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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 30th, 2015

Help Obama See The Marfa Lights: Stop the Trans-Pecos Pipeline

by Hugh MacMillan

Opposition is mounting against the Trans-Pecos pipeline, a project proposed to move natural gas across the vast Big Bend region of Texas. If built, the pipeline would be a monument to corporate gain at the expense of the public.

The United States – guided not just by the oil and gas industry, but also by big investment banks (see here and here) – is looking to “integrate” oil and gas extraction and distribution activities throughout North America, in coordination with Canada and Mexico. Extracting as much unconventional oil and natural gas as possible, through widespread drilling and fracking, is central to the collective vision.

Energy Transfer Partners, in collaboration with and supported by Morgan Stanley, aims to cash in by exporting natural gas from several facilities in Texas. Specifically, among ETP’s projects is a three-and-a-half-foot in diameter Trans-Pecos pipeline Energy Transfer Partners plans for crossing transporting dangerous and explosive natural gas across the Big Bend region of Texas to Mexico.

The path of the Trans-Pecos pipeline, plotted with existing oil and gas industry infrastructure, illustrates the open space and unspoiled nature unique to the Big Bend region. MAP COURTESY OF U.S. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION / EIA.GOV (Click image to enlarge)

The path of the Trans-Pecos pipeline, plotted with existing oil and gas industry infrastructure, illustrates the open space and unspoiled nature unique to the Big Bend region. MAP COURTESY OF U.S. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION / EIA.GOV (Click image to enlarge)

Kelcy Warren, the billionaire at the helm of Energy Transfer Partners, aims to pump as much as two billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, to feed into pipelines planned in Mexico, owned by Carlos “Slim” Helu, nearly the richest if not the richest person in the world.

With the Obama administration’s recent whitewash of an assessment on the impacts of drilling and fracking on drinking water resources, the stage is set for these billionaires to win big – at the expense of public health and safety, and of the environment. Widespread drilling and fracking would be required to access the volumes of gas needed to fill their pipelines. In addition, the pipeline could pave the way for fracking to spread to Mexico: After running its course in Texas, the direction of flow through the pipeline could just be reversed, allowing their profits to continue to flow.

Thankfully, those banking billions of dollars on natural gas exports to Mexico through the Trans-Pecos pipeline in the coming years are not unopposed. Many Texans along the proposed path do not want a high-pressure pipeline on their land, and do not want it near their homes.

Several recent pipeline failures have led to massive destruction and even loss of life (see here and here). In the U.S., more than 11,000 pipeline incidents have occurred from 1994 to 2014, and the incidents have caused $6.5 billion in property damage.[i] These incidents make it clear why many landowners are reluctant to have pipelines on their property.

Energy Transfer Partners, Morgan Stanley, and those, such as President Obama, who are pushing the grand vision behind the Trans-Pecos project also face another obstacle.

The Big Bend region, home to the mysterious Marfa Lights, is remote and unique. Many Texans, while not directly in the path of the pipeline, cherish its vast wide-open space and the darkness, all unmarred by the legacy of the state’s oil and gas industry footprint. The Trans-Pecos pipeline, as the first pipeline to dissect the region, would change that.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance is working to defend the region by urging President Obama to put the brakes on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. You can follow these steps to add your voice, and your comments will be received. Tell President Obama that it is time for the too-big-to-fail banks to stop building out reckless fossil fuel infrastructure, all for private gain at the public’s expense.

It is time to recognize the true costs and the true solutions.

True energy security comes from local energy system independence, not continental scale efforts to increase and intensify fossil fuel production. It’s time for Obama to see the Marfa Lights, and stop putting corporate trade interests on a pedestal while sweeping health and safety of Americans under the rug.

Hugh MacMillan is Senior Researcher on the Food & Water Watch water team.

Texas-sized Hypocrisy Served Up in Denton Over Fracking Ban

By Scott Edwards

BlogThumb_GovAbbott

Texas Governor Greg Abbott

Last February, Texas Governor Greg Abbott delivered his first State of the State and made some promising proclamations. “It’s time for property owners – not government – to truly own their property,” he stated. He also made ethics reforms pledges, “prohibiting lawmakers from voting on legislation from which they could profit and more disclosure of campaign finance information.”

