Friday, August 29, 2008

Sludge victims tell their stories to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

CONTACTS: Laura Orlando, Sludge News - (617) 413-8505 Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director, The Center for Food Safety - (202) 547-9359

WASHINGTON, DC - August 25 - The controversial practice of disposing of sewage sludge on agricultural land and public parks will be examined by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in a public hearing on September 11, 2008.

Sewage is an unpredictable mixture of whatever enters the sewers. The inevitable byproduct of sewage treatment is sludge. Sewage sludge is a toxic mix of heavy metals, synthetic organic compounds (e.g., PCBs, PAHs), detergent metabolites, pharmaceuticals, and pathogens. There are as many as 100,000 chemicals used in American industry, and every year thousands more chemical compounds are put into commercial use. All of these can potentially enter the wastewater stream and any that do can end up in the sludge.

"Sewage sludge is anything but the benign fertilizer the Environmental Protection Agency says it is," said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director at the Center for Food Safety (CFS). "In fact, hundreds of people have fallen ill after being exposed to sewage sludge fertilizer. We commend the Senate for taking this first step towards addressing this dangerous practice."

The "land application" of sewage sludge has been promoted by EPA since 1993 as the preferred method of sludge disposal. Millions of tons of hazardous sewage sludge have subsequently been spread on farmland and parks in the United States, and many people living near sludged agricultural sites and many farm animals fed on sludged silage and hay have been made very sick. Many of these people have attempted to stop this practice. Now, since recent events have put a new spotlight on sludge, they are getting some help.

On February 25, 2008, Judge Anthony Alaimo of the 11th Circuit Court ruled that the sludge applications on a farm in Georgia were responsible for killing hundreds of diary cattle and contaminating the milk supplies (see, and confirmed decades of deceipt by EPA and USDA. Judge Alaimo further stated in the ruling that "senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent and any questioning of EPA's biosolids program." The U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee has announced it will hold hearings on September 11, 2008, on the issue of spreading sludge on land. This is a welcome first step in a long overdue examination of the policies that have led us to the appalling systematic contamination of our food supply and the degradation of our health from this byproduct of wastewater treatment.

CFS has long sought to end the use of sewage sludge as an agricultural fertilizer--first through an immediate moratorium on its application to croplands. CFS strongly suggests that the government launch an independent investigation into all specific claims that sludge has caused harm to people, animals, and the environment.

You can find more information about sewage sludge, sludge victimsí stories, and the Senate hearings at Sludge News: or httP://

Home-Grown Veg Ruined by Toxic Fertilizer in Great Britain


Dow AgroSciences Aminopyralid:

Gardeners across Britain are reaping a bitter harvest of rotten potatoes, withered salads and deformed tomatoes after an industrial herbicide tainted their soil. Caroline Davies reports on how the food chain became contaminated and talks to the angry allotment owners whose plots have been destroyed

Gardeners have been warned not to eat home-grown vegetables contaminated by a powerful new herbicide that is destroying gardens and allotments across the UK.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has been inundated with calls from concerned gardeners who have seen potatoes, beans, peas, carrots and salad vegetables wither or become grossly deformed. The society admitted that it had no idea of the extent of the problem, but said it appeared 'significant'. The affected gardens and allotments have been contaminated by manure originating from farms where the hormone-based herbicide aminopyralid has been sprayed on fields.

Dow AgroSciences, which manufactures aminopyralid, has posted advice to allotment holders and gardeners on its website. Colin Bowers, Dow's UK grassland marketing manager, told The Observer that links to their products had been proved in some of the cases, but it was not clear whether aminopyralid was responsible for all of them and tests were continuing. 'It is undoubtedly a problem,' he said, 'and I have got full sympathy for everyone who is involved with this.'

He said the company was unable to advise gardeners that it was 'safe' to consume vegetables that had come into contact with the manure because of pesticide regulations. 'All we can say is that the trace levels of aminopyralid that are likely to be in these crops are of such low levels that they are unlikely to cause a problem to human health.'

The Dow website says: 'As a general rule, we suggest damaged produce (however this is caused) should not be consumed.' Those who have already used contaminated manure are advised not to replant on the affected soil for at least a year.

