Food Bytes #6 (Jan. 20, 1998)
News & Analysis on Genetic Engineering & Factory Farming
Issue #6 (January 20, 1998)
by: Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign USA
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS OF NOTE:
*REBELLION MOUNTS AGAINST USDA'S PROPOSED NATIONAL ORGANIC STANDARDS
*OPRAH WINFREY "FOOD SLANDER" TRIAL OPENS IN AMARILLO, TEXAS JAN. 20
*EUROPEAN FARMERS AND CONSUMERS CONTINUE BATTLE AGAINST GENE FOODS
*MORE BIOTECH MADNESS
Consumers, Farmers, and Activist Groups Denounce USDA's Proposed National
Organic Food Standards as "Completely Unacceptable"
An unprecedented grassroots rebellion is spreading across the U.S. in the
wake of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's controversial Dec. 16
announcement of proposed federal regulations on organic foods. The USDA
rules would degrade organic standards and open the door for factory farm
and genetic engineering corporations to take over the nation's four billion
dollar organic food industry. (See Food Bytes #5). Hundreds of natural food
stores, co-ops, farmers markets, and holistic health centers have begun
setting up SOS (Save Organic Standards) literature displays (see color
photo at www.geocities.com/Athens/1527) and getting their workers and
customers to write protest letters to the USDA and elected public
officials. (See end of article for information on how to get a display up
in your natural food store.) The USDA admits that they have already
received thousands of comments from irate consumers, farmers, and
retailers. Because of the scope of the citizen backlash, the USDA
apparently has bowed to demands to extend the "official comment period" on
the rules for an additional 45 days, ending on May 1, 1998.
On January 15-16 over two dozen leading public interest organizations met
in Washington, D.C. and denounced the proposed USDA rules as totally
unacceptable. Public interest activists condemned the government proposals
for "redefining organic farming to make it no different from conventional
farming," and as "a power grab for Big Government" with potential
"horrendous economic impact" for the natural foods industry. The Washington
gathering included the Consumers Union, the Humane Society of the U.S., the
Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Technology Assessment, the
Rural Advancement Foundation International, the National Coalition Against
the Misuse of Pesticides, Organic Watch, the International Federation of
Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Greenpeace, Mothers and Others for a
Liveable Planet, and the Natural Law Party, among others, as well as
members of organic farming associations and the National Organic Standards
Board. A similar meeting of public interest groups is scheduled for
California tomorrow, preceding a national "Eco-Farm" conference outside
Monterey, California Jan. 21-24.
After noting more than 60 different "deal breakers" or violations of U.S.
federal law governing organic standards in the proposed rules, the
assembled non-government organizations (NGOs) reached consensus that the
USDA must take back or withdraw the proposed rules, fix them completely,
and then resubmit them for further public scrutiny and comment. Otherwise
NGOs and members of the government's own official advisory body, the
National Organic Standards Board, are willing to take strong action,
possibly including a lawsuit against the USDA in federal court to block
implementation of the fatally flawed rules.
(For further critiques of the proposed rules see: www.pmac.net as well
as www.iquest.net/ofma/sdbysd.htm ). In addition to the NGO, consumer, and
farmer backlash, members of the U.S. Congress, both Republicans and
Democrats, have begun expressing dissatisfaction with the USDA proposals,
with several supporting Congressional hearings unless the rules are
withdrawn and fundamentally rewritten. Moreover, in addition to public and
Congressional opposition there are divisions even within the Clinton
administration, with the hyper "free traders" in the U.S. Trade
Representative's office expressing opposition to any federal organic
American NGOs stress the importance of global solidarity on this issue. If
the U.S. government succeeds in significantly degrading current domestic
organic standards, this will likely initiate a "race to the bottom" with
multinational food and biotech corporations utilizing the GATT's World
Trade Organization (WTO) as a hammer to force "harmonization" of global
organic standards. Ironically enough the Clinton administration has touted
the new proposed USDA rules as a stimulant for exports of U.S. organic
foods and crops. But as a representative of IFOAM pointed out at the
Washington, D.C. gathering, the proposed rules must be withdrawn or else
the international organics movement and consumers worldwide will have no
choice but to boycott American organic products bearing the bogus USDA
label. At an upcoming international organic food conference in Germany,
NGOs and representatives of the natural food industry worldwide are
expected to denounce the USDA actions.
