food | Food & Water Watch
Victory! Farm Bureau case challenging EPA’s right to share factory farm data dismissed. more wins »
X

Welcome!

You're reading Smorgasbord from Food & Water Watch.

If you'd like to send us a note about a blog entry or anything else, please use this contact form. To get involved, sign up to volunteer or follow the take action link above.

Blog Categories

Blog archives

Stay Informed

Sign up for email to learn how you can protect food and water in your community.

   Please leave this field empty

Blog Posts: Food

August 28th, 2015

Ethics-Related Retraction Tarnishes the Sheen of Golden Rice

By Genna Reed Genetically_Engineered_Golden_Rice

The controversial genetically engineered ‘golden rice’ fortified with Vitamin A was in the news again after the most recent feeding trial led by professor Guangwen Tang was retracted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The reason? The Tufts University author could not provide full evidence of consent from the parents of the
study participants—68 Chinese children between the ages of six and eight.

The authors of the study failed to provide documentation that all parents signed the consent form. Furthermore, it was previously discovered that representatives from the Chinese government overseeing the trial had not obtained the proper permissions to move forward with the study. Out of all this controversy, the Chinese government fired two employees and Tufts University barred Tang from conducting clinical research for two years.

This is not the first time that GMO feeding trials have been caught up in controversy. Earlier this year, we noted that Iowa State University failed to adequately inform student subjects about the potential risks associated with a feeding trial of a similar GMO crop, genetically engineered Vitamin A-enriched bananas. In the face of public controversy over this feeding study, an ISU ethical review board worked with the lead researcher to edit the “informed consent document” given to students involved in the study, but what resulted was a list of one-sided, pro-GMO talking points, not an impartial description of potential risks. The banana feeding study has been postponed for now, but the ISU community is still calling on the university to answer a list of unanswered questions regarding the claims made about the technology before moving forward with the trial.

But the larger issue here is that these vitamin-A enriched foods are not the appropriate answer to vitamin deficiency in Asia and Africa. There are still questions regarding the ability of golden rice to yield as much as non-enriched rice and whether the target population for the banana—Ugandans—will even be interested in growing and eating it. Additionally, there remains great doubt that incorporating these crops can actually deliver sufficient Vitamin A to consumers. There are many far simpler and far less controversial methods of delivering Vitamin A to undernourished populations than GMOs, like the use of vitamins or a more diverse diet.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has helped fund golden rice and the banana, seems to have its own ideas about what is best for nutrient-deficient individuals. The failure to bring golden rice to market after over ten years of field trials demonstrates that those millions of dollars could have been better spent developing conventionally bred fortified crops and helping Africans grow more yellow and orange fruits and vegetables and leafy greens to combat Vitamin A deficiency.   

In the midst of so much controversy, and so many unanswered scientific questions about GMOs in our food system, we need mandatory labels on GMO foods, so that consumers can make their own decisions at the grocery store based on facts about how the food that they buy is produced. But because sharing this kind of information with consumers scares big food companies, Congress is now considering taking away the rights of states to pass mandatory GMO labeling bills with the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act (DARK Act).

Protect your right to know by telling your Senators not to support the DARK Act.

August 19th, 2015

A Franken-Sized Salmon?

By Tim Schwabgeneticallyengineeredsalmon

For those of you who have read the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” you remember that the name refers to the scientist Victor Frankenstein, not the monster he constructed from body parts found in the local cemetery. The story has captured the public’s imagination for nearly 200 years, and “franken” has become a common prefix—and a pejorative—for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are made with cut-and-pasted genetic material from different species of plants, animals and microorganisms.

GMO salmon—or franken-fish, as it is sometimes called—is an Atlantic salmon whose DNA has been re-engineered with a “growth-hormone gene construct” made from genetic material of other fish. One of these fish, the ocean pout, is only as closely related to Atlantic salmon, taxonomically speaking, as a human is related to a porcupine or a platypus. This recombination of genetic material would never happen in nature. Read the full article…

August 3rd, 2015

You’ve Got Questions About GMO Labeling; We’ve Got Answers

By Sarah Alexander

BlogThumb_GMOkidsWe get a lot of questions about why we need labeling for GMOs, even from staff of members of Congress. Our answers are below. We hope you’ll contact your Senators today, and give them the information below, so they can vote the right way and protect your right to know what’s in your food.

1: What is a genetically engineered food or GMO?

