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Blog Posts: Privatization

April 17th, 2014

USDA Continues to Deceive on Meat Inspections

By Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Further evidence that the USDA is dismantling the meat inspection system as we know it came in an email last night.

At 9:22 pm on April 16, 2014, I received an e-mail from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Office at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) containing a spreadsheet with the number of temporary inspectors the agency has hired and the locations where these temporary inspectors are currently working. The chart was a partial response to a FOIA request we filed on December 23, 2013 to learn where the temporary inspectors were being assigned in response to a job announcement that FSIS had posted, saying: “As the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) looks to transition through modernization and implementation of the New Poultry Slaughter Inspection System, the Agency is announcing temporary Food Inspector positions to facilitate the transition and to help ensure seamless implementation should the Agency decide to proceed with implementation of the new system.”

No one can remember the last time FSIS had advertised for temporary inspector positions, so we became curious as to how the agency was assigning these personnel.

Much to our surprise, the spreadsheet reveals that not only are temporary inspectors working in poultry slaughter facilities, but 35% of them are working in red meat slaughter facilities. (See column C, Establishment Number—all numbers followed by an “M” indicate a meat plant, and all numbers followed by a “P” indicate poultry.) In recent letters to both USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Congressman Robert Aderholt, chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agency Appropriations, Food & Water Watch pointed out that we were hearing that the temporary inspector hiring program was not meeting its goals and in fact exacerbating an already critical inspector shortage problem across the country. The information we received last night confirms that that the policy of not filling inspector vacancies with permanent employees is causing a distortion in the hiring practices at FSIS. Today, I am finding out that the scope of the temporary hiring is broader than what the spreadsheet is showing as I have received information identifying other meat and poultry plants where temporary inspectors have been hired that were not included in what I received last night.

We already know that the FSIS staff in Washington has problems distinguishing between animal species. They have granted equivalency status to privatized inspection systems in Canada and Australia for beef slaughter based on an unevaluated privatized hog slaughter pilot project being run in five hog slaughter facilities in the U.S. that has been roundly criticized by both USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency’s Washington staff issued a directive last year to its inspectors assigned to horse slaughter facilities to code their inspection activities as if they were working in goat slaughter facilities. Now, we find that temporary inspectors being hired under the guise of a privatized poultry inspection rule that has not been finalized are actually being assigned to beef and hog slaughter facilities. The implication is clear: it’s not about phasing out permanent inspectors because of pending plans to implement the rule; it’s about cutting the food safety inspection budget by essentially contracting out what were previously paid, professional career positions with low-paid temps. But we can ill afford the consequences of weakened food safety inspections.

This important public health agency is out of control. Someone needs to bring order to it because the current FSIS leadership has failed.

April 16th, 2014

Passover, Easter and Changing Holiday Foods

By Briana Kerensky

After a winter that felt like it was going to go on forever, I feel like I can justifiably use the cliché “spring has sprung.” Just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t walk to the Food & Water Watch D.C. office without wearing a hat and mittens. And now, I can’t walk to the office without helping tourists find where our city’s beautiful cherry blossoms are located. 

And with the cherry blossoms and warm weather, we have two of spring’s most well known holidays upon us: Passover and Easter. Both are steeped in traditions focused on the season’s delicious bounty, but the encroaching influence of food corporations and Big Ag is making it harder to keep custom alive. Check out three ways these groups are fundamentally changing how we celebrate Passover and Easter.

Eggs: When you’re a kid, Easter is all about eggs. Painting them, going on a hunt for them, eating chocolate versions of them, and maybe even rolling them across the White House lawn. And on Passover, which started on Monday night, the traditional seder plate includes a roasted, hard-boiled egg to represent the ritual sacrifice Jews used to perform at the Second Temple. But when it’s time to buy all these eggs, do you know what all the labels on the crates really mean? Read our “How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?” fact sheet to learn how the food industry uses terms like “cage free” to influence your purchasing decisions and make you think you’re eating ethically.

Wheat: Ok, so the Torah is a little too old to say anything about genetically modified wheat. During the week of Passover, Jews don’t eat food that could be “contaminated” with ingredients considered not kosher for the holiday. With organic farmers worried about the threat of GMO wheat contaminating organic wheat in the future, what will happen to our matzah in the years to come? There’s already a growing movement of people within the Jewish community who say that GMOs aren’t kosher under any circumstances.

Big Family Meals: The USDA is on the verge of implementing a new rule that would reduce the number of government inspectors in poultry processing plants and turn over inspections to untrained company employees. When inspectors can’t successfully do their jobs, and potentially dangerous food makes it to our holiday tables, it’s our health and safety on the line. Learn more about the “filthy chicken rule” and what you can do to stop it.

