Understanding Food Labels

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Food System

By Amanda Starbuck, updated 6/14/2021

We all have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s produced, and where it’s from. But food companies are often not required to give us the information we want to know. The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims that make it difficult to differentiate between food produced by sustainable farmers using humane practices, and corporate agribusinesses greenwashing their products.

As a result, the array of labels found on meat, poultry and eggs can be overwhelming. You can and should be informed about what current labeling practices really mean and how they affect you – and this guide will help.

But we also need labels that are accurate and useful, and we won’t get them unless we tell our elected officials to put our interests ahead of those of corporations.

How Useful Are Food Labels?

These labels tell you something meaningful about your food and where it came from – though they may not mean quite what you think.

Certified Organic
Right now, the most meaningful label on your food, in terms of upholding specific government requirements, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s required to meet specific standards:

  • Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge;
  • Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated;
  • Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics;
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (like cows) must have access to pasture; and
  • Animals cannot be cloned.

Donate toward work like this. We need to keep food labeling honest!

Country of Origin Labels

The U.S. requires Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on certain foods including chicken, seafood, produce, and some nuts – but the food industry has limited even this most basic element of

transparency. Until late 2015, beef and pork were also covered by mandatory country of origin labeling rules. But the meat industry pressured Congress to repeal the labeling requirement.

USDA Inspected
A USDA inspection seal means that your food meets certain quality standards and has been inspected by USDA employees or company employees under USDA supervision to rank its quality.

All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vast majority of the meat in grocery stores) should have a USDA seal of inspection and a code for the producing establishment. Meat and egg labels with a grade (such as USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs) are graded based on quality and size, not production methods, so this seal tells you nothing about the company’s practices.

Private certification programs also exist, but they vary in standards, and it’s a good idea to do some research on their standards.

Treated with Irradiation
In grocery stores, food that has been irradiated must be labeled and marked with a radura symbol. Unfortunately, this labeling policy does not apply to restaurants, schools, hospitals, or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients.

Food Labels That Give Limited Information

Cage-Free Eggs
“Cage free” means that birds are raised without cages, but it tells you nothing about any other living conditions. For instance, cage-free eggs could come from birds raised indoors in overcrowded spaces at large factory farms.

Pasture Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This traditional farming method is typically done on a smaller scale than conventional factory-farmed animals. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.

Grass-Fed
“Grass-fed” means that, after weaning, an animal’s source of food comes from grass or forage, not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were used on the animal or what conditions it lived in.

No Antibiotics
“Raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered” means that the animal received no antibiotics over its lifetime. Some large-scale producers feed animals antibiotics at low doses to prevent disease, which is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may make people sick and are difficult to treat. This label does not tell you about other conditions where the animal was raised.

If an animal receives antibiotics for any reason, its meat, milk or eggs cannot be labeled “Certified Organic.”

No Hormones
The labels “raised without added hormones,” “no hormones administered” or “no synthetic hormones” all mean that the animal received no synthetic hormones. Hormone-free labels do not disclose what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture.

Federal law prohibits the administration of hormones to poultry, veal, and exotic meat (like bison). Any hormone-free label on these products is intended to mislead shoppers into thinking that the product is worthy of a higher price. The USDA requires that these labels include a disclaimer: “There are no hormones approved for use in [poultry/veal/etc.] by Federal Regulations.”.”

However, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle, and for some uses in pork (such as for gestation). For instance, recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) is a synthetic growth hormone commonly injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. Hormones are also administered to beef cattle to speed up growth.

Thanks to years of activism, “rBGH-free” or “rBST-free” labels can now be used on milk products to indicate that the cows did not receive synthetic hormones. However, due to industry pressure, they must come with a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference between milk produced with or without the hormones.

Misleading Food Labels

Free Range
“Free range” labels are regulated by the USDA only for poultry produced for meat – it’s not regulated for pigs, cattle or egg-producing chickens. Nor are the requirements very high. Poultry can use the label if the chicken had any access to the outdoors each day for some unspecified period of time; it could be just a few minutes, and does not assure that the animal ever actually went outdoors to roam freely.

Natural and Naturally Raised
According to USDA, “natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and they should be “minimally processed.” However, this label does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibiotics or hormones were used, or other aspects of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”

For all other foods (milk, eggs, and non-animal food products), the “natural” label is virtually meaningless.

Fresh
Contrary to what you might expect, the label “fresh” is used only on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees F. Poultry does not have to be labeled as “frozen” until it reaches zero degrees F. This can be misleading to customers who assume that label means meat has not been frozen, processed or preserved in any way. The USDA does not define or regulate the use of the “fresh” label on any other type of products.

Pasture Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.

Bioengineered (GMOs)
In July 2016, Congress passed a weak federal law for labeling genetically-modified food (GMOs) that blocked states from requiring stricter GMO labels, such as existed in Vermont. It requires food companies to disclose whether their products contain GMOs, but they can make this information difficult to access. For instance, in lieu of using the “Bioengineered” label, companies can simply include a QR code, web address, or 1-800 number that connects consumers with more information. This requires users to have a cell phone and access to cellular data or Wi-Fi — and the leisure time to go through this cumbersome process for each product.

