Monday, October 15, 2007


Each time I receive FEED, I'm astonished by how much of our food supply is manipulated and how little we know of this. As a result, I'm now posting the newsletter from the Union of Concerned Scientists so that those of you who are also concerned can be more informed about what actually is going on. PR

FEED – Food & Environment Electronic Digest - October 2007


USDA fails to solve mystery of contaminated rice
Certified organic farmland in U.S. is growing
Genetically engineered crop pesticide hurts aquatic insects
Aurora Organic Dairy flouted organic rules
A new, drug-resistant strain of E. coli in Britain

1. USDA fails to solve mystery of contaminated rice
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) still doesn't know how rice destined for human consumption was contaminated by an unapproved genetically engineered variety in 2006. (See FEED stories from last September and last December.) The USDA blamed missing records for its failure to find answers after an investigation that consumed 14 months and 8,500 staff hours and included 45 site visits in six states. The agency has also said it will take no enforcement action against Bayer CropScience, the company that developed the experimental rice. The contamination has taken a tremendous economic toll on U.S. rice growers and exporters. Because the USDA does no routine testing and does not require companies to keep records, more such incidents are expected. Read an article in The Washington Post, or read the USDA’s press release.

2. Certified organic farmland in U.S. is growing
The United States now has more than four million acres of organic farmland, including some in every state, according to USDA data. Read more . . .

3. Genetically engineered crop pesticide hurts aquatic insects

Genetically engineered crops that produce Bt pesticide may significantly impact ecologically important aquatic insects. Scientists discovered that the insects, caddisfly larvae, were feeding on Bt corn pollen that washed into streams from nearby fields. The team then fed Bt corn pollen and leaves to two species of caddisfly larvae in the lab, and found that it reduced the growth rate of one species by more than half and killed another species. The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates Bt crops, has never required testing for harm to aquatic insects. Because caddisfly larvae are an important food source for fish and other organisms, this previously unknown impact of Bt corn may be a serious problem. Read the abstract in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

4. Aurora Organic Dairy flouted organic rules
A USDA investigation found that the country's largest organic dairy, Aurora Organic Dairy, was violating the federal rules of organic production. Read more . . .

5. A new, drug-resistant strain of E. coli in Britain
In England and Wales, around 30,000 people a year are infected with a new strain of E. coli bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics. The new strain, an extended-spectrum B-lactamase (ESBL)-producing strain that causes urinary tract infections and can also lead to blood poisoning, is also starting to show up in U.S. hospitals. According to one expert, it is more dangerous than methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Doctors have few drugs available to treat such infections. The problem of antibiotic resistance is growing worldwide, in part due to agricultural practices that feed antibiotics to animals that are not sick. Read more from The Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The concept of farm subsidies has been a source of discussion for years. Designed originally to assist farmers to survive weather-related losses and the very real challenge of continuing to work in an agrarian commutity as the country increasingly became urban and suburban, as big corporations came in and turned small farms into large agri-business, farm subsidies came under fire. Among other things, farmers have been paid not to produce crops. Additionally, with the Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, subsidized corn has been sold to Mexico, undercutting small Mexican farmers and causing them to go bankrupt.

On the other side of the equation, food stamps and donated commodities for those in need are largely funded through the subsidized farm programs. These programs have helped individuals and families in need to feed their families.

So why do we need a new farm subsidy program, and do farmers continue to need subsidies? Here is an article from McClatchy that talks a bit about the new bill.

Fruits and vegetables reap rewards in House-approved farm bill
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON | The House on Friday approved a farm bill that devotes record funds to fruits and vegetables while imposing subsidy changes denounced by critics as inadequate.

The House approved the bill by a 231-191 margin. Many Republicans actually support the underlying legislation but voted “no” because they opposed the last-minute addition of a tax provision. All of the Missouri and Kansas representatives voted for it.

The politics, prospects and policies of the measure are complex. Questions may outnumber answers.

Q. Should I care about this if I’m not a farmer?

A. Absolutely. For instance, the bill increases benefits for the Food Stamp program that serves 25 million U.S. residents, and it expands to all 50 states an after-school snack program.

Other impacts of federal policy on food price and availability grow are complicated. For instance, the bill pleases sugar producers by guaranteeing minimum prices. Consumers, though, pay more at the grocery because of this sugar policy, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has concluded.

Q. Who are the big winners?

A. Specialty crops, certainly. This means fruits, vegetables, wine — everything not covered by traditional crop subsidies. The bill counts $1.7 billion over five years for specialty crops. This is about quadruple the amount authorized in 2002. It would pay for research, school lunch purchases, promotion campaigns and more. It is also a long-term victory for industry groups like the Western Growers Association because this gets specialty crops into future farm bills as well.

Q. How about commodities such as cotton, rice and wheat?

A. Winners, all. The House bill largely retains the crop subsidy program written in 2002. Farmers will be able to collect several kinds of subsidies, which in 2005 totaled about $19 billion nationwide.

Q. Is Congress done?

A. Hardly. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee must now write its own version of the bill. In theory, the Senate must finish in September so the House and Senate can reconcile their competing bills before the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30.

Q. Is President Bush happy with the bill?

A. Not yet. While saying that the White House “appreciates the progress” made so far, the Office of Management and budget warns that the current version would be vetoed. For instance, the Bush administration wants to ban subsidies to farmers with gross annual incomes greater than $200,000. The House bill sets the income limit for subsidy recipients at $1 million.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


The unprecedented rise in childhood obesity and Diabetes 2 due to poor food choices and a more sedentary life from that of our predecessors, a scary proposition for all of us. Despite the convenience of fast food venues and quick meals from the local supermarket, the cost is ultimately higher than that of healthier choices due to downtime from illness and the cost of doctor's visits and medicine.

Fortunately, we have so many healthy choices easily available in the marketplace. As "Granola Eating" has gone mainstream, we can even get fresh and frozen healthy entrees in the market and we can go to the farmers market for the best possible produce and more.

Not only do local farmers markets save non-renewable resources, we have an automatic opportunity to be outside and socialize with farmers and customers alike at the markets. And it's a great way for kids to learn about good food options in a friendly environment. And, guess what? At the farmers markets there is no canned music!

UC researcher: farmers markets benefit local economies

Steve Smit of Mt. Moriah Farms in Lodi sells his organic fruit at the Davis Farmers Market.
Farmers, communities and individual residents are the three beneficiaries of local farmers markets, according to a University of California food systems analyst who reviewed studies of the markets and their growth.

"There was a huge rise in farmers markets in the last 40 years and I wanted to find out why," said Gail Feenstra, with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). In 1970 there were only 340 farmers markets in the United States; by 2006, there were more than 4,385 farmers markets, an increase of approximately 1,190 percent. California makes up more than 11 percent or almost 500 markets, half of which are open year-round, she said.

"Farmers benefit from the ability to sell smaller and variable quantities, and learn the skills they need to increase their business," she said. Her article "The Roles of Farmers Markets in Fueling Local Economies" in the newly released Food for Thought issue of the journal Gastronomic Sciences, reported that direct marketing venues such as farmers markets helped farmers sell their products in local communities for higher prices than they could get from wholesalers. Annie and Jeff Main, two of the founding farmers of the Davis Farmers Market, who Feenstra interviewed, noted how essential the market was to them.

"When they started their organic farm in 1975, they found that wholesale markets were virtually inaccessible to small farmers," said Feenstra. "The Davis Farmers Market offered them a consistent marketplace where they could sell their organic produce at retail prices. Unlike other marketing outlets, the farmers market tolerated fluctuations in quantity and varieties throughout the season, and became a place where they could learn the skills they needed."

Feenstra said the total gross receipts farmers receive at farmers markets, although modest by comparison to supermarkets, are still significant. Her 1999 study of California farmers markets estimated total annual sales at approximately $140 million. She noted that the Davis Farmers Market averaged $2 million in annual sales in 2006 for its year-round weekly market (eight hours of sales per week).

Communities that support local agricultural production systems and food marketing as part of a diversified economic development plan have greater control over their destinies, Feenstra said. An important way that communities support and benefit from farmers markets is through social interaction.

"The social benefit that farmers markets bring to communities can't be overestimated," she said. In her interviews with market patrons, she found farmers markets to be a major source of interaction, both between farmers and their customers, and among the market visitors. Feenstra cited research that shows farmers markets not only encourage economic transactions on their premises, but also bring customers into town where they make purchases at other businesses.

Individuals said they benefit from patronizing farmers markets by their ability to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat, and value-added items including baked goods, olive oil, jam and salad dressing. Customers Feenstra interviewed expressed positive feelings about buying food they believe to be clean and safe from farmers they know.

Low-income and elderly community residents receive particular benefits from farmers markets, Feenstra said, where they are more likely to find healthful, affordable, nutritious food or ethnically appropriate foods than at retail food outlets. Many markets accept food stamps or vouchers from the Farmers Market Nutrition Program or the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Feenstra noted that farmers markets have become the foundation of local food systems for low-income clientele and some ethnic groups in many regions of California.

