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Food Safety Crisis in the U.S.A.

Organics Under Fire: The U.S. Debate Continues

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

"Within five years--and certainly within 10--some 90-95% of plant-derived food material in the United States will come from genetically engineered techniques. It'll take a little bit longer for these technologies to penetrate into the organic market, but it will. As the benefits become clearer, you'll see that opposition will be replaced by understanding, and adoption will follow." Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Quoted by Kathy Koch in the Sept. 4, 1998 issue of the Congressional Quarterly Researcher.

As a continuing stream of media reports indicate, large-scale factory-style farming is breaking down at its most vulnerable point -- the safety of its products. But instead of acknowledging this, and taking a step back to address its core problems--animal over-crowding, filthy slaughterhouses, overuse of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones -- American agribusiness is pushing yet another dangerous technology, genetic engineering. At the same time industrial agriculture is coordinating a slander campaign against their number one threat -- organic agriculture.

As detailed in previous Food Bytes, U.S. consumers are increasingly alarmed about food safety and the damage inflicted by industrial agriculture on public health, the environment, and family farms. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture likes to brag that American-style factory farms produce "the safest food in the world," government statistics reveal just the opposite. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) admit that up to 81 million Americans suffer from food poisoning every year -- a literal Guiness Book of Records for filthy meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products, contaminated produce, and fast-food.

A top official at the CDC, Dr. Morris Potter, indicated in 1994 in the Harvard Health Letter that 81 million annual victims may be a low figure -- that there may be in fact 266 million cases of food poisoning a year in the United States.

A nationwide survey released in November 1998 by the agribusiness-affiliated International Foods Safety Council found that 89% of U.S. consumers think food safety is a "very important" national issue -- more important than crime prevention. A full 77% said that concerns about food safety were affecting their eating habits. Only 34% felt that government agencies (and 29% of industry) were doing an "excellent" job in regard to food safety.

And increasingly the public is concerned, not only with pesticide and drug residues, allergens, fecal contamination, polluted drinking water, and other food-borne pathogens, but also with genetic contamination -- given that 37 different genetically engineered foods and crops have entered the marketplace since 1994, with absolutely no special pre-market safety-testing or labeling required

A Time magazine poll in its January 13, 1999 issue found that 81% of American consumers believe genetically engineered food should be labeled. Even more troubling to the gene engineers, a full 58% of consumers said if genetically engineered foods were labeled they would avoid purchasing them.

So it's no surprise that consumers are looking for ways to relieve their fears of contaminated and genetically engineered foods by turning to organic and eco-labeled natural foods.

In 1998 over five billion dollars worth of organic food were purchased in the U.S., with sales increasing over 25% annually. And expanding lines of organic food are showing up in major supermarkets across the country. Perhaps most alarming to the Food Giants and supermarket chains are the long-range trends revealed in a 1997 poll by the biotech giant Novartis Corporation which found that 54% of Americans would prefer for "organic" to become the dominant form of agricultural production.

The EPA Pesticide Brochure: Killing Us Softly

Growing consumer concerns about food safety have put the agri-toxics and biotech crowd on the defensive. To counter these concerns, they have organized themselves into a united front, repeating their mantra: "organic is not safer, organic is not healthier, conventional agribusiness food is just as safe or even safer than organic." As Regina Hildwine of the National Food Processors Association told the press during the debate over organic standards in 1998 "Organic does not mean safer. Organic does not mean healthier."

This mantra proved to be such a hit with the USDA that the agency attempted to include industrial farming practices, i.e. genetic engineering, irradiation, increased use of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and use of sewage sludge, in its first set of proposed national organic standards last year. Fortunately consumers and the organic community roundly rejected these proposals, with a record number of 280,000 official comments submitted to the USDA telling them to back off.

