The FDA announced on August 21, 2008, that it will allow food producers to start irradiating fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce in an attempt to kill E. coli O157:H7 and other bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses, despite scientific and consumer concerns about the use of irradiation. The move comes in response to a petition filed by The National Food Processors Association, a trade group representing major food companies.
“Irradiation is not the solution to food-borne illness,” said Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “In fact, it serves to distract attention from the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture that create the problem in the first place.”
In 2006, California spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 sickened over 200 people, and killed three. A field investigation by FDA and the State of California identified the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle feces from a ranch close to where the spinach was grown.
Besides being the source of 3/4ths of the nation’s spinach, California is home to nearly 5 million cows which produce 15 million tons of manure every year—manure that often ends up in nearby waterways, including the ditches and channels of irrigation water for crops like spinach. Dried manure can even blow onto neighboring fields in clouds of dust.
“Irradiation kills some bacteria in our foods, but it is no substitute for measures to clean up the huge animal operations that pollute our waterways and irrigation water with the raw manure that often carries pathogenic bacteria,” said Freese.
Contamination of leafy greens is not a new problem. According to the California Department of Health Services, in the last 11 years, 20 E. coli outbreaks have been linked to “leafy products” grown in California, including two related to spinach.
“Food companies are also seeking FDA permission to label irradiated foods as ‘pasteurized’—an obvious attempt to conceal from consumers the fact that foods are being irradiated,” added Freese.
Food irradiation uses high-energy Gamma rays, electron beams, or X-rays (all of which are millions of times more powerful than standard medical X-rays) to break apart the bacteria and insects that can hide in meat, grains, and other foods. Radiation is one of the more destructive forces in nature, and scientific studies have documented that irradiation can dramatically lower the nutritional content of foods, particularly vitamin A and folate, an essential B vitamin. The FDA’s proposal concedes that irradiation will make spinach less nutritious.
“Fresh spinach is extremely nutritious, as every mother knows. Irradiation will rob it of some of those essential nutrients, all to avoid tackling the problem at its source,” said Freese. -The Center for Food Safety [Ed. Note: National Organic Standards prohibit the use of food irradiation.]
In early August, the Center for Food Safety and other consumers and farm groups declared a victory for consumers in the ongoing “milk wars” when the the Monsanto Company announced that it was “pursuing a divestiture of its dairy product, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), in the upcoming months.” This decision by the biotech giant to drop its line of artificial bovine growth hormones, Monsanto’s first biotech product, comes after a nearly five-year decline in use of rBST, which was marketed under the name “Posilac.”
“What’s happened could be a great victory for the American consumer,” says Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “Monsanto has recognized that consumers have made a choice to avoid milk made with genetically engineered growth hormones, and that the dairies and markets that serve their needs are not buying milk made with their product. They have clearly judged the time right to get out of the failing artificial growth hormone business.”
In 1994, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone, the FDA also said that the following label statement, in proper context, is acceptable: “from cows not treated with rBST.” Last year, Monsanto asked FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to declare these labels to be misleading. In August 2007, the FTC wrote to Monsanto, “The FTC staff agrees with FDA that food companies may inform consumers in advertising, as in labeling, that they do not use rBST.”
Subsequent attempts by Monsanto to ban such labeling at the state level have met with strong resistance from local consumers, advocacy groups, farmers and dairies. Earlier this summer, an overwhelming public backlash forced Pennsylvania Governor Rendell to rescind an order from his Dept. of Agriculture to remove labels from milk identifying it as produced without use of rBGH. A similar rule put forward in Ohio is now under legal challenge by groups representing farmers, dairies and consumers (the Center for Food Safety is a co-plaintiff).
“When Monsanto failed to get the federal government to remove ‘rBST-Free’ labels, they went after states like Pennsylvania and Ohio to ban labels, but they’ve been fought every step of the way,” said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. “They have clearly seen and understood that public demand is in favor of transparency and truth when it comes to what’s on our plates.”