Activists and consumers worldwide are urged to send letters, faxes, and
emails to the USDA telling them to withdraw the proposed rules. Comments
from non-U.S. citizens will have to be counted and taken into consideration
by the USDA and the Clinton administration, and will provide valuable
"evidence" in forthcoming Congressional hearings and federal lawsuits.
Non-U.S. citizens should send in their comments to the same addresses as
Letters to the USDA should be sent to:
USDA--National Organic Standards
Docket # TMD-94-00-2
Address: USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275, P.O. Box 96456 Washington,
To send comments by Fax: (Include Docket Number) 202-690-4632
To send comments via email: see the USDA web site http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop
For help in writing effective comment letters to the USDA we are publishing
a special supplement to Food Bytes #6 with information provided by public
interest attorneys from Organic Watch, a U.S. coalition opposed to the
USDA's proposed organic standards.
This supplement is being emailed as a separate document.
In the U.S. protest events are being planned for four upcoming USDA public
hearings on the proposed standards. So far the USDA has tentatively
scheduled events for Austin, Texas on Feb. 12 and Ames, Iowa on Feb. 18,
with two additional hearings still to be scheduled. The USDA has announced
that public comments taken at these four hearings will become part of the
official comment record. Stay tuned to Food Bytes and the Pure Food
Campaign web site for further information.
In addition USA coordinators of the Third Global Days of Action (GDA)
against biotechnology and factory farming (scheduled to take place across
the world on April 15-May 1, 1998) have called for global actions to demand
strict organic food standards. On April 30 and May 1 in the United States
GDA/SOS (Save Organic Standards) activists will be staging demonstrations
and picket lines in front of USDA offices and other government buildings to
coincide with the final two days of the organic standards comment period.
Outside the U.S. NGOs and activists are urged to organize April 30-May 1
protests and other public education events in front of U.S. embassies and
Although thousands of protest letters, faxes, and emails have already been
received by the USDA, many thousands more are needed. Activists are
reminded once again to have their natural food retail stores, co-ops,
community restaurants, holistic practitioners, and farmers markets contact
the SOS campaign to set up an in-store SOS display. Over 400 co-ops and
businesses are already using these displays to encourage consumers to write
official comment letters to the USDA and their legislators while they are
shopping for organic foods. For in-store SOS displays have retailers or
businesses telephone 218-226-4164. For requests by Fax 218-226-4157. Or by
Oprah Winfrey and Activist Howard Lyman Go On Trial in Amarillo, Texas Jan.
20 in America's First "Food Slander" Trial
On Jan. 20 in the heart of cattle country, Amarillo, Texas,
host Oprah Winfrey and vegetarian food activist Howard Lyman will go on
trial for "food slander," the controversial law currently on the books in
13 U.S. states that make it a crime to criticize agribusiness food
practices. The Pure Food Campaign and the Center for Media and Democracy
(publisher of PR Watch magazine) first began campaigning against these
controversial anti-free speech, anti-activist food laws in 1995. Corporate
lobbyists pushing for the laws have included genetic engineering companies
such as Monsanto and factory farm associations such as the National
Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau.
Initially the U.S. mainstream media showed little interest in the food
disparagement laws. This began to change, however, after one of their own,
Oprah Winfrey, was charged under the statutes for airing a program in April
1996 that talked about the possibility of a Mad Cow-like epidemic
developing in the United States. Since then a flood of articles,
editorials, and T.V. programs have set the stage for what will likely be a
public relations disaster for the nation's gigantic meat cartels and
transnational food and chemical corporations. Passions surrounding the
trial in Texas are intense. Rabid cattlemen can be seen driving around
Amarillo with bumper stickers on their cars stating that "The only mad cow
around here is Oprah."