A genetically engineered food is a plant or animal that has been changed by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another species or altering the DNA in a way that could never happen through traditional cross-breeding or in nature.

2: Aren’t genetically engineered foods safe?

The approval process for new GMO crops in the U.S. is extremely weak and relies solely on the safety tests done by the corporations that are creating these crops. Right now, most crops are approved by federal regulators under the “generally recognized as safe” provision, which means that if a GMO corn variety looks and “acts” like the non-GMO version of corn, it is approved.

Currently, biotechnology seed companies and their advocates are oversimplifying the hundreds of factors involved in the GMO production process to broadcast the myth of a “scientific consensus” that GMO foods are safe. To the contrary, most scientific bodies weighing in on the subject openly acknowledge unaddressed safety considerations and gaps in knowledge.

3: But don’t farmers need genetically engineered foods to feed the growing world population?

Most of the GMO crops planted today are engineered to withstand strong chemical applications, or to produce their own pesticides. Often, the chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont that create GMO crops also create the chemicals that have to be used with the crops, so the main benefit of these patented crops is for the companies and their profits. Additionally, most of these GMO crops — like corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — are not grown as food for direct human consumption, but rather for animal feed, or to create ingredients in processed foods.

4: If over 90 percent of Americans support the labeling of GMOs, why hasn’t Congress or the Food and Drug Administration done anything?

 What we eat and feed our families has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, and we have a right to know if the food we’re eating has been altered in a way that could never happen in nature. Unfortunately, the big food industries spend millions lobbying Congress and federal agencies to keep labels off of GMO foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the biggest food and chemical companies, has spent over $50 million to defeat labeling initiatives in multiple states.

5: Won’t labeling GMO ingredients cost companies a lot of money and raise the price of our food?

 This is one of the biggest industry myths. Consumers Union did a study last year that shows the requirement of labeling genetically engineered food ingredients will cost consumers less than a penny per day or $2.30/person annually.

6: Why should I take action and ask my Senators to oppose this legislation?

Genetically engineered crops are in most processed foods but are unlabeled, so many people who wish to avoid foods with GMO ingredients don’t know where they are lurking. GMOs are untested, and it’s unknown how these engineered foods may be impacting our health and the environment. At the very least, shouldn’t we have a choice to avoid them if we want to? The legislation that Congress is considering will prohibit any states from labeling GMOs and will make federal labeling voluntary, which is what we have already, and not a single product is labeled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Ask your Senators to support labeling of genetically engineered foods and to oppose any attempt to take away states’ rights to require labels.

July 30th, 2015

Foodborne Illness is Not Funny

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

I was stunned to read an account of a recent panel discussion on the state of food safety regulation that took place at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) in Portland, Oregon. There, a top food safety official from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made light of his agency’s inability to prevent food-borne illnesses caused by salmonella. It speaks to the insensitivity of some officials to the sorry state of food safety in this country, and it calls into question the competence of these officials to hold such positions of responsibility in the Obama administration.

The news account to which I am referring was posted on the website of Food Safety News entitled, “IAFP 2015: Taylor and Almanza Share the Same State in Portland.” I did not attend the IAFP conference, so I have to rely on this news account of what transpired at the panel discussion. The panel was composed of the Obama administration’s two top food safety officials—Alfred Almanza, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety and Acting Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) (he holds more titles than a Russian general has medals) and Michael Taylor, the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Mr. Taylor was also the FSIS Administrator during the first term of the Clinton administration.

During a question and answer period with the audience, Mr. Almanza was asked that if USDA does not consider salmonella to be an adulterant in poultry (courts have ruled that because poultry is consumed fully cooked, it is the consumer’s responsibility to ensure it is safely handled), should salmonella be declared an adulterant in beef products since some consumers prefer to eat their beef rare. When a pathogen or other anomaly is considered to be an adulterant, food that contains it is not permitted to enter the food supply and if it does, it is subject to an immediate recall.

As he was trying to respond to the question, Mr. Almanza first fumbled and then tried to blame Mr. Taylor for not dealing with the issue when he was FSIS administrator during the Clinton administration. According to the Food Safety News story, the audience laughed at his so-called response.

