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April 22nd, 2014

Make Your Voice Heard on Earth Day!

By Katherine Cirullo

I’ve loved Earth Day ever since I was in pre-school and digging in the dirt for worms wasn’t a ticket to time-out, but rather a planned educational activity. In middle school, Earth Day meant we got to clean up trash at the town park – a proud moment for a budding activist. But, the dirt days are long over and, as I’ve learned that control over essential, common resources is slipping from the fingertips of the public to the clutches of large corporations, I’ve realized that protecting the planet is no small task.

Earth Day was established 40 years ago not simply as a calendar reminder of how beautiful and precious our planet is, but as a call to action. In order to protect our natural resources and ensure a truly sustainable, healthy and safe environment now and for future generations, our actions need to be unified, targeting elected officials who hold power to influence policy changes. If there’s one threat to the health of the planet that is particularly ominous, it’s rapidly escalating fossil fuel development. That’s why today, Food & Water Watch presents to you the People’s Platform Against Fracking – hop on. Read the full article…

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April 17th, 2014

Monsanto’s Dream Bill is a Nightmare for State GMO Labeling Efforts

By Genna Reed

Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432), a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that would serve as a real road block to the thousands of people who have been fighting for the right to know what’s in their food. This piece of legislation would make voluntary (not mandatory) labeling for genetically engineered foods the national standard, ensure that GMOs can be ambiguously labeled as “natural,” create its own rules for non-GMO labeling and, most heinously, preempt all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods.

We have been aware of the GMA’s plot to move into the GMO labeling policy world since Politico leaked its proposed bill language in January and then the GMA launched its “Safe and Affordable Food Coalition” in February. Unsurprisingly, the GMA found a sponsor who would support all of its original intended language in the bill, resulting in an extremely industry-friendly final version.

So, what is the GMA and why is it so powerful that congressmen do its bidding? Well, this massive trade organization represents 300 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies as well as agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The GMA and its member companies have poured over $50 million into political action committees to help block GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state over the past two years. To illustrate the type of political power GMA is wielding with its big pockets, here’s a paragraph from Food & Water Watch’s new profile on the GMA:

“Between 2001 and 2012, the GMA political action committee donated more than $1 million to federal candidates, political parties and other campaign committees. But it is a much bigger presence roaming the halls of Congress. From 2004 to 2013, the GMA spent $38.9 million lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal officials. In 2013 alone, the GMA spent $14.3 million lobbying on food labeling, country-of-origin labeling, labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as GMO labeling), food marketing to children and other regulations affecting the food and beverage industry.” 

This kind of spending activity on the GMA’s part makes the food movement’s state-level efforts that much more significant. Not only does it show that grassroots organizing is working to hold elected officials accountable on food issues, but it also shows how work in the states is truly bothering the industry and impacting national policy. It gives us even more reason to keep pressuring our lawmakers to protect consumers because they want the right to know if GMOs are in their food. What consumers definitely don’t want is a voluntary labeling policy created by the very companies who have kept that information from them for 20 years.

Now is the time to stop the GMA from getting its way and fueling its own profit-driven interests. Food & Water Watch will continue to work with the grassroots movement to fight for  GMO labeling around the country. You can take action by telling your members of Congress not to pass Monsanto’s dream bill. For more information on the GMA, you can view our industry profile, here

Railway Ruckus: Oil and Gas Development is Throwing American Farmers Off-Track

By Katherine Cirullo

Fracking affects our food. In fact, it affects our entire food system. The national fracking debate has remained somewhat quiet around this issue, but that’s all starting to change, and for good reason. Chefs who rely on fruits, vegetables and dairy from heavily-fracked states like California and Pennsylvania are becoming involved in campaigns to stop fracking from contaminating the water needed to grow our nation’s food. Ranchers are concerned that nearby fracking operations contaminate local water supplies, causing their livestock to fall ill. And now, farmers are publically speaking out about how the oil and gas industry is hindering them from transporting their crops and fueling America’s food supply.

In a hearing last Thursday, farmers revealed the recent oil boom in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota is pitting agriculture in the northern United States against the oil and gas industry as they compete for space on the rails. According to farmer testimonies, Big Oil and Gas seems to be winning, while some of our nation’s farmers (whose livelihoods depend on moving their commodities to buyers) are being thrown off the tracks.

