Blogs | Food & Water Watch - Part 30
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September 16th, 2013

Got Organic Checkoff? No Thanks.

Click to expand.

By Patty Lovera

“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” “Pork. The Other White Meat.” “Got Milk?” These well-known slogans are examples of advertising campaigns funded by commodity research and promotion programs, more commonly referred to as checkoff programs. The programs are overseen by USDA and run by organizations established to promote specific commodities (beef, pork, soybeans, eggs and milk) and commission research to produce and market that commodity. The funds to pay for these activities come from mandatory fees assessed on producers of the commodity. For example, every time a head of cattle is sold, $1 per head is collected for the beef checkoff program.

So does organic food need its own checkoff program? That’s a debate that’s raging right now in the organic community.

The farm bill being debated by Congress includes language that would allow USDA to create a checkoff program for organic products. The idea of creating an organic checkoff is controversial to say the least. Just like other commodity markets, every link of the organic food chain—purchasing, processing, distribution and retail—is increasingly dominated by a small number of large players. In organic, this includes conventional food companies like General Mills, Kraft and Cargill, which are now marketing organic foods.

The way checkoffs for other commodities work is that farmers pay into the fund but large food companies are largely in control of decisions on how to spend the money. So it’s understandable that many organic farmers are wary of such an arrangement where their dollars are being controlled by giant food processing companies.

Despite being created with the mission of helping improve farmers’ livelihoods and expand market opportunities, checkoff programs have failed to prevent decades of dramatic losses for family-scale farms in the U.S. For pork, the number of hog producers has dropped by close to 70 percent from 239,000 farms in the mid-1980’s to only 75,000 farms today, according to the most recent agricultural census. Two-thirds of dairy farms have disappeared since the mid-1980’s while the prices farmers received have dropped by as much as 25 percent. Since the mid-1980’s, the number of cattle slaughtered and the price of beef has flat lined, and there are nearly 15 percent fewer producers.

Many of the checkoffs were initiated in the 1980s, but by the mid-2000s close to half of all the checkoffs were facing legal challenges.

The majority of pork producers voted in a 2000 referendum to abolish the pork checkoff, though proponents were able to save the program through legal and political maneuvering. If other checkoff markets held similar referendums, they would likely also face resistance. Read the full article…

September 14th, 2013

Yes on 522: I’ll have the non-genetically engineered apple pie, please

By Katherine Cirullo

One thing I associate fall with is food. When I was eight years old, my favorite fall treat was probably Halloween candy. Now, it might just be my grandmother’s Thanksgiving cornbread stuffing. Or, maybe her apple pie, made with freshly picked Braeburn apples from the small orchard in her backyard just outside of Seattle. Lucky for me, I know for a fact that her apples were not grown using genetic engineering, but not everyone in Washington has a grandmother with an orchard.

 And it’s not just apples – no one knows if the candy corn or Thanksgiving cornbread they will eat this fall was produced using (GE) corn, soy or sugar beets. This is because the United States, including Washington, does not yet require producers to label their products if they contain genetically engineered foods.

However, things could soon change in the Evergreen State. This coming November, Washington state will vote on I-522: a ballot measure that would require most raw and processed foods in Washington to be labeled if they were produced using genetic engineering. This initiative is monumental. If passed, Washington would be the first state to implement GE food labeling, as Connecticut and Maine are currently relying on additional states to pass a bill in order for their legislation to be implemented. Its passage would hopefully inspire other states to implement similar initiatives so that all U.S. consumers have a right to decide. Read the full article…

September 13th, 2013

Maryland Looks to Provide “Home” for Unwanted Chicken Manure

By Michele Merkel

Just in case there was any uncertainty about Maryland’s priorities, they became much clearer this week with an announcement regarding the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s plan to further relieve the chicken industry of its own waste at public’s expense. In a story from September 10, 2013, MDA Secretary “Buddy” Hance was quoted as saying that the state was taking steps to ensure that “no chicken grower will be without a home for his manure.” So despite the rising homeless crisis in Baltimore, where on a single night in 2011 there were over 4,000 men, women and children living on the streets or in City shelters, the state is now talking about implementing plans to ensure that at least chicken manure has a good home to go to.