Aminopyralid, which is found in several Dow products, the most popular being Forefront, a herbicide, is not licensed to be used on food crops and carries a label warning farmers using it not to sell manure that might contain residue to gardeners. The Pesticides Safety Directorate, which has issued a regulatory update on the weedkiller, is taking samples from affected plants for testing.

Problems with the herbicide emerged late last year, when some commercial potato growers reported damaged crops. In response, Dow launched a campaign within the agriculture industry to ensure that farmers were aware of how the products should be used. Nevertheless, the herbicide has now entered the food chain. Those affected are demanding an investigation and a ban on the product. They say they have been given no definitive answer as to whether other produce on their gardens and allotments is safe to eat.

It appears that the contamination came from grass treated 12 months ago. Experts say the grass was probably made into silage, then fed to cattle during the winter months. The herbicide remained present in the silage, passed through the animal and into manure that was later sold. Horses fed on hay that had been treated could also be a channel.

Bryn Pugh, legal consultant at the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners, said he was preparing claims for some members to seek financial compensation from the manure suppliers. But it was extremely difficult to trace the exact origins of each contaminated batch. 'It seems to be everywhere. From what I know, it is endemic throughout England and Wales. We will be pressing the government to ban this product,' he said.

Aminopyralid is popular with farmers, who spray it on grassland because it controls weeds such as docks, thistles and nettles without affecting the grass around them. It binds itself to the woody tissue in the grass and only breaks down when exposed to bacteria in the soil.

Shirley Murray, 53, a retired management consultant with an allotment near Bushy Park in Hampton, south-west London, said several of her allotment neighbours had used the same manure bought from a stables and all were affected. 'I am absolutely incensed at what has happened and find it scandalous that a weedkiller sprayed more than one year ago, that has passed through an animal's gut, was kicked around on a stable floor, stored in a muck heap in a field, then on an allotment site and was finally dug into or mulched on to beds last winter is still killing "sensitive" crops and will continue to do so for the next year,' she said.

'It's very toxic, it shouldn't get into the food chain. You try to be as organic as you can and we have poisoned ourfood. I've been everywhere, emailed all the right people, but nobody will speak on the record to guarantee what is safe to eat. We all think it is a scandal. Not to mention what it has cost in time and money.'

Pesticide expert Professor Vyvyan Howard, a toxico-pathologist at Ulster University, said it was 'a very powerful herbicide' but in his opinion was 'unlikely to pose any human health risks'. However, advice about its use should be strengthened, he said. 'I think the thing that is going to drive this is the commercial damage that could be done to market gardeners,' he said.

Guy Barter, the RHS head of horticultural advisory services, said they were receiving more than 20 calls a week. 'Our advice is not to eat the vegetables because no one seems to have any idea whether it is safe to eat them and we can't give any assurances,' he said. 'It is happening all over the country. A lot of cases we are seeing is where people have got manure from stables and the stable have bought their hay from a merchant, and the merchant might have bought hay from many farmers, possibly from different parts of the country. So they have no idea where the hay came from. So finding someone to blame is quite difficult.' Weedkiller in the soil should dissipate by next year, but in stacks of contaminated manure it might take two or more years to decay, he added.

Dow is planning a major publicity campaign to reiterate warnings to farmers over usage, and to encourage allotment holders to check the provenance of manure that they put down in an effort to prevent the problem escalating. On compensation, it was less forthcoming. 'There is no easy answer to that,' said Bowers. 'The first port of call is always where the manure comes from. From that point on, I can't really comment.

'The chain is horrendously complicated. In the cases we have managed to trace back, we might find that the farmer who supplied the manure didn't spray anything himself, but he might have bought in a couple of bales of silage from one of his neighbours, and that farm might have sprayed.'

Robin and Christina Jones spread a large amount of manure over their flower garden and vegetable patch at their home in Banstead, Surrey. When the potatoes failed, Robin took a sample to the RHS, which identified aminopyralid. His neighbour, who bought from the same source, suffered the same problems. 'We have lost 80 per cent of our vegetable patch,' said Jones, 65, a retired sound engineer. Raspberries, French beans, onions, leeks, even a newly planted robina tree were all affected. 'We are distraught. But what worries me is that the courgettes look very healthy. Had we not had the problem with the potatoes, we might never have realised. Now we are advised not to eat them.

'This is a very serious issue, and people must be made aware of the advice not to eat vegetables grown in contaminated manure.'