At the hearing, 39 people from the agricultural industry (farmers, grain elevators, etc.) from states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana complained to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) about rail shipping delays that have hindered the movement of crops. They claimed the railways serving the region (Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Pacific (CP)) are not fairly allocating railcar space between the agricultural industry and the oil and gas industry, choosing oil as the favorite. Favorite or not, the reality is that Big Oil is not fit for sharing. Read the full article…

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USDA Continues to Deceive on Meat Inspections

By Tony Corbo

Food & Water Watch Food Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo

Further evidence that the USDA is dismantling the meat inspection system as we know it came in an email last night.

At 9:22 pm on April 16, 2014, I received an e-mail from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Office at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) containing a spreadsheet with the number of temporary inspectors the agency has hired and the locations where these temporary inspectors are currently working. The chart was a partial response to a FOIA request we filed on December 23, 2013 to learn where the temporary inspectors were being assigned in response to a job announcement that FSIS had posted, saying: “As the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) looks to transition through modernization and implementation of the New Poultry Slaughter Inspection System, the Agency is announcing temporary Food Inspector positions to facilitate the transition and to help ensure seamless implementation should the Agency decide to proceed with implementation of the new system.”

No one can remember the last time FSIS had advertised for temporary inspector positions, so we became curious as to how the agency was assigning these personnel.

Much to our surprise, the spreadsheet reveals that not only are temporary inspectors working in poultry slaughter facilities, but 35% of them are working in red meat slaughter facilities. (See column C, Establishment Number—all numbers followed by an “M” indicate a meat plant, and all numbers followed by a “P” indicate poultry.) In recent letters to both USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Congressman Robert Aderholt, chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agency Appropriations, Food & Water Watch pointed out that we were hearing that the temporary inspector hiring program was not meeting its goals and in fact exacerbating an already critical inspector shortage problem across the country. The information we received last night confirms that that the policy of not filling inspector vacancies with permanent employees is causing a distortion in the hiring practices at FSIS. Today, I am finding out that the scope of the temporary hiring is broader than what the spreadsheet is showing as I have received information identifying other meat and poultry plants where temporary inspectors have been hired that were not included in what I received last night.

We already know that the FSIS staff in Washington has problems distinguishing between animal species. They have granted equivalency status to privatized inspection systems in Canada and Australia for beef slaughter based on an unevaluated privatized hog slaughter pilot project being run in five hog slaughter facilities in the U.S. that has been roundly criticized by both USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency’s Washington staff issued a directive last year to its inspectors assigned to horse slaughter facilities to code their inspection activities as if they were working in goat slaughter facilities. Now, we find that temporary inspectors being hired under the guise of a privatized poultry inspection rule that has not been finalized are actually being assigned to beef and hog slaughter facilities. The implication is clear: it’s not about phasing out permanent inspectors because of pending plans to implement the rule; it’s about cutting the food safety inspection budget by essentially contracting out what were previously paid, professional career positions with low-paid temps. But we can ill afford the consequences of weakened food safety inspections.

This important public health agency is out of control. Someone needs to bring order to it because the current FSIS leadership has failed.

April 16th, 2014

Passover, Easter and Changing Holiday Foods

By Briana Kerensky

After a winter that felt like it was going to go on forever, I feel like I can justifiably use the cliché “spring has sprung.” Just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t walk to the Food & Water Watch D.C. office without wearing a hat and mittens. And now, I can’t walk to the office without helping tourists find where our city’s beautiful cherry blossoms are located. 

And with the cherry blossoms and warm weather, we have two of spring’s most well known holidays upon us: Passover and Easter. Both are steeped in traditions focused on the season’s delicious bounty, but the encroaching influence of food corporations and Big Ag is making it harder to keep custom alive. Check out three ways these groups are fundamentally changing how we celebrate Passover and Easter.

Eggs: When you’re a kid, Easter is all about eggs. Painting them, going on a hunt for them, eating chocolate versions of them, and maybe even rolling them across the White House lawn. And on Passover, which started on Monday night, the traditional seder plate includes a roasted, hard-boiled egg to represent the ritual sacrifice Jews used to perform at the Second Temple. But when it’s time to buy all these eggs, do you know what all the labels on the crates really mean? Read our “How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?” fact sheet to learn how the food industry uses terms like “cage free” to influence your purchasing decisions and make you think you’re eating ethically.