Despite industry claims, there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of GMO foods, and the weak approval process for new GMO crops relies solely on testing by the companies that want to sell these new crops. That’s why we’re pushing to require clear labels on all foods with GMO ingredients. Only by standing up for transparency in our food will we get the information we want.

Donate toward work like this. We need to keep food labeling honest!

We’re Literally Eating and Drinking Plastic. Fossil Fuels Are To Blame.

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Climate and Energy

Care about plastic pollution? Then it’s time to work to start moving away from fossil fuels.

Plastic is a serious problem, and it’s time we addressed it at its source: fossil fuel production. Plastics are increasingly fueled by fracking in the U.S.—the extreme method of extracting fossil fuels that is polluting our air and our water, and exacerbating climate change. Fracking provides the cheap raw materials for plastics production, which has lead industry publication Plastics News to say fracking “represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” More fracking equals more profit in plastics (which equals, you guessed it…more plastics.)

It is so pervasive in our environment that it’s become commonplace to digest it through the microplastics present in our food and water.

Plastic in Water, Salt…Even Beer?

Everyone drinks water, and whether you drink tap water or bottled water, you are very likely ingesting some level of plastic pollution. A recent study by Orb Media tested 159 drinking water samples from cities and towns around the world, and 83 percent of those samples contained microplastic fibers. That means food prepared with plastic-contaminated water becomes contaminated as well.

Bottled water samples fared even worse than tap water—unsurprising because it is manufactured with plastic. Another recent study by the same organization found 90 percent of bottled water analyzed from around the world contained plastic microfibers. A single bottle of Nestlé Pure Life had concentrations of microfiber plastics up to 10,000 pieces per liter. The type of plastic used to make bottle caps was the most common type of microplastic fiber found in bottled water.

In response to the mounting evidence showing plastic is present in our drinking water, the World Health Organization is now looking into the problem.

Plastic has also been found in sea salt, and researchers attribute that to the ubiquitous nature of single-use plastics such as water bottles, which comprise the majority of plastic waste. In 2015 about 70 percent of plastic water bottles went unrecycled, and much of this plastic waste ends up in landfills, incinerators or in—you guessed it—our oceans and seas. Plastic has also been found in seafood, beer, honey and sugar.

We need more research on the extent of microplastic pollution and the best ways to treat water to remove it. It’s also clear that we need to upgrade water treatment plant infrastructure so it can handle this new pollutant. But the best way to address this pollution is at the source by reducing plastic waste in the environment.

Fracking in the U.S. Promotes a Global Plastics Bonanza

Fracking, which causes many negative public health problems and harms our air, water, and climate, is now powering a dangerous plastics bonanza. It was the rapid expansion of fracking in the United States that led to a gas glut, which drove real natural gas prices to the lowest level in decades. This is where the plastic industry came to the rescue of the oil and gas industry: low-cost ethane, a byproduct of fracking, is used to manufacture plastics.

Both plastic and ethane are being exported across the globe. More than half of the raw plastic produced in the U.S. is headed to distant shores. Whereas the chemical giant Ineos, based in the United Kingdom, is receiving ethane to help fuel European plastic factories. The controversial Mariner East pipeline system delivers this gas byproduct to the Marcus Hook export terminal in Pennsylvania—where it is then carried via massive “dragon ships” across the Atlantic to Ineos’ facilities in Grangemouth, Scotland and Rafnes, Norway.

What represents an “opportunity” for the plastics, oil, and gas industries means adverse health effects and climate catastrophe for all of us. To learn more about the toxic relationship between the plastics and fracking industry read our fact sheet, and spread the word: we can’t tackle plastic pollution without moving off fossil fuels. 

This is important for people to see.

Carbon Pricing: 5 Reasons It Won’t Work

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Jim Walsh

Over 100 questions were submitted during our recent webinar on carbon pricing, and there were many questions we could not answer in the time allotted. But many of those questions were very similar, so we came up with five responses to some of the most common concerns that were raised.

1. While 100% renewable electricity is a good goal, isn’t a carbon tax is a more comprehensive approach, since it would impact emissions from transportation and electricity generation?

Stopping climate change will require serious action on multiple fronts. That is why Food & Water Watch, along with hundreds of organizations across the country, are supporting the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, or OFF Act for short – a comprehensive plan to transition the United States to 100% renewable energy by 2035.

The OFF Act is not just focused on transitioning the energy sector off fossil fuels and mandating an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects; it will also transition our transportation infrastructure, including cars and rail, to 100% renewable energy by 2035. Furthermore, the bill would also establish the Center for Clean Energy Workforce Development and the Equitable Transition Fund to ensure a just and equitable transition for workers impacted by the move to clean energy.

Conversely, carbon taxes – while popular with economists – have proven to be ineffective at actually reducing emissions in the real world. And according to research prepared for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we will actually see an increase in electricity from fracked gas under a carbon tax plan they studied. That means more fracking, more pipelines, more compressor stations, and more power plants. The impacts of this kind of fossil fuel development disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. If we create a carbon policy that continues reliance on fossil fuels, we can expect those burdens to continue.

