July, 2008 | Food & Water Watch
Victory! Farm Bureau case challenging EPA’s right to share factory farm data dismissed. more wins »
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Blog Posts: July 2008

July 30th, 2008

Whole Foods Steps in the Right Direction

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the ever-growing number of choices at the grocery store.  As consumers become more aware of how what they choose to eat influences their health, the environment, and their community, supermarket shelves are increasingly crowded with products claiming to be “sustainable” or “organic.”  But when it comes to fish, these labels can be confusing and hard to interpret, since an official set of U.S. standards for quality seafood has not yet been developed.  In an effort to address this problem, Whole Foods Market recently created its own standards to promote cleaner, greener and safer seafood.

Food & Water Watch strongly supports this decision to help protect the environment and assist consumers in making responsible choices, but we have some suggestions as to how the Market can improve the standards to make them successful and effective.  First, net pen and flow through aquaculture should be eliminated, as these production techniques are wasteful and environmentally damaging.  A second important revision is to establish a deadline by which producers must meet at least a 1:1 fish in, fish out ratio, which describes the amount of wild fish that a farm uses to make feed relative to the amount of fish it ultimately produces.  Any farm that does not meet this ratio is depleting wild fish populations, which can cause irreversible harm to both the individual species used to make fish food and ecosystems that depend on them.  Third, the standards should favor domestic and local suppliers as well as those farms that use re-circulating aquaculture, all of which benefit the environment and consumers.  Lastly, Whole Foods must set and enforce a timeline by which the standards are to be met.  If the Market allows companies to continue operating below the standards indefinitely, it will effectively be misleading consumers about the seafood Whole Foods carries and providing producers with little incentive to change.

To find out more about Food & Water Watch‚ recommendations and why these provisions are important, check out the letter we sent to Whole Foods Market‚ CEO and regional directors.  Whole Foods is taking an important lead on improving the seafood it offers to consumers every day, and with our recommendations, you may soon be able to buy fish with confidence that you are getting a safe and environmentally responsible product.

- Darcy White
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July 25th, 2008

USDA Unable to Keep Its Cattle in Order

Some people misplace keys, others struggle with sunglasses, but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loses track of cattle.  This oversight would surely be troublesome in any circumstance, but it is especially so when the cattle may have mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or other health problems. 

All imported cattle are required by law to be tracked with identification and health records.  However, a recent audit completed by the Office of Inspector General reported numerous instances of cattle entering the United States from Canada , where 13 cases of mad cow disease have been detected , without sufficient documentation.  In addition to hundreds of cattle slipping across the border without record, at least 436 animals allegedly sent for slaughter were later unaccounted for.  From a consumer perspective, it is worrisome to think that something could be wrong with the meat that ends up in my burger.
 
Mad cow disease first appeared in Canada in 2003, after which many countries , including the United States , stopped importing Canadian cattle.  However, in the past few years, judging that the disease was no longer a formidable threat, USDA has cut back on the number of cattle tested in the U.S. and reopened U.S. borders to imports from Canada.  The decision to re-open the border has upset a lot of people, especially now that the audit shows that USDA cannot effectively control the imports. Reacting to the problem, R-CALF USA, a cattle industry organization, and a coalition of consumer groups that included Food & Water Watch, sued USDA.  The judge ruled that the decision to allow imports of older cattle , which are more likely to be afflicted by mad cow disease than younger animals , should be reevaluated.  However, as of yet, no substantial reforms have taken place.

Given that our government is struggling to protect our food supply, must we all completely stop eating beef if we hope to stay healthy?  While that is one option, it is not the only one.  Starting in October, food manufacturers will be required to label products with its country of origin.  As a result, consumers will be able to select beef that is known to be from source they trust.  Although companies are not yet obligated to, some already include information about where the product came from.  So look for beef from local sources , even better if it‚ grass fed!

 

- Darcy White

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July 22nd, 2008

Angelina’s Fishy Diet

Angelina Jolie has been receiving a lot of press, be it regarding her relationship with Brad Pitt, her newest children, or, most recently, her post-pregnancy diet. At first glance Angelina seems to have picked the perfect diet to optimize health, taste, and sustainability; it sounds delicious and includes key nutritional buzz words such as “Omega-3″, “organic”, and “fresh”.  But hold off on running to the store to copy her menu. “Organic” seafood does not exist in the United States, and although standards have been developed in Europe, they are not what U.S. consumers expect from organic foods.