March 27th, 2014

Cities Don’t Need Expensive Private Financing Gimmicks

By Mitch Jones 

This week, the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s special Public-Private Partnership Panel held a roundtable discussion on the use of public-private partnerships (P3s) in water and wastewater systems. I was pleased to represent Food & Water Watch as the only witness critical of these needless corporate get-rich schemes. 

Read the full article…

March 21st, 2014

Higher Education Brought to You By the Biotech Industry. Encore.

Money and BooksBy Tim Schwab

Journalism and agriculture students, watch out.

 Your administrators are laying out the red carpet for corporate press junkets at a campus near you.

 Again.

 Last year, I reported on HungerU and Biotech University, billed as educational opportunities but actually greenwashing campaigns to promote corporate agribusiness. This week we get news that Hunger U is hitting the college circuit again, with a new slogan: “DuPont is Helping us Feed the World.”

 Exactly. DuPont helps us feed the world by selling pesticides and herbicide and GMOs.

Hunger U last year stopped at only a handful of universities, wooing students with a $2,500 grant and embarking on a mission to “educate college students about the significance of modern agriculture.” This year the program is traveling across the country, even stopping in the nation’s capital.

Events like Hunger U and Biotech University are an unfortunate sign of the times at our nation’s public universities, where corporations pour hundreds of millions of dollars into our agricultural colleges, distorting the science and perverting the mission of higher education. Increasingly the message from our universities really is: Dupont is Helping us Feed the World.

You find the names Monsanto, Cargill and Tyson emblazoned on university buildings around the country, and corporate representatives sometimes play key roles in determining the research direction of our agricultural colleges. In its most benign form, industry rolls up on campuses with programs like Hunger U or Biotech University.

Food & Water Watch detailed the ways in which industry is buying influence at our public universities in our report Public Research, Private Gain.

Don’t biotech and pesticide companies already have too much influence over our public universities? Do we really need to greenwash our campuses by inviting Hunger U to spread the gospel of agrochemicals and GMOs?  If you attend one of these schools, call your university administrators and tell them enough is enough.

Corporate Patronage at UCLA

stack of one hundred dollar billsBy Tim Schwab

The University of California school system, as of late, has been no foe to big business, taking millions of dollars from corporations to conduct industry research. So it wasn’t a huge shocker to learn that UC Los Angeles’ law school took $4 million from Big Ag to create the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy. By Resnick, I mean Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the Beverly Hills billionaire water barons.

Stewart Resnick could be considered one of the nation’s largest corporate farmers and campaign donors, sitting atop a fruit, flower and nut empire that calls itself the “largest farming operation of tree crops in the world.” In addition to being the largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios in the world, Resnick’s operations also have enormous citrus and pomegranate holdings, the latter of which drives one of his signature products, POM Wonderful brand juice.

Resnick’s farming operation covers 120,000 acres of land in California’s agriculturally rich – but water poor – Central Valley. While other farmers in the region often pray for rain, the Resnicks have played politics to control tens of millions of dollars in available water sources.

With this immense wealth, why do the Resnicks need UCLA on their side? From this UCLA press release, the Resnicks appear to be buying influence: “Through the publication and dissemination of policy briefs and position papers, the program will play a crucial role in shaping policy-making process.”

Our academic institutions – and especially our public schools like UCLA – play a critical role in providing the science and research used to shape policy making. What our food system looks like, to some great extent, is determined by what the experts from our public universities prescribe. And what they prescribe is increasingly a pro-industry stance, derived from the kind of corporate funding like the Resnicks recently provided.

Corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars funding universities, paying for research, endowing professorships, naming buildings and engaging professors in lucrative consulting gigs. This largess buys friendly scientific reviews of corporate products and practices, which are used to secure favorable regulations from legislators. Favorable research from our public institutions also serves as a kind of stamp of approval that companies can peddle to their customers.

And the Resnicks clearly understand how this game works and use their financial largess to curry favor with public institutions and nonprofit groups that can help their companies. For example, the Resnicks acquired FIJI water in 2004, shipping water from the poor island nation all the way around the world to rich consumers in the West, growing FIJI into the most imported water to the United States. (If you don’t already know why bottled water is bad, read this.) In the face of controversy over this business scheme, Conservation International issued a press release talking about how great FIJI water is for the environment. No surprise, Stewart Resnick sits on the organization’s board.

This level of influence, earned through “philanthropy,” allows the Resnicks – and the Monsantos and Cargills and Tysons – to manipulate and confuse the public discourse to benefit their bottom line. At UCLA, the Resnicks most recent $4 million food policy program only adds to their influence, which also includes a seat on the executive board of UCLA Medical Sciences, the advisory board of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the advisory board of the Lowell Milken Institute at the law school.