Some carbon tax proponents like to point out that big oil and gas companies now support a tax. But this should be serious cause for concern, not a sign of progress. These corporations know a tax will allow them to continue with business as usual, and pass any costs on to consumers.

2. Making consumers pay for corporate pollution doesn’t sound like a good idea. But wouldn’t a fee and dividend approach – which returns tax revenue to households – correct for that problem?

A fee and dividend carbon tax is still a carbon tax, and therefore it has the same problems of any carbon tax – a failure to reduce carbon emissions. In British Columbia, emissions actually went up after they enacted a carbon tax.

Nonetheless, some advocates support transferring revenue collected from the tax back to the public. This makes such a program revenue-neutral, which could theoretically appeal to conservatives or Republican lawmakers, while making the tax less regressive. This, however, would undermine the one area where a carbon tax could have some lasting impact: namely, generating revenue for the development of renewable energy.

Either way, we will not alleviate the problems inherent in dirty energy with a carbon tax, and may even make problems worse by creating a false sense of accomplishment and progress.

Putting faith in a market solution to deliver rapid changes in how our world is powered is dangerous. Markets are not, and have never been, moral structures, and they do not exist to protect our common resources or to promote equality. If we are to fight climate change, we must build a clean energy program that puts environmental justice and equality at the center, not embrace a tax as a silver bullet for dealing with inequality and a warming planet.

3. Can’t we enact a carbon pricing program while pursuing emission reductions at the same time?

In theory, one could enact a carbon tax while systematically reducing emissions. But at a certain point, these policies will come into conflict with each other. This is because a carbon tax must be recognized for what it is: A tool for turning carbon emissions into a source of government revenue. An aggressive emissions reduction plan that transitions off fossil fuels would become linked to a revenue stream from the very thing – carbon emissions – that we are seeking to eliminate.

Nobody would accept a tax on lead in people’s water as an acceptable way to slowly work towards a goal of eliminating the threat of lead poisoning from water pipes; the right solution would be to remove this threat as quickly as possible. In the same way, we should not accept that taxing carbon is an acceptable way to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution.

If our goal is to raise revenue to help fund investment in renewable energy, and to lessen the burden on low-income people during this transition, then let’s do so in a way that does not create systemic dependence on the very thing we are trying to eliminate. For starters, we can cut fossil fuel subsidies, close corporate tax loopholes and create more progressive income tax policies.

4. A recent carbon tax proposal in Washington state has been crafted to address critiques made by labor, environmental, and environmental justice communities. Does Food & Water Watch support this effort?

While it is encouraging that carbon tax supporters in the state have listened to criticism of their earlier proposal, it remains a fundamentally flawed approach to carbon regulation.

The current version of the tax relies on the same misguided premise that we see in the failed British Columbia carbon tax: The idea that some nominal increases in the prices of carbon-based fuels would drive consumers to reduce their consumption. The problem is that the vast majority of consumers do not have an option to stop heating their homes, or stop driving to work or school in the morning. In that case, emissions don’t fall, but prices still rise.

Instead of a fee-and-dividend model, the new Washington plan includes only a small carve out allotting resources to develop renewable energy projects in low-income communities.

The current proposal also allows utilities to collect the tax revenue paid by customers, and use that revenue to reduce carbon emissions. While this seems like a reasonable approach to encourage investment in clean energy technologies, the problem is that this investment will go towards emissions reductions, instead of eliminating them entirely. This envisions a world where emissions are never eliminated, since doing so would eliminate an income stream for the utilities (see question three above.)

And the current Washington tax proposal exempts any coal plant set to shut down by 2025 from the state’s carbon taxes. Subjecting gas plants to a tax, while exempting coal, could actually boost the use of coal.  

5. While direct emission reductions and a transition to 100% renewable energy are preferable policies, a carbon tax is more politically viable. Shouldn’t we try to pass carbon pricing while we can?

There is no reason to believe that this political analysis is correct; the failure of carbon tax state bills and a ballot initiative in Washington are instructive.

Beyond that, we should not support weak or ineffective policies just because someone believes they stand a better chance of passing. When Food & Water Watch was the first national organization to call for a ban on fracking, we were called politically naive and unrealistic. Like the call for 100% renewable electricity, the call for a ban on fracking was based on the world we need, not the way the political winds were blowing. Since then, as a movement, we’ve accomplished so much: we have been able to pass fracking bans in Vermont, New York, and Maryland, have introduced legislation in Congress to ban fracking in the United States, and even had a major party presidential candidate support a fracking ban.

The movement for 100% renewable energy is similarly gaining momentum. Over 30 members of Congress have supported the OFF Act, and over 100 people running for Congress have committed to sponsoring the legislation if elected in November. State legislatures in at least six states (Maryland, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) have bills to transition to 100% renewable electricity, and dozens of municipalities have made 100% renewable commitments.

And there’s strong evidence that the public wants to see bold action. Polling from Gallup shows much stronger support for renewable energy and strict emission controls than for a carbon tax among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Ready to support bold climate action? We know we are.

Tell the Biden Administration that our future MUST be fracking-free. Our existence depends on it.