For a food to qualify as organic in the United States, it must be certified as meeting specific standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  With produce, meat, and dairy, the term signifies that the product is not genetically modified, irradiated, and has not been produced with pesticides. The spirit of organic includes production methods that are also environmentally responsible. Seafood, however, is difficult to regulate, as it is impossible to monitor and control the substances that wild fish are exposed to.  In the face of this complexity, USDA has not yet developed standards for certifying any seafood as organic.  You may find fish products boasting organic labels, but these labels are not official and have relatively little meaning.  Official USDA labels may appear soon, as the National Organic Standards Board is discussing criteria for organic seafood, but they are struggling to develop appropriate standards.

There are organic standards in the European Union.  Is this just a case of the EU being ahead of the game?  Unfortunately, in this case, not at all.  The European organic standards are fairly vague and incomplete, failing to protect either consumer health or the environment.  They don’t prohibit open water aquaculture, neglect to regulate pollution and waste, permit the use of some chemicals and drugs, and allow wild-caught fish to be used in fish feed.  These practices are not clean, green or safe.

If we can’t trust the labels, how are we to decide what seafood to buy?  Ask important questions of your restaurants and markets:

  • Where is it from? (Domestic or imported , try to choose domestic).
  • Is it caught or farmed locally? (Try to choose local foods over those shipped from far away).
  • Is it farmed or wild? (Try to choose wild, unless the farming system is known to be clean, green and safe)
  • How is it caught? (Ask if the method has high by catch or habitat damage).
  • How is it farmed? (When available, buy seafood that has been farmed in the U.S. in indoor, recirculating facilities. Tilapia, shrimp, hybrid striped bass and arctic char are examples of fish that are or are soon to be farmed this way).
  • Is it associated with any contaminants? (Mercury, PCBs, antibiotics, etc).

Another tip is to diversify consumption , eating a variety of fish helps to prevent overfishing of specific species.

So, my advice to Angelina and anyone else concerned about making responsible food choices is as follows: don’t be fooled by marketing hype.  Ask questions and educate yourself about the products before you buy.  By choosing seafood that is clean, green, and safe, you will not only be protecting yourself and your family, you will help ensure the sustainability of our ocean resources for generations to come.

- Darcy White

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July 18th, 2008

Testosterone for Your Tilapia

The food industry is wild about developing innovative ways to maximize the efficiency of producing food from animals.  Cows are injected with hormones and antibiotics and are pumped full of food that they are not naturally adapted to digest in order to speed up their growth.  Similarly, as recently reported in a Washington Post blog, many tilapia are given a dose of methyl testosterone to convert them all to males, which grow to a bigger size and require less feed because they dont need to expend as much energy developing reproductive organs. Proponents argue that the practice reduces waste, thereby benefiting the environment.

It seems, however, that many people, myself included, dont want food that has been altered with substances that change its basic biology. But, one may argue, if we can increase production with technology, it would be a shame not to.  The problem with this reasoning is that new technologies often bring unexpected consequences.  We dont know enough about the effects of testosterone on the fish or the environment to conclusively determine if it is good or bad.  This would not be the first time that a new food industry practice is later found to create major environmental and health problems.  I probably dont need to remind you all of how using pulverized parts of cows in animal feed, which was intended to bulk up the animals with protein, led to cases of mad cow disease. 

Most consumers dont want food produced with added hormones. And while it may seem like an environmentally friendly practice now, we dont know the long-term consequences. Given the many unknowns regarding methyl testosterone, the tilapia industry should not be so quick to embrace its use simply as a means to increase production.

- Darcy White
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July 10th, 2008

I Spy Salmonella

Is it in the tomatoes? The peppers? Perhaps the cilantro? Apparently, your guess of a random salsa ingredient may be as good as the FDA’s. Unfortunately, this is no game. Over 1000 cases of the recent salmonella strain have been reported while the hunt for the source continues.

The lack of progress and the inability to contain the spread of this bacterium for over a month now reveals the frightening state of the American food industry’s procedures and the federal government’s food inspection system.  Instead of requesting the additional funds needed to hire more FDA food inspectors, Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt would like to turn more of the inspection responsibilities over to the industry so that it can police itself.

This far-reaching problem not only threatens the health of citizens but that of the entire nation. It has resulted in significant losses to the economy. With the sinking of tomato sales, many farmers even resorted to allowing their crops to rot in order to save the money they would have otherwise spent in harvesting them for probably nothing.

”What Hurricane Katrina was to FEMA, this salmonella outbreak is going to be to the FDA,” said one tomato grower.

Deplorably, this outbreak isn’t surprising. According to the CDC, illnesses caused by tainted food affect close to a quarter of the country‚ population each year. Sick to your stomach yet?

