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July 21st, 2015

Give Me a Break: Renewable Energy Credits Threatened by Koch Brothers

By Mitch Jones

BlogThumb_WindTurbinesAt the end of next year government policies that have successfully aided the growth of residential and commercial solar and industrial wind are set expire. Congress can help do something about this, but powerful special interests could stand in the way. Read the full article…

July 20th, 2015

Congress’s Handout to the Bottled Water Industry

By Elizabeth Schuster

During the Congressional appropriations process it is not uncommon for members to include legislative giveaways to corporate interests such as Big Ag and the oil and gas industry. Now it’s the bottled water industry’s turn.

This year especially, the House bill to fund the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and related agencies has received a lot of attention for being the most anti-environment, anti-government funding bill to date.

With final consideration and vote on the bill indefinitely stalled due to a controversial amendment about the Confederate flag, it’s a good time to pause and consider another hidden rider included in the House version of the appropriations bill. This one is a gift wrapped giveaway to the bottled water industry.

Representative Keith Rothfus (R-PA), put forward an amendment, passed by a voice vote, which prevents the National Park Service from implementing its 2011 policy aimed to reduce and recycle plastic bottles in national parks. Recognizing the need to reduce the parks’ environmental footprint, the policy allows the option for parks to stop selling bottled water if they complete an extensive list of requirements.

Since the policy went into effect, more and more parks have banned the sale of bottled water, opting instead for water refilling stations. Parks that have adopted this policy have reported a reduction in litter from plastic bottles. This is an important step forward in preserving the environment of our public lands and moving us away from our dependency on bottled water.

The House appropriations process is at a standstill and the amendment was already approved. But we can still stop this nonsensical amendment from becoming law. First, we can ask our representatives to vote NO on the Interior-EPA bill.  Second, we can ask our Senators to keep this language out of the Senate version of the Interior-EPA bill.

We must stop giving the bottled water industry free reign to exploit our natural resources! Take action today to tell Congress to keep bottled water out of our national parks.

July 15th, 2015

They’re Biking Hundreds of Miles – For a Good Cause

By Jo Miles

This is the Climate Ride: four to five days of cycling or hiking through some of America’s most beautiful landscapes, all to raise money to fight climate change. For the first time, Food & Water Watch is a beneficiary, which means that riders can choose us as a recipient of their fundraising to help us ban fracking and protect the climate.

Do you love to bike? We’re assembling teams right now for the Midwest Ride from Grand Rapids to Chicago, and the Northeast Ride from Bar Harbor to Boston, both in September 2015, and we’re looking for more folks to join our teams.

Below, you can meet some of the Food & Water Watch staff that are riding this fall (plus Midwest Ride team captain and veteran Climate Rider Aliya Mejias, who we interviewed last week). They’d love for you to join them! As you can see, you don’t have to be an expert cyclist or an experienced fundraiser to do the Climate Ride. All you need is a sense of passion and the desire to challenge yourself.


Jessica Fujan, Midwest Organizer, Chicago
Climate Ride Midwest – Grand Rapids to Chicago

Jessica Fujan with her bike in Chicago

Why did you sign up? 

Because I am in love with my job and my coworkers, and can’t do enough to promote our success. Putting my strength and effort toward crushing the oil & gas lobby makes me feel like part of something powerful. The fight for the climate seems enormous and sometimes insurmountable. Surrounding myself with like-minded riders for the climate helps me remember we can and will win.


Tell us about your cycling experience.

I was an avid cycler in my youth but it took me a while to get into urban cycling after moving to Chicago in 2011. I’ve certainly never ridden anywhere near 300 miles, but see it as an opportunity to hang out with cool people at about 10 miles per hour.


How are you training for the ride?

I’m training by cheating and pretending that the six miles I bike to work every day count. I’ve also biked to a few meetings in the suburbs, rather than driving. It feels really good to show up to a meeting with a Congress member and already have 15 miles behind you. And yes, you can bike 30 miles and still manage to look nice!


How’s your fundraising going? Any tips?

Fundraising is frightening but I’ve been amazed by people’s generosity. People are inspired by solutions to climate change and are ready to be part of something big.


What are you most excited about?

I’m most excited to bike and camp alongside so many like-minded people and, honestly, raise $15,000 [as a team] for an organization that I love. It’s crazy to think how far $15,000 goes when you’re building the power of the grassroots to take on moneyed interests.