Abbott’s commitment to giving citizens a real say in their property uses and taking on legislative influence-peddling couldn’t have come at a better time for the people of Denton, Texas. In November of 2014, the Dentonians voted overwhelmingly to protect their property, their children and their communities from the many adverse impacts of fracking, an irresponsible and largely unregulated method of gas extraction. Abbott’s promises presumably meant that under his watch, government would never be allowed to strip away the democratic rights of Denton’s local citizens at the behest of industry.

But then in May Abbott signed into law HB40, a bill reportedly scripted by the oil and gas industry, thereby stripping away the property and local voting rights of the citizens of the city of Denton and every other town and city in Texas. Industry’s lawyers wasted no time running into court to bully Denton’s City Council into dropping its ban under the threat of attorney’s fees.

Abbott, like so many others who take up the mantle of political life in Texas and elsewhere quickly embraced the “talk is cheap, but campaigns are expensive” mindset that permeates our political system – his oil and gas buddies had funded his gubernatorial election to the tune of over $1.5 million, more than any industry in the state.

If Abbott is so concerned with ethics reform, perhaps he needs to start with himself.

Of course, there are plenty of other places for him to start, too. One of the primary Republican sponsors of HB40, Senator Troy Fraser, has received $215,850 in campaign contributions from oil and gas. The other Republican primary sponsors of HB40, Representatives Drew Darby, James Keefer and Phil King, reaped benefits in the amounts of $143,865, $340,183 and $113,000 respectively from the industry.

Political sellout in Texas, though, is not a partisan problem; the Democratic primary sponsors of HB40, Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Rep. Rene Oliviera also feed from the oil and gas trough; they’re just satisfied with much smaller portions. Thompson and Oliviera only got a paltry $55,401 and $69,600 in campaign money from the industry.

It gets even uglier: When Denton passed its fracking ban, it was sued by two entities, one of which was the Texas Oil and Gas Association, or TxOGA. It was one of TxOGA’s lawyers who reportedly helped write HB40. In 2014, TxOGA wrote Abbott a check for $30,000 to add to the $70,000 they’ve given him over the years. That same year, TxOGA gave Darby, who introduced HB40, $2,500, while giving bill sponsor Fraser $20,000 in 2012. Keffer, another bill sponsor, has been paid $28,500 by TxOGA over past years. TxOGA has also given money to both Thompson and Oliviera in past years. You can only imagine what TxOGA’s “contributions” to each of these politicians will be in 2015.

This goes beyond a company giving money to a candidate of its choice – this is an active litigant in court giving money to a group of legislators to pass a bill that they need to win the case, while bankrolling the governor who needs to sign the bill even though doing so directly conflicts with the promises he made to his own constituents.

The hypocrisy is stunning. The only winners in this whole mess are the oil and gas industry. But the citizens of Denton and grassroots activists will continue to fight the undue influence the industry has over democracy in Texas.

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.

June 23rd, 2015

Free-Trade Senate Democrats Provide Narrow Margin to Pass Fast Track

By Wenonah Hauter

1504_FBSq_NoFastTrack-C1Today, the Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle on a degraded version of the Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority by the narrowest margin in the legislative mechanism’s history, 60-37. The procedural measure required 60 votes to pass. A smaller handful of Democrats joined with Senate Republicans to pass Fast Track over the will of the American people, who have been clamoring to halt the rush to rubber stamp trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Two Senators switched their votes from yes to no, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).

The 13 corporate trade backers included: Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Thomas Carper (D-Delaware), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Diane Feinstein (D-California), Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Bill Nelson (D-Florida), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and, the co-sponsor, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). Senators Bennet, Murray and Wyden are all up for re-election in 2016, and voters will remember this Fast Track betrayal when they go to the polls.

Last month, the Senate passed a different version of Fast Track, but House Republicans eviscerated the delicate Senate policy balances, making the version the Senate passed today considerably worse. Today’s legislation does not include the worker-retraining program that many said was essential to securing their vote. Democrats that supported Fast Track today took a leap of faith that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can actually pass the worker retraining measures. The Senate should have forced the House to act first on the worker assistance program before walking the plank on Fast Track.

