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Popular Diestel Turkey Sold at Whole Foods Tests Positive for FDA-Prohibited Drugs

Animals
The turkey ranch in Sonora is where Diestel keeps its pasture-raised birds. Jeanne Cooper

By Katherine Paul

Diestel Turkey, sold by Whole Foods and other retailers at premium prices, says on its website that its "animals are never given hormones, antibiotics or growth stimulants."

But Diestel Turkey samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest otherwise, leading consumers to wonder: Can these companies be trusted?


According to testing conducted under the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) National Residue Program, samples of Diestel Turkey products tested positive for numerous drug and antibiotic residues.

One of those drugs, chloramphenicol, is strictly prohibited by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in food production because it's known to have "severe toxic effects in humans including bone marrow suppression or aplastic anemia in susceptible individuals."

According to an amended complaint filed Nov. 13, against Diestel Turkey Ranch, the FSIS inspected Diestel turkeys on four dates in 2015 and 2016, and reported, in addition to chloramphenicol, residues of antibiotics important for human use, veterinary antibiotics, a hormone and other pharmaceuticals.

Animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) brought the action against the privately held Sonora, California, turkey producer in the Superior Court of California. DxE is suing Diestel for falsely advertising its turkey products as hormone- and antibiotic-free, and for deceiving consumers about how the company's birds are raised and treated.

According to the lawsuit, Diestel turkey products tested by the USDA were positive for residues of:

• Ketamine, a narcotic. The Drug Enforcement Agency describes ketamine as "a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects." Ketamine's street names include Special K, Cat Tranquilizer, and Cat Valium, the latter two referencing its veterinary uses, and it is commonly referred to as a club drug because it is used illegally at dance clubs and raves. The FDA has not approved the use of ketamine in poultry.

• Amikacin, an antibiotic for human use that the FDA considers important for humans

• Spectinomycin, also an antibiotic for human use

• Hygromycin, an antibiotic for veterinary use

• Ipronidazole, also a veterinary pharmaceutical

• Melengestrol acetate, also known as MGA, a synthetic hormone

• Sulfanitran, an antibacterial drug feed additive

Kim Richman of Richman Law Group, which represents DxE, said that to the best of his knowledge, the USDA did not test any certified organic Diestel Turkey samples. "Since organic meat goes through a certification process, the end product is not tested. It appears that the National Residue Program samples only non-organic meat and poultry," Richman said.

This isn't the first time some of these drugs, including chloramphenicol and ketamine, have been found in poultry. As reported by Bloomberg on June 22, the Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety sued Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the U.S., for advertising its chicken as "100% natural" even though USDA testing reported finding drug residues in Sanderson chicken samples.

Consumers aren't pleased to learn that factory farm poultry brands mislead them. But they aren't necessarily surprised either.

But it's a whole different story when the brands they thought they could trust turn out to be making false claims, too.

Are Diestel and Whole Foods misleading consumers?

Producers like Diestel, and retailers like Whole Foods, know consumers are willing to pay a premium for hormone-free, antibiotic-free turkeys from farms that have high animal-welfare standards.

But what happens when companies make claims that don't live up to consumer expectations?

Diestel Turkey claims its birds live idyllic lives. On its website, the company says:

"All of our whole-body Diestel turkeys are raised under our strict standards. We support our turkeys with a healthy environment, fresh mountain water, and the clean air from the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Our feed never contains fillers, our birds are never given growth stimulants or antibiotics, and we never make compromises when it comes to the quality of the feed."

Whole Foods gives Diestel Turkey its 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating standard, a rating intended to differentiate factory farm meat from pasture-raised. The rating not only sets high standards for "the comfort, physical safety and health of the animals," but also prohibits the use of hormones and antibiotics.

The USDA testing suggests that Diestel is deceiving consumers about the use of antibiotics and other drugs on its farms. A nine-month investigation of Diestel Turkey Ranch by DxE suggests Diestel also deceives consumers not only about the use of antibiotics and hormones, but also about how the turkeys it sells are treated before being slaughtered for meat.

On its website, Diestel says:

"We pay close attention to the health of our birds by spending time with them in the fields, observing their behaviors, and making sure they have the best environment possible."

But according to the complaint DxE filed against Diestel, the turkey producer bases those claims on one "picture-perfect" farm as its "poster child" farm—but raises most of its turkeys elsewhere, under industrial factory farm conditions.

And that picture-perfect farm is rated Step 5, even though most turkeys do not enjoy those Step 5 conditions.

In reality, DxE's investigation found that the vast majority of the turkeys sold by Diestel are raised under very different conditions than those portrayed by the Diestel website. According to the complaint, the DxE investigation found:

• turkeys raised in overcrowded barns

• turkeys found languishing or dead

• turkeys suffering from excessive confinement

• turkeys trapped in feces that covered much of the barn floor, up to one-half foot deep

• turkeys suffering from swollen-shut eyes, swollen nostrils, open wounds, and/or bruises

• turkeys missing large patches of feathers as a result of pecking one another and/or defeathering from extreme stress

• turkeys routinely subject to debeaking and/or beak-trimming

• turkeys laboring to breathe in an enclosed barn environment dense with ammonia and particles of dried feces and feathers

• as many as seven percent of birds in a barn dying in a single week

What's a consumer to do? We've put together this Holiday Turkey Buying Guide that steers consumers in the direction of reliable sources of honestly marketed turkeys.

And as always, we recommend consumers take advertising and marketing claims with a grain of salt, until those claims can be verified by a third party.

In the meantime, we're asking consumers to ask Whole Foods to stop selling Diestel Turkey products.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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