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Victory! Cleveland passes resolution against antibiotic misuse on factory farms. more wins »
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August 22nd, 2014

Hyporkrisy

Meet Scott Edwards of Food & Water WatchBy Scott Edwards

The meat industry knows no shame, and you can put the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) at the top of the list.

Back in 1985 Congress enacted a law that placed a fee on every hog farmer and exporter in the country. The money taken from farmers went into the National Pork Board (NPB), which in turn funneled a considerable amount of the funds to the NPPC. In 2000, NPPC received $36.5 million of the $48.1 million NPB spending budget raised from these required payments. This NPPC pigs-at-the-trough funding scheme became known as the “check-off” program.

In 1999 a group called the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF) submitted a petition to USDA signed by over 19,000 hog farmers in the country who wanted to get rid of the mandatory NPB payments and replace it with a voluntary check-off program. NPPC promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with USDA asking for the names and addresses of producers who signed the petition so they could compile a list of people who threatened their check-off cash cow.

When CFF went to federal court in Minnesota to stop USDA from releasing the petition list, NPPC intervened in the case and tried to force disclosure of the information. The court, though, denied NPPC access to the list of anti-check-off farmers. Undeterred, NPPC took their case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the higher court also sent NPPC packing, stating “[t]o make public such an unequivocal statement of their position on the referendum effectively would vitiate petitioners’ privacy interest in a secret ballot.”

Fast forward to today, and NPPC has a very different view about disclosure of names and addresses of the country’s pork producers.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succumbed to political pressure and withdrew a proposed rule to collect baseline information from highly polluting industrial meat operations. EPA’s knowledge of this industry, which contributes significantly to nutrient impairment of waterways across the country, is so abysmal that the agency can’t even tell us how many facilities exist or where they’re located. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, to Toledo, Ohio where the city’s citizens just recently had their drinking water taken from them because of algae blooms in Lake Erie, communities across the nation suffer from the irresponsible dumping of excess animal manure from these facilities, while EPA wrings its hands.

After EPA’s improper abandonment, a group of environmental organizations filed a FOIA asking for all the documents that EPA relied on to withdraw the rule. Included in the documents were a number of spreadsheets culled from publicly available state databases and websites that listed the names and addresses of many of these factory farms.

Predictably, NPPC threw a fit when this public information was released. NPPC president R.C. Hunt said he felt “betrayed” by the disclosure. Press statements by NPPC and other industry groups verged on hysteria, invoking empty claims of “eco terrorism” and “dangerous militants.” Their uncontrolled fear mongering stopped just short of asking for the Administration to place the nation on red alert.

Last summer, NPPC walked back into the same Minnesota court that sent them back to D.C. with their tails between their legs in 2000 and asked the judge to issue an order to prevent EPA from disclosing the names and addresses of these industrial facilities, the very same type of information they went into court in 2000 seeking to obtain for themselves.

In their recent filing with the Minnesota court, NPPC suggests that the 8th Circuit’s 2000 ruling supports their newly invented position that the disclosure of names and address of industrial farms are disallowed because of “privacy” concerns. But that’s not what the court said. It’s not names and addresses of farms that the court held to be subject to a “privacy interest,” but the check-off program opinion of hog farmers reflected in the “secret ballot.”

Hypocrisy is nothing new to the meat industry. Industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on federal and state taxpayer subsidies while denouncing any governmental interference in their non-control of their vast pollution problem, literally lives off hypocrisy. Their latest hypocritical position on farm data disclosure is not based on any noble notion of sanctity of farmers; they proved they don’t give a damn about that in 2000. Back in 2000, disclosure was good because they were fighting hog farmers who were threatening their funding. Today, it’s bad because they’re fighting environmentalists who are concerned about the adverse impact from modern industrial agriculture on our waterways, communities and public health.

That contradiction tells you where NPPC’s real interests lie. It’s not about farming, or farmers, or about being responsible and accountable; it’s all about using whatever tactic is necessary, including attacking its own base, ignoring the facts and instilling fear to maintain NPPC’s funding and political power.

 

Calling on Congress to Protect Public Lands from Becoming Private Profit

By Wenonah Hauter #saveourparks from fracking

When you imagine your family vacation, do drilling rigs or the roar of wastewater tankers rumbling down a forest service road immediately come to mind? Unfortunately, with the Obama administration’s proposed rules for drilling and fracking on federal lands, our treasured national lands may begin to resemble this grim image. Read the full article…

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August 19th, 2014

News from the Front Lines of Fighting Antibiotic Resistance

By Sarah Borron Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

I recently spent two fascinating days at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a public meeting on the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). Between the technical jargon and numerous acronyms, what emerges is a story about government scientists working on the front lines to keep antibiotics working for you and me.

