Tag Archives: USDA

Farmers, consumers want new management of organic program

Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute delivered to the USDA more than 5,000 letters from farmers and consumers calling for new management of the National Organic Program.

The food and farm policy research group collected the letters from concerned organic advocates across the country.

“This is one more indication of the growing dissatisfaction with deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy’s direction and oversight of the rapidly growing organic industry,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst.

The Cornucopia Institute, along with many other public interest groups, has been critical of what they describe as a “corporate takeover” of the regulatory process that Congress designed specifically to protect organic rulemaking from the influence of agribusiness lobbyists.

“Under the direction of deputy Administrator McEvoy, the independence of the National Organic Standards Board, an expert policy panel convened by Congress to act as a buffer between lobbyists, like the powerful Organic Trade Association, and USDA policymakers has been seriously undermined,” said Dr. Barry Flamm, a Montana farmer, scientist and past chairperson of the NOSB.

In the cover letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the organization cited several areas where it says the USDA management is failing. These include:

A lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy.

Ignoring the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.

Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies, and other issues.

Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).

Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).

“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” Kastel said. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”

Due in part to the issues that Cornucopia is spotlighting, Consumer Reports has downgraded the credibility of the USDA organic label from its previous top-tier ranking.

 

Biotech firm to pay $3.5M fine to settle animal-abuse case

A leading biotech firm will pay a $3.5 million fine and cancel its research registration to settle allegations that it mistreated goats and rabbits at a California facility.

The settlement between Santa Cruz Biotechnology Inc. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also revokes the company’s license to sell, buy, trade or import animals.

The settlement required the Dallas-based company to pay the fine and cancel its research registration by May 31.

The USDA’s complaints listed violations ranging from failing to provide veterinary care to goats with wounds from coyote and snake bites or massive tumors and housing rabbits in cruel conditions, including putting them in elevated cages with open doors or in small, crowded cages.

Santa Cruz Biotechnology contested the government complaints and the agreement says the company “neither admits nor denies” the USDA’s assertions.

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

The Animal Welfare Institute, an advocacy group, praised the settlement, saying the $3.5 million fine is historic.

“Previously, the highest penalties paid to the USDA were less than $300,000, demonstrating the monumental nature of this settlement,” said Cathy Liss, president of the institute. “It should serve as a loud and clear message to all research facilities, animal dealers, exhibitors and airlines regulated under this law.”

Beekeepers lost 44 percent of colonies over the last year

Beekeepers reported losing 44 percent of their total number of colonies managed over the last year — close to the highest annual loss in the past six years.

The annual report on honeybee losses in the United States comes from the Bee Informed Partnership, in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the United States Department of Agriculture.

These losses are considered too high to be sustainable for U.S. agriculture and the beekeeping industry.

“These honey bee losses reinforce what sciences continues to tell us; we must take immediate action to restrict pesticides contributing to bee declines,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The longer we wait, the worse the situation becomes. If we do not suspend neonicotinoid pesticides immediately, we risk losing our beekeepers and harming important ecosystem functions upon which our food supply depends.”

A large and growing body of science has attributed bee declines to several key factors, including exposure to the world’s most widely used class of insecticides, neonicotinoids.

States, cities, universities, businesses and federal agencies in the U.S. have passed measures to restrict the use of these pesticides due to delay by the EPA.

However, these pesticides are still widely used despite mounting evidence that they kill bees outright and make them more vulnerable to pests, pathogens and other stressors.

A year ago, the EPA announced a moratorium on new or expanded uses of neonicotinoids while it evaluates the risks posed to pollinators. In January 2016, the EPA released its preliminary pollinator risk assessment for the neonicotinoid imidacloprid and found it poses risks to honey bees.

The EPA is primarily relying on states and tribes to develop pollinator protection plans to address pesticide use, which was an initiative started by the Pollinator Health Task Force, a group established by President Barack Obama’s Presidential Memorandum on pollinators.

This past year, the USDA, a co-chair of the Pollinator Health Task Force, was reported to suppress and silence its own scientists for speaking to the harms of neonicotinoids and glyphosate — an herbicide that is a leading contributor to monarch decline.

“The EPA is passing the buck to states and our regulatory agencies are letting the pesticide industry pull the wool over their eyes instead of seeking solutions,” said Finck-Haynes. “The EPA, USDA and Congress must adopt a federal, unified plan that eliminates the use of systemic pesticides to protect bees and beekeepers.”

