FOOD BYTES News & Analysis on Genetic Engineering & Factory Farming Issue #8 (April 21, 1998) by: Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign/SOS (Save Organic Standards) email: firstname.lastname@example.org - http://www.purefood.org ____________________________________________________________________
*U.S. Organic Standards: The Battle Continues
*Food Irradiation: Another Assault on Public Health & Consumer Choice
*Monsanto and Fox TV Supress Investigative Report on rBGH ____________________________________________________________________
Organic Standards: Who Really Speaks for the Organic Consumer?
Quote of the Month: "Where in our mission statement do we talk about trying to be liberal, progressive, or universal?" John Mackey, CEO of the billion dollar natural food supermarket chain, Whole Foods. Quoted by Jim Motavalli in the April 5, 1998 issue of In These Times.
Question of the Month: Who really speaks for the U.S.'s several million hard-core organic consumers and the thousands of small to medium-sized coops, retailers, processors, certifiers, and farmers who have painstakingly built up a nationwide organic food network over the past 30 years? Who is responsible for the mobilization since December 15 of several thousand stores, coops, and farmers markets and the distribution of almost a million leaflets and newsletters? Who has organized and inspired over 100,000 people to write protest letters to the USDA and call their legislators demanding that the USDA's bogus organic regulations be withdrawn?
According to the New York Times, in a March 25 article by Marian Burros, the massive grassroots backlash to the USDA's proposed organic rules has been organized primarily by the Whole Foods supermarket chain, Horizon Organic Dairy, and the Organic Trade Association (OTA). From the standpoint of the grassroots, the Times might benefit from a bit more fact-checking. If the Times had bothered to speak with the real rank-and-file of the organic food movement they might have learned that Whole Foods, Horizon, and most of the other "Big Players" in the natural foods industry (with notable exceptions such as Eden Foods and Wild Oats) : (1) have been rather slow to get involved; (2) have contributed almost no funds to the overall grassroots effort; (3) have most often been deliberately narrow in their objections to the proposed rules (focusing too much on the obvious big three--biotech, sludge, and irradiation--while ignoring other equally crucial issues such as factory farm intensive confinement and organic certifiers' rights to certify and label according to higher standards); and (4) have consistently been far too willing to compromise--even claiming up to the present moment that a "satisfactory agreement" can likely be reached with the USDA. Nonetheless, the grassroots organic movement would certainly welcome a miraculous transformation in the Big Players' behavior. If Whole Foods, Horizon, and the top leadership of the OTA ever find the courage to really stand up to the USDA and support the grassroots organic movement, we'll be among the first to congratulate them. In the meantime, as Bob Dylan warned a number of years ago: "Don't follow leaders. Watch your parking meters." ____________________________________________________________________
Organic Standards: What's the USDA Got Up Their Sleeve?
Since last July we've done our best to warn people about the diabolical maneuvers of the USDA and the agribusiness special interests whom they represent. Food Bytes was among the first to sound the warning on the "big three" and other issues and to predict just how bad the December proposed rules would actually be. So far our Washington sources and our analyses of the crisis have been pretty much on the mark. Likewise our allies' and our own suggestions for strategy and tactics (see Food Bytes #7, "National Organic Standards: The Battle We Can't Afford to Lose") have seemed to resonate with a lot of folks. Now it's time for another warning: beware the recent conciliatory rhetoric coming from the USDA. Although Glickman and company are doing their utmost to sound reasonable, their game plan remains the same. They are presently modifying their tactics, and are willing to postpone a confrontation on some of the major issues, but their overall strategy remains the same. They intend to divide and conquer the organic movement, ram through factory farm and biotech friendly organic regulations, and criminalize dissent.