In our 2012 report Public Research, Private Gain, Food & Water Watch lays out the myriad ways that conflicts of interest spring from these industry partnerships and offers a few solutions. This influx of corporate money to our universities is not about philanthropy. It’s about the bottom line.

March 20th, 2014

USDA: Start Telling the Truth About Inspector Shortages

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Yesterday afternoon, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a blog written Aaron Lavallee in the public affairs office, who challenged assertions made by Food & Water Watch (that were subsequently printed in the New York Times last month) that inspector shortages were leading to problems for the agency’s inspection program.

On February 10, Food & Water Watch sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing concerns that inspector shortages were causing severe strains on the inspection program, pointing out that these shortages seemed to be related to the policy that FSIS adopted in 2012 to hire “temporary Inspectors” instead of permanent inspectors in anticipation of implementing a privatized poultry inspection system that would lead to the elimination of 800 permanent inspector positions. The temporary inspector hiring program has been less than successful as the agency has not been able to attract enough applicants to take the jobs. So, with open permanent inspector positions remaining vacant and no temporary inspectors to fill them, inspector shortages have developed all across the country.

Read the full article…

February 19th, 2014

Third-Party Science and the Soft Lobby

Money and BooksBy Tim Schwab

The industrial producers of corn syrup have been busy the last decade defending their product’s good name against increasingly clear science showing public health problems related to obesity and diabetes.

But agribusiness corn refiners like Archer Daniel Midland and Cargill, which produce much of the ubiquitous sweetener, recognize they can’t just say their critics are wrong. They need credible allies, preferably those that look independent, to convince regulators, consumers, manufacturers and the scientific community that corn syrup is all right.

According to court documents recently released, that’s exactly what the corn refiners did. The New York Times and the Washington Post both reported last week on how “Washington-based groups and academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns,” using the debate over sweeteners as a case study. Read the full article…

February 13th, 2014

ALEC Goes After Your Food

stack of one hundred dollar billsBy Anna Meyer

The anti-regulation, pay-to-play group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) is infamous for pushing “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, anti-worker and anti-voter legislation, and trying to repeal renewable energy laws. But lately ALEC’s been busy trying to help the Foodopoly maintain its stranglehold on the American food system, despite the fact that it’s making us sick.

ALEC is pushing hard to thwart attempts to rein in antibiotic abuse on factory farms with its Resolution on Animal Antibiotic Use. Their resolution supports the continued overuse of antibiotics for nontherapeutic reasons in livestock feed, a practice that is commonly used to make up for filthy and inhumane living conditions on factory farms and has been linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.   

Continued overuse of antibiotics has resulted in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, which decrease antibiotics’ effectiveness in fighting infections (read about our campaign to end the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms here). Despite a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report linking superbugs with antibiotic misuse on factory farms and nearly 40 years of medical research including DNA analysis, the ALEC resolution tries to blame the 2 million people who become infected with resistant bacteria and the 23,000 people who die as a result of these infections every year solely on the use of antibiotics in human medicine. Doctors disagree.

The resolution to pad the meat industry’s pocketbooks by perpetuating antibiotic abuse on factory farms is not the only ridiculous resolution to come out of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. The group also promotes widespread use of chemicals with minimal regulation with the Resolution on Chemical Policy Principles and promotes a model bill to take away the right of local governments to regulate genetically engineered crops. ALEC also tried to attack Country of Origin Labels (COOL), which gives consumers more information about where their meat comes from.

Then there’s ALEC’s notorious model bill, the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which has served as inspiration for the many ag-gag bills that have been circulating through state legislatures over the past few years. Ag-gag bills are extremely hazardous for multiple reasons. They shield factory farms from public scrutiny, even though they put animal welfare at risk, and increase risks to food safety and environmental damage.

ALEC’s positions on food would put everyone’s health at risk and allow big food and ag corporations to hide what they are doing. Policy makers at every level of government should be drafting legislation that protects the health and well-being of all citizens, not just the bank accounts of a few rich executives.

Help us hold big food and ag corporations accountable by supporting commonsense legislation that puts people first. Join our list to take action

 

Anna Meyer is a communications intern for Food & Water Watch.

February 7th, 2014

Factory Farmed Chicken: Not Fit to Eat

By Darcey Rakestraw

Low in cholesterol and saturated fat, chicken has been touted as a healthy alternative to red meat. You may think you’re making a good choice by choosing chicken when you go out to eat or shopping at the supermarket, but one thing’s for sure: the way we produce chicken today is something our grandparents would never recognize—and it’s even making us sick.

That’s why we’ve created this new video in partnership with Appeal To Reason Productions featuring Environmental Media Association board members Constance Zimmer, Raphael Sbarge and Samantha Ressler.

How often do you sit down at a restaurant and order the chicken? If you asked questions about how the chicken was raised and processed, you probably wouldn’t get very clear answers. Inspired by this hilarious Portlandia skit, these are the answers you’d get if your server knew the real story behind most of the chicken served in the U.S.