"At this point in history when we see cracks in the health of our environment, economic and social systems and declining natural resources, concerns about the future of long-term energy, and rising obesity rates, creating and sustaining local food economies with farmers markets as an important component, may be both an admirable goal and a necessity," Feenstra said. "The markets are important exchange networks that offer farmers, consumers and communities opportunities to participate in and strengthen the local food economies in unique places."

The journal article is available in Italian and English at

Feenstra has written extensively on farm-to-school programs and farmers markets throughout the United States. Her article on farmers markets in Gastronomic Sciences is available online at

Her research on farm-to-school salad bars is available as a free download at Her work on regional marketing is also available at SAREP is affiliated with the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES Public Health Service Food and Drug Administration Rockville MD 20857






JULY 17, 2007


Good morning, Chairman Stupak and Members of the Subcommittee. I am Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, Commissioner of Food and Drugs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA or the Agency), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I am pleased to be joined here today by my Agency colleagues Dr. Robert Brackett, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), Ms. Margaret Glavin, Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, and Mr. Stephen Mason, Acting Assistant Commissioner for Legislation. We appreciate the opportunity to discuss FDA’s food safety activities and the transformation initiative underway in FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), which will enhance FDA’s ability to prevent and respond to food safety problems.

In my testimony today, I will describe FDA’s role in food safety and some of the efforts we have underway to help prevent future outbreaks. I will also describe how ORA’s proposed transformation will support and enhance our food safety programs.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the relevant food safety agencies are collaborating on ways to most effectively address issues raised in the General Accountability Office’s (GAO) designation of Federal Oversight of Food Safety as a high-risk item in February 2007.

FDA is committed to ensuring that America’s food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. In recent years, we have done a great deal to protect the food supply from both unintentional and deliberate contamination. We have made significant progress, but the 2006 and 2007 outbreaks of foodborne illness in humans due to contaminated fresh produce and peanut butter and the illnesses in pets due to contaminated animal food, as well as the problem of potentially harmful drug residues in farm-raised Chinese seafood, underscore the need to develop new multidisciplinary and integrated food safety strategies at FDA. These new strategies are necessary to meet the challenges created by changes in the global food supply; changes in farming, manufacturing, and processing practices; and changes in consumer demographics and needs.

Because I am committed to ensuring that the U.S. food supply remains safe and secure, I recently created the new position of Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection. I have appointed Dr. David Acheson to that position. Dr. Acheson’s first priority is to develop a new strategy for food safety and food defense that will address changes in the global food safety and defense system, identify our most critical needs, and serve as a framework to help us address the challenges we face. Our goal is to augment our current comprehensive and robust food protection program in a way that is tailored to meet the risks posed by the types of foods we regulate. I expect the plan to focus on efforts by industry to prevent food problems, and FDA interventions that provide the tools and science necessary not only to head off outbreaks of foodborne illness but address intentional contamination as well, and also to ensure compliance with preventive controls that are designed to stop problems before they arise. The result should be a stronger preventive national food protection infrastructure capable of rapid response when contaminated food or feed is detected, or when there is harm to human or animal health.
Although the outbreaks since last summer presented challenges to FDA, they also demonstrated FDA’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to protect consumers.

Upon becoming aware of a foodborne illness outbreak associated with FDA-regulated products, FDA’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) coordinates the Agency response, providing a central point in the Agency for managing the early phases of an emergency so that crucial information can be shared and acted upon immediately by appropriate FDA offices. This enables FDA to initiate investigations quickly; often the same day as developing information is obtained. The EOC coordination also enables FDA to base public health messages on real-time up-to-date information. It provides technical experts within FDA with access to both investigational and analytical data to facilitate their ongoing evaluations with the goal of making appropriate recommendations to prevent further illness and adverse impact to human and animal health. EOC staff are available on an around-the-clock basis. As appropriate, FDA works closely with our sister public health agency in HHS—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the states, and other agencies, in any emergency response.

During last fall’s foodborne illness outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 associated with fresh spinach, FDA investigators were in spinach processing facilities in California the day after CDC notified us of the outbreak. Similarly, when CDC informed FDA of a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella tennessee apparently associated with Peter Pan peanut butter, FDA sent investigators into the ConAgra peanut butter plant the next day. The Agency warned consumers the day after CDC notified us of these outbreaks. When Menu Foods, a pet food manufacturer, notified FDA that it was conducting a recall of certain pet food due to illnesses and deaths of cats and dogs, FDA initiated an inspection of the Menu Foods manufacturing facility the next day and notified consumers within 48 hours.

Although FDA has demonstrated its ability to respond quickly to protect public health, the outbreaks have shown that a great deal more needs to be done to enhance prevention of problems at the source.

FDA’s mission is to promote and protect the public health. Ensuring that FDA-regulated products are safe and secure is a vital part of that mission. FDA is the Federal agency that regulates everything we eat except for meat, poultry, and processed egg products, which are regulated by our partners at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Although FDA has the lead responsibility within HHS for ensuring the safety of food products, CDC has an important complementary and non-regulatory public health role. CDC is the lead Federal agency for conducting disease surveillance and outbreak investigations and routinely monitors the occurrence of specific illnesses in the U.S. attributable to contaminated foods within the food supply. The disease surveillance systems coordinated by CDC, in collaboration with states, provide an essential early-information network to detect and minimize the impact of foodborne illness outbreaks.
In addition to working closely with CDC, FDA has many other food safety partners – Federal, state, and local agencies; international food safety partners; consumers, academia; and industry.

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness at all points in the food chain, FDA has adopted a “farm-to-fork” approach to food safety. This approach systematically applies risk management principles at each step as food moves from growers and producers to consumers.
FDA has focused its food safety efforts in three key areas:

• strengthening the scientific basis for FDA’s food safety program with a focus on prevention;

• enhancing effective partnerships, both domestic and international; and

• improving risk-based targeting of inspection resources.

I will elaborate on these below.
Strengthening the Scientific Base for FDA’s Program to Improve Food Safety
Improving the effectiveness of FDA’s food safety program requires strengthening the science base that supports FDA’s food protection work. FDA’s food safety science program involves a number of intramural and extramural efforts, which can play a major role in reducing levels of foodborne illness. For example, FDA has conducted research focused on: (1) identifying mechanisms of contamination of fresh produce with pathogens and preventing contamination; (2) identifying effective interventions to address contamination that has occurred; and (3) developing fast and sensitive analytical methods for the detection of pathogens on fresh produce. The results of FDA’s research help the Agency develop, implement, and evaluate policies designed to improve food safety. They also help maintain FDA’s awareness of emerging issues and enable the Agency to respond rapidly to emergencies.

Extramural collaborations allow FDA to make its resources go further and use those resources more efficiently to address food-related safety concerns, and to prepare for new and emerging issues. For example, for the past decade, FDA has worked closely with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) to coordinate and mutually support our respective science efforts related to produce safety. This relationship allows FDA to augment its resources and scientific laboratory expertise. During the outbreak of illness associated with spinach last fall, we were able to capitalize on that ongoing relationship by collaborating with ARS and CSREES to analyze water samples from the Salinas watershed for E. coli O157:H7 and to relate the location of bacteria to geographical, seasonal, or rainfall variation. An extension of this research will look for sources of E. coli O157:H7 in California’s Salinas Valley. As part of our plan to be more proactive about food safety, we will use information obtained from this study to inform produce growers about strategies to prevent pre-harvest microbial contamination.

We strengthen the scientific base for our program through collaborations and also by participating in many scientific and technical meetings on food safety. In February, for example, we participated in a forum sponsored by the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security to share information on assessing industry approaches to address the safety of lettuce and leafy greens on the farm and at packing, cooling, and processing facilities. Also in February, the FDA-affiliated Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the University of Florida sponsored a workshop to improve understanding of how tomatoes become contaminated with Salmonella and other pathogens. And on May 30 and 31, FDA, the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, and the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety co-sponsored a workshop on microbial testing to reach a consensus on the role of microbial testing to ensure the safety of produce.

In response to the recent outbreaks associated with fresh produce, FDA held two public hearings on March 20 and April 13 of this year. The purpose of these hearings was for FDA to share information about the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness related to fresh produce and to solicit comments, data, and additional scientific information on this issue. We are soliciting input from all our stakeholders on ways to improve the safety of fresh produce and the Agency is currently evaluating the comments we received in response to these hearings.

Enhancing Effective Partnerships
To succeed in our science-based efforts to promote food safety, we need to enhance our collaborations with stakeholders interested in food safety. For example, fresh produce is produced on tens of thousands of farms, and contamination at one step in the growing and processing chain can be amplified at the next step. One of the key elements of FDA’s 2004 Produce Safety Action Plan calls for efforts to improve communication and collaboration with all our food safety stakeholders. FDA has worked with the public and private sector to encourage industry to follow the recommendations and standards contained in FDA guidance documents. After enlisting the help of the scientific community and the industry, FDA published the “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.” This guide, published in 1998, recommends good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices which growers, packers, and shippers can take to address common risk factors in their operations. FDA and USDA issued the guidance in several languages and have conducted significant outreach, both domestically and internationally, to encourage its implementation. In addition, FDA has assisted industry in developing a number of commodity-specific food safety guidelines for the commodities most often associated with foodborne illness outbreaks. These include guidelines for lettuce and leafy greens, melons, and tomatoes. Industry is currently working on similar guidance for herbs and green onions, for which FDA is providing technical input.