Lily Boyce, Researcher, Food Team

Team Captain for Climate Ride Northeast – Bar Harbor to Boston

Lily Boyce with her bike in DC


Why did you sign up? 

I always thought it was an intriguing idea. I ride my bike to work every day but have never done an extended ride like this, and I wanted to challenge myself. I also fully believe in bringing bicycling to the forefront of our discussions about transportation infrastructure and sustainability, and of course, I want to support Food & Water Watch!


Tell us about your cycling experience.

I ride every day to and from work, and occasionally I ride 10-20 miles recreationally.


How are you training for the ride?

I JUST signed up, so I’m putting together a training plan now! But basically I think I’ll be doing two or three short rides during the workweek and one long ride on the weekend, ramping up the distance week by week. Also, I’ll incorporate plenty of yoga and cross training to keep my flexibility and strength up!


How’s your fundraising going? Any tips?

Fundraising is always an intimidating endeavor, but after just two weeks I’ve learned that people really are generous when it comes to a cause that matters. I’ve just passed my 25% mark, and if I can do that, anyone can! It’s also been fun thinking up creative ways to get people involved.


What are you most excited about?

I think this route is going to be really, really beautiful. That coupled with the idea of riding with and meeting so many people who have the same goals as I do just makes for an incredibly exciting trip!



Matt Ohloff, Midwest Organizer, Iowa

Climate Ride Midwest – Grand Rapids to Chicago


Why did you sign up?

I signed up because it looked like an all-around excellent experience to support the work of an excellent organization that I am fortunate to work for, and because it seems like a great challenge. I’ve wanted to do the RAGBRAI ride across Iowa the past several years, but unfortunately it hasn’t worked out. So this will be my first multiple day long ride and I’m really looking forward to it.


Tell us about your cycling experience.

I’m a causal rider – I bike to work and take some longer rides on weekends.


How are you training for the ride?

I’m biking the awesome bike trails in central Iowa throughout and around Des Moines.


How’s your fundraising going? Any tips?

Well, after really only seeking donations for less than two weeks, I’m almost at 25 percent of my goal.


What are you most excited about?

I think biking along Lake Michigan will be awesome. And I’m looking forward to meeting like-minded and dedicated activists along the ride.



Erica Papan, Organizing Intern, Chicago

Climate Ride Midwest – Grand Rapids to Chicago


Why did you sign up? 

I signed up because I love to bike and participate in athletic competitions of many sorts and on the first day of my summer internship it was brought up during a conference call. I immediately thought it sounded fantastic.


Tell us about your cycling experience.

My cycling experience is mostly recreational. I have been biking for enjoyment and exercise for years, and also use it as my primary mode of transportation.


How are you training for the ride?

I have been following the Climate Ride Training Guide and working on regulating my diet and monitoring the types of foods I eat. I have, also, been focusing on muscle strength, endurance, and recovery by following a workout plan incorporating weight lifting, yoga, and dedicated stretch & relax days.


How’s your fundraising going? Any tips?

I have not done a lot of large-scale fundraising in the past, so it is definitely a learning experience for me. At this point I have raised about 25 percent of my goal, but have also only done general, initial outreach. I anticipate doing more in the near future, so hopefully my rookie tactics are successful!


What are you most excited about?

I am most excited to use the physical challenge of long-distance cycling as a representation of the long-term challenges faced by the planet in regards to climate change. I hope that participating in the Climate Ride helps to raise awareness of what is being done by organizations like Food & Water Watch, and the many things that still desperately need to be done by people everywhere. I am also super stoked to have to opportunity to bond with my fellow Food & Water Watch people over a scenic ride through Great Lakes country!



Interested in joining the Climate Ride this fall? Our staff riders would love to meet you there! Check out more information and register on the Climate Ride site, or leave a comment if you have questions.

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 9th, 2015

Climate Ride: Inspiration for You; Support for Food & Water Watch

Imagine riding a bicycle 300 miles with 150 other inspired people to raise funds for a cause that matters to you. Whether the emotions trigged by that thought fall closer to the terror end of the scale (totally normal!) or near elation, we encourage you to join our Midwest or Northeast Food & Water Watch team for our first year as a beneficiary of the Climate Ride. You don’t have to be a bike racer or own a stitch of stretchy cycling togs to join Food & Water Watch for these wonderful September rides that support solutions to climate change, like our work to ban fracking. All you need is enthusiasm, a willingness to challenge yourself and a desire to have fun making a difference. Take it from Jo, Sandra and Aliya, members of our staff who loved their experiences on Climate Ride and have great stories and tips to share.