An FDA researcher described how “whole genome sequencing,” reading the entire DNA strand of foodborne pathogens, is allowing them to create evolutionary trees that demonstrate how bacteria and patterns of antibiotic resistance change over time. In one recent outbreak, whole genome sequences of bacteria from the people affected, the food they all ate, and the nearby plant that produced the food allowed scientists to identify the source of the outbreak, which allowed for quicker closure of the plant in order to solve the problem. Comment after comment pointed to whole genome sequencing as the “next big thing” for addressing illness outbreaks.

Read the full article…

August 18th, 2014

The Toledo Water Crisis Won’t Be the Last

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer

Algae_Blooms_Blog_ThumbThe recent water crisis in Toledo, Ohio is not an isolated incident, and it won’t be the last. As the annual and increasingly severe algae blooms hit Lake Erie this year, levels of the toxin mycrocystin reached such high levels that the City of Toledo ordered a tap water ban because the toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting or impaired liver function. Residents were ordered not to drink the water or use it for cooking, brushing their teeth or pets. Children and people with compromised immune systems were even warned not to bathe with the water.

Caused by large amounts of phosphorus runoff from excessive fertilizer application on farms, manure from livestock feeding operations and aging wastewater infrastructure, the algae blooms in Lake Erie are nothing new. In fact, water contamination from industrial agriculture and wastewater discharge has repeatedly been a detriment to public waterways and sources of drinking water, causing previous contamination crises.

In 1997, outbreaks of Pfiesteria, a toxic algae, contaminated the Chesapeake Bay, Pocomoke River, Rappahannock River and other waterways of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Excessive nutrient run-off from the high concentration of chicken farms in the region, contracted by companies like Tyson, caused algae blooms and the subsequent spread of Pfiesteria. The outbreak resulted in large fish kills, with thousands of fish dying and showing signs of contamination like sores, ulcerous holes and whole chunks of fins missing. Public health effects also materialized, with several people experiencing neurological problems like short-term memory loss.

In the early 2000s, the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma faced water contamination from excess phosphorus runoff caused by land application of poultry litter and wastewater discharges. The runoff polluted Lake Eucha and Lake Spavinaw, which supplied drinking water to about half of the city’s 500,000 residents at the time of the incident, causing algae blooms and “foul-smelling and bitter tasting water.” As a result, the city faced substantial treatment costs from the runoff contamination and eventually brought suit against poultry industry companies like Tyson Foods, among others, as well as the city of Decatur, Arkansas for wastewater discharges.

Similarly, Des Moines, Iowa experienced historically high nitrate levels beginning in May 2013, caused by runoff from excessive fertilizer use in agricultural production. The nitrate levels reached as high as 24 milligrams per liter (mg/l), far above the accepted safe level of 10 mg/l. Des Moines Water Works, the municipal water utility for the city and surrounding communities, had to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility at a cost of $7,000 per day to keep nitrates at levels safe for consumption. This ended up costing consumers over $525,000. Left untreated, high levels of nitrates also pose the risk of Blue Baby Syndrome to infants six months old and younger — nitrates can reduce the ability of infant’s blood to carry oxygen, leading to death.

In other cases municipal water supplies have been contaminated with E. coli and other harmful contaminants due to runoff from factory farms and wastewater discharge into our public waterways. In 2000, Canada experienced one of its worst water contamination crises ever when the water supply for Walkerton, Ontario was contaminated with E. coli from nearby farm runoff. Seven people died from the outbreak and more than 2,300 became ill with symptoms like bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms common with E. coli infections.

In a less severe but still serious case, residents of Morrison, Wisconsin also faced drinking water contamination from factory farm and other agricultural runoff. According to the New York Times, in 2009 more than 100 wells used for drinking water had become contaminated with E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants commonly found in manure, due largely to runoff from nearby dairy farms or fields covered with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage. Residents suffered chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

These incidents might leave you wondering why we haven’t learned from the past and prevented future crises. The fact is, it’s well known that runaway fertilizer use, excessive nutrient runoff from factory farms and devil-may-care wastewater discharges from other polluters are responsible for the ongoing occurrence of these water crises. Instead, actors on all sides have knowingly ignored or tried to side-step directly addressing the issue with sub-par policies, largely because of undue influence from industry lobbies and special interests that stand behind those guilty of polluting our waterways.