The following example of fresh alfalfa sprouts illustrates how successful these efforts can be. In 1999, there were 390 reported illnesses associated with eating contaminated fresh sprouts. FDA published two guidance documents for sprouts that year. In 2004, only 33 illnesses were reported associated with fresh sprouts and, in 2005 and 2006, there were none. We believe that the subsequent decline in sprout-associated illnesses was in large part due to the industry’s adherence to the recommendations FDA provided in those guidance documents through our outreach, inspection, and sampling efforts. In addition, maintaining this low incidence requires FDA’s continued outreach and industry vigilance. Although no set of actions can be expected to prevent all outbreaks, we believe that adherence to this guidance will likewise reduce the risk of future outbreaks.

FDA’s efforts in this area are ongoing. In March, FDA issued a draft final version of its “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Fresh-cut Fruits and Vegetables” (the Fresh-cut Guide). This guidance is intended for all fresh-cut produce firms, including, among others, those that process fresh-cut spinach and lettuce/leafy greens, to enhance the safety of fresh-cut produce by minimizing the microbial food safety hazards. In addition, because food safety is truly an international public health issue, the FDA-led Delegation of the United States to the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene spear-headed the request from the Codex Alimentarius Commission (the international food safety standards body) to the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) for an expert consultation on the microbiological safety of fresh produce to support the development of commodity-specific annexes to the hygienic code. FAO/WHO just announced that this consultation will occur during 2007 and early 2008.

In August 2006, FDA launched its “Lettuce and Leafy Greens Initiative,” which assesses practices and conditions at select farms and facilities in California, in collaboration with California’s Department of Health Services and its Department of Food and Agriculture. FDA launched a similar Tomato Safety Initiative in Virginia and Florida on June 12 of this year. We will continue to work with Federal, state, local and international food safety partners and with industry to develop guidance, conduct research, develop educational outreach materials, and initiate other commodity- or region-specific programs to enhance the safety of fresh produce.

In response to the contamination of pet food and animal feed, FDA has worked closely with a broad partnership that includes scientists in government, industry, and academia and with 50 state departments of agriculture, health authorities, veterinarians, and the Association of American Feed Control Officials. We are utilizing data from Banfield Pet Hospital (a nationwide network of veterinary hospitals), the Veterinary Information Network, Poison Control Centers, universities, and other organizations to assess the extent of the outbreak of cat and dog illnesses and deaths.

FDA scientists recently worked with the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA, CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a risk assessment to evaluate the risk to human health from consuming pork, chicken, fish, and eggs from animals inadvertently fed animal feed containing pet food that contained melamine and melamine-related compounds. The assessment found that this consumption is very unlikely to pose a human health risk.

The risk assessment is an important new science-based component of the continuing federal joint investigation into imported wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate from China that contained melamine and melamine-related compounds. On June 14 the Science Board, which is an FDA Advisory Committee, met to review and discuss the risk assessment and its subsequent peer-review. The Board concurred with the findings in the report, including the low probability of risk to humans, analysis of risk to the food supply and methods used in the assessments. The Science Board also made recommendations for additional research for future assessments.

In addition, the FDA/USDA Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) has continued to grow and enhance the nation’s food testing capacity. FERN is a network of Federal, state, and local laboratories capable of testing food samples for microbiological, chemical, and radiological threat agents. This partnership provides essential analytical expertise and surge capacity during emergencies. The FERN network proved to be a critical asset in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with fresh spinach. FERN analysts worked closely with CDC’s Laboratory Response Network personnel to harmonize and approve a modified FERN method for detecting E. coli O157:H7 in spinach. This method allowed for substantially improved testing of spinach samples as it allowed for the detection of E. coli O157:H7 at lower levels.

FDA is also a significant participant in international food safety standards organizations such as the Codex Alimentarius, assisting in the development of international standards that reflect the level of food safety protection equivalent to domestic standards. These international standards are vital to the safety of foods imported into the U.S. FDA also provides foreign countries with training in all aspects of food production, technology, transportation and consumer advice.

Recently, concerns have been elevated about the quality and safety of products imported from China. HHS and FDA are currently planning negotiation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with relevant regulators in China to address food and feed safety as well as a separate MoU on medical product safety.

Office of Regulatory Affairs’s (ORA’s) Transformation: Improving Risk-Based Targeting of Inspection Resources
ORA is the lead organization within FDA responsible for enforcing FDA’s public health laws and regulations. ORA supports FDA’s public health mission by maximizing compliance of FDA-regulated products and minimizing risks associated with those products. ORA’s activities include conducting inspections, collecting and analyzing samples, initiating investigations, overseeing recalls, taking enforcement actions, and monitoring the entry of regulated products at our nation’s borders.
Today ORA faces significant challenges in carrying out its public health mission. In the 21st Century, we are confronted with increasingly complex products manufactured through highly technical processes and requiring stringent controls. These products are no longer produced exclusively in America; there is an increasing volume of products from overseas, often from countries with emerging regulatory systems. New food pathogens and counterterrorism responsibilities place an additional burden on our traditional regulatory process. And the challenges arising from these changes promise to become even more complex and difficult to address.

ORA’s field organizational structure and the methods and tools it employs date back 40 years – to a time that pre-dates the tissue transplant industry, pre-dates computerized implantable medical devices such as defibrillators, and pre-dates the year-round availability of fresh produce and other products from all over the world. ORA is at an historic crossroads – with unprecedented challenges and opportunities before it. The volume and complexity of our work has never been greater. In order to continue to meet today’s challenges successfully and to respond swiftly and effectively to new threats and public health emergencies, we must adapt and become a more dynamic, flexible, and responsive organization. This means transforming ORA, adapting and improving its tools, methods and technologies to meet the expanding and ever-changing aspects of its mission to protect the health of the American people.

Enhancing risk-based approaches, as a systematic means of prioritizing our work to maximize public health impact, is a key element to meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow. ORA, together with CFSAN, have made great strides in focusing our food safety work where it has the greatest impact on protecting the public. But there continue to be significant opportunities to enhance our risk-based approaches. We must develop more flexible, mobile and adaptable approaches to getting the job done, including approaches that improve our efforts to target high risk products to protect the American public, and approaches that leverage our resources through enhanced collaboration with domestic and foreign regulatory counterparts. New tools must include the use of risk management analyses to refine and focus inspection strategies; increasing data mining for more effective monitoring of imports; increasing the number of foreign establishment inspections; updating the capabilities and efficiency of our regulatory laboratories; and expanding partnerships with states and other regulatory bodies to augment existing inspection capabilities.

Our transformation proposal calls for streamlining management in the field. Doing this will reduce management and overhead costs, while allowing us to support the same, or even greater, number of inspections and to invest in assuring that our employees have the skills, tools and training they need to do their jobs. Our proposal will significantly enhance our capability to assess and rank risks in order to improve the targeting of our inspection, enforcement, and analytical resources. The need to increase the use of risk-based approaches is especially acute for imports. And because responding to public health emergencies will continue to be a priority for ORA, our plan will enhance our capacity to work with state and Federal partners to better manage and coordinate FDA’s emergency response activities. Our plan will multiply the impact of all of our resources by enhancing partnerships with our regulatory counterparts and stakeholders, both domestically and abroad. In 2003, FDA worked with state counterparts to create the California Food Emergency Response Team (CALFERT), which includes inspectors and analysts from ORA’s San Francisco and Los Angles District Offices and the California Department of Health Services’ Food and Drug Branch. Because this model was so successful during the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with fresh spinach, we are pursuing ways to expand this concept.

ORA’s transformation proposal, if implemented, will improve our analytical capacity and capability by creating from our existing thirteen field laboratories a strengthened, enhanced network of six centrally managed state-of-the-art regulatory laboratories. Because the Committee has expressed particular interest in the laboratory consolidation, I would like to provide some additional information about this component of our transformation.

As I have already stated, ORA must have well-equipped and well-maintained state-of-the-art regulatory laboratories that can quickly and effectively analyze a high volume of regulatory samples and that can adapt swiftly to emerging threats and challenges. With rapid package delivery services widely available, these laboratories do not need to be near every sample collection site. Indeed, given that we collect samples in literally thousands of locations, it is not possible to have a laboratory in close proximity to every collection site. FDA’s mobile labs have been an extremely valuable resource to this Agency, and have proven their effectiveness in responding to emergencies. They complement FDA’s traditional laboratories and provide flexibility for emergency response.