Wheat: Ok, so the Torah is a little too old to say anything about genetically modified wheat. During the week of Passover, Jews don’t eat food that could be “contaminated” with ingredients considered not kosher for the holiday. With organic farmers worried about the threat of GMO wheat contaminating organic wheat in the future, what will happen to our matzah in the years to come? There’s already a growing movement of people within the Jewish community who say that GMOs aren’t kosher under any circumstances.

Big Family Meals: The USDA is on the verge of implementing a new rule that would reduce the number of government inspectors in poultry processing plants and turn over inspections to untrained company employees. When inspectors can’t successfully do their jobs, and potentially dangerous food makes it to our holiday tables, it’s our health and safety on the line. Learn more about the “filthy chicken rule” and what you can do to stop it.

April 15th, 2014

You Get What You Pay For

By Mitch Jones

I’m glad to see that the leaders of three powerful and influential global organizations have decided to highlight the importance of fighting climate change. Last week International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim used a meeting of finance ministers from governments around the world to push for a movement to stop climate change. Unfortunately, the method they chose to endorse will do little to help.

All three leaders are pusing carbon pricing as the means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We frequently hear that pricing carbon is the only way we are going to solve the problem of emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change, but policies that seek to rely on pricing to control pollution have a terrible track record.

Large corporations across the economy are planning for carbon prices, whether in the form of a cap-and-trade program or a tax. The reason for this could be that, of the main options for fighting greenhouse gas emissions pricing, carbon pricing is the easiest way for a company to pass on costs to consumers. Major investments in renewable fuels would undercut the business of some of these corporations, while regulations against carbon pollution will be harder to foist off on clients, customers and consumers.

In the absence of any serious and enforceable cap on pollution – that is, a regulation – pricing schemes are just a means of allowing major polluters to pay-to-pollute. Carbon pricing avoids strict enforcement to stop polluting without exceptions; it relies on market signals to magically fix our environmental crises. Pricing carbon, in any of its forms, is just a pay-to-pollute policy that does nothing to truly alter the behavior of financial and corporate interests. Instead, it lets them pay for the “right” to continue their environmental degradation and exploitation.

So, while it’s good that the heads of three important institutions recognize the importance of fighting climate change and are willing to speak out on the issue, they needs to change their tune. Instead of false solutions designed to let polluters keep on polluting, we need to vigorously move beyond reliance on the fossil fuel industry, invest in truly sustainable renewable energy, and place real enforceable limits on pollution. 

April 14th, 2014

Calling on Congress to Protect U.S. Consumers from Chinese Chicken Imports

By Katherine Cirullo 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the People’s Republic of China are on the brink of finalizing a deal that will allow China to process U.S.-raised chicken and send it back to the United States, an unfortunate scenario where trade might trump the health and safety of millions of Americans.

Last week, opponents of the decision took to Capitol Hill to speak out about the many perils of this plan and to demand Congress support a provision that would lessen the ill effects it would have on consumers. Food & Water Watch’s Senior Lobbyist Tony Corbo spoke at the briefing alongside Kelly Horton, Legislative Assistant to Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and several notable experts and advocates. Bettina Siegel, Barbara Kowalcyk and Nancy Huehnergarth’s online petition opposing Chinese chicken imports has been signed by more than 300,000 people so far. Siegel is responsible for initiating the petition that removed “pink slime” from school lunch and stopping Chinese chicken from making its way onto school lunch trays is her latest next crusade. Terry Safranek founded Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China after her beloved dog Sampson died of kidney failure after eating a chicken jerky treat from China. Dr. Peter Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown also participated in the panel. Dr. Li is an expert in Chinese animal husbandry practices.

As Kowalcyk framed it, “Our food safety system is only as strong as the weakest link…are we ready to allow poultry processed in China when we know they already have issues with food safety?” It became clear with each panelist’s testimony that this comment couldn’t ring more true.

Analysis shows that China’s food safety inspection system has a shoddy track record and its poultry products, processed or raw, are not fit to eat. An audit of China’s poultry slaughter system from March of 2013 showed poor management, irregular or no disease prevention measures and abuse of drugs like antibiotics. In fact, the USDA is still concerned about the safety of poultry raised in China, so those products will still be banned. Why, then, does the USDA support importing poultry that has been processed in China?  