In an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on March 26, USDA head Dan Glickman admitted that "This is probably the largest public response to an (Agriculture Department) rule in modern history." After his typical rhetoric that the final rules will be neither "offensive" nor "objectionable," Glickman let slip, however, that the government will act "in the total public interest" (i.e. in the interest of large multinational corporations, food processors, gene engineers, and supermarket chains), rather than basing federal regulations solely on what organic consumers, retailers, and farmers want. In the same article, Regina Hildwine, a spokeswoman for the powerhouse National Food Processors Association (NFPA), made an even more revealing statement when she categorized consumer and industry critics of the proposed rules as "true believers who seem to be on a holy war" against the USDA. In an article published March 23 by Reuters, Hildwine emphasized that the USDA's proposed rules (vocally supported by their favorite "big three" trade associations--the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the NFPA, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization) have nothing to do with the issues or concerns of consumers. As Hildwine put it, "Organic does not mean safer. Organic does not mean healthier."
Any lingering doubts concerning Clinton administration treachery were recently dispelled by the magazine Mother Jones. In their May-June 1998 issue Mother Jones published revealing 1997 internal USDA documents on the proposed organic rules. As Mother Jones writer Leora Broydo states, the "internal USDA documents... show the agency has bowed to pressure from biotech interests and flouted the recommendations of a congressionally empowered board of representatives from the organic industry..." Among other gems the memo describes USDA plans to take away the 1990 statutory power of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to decide what's allowed or prohibited under the organic label (a statutory power White House lawyers now claim is possibly unconstitutional), as well as USDA plans to degrade traditional organic rules and practices on genetically engineered food and inputs, antibiotics, pesticides, ingredient requirements, and food additives, among others. The USDA memo also makes it clear that Washington bureaucrats consider it a "Hot Issue" to prevent the nation's several dozen non-governmental private organic certifiers from certifying and labeling organic products utilizing standards higher than the minimum standards dictated by the USDA. On the internet the USDA "smoking gun" documents can be found at: http://www.motherjones.com
After the official comment period closes on April 30, what should we expect from the USDA? First of all expect a delay, combined with a PR message that they're "listening to the people." The USDA fully expects consumer and organic industry rage to die down after the comment period ends. The Agency will utilize this lull period to make tactical adjustments in the rules as well as to reach out to the Big Players in the organic industry and the Congress to "make a deal." The USDA and Monsanto were heartened by a recent Organic Trade Association poll of its organizational members which found 28% would accept a non-prohibition on genetically engineered inputs as long as the government decided on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on a "case-by-case" basis. The nuclear and sludge industry noted with some disappointment that only 6% would allow irradiated food under the organic label and only 5% would allow sewage sludge, but were happy that 24% of OTA members believe that nuclear irradiation is an acceptable practice for conventional agriculture.
Even more heartening to Corporate America, on the absolutely crucial issue of lowering traditional organic standards so as to allow for the intensive confinement of farm animals and other factory farm practices, under which rules the nation's meat, poultry, and dairy cartels stand to make billions of dollars in extra profits, the OTA leadership has been noticeably silent. On the issue of higher standards, the USDA tactic will continue to be to try to divide the state government certifiers from the non-governmental private certifiers by claiming they'll allow the states to have higher standards (which is doubtful), while prohibiting non-governmental certifiers from upholding higher standards. The USDA has determined that the OTA's Big Players will allow private organic certifiers' rights to be suppressed, and eco-labels to be banned or restricted, as long as there is a postponement or modification on the "big three" and lip service paid to NOSB recommendations.
After April 30 we can expect an official announcement that the USDA intends to resubmit new proposed rules, probably in 1999 (or at least after the November 1998 elections). Some sources warn, however, that the USDA could carry out a "preemptive strike" as soon as late-summer. A number of agribusiness and biotech hardliners would prefer for the USDA to implement legally binding interim or final rules as quickly as possible, but the administration appears to believe that this tactic is too risky before the November elections. Meanwhile Monsanto and the biotechnology industry have decided that pushing too hard for blanket approval of genetically engineered organisms at the present time is a mistake. The door will be left open under the new USDA definition of GMOs for certain gene altered inputs (enzymes, production aids, rBGH, etc.), but Monsanto has agreed to a three year moratorium on genetically engineered seeds and organisms. According to informed sources in Washington, the new 1998 or1999 proposed organic rules will revise somewhere between 50-70% of the controversial proposals contained in the first round of rules. However there will not be a permanent prohibition of the big four (genetic engineering, toxic sludge, irradiation, or intensive confinement/factory farming), nor a relaxation of the ultimate "deal-breaker," outlawing non-governmental certifiers from certifying and labeling according to higher standards. The USDA instead will propose that, after a three year moratorium, genetically engineered organisms be decided on a case-by-case basis, that the Environmental Protection Agency tighten up its standards on sewage sludge (making them more closely resemble EU standards) prior to any legally binding decision, and that, while nuking organic food for the moment will be forbidden, no permanent prohibition on irradiating food will be implemented.