Jo Miles, Digital Program Director
NYC to DC Climate Ride, May 2012

Jo Miles completes the 2012 NYC to DC Climate Ride at the U.S. Capitol

Jo Miles completes the 2012 NYC to DC Climate Ride at the U.S. Capitol

Were you an experienced cyclist before you signed up?
If I survived Climate Ride, then anyone who can ride a bike can do it. I was badly out of practice at cycling when I signed up. I knew how to ride in traffic to commute, but I don’t think I’d ever ridden more than ten miles in a day before that, and certainly no multi-day tours. I knew it would be a huge challenge for me.

What stood out to you about the ride?
The route was outstanding. I live in Maryland, but never knew how beautiful the mid-Atlantic countryside is. The ride was incredibly well organized, from training and fundraising support to taking care of riders’ needs on the road. And everything was bound together by the theme of climate. My fellow riders were fun and accomplished and passionate about the environment, so there was great company the entire time, and it was very cool to hear what everyone was working on.

What was your most inspiring moment on the ride?
It’s hard to pick just one, of course, but arriving in DC, riding through the town where I live and then down the Capital Crescent Trail (where I trained many times) and finally riding en masse down Constitution Ave. to the Capitol… that’s hard to beat!

What’s your best fundraising tip?
Ask literally everyone you know, and ask them individually. Tell them what you’re up to, and you’ll be surprised who steps up to support you.

What was your biggest challenge on or before the ride?
Definitely the training. I was pretty worried about whether I’d actually make it through. Early on I wondered if signing up was a big mistake. But Climate Ride gives you training tips, and I followed their guide and worked up to longer and longer rides in the weeks before the event. I rode to work multiple times a week and did at least one long ride every weekend; by the time the ride started, I was ready.

What is one takeaway from the ride?
I left with an incredible feeling of accomplishment and a host of new friends. It was a truly fantastic experience.


Sandra Lupien, Western Region Communications Manager
California Climate Ride, October 2011

Sandra Lupien at the finish of the 2011 California Climate Ride at San Francisco City Hall. PHOTO: KIP PIERSON PHOTOGRAPHY

Sandra Lupien at the finish of the 2011 California Climate Ride at San Francisco City Hall. PHOTO: KIP PIERSON PHOTOGRAPHY

Why did you sign up?
I am deeply motivated to be a part of efforts that amplify and help solve the climate crisis. When I learned about the Climate Ride, I signed up my (former) employer as a beneficiary and volunteered to be our team captain (even though I was super-intimidated by the mileage).

Describe your cycling experience before you signed up.
I’d been an avid bicycle commuter for many years, obsessed with using my bike to haul everything from groceries to lumber. But, I had never done a long recreational ride. Like Jo, I followed the Climate Ride’s great training plan to get ready.

What stood out to you about the ride?
Haha! The rain! The Climate Ride calls the 2011 California participants “The Storm Riders” because we rode and camped in uncharacteristically wet conditions for about half or our ride. It was truly awesome because everyone was in it together and the staff took great care of us. Beyond the rain, what stood out was solid organizing, terrific people from age 18 – 75, stunning scenery and plenty of good food.

What was your most inspiring moment on the ride?
On the last day, we woke up early to clear weather. The staff had rigged a tarp to cover the breakfast area. As the ride leader, Blake, started reviewing the day’s route, a torrential downpour broke. Someone started chanting, “More! More! More!” and we all joined in solidarity. By the time we reached Stinson Beach (in Marin County), the sun broke through the clouds. The support team turned the van’s radio to a disco station and we all did The Hustle in the parking lot. Then we rode over Mount Tamalpais, across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco City Hall in glorious sunlight. I won’t deny that I shed a lot of happy tears. Unforgettable.

How much money did you raise?
I raised about $5,500 using email and Facebook. I asked many times and thanked people immediately and publicly for their gifts. The results on Facebook surprised me – people I hadn’t spoken with since junior high or high school supported my campaign. It was so cool!

What was your biggest challenge on or before the ride?
My mind. Both before and during the ride, I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to make the miles or do the hills. But, I did it! Well, I did jump in the van to go over the biggest hill and I walked my bike on parts of others, but it still counts!