Although legal experts point out that the food slander laws are blatantly
unconstitutional, activists such as Ralph Nader and John Stauber emphasize
that the laws have already served to stifle journalists and intimidate food
activists. Meanwhile the Texas federal judge hearing the case has moved to
further silence Winfrey and Lyman by slapping a "gag order" on both
plaintiffs and defendants, preventing them from talking to the press until
the jury reaches a verdict in the case. The trial is expected to last 3-6
weeks. To provide background information, Food Bytes here reprints an
article from a recent issue of PR Watch. The world wide web site for PR
Watch is: http://www.prwatch.org/
Shut Up and Eat: The Beef Industry's Lawsuit Against Oprah Winfrey
On June 19, 1997 a British judge ruled that two environmental activists had
committed "McLibel" when they criticized the McDonald's restaurant chain
for serving fatty, unhealthy foods, damaging the environment, paying low
wages and mistreating animals.
Although Justice Rodger Bell acknowledged that there was a factual basis
for all of these criticisms, under Britain's reactionary libel law he ruled
that activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris were guilty anyway and ordered
them to pay $96,000 in damages.
In the United States, meanwhile, the food industry is working overtime to
enact British-style libel laws that make it easier to silence American
activists and journalists. The first target of such a lawsuit in the U.S.,
ironically enough, is Howard Lyman of the Humane Society of the U.S., who
is being sued along with Oprah Winfrey for warning on the Oprah Show about
the human dangers associated with England's epidemic of mad cow disease.
The United States legal system has historically placed a high value on
freedom of speech. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no
law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances."
New "agricultural product disparagement laws," however, are being placed on
the books precisely for the purpose of "abridging freedom of speech." The
new laws give the food industry unprecedented powers to sue people who
criticize their products, using standards of evidence which dramatically
shift the "burden of proof" in favor of the industry. "In them, American
agribusiness has its mightiest tool yet against food-safety activists and
environmentalists, whose campaigns can cost industry millions if they
affect consumers' buying habits," observes Village Voice reporter
The lawsuit against Howard Lyman, filed in 1996 by cattleman Paul Engler,
states that Lyman's warning about mad cow disease "goes beyond all possible
bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized community."
Apparently England is the type of intolerant "civilized community" that
Engler would like to emulate.
The lawsuit marks the first test case for a new legal standard which the
agriculture industry has spent the past half-decade introducing into dozens
of U.S. states. "All agricultural eyes will be watching this one," observed
one food industry lobbyist. Engler's attorney described the suit as "a
historic case; it serves as a real bellwether. It should make reporters and
journalists and entertainers--and whatever Oprah considers herself--more
Thirteen states to date have enacted "food disparagement" laws. Under
previous laws, the food industry bore the burden of proof. In order to win
a libel case, it had to prove that its critics were deliberately and
knowingly circulating false information.
Under the new laws, however, it doesn't matter that Lyman believes in his
statements, or even that he can produce scientists who will support him.
The industry will be able to convict him of spreading "false information"
if it can convince a jury that his statements on the Oprah show deviated
from "reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data"--a legal
standard which gives a clear advantage to the multi-billion-dollar beef
industry, particularly in Texas cattle country--and particularly with
respect to mad cow disease, an exotic illness whose characteristics
continue to baffle researchers.
Stranger than Fiction
The Oprah show aired on April 16, 1996, less than a month after the British
government reversed a decade of denial and admitted that consumption of
beef from mad cows was the "most likely" explanation for the appearance of
a bizarre, previously unseen dementia in humans known as "new variant
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease." Like conventional strains of Creutzfeldt-Jakob
Disease (CJD), the new variant strain is incurable and invariably fatal,
killing its victims by filling their brains with microscopic spongy holes.
Conventional CJD, however, almost always kills older
people--usually after the age of 50. The new variant came to light when
young people started dying, some of them still in their teens.