This recent scare only further implicates the obvious and urgent need for action in order to ensure our food’s safety. Read more about the issue here.

Have you cut tomatoes and peppers from your diet? Personally, I’ve been buying local peppers and only cherry or grape tomatoes. I look forward to a time where we can once again enjoy salsa (and all food) without thinking about this nasty little thing called salmonella. Each of us can help bring that day closer: tell the FDA that it’s long overdue for a system makeover.

— Elissar Khalek
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July 9th, 2008

Monsanto: Full of Hot Air on rBGH

Cows produce significant quantities of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are bad. Therefore, anything that might reduce the number of cows is good, right? This is the line of argument that proponents of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH, also referred to as rBST) have taken in an effort to garner support for the artificial hormone.  The claim that rBGH will benefit the environment is based on a new study that allegedly shows that the use of the artificial hormone will allow fewer dairy cows to produce the same quantity of milk.  However, a little digging will reveal a number of problems with this study, and hence, with this claim.

But first I’d like to remind you about Monsanto, the enormous agricultural corporation that developed rBGH and markets it as the drug Prosilac.  The company clearly has a large stake in any publicity regarding the artificial hormone, so the fact that two of the researchers who conducted the study have significant ties to Monsanto is suspicious, to say the least.  One of the researchers, Roger Cady, is the company‚ technical project manager for rBGH, and the main researcher, Dale Bauman, has served the company as a paid consultant since the 1980s.

Additionally, the trustworthiness of the results is questionable given that previous investigations into the environmental impact of rBGH have not reached the same conclusion. The Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have concluded that any change in greenhouse gas emissions is negligible and the use of the artificial hormone might even result in more emissions. Dale Bauman argues that his study is more accurate, but given his and Roger Cady‚ ties to Monsanto, I find myself siding with the government organizations on this one.

Yes, it is important to lower emissions, but we do not need rBGH in order to do this, as there are several other effective approaches that the industry should focus on. Already, changes in nutrition and breeding have resulted in a substantial decrease, and scientists from the University of Melbourne claim that altering the composition of the feed could further reduce emissions by half. The diary farms that use rBGH most are large and industrial, the same farms that produce most of the pollution in the first place. If these farms truly want to reduce their environmental impact, they need to focus first on changing their basic practices to be more sustainable. So the question is this: Do we ignore the bias in this new study and use rBGH to lower emissions, or do we put our energy into the alternative, less controversial approaches? Considering the health risks associated with rBGH, I think the answer is pretty clear; we should be opposing rBGH, not celebrating it.

- Darcy White

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July 3rd, 2008

Guide to a Healthy and Sustainable Fourth of July

It‚ almost time to pull out the lawn chairs, open the sparklers, and put on your red, white and blue.  Whether your plans for the Fourth of July are to head to the beach, attend a parade, or simply relax with friends and family, chances are food and drink will be involved.  Here are some suggestions on which products to pick and which to avoid in order to have a safe and healthy holiday.

Let‚ start with the meat. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA, summer is the prime time for foodborne illnesses.  But with proper precaution, you can keep your guests from getting sick. Always make sure to cook meats thoroughly (160¬∞ on the inside, even steak , see table below and previous entry) and double-check the expiration date on the package. Paying careful attention to the expiration date is especially important because some processors use carbon monoxide gas to keep meat looking red and fresh even if it is several days past its prime. Another thing to look out for is meat marked with the irradiation symbol . Some stores , like Wegmans , promote irradiation as a solution to prevent contamination. But in truth, irradiation does not miraculously purge the product of any and all harmful elements, transforming that steak or patty to sushi-grade meat. In fact, irradiation destroys many vital nutrients and vitamins, and consuming irradiated food may cause immune system failures, tumors and a host of other problems. In addition, the process of irradiation often creates a nasty texture, smell, and taste.

TYPE OF MEAT MINIMUM INTERNAL TEMP (°F)
- Fish 145°
- Beef, lamb and Veal (steaks,
roasts and chops)
145° (medium-rare)
160° (medium)
**Important note: Steaks
and roasts that have been
boned, rolled, tenderized,
etc. should be cooked to an
internal temperature of at
least 160°
- Ground beef, pork, veal, and
lamb
– Pork (chops, roasts, ribs)
– Egg
160°
- Poultry (ground, breasts,
legs, thighs, wings, whole)
– Stuffing and casseroles
– Leftovers
165°
References: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service ,
Foodborne Illness Peaks in the Summer – Why?
Thermometer Placement and Temperatures

