The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Davis Harper
Since the early 1970s, Starbucks has held a special place in cupholders. Widespread infatuation with the company's caffeinated beverages has earned the coffee giant a storefront on almost every corner. With outposts in 75 countries and a whopping 13.3 million people enrolled in its loyalty rewards program, Starbucks has scorched nearly all of its closest competitors among major U.S. food brands (most of which aren't even coffee chains) in total market value.
With such reach and power comes tremendous responsibility. Starbucks touts its own corporate responsibility—claiming to be climate-change-aware and cognizant of its environmental cup-print—but how many latte-sippers know that their paper cup actually isn't recyclable and that it'll likely end up in a landfill? Might the knowledge that Starbucks's meat supply is pumped with antibiotics alter the market's appetite for the popular chicken and double-smoked bacon sandwich? Although the company prides itself on environmental awareness and progress toward sustainable products, multiple reports point to the mega-corporation's failure to live up to its own purported standards.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the manufacturer of the meat-like Impossible Burger that the company hadn't demonstrated the safety of the product's key genetically engineered ingredient, according to internal FDA documents. Despite FDA's concerns, Impossible Foods put its GMO-derived burger on the market for public consumption.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Carey Gillam
As agrochemical giant Monsanto Co. faces a growing wave of U.S. lawsuits over its top-selling Roundup herbicide line, among its key defense arguments is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long backed the safety of the weed-killing products.
Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's widely used herbicide Roundup, will be added July 7 to California's list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer, according to a Reuters report Tuesday. This news comes after the company's unsuccessful attempt to block the listing in trial court and requests for stay were denied by a state appellate court and California's Supreme Court.
California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced the designation on Monday under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, or Proposition 65.
Dr. Aaron Blair—a lead researcher on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) committee that classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic"—has been accused of "deliberately" withholding unpublished research that he admitted would have altered the cancer agency's widely cited 2015 review.
From Dec. 13 - 16, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to evaluate "the carcinogenic potential of the herbicide glyphosate," the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup.
However, many studies contradict Monsanto's assertions. In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate is a "probable human carcinogen." Then in July 2016, an IARC scientist, Dr. Kurt Straif, defended the agency's assessment that glyphosate probably causes cancer in humans. Dr. Straif stated that:
"Our evaluation was a review of all the published scientific literature on glyphosate and this was done by the world's best experts on the topic that in addition don't have any conflicts of interest that could bias their assessment.
"They concluded that, yes, glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans based on three strings of evidence, that is clear evidence of cancer in experimental animals, limited evidence for cancer for humans from real-world exposures, of exposed farmers, and also strong evidence that it can damage the genes from any kind of other toxicological studies."
The SAP meetings now taking place were originally scheduled for mid-October, but the EPA postponed them only a few of days before they were to begin due to "changes in the availability of experts for the peer review panel."
According to Carey Gillam, research director for U.S. Right to Know, the EPA's decision to postpone the meetings came after an intense lobbying campaign led by CropLife America, which represents the interests of Monsanto and other agricultural businesses. CropLife initially fought to keep the SAP meetings from happening at all, then said if the meetings were to be held, "any person who has publicly expressed an opinion regarding the carcinogenicity of glyphosate" should be excluded from participating.
In a letter to the EPA, CropLife singled out epidemiologist Dr. Peter Infante, who the lobbying firm felt should be "replaced with an epidemiologist without such patent bias." As the only epidemiologist slated to be on the panel, the CropLife felt that Dr. Infante may have had enhanced influence on the epidemiological evaluation on glyphosate.
Dr. Infante has testified on behalf of plaintiffs suing Monsanto over chemical exposure. Nonetheless, Dr. Infante is one of the leading experts in his field, having spent the better part of a storied career protecting the public from harmful chemicals.
Dr. Infante spent 24 years working for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where he determined cancer risks to those working on developing toxic chemicals, including arsenic, asbestos and formaldehyde. He has also served as an expert epidemiology consultant for a number of world bodies, including the World Trade Organization and the EPA.
CropLife's letter to the EPA was sent two days before the agency announced that the glyphosate meetings would be postponed. Many accused the EPA of kowtowing to lobbyists and the businesses they represent. The accusations only grew louder when Dr. Infante's name was no longer on the list of panelists scheduled for the December meetings.
Dr. Infante told Delta FarmPress that he was "mystified" by the EPA's decision to remove him from the meetings. "I didn't choose to leave the panel," he said. "No … I was removed from the panel. I'm totally mystified by it."
The EPA's move was also surprising to environmental advocacy groups, who say it is highly unusual for the agency to remove a panelist from a Scientific Advisory Panel.