To date, 23 cases of the new disease have been documented in humans. The
number so far is small, and it is possible that it will stay small, but it
is by no means certain. Lyman's statement on the Oprah Show included his
opinion that mad cow disease could be worse than AIDS--an opinion which he
bases on the fact that both diseases can take years, even decades, to
incubate, thereby making it impossible to predict the size of an outbreak
during its early stages.
This parallel has also been noted by Luc Montagnier, the French scientist
who first discovered the infectious agent that causes AIDS. At the time of
his discovery in 1983, France had only seen a total of 200 AIDS cases. "I
did not realize the epidemic could spread so fast and so widely in the
world," he said, warning that the handful of early human victims from mad
cow disease could be the harbinger of a much larger epidemic. "It is very
difficult to predict, as it was for HIV in 1983," he said.
Mad cow disease belongs to a class of spongy brain diseases known as
"transmissible spongiform encephalopathies" TSEs which can take even longer
to incubate than AIDS. In Papua New Guinea, an epidemic of a human TSE
called kuru included cases in which more than 40 years passed between the
time of infection and the onset of illness.
No TSE had ever been documented in cows until the mid-1980s, and the total
number of bovine cases did not crack 1,000 until the year 1988. Since then,
however, more than 160,000 cases have been documented, and scientists
concur that most were infected during the period when the British
government was confidently claiming that "the number of confirmed cases . .
. is very small."
"In those days, it really was hard, in fact, nobody honestly could foresee
what was going to happen," British researcher Richard Kimberlin said in
1996. "Now it is all painfully clear, the sheer scale of the epidemic."
Amid the many mysteries surrounding the disease, however, one fact has
emerged undisputed. The disease in cows became an epidemic because of
modern farming practices, in particular the practice of feeding protein
derived from rendered cattle back to other cows. Howard Lyman's appearance
on the Oprah Winfrey show focused heavily on precisely this practice of
"cow cannibalism." He is being sued because he correctly told a national
audience that the U.S. meat industry is continuing to practice animal
cannibalism on a massive scale.
Following the first human deaths in England, the USDA and the cattle
reluctantly accepted a limited ban on feeding cattle remains back to cows.
In order to minimize the blow to industry, however, loopholes have been
written into the legislation. It remains legal to feed cattle remains to
pigs or chickens, and those remains can in turn be rendered and fed back to
cattle. In addition, cannibalistic feeding of pigs to pigs and chickens to
chickens remains a common practice which is fully legal under the new
These are the sort of practices that Lyman warned against, and which drew
outraged reactions of shock and surprise from Oprah Winfrey and her studio
audience. Government and industry insist that their limited regulations are
adequate to prevent future TSE outbreaks in the livestock industry, but not
A public debate over these practices would undoubtedly alarm U.S.
consumers. The U.S. food industry is anxious to avoid such a debate, which
is why it has taken extraordinary steps to silence Howard Lyman.
For another informative article on the Oprah Trial, written by noted
agribusiness critic Al Krebs, see
EU Consumers and Farmers Continue Battle Against Gene-Altered Foods
Europeans continue to lead the way in the global campaign against
genetically engineered foods and crops. On Jan. 15 the European Commission,
bowing to intense pressure from consumers and retailers, was forced to
scrap its proposal for partial labeling of genetically engineered foods and
instead refer the matter for further consideration and elaboration to the
European Council of Ministers. Greenpeace and other European NGOs welcomed
the move and vowed to continue their campaign for mandatory labeling and a
global moratorium on genetically manipulated foods and crops. In a
statement to the Reuters news agency on Jan. 15, Greenpeace pointed out
that consumer opposition to ge foods in Europe is growing, forcing even the
giant multinational grain companies to begin supplying large quantities of
certified non-genetically engineered grain to European food processors and
supermarket chains. According to Reuters: "Just this week one of the
world's top grain traders, Central Soya, announced it had already imported
into Europe two shiploads of segregated traditional soya which had been
segregated in North America. Other traders have been claiming it was
impossible to segregate. Central Soya said it could satisfy presently known
demand for GE-free soya."