Best advice?
Before you start training, go to a quality bike shop and have your bike professionally fit. Trust me. Also: bike shorts. Again, trust me.


Aliya Mejias, Development Associate
NYC to DC Climate Ride, September 2013
2015 Midwest Ride Food & Water Watch Team Captain

Aliya Mejias, right, completes the 2013 NYC to DC Climate Ride

Aliya Mejias, right, completes the 2013 NYC to DC Climate Ride.

Why did you sign up?
My life is dedicated to protecting our environment and I felt it was time to really show how serious climate change is. I grew up in New York and now live in DC, and I thought that committing myself to raising $3,000 by biking 300 miles from one home to the other would be a great way to get people’s attention.

Describe your cycling experience before you signed up.
I finally gained the confidence to navigate the DC streets my sophomore year in college. I never did long rides, barely knew the surrounding trails and just commuted about ten miles a day as a way to avoid a reliance on fossil fuels. But Climate Ride isn’t about being the most elite biker or seeing who can get to the end first. It’s about building the movement toward a truly sustainable and healthy future.

What stood out to you about the ride?
Because the route connected my home cities, it felt personal to me. I had driven between New York and DC countless times and never imagined I could bike it while raising money and awareness for climate issues. Also, riders ending in DC got to meet with elected representatives to share their reasons for riding 300 miles – I knew I had to do it too.

Describe your favorite/best/most inspiring moment on the ride.
If I had to pick just one, I’ll say it was meeting with my representative to share my story and ask him to take a hard stance on protecting our environment and health. It was really nerve-racking since I’d never met with a representative, but Climate Ride provided us with training so we would be confident.

How much money did you raise?
I raised $3,225 — thanks to the 126 people who supported me! I was so grateful – I thanked every person as soon as I received their donation. On social media, I tagged each donor in a thank-you post and also provided updates on my fundraising and training. I found that seeing that others were giving and reading my progress updates encouraged others to donate.

What was your biggest challenge on or before the ride?
Fundraising. My development resume consisted of a Trick-or-Treat fundraiser and a smaller event earlier that year that raised $200. Thankfully, Climate Ride provided a lot of helpful resources such as email samples, tips and tricks of the trade and awesome fundraising ideas.

Why are you doing the ride again?
I’m riding again because it’s Food & Water Watch’s first year as a beneficiary! I rode away from the 2013 ride with confidence that we can and will make real change. Climate Ride also taught me to challenge myself – that’s why my personal fundraising goal is $5,000 this year. The climate movement has had some victories in the two years since my ride —a fracking ban in New York State and a moratorium on fracking in Maryland, for example. And we still have a lot of work to do. Riding for Food & Water Watch will help build the grassroots power to win lasting policy changes that promise us safe, sustainable and affordable food and water.

Sounds like fun, right? Why not join Team Food & Water Watch for the Northeast or Midwest Climate Ride this September? Aliya, along with 2015 participating staff members Jessica, Matt, Alison and Lily (watch for a blog introducing them next week) are building some great team spirit and they’d love to cheer you on along the way. Plus, our team members get a custom Food & Water Watch jersey and t-shirt, abundant appreciation and the satisfaction of knowing that they’re helping Food & Water Watch protect our food, water and climate. For more information, contact Aliya at amejias[at]@fwwatch[dot]org. Are you in for Climate Ride 2015? Register today!

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 6th, 2015

Could Shark Week Cease to Exist?

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer

It’s Shark Week, a good opportunity to look at one of the major threats facing sharks and all sea life: ocean acidification. Here are the top three things you need to know about this dangerous consequence of burning fossil fuels:

  1. Ocean acidification is a direct result of CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels into our atmosphere. As more and more CO2 absorbs into the ocean this decreases seawater pH, making the oceans more acidic. This has the greatest repercussions for calcifying organisms like shellfish and corals, but it is also setting off a chain reaction that will affect the entire ocean ecosystem and our planet. Ocean acidification endangers marine habitats, coastal regions, fisheries, livelihoods, environmental stability, food security and the carbon cycle of the entire earth. Significant changes are predicted to occur in as little as 45 years, with more severe effects to happen by 2100.
  1. Ocean acidification affects shark’s sense of smell. A recent study found that high levels of CO2 impaired shark’s sense of smell and caused them to actually avoid odor cues of prey. High concentrations of CO2 also changed the attack behavior of sharks. This could have significant implications for how sharks feed, further endangering already at-risk species. While sharks and other ocean species have been able to adapt to increased concentrations of CO2 in the past, the current changes are happening so rapidly that scientists are unsure whether timely adaptation is even possible.
  1. Ocean acidification changes the blood composition of sharks. Another recent study showed that increased concentrations of CO2 cause changes in shark’s blood chemistry. Blood also has a pH, and as waters become more acidic sharks have to take on, or accumulate, bicarbonate in order to regulate the pH of their blood.In the study, sharks subjected to the higher CO2 levels also showed changes in nocturnal swimming behavior. Again, it’s unclear whether sharks will be able to adapt to these changes.