The six enhanced laboratories are dispersed geographically throughout the country. They have sufficient space to accommodate all of our analysts and equipment, including those from the seven labs from which people, work, and equipment will be transferred. Currently, FDA pays costs associated with approximately forty percent more laboratory space than is needed to conduct all of the laboratory work performed in support of all of FDA’s field programs and activities. In some cases, the existing laboratories are housed in older buildings that require higher-than-average maintenance and repair costs. Reducing the number of laboratories for which FDA pays utilities, maintenance, and security costs will enable us to invest in up-to-date equipment and the maintenance of that equipment; high efficiency sample throughput technologies to increase analytical speed and capacity; development of new methods to detect emerging threats; better training for our laboratory analysts; and the development of rapid screening methodologies for use at ports of entry and elsewhere. Consolidating our work into six laboratories whose capacity will meet and even exceed the capacity of FDA’s 13 existing field laboratories will strengthen and increase ORA’s analytical capabilities to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

FDA values its dedicated workforce, and every analyst from a closing laboratory will be offered a job in the laboratory to which his or her work is transferred. Although we realize that some employees will choose not to relocate, there may be opportunities for them to compete for positions in the same or nearby locations, in other high priority and currently under-resourced program areas such as inspections and import review work. The laboratory consolidation will be implemented over a two-year period, and we are now developing detailed implementation plans designed to limit any adverse impact on our analytical work. These plans will allow us to adjust for changes in workflow and laboratory efficiency as the process moves forward so that we will be able to meet our obligations and continue laboratory operations in a seamless manner.


FDA is working hard to ensure the safety and security of food, in collaboration with our Federal, state, local, and international food safety partners, and with consumers, industry, and academia. As a result of this effective collaboration, the American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. Although we have made progress, much remains to be done. The recent incidents of contaminated food and animal feed demonstrate the challenges we face and the need to move toward a food safety and security system that is even more proactive and strategic, with a field force that is trained and equipped to focus on the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Mr. Chairman, as a firm believer in continuous improvement, I can assure you that FDA will be up to the challenge. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss FDA’s food safety activities and the ORA Transformation Initiative today. My colleagues and I would be happy to answer any questions.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Plantation workers look for justice in the North

Just out today, I've posted this article, although I have not yet gotten legal permission to print it. I feel these stories are critical in their graphic telling of what happens to the farmers who grow products for industrialized countries. While this is about bananas, it happens with many different products all through the tropics. We have fruits and vegetables in abundance while the growers use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, which may or may not have been banned in the US or Europe. Many farm workers are illiterate and are poisoned or have long-term effects of using products without proper ventilation or protection.

Is it any wonder that people migrate to industrialized countries with the hope of finding better paying work that may also be safer?


After years of toil in Central American fields where they say pesticide use made them sterile, they're suing Dow, Dole and other firms in L.A.
By T. Christian Miller
Times Staff Writer

May 27, 2007
Chinandega, Nicaragua

THE people crammed into the stifling basketball gym. They filled the court, lined the walls and tumbled beyond the doors onto the sun-blistered streets. They had gathered to hear a promise of justice.

Many had spent their lives toiling on banana plantations that U.S.
companies operated in this region some 30 years ago. By day, the workers
had harvested bunches of fruit to ship to North American tables. At
night, some had sprayed pesticide into the warm, humid air to protect
the trees from insects and rot.

As the decades passed, the workers came to believe that the pesticide,
called DBCP, had cost them their health. Prodded by U.S. lawyers,
thousands joined lawsuits in the U.S. and Nicaragua alleging that the
pesticide made them sterile.

The U.S. firms that sold and used the pesticide have never faced a U.S.
jury trial over its use abroad. Last month, a Los Angeles attorney named
Juan J. Dominguez stood before a sea of nearly 800 dark, hard faces and
predicted that the day of reckoning was at hand.

"We are fighting multinational corporations. They are giants. And they
are going to fall!" Dominguez thundered. The crowd exploded. They leapt to their feet, waved their hats, shook fists in the air. "Viva! Viva!" they chanted.

The scene last month foreshadowed a legal drama set to play out in a Los
Angeles courtroom this summer, when a lawsuit filed by Dominguez and his
partners could end a struggle that has sprawled across three decades and
courtrooms on four continents.

For the first time, a U.S. jury will have the chance to weigh the
accusation that Dole Food Co. knowingly used a pesticide manufactured by
Dow Chemical Co. that sterilized workers in Latin America three decades ago.

The complexity, history and geographic spread of the case demonstrate
how legal systems have failed to keep pace with the rapid movement of
goods across international borders. Jurisdictional and procedural issues
have repeatedly impeded attempts to sue U.S. companies in the United
States for alleged wrongdoing in other countries.

"The question is where do we litigate these issues," said Alejandro
Garro, a Columbia University law professor and expert in international
law. "The answer is that we don't have a global law. We are building it
on a case-by-case basis."

Dole, the Westlake Village-based food giant, and Dow, of Midland, Mich.,
deny the allegations. Both companies acknowledge that the pesticide DBCP
has been linked to sterility in men exposed to it while manufacturing it
in factories. And both companies acknowledge that the product was used
in Nicaragua's banana fields.

But the companies contend that there is no proof that DBCP
(dibromochloropropane) sterilized any field worker. The quantities of
DBCP used were too small, and the open-air conditions too diffuse, to
cause harm, the companies say.

"Dow views most of today's claims relative to the product as without
merit," said Dow spokesman William Ghant. Dow acknowledged that the
possibility of harm existed but said the product was safe as long as
instructions were followed.

Dole said it applied DBCP in Nicaragua 13 times in the 1970s, with each
spraying lasting about two weeks. The pesticide was an effective killer
of tiny worms that caused the roots of banana plants to rot.

"There is no reliable scientific evidence at all that points to this
pesticide causing any injury to field workers in the open air
environment," said Michael Carter, Dole's general counsel. "There is no
science to support that. None."

Earlier this month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria
Chaney made a ruling that broadened the potential reach of the case.
Chaney linked Dominguez's case with four other pending lawsuits in Los
Angeles involving sterility claims on behalf of more than 3,000 former
banana workers from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama. In
addition to Dow and Dole, Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., Chiquita Brands
Inc. and Shell Oil Co. are named as defendants in those cases.

Cincinnati-based Chiquita declined comment on the lawsuit but said it
used the chemical briefly in the 1970s in Panama and Costa Rica. Shell
said it sold no DBCP in Central America after 1974 and that "few, if
any" banana workers were harmed by its product. Del Monte said it used
the pesticide briefly in Costa Rica and Guatemala and declined further comment.
In the middle of the dispute are this region's people. The case has
spread its own kind of toxin, infecting every facet of life in this
fertile bottomland wedged between volcanoes and the ocean on Nicaragua's
Pacific Coast.

After 30 years of being told they have been poisoned, locals tend to
blame the region's many health and environmental woes on DBCP.
They call themselves the afectados � the affected ones.

13 men, 1 lawsuit

Jose Adolfo Tellez never wanted to be a legal pioneer. With dark hair and a broad, round face, Tellez lives in a two-room cinder-block house in Chichigalpa, a town in the heart of Nicaragua's banana zone.

Early each morning he rides his battered black mountain bike seven
blocks along rutted streets to the central market, a chaotic warren of
shops where beef hangs in strips and baskets of papaya are lighted by
shafts of sunlight.

Tellez haggles over prices before the day's damp heat descends. Heading
home, he spends a cordoba � about 5 cents � for a brick-sized block of
ice to chill his meat and vegetables.

His main job is tending to his mother, 80, who shuffles across the
home's concrete floors with a donated walker. There is no one else to do
the job. Tellez, 58, has no children, no wife, to help him. He blames DBCP.

Tellez is the lead plaintiff in Tellez vs. Dole, scheduled for trial
July 2. He joins a dozen other named plaintiffs, all of whom have had
tests administered by their lawyers showing that their semen does not
contain sperm.

Tellez believes that he became sterile after going to work outside the
small town of Posoltega, 15 miles southeast of here, where Dole began
operations in Nicaragua in the late 1960s.

On the plantation, where long, green alleys of banana trees stretched
across more than 1,400 acres, he harvested bananas, cut weeds from the
plants, trimmed leaves and hauled irrigation tubes.

Tellez said he was never given protective gear while working in the
fields. Nor, he said, did anyone tell him that DBCP could cause sterility. "They told us to go to work, and we would go to work," Tellez said.

Tellez married, but he and his wife were unable to have children. She
eventually left him to live with another man, Tellez said, and soon had
a child.

Tellez had thought his wife had the problem. But tests showed he was sterile.
In the macho culture of rural Nicaragua, children are a measure of
wealth and power. Tellez had neither. He was labeled a buey, slang for
a castrated bull. "It demoralized me," he said. "I felt like a useless man."

Sterility and pesticide

Epidemiological studies have confirmed that DBCP causes sterility in
human males, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry.

Evidence of other human health effects is less clear. However, lab
animals exposed to DBCP have developed stomach and lung cancers and
kidney and brain damage, according to the agency.