Sue Ainsworth, 58, an education consultant, said around 20 allotments at her site in Hale, Cheshire, had been affected. 'We first noticed with the potatoes. As they came through, they were deformed, all curled over and rotten underneath. But the worry is that the courgettes also planted on the manure are fine -- but are they safe to eat? This must have affected thousands of people. I am really worried about this product and really think it should be withdrawn.'

She said the farmer who supplied the manure said he had used nothing unusual. 'But he may have bought in the straw and genuinely knew nothing about the herbicide used.'

Susan Garrett, 57, an IT consultant, said 20 plots were affected at her allotment in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. 'And that is just the plants we can see are damaged. We are angry it has been allowed to happen -- not with the chemical company, but because there doesn't seem to be any protection for us or anything to stop it happening again.'

Thursday, August 21, 2008

FDA: Irradiating Spinach, Lettuce OK to Kill Germs

Bob's note: I find it hard not to say "I told you so" here, but the first step taken on the almond issue last September was a precurser for this event. Expect to see expanded use of this technology on many of our crops soon. With the losses sustained by tomato growers this year because of the false accusations of e.coli contamination I think it reasonable to assume that major growers/shippers will be in line to apply this method as soon as they can.


Web note: Irradiated ingredients and foods are prohibited by the USDA's National Organic Standards

WASHINGTON (AP) - Consumers worried about salad safety may soon be able to buy fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce zapped with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and a few other germs.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday will issue a new regulation allowing spinach and lettuce sellers to take that extra step, a long-awaited move amid increasing outbreaks from raw produce.

It doesn't excuse dirty produce, warned Dr. Laura Tarantino, FDA's chief of food additive safety. Farms and processors still must follow standard rules to keep the greens as clean as possible — and consumers, too, should wash the leaves before eating.

"What this does is give producers and processors one more tool in the toolbox to make these commodities safer and protect public health," Tarantino said.

Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef that is a favorite hiding spot for E. coli. Spices also can be irradiated.

But the Grocery Manufacturers Association had petitioned the FDA to allow a list of fresh produce and other foods to be irradiated as well — starting with leafy greens that have sparked numerous recent outbreaks, including E. coli in spinach that in 2006 killed three people and sickened nearly 200.

The industry group wouldn't name salad suppliers ready to start irradiating. But it expects niche marketing to trickle out first — bags of spinach and lettuce targeted to high-risk populations such as people with weak immune systems "who right now may be afraid to eat uncooked produce," said GMA's chief science officer Robert Brackett.

"It's one big step forward in improving the safety of fresh produce," he added.

A leading food safety expert said irradiation indeed can kill certain bacteria safely — but it doesn't kill viruses that also increasingly contaminate produce, and it isn't as effective as tightening steps to prevent contamination starting at the farm.

"It won't control all hazards on these products," cautioned Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She questioned why the FDA hasn't addressed her agency's 2006 call to require growers to document such things as how they use manure and ensure the safety of irrigation water. Irrigation is one suspect in this summer's nationwide salmonella outbreak attributed first to tomatoes and then to Mexican hot peppers.

"We are not opposed to the use of irradiation," DeWaal said. But, "it's expensive and it doesn't really address the problem at the source."

Won't zapping leafy greens with X-rays or other means of radiation leave them limp? Not with today's modern techniques and the right dose, the FDA decided.

The FDA determined that irradiation can kill E. coli, salmonella and listeria, as well as lengthen the greens' shelf life, without compromising the safety, texture or nutrient value of raw spinach lettuce.

E. coli actually is fairly sensitive to radiation, while salmonella and listeria require more energy. While irradiation doesn't sterilize, the FDA ruled that food companies could use a dose proven to dramatically reduce levels of those germs, a dose somewhat lower than meat requires.

But consumers shouldn't consider irradiation a panacea, either. While E. coli and salmonella tend to affect more people and make bigger headlines, consumer advocate DeWaal has found that norovirus contamination is a leading cause of produce outbreaks.

The irradiation rule goes into effect Friday. The FDA still is considering industry's petition to allow irradiation of additional produce. The grocery manufacturers group will push for other greens, such as Romaine lettuce, to be next, so that producers could irradiate bags of salad mixes.