Regarding the statutory powers of the NOSB to decide on what's allowed on the "National List" of organic inputs, the USDA will continue its efforts to erode NOSB's powers, rather than eliminate them all at once. Over time the USDA expects to pack the NOSB board with more agribusiness friendly members, meanwhile cultivating those current Board members whom they consider "more reasonable" and open to compromise. Monsanto and others now believe that NOSB attitudes (or Board membership) can be altered within three or more years. Finally, the USDA has learned their lesson in terms of allowing a relatively long (in the first round 135 days) official comment period. The next time around we can expect a much shorter comment period. In fact the USDA may not allow more than 30 days, hardly enough time for the public to respond to another lengthy, barely intelligible document.
So what should the organic movement do after April 30 to derail the
USDA's next moves? How can food activists prevent the Big Players in the
organics industry from brokering The Great Compromise? In simplest terms,
we must continue raising hell. We must organize ourselves into a more coherent
and powerful movement. Educate and agitate in every community. Ally ourselves
more closely with the international organic movement. Prepare the groundwork
for a global boycott of everything labeled "USDA Organic" once
the final bogus rules are implemented. Turn up the heat on the U.S. Congress,
as we've already begun to do. (Some U.S. Senators have already received
over 500 letters and phone calls from angry constituents). Demand an investigation
by the Governmental Accounting Office (GAO). Organize thousands of people
into grassroots action networks (telephone, fax, and email) in all 50 states
and 435 Congressional Districts. And last, but not least, support non-governmental
private and state certifier efforts to bypass the USDA and adopt our own
standards and labels for "real organic" foods. (See next article.)
Organic Certifiers Declare Independence from the USDA
At what can only be described as an historic meeting April 3-4 in Chicago, Illinois, several dozen of the U.S.'s leading private (non-governmental) and state organic certifiers roundly rejected the USDA's proposed organic rules as completely "unacceptable" and began the process of establishing a National Independent Accreditation system for organic products. This Independent Accreditation system will provide a national and internationally-recognized set of standards and labels which will serve as an alternative to the forthcoming "USDA Organic" federal regulations.
The certifying organizations gathered in Chicago agreed to move beyond
the current patchwork of private and state U.S. organic regulations and
unite around a unified system of strict standards based upon current high
standards already in place, NOSB recommendations, IFOAM (International
Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) standards, and recent official
comments made to the USDA. At the April meeting the certifiers set up a
broad-based National Independent Accreditation Steering Committee (NIASC),
designed to represent all stakeholders in the organic community. The NIASC
has been delegated to come up with recommendations for a national and internationally
recognized accreditation and standard setting proposal for the organic
industry by June 1, 1998. The NIASC currently includes representatives
from leading organic certifiers (three private and one state), as well
as representatives from organic inspectors, farmers, retailers, handlers,
and consumer organizations. Food Bytes is happy to announce that Ronnie
Cummins has been selected as one of the two representatives from consumer
organizations. The next meeting of the NIASC is scheduled for May 8-10
in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Nuking America's Dirty Food: Another Assault on Public Health & Consumer Choice
As you (see Food Bytes #3) undoubtedly already know, America's corporate food giants, especially the meat cartels, currently have a serious "image" problem. Upwards of 80% of consumers, in a variety of polls, have expressed increasing concern over food safety issues. The recent "Mad Cow/Food Slander" trial of Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman in Texas (see http://www.prwatch.org/) and the BSE panic in Europe underline the dangerous and volatile situation that industry faces. But in order to guarantee themselves hefty profits, the Food Lords have become dependent upon a national, and increasingly global, system of factory farms and industrialized food production and processing. This system is based upon heavy use of toxic chemicals, drugs, steroids, hormones, rendered animal protein (animal cannibalism), toxic sewage and industrial sludge, genetic engineering, raw manure (as low-cost feed for animals), and other questionable practices. As a direct result of this "profit-at-any-cost" food regime American consumers suffer from a literal Guinness Book of World Records epidemic of food poisoning, obesity, food allergies, antibiotic resistance, and food-related cancers, as well as immune, reproductive, and developmental disorders--not to mention an increasingly contaminated water supply and environment. As a USDA microbiologist admitted to Time magazine, the processed chicken in America's supermarkets is "no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it."