Had I been in the audience, I would not have laughed, but I would have promptly gotten up and scolded Mr. Almanza. This is not funny, and neither Mr. Almanza, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, is even trying to correct this glaring loophole in USDA food safety regulations. Ask the 634 consumers who got sick from consuming salmonella-tainted poultry products processed by Foster Farms in 2013 and 2014 if salmonella is funny. It took Foster Farms 16 months from the time the outbreak began to recall voluntarily some of these contaminated products. Ask the 22 consumers who were made ill in 2013, or the 46 in 2012 who got sick from eating salmonella-contaminated ground beef if salmonella is funny.

The Obama administration needs to go to Congress and seek legislation to give USDA the authority to declare salmonella or any other pathogen that can cause food-borne illness an adulterant in order to prevent contaminated meat and poultry products from entering the food supply. It has chosen not to do that even when top administration officials, such as the Secretary of Agriculture, have been pressed to in Congressional hearings.

Now, there is pending legislation in Congress that would give USDA that authority, but the administration has not endorsed it.  However, it is moving ahead with plans to deregulate poultry inspection by turning over more of those responsibilities to the companies to police themselves.

This is not a laughing matter; it makes me very angry. So angry in fact, that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2013 for the all FSIS records into its investigation of the 2013-2014 Foster Farms outbreak. I am still waiting for a complete response to my request. That’s not funny either.

July 10th, 2015

Big Voices Rally To Support Beleaguered Chicken Farmers

By Patrick Woodall

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the budget for fiscal year 2016 for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and finally, there was some progress in the long plight to seek justice for poultry farmers.

For those of you who remember John Oliver’s recent piece on how unfairly chicken farmers are treated by big chicken processing companies, this is the House committee he highlighted by flashing members’ pictures on the screen (famously hurling the epithet we won’t repeat here). So the good news is that finally, the bill passed by the House committee did not include a provision found in previous years that had blocked the USDA from implementing important measures to protect farmers from unfair and abusive practices by meatpackers and poultry processors. These rules had been stalled since 2011 by a long-standing amendment pushed by the meatpackers and poultry companies.

Although Food & Water Watch and our allied farm organizations successfully pushed to get these measures included in the 2008 Farm Bill, the meatpacker and poultry processing lobby had kept the rules from ever going into effect, often through the limitations they put in previous years’ appropriations bills.

While Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) have been championing this issue for years, the dam began to break starting with John Oliver. And this week, Rep. Kaptur and Farm Aid president Willie Nelson penned a strong op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting the plight of America’s chicken farmers and urging the Appropriations Committee to let USDA get moving to protect chicken farmers.

And contract fairness for farmers wasn’t the only topic the committee dealt with on Wednesday. A few other highlights (and lowlights):

  • The bill contains a provision that would prohibit USDA from purchasing any poultry products from the People’s Republic of China for use in the nutrition programs the department administers, including the National School Lunch Program.
  • The bill contains a provision that prohibits USDA from implementing rules that permit fresh beef imports from Brazil and Argentina until a risk assessment on the presence of foot and mouth disease in those two countries is completed and a report is filed with Congress on the status of their respective meat inspection systems.
  • The bill prohibits the elimination of the USDA catfish inspection program that was established by the 2014 Farm Bill in any trade negotiations with foreign governments.
  • The bill directs FDA to report semi-annually on the status of its investigation of pet illnesses and deaths caused by pet food imported from the People’s Republic of China.
  • The final bill includes cuts in the budget for the Food Safety Inspection Service to reduce inspection workforce to implement a new privatized poultry inspection system that lets chicken companies perform inspection tasks now performed by USDA employees.
  • The bill only provides approximately 40 percent of the requested funds to implement FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act.

But this process isn’t finished. The House Committee dropped the bad pieces of the bill that would block farmer contract protections from being finalized, but they could still show up later on the House floor, in the Senate or somewhere along the long road to the president’s desk. The same holds true for the prohibition against Chinese chicken in school lunches, the reaffirmation of USDA’s catfish inspection, reporting on pet illnesses from Chinese pet treats and the prohibition against beef imports from Argentina and Brazil. And this year could see Congressional gridlock devolve into near government shutdown, as in years past, which means all the good work done this week could get swept away by last minute Congressional deal cutting.

Stay tuned and we’ll tell you when it’s time to weigh in with your members of Congress as the bill moves through the process.

July 8th, 2015

Will The White House Fix The GMO Approval Process?

By Genna Reed

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbThe White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986, which laid out how the EPA, FDA and USDA would share responsibilities for regulating GMOs to ensure their safety. But this framework has never managed to provide an adequate review of genetically engineered foods. The current system relies on analysis and data from companies seeking approval for their new GMO crops and fails to do any post-approval monitoring once these foods hit the market or even require labeling.