Ocean acidification is already happening — seawater pH has decreased by 0.1 units, which equates to a 30 percent drop. Tiny shellfish called pteropods, or sea butterflies, are already showing shell dissolution in colder polar waters — ocean acidification will happen first in colder waters because CO2 absorbs more readily into colder versus warmer waters. This could have further implications for cold-water sharks such as the Blue Shark, Spiny Dogfish, Salmon Shark and several others.

Despite the incredibly severe implications of ocean acidification, most research has only occurred since 2004 and funding for this research continues to be well below what is needed. This threat is a direct result of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and mitigating it means significantly reducing emissions, and ultimately ceasing reliance on fossil fuels. The urgency of the situation also means that there is no time to waste on false solutions to emissions like offsets, cap-and-trade and other pollution trading schemes that fail altogether or only produce slow, minimal reductions. Ocean acidification is an irrefutable phenomenon and must be taken seriously for the health of our oceans and our planet.

For more information on ocean acidification see our report: Ocean Acidification: How CO2 Emissions and False Solutions Threaten Our Oceans.

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.

Pittsburgh Residents File Suit Over Water Overcharging

By Brendan Agnew Faucet

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), the provider of water service to roughly 300,000 customers, is facing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. The suit, which seeks class action status, charges that many residents who had “smart meters” installed saw their bills skyrocket unexpectedly, some of them by as much as 600 percent.

According to the suit, the new meters, which were supposed to provide more accurate readings of water use, were prone to drastic measurement errors, in one case charging a property owner for 132,000 gallons on a vacant property. Customers who couldn’t pay these inflated bills were issued shutoff notices despite complaints to the PWSA. The suit points out that PWSA is “acutely aware” of the overbilling but “[did] not hesitate for a moment to issue ‘shut off’ notices and then arbitrarily turn off water service.

PWSA recently hired a new executive director, Jim Good, a former executive vice president of Veolia Water’s West Region. Good and Veolia were brought in to assist the city with the management and improvement of its outdated water infrastructure in 2012. The PWSA maintained governance over the system, with Veolia Water providing “day-to day management” and “diagnostic evaluations of Authority operations,” according to a PWSA press release.

Veolia oversaw management of the Authority when it began installing the new meters in April of 2014. The company makes much of its global revenue through implementing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology such as the meters in question in the lawsuit. When the PWSA renewed its contract with Veolia earlier this year, the company cited its water meter replacement program as a highlight of its work in Pittsburgh, pointing to the added revenues more accurate billing could bring to the city.

Veolia has become notorious for unfair billing practices and mismanaging water systems, prompting a host of U.S. cities to cut ties to the company. As part of a larger utility transformation, the city of Indianapolis famously cut its engagement with the company more than a decade short in 2013, following similar accusations of overcharging and misconduct. Other cities have dropped Veolia over service complaints, while residents of Baltimore and St. Louis successfully fought to keep their cities from contracting with the company.

Pittsburgh residents have also seen spikes in water and sewer rates over the past year. The PWSA implemented a 4 percent rate increase this year, reportedly to cover costs of infrastructure updates, according to a report by Pittsburgh’s Tribune Review. Despite the rate increases, just prior to the litigation, PWSA hired Jim Good as its permanent head with a salary of $240,000 a year, plus potential bonuses, making him Pittsburgh’s second-highest paid government official, eclipsing even Mayor Bill Peduto, who is paid less than half as much.

The city will scale back Veolia’s contract as Good takes on a more central role and as the authority fills the remaining management positions. Hopefully, the public managers will work to improve affordable access to water in Pittsburgh.

Brendan Agnew is a Food & Water Watch summer water research and policy intern and a recent graduate from American University

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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