DBCP's toxicity first made news in 1977, when about three dozen factory
workers at an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary in Lathrop, Calif.,
where pesticides were mixed, reported problems having children. Tests
showed the factory workers had zero or below-normal sperm counts.

Within months, the EPA had suspended most uses of DBCP. Government
hearings revealed that Dow and Shell Chemical Co., then a subsidiary of
Shell Oil Co., the primary makers of DBCP, had long known about its
dangers. Tests dating to the 1950s showed the chemical atrophied lab
animals' testes.

Workers began filing lawsuits. In 1983, Duane Miller, a young Sacramento
attorney, won a $4.9-million judgment against Dow on behalf of six
Occidental workers. Two years later, the EPA permanently banned the use
of DBCP in the United States.

It was the first skirmish in a legal war that soon spanned the globe.
U.S. law firms began suing in U.S. courts on behalf of workers in other
countries � more than 50,000 plantation workers over 30 years in
countries including the Philippines, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ivory
Coast. The defendants have been the manufacturers of DBCP � Dow and
Shell � and the fruit companies that used it: Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita.
Nearly every case ran into the legal doctrine forum non conveniens,
which says lawsuits should be heard in the countries where the damage
occurred. Lawyers for the companies convinced judges to transfer the
cases to the countries of origin.

In practice, that stalled the lawsuits for years. Complex trials bogged
down in ill-equipped Third World courts. Plaintiffs' law firms lacked
money to pursue cases in foreign countries.

The companies settled some cases without admitting culpability. In 1992,
several firms reached a settlement in which $20 million was paid to
1,000 Costa Ricans. In 1997, Dow and other companies paid $41.5 million
to 26,000 workers worldwide. The money was divided among thousands of plaintiffs. After attorneys'fees, some workers received no more than a few hundred dollars.

By the late 1990s, banana workers and attorneys were frustrated by their
inability to get a case before a U.S. jury, with the potential for
higher awards and, more important for some, a finding of wrongdoing by
the companies.

New rules in court

Then Nicaragua changed the rules. In 2000, its legislators passed a
special law to facilitate DBCP lawsuits.The law stacked the deck in favor of the workers: DBCP was automatically considered the cause of sterility in any banana worker. Companies had to deposit $100,000 with Nicaraguan courts simply for the opportunity to defend themselves.

In December 2002, a Nicaraguan judge awarded nearly $490 million to
about 450 workers. Other big judgments followed. Dow and Dole have so
far blocked attempts to enforce the Nicaraguan judgments in U.S. courts.
The new law made Nicaragua hostile territory for Dow, Dole and other
defendants. That created an opportunity for new lawsuits in the United
States, which Dole and Dow no longer opposed.

Dominguez, perhaps best known for his ubiquitous personal-injury ads on
Los Angeles buses, seized the opportunity. He partnered with Sacramento
attorney Miller, who had filed the first DBCP lawsuits in the U.S.
nearly 30 years earlier, and they filed suit in Los Angeles in 2004.

To build the case, Dominguez opened an office here, in the center of
Nicaragua's banana belt. He connected with local union bosses, ran
advertisements on the radio, even sponsored a local baseball team.

Thousands came forward to provide sperm samples in a back room set up in
Dominguez's office, a yellow and brown one-story building near the main
square here. The samples were analyzed by a laboratory paid for by the

Dominguez and Miller filed legal briefs citing old corporate documents
which, they said, showed that Dole officials were aware of the dangers.
In a 1978 memo, a top Dole official warned that implementing all the
procedures in a guide for safe use of DBCP was "well nigh impossible."

"Did they warn you about this? No," Dominguez told another crowd at a
recent rally. "Did they put you in danger? Yes."

Although only 13 plaintiffs have been named in the U.S. suit, a victory
could result in settlements for the thousands of other former banana
workers who can show sterility problems. An original defendant in the
Tellez case, Amvac Chemical Corp. of Newport Beach, settled for $300,000
last month.

Dominguez has registered about 12,000 clients in Nicaragua alone.
Worldwide, the number of possible clients is estimated to be hundreds of thousands.
Dole and Dow have long experience with such lawsuits. In some instances,
the companies have been able to show that supposedly infertile men
fathered children. The companies have also discovered plaintiffs who did
not work on farms that used DBCP.

Dole has settled some cases directly with workers. It recently announced
a program in Honduras to pay up to $5,800 to banana workers who agreed
to drop their claims against the company. The company is seeking a
similar accord in Nicaragua. Such settlements, Dole said, were not
admissions of wrongdoing.

"We don't want to spend our lives forever dealing with this, so the
company has adopted an approach to find a reasonable resolution to these
pending claims," said Carter, Dole's general counsel.

History of contamination

It is not easy to show that DBCP caused a worker's sterility or health
problems, especially in a poor country like Nicaragua.

The region around Chinandega has long been dominated by agriculture,
producing cotton, sugar cane and other crops. For decades, growers �
from both the United States and Nicaragua � sprayed DDT, DBCP and other
highly toxic pesticides, many linked to developmental or health problems.

Seven studies conducted from 1995 to 2002 found contamination in
community wells. Locals routinely drink water tainted with pesticides,
said Valeria Delgado, an investigator at Nicaragua's Center for the
Investigation of Water. None of the studies tested specifically for DBCP.

Studies have also found that water supplies are laced with fecal matter
and other pollutants. Medical care is scarce. Diet is subsistence level.
Many of the men drink heavily.

Medical officials acknowledge that they have no proof, just strong
suspicions, that the town's ills are linked to pesticides.

"If you work in this environment and you wind up sick, I can presume
it's an effect of chemical intoxication," said Yolanda Garcia, a
toxicologist at the local clinic. "I can presume, but I can't prove."

Death of a mother

All across Nicaragua's banana region, in churches and classrooms, at
funerals and bars, DBCP is blamed for every illness.

One hot day last August, Leticia Vidabre, 63, lay dying on a mattress on
the concrete patio behind her house. A neighbor waved a folded piece of paper to keep off the flies. Acrid smoke wafted from a nearby cooking fire. Next door, salsa music blared.

Slipping in and out of consciousness, Vidabre struggled to tell her
story. She worked in the packing section at one of Dole's plantations,
she said, putting bananas into boxes for shipping to the United States.
She said she believed that washing the bananas and drinking water on the
plantations had exposed her to DBCP. After 16 years of working on a
plantation called San Pablo, Vidabre began to feel sick. Her back hurt.
Headaches were constant. She quit and became a housewife.

"When I started work at San Pablo, I was healthy. When I left, I was in
a bad way," she said.

Last year, a doctor told her that her kidneys were not functioning well. A large woman with heavy lips and eyes, Vidabre began spending her days in bed. "Those bananas weren't for us," she said. "But so many of us have died."

A month later, on Sept. 6, Vidabre died. She was buried in the town
cemetery, just down the road from the old banana plantation.
Her relatives blamed the pesticide. But nobody really knew.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Struggle of Tropical Commodities Producers

This weekend Linda Alepin, co-founder of the Global Women's Leadership Network, asked me to answer several questions with regard to the work I do. She is putting together a proposal for a PBS Special on Breaking the Chains of Poverty. Her intention is to feature Lydia Bakaki, a Ugandan attorney who raised the money for 30 destitute women with children to have their own acre of land. She is now working toward getting housing on the land for the women; Alma Cota de Yanez, who runs an NGO in Nogales and has made it possible for small business owners and NGOs in Northern Mexico to get the supplies and support they need; and me. Although I wrote way more than she needed, I did it as an exercise to get in touch again with what my intentions are in the work I do and where I am with this. As people often ask me what I do, I decided to post what I have written in my blog.


What is My Passion?
Most of my childhood and into my late teens I had chronic respiratory problems and was often quite ill with bronchial infections. As a result, one of my great passions was reading. I especially enjoyed biographies and was deeply moved by the stories and work of Albert Schweitzer, Pearl Buck, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and other people who dedicated their lives to assisting others in need. I knew this was my life path from an early age, but didn't know how it would manifest.

In college I took a class in culture and personality and was hooked. I both majored and minored in anthropology. This training allowed for me to approach all aspects of my life with the curiosity of how our cultures affect our choices and how we live. I am intrigued by the potential we humans have for creating good. I am struck by how most people are inherently good and saddened by how circumstances can corrupt that goodness.

Through the circuitous path that most of us travel through life, I finally found my unique path as the voice for tropical commodities producers. The majority of men, women and children who live in developing countries and struggle to survive as farmers have been marginalized because of their race, tribal heritage, religious beliefs and lack of education. They have been subjugated through colonialism. They have lived under the tyranny of dictatorships. They have been uprooted through war and political unrest. The women and their children have faced gender inequality leading to physical and emotional abuse and extreme poverty.

Although I am not a farmer, I am passionate about working in the soil and I'm passionate about farming. I am passionate about the nourishing, nurturing and healing properties of food and the culture of food. I am passionately involved as a deep ecologist in the Third Revolution, also known as The Great Turning. The life as the planet as we know it depends on the success of this revolution. It is up to us for it to succeed.