Powerful agribusiness trade associations were the only ones that vocally supported the USDA's first organic proposal. These trade associations represent hundreds of billions of dollars in capital assets, annual sales, and advertising revenue (not to mention millions of dollars in annual political contributions to both major political parties): the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), the American Farm Bureau, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). When they and other allies (such as the so-called American Crop Improvement Association) lobby together, it's no exaggeration to say that they always get their way -- whether there's a Democrat or a Republican in the White House.

The power of the agribusiness special interests was revealed once again in a recent bitter controversy surrounding a brochure for consumers on pesticides and food safety, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Forcing the EPA to buckle under, the anti-organic special interests (the Farm Bureau, the pesticide lobby, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association, the biotech lobby) proved once again that they have the upper hand in Washington.

Pesticide residues in food and drinking water have become a "hot button" issue for millions of parents and consumers. National surveys indicate that 80% of consumers worry about pesticide residues -- especially on the food they feed to their children. A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 reported that federal allowances for pesticide residues were too lenient, and that infants and children could be harmed by current pesticide residue levels that the government considers "legal." A highly-publicized Jan. 1998 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that millions of American children under five years old are at risk every year from ingesting dangerous levels of at least 13 different neurotoxic organophosphate (OP) pesticide residues in their apples, apple sauce, apple juice, peaches, popcorn, corn chips, and other foods.

According to the EWG report:

"One out of every four times a child age five or under eats a peach, he or she is exposed to an unsafe level of OP insecticides. Thirteen percent of apples, 7.5% of pears, and 5% of grapes in the U.S. food supply expose the average young child eating these fruits to unsafe levels... Many of these exposures... exceed the federal safety standard by a factor of 10 or more." In another study of eight different non-organic baby foods produced by Gerber, Heinz, and Beech-Nut, the EWG found residues of 16 different pesticides -- including probable human carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disrupters, and oral toxicity #1 chemicals, the most toxic designation.

Feeling the heat of consumer concern, the Clinton/Gore administration announced in February of 1998 that the EPA would soon be releasing a brochure for supermarket shoppers that would outline precautions regarding "Pesticides on Food." Besides advice on peeling, washing, scrubbing, and cooking fruits and vegetables the EPA brochure would advise consumers concerned about pesticides to consider purchasing organically grown fruits, vegetables, and other foods. This advice to "buy organic" was immediately attacked by agribusiness lobbyists. Dennis Stolte of the American Farm Bureau told the New York Times, "Our biggest concern is that there is an implication that organic foods are somehow safer than conventional foods, which is absolutely false."

In late-December of 1998 the EPA quietly announced that they had amended their brochure on pesticides and foods, deemphasizing health risks, avoiding the use of the word "organic," and barely mentioning foods "grown using fewer or no pesticides" as an alternative to foods produced using toxic chemicals. In a Dec. 30 article written by John Cushman of the New York Times, it was revealed that in August, 1998 "seven food, farm and pesticide industry groups called on the Clinton Administration to eliminate any references to organic foods and to make other changes."

Cushman then went on to quote a representative of the U.S. Consumers Union, Jeanine Kenney: "Fundamentally, EPA. took what could have been a really good brochure and turned it into a propaganda piece for the food industry, which has always denied that there is a problem with pesticides on food."

But even this watered-down version of the EPA brochure, Cushman points out, was not enough for Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (a powerful industry trade association representing large food processors and supermarket chains): "Even with the change in the language, it still promotes organic foods in a brochure that was supposed to be about pesticides," Grabowski said.

The Hard Kill: "Organic Food is Dangerous"

Increasingly in 1998 and continuing in 1999 these anti-organic special interests -- enraged by the mass consumer rejection of the USDA's proposed organic rules and fearful of long-term market trends -- have hired PR firms and right-wing think tanks to go on the offensive. Placing numerous articles and opinion pieces in the mass media and influencing others (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, PBS, Farm newspapers, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today online, etc.) they have hardened their propaganda message: not only do they claim that organic is not safer than conventional -- now they're saying, through mouthpieces such as Dennis Avery of the corporate funded Hudson Institute, that organic food is actually dangerous. The Hudson Institute's Board includes James H. Dowling from the multinational PR firm Burson-Marsteller, Craig Fuller (who led the PR firm Hill & Knowlton's Gulf War front group Citizens for a Free Kuwait), and Kenneth Duberstein (who runs a top DC lobby firm with a host of corporate clients). Hudson's generous funders include the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation.