Secretary Hance’s comments were made following the chicken industry’s uproar over a proposed emergency regulation to better control phosphorus pollution from manure spread on fields on the Eastern Shore by poultry operations. Excess phosphorus is one of the primary reasons why the Chesapeake Bay is dying and, Bay-wide, manure accounts for 37% of the loads of phosphorus to the waterway. Poultry manure makes up half that amount. In Maryland, the poultry industry contributes even a larger share of state loadings of phosphorus to the Bay. Read the full article…

September 11th, 2013

Trading Away Our Safe Seafood

By Mitch Jones

Common ResourcesYesterday a bipartisan team of Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) hosted a briefing for Congress on the threat posed by the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to our domestic seafood industry and to seafood safety.

It was my pleasure to moderate the briefing. Both Congressman Jones and Congresswoman DeLauro delivered strong messages in their comments to the audience that stopping the TPP is vital to protecting both our nation’s fishermen and our families’ safety. The key to stopping the TPP, they pointed out, is for Congress to reject the administration’s request for “fast track” trade authority.

The panel consisted of Margaret Curole, a commercial shrimper on the Louisiana Gulf Coast for almost 20 years; Dr. Carole Engle, the Chair of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries and Director of the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; and Food & Water Watch’s senior lobbyist Tony Corbo. The message they delivered was loud and clear: the TPP will increase the flood of seafood being imported into this country and much of that seafood will be raised in unsanitary conditions and with unsafe chemicals and drugs. Read the full article…

Perdue’s “Corporate Sustainability Platform”: Putting Lipstick on a Chicken

By Michele Merkel


Last week Perdue, the chicken industry giant, launched a new greenwashing effort with a release of its “We Believe in Responsible Food and Agriculture” sustainability platform. The platform covers a range of issues from employee wellness programs to workplace safety to philanthropy. The platform even includes some environmental initiatives, such as installing solar panels and planting oysters. Unfortunately, though, Perdue’s efforts fail to remedy the most unsustainable part of its operations: the hundreds of millions of pounds of untreated waste that its chickens produce on the Eastern Shore of Maryland every year.

Its no easy task putting lipstick on a chicken, since chickens don’t have lips, but Perdue doesn’t get to dress up its inherently unsustainable operation by trying to using inadequate substitutes for cleaning up their mess. It’s way past time for the big Eastern Shore chicken companies, including Perdue, to be held accountable for the environmental impacts of a meat production system from which they profit so richly.

One of the biggest threats to the Chesapeake Bay, and the fishing and recreational communities who rely on it, is phosphorus and nitrogen. These pollutants are choking the life out of the Bay at an alarming rate, with massive dead zones experienced each summer. Down on the Eastern Shore, where Perdue’s operations are concentrated, chickens excrete levels of nitrogen equal to that produced by eight million people—two million more than the entire population of Maryland. Read the full article…

September 10th, 2013

My Visit to Balcolme: Another Community Fighting Fracking

By Wenonah Hauter

Drilling rig in Balcolme

Yesterday I was at the bucolic village of Balcolme speaking with activists Kathryn McWhirter and Vanessa Vine about the invasion of their community by the oil and gas industry. Kathryn and her husband Charles are wine experts who have lived in the village for 10 years. Vanessa lives four miles outside of the village and until recently was a secretary at the local school. These women, both mothers of grown children, are the backbone of their community. As dedicated activists, they have put their lives on hold, are sacrificing their careers and are putting their hobbies aside to fight for the future of their children and grandchildren.

Balcolme, just over an hour’s train ride south of London, seems too beautiful, too peaceful and too quaint to be the site of fracking or police violence. The train makes it possible for commuters to live in one of the most beautiful and verdant parts of England.