For those of you who plan to serve up seafood, there are a number of things for you to consider as well. Much of the seafood available in the United States is imported from foreign, industrial aquaculture farms.  Bacteria, viruses and parasites thrive in the unsanitary conditions that often characterize these farms, such that some imported fish have been described as “filthy” by inspectors, with Salmonella and other contaminants not uncommon.  Where chemicals and antibiotics (many of which have been outlawed in the United States) are applied in an attempt to eliminate the disease-causing agents, harmful residues can accumulate in the flesh. To protect yourself and your guests, ask your grocers where the product is from and how it was produced. Generally, the best bet is to opt for domestic, wild fish.  A particularly healthy and sustainable option is U.S. troll-caught Mahi Mahi.  If you are set on having salmon, choose U.S. wild Pacific salmon over Atlantic/farmed salmon. Domestic halibut, whiting, and tilapia are also good choices.  If shellfish is on your menu, again stick to products from the United States.

Now undoubtedly you will need something to drink. But pass up the bottled water and instead treat your guests to tap water (if you will not be near a tap, fill up a cooler before you leave and take it with you).  Bottled water is not safer than tap water; in fact, tap water is better regulated and tested more frequently.  True, there may be impurities and the mineral content may not be to your liking, but these issues can be easily fixed with a simple filter.  Bottled water creates unnecessary garbage and pollution, plus it is expensive (it costs more per unit volume than gas).  So save your money or spend it instead on that fancy cake you’ve been eying.

So remember, when it comes to food, the bottom line is to cook meats and eggs to appropriate temperatures and choose local, sustainably-produced products.  Not only will you be supporting local producers, you will also be protecting your safety and the environment.  For resources and more information, consult the Eat Well Guide. And check out our water filtration guide to learn how to serve the best water in town, straight from your tap.
Have a good Fourth!

- Darcy White
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Sweetness and Tenderness and… E. coli?

For meat lovers, steaks are iconic. And for lovers of meat cooked rare, steaks have, up till now, been a fairly reliable way to avoid E. coli contamination—since most E. coli is on the outside of a cut of meat, cooking a thick steak to a high temperature on the outside but letting the inside remain rare is often considered safe. Unfortunately, that advice is no longer sound.

There‚ a new hazard to watch out for when purchasing your carne‚Äîat least if you like it a little on the raro side.

Some of the steak sold in stores is now mechanically tenderized. This means machines are used to tenderize the meat using needles, which puncture the surface of the meat. Because of this puncturing of the surface, E. coli bacteria present on the outside of the meat can be driven inside. Then, if the internal temperature of the meat doesnt reach the required safe temp—160 degrees—the bacteria can survive. This means that if your steak has been mechanically tenderized, it is not safe to eat it rare.

Food safety advice, even from official channels, tends to omit this.  A question posed to Karen, the USDA‚ Food Safety Information Service‚ automated response system virtual representative, resulted in cooking advice indicating that rare steak is just fine.  A little digging reveals this more appropriate piece of advice:

Cook steaks and roasts that have been tenderized, boned, rolled, etc., to an internal temperature of 160 °F.

There is no labeling that informs consumers of whether their meat has been mechanically tenderized. So before you dream of juicy grilled meat at your relaxing summer barbecue, ask your butcher if the cuts of meat youre admiring have been tenderized or not.

And then enjoy your barbecue.

-Erica Schuetz & Jen Mueller
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July 2nd, 2008

Danger in Your Soap?

What if I told you that your soap might harm you?  And so might your cosmetics, cutting board, carpet, clothes, and many other products.  The culprit is a pesticide called Triclosan. On account of its antibacterial properties, manufacturers have put it into many of the things we interact with everyday. Marketed under the trade names Microban and BioFresh and an unlabeled ingredient in countless products advertising their antimicrobial properties, it can be detected in the blood, urine, and breast milk of people worldwide.  The problem is that research suggests that this chemical may have negative health and environmental effects.  It is thought to interfere with endocrine and cellular processes, contribute to antibiotic resistance, and break down into toxic chemicals such as dioxin and chloroform.  In addition to its effects on humans, it is also toxic to algae, phytoplankton, and other critical aquatic organisms. And it has been accumulating in water, generating concern that it will destroy fragile ecosystems.

So why is it used if it is so bad?  Good question. It is actually not any more effective at killing germs than warm water and a little soap, so its widespread application is unnecessary, little more than a marketing gimmick.  The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the product to determine if it is safe.  But they have registered it in the past, and their assessment so far has ignored evidence of its risks.  I dont know about you, but I dont like the idea that the things that fill my bathroom, kitchen, and closet could impair my health.  If you feel the same way, tell the EPA to ban non-medical use of Triclosan!

- Darcy White
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