The True Price of a $4.99 Rotisserie Chicken

Categories

Food System

Forbes recently named Costco to its list of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies most loved by liberals. Maybe that’s because Costco CEO Craig Jelinek has championed important causes like a livable wage and company sponsored health benefits. The company’s starting pay is above the federal minimum wage—$13.00 per hour, and the average employee wage is $21 per hour. Nearly 88 percent of employees have company sponsored health benefits. At the height of the recession Costco actually gave raises to help struggling employees.

And yet, despite this commitment to social responsibility, Costco is about to venture into vertical integration and contract farming—a system that is the antithesis of fair. Why? Because Costco sells a lot of rotisserie chickens. So many, in fact, that they’re planning to build their very own chicken slaughterhouse in Fremont, Nebraska where they will slaughter 85 million chickens annually—or about 1.7 million per week. Where will the chickens come from?

Factory farms. And they’re planning to sign up farmers under a contract growing system.

What’s wrong with this? Well, where do we begin…

As Nebraska Communities United points out, this is not your grandparent’s farm. In a system of vertical integration (how the vast majority of chicken is produced in the U.S.) the “integrator” (usually a company like Tyson or Perdue) delivers the chicks and feed and dictates farm operations through a contract. They often require the growers to build and continually upgrade expensive barns to keep obtaining contracts. Farmers generally take out loans lasting more than a decade to pay for this expensive infrastructure, but the contracts are often flock-to-flock, meaning a grower only has guarantee of income for six or seven weeks at a time. The poultry sector is less like a free market than abject serfdom. Contracts are often unfair or abusive and farmers often have no legal recourse against integrators as John Oliver helped expose in this scathing piece on the poultry industry.

Factory farms like the 100 farms Costco plans to have raise its birds also produce a lot of waste which is spread on farmland at levels far exceeding what is needed to fertilize crops. The contract farms are likely to be constructed upstream from the cities of Lincoln and Omaha—and their drinking water supplies. But evidence of the problems factory farms pose isn’t hard to find. Next door in Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works is in a years-long struggle to treat its water for nitrites discharged from the thousands of factory hog farms in counties upstream. And the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma sued upstream chicken producers in Arkansas for polluting its water, resulting in a legal battle that lasted for years.

Since lots of factory farms are exempt from permitting that would protect communities from waste, pollution often runs unchecked into nearby waterways—where it becomes a costly source of contamination in our drinking water supplies. Cheaper rotisserie chicken just simply isn’t worth the cost of healthy drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

We’ve seen this again and again: Corporations, even ones that try to do well by consumers, workers and the environment, fall down when it comes to sourcing their products. But if Costco wants to live up to its progressive bona fides, factory farming isn’t the way to do it.

Ultimately, we need to call on our elected officials to do their jobs: protecting the public’s health. The Lincoln City Council and the mayor need to take action to stop this slaughterhouse, and the City of Omaha should take a hard look at these issues as well—sooner rather than later.

Monsanto Manipulates Science to Make Roundup Appear Safe

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Food System

Although Monsanto has long claimed that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, is safe and does not cause cancer, unsealed court documents tell a potentially different story. Emails and memos from Monsanto reveal a coordinated strategy to manipulate the debate about the safety of glyphosate—to the company’s advantage.

Urge the EPA and FDA to ban Roundup and Dicamba!

Monsanto strategy #1: Start with a conclusion and then twist the science to defend it

Monsanto’s approach has never been to objectively assess the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate. Rather, the company relentlessly defends its conclusion that glyphosate is safe by funding studies and assessments to support this claim.

Internal Monsanto emails from 2012 discuss the difficulty of synthesizing the data on genotoxicity—the ability to damage cell DNA and lead to mutations, including cancer. One employee wrote:

After they got all the studies amassed into a draft manuscript, it unfortunately turned into such a large mess of studies reporting genotoxic effects, that the story as written stretched the limits of credibility among less sophisticated audiences….But even though we feel confident that glyphosate is not genotoxic, this becomes a very difficult story to tell given all the complicated ‘noise’ out there.

In other words, the available data showed some evidence of glyphosate’s genotoxicity. The company responded by hiring scientist David Kirkland and former Monsanto employee Larry Kier to author a paper debunking these findings. The paper concluded that glyphosate is not genotoxic to human cells, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even used it extensively in its 2016 assessment that glyphosate was not linked to cancer.

Monsanto used this approach again in 2015, after the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” An internal PowerPoint outlines Monsanto’s strategy for countering this damning classification. One suggestion was to publish a paper analyzing the animal data that the WHO used in its cancer assessment, noting that the “majority of writing can be done by Monsanto, keeping OS$ [costs] down.” It suggested recruiting external scientists like Helmut Greim, who coauthored a Monsanto-funded analysis the following year that (unsurprisingly) concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic to laboratory animals.

This is not how science is supposed to work; you don’t begin with a conclusion and twist the science to defend it. But the EPA’s system for assessing the public health risk posed by pesticides like Roundup relies heavily on industry-funded science, which makes the process vulnerable to this kind of predetermined conclusion driven approach.