Under the USDA’s decision, China would be required to provide government-paid inspectors in the plants that would be eligible to export to the U.S., but the agency would not have inspectors stationed in the Chinese plants to make sure that U.S. chicken is being processed to send back to the U.S.. Here in the United States where foodborne illnesses are all too common and sometimes fatal, our lawmakers should be hearing the warning bells, loud and clear.

Speakers at the briefing brought up another key point of concern highlighting China’s poor food safety record: the massive outbreak of pet illnesses and fatalities in the United States that are linked to pet treats made with meat processed in China. As Kowalcyz stated, this problem is an obvious canary in the coal mine – a telltale sign that if Chinese pet treats are making our beloved animals sick, Chinese chicken may very well make American people sick too.

The Food and Drug Administration has an ongoing investigation and found that pet jerky treats containing poultry and duck products from China have been linked to 3,600 pet illnesses in the United States. Since 2007, around 600 pets have died from these treats. The scientific reason why remains unclear.

The New York Department of Agriculture found five different antibiotics in some of the pet treats (four out of five of them not approved for poultry production in the U.S.) Unfortunately for China’s rap, this tragic problem has not gone unnoticed by the American public. In February, 22,000 Americans signed a petition organized by the Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China urging the FDA to implement a section of the new Food Safety Modernization Act to better inform consumers of dangerous food products, whether for humans or pets. 

It’s time for Congress to connect the dots, listen to the facts and take action to protect Americans. USDA’s decision, which would allow poultry that’s been processed in China to reach American supermarkets, restaurants and the National School Lunch Program, might pave the way to the next worse scenario: raw poultry imports from China. Our representatives simply must make Americans’ food safety a top priority. 

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Dear London Zoo: Have you Really Thought Through This Offsetting Thing?

On the endangered species list, the poison dart frog would likely not support the idea of biodiversity offsetting.

By Eve Mitchell

There’s an odd notion doing the rounds that you can destroy an ecosystem and make a copy of it somewhere else if you fancy putting up a building or something. Sadly a good number of folks who should know better have bought it hook, line and sinker.

One of the fish that’s got hooked on this line is the London Zoological Society, the power behind the world-famous London Zoo based in Regent’s Park in London. This June the Zoo will sponsor and host an international conference on biodiversity offsetting that claims to be “the first global conference on approaches to avoid, minimise, restore, and offset biodiversity loss.” In theory, if you make a very long list of every single thing—living and not—in an ecosystem, and then assign a notional price to each item on the list, you can tear it all down and go shopping somewhere else to replace it.

On reflection, this is clearly nonsense. For starters, it’s a bit hard to decide what to put on your list. Ants? How many? How do you arrive at a hard count? How do you account for the ages of the ants in the population, or the roles they carry out, or the size of the colonies they live in what number of trees? How far away is their food from those colonies? The water? Is it a healthy population or not?

That’s just the ants; an offsetting list has to go through this for every single thing in the place you want to destroy. It doesn’t take long to understand why these notional lists end up being based on guesswork and modeling. It isn’t the reality of the place but on a rather romanticised version that fits the offsetting concept. Starting from the end and working backwards to force a fit isn’t a good start. That’s not me talking: a 2003 study of offsetting published in Ecological Management & Restoration found this kind of oversimplification “often ignores the variability that is so important to accurately describe, predict, and recreate current and future [eco]system attributes.”

What’s worse is that offsetting simply doesn’t work.

One 2012 study of 621 wetland sites published in PLoS Biolog showed that even a century after “restoration” biological structures were 26 percent fewer and biological functioning was 23 percent lower than in sites that had had been left alone. That cannot reasonably be called the “no net loss” the Zoo’s conference claims offsetting delivers.

Fraud is also a major problem, probably because there is no requirement for an international registry of offsetting schemes, so there is no oversight on what companies are claiming to have done, which results in double counting of biodiversity “credits” and other forms of corruption. When offsetting is taken overseas, indigenous communities get caught up in pretty promises that never come true, so construction companies can avoid complex planning requirements. This is not good.

So what is the Zoo thinking?

A look at the co-sponsors of the Zoo’s event explains a lot: we find a French construction conglomerate, an organisation set up to promote offsetting and “protect private funds” that reports to the French Parliament, and World Wildlife Fund for Nture (WWF), widely known in South American conservation circles as a group keen to help agribusinesses label industrial GM soya production “sustainable.” With friends like these does biodiversity need enemies?

