General Health

Shareholder to Monsanto: Be Transparent about Genetically Engineered Food Risks

genetic-engineering-wheatBiotechnology giant Monsanto continues to tout the benefits of genetically engineered crops without seriously acknowledging any risks despite concerns repeatedly raised by farmers, citizen activists and other whistleblowers. Given the desire to satisfy investors and future profitability, it's not surprising Monsanto has only emphasized the alleged positives of its products.

However, one of its shareholders has urged Monsanto to be more balanced by reporting the potential liabilities (that have already been voiced by many).

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Where’s the Fruit in Fruit Snacks? General Mills Faces Lawsuit for Misleading ‘Healthy’ Claims

fruit_rollup_attPhoto by flickr user justj0000lieCandy is good for you? That's essentially what General Mills is arguing, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The consumer advocacy group (and GAP coalition partner) filed a class action suit Friday against General Mills for portraying Fruit Snacks in a healthy light, "basically dressing up a cheap candy as if it were a fruit and charging a premium for it." Adweek reports:

In its complaint, CSPI alleges that the labeling on the packages for the products—Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot, and Fruit Gushers specifically—imply that the food is a lot healthier than it really is. Fruit Snacks are labeled as "fruit flavored snack," "naturally flavored, a "good source of Vitamin C", a low number of calories, "low fat," and "gluten free."

The suit cites several California laws governing misleading and deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices, as well as Minnesota's Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. (General Mills is based in Golden Valley, Minn.)

"In fact, Defendant’s Fruit Snacks contained trans fat, added sugars, and artificial food dyes; lacked significant amounts of real, natural fruit; and had no dietary fiber. Thus, although the Products were marketed as being healthful and nutritious for children and adults alike, selling these Fruit Snacks was little better than giving candy to children," the complaint reads.

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Why is Junk Food Being Subsidized???

Hostess_twinkies_attImage by Larry D. Moore (CC)How many tax dollars have been spent subsidizing junk food ingredients? A new report released today by U.S. PIRG paints a clear picture of how agricultural subsidies have been distributed, with a large portion -- $16.9 billion since 1995 -- going toward corn and soy-based additives found in most processed foods, leaving hardly any subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Most of the corn and soybeans we see in America are not eaten as is. In fact, only about one percent of U.S.-produced corn is the sweet corn people directly consume. Most of the crops are used to fatten up livestock in factory farms, turned into biofuel, or processed into sweeteners and starches. The sweeteners and starches (corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils), benefiting from that $16.9 billion in the last 16 years (or $1.06 billion a year) is what has helped keep unhealthy snacks like Twinkies so cheap. Subsidies for healthy food, you ask? They don't get the same favored treatment. U.S. PIRG's report illustrates:

Apples are the only fresh fruit or vegetable receiving significant federal subsidies. Since 1995 the entire complex of federal agricultural programs has spent only $262 million on apples, and even this modest support is an overstatement of the subsidies going to fresh apples -- some of the apple crop is itself processed into forms like apple juice or applesauce which in turn may be sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The disproportionate allocation of subsidies is overtly contrary to USDA's efforts to reverse our nation's skyrocketing obesity rate. While the agency's new "food plate" shows that servings of fruit and vegetables should be equal in size to those of grains and proteins, USDA distributes considerable federal financial support for the latter and virtually none for the former.

As PIRG's report -- appropriately called "Apples to Twinkies" -- explains, federal support for American agriculture "originated as rescue programs to help small, family-owned farmers to keep their doors open," but programs have "been reshaped into subsidies that primarily benefit the country's largest farming operations." Roughly 74% of agricultural subsidies go to only 4% of farmers -- the Big Ag producers -- who then use those dollars to buy out the smaller farms around them.

How ironic that a program established to help small farmers now actively harms them. But I guess that's what happens when out-of-date subsidies are allowed to linger for decades.

Our nation's agricultural policies clearly show mixed priorities that not only serve as a detriment to public health, but an ineffective use of taxpayer dollars -- all during a time when government spending is coming under increased scrutiny. It's time to change this skewed system and redistribute the billions of dollars now spent supporting junk food ingredients to food products with integrity.

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Genetically Modified Rice Not the Answer to Malnutrition

golden_riceThe already enormous biotechnology industry (which consists of Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, etc.) continues its efforts to expand further into the global food system under the guise of solving the world's hunger problems, including the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) golden rice to supposedly ease Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

But this notion appears to be rather heavy propaganda. A spokesman from MASIPAG, a network of farmers, scientists and NGOs promoting sustainable agriculture in the Philippines (where the golden rice push is underway), thinks the biotech argument is simply PR. From a Filipino online news site:

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Factory Farms Flock to Idaho to Escape Regulation

idahoThe meat industry is infamous for moving from state to state to escape regulatory obstacles -- environmental oversight measures, in particular. CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, are notorious for consistently polluting surrounding water sources due to unmanageable amounts of animal waste.

