It’s a well-known PR tactic to release bad or potentially unpopular news during the Holiday Season. So I always keep my eyes peeled to catch any news releases that might otherwise slip the net. I didn’t have to wait long. On December 21, when most people were focusing on their upcoming festivities, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly released its draft environmental assessment on the highly controversial genetically engineered (GE) salmon, created by AquaBounty Technologies Inc.
As the year comes to an end it’s become a tradition of mine to write a note of gratitude to Big Ag for the many ‘gifts’ they’ve given us throughout the year that we didn’t really want, need or – in some cases – didn’t even know about. Here’s my top 10 for 2012... #10 – Undermining Organic With Industrial Practices Many people are putting their faith in the “certified organic” label as an easy way to support farming systems that care about animal welfare, our health and the health of the planet. But the popularity of organic food is attracting industrial-scale operators who are exploiting the organic regulations for their own short-term gains. In October, news broke that a large-scale “organic” egg producer was being sued for making misleading marketing claims about the welfare of its chickens. Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs’ cartons feature images of hens roaming on green fields, while the carton explains the hens are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’.” Yet it’s alleged that the birds are kept in covered sheds with no outdoor access, misleading consumers. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident...
Last week, the “No on 37” campaign was called out for allegedly misusing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s logo on a campaign flyer opposing the labeling of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in food. The “No on 37” campaign flyer includes the FDA logo next to a quote (allegedly) from the FDA which states that a GM labeling policy like Prop 37 would be “inherently misleading.” The clear implication from this flyer is that the FDA stands with the “No on 37” campaign and opposes the labeling of GM ingredients in food. Yet according to a Reuters report, FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky has clearly stated that the agency had made no such statement and had no position on the initiative.
Two separate but very much related events that could radically change the way America farms and feeds itself are big in the news right now. Both concern a matter dear to my heart: Food labeling. As leading food and ag writer, Tom Philpott, recently wrote, the upcoming vote in California on Proposition 37 “could spur a revolution in the way our food is made.” If adopted, Prop 37 would simply require the labeling of food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
Despite the recent recession, it’s great to see that demand for high-welfare, sustainable meats, dairy products, and eggs continues to grow. As the public wakes up to the negative impacts of intensive farming, they’re looking for food labels that provide real assurances that the food they buy is healthful, and produced with animal welfare and the environment in mind. Many different businesses have now set up programs to offer consumers certain assurances about the food they buy. It goes without saying that the many different labels offered by food businesses vary enormously in terms of their scope and operation. However, most of the claims are centered on claims that farmers are using humane, sustainable farming practices, or that animals are fed a strictly controlled diet, or that medications or hormones are restricted or even prohibited. Since it’s impossible for each of us to go out and check the farms ourselves, we effectively take it on face value that the food label we choose to support really does deliver the benefits that it promises.
It pains me to say it but there are some very real connections between BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and the recent "pink slime" fiasco that need to be aired. I am not saying that "pink slime" (lean finely textured beef or LFTB for short) represents anything like the public health hazard that potentially BSE-infected meat could represent. Regulations are now in place to ensure that specified risk material is removed from every beef carcass so it does not enter the human food chain, and that the feeding of ground-up cattle remains back to cattle has been banned since 1997. However, it's hard to ignore the fundamental similarities of the two incidents and, more importantly, the underlying circumstances and mindsets that led to the adoption in both cases of some highly questionable industry practices -- practices that most people would have almost certainly have opposed had they been given the chance.
Whether it’s the regular tweets of the big-name food pundits or the countless anonymous contributors to online food discussions, an astonishing amount of advice is now dished out on what food we should buy and where we should buy it. While much of this guidance is sound and reasonable, some of it is wildly inaccurate or just downright unrealistic. Take the latest mantra that cropped up in an online discussion that I was following: ‘Before you buy any food you should go and visit the farm, because that will answer all your questions.’ Buying direct from the farm or at the farmers’ market is something I wholeheartedly enjoy supporting. In doing so, my family hasn’t bought into the appalling practices of industrial agriculture; we’ve used our dollars to support local farms - and the food usually tastes great, too. But is it realistic to expect every conscientious consumer to have the time and ability to actually visit the farm first – let alone the expertise to assess what they see when they get there?