Conservation means not destroying biodiversity. “No net loss” is a pay-to-destroy charter designed to ensure that concern for sensitive biodiversity or habitats does not interfere with industrial development gaining planning permission. The concept is rooted in austerity-driven economics, not a genuine attempt to conserve. It’s about profit. It’s greenwashing. Conservation means tough regulation and meaningful enforcement.

The wonder of the natural world is in its complexity, its subtlety and its ability to result in very different outcomes with very small alterations. Humans, wondrous as we also are, just aren’t capable of replicating this. The hubris of those who claim they can, and that they can do it with “no net loss,” needs to be put firmly down. We’d really like the London Zoological Society help us do just that. Pulling out of this conference would be a good start.

View the letter to Conservation Programmes Director Jonathon Baillie.

View the Food & Water Europe press release.

Take action: http://fwwat.ch/ProtectBiodiversityinEurope

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Alabama: The Next Tar Sands Frontier?

By Alison K. Grass

Keep Alabama the BeautifulIf you’re like me, you probably have a special spot in your heart for your hometown and home state. I grew up in Alabama, in the countryside, in a house surrounded by several sprawling acres of trees, farmland and open space. Even though I now live hundreds of miles away, I still am protective of the people who live there, their health and the beautiful landscapes and natural wonders that coexist in the appropriately termed, “Alabama the Beautiful.”

So last year when I learned of a secretive plan to auction 43,000 acres of public land in the Talladega and Conecuh Nation Forests for potential fracking and drilling, I grew concerned and wanted to know more. Fortunately, public outcry delayed the sale of the land.

Now, an equally concerning development has come to my attention: Alabama may open up its northwestern Lawrence, Franklin and Colbert Counties to tar sand oil extraction, in order to become a “major oil-producing state.” MS Industries has already bought around 2,500 acres of land in Alabama counties.

Read the full article…

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April 11th, 2014

Ending the Factory Farm Drug Addiction One City at a Time

Antibiotics Campaign, Cleveland, OH

Clevelanders pose with our cow mascot to send a message to council members.

By Katy Kiefer

This spring, something important is stirring in the movement for good food and healthy families. Food & Water Watch volunteers and allies have passed seven resolutions through city councils across the country, calling on Congress to take action to stop the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Many more resolutions are in the works. Today, we’re releasing a map to track these resolutions – the grassroots movement to save antibiotics.

Most of us know that doctors should only prescribe antibiotics when we really need them in order to prevent resistance. But many people don’t realize that a whopping 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in agriculture, primarily to make animals grow faster in stressful, crowded, filthy factory farms. That’s not the way antibiotics should be used, and it’s resulting in a serious public health crisis.

Food & Water Watch has been advocating for legislation to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms for years. With little action in Congress, and too little, too late from the FDA, we thought, let’s empower communities to take matters into their own hands. Which is why we’ve launched a nationwide effort to help communities educate and organize at the grassroots level to build support for a national ban on antibiotics abuse.

It all started in Providence, RI, in early February when the first of these resolutions passed. Red Bank, NJ, Cleveland, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA quickly followed. In each city, council members stepped up to take this on and sponsor each resolution, and most passed the same day they were introduced. But we knew it was only a matter of time until the factory farming industry caught wind and started fighting back.

In Seattle, they sent a letter to council members right before the vote, to try to derail passage of their resolution. But after hearing from hundreds of their constituents, Seattle council members did the right thing, and just this week passed the resolution with full support. Seattle’s resolution passed on Monday followed quickly by Madison, WI, on Tuesday and St Paul, MN, on Wednesday. All were passed unanimously – a testament to the power of concerned community members coming together to advocate for commonsense policies.

Despite what Big Ag wants you to think, we don’t need to put up with this dirty, unsustainable system of producing food. An alternative is possible, and it’s necessary. The European Union has banned the irresponsible use of antibiotics on factory farms and the EU hasn’t stopped producing food. We can do the same here in the U.S. and we’re proving it one city at a time. 

If antibiotic resistance has affected you or a loved one, please share your story with us. And if you’re ready to pass a resolution in your town, we’re ready to help. Sign up here!

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