I shared a pot of tea with activists in Kathryn’s sunroom overlooking her very lovely English garden, where a few fancy heirloom chickens delicately paraded for our entertainment. I heard the sad tale of how the local laird, a beneficiary of Britian’s feudal land system (who is also a member of the village council) has betrayed his community. Simon Greenwood, the owner of 120 houses and numerous farms in the area, used his position on the village council to subvert the democratic process. When the paperwork allowing the exploration came up for discussion at the village council meeting, he didn’t bother to disclose that he had leased the land or that he stood to benefit from the deal.

In fact, there was no discussion at all about fracking at the 2010 council meeting where the issue was briefly raised and the paperwork granting permission sailed through. No community input was gathered and the permitting process defies logic and reason. No consideration was given to water resources or the effects of air pollution.

So today, the energy company Cuadrilla is using the dangerous procedure to explore for oil less than a mile from the Victorian era Ouse Valle Viaduct that provides water for 750,000 people. Ninety-two feet high and almost 1,500 feet long, with 37 circular arches, it could certainly be destroyed by seismic activity. The incessant noise from drilling is angering local farmers. Local residents despair of the damage to the endangered species and the countryside.

A peaceful protest camp has lined the road leading to the drilling for the past few months. During some periods, as many as 600 people have camped near the site. A recent march from the village included hundreds of people. Local residents like Kathryn and Vanessa have provided food and water and have often spent time at the camp themselves. The camp kitchen was quite impressive, full of local vegetables, nutritious foods and a fantastic bouquet of flowers.

As I prepared to catch my train back to London and to go onward with my travels, it was obvious that large numbers of police were gathering. This morning, I sadly read the news. A violent eviction of peaceful protesters was taking place.

Kathryn’s statement to BBC says it all: “We are horrified at the treatment of these dedicated people who have been here with our blessing for weeks now, helping us to protect our countryside, our health, our water, our air.

“The council is not acting today on behalf of the majority of residents of our village.”

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On 50th Anniversary of X-Men, Our Food is in Need of a Hero

By Briana Kerensky

When I was young, my grandparents owned a bookstore in Philadelphia called “The Village Bookmark.” It was very small, and I’m pretty sure my grandparents sold more lottery tickets than books. But I was a burgeoning bookworm and The Village Bookmark was my favorite place in the world. After my grandfather passed away my mom helped out there. She would bring me along on weekends, and I remember spending entire days hiding in the back office with a pile of books I pulled off the shelves.

My favorite section in The Village Bookmark was the comic book aisle. I loved fairy tales; reading stories about characters that could fly, walk through walls, or sprout Adamantium claws just seemed like a natural extension of that. In particular, I became obsessed with the mutant characters of the X-Men. I imagined I was Storm and could manipulate the weather. I practiced throwing playing cards like Gambit. I wore sunglasses inside to prevent shooting energy beams from my eyes, like Cyclops. My mom wasn’t too happy about that one. 

September marks the 50th anniversary of the X-Men, and I can’t help but think about my days in The Village Bookmark office reading those comic books. And I can’t help but think about where I am now, fighting against mutants of another sort. Genetically engineered food initially doesn’t appear as scary or dangerous as Lady Deathstrike or Dark Beast. But it’s certainly still a threat to people and the environment. Herbicide-tolerant GE crops, one of the most common applications of GE technology, are inadvertently creating superweeds, which are impervious to traditional weed killing methods and require hazardous levels of chemicals to fight off. What could possibly sound more like a villain in an X-Men comic book than superweeds? Read the full article…

September 9th, 2013

“Cooked” Poultry from China

By Tony Corbo

Processed chickenOn the afternoon of August 30 – the Friday before the Labor Day holiday weekend – USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tried to make a quiet announcement that it was giving the green light to the People’s Republic of China to export processed poultry to the U.S. This report cleared the way for China to process, or cook raw poultry, that is sent to their processing facilities from “approved” sources such as the U.S., Canada, or Chile. FSIS auditors found that China had corrected deficiencies in previous audits but for some reason, FSIS did not post the audits of the four plants upon which it was basing its conclusions. Including individual plant audits as part of country audit reports is customary and Food & Water Watch sent a series of e-mails last week asking FSIS officials where the four plant audits for China were. On Friday September 6, FSIS posted those four plant audits, which can be viewed here.