Monsanto strategy #2: Ghostwrite papers and pay “independent” scientists to sign them

Kirkland received about $2,200 a day to work on the paper and Monsanto cultivated him as one of its go-to scientists for defending the safety of its products. Kier is also mentioned in several emails, including a 1999 email where a colleague writes, “The only person I think that can dig us out of this ‘genotox hole’ is the Good Dr. Kier.” Monsanto knows which scientists to pay to come up with the results it’s looking for—and sometimes Monsanto staff ghostwrite these papers themselves.

In a 2015 email, Monsanto staff suggested publishing additional papers on genotoxicity: “An option would be to add Greim and Kier or Kirkland to have their names on the publication, but we would be keeping the costs down by us doing the writing and they would just edit and sign their names so to speak.” The employee mentions that the same approach was taken in a 2000 study. Greim, Kier and Kirkland—along with a handful of other scientists named in internal emails and memos—all served on the 2016 “expert” panel that Monsanto commissioned to counter the WHO’s classification of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic. Monsanto claims that a consulting group assembled the “independent” panel, but these emails show that Monsanto handpicked the scientists.

Monsanto strategy #3: Avoid scientists who don’t toe the line

Not all scientists who consult for Monsanto produce favorable results. As one Monsanto employee bemoaned: “Data generated by academics has always been a major concern for us in the defense of our products.” Monsanto faced this challenge in 1999 after enlisting James Parry, an expert in genotoxicity, to conduct an assessment on the available literature.

Parry found some evidence of glyphosate’s genotoxicity and gave suggestions for additional tests that could cover gaps in knowledge. This is not the answer that Monsanto was looking for. One Monsanto employee vented in an email, “Has he ever worked with industry before?”

Monsanto employees discussed whether or not to continue the relationship with Parry. One wrote:

Let’s step back and look at what we are really trying to achieve here. We want to find/develop someone who is comfortable with the genetox profile of glyphosate/Roundup and who can be influential with regulators and Scientific Outreach operations when genotox. issues arise. My read is that Parry is not currently such a person, and it would take quite some time and $$$/studies to get him there. We simply aren’t going to do the studies Parry suggests. Mark, do you think Parry can become a strong advocate without doing this work Parry [sic]? If not, we should seriously [emphasis in the original] start looking for one or more other individuals to work with….[We] are currently very vulnerable in this area.

Parry’s assessment threatened to undermine Monsanto’s narrative that glyphosate is not genotoxic. But as inconvenient as Parry’s assessment was, just ignoring it could get them into trouble. “I am concerned about leaving Perry [sic] out there with this as the final project/his final impressions,” responds one employee. Another later laments: “Mark [a Monsanto employee] was not managing that well and that almost landed us with Parry calling glyphosate ‘genotoxic.’”

Monsanto’s science influences the EPA’s cancer assessment of glyphosate

The unsealed documents underscore why relying on industry-funded data to assess the safety of pesticides puts public health at risk. Unfortunately, EPA’s 2016 cancer assessment for glyphosate overwhelming relied on unpublished industry studies. It also gave significant weight to the 2013 Kier and Kirkland study. This is resulted in an EPA assessment that proposed the lowest possible cancer rating for glyphosate: “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

Notably, the agency’s Scientific Advisory Panel review of the EPA assessment shows disagreement over this conclusion. Some panel members support a classification of “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential.” And overall the panel agreed that EPA did not follow its own guidelines for undertaking cancer assessments.

Given the Scientific Advisory Panel’s evaluations—and the new evidence of Monsanto’s manipulation of science and collaboration with the EPA official overseeing the assessment—the EPA must reject its finding that glyphosate does not cause cancer. The agency must suspend glyphosate use until it completes an unbiased assessment using independent, publicly-available studies.

Urge the EPA and FDA to ban Roundup and Dicamba!

Dozens of Advocacy Groups Challenge EPA on Factory Farm Pollution

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Food System

Washington, D.C. – While the Trump administration orders the EPA do less to protect Americans from dirty air and water, and Congress threatens to dismantle the agency altogether, Food & Water Watch and 34 advocacy organizations are demanding that the agency do more to protect communities from factory farms. Today, the groups filed a legal petition with Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing its duty under the law to hold concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs or factory farms) accountable for their water pollution, which threatens public health and the environment.  The petition asks EPA to overhaul its regulations for how CAFOs are regulated under the federal Clean Water Act and its permitting program, noting that current rules fail to prevent pollution and protect communities.

“This petition paves the way for EPA to finally regulate CAFOs as required under the Clean Water Act, and explains that allowing CAFO pollution to continue unabated by maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo would violate federal law,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director at Food & Water Watch. “Pruitt’s record as Oklahoma attorney general shows that he’s only looking out for industry interests—including the interests of polluting factory farms. But the EPA is legally bound to protect communities from pollution, and we intend to hold the agency accountable for doing its job.”

Clean water advocates have experienced Pruitt’s weak record on CAFO pollution in Oklahoma. “I have seen beautiful rivers turn green as a result of runoff from CAFOs,” said Earl Hatley, Oklahoma’s Grand Riverkeeper. “We clearly need stronger protections, because poultry waste is polluting Oklahoma’s rivers, streams and lakes.”