I am passionate about writing, about using the written and spoken work to communicate, to educate, to motivate and to inspire people to move into possibility, to engage people to be passionate about affecting positive change. As a mother, a grandmother, a humanist and as a leader, I feel passionately about the need for everyone to be engaged in whatever capacity they are capable of to work toward the survival of Mother Earth and its inhabitants. The time is now.

The Status Quo of Tropical Farmers
Food and water are fundamental to our survival. Unfortunately, the cultivation, sale and distribution of food is more often than not politicized. This impacts everyone from farmer to consumer. While farmers everywhere are faced with issues outside of their control, and farming is not an easy way to make a living, the struggles of the tropical commodity producers are unprecedented. They have historically been the most exploited, the least represented and the most vulnerable of all farmers worldwide. Working in isolation, often uneducated, frequently speaking only their tribal languages and not the primary language of their country, they are caught in the crossfire of the industrialized countries who covet their crops and the corruption and political instability of their own countries.

In the United States, farmers have access to a number of resources to assist in their survival. Congress has established rules and regulations that mandate food boards, such as the Egg Board, Artichoke Board, Turkey Board, etc. or associations such as the Cattleman's Association. These boards and associations promote American grown or raised foods. Farmers pay a percentage of money based on the volume their farms produce in exchange for the promotion of their products. While not perfect, the boards and associations assist the farmers by educating the public on their crop or product's nutritional value, providing preparation tips and recipes and encouraging purchases. They also provide lobbies to fight for better legislation for farmers.

Additionally, the government often subsidizes subsistence crops such as wheat, corn and soy. Farmers (usually family corporations or corporate farms run by families) are paid to produce an overabundance of crops that are earmarked for foreign aid or to be sold in other countries; conversely, farmers may be paid not to produce a crop in order to drive up the price. This is true as well for non-food agricultural commodities such as cotton and flax. While food boards and subsidies are created for the well being of the farmers, in reality, they usually benefit the large corporate farms far more than the small family farms. Fortunately, in the last ten years, we have seen a resurgence of the small family farm though their survival can be tenuous at best.

Foods that we cannot grow in the United States but that we depend upon – coffee, vanilla, chocolate, bananas, coconuts, palm oil etc. – are imported from developing countries closer to the Equator where the weather supports these crops and labor is cheap. Although these "luxury" foods are in great demand, the farmers who grow them rarely have assistance from their governments and are in no way supported by our government. Instead, their products are purchased either by large corporations who control a specific commodity (bananas, pineapple, etc.) or by commodities traders. Until recently, most commodities traders were multi-generation families who acquired wealth and power in the 1800s and early 1900s and have wielded enormous control over the foods they imported.

Although coffee and chocolate are traded on the market and have futures, this is not true for all tropical commodities. Prices are controlled by supply and demand, but the prices are usually established by the traders who have historically set the price or had influence in setting the prices. Until recently farmers rarely had any idea of what their product was worth. While there have been some changes the market is volatile and prices are fluid.

Tropical commodities are additionally vulnerable to devastating tropical storms, volcanoes and earthquakes in the "ring of fire" regions, and to political unrest. Most farmers have small plots of land and cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While this is theoretically a selling point for them – fair trade and organic products command more money – a farmer with two hectares of land cannot afford the $5000 or more for an annual inspection and certified organic status.

During "good times" when prices are high and their product is in demand farmers often make enough money to purchase shoes for their children and send them to school. When prices collapse, many farmers tear up their crops and leave the countryside for cities or for industrialized countries, desperate for work.

The introduction of NAFTA and CAFTA in Mexico and Central America has further added to the struggles of tropical farmers. Subsidized corn grown in the US was exported to Mexico. Mexican farmers could not compete price-wise with the subsidized corn and their small businesses failed. Worse, they purchased the cheaper corn to use as seed stock. The US corn was genetically modified and cross-pollinated with the traditional native corn, destroying the centuries-old corn that is best adapted to the region.

There are now ghost towns throughout Mexico where only the elderly and the small children have remained. Parents risk coming to the United States uneducated, unskilled and sometimes not even speaking the primary language of their own countries, hopeful for work and desperate to support their families.

There are additional issues that undermine the lives of tropical producers. The American and European food industries are wealthy, conservative and, increasingly are consolidating into mega-corporations with enormous influence and lobbying power. Examples of how they manipulate two of our tropical favorites are as follows:

Chocolate, a hugely desirable product, has been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as to what may or may not be labeled "chocolate." Currently, candy coatings used in confections such as malted balls, coated fruits and nuts and candy bars must contain chocolate liquor in order to be called chocolate. The American Candy Association is petitioning the FDA to allow them to substitute vegetable oil for chocolate liquor but still call it "chocolate."

In the case of vanilla, only 2% of foods, fragrances and pharmaceuticals use pure vanilla. Cheap synthetic substitutes are readily available, displacing this once valuable product. Even premium ice creams regularly contain imitation vanilla substituted by greedy corporations despite stringent FDA regulations. Using pure vanilla would not significantly impact the price of the ice cream; indeed, the prices remain high despite the synthetic "natural flavors." Corporations have begun lobbying efforts to change the laws controlling the use of pure vanilla. Not only are these practices fraudulent and misleading to consumers, they further undercut small farmers.

Because of the sheer volume of coffee and cacao beans needed to satisfy our cravings for a morning cup of java or an afternoon candy bar lift, there are a number of associations who represent these two industries. Nevertheless, there is little protection for the small farmers. A classic example in the coffee industry was played out over the last several years.

Coffee is the sixth largest exported food commodity in the world. There are two primary varieties of commercial coffee beans, arabica, originally from Ethiopia, and robusta, which probably originated in Uganda. Arabica is the finer quality bean; robusta is grown where the more delicate arabica can't survive and is far less valuable. Arabica coffee is grown in Hawaii, Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean. While coffee growers don't make a lot of money, those who grow arabica coffee could expect to keep their children in school and food on the table.

However, USAID started a large project in Vietnam to assist local farmers. They planted an enormous amount of robusta coffee and sold it for a very low price. It benefited the Vietnamese whose cost of living was low. The large coffee companies in the US purchased this coffee and substituted it for the higher-priced arabica coffee. Suddenly thousands of coffee farmers, most especially in Central America, were looking at 40 cents a kilo for their premium-grade coffee, and were forced out of business. In the meantime, a cup of coffee, now made from cheap Vietnamese robusta coffee, was sold for as high as $3.40 a cup in restaurants.

While it's unlikely that USAID had any idea of the havoc they would create by starting the coffee project in Vietnam, this tragedy underlines the complicated and volatile world of tropical commodities. And, when tragedies of this magnitude occur we see fewer children in school, greater poverty and subsequent domestic violence, increased damage to the delicate tropical eco-system, increased poaching of endangered birds and animals and greater influxes of migration to industrialized countries. Even more horrifying, most of us have no idea of the dramas being played out over the foods we indulge in daily.

One of the goals when I launched my Web-based, socially conscious business, The Vanilla.COMpany, was to educate people in industrialized countries about the politics of the food products we use and the importance of knowing about - and respecting the needs of - the producers, most especially the tropical farmers. Another was to find a way to be of assistance to tropical farmers. As vanilla is the least represented of the three primary luxury crops (coffee, chocolate and vanilla) I have assumed the role as their international representative.

What Am I Actively Doing Now to Affect Change?
In the autumn of 2005 I created a Google Group with a core group of members who speak English and have access to the Internet. The core group began with about 40 members; we are now more than 90. We are known as the International Tropical Farmers Network (ITFN). The group largely consists of educated vanilla growers, agronomists, biologists and other scientists, social scientists, a web designer, a grant writer and others concerned about the welfare of tropical farmers. Many of the core members represent anywhere from a few to thousands of farmers. Most of the farmers in the group produce more than just vanilla.

Due to being in active treatment for a life-threatening illness, I was unable to do much more than to act as a moderator and focus leader of the Google Group until late 2006. We did, however, manage to put together and execute the first conference for the ITFN in Mexico in May of 2006. Over 2500 people attended the conference, which was held at the base of the Mesoamerican ruins where the first indigenous farmers domesticated vanilla.

We are currently planning a general meeting in Mexico in August of 2007. It is our hope that we can find the funding to pay airfare and lodging for representatives from each vanilla growing region to come to the conference. This includes Mariam Mukalazi, who would represent Uganda, and Abuna Andibo, a Kenyan living in the US who is a grant writer. Both women will hopefully be in attendance at the Women Leaders for the World Cohort in Santa Clara in late July of 2007.

The goals for the general meeting are several-fold. First, we need to identify and clarify what we, as a group, wish to do with the ITFN. One option is to become a non-profit organization so that we can apply for large grants in order to launch an international campaign for pure vanilla. By launching a campaign for pure vanilla, we can reach a large audience, which will hopefully drive the use of more pure vanilla. If we increase the world use of pure vanilla by 2%, we will have doubled the vanilla industry.