FDA OKs genetically engineered potato resistant to Potato Famine pathogen

A potato genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine is as safe as any other potato on the market, the Food and Drug Administration says.

The FDA said the potato isn’t substantially different in composition or safety from other products already on the market and it doesn’t raise any issues that would require the agency to do more stringent premarket vetting.

“We’re pleased and hope that consumers recognize the benefits once it’s introduced into the marketplace next year,” Doug Cole, the company’s director of marketing and communications, said.

Before the potato is marketed to consumers, it must be cleared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cole said. That’s expected to happen next December. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the potato in August.

The Russet Burbank Generation 2 is the second generation of Simplot’s “Innate” brand potatoes. It includes the first version’s reduced bruising, but less of a chemical produced at high temperatures that some studies have shown can cause cancer.

The second-generation potato also includes an additional trait that the company says will allow potatoes to be stored at colder temperatures longer to reduce food waste.

Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences at Simplot, said late blight – the cause of the Irish potato famine – remains the No. 1 pathogen for potatoes around the world.

The late blight resistance comes from an Argentinian variety of potato that naturally produced a defense.

“There are 4,000 species of potatoes,” Baker said. “There is an immense library to help us improve this great food. By introducing these potato genes we can bring sustainability and consumer benefits.”

The company has been selling its first generation of Innate potatoes to consumers, selling out its 2014 crop and currently selling the 2015 crop of about 2,000 acres.

Cole said those potatoes were mostly grown in Idaho and Wisconsin, and are being sold in supermarkets across the nation.

But one of the company’s oldest business partners – McDonald’s – has rejected using any of Simplot’s genetically engineered potatoes.

New infractions emerge for Mobile Zoo called 1 of the worst

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the Mobile Zoo again for a series of new infractions.

The latest inspections at the Alabama zoo by the USDA found numerous infractions including food spoilage that led to maggot infestation, nails jutting out of structures and lack of employees.

The facility hosts more than 70 animals and only has two employees. There are additional volunteers, sometimes.

The USDA said the root of the infractions stem from the zoo being inadequately staffed to keep up with maintenance demands.

Officials also found that chicken was stored in an ice-chest with a temperature of 63 degrees.

The USDA inspector reported that the zoo owner, John Hightower, said that any meat leftover from feeding animals would be thrown out at the end of the day. By 3 p.m. the day after, the chicken was not disposed of.

The food concerns didn’t stop at refrigeration.

The inspector found the remnants of two-day-old meat in a leopard’s habitat that they described as “dry, dark and dirty.”

PETA has filed suit against the Mobile Zoo on behalf of Joe, the chimp who starred in the 1997 movie called “Buddy.” PETA alleges that keeping Joe in a solitary enclosure with no other chimps violates the Animal Welfare Act.

PETA has offered to relocate Joe to a much larger refuge where he can be social, free-of-charge. But Mobile Zoo has declined that offer.

Joe lives in an enclosed habitat that doesn’t have any grass, just dirt, an old tire and fencing around it. There’s an area where he can go inside and watch TV, something he loves.

Zoo manager Angela Enders has previously launched a fundraising campaign to help Joe, but had little success.

The zoo requires $6,000 a month to stay open, including food and utilities, and barely breaks even. Hightower posted a plea for $14,000 back in March. Now, the website advertises that if a patron brings in 10 lbs of meat from Food For Less, he or she can feed the big cats.

Horrific animal abuse documented at slaughterhouse that supplies Hormel

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it saw “completely unacceptable” actions depicted on an animal welfare group’s undercover video from a Minnesota slaughterhouse that supplies Hormel Foods.

Compassion Over Killing said the video shot last month at a Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin shows workers taking “inhumane shortcuts that lead to extreme suffering” to keep the slaughter lines moving. “If USDA is around they could shut us down,” one worker can be heard saying on the video.

An edited version of the video that was posted on YouTube shows workers cheering as they beat and drage pigs shaking in fear and pain as they are being slaughtered. Federal law requires livestock to be stunned before they are killed. Many pigs covered in feces and riddled with puss-filled sores are headed for the production line.

Quality Pork Processors said it has already disciplined two employees shown on the video and will take further actions if necessary. Nate Jensen, vice president of human resources and quality services at QPP, said the company was disappointed to see employees who did not appear to follow its policies requiring the humane treatment of animals.

The USDA said will investigate further if it confirms the video’s authenticity.

“The actions depicted in the video under review are completely unacceptable,” said Adam Tarr, a spokesman for the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The plant is one of a few across the country that’s testing a relatively new inspection system that involves fewer USDA inspectors and quicker processing lines.