CAFOs are large scale, industrial factory farms. Most livestock in the U.S. are raised in CAFOs, which can confine thousands, or even millions, of animals and their waste. The vast quantities of manure generated from CAFOs are typically disposed of, untreated, on cropland, where it can seep or run off to pollute waterways and drinking water sources.

“We are simply asking EPA to close loopholes and clarify existing Clean Water Act requirements, so that the agency can properly do its job and keep big animal feeding operations from polluting our nation’s waters,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former head of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “The Clean Water Act requirements set out by Congress are simple, but the application to factory farms has been a needlessly complex saga. The changes we seek will give us clear rules and cleaner water.”

For more than 40 years, the Clean Water Act has defined CAFOs as “point sources” of pollution, meaning that discharging CAFOs must have Clean Water Act permits. These permits are supposed to require strict pollution controls, as well as monitoring and reporting of pollution discharges. But because EPA has issued weak regulations, only a fraction of CAFOs have permits, and the permits that do exist are ineffective. EPA’s failed approach has led to widespread, unchecked factory farm pollution in waterways and communities across the U.S. The EPA has a duty to hold this industry accountable and protect rural communities’ public health, but does not even know how many CAFOs exist or how many are polluting illegally. 

“From acrid odors to polluted waterways, factory farms in North Carolina are directly harming some of our state’s most vulnerable populations, particularly low-income communities and communities of color,” said Naeema Muhammad, Co-Director and Community Organizer at the NC Environmental Justice Network. “That’s why we’re standing with other organizations from around the U.S. who care about social justice to demand that Scott Pruitt’s EPA take action to ensure that regulations for factory farms protect the interests of all communities, not Big Ag.”

“Even in Wisconsin, where all CAFOs are required to have Clean Water Act permits, water contamination from mega-dairies is a widespread and growing threat to public health. Permits based on EPA’s weak regulations are clearly inadequate to protect rural communities and waterways,” added Lynn Utesch, Co-Founder of Kewaunee CARES. 

The petition asks EPA to remove loopholes that have enabled CAFOs to avoid permitting—especially the agency’s overbroad interpretation of the “agricultural stormwater” exemption from regulation, which has swallowed the rule that CAFOs are point sources that require permits to discharge pollution. It also asks the EPA to require large corporate integrators that control CAFO practices to obtain permits, instead of just their contract producers, who currently bear the burden of following permits and managing waste. The petition further asks EPA to strengthen permits in several ways, including: requiring pollution monitoring and reporting, as is required of virtually all other industries; restricting waste disposal in order to better protect water quality; and regulating CAFO discharges of a wider range of pollutants than permits currently address, including the heavy metals and pharmaceuticals found in industrial livestock waste.

“Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) supports the legal petition to the United States Environmental Protection Agency drafted by Food & Water Watch,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works. “Iowa is home to 21 million hogs; in fact, more than 1,800 animal feeding operations are located in the two watersheds from which DMWW draws its source water. Lenient laws and regulations have made Iowa a haven for corporate polluters. We join Food & Water Watch in calling upon the EPA to hold these polluters accountable by increased oversight and stronger permitting standards.”

The petitioners include: Food & Water Watch, Arkansas Rights Koalition, Assateague Coastal Trust (Maryland), Association of Irritated Residents (California), Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (Arkansas), Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs (Maryland), Dakota Rural Action (South Dakota), Dallas County Farmers and Neighbors (Iowa), Des Moines Water Works (Iowa), Dodge County Concerned Citizens (Minnesota), Don’t Waste Arizona, the Environmental Integrity Project, Grand Riverkeeper (Oklahoma), Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards (Illinois), Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Interfaith Worker Justice (New Mexico), Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors (Iowa), Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Kewaunee Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship (Wisconsin), Land Stewardship Project (Minnesota), Midwest Environmental Advocates (Wisconsin), Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Moms Across America Eastern Shore Chapter (Maryland), Montgomery Township Friends of Family Farms (Pennsylvania), North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Ozark River Stewards (Arkansas), Patuxent Riverkeeper (Maryland), Poweshiek Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship (Iowa), Preserve Our Shore Accomack County (Virginia), and Rio Valle Concerned Citizens (New Mexico).

Industry Trumps Science in EPA Assessment of Glyphosate

Categories

Food System

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released its assessment of glyphosate — and what it shows is some heavy-handed industry influence. The study ultimately concluded that glyphosate — the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — was not a probable carcinogen. But a closer look at the EPA’s sources reveals stronger ties to industry than to science.

The EPA assessment incorporated over 100 studies, but only 40% of these came from the open, peer-reviewed literature. Nearly 60% were unpublished and submitted by the industry. This heavy industry slant overwhelmed the independent published findings.

Additionally, the EPA used a “weight of evidence” approach, ranking each study and weighing it against the others. But in a data set so weighed down by industry studies, important independent findings were eclipsed. For instance, data from the genotoxicity studies from the open literature were 33 times more likely to find evidence of glyphosate’s toxicity than those from industry – but the EPA ultimately concluded there was “no convincing evidence” of glyphosate’s genotoxicity.

In contrast, the World Health Organization used only open literature or government studies to determine that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This reliance on published studies helps avoid an industry-driven conclusion.

We can’t let corporate giants determine the conclusion that serves their bottom line. The EPA needs to perform a meaningful, industry-free review of glyphosate.