Business as usual finds corporate America's mega-feedlots, slaughterhouses, hog and poultry operations, and processing plants filled with sick, drugged, filthy, and diseased animals, most of whom have been intensively confined, terrorized, pumped full of antibiotics, and transported in hellish conditions over long distances. To guarantee even higher profits, large slaughterhouses are typically run at breakneck speed, with little or no regard for basic sanitation, public health, or the safety and welfare of the hapless (generally Latino or African-American, often illegal immigrant) workers who are unfortunate enough to have to work in these "modern" animal factories. For an in-depth expose of America's meat industry, read Gail Eisnitz's recently-released book, Slaughterhouse: the Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment inside the U.S. Meat Industry (Prometheus Books, 1997)
As reported in previous Food Bytes, the majority of non-organically produced American meat products are now routinely contaminated with feces, bacteria, and dangerous pathogens such as e-coli, salmonella, and campylobacter--not to mention pesticide and drug residues. No wonder 51% of American consumers recently polled by Prevention magazine said they would gladly buy "certified" organic meat and poultry if these products were available in their local communities. No wonder the meat cartels have prevailed upon the USDA to allow factory farm style intensive confinement, antibiotics, non-organic feed, rendered animal protein, irradiation, and other conventional agribusiness practices under the proposed "USDA Organic" label. Tyson, Perdue, ConAgra, Cargill, IBP, and the other meat giants know full well that millions of safety conscious and ethically concerned meat-eaters are ready and willing to go organic. The big ag players just want to make sure that real organic standards, as currently practiced by free-range and certified organic small ranchers and farmers, are eliminated, or at least degraded sufficiently, so that their factory-farmed brand name products end up on supermarket shelves at bargain prices with USDA labels that say organic.
The problem, however, is that Factory Farm Inc.'s current products are so contaminated they can no longer keep the nation's (and the world's) consumer backlash under control. When even government bureaucrats admit that every non-vegetarian in America is probably getting food poisoning at least once a year, when every media organization drools at the prospect of another sensational, ratings-boosting food safety story, it's time for decisive action. Not decisive action in the sense of cleaning up or making their operations more humane. Rather decisive action in terms of utilizing nuclear waste to irradiate feces and bacterially-contaminated meat and produce.
Never mind that food irradiation destroys 20-80% of essential vitamins and nutrients (this in addition to nutrients destroyed through cooking or canning), that it produces carcinogenic byproducts such as benzene and formaldehyde (which in turn are augmented by other carcinogenic byproducts after food is fried or overcooked), that it kills off beneficial bacteria and creates ideal breeding conditions for deadly aflatoxins and botulism, that new, virulent radiation-resistant bacteria will emerge, that having food irradiation facilities in hundreds of towns and communities will inevitably mean more radioactive spills and accidents. Never mind that food irradiation will give the nuclear industry a propaganda boost and provide a way to get rid of some of their radioactive waste--thereby prolonging the life of a deadly industry that should have been phased-out long ago. Never mind that animals fed irradiated food in numerous experiments developed cancer tumors, kidney damage, sterility, lung damage and heart problems, and that children in India fed irradiated wheat suffered chromosome damage
For further information on Food Irradiation see the Pure Food website at: http://www.purefood.org Or call the activist organization Food and Water at 1-800-EAT SAFE or 802-563-3300. You may also want to search for several books in your library such as Food Irradiation: Who Wants It? by Tony Webb and Tim Lang; or The Food That Would Last Forever by Dr. Gary Gibbs; or the Biology of Food Irradiation by David Murray.