The state of Idaho seems to be settling as the prime destination for giant factory farms to evade such crucial regulations. As High Country News points out, "Idaho has vaulted from the 11th to the third-biggest milk producer in the country in the space of 16 years." Dairy operators fleeing regulations in California, Pennsylvania and elsewhere find spacious Idaho to have "a welcoming attitude," according to Boise Weekly.

The poultry industry is looking to jump on the bandwagon, in the wake of stricter operating rules passed in California.

HCN summarizes the legislative moves that have made Idaho an attractive place for CAFOs:

  • In 2000, the Idaho Legislature began restricting public comment on where CAFOs could be located -- to only those living within one mile of the proposed location. So, if you live two miles downstream on a river from a CAFO, sorry! You get no say.
  • In 2003, the state prohibited its Water Resources Dept. from considering odors, possible health impacts and other matters "in the public interest" when changing water rights for dairy CAFOs.
  • In 2010, the Legislature made the manure-management plans of beef feedlots proprietary (private).
  • In early 2011, the Legislature moved to keep mega-dairies' manure-management plans kept from public view as well. FIC blogged about why this was a bad idea. The Governor ended up passing the legislation in April 2011, essentially blocking outside oversight.
  • The 2011 Legislature also amended Idaho's Right to Farm law, prohibiting local governments from regulating agricultural facilities as nuisances once they've been in operation for more than a year. It also prohibits neighbors from filing complaints using nuisance law.
  • The 2011 Legislature transferred the authority to inspect and regulate poultry farms from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to the state’s Agriculture Department (Dairy pollution is also regulated by the Ag department, a set-up criticized as a conflict of interest given the department’s role to protect industry).

According to the Idaho Dairymen's Association president, this year alone "is one of the best legislative sessions the IDA has ever seen," adhering to the industry's strategy "to make it easier for dairy farmers to succeed in business." Well, if that means blocking adequate regulation of nitrate and phosphorous contamination in ground and surface water, and reducing oversight of ammonia emissions and other harmful gases, Idaho CAFOs are definitely succeeding.

Removing transparency and deregulating industry equals more money in Big Agriculture's deep pocket, as it gets away with polluting community resources and threatening the health of the residents that utilize them. Instead of making effective changes to reduce CAFO impacts on the environment and public safety, industry simply hides away in Idaho. Shame on Idaho legislatures for letting them.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Where’s the Oversight? Food Animal Production Breeds Antibiotic Resistance

A resurgence in the discussion of antibiotic (over)use in large-scale animal agriculture has emerged in light of the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak linked to ground turkey.

A group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the FDA on Tuesday urging it to speed up the implementation of guidelines to help manage drug use in food animal production. The FDA has already received over 500 comments on a draft guidance released last summer that recommends two principles:

(1) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health, and

(2) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.

chicken_barn_hmNo timeline on the document has been announced, but the change from automatically giving livestock antibiotics in their feed and water daily (to prematurely avoid animal sickness and hasten growth, thus expediting their time to market), to only treating them when a real medical concern exists, would be a drastic reduction.

According to the FDA, 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are given to food-producing animals, the vast majority for non-therapeutic purposes. The resulting increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," has many public health advocates concerned, with constant criticism of the agency's exceedingly slow and cumbersome attempts to address a serious problem.

A study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives found that conventional poultry farmers who switched to organic practices (ending their use of antibiotics) lowered the rates of bacteria resistant to drugs. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (which funded the research in its early stages), said the findings "confirm what has long been suspected but never documented in the U.S."

As deadly outbreaks regrettably continue, and more dangerous "superbugs" inhibit treatment of foodborne illnesses, adequate oversight remains past due. It’s increasingly essential for the government to acknowledge the problem -- or at least allow transparency in the conversation (unlike the recent move by USDA to take down research from its website that links antibiotic use in animals with resistant bacteria) -- as well as hold industry accountable when its practices put the public's health at risk.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Cargill Turkey Recall Initiated; Latest Deadly Outbreak Shows Food Safety Overhaul Needed

Update (Aug. 5, 2011): The USDA suspected a link between Cargill ground turkey and the Salmonella outbreak in mid-July, but did not ask Cargill to recall its products until this Wednesday.

Meatpacking giant Cargill has at last issued a recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey after a Salmonella outbreak reportedly killed one and sickened at least 76 others across 26 states. Before the recall announcement, government officials wouldn't hint at which company was involved despite signs pointing to a single facility, as conclusive data supposedly remained lacking. An FSIS press release came out only after Cargill's own press release circulated the wires, leading the agency to finally admit a link between Cargill ground turkey and the outbreak. All of Cargill’s recalled products (more details here) were produced at its Springdale, Arkansas plant, where Cargill said it has suspended production“until it could identify the source of the contamination and fix it”.
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