Last week, The Daily broke the news that the USDA planned to buy 7 million pounds of Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) – otherwise known as “pink slime” – for school lunches. Some reports state that 70% of prepackaged grind on retailers' shelves contain it. The resulting backlash has had more effect than anyone expected. Following a public outcry and hundreds of thousands of signatories to petitions to try to get the product out of schools, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the world’s leading producer of BLBT, has launched a new counteroffensive website “pink slime is a myth.” So where does the truth lie? Obviously, Boneless Lean Meat Trimmings sounds a lot more appetizing than “pink slime.” But whatever you call it, what is it? And how is it produced? The “pink slime is a myth” website says that BLBT is the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut. This is true as far as it goes. But BLBT isn’t quite the same as the bits of meat that you or your butcher might cut off the edge of a steak or other piece of meat. BLBT is the fatty trimmings that even BPI agrees couldn’t be separated with the knife. In the past, these trimmings were used for pet food or converted into oil rather than being served as hamburgers to people.
On the heels of a previous report highlighting lack of enforcement and oversight in our food system, the U.S. Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) new report on whether milk marketed as organic actually meets the National Organic Program’s standards is a real wake-up call to the organic community. And so it should be. Consumers pay a significant premium for organic products and rightly expect transparency and oversight. However, the OIG's new report, "Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program - Organic Milk," exposes major failings of the National Organic Program’s (NOP) certification and auditing systems. At a time when consumers are turning their backs on industrialized farming systems – and genetically modified (GM) farming in particular – the new report raises real questions about exactly what people are paying for when they buy organic milk.
McDonald’s has just discovered bigger isn’t always better. McDonald’s – one of the nation’s largest egg purchasers - has just dropped Sparboe Farms, one of the biggest egg producers in the U.S. after undercover filming showed abuse of chicks and hens at facilities in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. McDonald’s is finding out that there is a price to be paid for dealing with industrial egg producers like Sparboe. By their very design these industrial systems fail to meet the needs of the hens, fail to protect the consumer from health problems such as Salmonella and fail to provide farm workers with a safe and positive working environment. However, McDonald's Europe boasts a much more sustainable supply chain - in fact, over 95% of all eggs used by McDonald’s across 21 European countries are either free range or cage free “barn” eggs. Why then can McDonald’s in the U.S. not learn from its European operation?
In response to farmer interest in labeling, Animal Welfare Approved has launched a new labeling section. The site is designed to help farmers and processors navigate the labeling process and serves as the portal for accessing Animal Welfare Approved's free labeling service for certified farms. Featuring labeling guidance, information on claims approval and a gallery of approved labels, the new site and service can save producers time and effort in creating an attractive, effective label for certified products. And as with AWA certification, there is no charge for this service for farmers in the program. Farms interested in certification should visit AWA’s Certification page for more information. Farmers and processors can use the information in AWA’s new online labeling resource to help distinguish their pastured products in the marketplace, and consumers and retailers will be able to use these resources to ensure they are sourcing sustainable products.The launch of AWA’s new labeling section coincides with the release of “Food Labeling for Dummies,” AWA’s new comprehensive guide for consumers.
Have we just witnessed Big Ag’s first legislative strike against labeling of genetically modified foods in one of Big Ag’s home states? North Carolina Rep. Glen Bradley, an advocate for consumer rights introduced a bill earlier this year to require labeling of genetically modified foods. House Bill 446 sought to require “labeling of food and milk products sold in this state that are or that contain genetically modified food and or milk and milk products from animals that have received recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).” First introduced on March 23, 2011 it was passed the very next day to the Agriculture Committee where it promptly withered and died. A representative from the office of House Bill 446 co-sponsor Rep. Bill Faison told us that it was highly unlikely to be revived this year. If I were a cynical person, I would speculate that we have Big Ag to thank for this bill’s death. Why? Because industrial agricultural companies are the only entities that profit from our ignorance of what is in our food.