D.C. this fall. There will also be opportunity to comment on the process once the agencies develop a draft. Stay tuned for your opportunity to weigh in on this important process.

July 2nd, 2015

This Food Merger Didn’t Save Money 

By Tyler Shannon BlogThumb_ShannonTyler

The giant food company ConAgra announced this week that it would sell off Ralcorp, a private label food manufacturer it acquired just a few years ago for $5 billion after a prolonged bidding war. ConAgra owns a number of processed foods brands like Hunt’s Ketchup, Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Chef Boyardee, and Ralcorp primarily manufactured private label products that supermarkets sell under their own brand names and competed directly with ConAgra’s products.

We objected to the acquisition, since it lead to further consolidation in the food industry and potentially higher prices for shoppers through reduced competition. ConAgra claimed that the merger would eventually lead to cost savings (“synergies” in corporate business speak) of $225 million a year. Federal regulators allowed the merger to go through unhindered.

But ConAgra had it all wrong. It turns out that this merger has actually been dragging the company down over the past two and a half years. In just the last year alone, ConAgra lost almost $1.5 billion. And the company did so poorly after the acquisition that the deal was mentioned in the discussion of why ConAgra’s CEO eventually stepped down.

Merging companies and sadly, federal regulators, often justify these food mergers as good for shoppers because any cost savings from running a supposedly more efficient merged company will be passed on to us in the form of lower prices. But what happens when the mergers lead to higher costs for the companies? Not only do these companies have to make up for their losses somewhere (like by raising prices), but post-acquisition there are fewer competitors in the marketplace, ones that could have helped keep consumer prices down.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice need to learn from ConAgra’s failure, and realize that they can’t just take promises made by merging companies at face value. Because, ultimately, the public ends up paying for these mistakes in the form of fewer options at the supermarket and higher prices for the products on the shelves.

July 1st, 2015

Swindled by Suds?

By Kate Fried Beer_Can

When consumers see that Beck’s beer is “brewed under the German purity law of 1516,” many think they know what they’re getting. But is this popular pilsner really German? Not according to a lawsuit filed by customers who feel they were mislead into drinking a beer imported from Germany, when actually they were downing a beverage brewed in…St. Louis. Whomp whomp. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently reached a class action settlement in the case and could pay out millions to disgruntled customers.

We talk a lot about food labels, typically in regards to GMOs and meat imports, and this incident shows once again that people want to know where their food and drink comes from. If you look at a bottle of Beck’s and squint a little, you can see printed on it: “Product of USA.” But most beer drinkers aren’t going to scour their bottles for this information, particular when Beck’s packaging spins the product as German beer. And many American beer drinkers are willing to pay more for a brew they believe is imported.

By settling the case, Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn’t admit it did anything wrong. But the fact that a major class action lawsuit will result in payouts to consumers based on confusion about the origin of a product should give our lawmakers pause. We didn’t get country of origin labeling for food until we changed the law to require mandatory labeling for seafood, beef, poultry, pork, goat, some nuts and fresh and frozen fruits and veggies. And the meat and grocery industries are even trying to gut those rules for labeling meat.

Maybe lawmakers don’t think we need to know what’s in our food. Recently, comedian Bill Maher brilliantly renamed efforts to ban country of origin labeling altogether the “Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head About it Act.” But the public is worried about where its food comes from, and for good reason.

This case about beer labeling highlights another food industry trend we’ve told you about, and that’s mergers between already large companies. Beck’s was produced in Germany until 2002, when it was sold to a Belgian company, which several mergers later became Anheuser-Busch InBev. In fact, only two companies own most of the brands of beer sold in the United States, controlling 80 percent of sales. This beeropoly not only limits choices for you, it can also block smaller, innovative craft brewers from entering mainstream markets.

While this latest development with Beck’s may not hurt Anheuser-Bush too badly in the long run, it reminds us that fancy packaging can mislead and distract us from the truth about what we’re buying. And if people are this upset about poorly labeled beer, shouldn’t they be downright furious about efforts to rescind country of origin labeling on meat?  If that’s the case for you, there’s still something you can do about it. Click on the link to tell your Senator to protect country of origin labels.

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