These individual plant audits revealed some serious issues in three of the four plants:

  • Qingdao Nine-Alliance Group, Shandong: “FSIS auditors observed several long electrical cords bundled with pieces of wire and repaired with electrical tape that rendered them difficult to clean. There was also one frayed electrical cord near exposed frozen RTE (ready-to-eat) products…An air-line water trap was not adequately closed and sealed causing its contents to spray in the surrounding area.”
  • Zhueheng Waimao Co., Ltd/Shandong Delicate Food Co., Ltd, Zhueheng, Shandong: “FSIS auditors observed electrical cords bundled on top of several workstations’ lamps, one overhead electrical outlet with exposed wires and frayed conduit that had been rendered difficult to clean.”
  • Weifang Legang Food Co.,Ltd, Shandong: “FSIS auditors identified structural deficiencies that included accumulation of residue on the outer surfaces of a tumbler in the raw product area and coils of electrical cords on workstation lamps in the cooked product area.”

Frayed electrical wires? Maybe that is how the Chinese plan to cook the chicken nuggets they plan to export back to the U.S.

While the Chinese food safety agency took action to correct the problems found, the issues identified by the FSIS auditors continue to raise serious questions about the food safety culture in China. China knows that its food safety practices are being closely scrutinized around the world in light the high-profile food safety scandals that have broken out in the country over recent years. Yet FSIS auditors still found serious issues in the plants that China itself selected for review.

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September 6th, 2013

My 30 Years as a Poultry Inspector

Former USDA Poultry Inspector Ken Ward.

Today’s blog post is by Ken Ward, a retired USDA poultry inspector with 30 years of experience on packing house floors.

When I was a USDA inspector, we went bird by bird to assure that plants were producing clean, wholesome products. But that won’t be the case if the USDA’s plan to privatize poultry inspection goes forward. I worked with the pilot phase of this plan to privatize the inspection of our poultry, but it could soon be approved for broader use… and it turns the “inspection” of our food into a sham. In plants where they’ve been testing this new process, line speeds have been permitted to run as fast as 200 birds per minute. That’s faster than any human could possibly inspect all those birds.

Privatizing inspection means shifting the actual hands-on inspection of the birds from highly trained, taxpayer-funded, unbiased, Federal employees to plant employees who are not required to have any training at all — and in doing so, the USDA had to change the name of these employees to “sorters” in lieu of inspectors, because what they’re doing is not inspection. 

It is a sad state of affairs when our government is more concerned about saving money than it is about people’s health, but that’s what we’ve got here: a money-saving system that makes it impossible to do adequate inspection of our poultry. A properly trained inspector utilizes ALL of their senses to make a decision about the wholesomeness of the bird. I have no idea of how checking carcasses flying by at unregulated speeds of three per second, without any authority to touch the products, turn or do anything else, can be called “inspection.” 

Read the full article…

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What Does the Farm Bureau Have to Hide?

By Sarah Borron

Statement against EPA's withdrawal of plans to monitor CAFO'sLast week, Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s failure to collect basic information on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as owner name, location, and number and type of animals. There are many problems with EPA’s regulation of industrial livestock facilities, and lack of information stands in the way of addressing pollution from this industry. Today, Food & Water Watch, along with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Environmental Integrity Project, filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Pork Producers Council filed against EPA to keep CAFO records private. The industry groups want to prevent EPA from releasing data related to factory farms and their pollution under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  

In supporting the case, AFBF president Bob Stallman proclaims, “Farm Bureau is not only standing up for farmers in this case, we are standing up for all citizens, who shouldn’t have their personal information publicly disseminated by their government.” But there’s a difference between a CAFO and a typical private home: tens or hundreds of thousands of livestock and vast quantities of manure. Most private citizens utilize wastewater treatment facilities to manage their waste, but most CAFOs store manure on-site and later apply it to farmland. In areas with many CAFOs, the amount of waste available far exceeds the local need for fertilizer. There’s simply too much waste, and it needs to be better regulated.  Read the full article…

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