Time to Clean Up Our Dirty Food System

Posted on December 19, 2014 by Peter Lehner

For decades, environmental lawyers focused on cleaning up the air and water. We made tremendous progress. Today, in most of the country, our air is safer to breathe and our waters more fit for drinking and recreation than at the dawn of the environmental movement. 

But while our air and water got cleaner, our food system got dirtier during that same time period. Vast numbers of chemicals started to be used in the production and processing of food, with little thought given to the long-term impacts on human health and the environment. 

Safeguards have failed to keep pace with the introduction of new chemicals, and the powerful industries behind these products put tremendous pressure on federal agencies to limit health protections, putting our health and our environment at risk. 

Here are three ways to start cleaning up our dirty food system:

1. Close the Giant Food Additive Loophole

Hundreds, if not a thousand or more, chemical food additives used in processed and packaged foods that make up the majority of the American diet are never publicly revealed, much less reviewed for safety by the FDA. A recent report from NRDC explored this loophole in food safety law, known as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe,” which allows chemical manufacturers to decide for themselves if their product is safe. In many cases, the FDA isn’t even notified when chemical additives enter our food supply.

Some additives which manufacturers claimed to be “generally recognized as safe” have been linked to fetal leukemia, testicular degeneration, and other adverse effects in human cell or animal tests. NRDC found these additives listed as ingredients in at least 20 food products.

The FDA can and should move now to end the conflict of interest in this system; and when the agency does review a manufacturer’s safety claims, their concerns should be made available to the public. Ultimately, Congress needs to close the GRAS loophole and reform outdated food safety law. 

2. Stop Risky Herbicide Used on Corn and Soy

The EPA recently approved the herbicide Enlist Duo, which is toxic to many plants, but not to a new strain of genetically modified corn and soy. Enlist Duo is likely to become the replacement for the weed-killer popularly known as Roundup, which became one of the most widely used herbicides in the nation after Monsanto developed genetically modified corn engineered to resist it. According to Monsanto, Roundup and its family of glyphosate-based herbicides are registered for use in more than 130 countries.   

But after 20 years of heavy use, Roundup is no longer effective against certain weeds, which have evolved a resistance to it.  The industry’s solution is to escalate: develop a new strain of GMO crops that can withstand a new, more potent herbicide.  

Enlist Duo is a combination of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and another herbicide, 2,4-D. The EPA signed off on Enlist Duo despite ample evidence of the harm caused by 2,4-D, and without taking into account the last two decades of research on glyphosate. 

In recent years, glyphosate has emerged as a major contributor to the alarming decline of monarch butterflies, as it has decimated milkweeds across the Midwest, the only plant on which a monarch will lay its eggs. (Milkweeds have not evolved any resistance to glyphosate.) Emerging evidence suggests glyphosate may pose a threat to human health, with possible links to kidney disease, pre-term deliveries, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, birth defects, and miscarriages. 

2,4-D has been associated with decreased fertility, higher rates of birth defects, and other signs of endocrine disruption. It’s been found in drinking water and can drift in the air over great distances, increasing the likelihood of human exposure far from the fields where it’s sprayed. 

The approval of Enlist Duo will expand both the geographic area and the length of the season during which 2,4-D would be used, potentially increasing the risk of exposure to 20 million children and women of childbearing age here in the U. S.

NRDC is suing the EPA for its approval of Enlist Duo.  

3. Stop Antibiotic Abuse in Livestock Industry

Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are for use in livestock and poultry, not for humans. And these antibiotics are largely used on animals that aren’t sick. 

To keep antibiotics effective, we need to change the way we raise animals for their meat. NRDC has been spearheading a campaign to raise awareness of antibiotic abuse in the livestock industry and pressing the FDA to take action. Recently, a number of major food companies have announced that they have or will transition away from antibiotics, including Perdue Farms, Chik-Fil-A, Panera Bread, Chipotle and others. 

These moves are encouraging and welcome but still voluntary, and not yet backed up by any increased transparency into antibiotic practices. And Foster Farms, the biggest chicken producer in the West, whose product was linked to a widespread Salmonella outbreak in 2013 and 2014, has yet to announce any changes in its antibiotics practices. 

Meanwhile, the latest FDA statistics show that antibiotic sales to the livestock industry continue to rise. Real change will come when we have truly effective safeguards—not the voluntary measures offered by the FDA, and not the similarly weak proposal recently (and commendably) vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown of California. 

Governor Brown has called stakeholders back to the table to find a more effective way for the industry to change its risky practices. It’s possible that California could lead the way forward on antibiotic stewardship. 