"Mad dog" Avery has picked up the industrial agriculture mantle, claiming that "Organic foods have clearly become the deadliest food choice." Avery argues that selfish organic consumers and farmers would rather watch millions of poor people in the Third World starve, or else sit by while desperate peasants destroy the remaining rainforests, rather than admit that genetic engineering and pesticide and chemical use in agriculture are necessary and safe.

Avery is a former government official during the Reagan era and author of the book Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. An economist by trade, Avery has touted the virtues of global warming (it's better for farmers), staunchly defended factory-style hog farms (they're good for the environment because they save space), and pushed for food irradiation (it preserves the freshness of food while killing bacteria).

What makes Avery confounding (and dangerous) in his often widely-reprinted newspaper articles and opinion pieces is his skill at manipulating statistics and his bold willingness to not only fudge facts, but to literally make them up. Here are a few of the gems from Avery's pen:

    "People who eat organic foods are eight times more likely to be attacked by the deadly new E. coli bacteria... Organic consumers are at increased risk from natural toxins produced by fungi, some of which cause cancer. Organic foods carry far more of the dangerous bacteria (salmonella, campylobacter, and Listeria) that kill thousands of people every year." (Syndicated article in Knight-Ridder newspapers Aug. 3, 1998)

Avery likes to claim his statistics come from the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA. But spokespersons from both agencies told a reporter last fall from the respected Congressional Quarterly Researcher (a research publication in Washington) that this was not true. As Larry Slutsker of the CDC told the CQR, "I cannot confirm [Avery's] numbers. We don't have routine data collection on whether things are organic or not." In a similar vein Robert Lake, director of policy planning at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told CQR "I'm not aware that there's a particular problem with organics and aflotoxins [a type of fungi]."

As organic farmer and National Organic Standards Board member Fred Kirschemann of North Dakota pointed out to CQR, Avery's claims are "outrageous and undocumented. I don't know of a single case to date where food coming from a certified organic farm has been contaminated by a food-borne illness. All of the cases have been traced to either imported foods or food from large industrial operations."

(All quotes are taken from the CQ Researcher September 4, 1998).

Other bits of wisdom from Avery include the following :

"Organic farming deserves to remain small. Organic farms get only about half the agricultural yield of mainstream farms... America's good farmland will need to generate higher yields... to meet the demand of rising populations... If we accept this 'environmental approach' [i.e. organic] and fail to protect our crops with either pesticides or biotechnology, how many million square miles of extra cropland will the world need to take from wildlife?" (Syndicated article in Knight-Ridder newspapers Sept. 16, 1998)

"factory farms... are a humane, effective alternative to clearing another 10 million square miles of forest for hog and chicken pasture." (The Country Today, 8/26/98)

Of course organic foods are safer than conventional foods, both for human health and the environment, not to mention farmers and farmworkers -- which is the major reason that millions of consumers are switching to organic. Under current organic certification rules enforced by over 40 state and private organic certifiers across the U.S., it is illegal to use toxic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, rendered animal protein (waste and diseased animal parts), genetically engineered ingredients, sewage sludge, or nuclear irradiation -- all of which routinely contaminate conventional food. A number of studies also confirm that organic farms are just as economically efficient as chemical-intensive farms.