Scientists and physicians have long raised questions about the long-term safety of consuming milk from cows treated with rBGH, concerns stemming from the milk’s increased levels of insulin-like growth factor, another powerful hormone. Regulators in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and all 27 nations of the European Union have banned rbGH due to adverse effects on animal health. Cows injected with the hormone show increased risks for infertility and lameness as well as for udder infections, which are treated with antibiotics. Antibiotic use on animals is a major cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a major public health threat.
Numerous polls show that there is widespread consumer demand for milk produced by cows not treated with artificial hormones and the market is responding to that demand. A June 2007 Consumer Reports National Research Center poll of over 1,000 people nationwide found that 76 percent of consumers were concerned with dairy cows given synthetic growth hormones and 88 percent agreed that milk from cows raised without synthetic bovine growth hormone should be allowed to be labeled as such.
Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone business has been in decline since 2002, according to a recent USDA report. The number of dairy cows injected with rBGH dropped from 22.3 percent of all U.S. cows in 2002 to 17.2 percent in 2007, a nearly 23 percent drop. This trend in response to market demand continues: in 2008, many more dairies have announced that are going rBST-free. -Center for Food Safety
Eli Lilly’s Elanco division will pay more than $300 million for Monsanto’s artificial dairy cow hormone that increases milk production but faces mounting public concerns over its safety.
The Indianapolis drug maker, which has been investing more heavily in its animal health business in the past two years, said it is ready to take on the task of promoting the BST hormone, called Posilac, as a farming tool that can boost milk supplies for a world hungry for more dairy products.
Posilac opponents point to studies that show cows given Posilac have higher rates of udder infections. They also say the hormone increases a substance, called bovine insulin-like growth factor 1, that has been linked to cancer and is passed on to humans through the milk.
“We are very familiar with it (Posilac), and we are familiar with the controversy,” said Elanco spokeswoman Joan Todd after the deal was announced Wednesday. “We’ve got to feed a growing global population. This is a recognized, safe and effective way to do it.”
Monsanto said in August that it was putting the product up for sale after marketing it for 14 years. The genetically engineered protein is injected into dairy cows to boost milk production an average of 15 percent by preventing mammary cell death.
The sale agreement gives Lilly worldwide rights to the product, the Posilac sales force and the sole production plant in Augusta, Ga. Some of the more than 200 Monsanto employees who will join Lilly will be moved to Elanco’s offices in Hancock County.
Lilly knows the product well. It has been selling Posilac outside the United States the past 10 years under a marketing agreement with St. Louis-based Monsanto.
Expected to be final in October, the deal is the largest product acquisition Elanco has made. The upfront price amounts to about a third of Elanco’s $1 billion in annual sales from all its animal health products. Lilly also will pay Monsanto a portion of future Posilac sales, plus assume royalty payments Monsanto makes to the University of California related to the product.
Food activists who have depicted Posilac as unsafe for cows and for humans who drink the cows’ milk vowed to include Lilly in their anti-Posilac campaigns.
“We’re definitely going to set our sights on Eli Lilly right now,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association. “One of the most hated products in the world is now going to be tarnishing the image of Eli Lilly.” -Organic Consumers Association, Indianapolis Star
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) introduced three bills designed to protect consumers, defend farmers’ rights, and increase food safety on July 29. The bills collectively create a comprehensive framework to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“We have a responsibility to put the public health and the environment before profits. These bills spell out common sense precautions.”
The three bills are titled, respectively, H.R. 6636, The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, H.R. 6635, The Genetically Engineered Safety Act, and H.R. 6637, The Genetically Engineered Farmer Protection Act.
H.R. 6636, The Genetically Engineered Food Right To Know Act, would require mandatory labeling of all foods that contain or are produced with genetically modified material. A legal framework to ensure labeling accuracy without significant economic hardship would also be established.