Today’s bill also weakened the Senate’s earlier provisions addressing human trafficking and currency manipulation and includes new House language that prohibits trade deals from ever addressing climate change. Corporate interests are being put on a pedestal, while the health and safety of the American people and our environment are being swept under the rug. Tomorrow, the Senate will likely vote to pass Fast Track, which only requires a simple 51-vote majority, far fewer votes than were needed today.

Fast Track will accelerate congressional consideration of the as-yet-unseen Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that will undermine key consumer, public health and environmental protections. The Senate Democrats that voted for Fast Track today did so in part because of the promise that the TPP will be “the most progressive trade deal in history” according to Senator Wyden. This is a pathetically low bar, given how bad all the prior trade deals have been.

The Senate passed Fast Track on the narrowest margin in its history today because of the stalwart nationwide activism and advocacy. Food & Water Watch will continue to push for trade deals that put workers, the environment and commonsense consumer protections ahead of Big Business. We will not stand for trade deals like the TPP that undermine our food safety standards, expand fracking and privatize our municipal water systems.

June 22nd, 2015

John Butler Trio, Bonnie Raitt and More Stand Against Fracking

BlogThumb_BTFAcoverThis past March, Food & Water Watch announced its support of “Buy This Fracking Album,” a musical effort to shed light on the dangers of hydro-fracking across America. Artists like Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls, Michael Franti, John Butler Trio and more lent their voices to the effort…and now the album is here!

Join our New York office tomorrow night at the Brooklyn Bowl to help celebrate the launch of launch with our executive director, Wenonah Hauter, and some of the artists featured on the album.

“Buy This Fracking Album” contains a combination of original recordings, previous releases, and live renditions of older songs, including:

  • Pete Seeger’s first album appearance since his passing – a never before released live rendition of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land;”
  • “Hell to Pay” by Bonnie Raitt;
  • Original recordings from Meshell Ndegeocello (“Never Still Water”), Marco Benevento and Dave Dreiwtiz (“Freakin Frack”), and more.

“I feel that one of the most critical environmental issues of our time is banning fracking everywhere because it destroys our water, our communities and our planet,” Raitt said.

The two-disc benefit compilation’s proceeds will benefit Marcellus Protest, a nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania, and other grassroots organizations around the country working to ban fracking. Album beneficiary Food & Water Watch is donating its share of the proceeds into a fund that album producers will distribute to grassroots organizations. Many of the artists who have contributed songs to the album have openly voiced their opposition to fracking, with arguments ranging from the desire to champion community health, combat the corporate hold on American democracy, or – in the words of singer Kristen Graves — “I want future generations to have an example of what it looks like to live humbly, respectfully, and well with the earth.”

Preorder a hard copy of the album or download a digital version to support the project.

Fast Track/TPP Update: House Punts Fast Track Problems to Senate

By Patrick Woodall BlogThumb_WoodallPatrick

It has been a chaotic and demoralizing few weeks for proponents of the corporate trade agenda. There is still no promising legislative path to victory, largely because of the outstanding public mobilization launched against the flawed trade policy that Republican leadership, big business and the White House are trying to force a skeptical Congress to accept.

Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly defeated the Fast Track legislative package designed to rubber stamp the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The failure can largely be laid at the feet of the House Republican leadership, which split the Senate bill into two parts, the Fast Track portion and a worker-retraining program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) designed to help workers that lose their jobs because of trade deals like the TPP. The Republicans supported Fast Track but abandoned the GOP leadership on TAA (along with most Democrats that opposed Fast Track). Read the full article…

June 18th, 2015

Pope Denounces Pollution Trading As Solution to Climate Change

By Scott Edwards

BlogThumb_ClimatePopePope Francis’ encyclical letter has finally been released (after a leak to the press earlier this week) and we’re excited about what it says about cap-and-trade pollution schemes:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.

For years, Food & Water Watch has criticized cap-and-trade and other market-based pollution control approaches as part of the problem, not the solution. It’s pay-to-pollute, and the Pope is absolutely right when he says it doesn’t allow for the change needed to remedy our climate crisis.