Another goal is to empower vanilla farmers through education and solidarity so that they have greater control over the buying and selling as well as setting the prices of pure vanilla. We would like to see poor farmers receive training in sustainable agriculture and to learn how to correctly cure and dry their vanilla rather than depending on middlemen to do this. This would make their vanilla more valuable. Many of these farmers continue to practice slash and burn farming. In a traditional culture with unlimited land availability, this was sustainable. However, it no longer serves the land when farmers are confined to working small plots of land.

We would like to launch a web site dedicated to all producers of vanilla, with education, pricing information and options for secondary crops to sustain them in times when vanilla prices are low. My personal vision is to shepherd the ITFN into a position of being a model for tropical farmers' programs worldwide.

Finally, we will plan the agenda for our second ITFN conference to be held in Java, Indonesia in 2008.

What Are the Obstacles and Roadblocks That We Face?
Certainly having a life-threatening illness has been a major obstacle for me. I have not had the stamina to maintain my own business effectively until very recently. My business supports my staff but does not provide me with a salary. My personal medical expenses have been overwhelming. My personal financial survival has been severely taxed. This has slowed my ability to move the ITFN forward as well. The ITFN needs funds to become a non-profit organization. We need volunteer assistance for fundraising and putting together a web site. We need funds for our general meeting in August and for the 2008 conference.

The ITFN members are enthusiastic about our program and have assisted one another substantially with information on vanilla growing as well as on other cash crops. As most of us have never met in person, we are very excited about having a general meeting and working together face-to-face. This will stimulate further cooperation among members and the desire to move our program forward.

The other major obstacle is that we are up against is the traditional, old-guard way of trading tropical commodities. Old ways don't change easily. The food industry is powerful. However, if we remain in possibility I do believe that we can affect positive change. As our planet moves closer to disaster old ways must give way to a more cooperative manner of doing things if we are to survive. Our world is on the brink of destruction; it is also on the brink of a greener, healthier world. Vanilla farmers are part of the solution. To effectively grow vanilla trees are needed to protect the vanilla vines. The goal of vanilla growers is to keep the tropics healthy.

How Does Activism Affect My Life?
Activism is my life. I am a single woman and grandmother and no longer have the responsibilities of a wife and mother. Now the world is my family and I am an elder, a crone. It is my time as a deep ecologist, an anthropologist, a writer and an activist, to speak my truth as clearly and as fully as possible. I have dedicated the rest of my life in service with the goal of bringing greater health to our planet.

I am only one person. But as one person I can hopefully inspire and encourage others to also dedicate a portion of their lives to the service of our planet. I believe that I can be the change that I wish to see. And so can the rest of us be the change we wish to see.

What Does the Future Hold? What Will My Current Work Allow For?
This is difficult to predict as I am firmly rooted in the present. It is my fervent hope that we can bring positive change to the tropical regions of our planet. The tropics produce much of the water and oxygen that sustains our Mother Earth. If the tropics go, we go too. This is, in part, why I am so focused on bringing greater health in the tropic regions worldwide.

I am currently peripherally involved with a project to bring jatropha plantations to Mexico and Central America. Jatropha is a tree indigenous to Mexico and the Caribbean that produces seeds that are the cleanest-burning biofuel in the world. Managed properly, large plantations of jatropha will provide more oxygen and pull carbon dioxide from the air, will provide work for hundreds, if not thousands, of people in need of gainful employment, and it will provide a healthy alternative fuel.

Whether or not I become more involved in the jatropha project I would like to start a parallel project of vermiculture (worm cultivation) for rural Mexican women. The goals of the vermiculture project would be to create healthy compost and to sell it to agricultural projects and to the government to use in the reforestation of land that has been over-grazed.

Concurrently, I am seeking viable ways for rural women to have their own independent revenue streams. In many developing countries, if we want to see something get done, we call on the women. Women are emotionally strong and are determined to see that their children survive and have greater opportunities. We can count on them to follow through. If tropical families have greater employment opportunities in sound environmental projects we will begin to heal the tropics and the people who live there. This will, in turn, help to heal our planet.

There are times when I feel discouraged and I don't know if what I am doing will actually make a difference in either the short- or long- term. That said, I feel I must not simply speak out; I must act on what I believe. It is my fervent hope that I will be able to inspire others in joining me, whether with funds, with physical assistance, with whatever each individual has to offer. My hope is that each and every one of us will find something we truly believe in that is more than just our own material comfort. That each of us will find a way to make a difference, however, small. As the great Taoist scholar Lao Tsu said so eloquently approximately 2500 years ago, The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With the First Step.

Monday, April 30, 2007


This afternoon I learned that large corporations including the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA to change laws for the benefit of the manufacturers. Specifically, the CMA is backing a petition that will allow candies with no real chocolate in them to be called "chocolate."

The current FDA standard for chocolate says it must contain cocoa butter, and this proposal would make it possible to call something chocolate even if it has vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter. Many candy bars do not or will not have cocoa butter in them if this law is passed.

This pushed all of my buttons. Why? For the same reason that during the vanilla crisis the big manufacturers stopped using pure vanilla in their premium ice creams and said they contained "other natural flavors." This was blatantly against the FDA laws for vanilla in dairy, but the FDA did nothing. Not only are products being misrepresented to the public, they are also undercutting the farmers.

Guittard Chocolate, a family business that produces high quality chocolate used by many confectioners including Sees Candies, has created a web site for people to voice their opinions on this potential law. We have until June 25th to express our opinions. Go to: http// There is a link that will take you directly to the FDA site where we can type in our comments. This is what I posted. Please note that I was careful not to name company names this time as I have gotten myself into trouble in the past for doing that.

As the owner of The Vanilla.COMpany and voice for vanilla farmers worldwide, I have been very concerned by the disinterest on the part of the FDA with regard to standards established by the FDA for vanilla, especially during the vanilla crisis of 1999 - 2005. In this case, manufacturers -- especially large frozen dessert corporations -- blatantly ignored FDA rules and used 'other natural flavors' instead of pure vanilla in premium ice creams. The FDA looked the other way and didn't enforce their own laws.

Now, the FDA is considering changing the standards for chocolate so that a candy product can be called 'chocolate' even though it doesn't contain cocoa butter. Not only is this a misrepresentation of the product and confusing to the consumer, it also lowers the bar on what is and isn't truly chocolate.

Vanilla and chocolate have a lot in common. They grow in the same tropical regions and are luxury crops that we all love and would dearly miss if they weren't available.
What few take into account, however, is that as we manufacture chocolate and vanilla products without pure chocolate and pure vanilla in them, we are undercutting the livelihoods of very poor farmers. By substituting imitation or diluting quality, demand for the pure, natural product drops and farmers become destitute. Where do the farmers go? To industrialized countries as migrant labor, usually without marketable skills and often without the language.

We in the industrialized countries then complain about the migrants coming into our countries and using up our social service resources. Is it worth the money saved by manufacturers to use synthetics or to slide around the truth by claiming their products contain something they don't, when we consider that in the countries where these commodities are grown there are children going without education, medical attention and often even food because their families can't earn enough to support them? Is this the legacy we wish to inflict upon the world, that to satisfy the wealthy corporations we will sacrifice the most basic standards of living of others?

I strongly suggest that the standards for chocolate NOT be lowered. And I strongly suggest that the FDA revisits their earlier standards for vanilla and enforce those rules again.

Please take a moment and go to http// and register your thoughts on this underhanded move by big business to lower the standards of chocolate. By doing this you will be indirectly supporting those who grow our chocolate.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


When I returned from my journey to Cuba and Mexico I was again reminded of how very disturbing the daily news is and how easy it is to slide into a sense of hopelessness. How can anything we do really make a difference or even matter? Are we destined to obliterate thousands of years of years of a rich, multi-cultural world heritage and millions of years of remarkably the diverse evolution of animal and plant species because of our inability to live in tolerance and peace with one another? Or because of power and greed? Does the end indeed justify the means?

I remember talking about this with my father when I was a teenager, and even later, as an adult. He said that warfare and suffering were part of the human condition, and that while it might appear that the world, as we know it would end, it wouldn't. After all, he posited, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse must have felt the world was coming to an end. Or the people in Java must have believed that the world was ending when Krakatoa blew up. He assured me that the world is a big place, and that I shouldn't be so concerned.

Despite his attempted sage advice, I was never completely convinced that we would survive as a species if we continued on the path of destruction to the planet and to one another. And, in some respects this concern is even greater now that our world has become an incredibly small place and the web of our interactions are so inextricably intertwined. With the changing of the world's climate and the increased shortage of potable water in many regions, we are facing the very real potential of ending life as we have known it on the planet. A truly paralyzing thought. And yet, we continue to go about our lives, using denial as a survival tactic to get through the day, some of us turning our backs entirely, some of us complaining but not knowing what to do to stop issues like global warming or the specter of war.

Perhaps what I'm putting forth here this is another form of denial; I hope not. I believe that we can make a difference and enjoy the specialness of each day if we refocus the lens of our reality to the shift that is occurring in the world. Most heartfelt actions, whether on the part of an individual or an organized group, don't normally make news, at least not the front pages of daily newspapers or the lead story on TV. But they do happen, and they are happening everywhere.