H.R. 6635, The Genetically Engineered Safety Act, would require that genetically engineered foods follow a food safety review process to prevent contamination of food supplies by pharmaceutical and industrial crops. This Act would also require that the FDA screen all genetically engineered foods to ensure they are safe for human consumption.
H.R. 6637, The Genetically Engineered Farmer Protection Act, places liability from the impacts of genetically engineered organisms on the biotechnology companies that created the GMOs, and protects farmers from lawsuits by biotechnology companies
“We are eating genetically engineered foods every day. Farmers are sowing genetically engineered seeds every day. Yet, we have never studied the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms on our health, our children or our environment. Congress must take steps to maximize the benefit and minimize the risks of biotechnology.”
Congressman Kucinich has used his position as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy to examine food safety issues and the rights of farmers. A Subcommittee hearing held by Rep. Kucinich in March that examined the impact on farmers caused by contamination of conventional crops by genetically engineered plants significantly influenced these bills. -Organic Consumers Association, www.kucinich.house.gov
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer recently announced that beginning in August 2008, USDA will begin listing retail stores receiving meat and poultry products involved in Class I recalls—those of the most serious concern to public health. For some recalls, specific product information useful to consumers is not available to help identify recalled products that may still be in their home. This announcement provides a 30-day notice after the rule is published in the Federal Register before the process of listing retail stores takes effect.
“The identity of retail stores with recalled meat and poultry from their suppliers has always been a missing piece of information for the public during a recall,” said Schafer. “People want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store and by providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will improve public health protection by better informing consumers.”
USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will post on its Web site a list of retail stores that receive products subject to Class I recalls, the highest risk category, generally within three to ten business days of issuing the recall release. A Class I recall is one that involves a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems. Retail stores include supermarkets or other grocery stores, convenience stores, meat markets, wholesale clubs and supercenters. FSIS will not identify distribution centers, institutions or restaurants, since they prepare food for immediate consumption without packaging that is identifiable or available to consumers.
During the recall process, FSIS personnel verify that the recalling firm has been diligent and successful in notifying its customers of the need to retrieve and control recalled products and that the customers have responded accordingly. During the recall effectiveness checks, FSIS compiles a list of subsequent recipients as the recalled products are traced through each level of distribution to the retail level. The list of retail stores and locations compiled by FSIS personnel during this process will be posted on the FSIS Web site www.fsis.usda.gov and shared with State and local public health officials where the retail stores are located.
Recall announcements from FSIS always include the name of the establishment recalling the meat or poultry, the reason for the recall, a description of the recalled product, any identifying product codes, the recall classification and contact information at FSIS and the company involved. The additional information releasing the names of retail stores receiving recalled meat and poultry will improve the consumers’ ability to identify and discard or return the products they may have purchased and may still have in their home by checking the list of stores and locations. -www.usda.gov
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (NOP) announced recently that 15 of the 30 accredited organic certifiers they recently inspected failed the USDA audit and will have 12 months to make corrections or lose their accreditation with the NOP. Although the USDA euphemistically calls their enforcement actions “renewal pending subsequent audit,” it is clear that there are numerous violations of organic standards taking place in the U.S. and across the world. A number of the violations noted in the several-hundred page audit related to Chinese imports certified by the French-based organic certifier Ecocert and other certifiers.
Strangely enough, Quality Assurance International (QAI), the largest organic certifier in the world, is not cited by the USDA, even though the OCA has recently reviewed documents that indicate that QAI is indeed under investigation by the NOP. QAI has recently been in the news for sourcing ginger, contaminated with a dangerous and banned pesticide, Aldicarb, from its Chinese certification sub-contractors and then labeling it as “USDA Organic.” QAI is also under public fire, along with other certifiers, for certifying factory farm feedlot dairies supplying milk to Horizon and Aurora Organic Dairy, who in turn supply Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, and other organic private label organic milk. -Organic Consumers Association