Want to understand this issue even better? Here’s another short writeup.

Who’s Banking on the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Categories

Climate and Energy

When the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the 1,100-mile Dakota Access Pipeline in July, executives at the corporations behind the plan probably thought their path forward was clear. They’d moved easily through the permit process, seemingly dodging the concerns of people affected by the pipeline, and were ready to go ahead with construction.

But the communities in the pipeline’s path, especially local tribes, had other ideas. Thousands of people, mostly Native Americans, have converged at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota in an effort to stop the pipeline from being built. The Standing Rock Sioux call the pipeline a black snake, and they know that if it were to rupture and spill — a serious risk, given the well-documented history of pipeline leaks in the U.S. — it could poison their drinking water and pollute their sacred land.

As we will detail, the Standing Rock Sioux are not just up against the oil and gas industry and the federal government, as daunting a challenge that alone would be. They are up against many of the most powerful financial and corporate interests on Wall Street, the profit-driven institutions that are bankrolling this pipeline plan and so many others like it throughout the country.

The pipeline company disrupted the peaceful demonstration this weekend when its security firm unleashed violence on the activists, attacking them with dogs and pepper spray. The tribes are standing strong in their unity, and won’t give up despite these frightening and horrifying developments.

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Corporate Interests Bankrolling the Pipeline

Powerful oil and gas companies are taking appalling steps to override the Sioux’s objections, using their immense financial resources to push for building this pipeline, which will further line their pockets. But behind the companies building the pipeline is a set of even more powerful Wall Street corporations that might give you flashbacks to the 2007 financial crisis.

Here are the financial institutions banking on the Dakota Access pipeline:

Seventeen financial institutions have loaned Dakota Access LLC $2.5 billion to construct the pipeline. Banks have also committed substantial resources to the Energy Transfer Family of companies so it can build out more oil and gas infrastructure:

All told, that’s $10.25 billion in loans and credit facilities from 35 banks directly supporting the companies building the pipeline. Beyond the Energy Transfer family of companies, many of the same banks have likewise given big credit lines to the other stakeholders in the pipeline–Phillips 66, Marathon and Enbridge.

These banks expect to be paid back over the coming decades. By locking in widespread drilling and fracking in the false name of U.S. energy independence and security, the banks are increasing our disastrous dependence on fossil fuels.

How Standing Rock Sioux are Fighting Back

The focal point of the resistance is at a camp outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Thousands of people, most of them Native Americans, have gathered in nonviolent demonstration to stop the pipeline’s construction and protect their land and water. In August, youth from the tribe finished a 2,000-mile relay run to Washington, D.C., to bring their message to the White House in their own show of opposition. The tribe is doing everything in their power to stop this pipeline.

Even before Dakota Access’s security turned violent, the activists faced harsh responses as Governor Dalrymple has declared a state of emergency, removing water and sanitation resources from the reservation, and the police have set up roadblocks around the reservation. Dozens of protesters have already been arrested, and police have spread false rumors of violence from the peaceful protectors.

But it’s the company, not the activists, that’s guilty of violence. This weekend, security sprayed activists with mace and released guard dogs into the crowd – even a pregnant woman was bitten by a dog. Democracy Now! captured disturbing footage of the attack.

In the aftermath of such violence, we can’t lose sight of how remarkable this gathering is: in a historic show of unity, over 300 North American tribes have united in solidarity with the Oceti Sakowin, or Sioux Nation effort to stop the pipeline.

Philip J. Deloria, a professor of American Culture and History at the University of Michigan, sees the fight as historic:

“The whole thing is kind of amazing, really. It’s a conjuncture of local organizing, social media activism, tribal-generated intertribal solidarity, semi-traditional ‘march on Washington’ strategies, and alliances with environmental and other political action groups… I think a lot of Indian people are seeing it as a moment of new possibility.”

Energy Transfer Partners is pushing ahead with their construction — and in North Dakota’s dirty-energy-oriented economy, these corporations have the backing of the political establishment. In contrast, the activists stand against them with only their bodies, protecting their sacred and sovereign land and water by physically standing in the way of the construction.

We all owe these activists our support. Communities all along the pipeline route have been carrying out their own protests, and Food & Water Watch has been working with the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition to block the proposal since it was first announced in 2014. Now, as the pipeline is being built, we’re asking everyone to call on your senators to intervene.

The Problems with Pipelines

Oil pipelines are inherently dangerous, and threaten our communities and environment with spills and explosions. They boost corporate profits and increase our dependence on fossil fuels, while bringing only risks and harms to those who live along the pipelines’ paths.

The Dakota Access pipeline would pump about a half-million barrels of oil each day along 1,100 miles through the Dakotas and Iowa to Southern Illinois. There, the oil would be sent to the East Coast refineries and other markets by train, or down another 750 miles to the Gulf Coast through a second pipeline that Energy Transfer Partners is converting to carry oil. Combined, the two pipelines — together called the Bakken Crude Pipeline and acknowledged here in a presentation ETP made to its stockholders in August — follow a similar path to the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama rejected:

Overall, the Bakken Crude Pipeline will cost about $4.8 billion, and Energy Transfer Partners is touting it as a key element of its future plans to “capitalize on U.S. energy exports.” In building this infrastructure, Energy Transfer and its financial backers are banking on increased fracking in the United States in the coming decades. Over that time, communities will be left to deal with the spills, explosions, water pollution, air pollution, and climate impacts that ensue.