Don't get me wrong about news. I feel it's extremely important to be informed as well as to read between the lines to find out what really is happening in the world. It's critical that we be conscious of the issues in developing countries as well as our own; that's why I read the daily paper and listen to news reports. But I want to know more. To know about the hopeful news, the baby steps so many of us take each day to affect positive change.

On December 24, 2006, Don Aucoin wrote in the Boston Globe, "Don't look now, but an epidemic of niceness is sweeping the land…a countervailing phenomenon has arisen in the form of movements, Web sites and organizations devoted to accentuating the positive, to look for the silver lining, to seeing the glass as perpetually half-full."

He goes on to say that former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan has launched a good-news Web site whose organizing principle is "One radical idea: the world is a good place." Another news site dedicated only to upbeat stories it considers underplayed by the media is

Perhaps you've heard of Juan Mann, an Australian who founded a "Free Hugs" campaign in Boston. Go to U-tube to find a video of Juan's campaign; it's heart-warming. There's also a San Francisco based Web site, that encourages people to skip. If you haven't skipped for a while you'll see that it makes you feel a little silly but then very happy. I'm a big proponent of skipping, having personally taught a number of small children how to do it. How can you be sad while skipping? Kim Corbin, a book publicist, founded because, she said, "It's so easy to be overwhelmed. We've got war. We've got terrorism. It's a really intense time…A lot of people think I'm crazy for wanting to skip…I think it's crazy to be inhibited and not be joyful and feel like you can't do something because other people are judging you."

There's a lot of power in being upbeat and happy. Try smiling at people on the street. You'll be interested at the reactions. Most people "get it," and smile back. I always smile at people and, I occasionally get some cold stares, but it's rare. The Dalai Lama says that smiling at people very day is a great act of kindness as it eases suffering.

Consider, started by Byron Reese. CEO of PageWise Inc. publishes positive stories from wire services and freelance writers. Reese says that the site now gets more than a million hits a month! "There's just a hunger for it." He says that he believes that 90% of what happens in the world is upbeat, yet the traditional media focus primarily on the 10% that is not. A case in point: When General Motors closed an auto plant and laid off thousands of workers, wrote about the opening of a Toyota factory in North Carolina. Both events were equally newsworthy, but the GM story was the media's first choice. Is this about misery loving company?

Is it fear that drives us to find the positive side to life? Certainly fear can be a driving factor in our feeling paralyzed or helpless. I wonder, however, if fear is the mitigating factor or if it's anger at the negativity or determination to look for that which acts as a counter-response to fear. I think that's true for me. Fear is an emotion that cripples us in so many ways. It certainly drives denial, that pulling-the-covers-over-our-heads response to the huge challenges that affect us all individually as well as the world at large.

The worse things get, the more determined I am to find the antidote. Which reminds me of something I read many years ago. I once read that in the natural world wherever there is a poisonous plant or animal, an antidote also exists nearby. I was struck by this possibility. If this holds true in the natural world, couldn't it also be true in the human-created world of suffering and pain?

When I was very young I spent a good deal of my winters in bed with bronchial infections. While in some ways it was a drag to be stuck in bed, it also allowed me the luxury of reading everything I could get my hands on as well as time to ponder what I read. My childhood games incorporated what I had read about in books by or about people like Pearl Buck, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller and others. I was so impressed by these people that I wanted my life to be somehow like theirs. I spent hours rescuing my dolls from disasters in faraway exotic locations, feeding them and nursing them back to health. While I didn't have a specific "career path" in mind at that age, working with people in a variety of contexts has certainly been my life path, one that has grown increasingly strong over the years.

Today I spent a couple of hours visiting roughly one hundred Web sites that have been created by social entrepreneurs actively working toward change. There has been a week-long a contest at to choose 20 great projects. Then, on May 2007, 350 members of the NetSquared community are invited to the Cisco campus to participate in accelerating these great projects that utilize the technologies, tools and communities of the social web to create societal impact in a sustainable fashion. They will accelerate these projects by providing cash awards from the newly created Technology Innovation Fund and by connecting them with funders, developers and other people and organizations that can help the projects attain the next level. The Global Women's Leadership Network (GWLN) that, with the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, sponsor the Women Leaders for the World, is one of the projects nominated.

I was really impressed by the diverse selection of programs as well as the creativity, the innovation and the relevance of these projects. While each project "speaks from the heart" I chose only some of the sites to include in this particular blog as you'd be reading for days if I included them all. It was not easy to choose which groups to vote for, well, with the exception of the GWLN. Here they are:

NABUUR, is an internet platform where villages in developing countries get direct assistance. Online volunteers help create whatever is needed in 150 villages now, and help in 10,000 villages soon. You can sign up to provide the expertise that a village needs without ever leaving the comfort of your home. Isn't that a cool use of the Internet?

Pulsewire is a new offshoot of World Pulse Magazine,, an online publication about women and children transforming the world. Pulsewire is a new project that allows women and children to write their stories in their own words to share with the world.

The Emancipation Network addresses the issue of human trafficking, a serious worldwide problem that happens to be active in the United States, something we'd rather not know about. sells products to support The Emancipation Network.

Another site that addresses human trafficking, Prevent Human Trafficking,, uses digital media to educate and empower by making human-to-human connections and showcasing amazing, sustainable solutions that anyone can be part of as a new micro-philanthropist or activist.

The Anti-Genocide Community empowers anti-genocide activists with the tools for community-based education, user-generated content and strong shared connections. The
anti-genocide community will pool the collective knowledge of a growing movement for change.

Dream Fish,, offers "fertile waters for change makers worldwide." It's an international site with a collective blog where individuals can post information about their work for change. There's also a site,, where people can work together through online "chat groups" to look for solutions to critical issues.

100 Innovators,, trains volunteers to produce and distribute online media for award winning social entrepreneurs. They say, "This decade, the impacts of leading social entrepreneurs will explode. It's the world's most important story, and will tell it." We'll be waiting to hear!'s vision is to create a global gift economy in an entirely nonprofit online community at They make it easier to give something away than to throw it away on a globally local scale. Freecycle is a sort of free eBay or cyber curbside. This site has been a boon for teachers who struggle to get the supplies they need for their classrooms.

International Networks of Victims of Terrorism and War,,
seeks to unite victims of political violence, war and terrorism to amplify the voices of victims speaking out for nonviolence and to create grassroots structures which support them.

Help International Telemedicine Humanitarian Emergency Mobile Medical Clinic Network,, is a telemedicine-based online community of physicians, financial donors and emergency personnel bringing advanced medical assistance to disaster zones.,, is a revolutionary system connecting consumers and trade buyers with a network of organic farmers and artisanal food producers. Consumers meet their farmers and re-establish connections with their food, community, and the land.

The Hub, WITNESS is a human rights organization rooted in the principle that “a picture is worth a 1,000 words.” By partnering with local organizations around the globe, WITNESS empowers human rights defenders to use video as a tool to shine a light on those most affected by human rights violations. Since its founding in 1992 by musician and advocate Peter Gabriel, WITNESS has partnered with more than 200 human rights groups in 50 countries, bringing often untold stories and unheard voices to the attention of key decision makers, the media, and general public to create lasting change.

This last is a very powerful site! I watched some footage on the devastation an ethnic minority group in Myanmar (Burma) has suffered. These are things that we don't hear about often in the news. I highly recommend everyone visit this site.

So there you have it. Some of the sites I've listed appear to be "downers" as they deal with the harsh underbelly of the world. What makes these sites so critically important, however, is that they are actually addressing these issues. Human trafficking. Survivors of war and torture. Where could people go even ten years ago to provide help or find a network of support? There is hope.

In closing, I want to tell you about Victor Villasenor, the author of "Burro Genius." Villasenor came to an agricultural city in my county that is filled with children of immigrants, many of whom have worked in the fields with their families. The son of immigrants, Villasenor was forced to sit in the back of the classroom with other Mexicans and with blacks and was loudly and frequently admonished, "English only." Between that and struggling with dyslexia, he regarded himself as a "stupid Mexican." He came to terms with his anger and wrote a book about his experiences. Ten years and 265 rejections later, he sold his first book, "Macho," a coming of age story about a Mexican immigrant and the United Farm Worker struggle. He has since published several more books about the lives of his family in Mexico and the United States. He said that, "If these books had existed when I was young, my life would have been different.

Villasenor told a spell-bound audience of mostly Latino immigrant teens that our problem isn't human nature but the way we have related history. "Fighting wars is less than 2 percent of human experience. It's just that we've kept track of it." He urged the students to "Go out and make the world a better place."

We have choices in our lives. We can feel paralyzed by fear, we can hide in denial or we can get active and affect change. If we choose to live in possibility, to find something that speaks to us as a way to make a difference, we can make that difference. I encourage all of us to find something that moves us enough to heal ourselves and our planet. If we get active, our children and grandchildren just might have a chance to live in a better world.