While irradiated foods initially caused some consumer concern, FDA's Tarantino stressed that the food itself harbors no radiation.

The Food Irradiation Plot: Why the USDA Wants to Sterilize Fresh Produce and Turn Live Foods into Dead Foods:

07/12/08 -FDA Tomato Poisoning Fiasco: Preparation for Irradiating ...

06/17/08 -Nuclear Lobby Says Tainted Tomatoes Mean We Should Nuke A...

04/15/08 -USDA Promoting Irradiation of Foods and Ignoring Consumer...

for more on irradiation, see

Sunday, August 17, 2008

China approves big budget for GMO amid food worries

By Niu Shuping

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's cabinet has approved a huge budget for research of genetically modified crops amid growing concerns over food security, a move scientists say may speed up commercial production of GMO rice or corn.

The State Council, or cabinet, at a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao, gave the green light on Wednesday to a program aimed at promoting indigenous genetically modified crops (GMO), Xinhua news agency said.

Although the Xinhua report gave few details of the program, Chinese scientists said it included a large increase for GMO research, including a big portion to develop safety measures for GMO crops until the year 2020.

"There is significant growth in budget at between 4 to 5 billion Yuan ($584- 730 million) in the coming years," Lu Barong, a professor with Fusan University and also a member of the country's biosafety committee with the agriculture ministry, told Reuters.

"Particularly a large budget was allocated on GMO safety research," said Lu.

Xinhua said the program aims to obtain genes with great potential commercial value whose intellectual property rights belong to China, and to develop high-quality, high-yield and pest-resistant genetically modified new species.

"The plan's approval is a very positive signal to the future research and commercialization of more GMO crops," said Huang Jikun, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The cabinet also urged relevant authorities to "waste no time to implement the program and understand the importance and urgency of the program".

"I think the sensitive issue such as (the commercial use of) GMO rice will come back to the agenda again," Huang Dafang, a researcher with Biotechnology Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

China, the global leader in developing GMO rice, has put off commercialization of such varieties due to global consumer concerns over safety of transgenic crops, partly fuelled by GMO contamination also in rice products exported from the country.


The Beijing move was in line with steps taken by other countries addressing concerns over rising food prices and worsening supplies that threaten to push more of the world's people into poverty.

Rising food inflation has also led consumers in Europe and South Korea to accept what opponents call "Frankenstein foods".

"Food security is one consideration," said Xue Dayuan, chief scientist on biodiversity at Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences.

Xue said the programme also included research for livestock.

The program's approval came ahead of the country's biosafety committee meeting at the end of this month to evaluate the safety of at least one strain of GMO corn.

Chinese researchers with the Biotechnology Research Institute told Reuters earlier that it hoped to get approval for commercial production of domestically developed phytase corn.

Some scientists, though, say Beijing will still hold off approval of GMO rice.

The cabinet last week approved a long-term grain output blueprint, which aims to increase grain production to more than 540 million tonnes annually by 2020 so it can be 95 percent self-sufficient in feeding the country's growing population of more than 1.3 billion people.

But analysts say that because China's arable land is shrinking every year due to industrialization, the country has no option but to turn to genetic modification technology to increase yields.

"GMO technology is the only solution right now for the country to raise yield and reduce use of pesticide, which is harmful for the environment," said Huang Dafang.

China aims to produce 500 million tonnes of grain a year by 2010, but demand -- estimated at 518 million tonnes this year -- is projected to outstrip the pace of grain output.

Still, China will likely not have to import grain in the next year or two because it has ample grain reserves.

(Additional reporting by Nao Nakanishi in Hong Kong; Editing by Ken Wills)

Genotyping the DNA of Old, Nonviable Seeds

Genotyping the DNA of Old, Nonviable Seeds

A display of seeds from the late 1890s at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation that typifies the crops grown in the North Dakota area at that time: Click here for photo caption.
A display of seeds from the late 1890s at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation that typifies the crops grown in the North Dakota area at that time. (K10190-1)

Christina Walters has ways of making seeds talk.

Walters is a plant physiologist at the ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Working with plant physiologist Gayle M. Volk and plant geneticist Christopher M. Richards, Walters has demonstrated that it’s possible to persuade seeds to reveal genetic information—even after they’ve lost viability.

“The evidence that usable DNA can be extracted from seeds that can no longer produce plants has significant implications for seed bank management,” Walters says.