But unlike the diners in the video, you’d probably not be amused if your waiter told you that your chicken was raised on a factory farm controlled by one of four giant corporations. Or that it was dunked in bleach to remove visible signs of fecal matter. Or that the animals were raised in crowded conditions raised on antibiotics (which is contributing to a public health disaster—antibiotic resistance in humans.)

Now, we have a handful of days or weeks to put pressure on the USDA not to allow the privatization of poultry inspections. Given the unhealthy way that chicken is raised and processed, proper food inspections are vital. But could you inspect 175 birds a minute? We couldn’t either. That’s why the USDA’s plan to cut USDA inspectors and to put the job of inspections in the hands of the poultry companies is a bad idea. What’s worse, is it’s the first step towards deregulating our meat inspection system entirely—with beef inspections next on the list.

Share the video and take action today to pressure the USDA to stop the plan before it’s too late.

January 24th, 2014

Email Shows USDA Cowering to Industry on Poultry Safety — Again

By Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Late last week, Food & Water Watch received information that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) was going to permit a trade association — the National Chicken Council —  to collect data in poultry plants to assess the rate of foodborne pathogens in chicken parts. The information came in the form of an e-mail from the Assistant FSIS Administrator for Field Operations Daniel Engeljohn, informing his district managers that he was aware of the effort and gave his full blessing to the project. What was troubling about the e-mail was that it told the district managers that the purpose of the data collection was for the industry to develop its own voluntary pathogen performance standards that it was going to enforce on poultry processing plants. It went on to say that FSIS inspection personnel assigned to the plants were not to interfere with the National Chicken Council data collection and that they had no right to look at the data that was collected.

In other words, the poultry industry would create the standards for pathogen levels in chicken parts, and they would only “voluntarily” stick with them. Not only would the industry be able to decide how much salmonella or campylobacter there is on your chicken, but there would be no USDA enforcement of the standard.

Welcome to the latest in privatization of chicken inspections that the industry is pushing, with the USDA’s blessing. Another example is the “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” the proposed plan whose “modern” twist is to turn most poultry inspection over to the very companies that produce our poultry, leaving only one government inspector per plant to inspect over 175 birds per minute — or three birds per second.

This hasn’t happened overnight. The industry has been chipping away at the USDA’s mandate to protect our food system for over a decade. Since the late 1990s, FSIS has established pathogen performance standards on the meat and poultry industry. The standards were supposed to be enforceable, but the agency lost a critical court case in 2000 when the industry successfully challenged their legality because the current meat and poultry inspection laws are silent on pathogen standards. There were a couple of attempts by Congress in the early 2000s to give FSIS authority to set enforceable pathogen performance standards, but they failed. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently introduced a bill, S. 1502, The Safe Meat and Poultry Act, that would give FSIS that authority, but that bill has still not received a hearing.

In the meantime, FSIS has continued to set pathogen performance standards, but they are voluntary for the industry. For salmonella, FSIS will post on its website monthly those poultry plants that fail the agency’s testing program. The agency has claimed that its sampling program has shown that the levels of salmonella in whole raw chicken carcasses have been declining in recent years. However, the Centers for Disease Control continues to report that the number of food borne illnesses attributed to salmonella remains stubbornly high.

In 2010, Consumer Reports conducted its own study of food borne pathogens found in chicken parts.  Consumers rarely buy whole chicken carcasses, but they buy chicken parts in packages at the grocery store. It found that 62% of the chicken parts they bought and analyzed tested positive for campylobacter and 14% tested positive for salmonella.  

In response to the Consumer Reports findings, FSIS – to its credit – began a study to assess the levels of pathogens in chicken parts. In 2012, it posted the results of its survey on its website, which found that 26.3% of the chicken parts were contaminated with salmonella and 21.4% were contaminated with campylobacter. Agency officials have indicated that it was their intent to set government pathogen performance standards for chicken parts. In fact, the Salmonella Action Plan released by the agency in December 2013 listed that as one of the activities for FY 2014 Now, we find out that the industry is going to set its own standards that it will enforce.

In December 2013, Consumer Reports released data on a new study on pathogen contamination in chicken parts that found 43% of the chicken breasts sampled were contaminated with campylobacter and 10.8% with salmonella.

In light of the rule proposed by FSIS in January 2012 that would turn over most inspection responsibilities over to the poultry companies to perform themselves, the Engeljohn e-mail seems to indicate that there is a dangerous deregulatory effort underfoot that would take FSIS out of the food safety business altogether. Instead of trying to enhance its ability to regulate food safety standards, this agency seems to be turning the keys over to the industry to police itself. That is not in the interest of public health and it needs to be stopped.

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