Despite having policy tools like the Clean Water Act (CWA) that initially provided strong protections for our public waterways, it has since been weakened and little has changed. Industrial agriculture continues to be the highest source of pollution in many of our waterways and simultaneously these polluters remain some of the least regulated and continue to discharge pollution with impunity.

To make matters worse, the proposed solution to this has been to allow water quality trading as a way to comply with the CWA. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a giant step away from the public trust approach of the CWA when they created a plan that gives polluters the option to buy the right to pollute our waterways. The EPA is allowing polluters like coal-fired power plants to purchase “credits” from other polluters, like industrial agriculture, in lieu of controlling their discharges.

Until public and environmental health is put before industrial agriculture and other polluters’ interests, we stand to face more of the same crises at the cost to consumers. How do we go about changing this? First, water quality trading cannot stand as an option. It is a false solution and to date there is not one documented case of its success. Second, runoff from industrial agriculture must be regulated. Full stop. In 1977, amendments to the CWA set a strong and simple standard that polluting is illegal, and that the national goal is zero discharge of pollution into our public waterways. Our rivers, lakes and estuaries do not exist as dumping grounds for the pollution that comes from irresponsible and unsustainable industrial practices. There is no substitute for water — not polluting it is our only option.

Take action today to protect Ohio’s water from factory farms!

August 13th, 2014

Busting the Bureau of Land Management’s Frackopoly

By Wenonah Hauter 

Even without looking at a photo album, I can picture in my mind’s eye a vacation photo from the gorgeous BLM-managed land near Moab, Utah. That image of my family and friends on a bicycle trip in the red rock lands, perfectly faded by time, carefully preserved for posterity. Nowhere in that photo does a fracking rig, or any telltale signs of industrial activity appear. But skip ahead fifteen or twenty years into the future, and this photo could be telling an entirely different story.  Read the full article…

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The Horseburgergate Cliffhanger: Episode III — Where’s The Report?

By Eve Mitchell

Fair FoodRemember that huge scandal about illegal horsemeat in Europe’s food chain? Ever hear about who was responsible? No, me neither.

We good citizens of the UK were recently told that the latest round of testing found no horsemeat in meat products on sale in our shops. We were assured that of 50,876 sample results submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) since February 2013, only 47 were positively horse, and none at all since the June 2013 report (remember the industry does the testing and then sends in the results). We’re also assured that no horse was found in the testing the UK has done as part of the EU-wide screening programme of processed beef products.

The horsemeat isn’t exactly gone, though. The Commission did find 16 new cases of beef contaminated with horsemeat across the EU, a development the Commissioner calls “encouraging”. Well over a year ago French authorities suggested some of the “horse” (that is supposed to be beef) might actually be donkey. Odd then, isn’t it, that the tests only look for, at most, beef, horse, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and turkey? Also, they only tested products that were supposed to be more than 15 percent beef, so the cheaper end of the market could still be a free-for-all. I guess we’ll have to live with all that for now – we’ve got bigger problems.

The UK Government says again, “The full participation [in testing] reflects the Government’s commitment to consumer protection and tackling food fraud.” It’s not the hardest tackle I’ve ever seen. We’re told that in 2013 the Commission “confirmed recurrent non-compliance with legislation applicable to labelling of meat products in most Member States”. That’s big. Really big. That needs a serious response.

Yet what we still haven’t been told is what comes next, or who put the horsemeat in the system or how they will be brought to book. It seems fair that whomever did this should be heavily fined, at least, to help the taxpayer cover the costs of all this testing and investigating. The fine-toothed inquiry into the mess conducted by the UK Parliament turned into a blame game extraordinaire, with supermarkets, food companies, regulatory agencies and Government Ministers all trying to slime out from under the weight of scrutiny. The inquiry Committee said way back in July 2013 it was “dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity”.

Slow, indeed. In January 2013 the Government had promised a full report of its investigations, then finally in mid-May 2014 we gathered we’d get the report “within the next month”. That didn’t happen, as the Government demanded “more detail” from the report author. A conveniently-timed Cabinet reshuffle in July offered the chance to delay again until some unnamed point in the next Parliament (which next sits in September). Meanwhile, allegations fly that the report’s author has been told to “tone down” his findings. Maybe he gave them a bit too much detail?

Not that things at the EU level are much better. The Commission says that when horse is found marked as beef, “appropriate enforcement measures” include market withdrawal, tracing, relabeling, extra controls for food business operators and “penalties”. The old song had it wrong: the word “prosecutions” actually seems harder to say than “sorry”.