Erica Meier, executive director of the Washington-based Compassion over Killing, blamed the system for the alleged horrific abuses, which she said included pigs being beaten, shocked, dragged and improperly stunned out of inspectors’ views, as well as animals with abscesses and covered in feces.

“By allowing facilities like Quality Pork Processors to operate at these increased slaughter speeds, combined with the reduced federal oversight, the USDA is essentially giving the industry a free pass to police itself,” Meier said on a conference call.

The USDA disputed the pro-vegetarian group’s claim that the faster inspection system was to blame. Tarr said that system is being used only farther down the production line, where carcasses are sorted.

Jensen said the company’s own video monitoring caught the two employees even before officials learned of the undercover investigation, and that the employees were given written warnings and ordered to undergo retraining. He said the company is working with the USDA, will modify its training programs as necessary and has safeguards in place to keep contaminated products out of the food supply.

Austin-based Hormel issued a statement saying it has a “zero tolerance policy for the inhumane treatment of animals” and holds its suppliers to the same high standards. Hormel said it has reviewed the video and will work with QPP and the USDA to take “any necessary corrective action.”

Meier said her group provided the full video to the USDA on Oct. 27 and shared it with the Austin Police Department, which forwarded the information to the Mower County attorney’s office. 

PETA exposes abuse at monkey breeding facility in Florida

An undercover investigation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at a monkey breeding facility has led to a federal review at the southwest Florida business.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating a Primate Products Inc. in Hendry County, where an undercover worker found sick and injured monkeys living in inhumane and unsanitary conditions.

PETA released a video on June 1 showing conditions at the facility. PETA spokesman Dan Paden said the video was taken by a PETA employee who was hired to work undercover at the facility. PETA first gave the video exclusively to The Associated Press.

After meeting with PETA, inspectors from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service went to Primate Products Inc.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said in an email to the AP that Primate Products Inc. has three weeks to appeal the USDA inspectors’ report, which won’t be made public until that process is complete.

Espinosa said that the USDA does “currently have an open investigation into this facility.”

The seven-minute video showed workers holding rhesus macaque monkeys with protruding rectal tissue by the tails. The video also purports to show monkeys in feces-covered cages, monkeys without working water dispensers, and primates with broken bones and exposed wounds. A monkey also allegedly died from hypothermia because of cold temperatures and another was injured by a bear. The monkeys are kept in outdoor cages.

“Primate Products has been awarded federal contracts worth more than $13 million of taxpayers’ money and ships monkeys to massive testing laboratories and universities,” said Dan Paden, a PETA spokesman. “Its customers, like our own National Institutes of Health, need to watch this footage and decide whether they want to continue to bankroll this cruelty and these animals’ violent capturing, pain, terror and deaths.”

Hendry County, in the southwestern part of the state near Naples and Fort Myers, is something of a mecca for primate breeding facilities. Three monkey breeding farms containing thousands of primates operate in the small, rural county and a fourth is in the works.

The companies say they’re doing nothing wrong, they’re properly permitted agricultural facilities and they’re in the area with the blessing of authorities.

In November, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Hendry County officials who approved that Primate Products Inc. could hold as many as 3,200 long-tailed macaques, a species linked to outbreaks of infectious disease. The lawsuit said Hendry County approved the controversial project behind closed doors with only the facility’s supporters present and failed to hold the public hearing required by the state’s Sunshine Law. Last week, the lawsuit was expanded to include a second farm that rents space on the property.

Thomas J. Rowell, a veterinarian and president of Primate Products Inc., told The Associated Press that “the inspection was thorough.”

“This is part of the process in which we fully cooperated,” Rowell wrote in an email. “I’m not aware of who provided the video. We welcomed the USDA’s visit. It’s good when you get the opportunity to review your operation through the eyes of others. We are always looking for opportunities to improve upon our program and appreciate the corrective actions and timelines provided by the USDA. Staff looks forward to working together with the aim of improving upon our animal welfare program.”

Primate Products uses two species of macaques from China, Cambodia, Mauritius or Vietnam. The animals are quarantined upon arriving in the United States.

Primate Products then breeds the monkeys for resale and distribution to research institutions, pharmaceutical companies and the federal government, according to a company spokesman. The monkeys sell for about $3,200 each.

Activists and residents say that the facilities shouldn’t be covered under the county’s agricultural zoning regulations. Monkeys, they say, are very different from cows or horses.