Help Stop the Bakken Pipeline

Pipelines are not the answer to our energy needs. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and we need an urgent shift to 100% renewable energy. The Dakota Access Bakken Pipeline is a direct threat to our air, water, and clean energy future. This is why we need our elected officials to support the Standing Rock Sioux and other activists, and use his authority to revoke the federal permits and deny the Bakken pipeline. Urge your senators to deny the Bakken pipeline.

Join our call & text volunteer team to reach out to people on issues like this.

How To Avoid GMOs In Your Food

Categories

Food System

So you’ve done your homework, and you’ve decided to keep genetically engineered (GMO) foods out of your diet. Maybe you’re concerned about your health, since (contrary to what the companies that create them claim) there is no scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs, and GMO crops are often sprayed with harsh chemicals like RoundUp. Maybe you prefer not to support biotech corporations like Monsanto, or you’re concerned about the impacts of GMO crops on farmers and the environment, or the chemicals they’re bred to withstand.

Whatever your reasons, it should be easy to avoid buying foods with GMO ingredients. You should have the right to decide what you and your family eat. Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated, which is why we’re working to get clear, mandatory, on-package labels on GMOs.

Help us fight for transparency. Support work like this today!

Where GMO Ingredients Are Hiding in Your Food

A host of GMO crops have been approved for sale in the United States, from apples and potatoes to GMO salmon, which the FDA approved in late 2015 after long opposition from the public. New ones are released every year, and most GMOs on the shelves are unlabeled. Some may have a line on the label, like “partially produced with genetic engineering,” but that isn’t required.

However, you’re most likely to find GMOs hiding in the ingredient lists on processed food. In 2014, 93% of corn and 94% of soybean acres in the U.S. were GMO, and these crops sneak into your food in places you might not expect, from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar (made from sugar beets) to chemicals made from soybeans are used as additives in processed foods. Additives including corn starch, corn meal, corn syrup, glucose, dextrose, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soy oil, soy flour, soy lecithin and “protein extracts” — present in many processed foods — are likely derived from GMO crops. Livestock feed is also often made from GMO crops.

Is It Non-GMO? Decoding Labels on Your Food

There are many labels in the supermarket that you might, quite reasonably, think mean a product contains no GMO ingredients – but such labels are often misleading. Here are some common ones and what they really mean:

Natural
You might not consider GMOs to be “natural,” but this term is barely regulated. A product labeled “natural” could well contain GMOs.

Non-GMO or GMO-Free
Some companies have responded to pressure from their customers by voluntarily labeling products that don’t contain GMOs. Voluntary is the key word here: when some companies put this phrase on their labels, it means whatever the company chooses. There is also a third-party verified label, the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, which requires companies to comply with a certification program in order to use this label on their products.

Organic: Your Best Bet to Avoid GMOs in Food
The organic label is a federal standard for how food is produced that requires a product to contain no GMO ingredients. This includes not only organic crops but meat as well: animals must eat only organically grown feed for their meat to be organic. Organic foods come with other benefits, too – for instance, they can’t be grown with synthetic chemicals or treated with irradiation.

The Solution: Label GMO Foods

Polls show that 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling of GMO foods, yet no existing label gives people all the information they need to tell which foods contain GMO ingredients and decide for themselves whether to eat them. Nor can we rely on companies to voluntarily disclose their GMO ingredients – the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, which represents the biggest food companies, has spent millions of dollars lobbying against GMO labeling. Companies are currently allowed to voluntarily disclose if they are using GMO ingredients – and few, if any, do.

Over sixty countries already require GMO labeling, and it’s time for the United States to do the same.

Help us fight for transparency. Support work like this today!

Privatized Water Costs More Than Public Water

Categories

Clean Water

We’ve known for years that when communities sell their water systems to private companies, water bills tend to go up. But by how much?

Food & Water Watch did a survey of 500 municipal water systems – the largest survey of its kind – and found that public utilities charge an average of $315.56 per year for a typical household. Private water utilities averaged $500.96 – an increase of 59%.

That’s an extra $185 each year for the same amount of water.

In some areas, private water companies’ track record is even worse:

  • In Illinois, private water cost $286 more.
  • In New Jersey, private water cost $230 more.
  • In New York, private water cost $260 more.
  • In Pennsylvania, private water cost a whopping $323 more.

What do residents get for their extra money? Generally nothing good. As we’ve worked with communities affected by privatized water systems, we see the same trends everywhere: service gets worse, maintenance costs increase, and jobs vanish. Private water companies are motivated by their own profits, not by the public good, and they make decisions about their services accordingly. And unlike publicly operated systems, these companies aren’t accountable to residents, leaving people with little recourse to fix the situation.

Keeping our water in public hands usually means water service that’s more equitable, more affordable, and more reliable. Get the facts about public water, and take action to help fund critical repairs to our nation’s water infrastructure.

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