Taking matters even further on Jan. 8, about 100 farmers from the second
largest French farmers union, the Confederation Paysanne (CP), attacked a
Novartis corporation conditioning and storage plant. The farmers destroyed
5 tons of transgenic maize, which some analysts suspect could be the entire
supply of Novartis' Bt corn seeds in France. Shortly after their dramatic
action, three CP representatives were arrested and jailed.
The CP farmers' trial is scheduled to take place Feb. 3 in Agen
(Aquitaine). Novartis is claiming at least $1 million US dollars in losses.
Anti-genetic engineering campaigners and farmers are currently organizing a
demonstration in front of the court building on the opening day of the
trial. Lawyers for the CP are seeking scientists and other experts who
oppose commercialization of genetically engineered crops to come to the
trial and testify as expert-witness. To send letters of support or for
further information contact the French NGO Ecoropa at: firstname.lastname@example.org
MORE BIOTECH MADNESS: MUTANT COTTON, SUPERCHARGED CIGARETTES AND COWS
More biotech blunders and disasters unfolded in January, with the usual
cast of characters:
* In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under heavy
pressure from public interest organizations and environmentalists, revoked
the permit for cotton farmers to spray RhonePoulenc's toxic herbicide
bromoxynil, which has been shown to kill fish and cause birth defects in
mammals. This means that cotton farmers are unlikely to be buying any more
of RhonePoulenc's genetically engineered, bromoxynil-resistant cotton
seeds. Another ag biotech miracle product bites the dust.
* On Jan. 14 Monsanto threatened to stop selling recombinant Bovine Growth
Hormone (rBGH or rBST) in the state of Vermont if mandatory licensing
provisions are implemented by the state. In a Jan. 7 letter to members of
the Vermont dairy industry Monsanto said pending state legislation would
"severely disrupt previously private business activity; and it would do so
in the absence of any legitimate state interest sufficient to justify the
intrusion into your privacy."
The Vermont rBGH disclosure bill calls for any supplier of rBGH who sells
or distributes the controversial genetically engineered hormone to be
licensed by the state. Suppliers would be required to maintain records of
purchasers' names and other information. This would enable retailers and
consumers to determine which of Vermont's milk and dairy products were
Despite strenuous efforts by Monsanto, who have invested almost a billion
dollars in the drug, to prevent labeling and intimidate anti-rBGH farmers,
processors and retailers rBGH has failed miserably in the U.S. marketplace.
Only approximately 4% of U.S. dairy cows are currently being injected with
* In a related development, the World Health Organization, meeting in Rome
Feb. 17-26 is expected to continue withholding approval for Monsanto's rBGH
on human safety grounds. Mounting evidence presented to the WHO indicates
that significantly higher levels of human growth hormone factor IGF-1 in
rBGH-derived milk and dairy elevates the risks for human breast and colon
cancer and may expose dairy cows to greater risks for coming down with Mad
Cow disease. The United States is so far the only industrialized country in
the world to have approved the controversial drug for commercialization.
Although rBGH is banned in Europe, the U.S. currently exports $30 million a
year in dairy products to the EU, the majority of which are not certified
as being rBGH-free.
* The DNA Plant Technology Corporation of Oakland, California, a major
biotechnology company (producer of the now defunct gene-altered "Endless
Summer" tomato), was indicted in U.S. Federal District Court on January 7
for criminal conspiracy in exporting high-nicotine, highly addictive,
genetically engineered tobacco to Brazil. After covertly growing the
tobacco in Brazil, five million pounds of the super-potent Y-1 tobacco were
reimported back to the U.S. and inserted in five major brands of
cigarettes. The transnational cigarette giant, Brown & Williamson, was
named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The U.S. Justice department alleged
in court documents that DNAP and B&W worked together to utilize the
genetically altered tobacco to manipulate the nicotine levels in tobacco
plants, thereby making tobacco products derived from the gene-altered
plants more addictive.
##End of Food Bytes #6 (Jan. 20, 1998)##