Just before the July 4th holiday weekend began, the White House released a memo to the EPA, FDA and USDA announcing a planned update to the coordinated framework, even though they claim that the current process “effectively protects health and the environment.” The memo says the goal of the updated process is to reduce the “costs and burdens” and delays for biotech companies trying to get products to market, increase transparency for the public and advance innovation. Besides updating the coordinated framework, the administration will also come up with a long-term plan for regulating GMO products and any other new technologies that will be introduced in the future. Additionally, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has been called upon to complete a study looking at the “future landscape” of biotechnology products that will inform future regulatory strategies.

Though we agree that the current regulatory system for GMOs is broken, it’s not clear if this new memo is going to fix it. A major red flag about the White House memo is that the administration’s motivation appears to be less concern about the safety of new biotech products and more about helping biotech companies navigate the regulatory system in a quick and painless manner.

We do have ideas about how the EPA, FDA and the USDA should change the current regulatory system:

  • No GMO product should be approved for commercialization without the agencies themselves, not the patenting company, conducting a full review of its unique risks to agriculture and the environment;
  • Use of the precautionary principle for the evaluation of new GMO crops, animals and food;
  • Mandatory labeling of GMO foods;
  • Prioritization of independent research that studies the human health impacts associated with long-term GMO consumption, including realistic levels of herbicide residues;
  • Improve monitoring and inspections of experimental field trials to avoid contamination incidents that are continuing to occur due to a lack of oversight;
  • Require post-commercialization monitoring of GMOs to avoid contamination and to protect consumers from accidental exposure to risky experimental crops; and
  • Include contamination prevention measures in addition to compensation of parties harmed by contamination events. This burden should not be borne by the farmers who are contaminated by GMO presence through no fault of their own. Instead, patent-holding companies should create a fund that will compensate economically harmed farmers.

Hopefully the White House will not blow its chance to improve upon an inadequate regulatory system for GMOs which has allowed over 100 crops to enter the food system with little scrutiny and minimal transparency.

Food & Water Watch will be following this White House commitment closely over the next year, including three public engagement sessions that have been promised, starting with one in Washington, D.C. this fall. There will also be opportunity to comment on the process once the agencies develop a draft. Stay tuned for your opportunity to weigh in on this important process.

July 2nd, 2015

This Food Merger Didn’t Save Money 

By Tyler Shannon BlogThumb_ShannonTyler

The giant food company ConAgra announced this week that it would sell off Ralcorp, a private label food manufacturer it acquired just a few years ago for $5 billion after a prolonged bidding war. ConAgra owns a number of processed foods brands like Hunt’s Ketchup, Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Chef Boyardee, and Ralcorp primarily manufactured private label products that supermarkets sell under their own brand names and competed directly with ConAgra’s products.

We objected to the acquisition, since it lead to further consolidation in the food industry and potentially higher prices for shoppers through reduced competition. ConAgra claimed that the merger would eventually lead to cost savings (“synergies” in corporate business speak) of $225 million a year. Federal regulators allowed the merger to go through unhindered.

But ConAgra had it all wrong. It turns out that this merger has actually been dragging the company down over the past two and a half years. In just the last year alone, ConAgra lost almost $1.5 billion. And the company did so poorly after the acquisition that the deal was mentioned in the discussion of why ConAgra’s CEO eventually stepped down.

Merging companies and sadly, federal regulators, often justify these food mergers as good for shoppers because any cost savings from running a supposedly more efficient merged company will be passed on to us in the form of lower prices. But what happens when the mergers lead to higher costs for the companies? Not only do these companies have to make up for their losses somewhere (like by raising prices), but post-acquisition there are fewer competitors in the marketplace, ones that could have helped keep consumer prices down.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice need to learn from ConAgra’s failure, and realize that they can’t just take promises made by merging companies at face value. Because, ultimately, the public ends up paying for these mistakes in the form of fewer options at the supermarket and higher prices for the products on the shelves.

July 1st, 2015

Swindled by Suds?

By Kate Fried Beer_Can

When consumers see that Beck’s beer is “brewed under the German purity law of 1516,” many think they know what they’re getting. But is this popular pilsner really German? Not according to a lawsuit filed by customers who feel they were mislead into drinking a beer imported from Germany, when actually they were downing a beverage brewed in…St. Louis. Whomp whomp. Anheuser-Busch InBev recently reached a class action settlement in the case and could pay out millions to disgruntled customers.