“As seen in the video, the company takes spinal fluid and blood from these wild animals, which can in no way be considered the ‘agriculture’ use that the company’s land is zoned for,” Paden said. “Hendry County can and should put an end to this cruelty and shut Primate Products down immediately.”

PETA filed a formal complaint with the USDA, asking the agency to look into alleged violations of animal welfare and protection laws.

US announces plans to reduce agricultural carbon emissions

Federal agricultural officials announced voluntary programs and initiatives for farmers, ranchers and foresters meant to build on President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat global warming — and they don’t require congressional approval.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the plans at Michigan State University, where Obama signed the sweeping farm bill into law last year. The efforts, many of which have their roots in that law, aim to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, boost carbon capture and storage and come with various enticements, including grants, low-interest loans and technical assistance.

Vilsack said the agriculture industry accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. emissions, adding that compares favorably with the rest of the globe but can be improved.

“American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations,” he said in prepared remarks. “We can build on this success in a way that combats climate change and strengthens the American agriculture economy.”

Before the event, Vilsack said officials “want to do this in a way that will help not only the environment but also improve agricultural productivity with improved yields, and we can also improve the bottom line of producers with greater efficiency.”

Obama administration aides have said the issue of climate change became even more attractive after the November election, because the Democrat has considerable leverage to act without Congress. Such actions, though, have drawn fierce objections from Republicans and the energy industry.

Specific actions include reducing the unnecessary use of fertilizer and methane emissions from cattle and swine, reforesting areas damaged by wildfire and disease and encouraging tree planting in urban areas. For methane reduction in particular, the federal program promotes installing more anaerobic digesters, which use naturally occurring bacteria to break down organic waste to produce biogas, a fuel similar to natural gas.

Vilsack’s department estimates that if all steps are followed, it would reduce emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by roughly 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent _ akin to taking 25 million cars off the road a year.

Already, Obama has moved to cut U.S. emissions through tougher fuel economy standards and has set a target of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent below its 2005 level by 2025.

Last year’s landmark agreement that commits the U.S. and China — the No. 1 and No. 2 greenhouse gas emitters — to dramatic action on carbon emissions in the coming years drew sharp criticism. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who’s the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called that agreement “hollow and not believable,” and has previously vowed to block Obama’s moves.

White House senior adviser Brian Deese said although there’s “a lot of focus on climate change here in Washington,” the issue becomes less rancorous and political elsewhere.

“One of the things that is striking when you get out into different parts of America and you talk to people about their business, communities and how a changing climate is affecting the way they do business, the issue is not partisan, it’s practical,” he said, adding that the many of the steps being taken by the USDA stem from the farm bill passed with bipartisan support. 

Report: USDA scientists harassed for questioning Roundup’s safety

A watchdog organization is calling on the U.S. Senate and House agriculture committees and the inspector general at the USDA to investigate a possible coverup for Monsanto and whether USDA scientists were harassed for questioning the safety of Roundup and other Big Ag products.

The call from U.S. Right to Know for review follows a report on March 27 from Reuters news service, which cited a claim from the the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: “Some scientists working for the federal government are finding their research restricted or censored when it conflicts with agribusiness industry interests…. At least 10 USDA scientists have been investigated or faced other consequences arising from research that called into question the safety of certain agricultural chemicals…. Research into glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to honey bee and monarch butterfly endangerment, face particular scrutiny…”

Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, said, “If true, this is a major scandal at USDA. It is not the proper role of the USDA to engage in a cover up for Monsanto or other agrichemical companies.”

He continued, “It is intolerable that the agribusiness and agrichemical should be able to interfere with USDA scientists and their work. Those scientists work for the public, not Monsanto nor the agrichemical industry.”

Letters from the group to House and Senate committee members and the USDA Inspector General asked for an investigation into alleged “corporate interference with USDA scientists,” as well as for the release of any evidence of industry interference with USDA scientists.

Earlier this month, U.S. Right to Know released “Seedy Business,” a report on the chemical-food industry’s $100 million campaign to keep consumers in the dark about genetically engineered food: how they manipulated the media, public opinion, science and politics.

GMO labeling bills introduced in Congress

Democratic lawmakers in February introduced House and Senate versions of legislation to direct the Food and Drug Administration to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.

Later, at a news conference with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and food safety advocates, DeFazio said, “We cannot continue to keep Americans in the dark about the food they eat. More than 60 other countries make it easy for consumers to choose. Why should the U.S. be any different?”