In a major sampling of supermarket produce, Consumer Reports found that conventional produce was more than three times as likely to contain residues of toxic pesticides than organic produce (pesticide residues on organic produce most often result from chemical sprays drifting from nearby conventional farms). In its Jan. 1998 issue Consumer Reports points out "tests of organic, green-labeled, and conventional unlabeled produce found that organic foods had consistently minimal or non-existent pesticide residue. ... Buying organic food promotes farming practices that really are more sustainable and better for the environment -- less likely to degrade soil, impair ecosystems, foul drinking water, or poison farmworkers."

Consumers Smack the USDA Once Again On Organic Standards

After last year's resounding rejection by consumers of the USDA's first proposed federal regulations on organic standards, the agency promised to behave themselves. Apparently they forgot their promise, because on October 28, 1998, the USDA reopened the second round of the organic standards debate by publishing three highly controversial Issue Papers, giving citizens 30 days to submit comments. The Issue Papers covered only a small portion of the larger second proposed federal regulations on organic standards, but contained a sufficient number of unacceptable recommendations to outrage the organic community once again. The Oct. 28 Issue Papers dealt specifically with recommendations on (1) animal confinement, (2) animal antibiotics and other drugs, and (3) procedures for terminating or decertifying organic producers who were breaking organic certification rules.

At least 7,000 consumers, retailers, and farmers wrote in to the USDA criticizing serious problems in the Issue Papers:

  1. Livestock Confinement - This Issue Paper indicated that the USDA is still considering allowing loopholes for factory farm-style producers to keep animals from having access to outdoors, or defining "outdoor access" in such a way that dairy cows or beef cattle on dirt feedlots would still be considered "organic."
  2. Antibiotics and animal drugs - This Issue Paper revealed that the USDA is still considering allowing loopholes for the use of antibiotics on organic animals, contrary to the practices currently used by organic meat, dairy, and poultry producers and contrary to the "no antibiotics" recommendations of the National Organics Standards Board.
  3. Termination of Certification by Private Certifiers - This Issue Paper proved once again that the USDA is intending to set up an organic system with total federal control over organic certification, eliminating any role whatsoever for the several dozen non-governmental certifiers who, in large part, have built up the credibility of the entire organic system over the past 30 years. This Issue Paper suggested eliminating the ability of organic certifiers to "decertify" producers, to swiftly prevent the sale of mishandled or fraudulent organic products. This could threaten the integrity of the entire organic food system.

A major problem, once again evident in all three of these Issue Papers, is the USDA's stubborn refusal to accept the recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) -- a federally-mandated and approved advisory board set up to work with the USDA to develop national organic standards. Under the 1990 Organic Food Production Act, the USDA is required to accept detailed recommendations from the NOSB (essentially what the organic community is using today), and turn those recommendations into federal rules for organic food. The NOSB is currently composed of organic producers, consumers, farmers, and wholesalers. Instead, in the first proposed rule (and again in these most recent Issue Papers), the USDA virtually ignored the NOSB's recommendations.

Despite doing little to publicize the Issue Papers, and offering a short comment period, the USDA received an estimated 7,000 comments. The number of comments, and their resolute tone in support of strong organic standards, once again took the agency by surprise. Currently, about 1,500 of those comments can be viewed at the USDA's National Organic Program website: .

No doubt as a result of the response to the Oct. 28 Issue Papers, USDA officials have indicated that they will not release any more Issue Papers for public input. Instead, the USDA will continue to work on a second set of proposed federal regulations on organic standards to be published later this year. Sources inside the agency say the new proposed rule is about two-thirds complete. Many believe it will be submitted for public comment sometime this summer. Only this time, the comment period will likely be much shorter than the 135 days permitted for the first proposed rule -- possibly as short as 45 days.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 7, 1999.

Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Pure Food Campaign (PFC) a non-profit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the U.S. and the world. The PFC's primary strategy is to help build a national and international consumer/farmer/labor/progressive retailer boycott of genetically engineered and chemically contaminated foods and crops. To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, Food Bytes, send an email message to: < > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action