We talk a lot about food labels, typically in regards to GMOs and meat imports, and this incident shows once again that people want to know where their food and drink comes from. If you look at a bottle of Beck’s and squint a little, you can see printed on it: “Product of USA.” But most beer drinkers aren’t going to scour their bottles for this information, particular when Beck’s packaging spins the product as German beer. And many American beer drinkers are willing to pay more for a brew they believe is imported.

By settling the case, Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn’t admit it did anything wrong. But the fact that a major class action lawsuit will result in payouts to consumers based on confusion about the origin of a product should give our lawmakers pause. We didn’t get country of origin labeling for food until we changed the law to require mandatory labeling for seafood, beef, poultry, pork, goat, some nuts and fresh and frozen fruits and veggies. And the meat and grocery industries are even trying to gut those rules for labeling meat.

Maybe lawmakers don’t think we need to know what’s in our food. Recently, comedian Bill Maher brilliantly renamed efforts to ban country of origin labeling altogether the “Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head About it Act.” But the public is worried about where its food comes from, and for good reason.

This case about beer labeling highlights another food industry trend we’ve told you about, and that’s mergers between already large companies. Beck’s was produced in Germany until 2002, when it was sold to a Belgian company, which several mergers later became Anheuser-Busch InBev. In fact, only two companies own most of the brands of beer sold in the United States, controlling 80 percent of sales. This beeropoly not only limits choices for you, it can also block smaller, innovative craft brewers from entering mainstream markets.

While this latest development with Beck’s may not hurt Anheuser-Bush too badly in the long run, it reminds us that fancy packaging can mislead and distract us from the truth about what we’re buying. And if people are this upset about poorly labeled beer, shouldn’t they be downright furious about efforts to rescind country of origin labeling on meat?  If that’s the case for you, there’s still something you can do about it. Click on the link to tell your Senator to protect country of origin labels.

June 25th, 2015

What Makes a Poison?

By Genna Reed airplane spraying pesticide

The chemicals that we’re exposed to in our daily lives are often approved by the government under the assumption that they’re safe in small doses, even over a long period of time. For years, regulators relied on the old adage “the dose makes the poison” to try to explain their logic. While that might have appeared true for certain chemicals for many years, we now live in a world where exposure to a large variety of chemicals is unavoidable and it’s finally becoming clear that we can’t evaluate these chemicals in isolation. Read the full article…

June 24th, 2015

Consumers Score Huge Victory As Federal Judge Blocks Sysco Merger

By Tyler Shannon Fork_Plate_Spoon

In a stunning victory for people, independent restaurants and public cafeterias, a federal judge struck down the proposed merger of Sysco and US Foods, the only two national food distribution companies in the United States. Food & Water Watch opposed this merger when it was announced nearly two years ago.

Sysco and US Foods are the only companies that provide national distribution networks to foodservice customers such as schools, restaurants, and hospitals. If the merger had gone through, these establishments would have had essentially only one supplier, and the merged company could have raised prices with impunity. Ultimately, you and I would have paid the price for this merger. Thankfully, the Federal Trade Commission prevailed in its suit to block the merger and there will still be some resemblance of competition in this market.

The February FTC lawsuit argued that if the proposed merger went through it would substantially increase prices for customers, and the judge agreed. The merged company would have controlled three quarters of the national food service distribution market and have a stranglehold over the entire industry. This ruling is likely to have put a complete stop to the merger, and although Sysco is looking at other options it recognizes it may have to terminate the merger agreement.

Although the court blocked the merger, those that stood up to the proposed merger may face retribution from Sysco down the road. During the court proceedings, Sysco requested and subsequently received the witness list of the people and organizations that opposed the merger, including customers, competitors and even its own employees. In a highly disappointing ruling, the judge granted the request, despite the high likelihood that Sysco would use this information to retaliate against its customers and competitors for speaking out against the merger.

The Federal Trade Commission must now monitor Sysco’s treatment of those that stepped up and provided the agency crucial information in its antitrust investigation. The federal antitrust authorities must establish an ironclad guarantee of anonymity for those that provide evidence in merger cases, especially the rumored Monsanto-Syngneta deal. Otherwise the antitrust witness list can easily become a retaliatory blacklist.

Page 1 of 66123456...102030...Last »