It’s a bold and honest statement from the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Of course, he really couldn’t have it any other way, since the New Testament proclaims, “For we are each responsible for our own conduct,” (Galatians 6:5) and pollution trading schemes are designed for one purpose: to allow polluters, through credit purchases or offsets, to avoid accountability for their own conduct and clean up their own mess. It’s a way for corporations to dump responsibility onto the backs of others while poisoning the planet.

Whether pollution trading is geared towards carbon emissions in the air or, in the new market push, agricultural pollution in the water, the result is the same. It’s an avoidance technique that prolongs business as usual and delays serious action regulating polluting industries or, in the case of water pollution, undermines existing proven legislation like the Clean Water Act. Read our report about the problems with pollution trading here.

In addition to his stance on pollution trading, the Pope also sharply criticized climate deniers and our ongoing dependence in dirty fossil fuels. “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels…needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Unfortunately, delay is what we get as “Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.”

Whether it’s climate denial, addiction to fossil fuels or the introduction of false solution schemes like pollution trading, there’s also one more important thing that the Pope understands about the mechanism for change – it’s going to have to come from organizations around the world who remain true to the cause while pushing for political power and better policies:

We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.

Unfortunately, there are many in the current, mainstream environmental movement who have capitulated to spurious interests and embrace irresponsible trading and market approaches to our ongoing pollution problems. But they’re no solution at all. Let’s hope the Pope’s comments help sway the debate on pollution trading and move us all away from fossil fuels.

June 17th, 2015

Fracking: The Latest Fossil Fuel Industry Assault on Communities of Color

By Mike Roque, Guest Blogger

When the oil and gas industry wants to set up shop, it targets areas that, due to economic and social factors, have little political power. This trend has been well documented in California, where 79 percent of the more than 350,000 children who live within a mile of an oil and gas well are non-white. Fracking has become the latest chapter in the sad, epic tale of decades of environmental injustices committed by the fossil fuel industry in low-income communities of color.

FB_1506_DFD_MikeRoque-quote-V1It’s a story that is also playing out in my home state. With over 53,000 active wells in Colorado, the fracking fiasco has spread far and wide in our state, including into the Mile High City of Denver. Two-thirds of the residents of the Northeast Denver neighborhoods at risk of being fracked are African American or Latino. These are the families who will suffer the worst impacts – including health problems and loss of property value – if decision-makers allow fracking in Denver. What effort will leaders make to ensure the concerns of these communities inform decision making?

Probably not much, if things play out in Denver as they have in Greeley, Colorado – the epicenter of the fracking explosion – where Mexican and Somali refugee communities have not had a voice in the fracking debate. These communities have traditionally been neglected and have the least political power in Weld County.

These families are the reason that Colorado Progressive Coalition (CPC) has been actively engaged in the fight to ban fracking in the Rocky Mountain State. CPC is a membership-led organization composed of low-income people of color – the exact community threatened by fracking in Denver and affected disproportionately by this dangerous oil and gas extraction process across the country.

CPC, along with Food & Water Watch and a broad range of other groups, is a proud founding member of Coloradans Against Fracking, which we helped create to protect our health, safety, clean air, water and property values. Colorado should be a national leader in transforming our economy from one that relies on fossil fuels to one that thrives on renewable energy. We are endowed with over 300 days of sunshine each year here and an ample supply of wind. But we know that the energy landscape won’t change overnight. It takes political will – and that means holding elected leaders accountable to constituents.

With Food & Water Watch and other partners in Coloradans Against Fracking, we’ve held rallies, hosted peaceful actions, bird-dogged our elected officials and have been working to help build a grassroots movement to ban fracking. CPC prefers to let our members decide their futures rather than leaving matters in the hands of corporations that only care about making money at the expense of our environment, neighborhoods, health, and our children’s schools.

The growing number of residents lining up to defend their communities from fracking is proof that the tide is turning. It’s time for Governor John Hickenlooper and our state officials to retire their drill-baby-drill rally cry. It’s time to transform our economy, save our environment, create thousands of new and quality jobs, and protect the health and future of our children and grandchildren. Together, we know this is a fight we can win.

Mike Roque is the Executive Director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition.

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