The problem up until now for the food giants has been that U.S. federal law basically requires mandatory labeling of irradiated food sold at the retail level (except for spices and processed food ingredients). Since 77% of Americans remain opposed to irradiated food--despite a barrage of pseudo-scientific propaganda--manufacturers and retailers are fearful of forcing yet another unpopular food technology on the public. Consequently less than 10% of spices and vegetable seasonings, and an even much smaller percentage of poultry and produce, are currently irradiated. However the solution is simple: stop labeling. On Nov. 21, 1997 President Clinton began this process by signing into law the so-called Food and Drug Administation (FDA) Reform Bill. This bill included an industry-inserted section that allows manufacturers to stop telling consumers on the front of a food package that the food has been irradiated. Instead Corporate America can now tell folks the bad news in tiny letters on the back of the package.
But even this isn't enough. In closed-door industry and government meetings over the past several years food giants such as McDonald's and ConAgra have made it clear that they will never irradiate their food products until all government labeling provisions are eliminated. But once labeling is outlawed, nearly everyone has agreed they will get on board. Formalizing this decision on behalf of its members, on February 9, 1998 the National Food Processors Association (yes, the trade association lobbying overtime to degrade organic standards), with a wink and nod from the Clinton administration, filed a legal petition with the government to facilitate an end to the labeling of all irradiated foods. The question is no longer will the government take away consumers rights to know whether their food has been irradiated, just as they've already done with genetically engineered foods, but only when it will do so. Food Bytes predicts they'll wait at least until after the 1998 November federal elections.
Of course the one good thing about the wholesale nuking of the American
food chain and the simultaneous taking away of labeling rights for consumers
is that this will create yet an even greater demand for foods labeled "certified
organic" or "non-irradiated." This is assuming of course
that we stop the USDA and the NFPA from degrading organic standards and
outlawing alternative eco-labeling. In any case another huge food fight
looms on the horizon. Stay tuned to Food Bytes for further information.
Monsanto and Fox TV Unite to Suppress Journalists' Free Speech on Hazards of Genetically Engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST)
On April 2 two award-winning Florida TV producers, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, held press conferences in Tampa and Tallahassee to announce a lawsuit against a Fox TV network television station, WTVT. The reporters sued Fox for firing them after they refused to broadcast false reports about Monsanto's controversial genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST). Akre and Wilson were fired after a year-long battle over a TV news feature series they produced which highlighted the public health dangers of Monsanto's rBGH (increased antibiotic residues, increased levels of a potent human growth hormone factor called IGF-1, linked to the promotion of cancer tumors). Shortly before the original TV series was to run, an attorney from Monsanto contacted Fox TV and demanded that the script be altered. The station gave in to Monsanto's demands and told Akre and Wilson to rewrite and tone down the script. One year and 73 rewrites later Monsanto still wasn't satisfied and Akre and Wilson were fired. rBGH was approved by the FDA in February, 1994, with no labeling or special pre-market safety testing required, despite massive opposition by consumers and dairy farmers, and over the objections of scientific experts from the Consumers Union, the Cancer Prevention Coalition, and other organizations.
At the April 2 press conference, Jane Akre emphasized that the public has a right to know the truth about the health hazards of rBGH, despite the strongarm tactics of Monsanto:
"Every parent and every consumer has the right to know what they're pouring on their children's morning cereal. We set out to tell Florida consumers the truth about a giant chemical company and a powerful dairy lobby. That used to be something investigative reporters won awards for. As we've learned the hard way, it's something you can be fired for these days..."
As reported by Jeanette Batz in the St. Louis newsweekly, Riverfront Times, David Boylan, WTVT station manager, was blunt in demanding that Akre and Wilson tell the story about rBGH the way Monsanto wanted it told. "We (the Fox TV network) paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is." So much for freedom of the press in the era of Corporate Power. Full details of the lawsuit and the BGH story are available at: http://www.foxBGHsuit.com
Food Bytes salutes Jane Akre and Steve Wilson for their courage and journalistic integrity. We're proud to say we worked with them in developing their censored story on rBGH and Monsanto.