Like all genebanks, NCGRP stores genetic materials that researchers can use to study the nature, function, and evolution of genes. Since all seeds lose viability in storage, samples that can no longer germinate are often discarded. But new research shows that even such low-viability seeds can contain research-quality DNA.

Walters and her colleagues examined three sets of seeds—ranging in age from 1 to 135 years—to see if they contained enough intact genetic material to reveal genotypic information about the seeds.

The scientists were able to extract usable DNA from all the seeds—even the last set, which had been stored in a Georgia attic since the Civil War. This is significant because donated collections—such as those Civil War-era seeds—are sometimes infested with microbes that contain enzymes capable of degrading the seeds’ DNA. Fortunately, genetic materials at NCGRP are stored under optimal conditions and are at lower risk for degradation.

Because the oldest seeds in this study are no longer capable of germinating, the scientists have no means of measuring their phenotypes, or observable genetic traits. But stable DNA enables researchers to genotype seeds to uncover information about pedigree or genetic diversity.

“The youngest seeds were in great condition, but even the older seeds had chunks of DNA containing at least 900 base pairs, which will provide enough information to identify a seed’s species and compare it to genetically similar materials,” Walters says.—By Laura McGinnis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

This research is part of Plant Genetic Resources, Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS national program (#301) described on the World Wide Web at

Christina Walters, Gayle Volk, and Christopher Richards are in the USDA-ARS Plant and Animal Germplasm Preservation Research Unit, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, 1111 South Mason St., Fort Collins, CO 80521-4500; phone (970) 495-3202 [Walters], (970) 495-3205 [Volk], (970) 495-3201 [Richards], fax (970) 221-1427.

"Genotyping the DNA of Old, Nonviable Seeds" was published in the August 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Monsanto wants to sell embattled milk hormone unit

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Mo., Aug 6 (Reuters) - Monsanto Co (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) wants to sell its dairy hormone business, a move that comes after many retailers and dairy industry participants across the United States rejected the biotech agricultural product amid questions about its safety.

Monsanto officials said on Wednesday they were pursuing divestiture of Posilac bovine somatotropin, an artificial growth hormone that makes cows produce more milk, to focus on Monsanto's key profit drivers of agricultural seeds and development of specific genetic traits for crops.

Monsanto said concerns raised about the product had no role in the decision.

"That didn't play a role at all," said Monsanto spokeswoman Danielle Jany. "This is really a great product. The business has been strong. Sales have been strong."

Monsanto and its backers have battled with consumer activists for more than a decade over whether Posilac, also known as rbST or rBGH, is harmful to human and animal health.

But the debate took a marked turn in the last two years as a growing number of dairy and food companies started demanding rbST-free milk, citing consumer concerns.

In August, 2007, Kroger Co (KR.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), one of the nation's largest retail grocery chains, said it was switching to supplies from cows free of synthetic hormones.

Among others now rejecting rbST-milk is Dean Foods Co. (DF.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), the nation's largest milk processor and distributor, and the Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) chain of coffee houses.

For more than a decade the European Union also has rejected imports of meat derived from hormone-treated cattle, sparking a long-running World Trade Organization dispute.

National Milk Producers Federation spokesman Chris Galen said on Wednesday that Monsanto's move comes as the trend against rbST was expanding beyond bottled milk to also include cheese products. "Processors don't want it," Galen said.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co, the leading developer of biotech crops, is sole producer of the artificial hormone supplement, which is made through recombinant DNA technology.

The company began selling Posilac in 1994 as a method of boosting milk production in cows and says the product is safe and the milk cannot be distinguished from milk from cows that don't receive the supplement. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the supplement for use.

Monsanto has been waging a largely unsuccessful battle to try to stop dairy industry players from marketing their milk as being free of the rbST hormone, and said in a regulatory filing last year its sales could be limited by the controversy.

Critics charge that milk from cows given rbST pose risks of breast, colon and prostate cancers. They also say the hormone supplement causes a range of health problems for dairy cows.

"This represents a victory for consumers who are choosing healthier foods for themselves and their families. Consumer rejection forced it out of the market," said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and creator of a documentary critical of Monsanto and Posilac.

Monsanto shares closed up more than 2 percent at $109.40 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Carol Bishopric)