"The industry wants to say that our own government scientists, the top ones in their fields, aren't good enough for these panels," said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, after the SAP meetings were postponed in October. "If the EPA wants to add extra epidemiologists that is great but why didn't they do it before? They are doing this because of pressure from industry."
According to Gillam, "the delay and the maneuvering by industry to influence panel participation does little to bolster consumer confidence for the likelihood of an objective outcome."
The EPA said it will issue a risk assessment for glyphosate by spring of 2017.
There's something the farm lobby doesn't want you to know: how much their use of antibiotics in livestock poses a risk to you and your children.
Drug resistant infections are on the rise, according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, "with numbers suggesting that up to 50,000 lives are lost each year to antibiotic-resistant infections in Europe and the U.S. alone. Globally, at least 700,000 die each year of drug resistance in illnesses such as bacterial infections, malaria, HIV/Aids or tuberculosis."
"Livestock use of antibiotics is contributing to a public health crisis of antibiotic resistance," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior health officer and physician David Wallinga, MD. "It's you, me and the people we love who will suffer the consequences when the medications we rely on to treat common illnesses no longer work."
Sales of antibiotics for use in food animal production account for 70 percent of total medically important antibiotic sales. That's an increase of 23 percent just since 2009. In 2012, more than 32.2 million pounds of antibiotics were given to farm animals. And while a doctor's prescription is needed for you to get an antibiotic, farmers give virtually all antibiotics to live turkeys, chicken, cattle and hogs without a veterinarian's supervision.
Ohio State University researchers conducted a meta-analysis of medical and scientific studies on antibiotic use in food animals and concluded that "in existing studies, neither the risks to human health nor the benefits to animal production have been well studied."
But, Scientific American said, the farm industry itself is stifling needed research in this area.
Researchers are rarely given access to study livestock in farming operations. Farmers are required by contracts that they have to sign with their customers—big food producers such as Tyson Foods or Perdue Farms—to limit "non-essential people" on their farms. And if the farmer violates the contract, they can be punished monetarily or even lose their contract.
Antibiotics have been used in food production since the 1950s. Some are for therapeutic applications, when an animal is truly sick. Often, they are used to prevent or limit transmission of disease among animals which are confined in close quarters. Many are used simply to make animals grow faster.
But these drugs don't stay confined to the animal receiving them.
A recent study found that 70 percent of pigs on Iowa farms tested positive for MRSA—an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. And the same study found 64 percent of the workers on one farm harbored the superbug. When researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine drove behind poultry trucks, antibiotic-resistant enterococci was sucked into their car through open windows.
"If regulators wait for this problem to get any worse, controlling it may no longer be possible," said Jonathan Kaplan, director of the Food and Agriculture Program at NRDC. "Future generations are going to wonder why FDA didn't take real action as these life-saving drugs slipped away from us."
Previous U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations have proven worthless. That's why, in September a coalition of organizations, including the NRDC, petitioned the FDA to withdraw seven medically-important antibiotics from agricultural use.
NRDC Senior Attorney Avinash Kar told EcoWatch, "Experts, the Animal Health Institute and FDA all agree that the FDA's voluntary guidance is likely to have little impact in reducing livestock use of antibiotics—because it addresses only a small portion of use. That's why NRDC is calling on FDA to put an end to the routine use of medically important antibiotics on animals that are not sick, whether it is used for speeding up animal growth or for disease prevention."
But, industry lobbying can hog-tie the FDA's ability to deal with this issue.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, "Major agribusiness and pharmaceutical interests have spent serious money on lobbying." The American Farm Bureau Federation doled out $5,697,492 for lobbying efforts from 2015 to 2016, and five of their 18 lobbyists previously held government jobs.
The lobbying is working. The FDA requested $7.1 million for fiscal year 2016 to study drug resistance in animals, and got nothing from Congress. Not a dime.
"It's time for the FDA to also act in order to keep antibiotics working, and the time is now," said Steve Blackledge, public health program director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which joined the petition to the FDA.Looking ahead, things could get much worse for your health. The 2016 Republican Party platform states:
"We oppose the policies pushed by special interest groups seeking to stop or make more expensive our current system of safe, efficient, and humane production of meat."
But the problem isn't going away.
Watch here as Dr. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, talks about factory farms, antibiotics and superbugs at TEDxManhattan:
"Use of antibiotics on the farm most definitely poses a risk to human health," Consumers Union said. The World Health Organization agrees. It noted that 480,000 people develop multi-drug resistant tuberculosis each year and drug resistance is already complicating treatment for HIV and malaria.
Peter Lehner of Earthjustice, stated, "It seems crazy to risk losing the effectiveness of one of our most important inventions—antibiotics—simply because we don't want to make animal factories clean up."