Former Food Minister Owen Paterson said way back in February 2013 the horsemeat scandal was a “fraud and a conspiracy against the public”. Of all the judgments he got wrong, that one does ring true. The real question now is: how high does the conspiracy go?

PS – If you thought you could avoid all this by getting chicken, just hold your horses (sorry, couldn’t resist). As the Guardian and EcoStorm have helpfully showed us, elements of the UK chicken industry that supply supermarkets and fast food outlets are just plain nasty – and that’s before we’re treated to a TTIP/RAFTA race-to-the-bottom on food standards. Rest assured, the good old FSA is on the case: it is “conducting audits and investigations at the plants. These are underway today [25 July] and the findings will be published in due course.” Initial findings are that standards at the two poultry plants involved are “good” and “generally satisfactory”. Bon appétit!

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August 12th, 2014

A “Science-based” Look at GMOs

By Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) sets out on an 18-month, “science-based” study into the safety, benefits and drawbacks of GMOs, it will be interesting to see which science—and which scientists—the NRC will be consulting. 

The initial indications aren’t great. While the NRC boasts that it is aiming to “provide an independent, objective assessment of what has been learned since GE crops were introduced,” several of the scientific experts it has selected to direct the new report have substantial ties to industry—and are clearly in a position to advocate on behalf of biotech companies. 

The reason this matters is because the biotech industry has long had an outsized role in shaping the science surrounding GMOs, with tactics including funding and authoring countless studies, censoring or restricting independent research and attacking unfavorable findings. The result of this influence is a body of scientific literature with substantial industry bias and major gaps—especially in safety research. Industry also uses its unparalleled financial resources to bulldoze the public debate on GMOs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. Do biotech companies really need another platform to advocate their pro-GMO stance? Read the full article…

August 7th, 2014

Frackopoly: Documenting the Movement to Fight Fracking

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

Wenonah Hauter, Mark Ruffalo and activists rally to ban fracking.

By Wenonah Hauter

Writing a book is both a daunting and energizing experience. My first book Foodopoly took months of research (helped by many here at Food & Water Watch) and sheer discipline. But the payoff was great: I was able to tour the country and meet people who are concerned about the state of our food and the state of our politics, and I felt palpably that the work of Food & Water Watch is necessary and making a difference by building a movement of concerned citizen activists to become politicized to protect our essential resources from corporate control.

What Is Fracking?
  • Inherently unsafe, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It’s a water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well. This releases extra oil and gas from the rock, so it can flow into the well.
  • Sign the petition to ban fracking.

Now, I’m back in the trenches of research and writing with my follow-up book. A true tale of corruption and greed, Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment looks at how a powerful citizen-led movement is making progress fighting one of the biggest and most powerful industries in the world on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: fracking. In preparation for the book, I am interviewing people in affected communities across the country who have had their well water contaminated with methane; their health impacted; their air polluted; and the value of their homes destroyed.

As I’m starting to wrap up the book, I’m feeling excited about what lies ahead, and what the book represents. It’s a story of what’s possible and ultimately, what will save our democracy: engaged citizens, impacted by an issue in their backyards, in a fight for their lives and making a difference.

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August 6th, 2014

Cereal Problems: Letting Corporations Address Climate Change Won’t Solve the Problem

By Mitch Jones

Our friends at Mother Jones posted a story that points us to a recent announcement on climate change by agribusiness giant General Mills. While many of us may just be happy to see a corporation willing to admit climate change is anthropogenic climate change, we shouldn’t be fooled by the announcement or the idea that supposedly good behavior by corporations will save us.

The company announced that it will make changes to its global supply chain in order to reduce its carbon footprint. But what it’s proposing are some of the same gimmicks to which others that aren’t serious about making real change resort. To begin, the company announced that 92 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions related to its product line occur outside of its control in the supply chain. Of course, a major supply chain component for a company like General Mills are the farmers that provide the ingredients for its products. But, instead of pledging to seek out (and fairly compensate) small farms that actually have less negative impacts on our climate, General Mills is going to support the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an initiative supported by the largest players in the dairy industry. Read the full article…

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History Will Repeat Itself With New Herbicide-Tolerant Crops

By Genna Reed airplane spraying pesticide

Working against the advice of consumer, environmental, public health and family farm groups, the USDA has released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Dow’s controversial “Enlist” varieties of corn and soybeans, genetically engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup). This statement is the final step in the agency’s regulatory process for GE crops before issuing a formal approval.  Read the full article…

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