The FDA Punts Again on Livestock Antibiotics

Posted on January 29, 2014 by Lisa Heinzerling

The Food and Drug Administration recently recommitted itself to its feeble policy of addressing the profligate use of antibiotics in livestock by enlisting the voluntary participation of the drug companies that make the antibiotics.  Peter Lehner discussed previous iterations of this policy in his ACOEL blog post of November 2012.  Two documents issued in December 2013 reveal the details of the agency’s current plans.   The first is a final guidance document describing the FDA’s process for handling drug sponsors’ voluntary efforts to phase out certain uses of antibiotics in animal feed and water and to bring the remaining uses under the oversight of a veterinarian. The second is a draft rule relaxing the requirements for veterinarians in exercising this oversight. (In a new article, I provide an in-depth analysis of the several different strands of the FDA’s plan.)

Together, the documents recently issued by the FDA promise little more than continued delay in tackling a public health risk that has bedeviled the Agency for decades.  The FDA’s decision to rely on voluntary action by drug companies and to continue to allow routine uses of antibiotics in whole herds and flocks of animals in order to prevent infections brought on by stressful conditions leaves gaping holes in the protection the Agency purports to provide.  The Agency’s meager backup plans in case this endeavor does not work out as it hopes do little to comfort the skeptical.  Moreover, the FDA’s proposal to weaken rules for veterinary oversight undermines the Agency’s plan to place veterinarians at the front line of preventing agricultural overuse of antibiotics.  In addition, after a small outburst of transparency at the start of the process, this whole undertaking will move underground for three years while the FDA works things out privately with participating drug companies.

Rather than pursuing this doomed course, the FDA should do what a federal district court has already ordered it to do: complete regulatory proceedings to withdraw approvals for the mass administration of medically important antibiotics to food-producing animals.  As I have explained in a recent article, the FDA’s refusal to do so rests on the mistaken legal premise that such withdrawals must be preceded by formal, trial-type hearings; this premise ignores decades of developments in administrative law and misreads the Agency’s own enabling statute.

FDA Still Dragging Its Feet on Antibiotics in Animal Feed

Posted on November 13, 2012 by Peter Lehner

Eighty percent of all the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to farm animals – not humans. Most of these animals aren't even sick. It's standard practice on factory farms, as a substitute for better management practices, to routinely dose healthy pigs, cows, and chickens with antibiotics that are vital for treating human disease.  As a result of this non-therapeutic antibiotic use, these farms have become breeding grounds for superbugs--dangerous germs that can't be knocked out with the usual medicines. And that puts human health at risk.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, where I serve as Executive Director, has been at the forefront of this issue.  In response to an NRDC initiated lawsuit, twice this year a federal court ordered the FDA to take action. In March, the court required the FDA to withdraw approval for the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed, unless drug manufacturers can prove this practice is not a public health risk. In June, the court directed the FDA to reconsider its denial of two citizen petitions on antibiotic use in livestock, saying “The adoption of voluntary measures does not excuse the Agency from its duty to review the Citizen Petitions on their merits.”

Superbugs can travel off farms and contaminate the surrounding air and water, as well as our food supply, which puts people at risk of acquiring serious and even life-threatening infections. In 2010, almost 52 percent of retail chicken breasts tested by the FDA were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Drug-resistant bacteria have been detected in air and drinking water near industrial hog farms in three states. Drug-resistant infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including those generated by factory farms, have been estimated to cost Americans up to $35 billion every year.

The FDA has known for more than 30 years that antibiotic abuse on factory farms poses a risk to human health. In its March decision, the court determined that the FDA formally found back in 1977 that penicillin and tetracyclines had not been shown to be safe. In its June decision, concerning other antibiotics, the court pointed out that “the Agency has all but made a finding that the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in food-producing animals has not been shown to be safe.” Nonetheless, the use of penicillin, tetracyclines, and other medically important antibiotics in livestock quadrupled between 1970 and 2009. The agency has not stopped the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock, relying instead on "voluntary guidance" to address the issue.

The FDA has appealed the March and June  decisions and remains focused on the failed strategy of allowing industry to use antibiotics as it chooses instead of standing up to protect public health. NRDC is fighting FDA’s appeals. Under an FOIA request, the FDA will begin releasing public health risk assessment documents on antibiotics to us. NRDC is also working with leading scientific organizations to keep public pressure on the FDA. Health groups from the CDC to the American Medical Association have spoken out against antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, including chefs, medical professionals, and progressive food companies, have called on the FDA to do its job and protect the health of our families.

It's time for the FDA to follow the law and do its job. The agency needs to curb antibiotic abuse on factory farms and protect antibiotics for those who need them most--sick people.