January 9, 2014

Fighting for the Safety of our Food – Interview with Food & Water Watch’s Tony Corbo


Whistleblower Insider recently sat down with Tony Corbo, the senior lobbyist for the food campaign by DC-based public interest group Food & Water Watch, to learn more about the food industry and the issues we all face, but likely do not even know about, every time we choose an apple or a bag of cookies at the supermarket.

CC Whistleblower:  What is Food & Water Watch?

Tony Corbo:  Food & Water Watch is a consumer advocacy organization that works on food policy issues, water quality, and investment in public infrastructure to preserve our water systems.  We’ve been in existence since November 2005, actually beginning as an off-shoot of Public Citizen.  We have almost 100 employees with offices around the country and in Europe.

CC Whistleblower:   What’s your background?

Tony Corbo: I have a B.A. from George Washington University in Public Affairs, which was a combination of economics and political science, and a Master’s degree in industrial labor relations from Cornell University.  I spent 20 years of my life working in the labor movement, organizing and representing public employees.  I made the switch in 2000 to work on issue advocacy when I came to work at Public Citizen on food safety issues and have continued that since we’ve evolved into Food & Water Watch.

CC Whistleblower:  What is your role at Food & Water Watch?

Tony Corbo:  I primarily work on food safety issues.  I spend a lot of time over at the USDA, and now with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, at the FDA.  I’ve been doing a lot of work on that Act, first on getting the legislation passed and now, as rules are being proposed and the comment periods are upon us, I’m responsible for writing a lot of the comments on behalf of our organization.

“It will definitely change the way farmers raise their crops and have to take food safety issues into account in terms of the measures that they use in raising that food.”

CC Whistleblower:  What is the Food Safety Modernization Act you just mentioned?

Tony Corbo:  Well, under the Act there are going to be regulations that deal with setting up preventative control and food safety plans that food processors will have to develop and then the FDA will have to enforce.  On the produce side for the first time FDA will have regulations with produce safety.  There have been a number of food borne illness outbreaks attributed to fresh produce and so the FDA is now developing regulations to deal with farm food safety.  In addition, one of the things this law gives the FDA the authority to do is a mandatory recall that –

CC Whistleblower:  Wait, really?  There was no mandatory recall?

Tony Corbo:  No, that has been lacking prior to the Act – it has been all voluntary.  If the FDA found a problem with a particular food item they could ask the food processor to do a recall, it was all voluntary.  It was rare that a food processor wouldn’t do a recall based on the FDA’s recommendation, but there were cases that a particular processor would balk.  This legislation gives the FDA authority to actually mandate a recall if a food processor refuses.  If they do balk it gives them a hammer they didn’t have before.

CC Whistleblower:  You mentioned a change in regards to fresh produce?

Tony Corbo:  The regulations are going to require that as far as the use of manure there will be some regulations that will mandate that manure be composted for a certain period of time so that the pathogens in the manure are killed.  There are going to be some water testing requirements – which has proven to be one of the most controversial parts of the rule – so the FDA may revisit that or may reopen the comment period for that reg.  The proposed rule requires that if a farmer were using surface water out of a local stream, they need to test every week. A lot of farmers, large small or medium, thought that would be cost prohibitive.  I think they’re going to revisit that based on the comments they received.  It will definitely change the way farmers raise their crops and have to take food safety issues into account in terms of the measures that they use in raising that food.

CC Whistleblower:  Is this an entirely new landscape farmers are facing?

Tony Corbo:  It is new.  The only thing the FDA could do in the past was to react to a food borne illness outbreak.

CC Whistleblower:  So there were no regulations before?  Wow.

Tony Corbo:  There was nothing there.  There were no standards.  For example, if the FDA visits farms now and checks the farmers’ records for water testing, there would be nothing to inspect.  That’s another aspect of this Act – farmers will have to keep records on how they amend the soil and what type of compost they add to the soil or whatever water testing they do, it will all be subject to review by the FDA or by the states.

 “Right now, 4 beef processors control 80 percent of the market.”

CC Whistleblower:  So we see some big changes happening today.  What would you say are a few of the most significant differences in food and water between the 1950’s and today?

Tony Corbo:  Food processing has changed dramatically.  The fact that there’s more processed food in the marketplace, and that there’s been further concentration of the industry.  For example, Right now, 4 beef processors control 80 percent of the market and that was not the case back in the 50’s when there was much more competition.  The population has moved off the farm to more urban areas, and people are relying on the remaining farmers and big groceries to get their food.

CC Whistleblower:  What do you see are some of the big issues of today?

Tony Corbo:  Our organization has invested a lot of time in the last year to highlight how concentrated the food industry has become.  Our Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter, recently published a book called Foodopoly, and she has been making the book tour for the last year to educate the public on how our food supply is being controlled by a few players.  We released a report yesterday to show how the grocery store chains have become concentrated.

Another issue that we’ve been working on, especially my work with the USDA, has been combating the effort by the poultry industry to deregulate inspection, to take the responsibilities away from government inspectors and turn those responsibilities over to the company employees to perform in slaughter facilities.  The USDA’s proposed rule would do just that and it would also allow poultry processors to increase line speeds to 175 birds per minute in chicken slaughter.  Which is just mind-boggling.

Most of the food safety advocacy groups along with worker safety advocacy groups have joined forces to oppose this proposed rule.  Interestingly, The USDA proposed this rule in January of 2012 and the comment period closed in May of 2012, and yet there has been no final rule because of the controversy this proposed rule has generated.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York asked for an analysis of the proposed rule by the US Government Accountability Office, and they released a report in August  that showed the USDA data was lacking in a number of areas to substantiate why this new inspection model is better than what currently exists.

CC Whistleblower:  All the  major food issues we hear about these days, like GMOs, antibiotics in our food and water, Ag-gag rules – it seems like maybe you could trace all of those issues back to the fact that power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands instead of mom and pop farms.

Tony Corbo:  I think you’re absolutely right.  The fact that you have this proliferation of Ag-gag laws around the country – again a lot of those Ag-gag laws were geared to prevent whistleblowers from exposing inhumane treatment of animals in these big animal feeding operations or food safety violations in some of the major processors.  You’re absolutely right, you’ve got big industry throwing their power and financial resources around to try to hide what is actually going on in the production of our food.

CC Whistleblower:  Do you have any views on GMOs?  What should people be concerned about, or is there nothing to be concerned about?

Tony Corbo:  Our organization is concerned about GMOS, and we’ve been very active in some of the state initiatives that have taken place even though we haven’t been successful.  We think food should be labeled if it has genetically modified ingredients.  We think people should know about it.  We still don’t think there has been enough research to prove these products are safe.  There are no long term studies to see if there are long term health effects.  We think people should have a right to know what is going into their bodies.  .

CC Whistleblower:  Here’s another hot-button issue: what about water pollution caused by fracking?

“There have been instances where people actually have methane coming out of their faucets.”

Tony Corbo:  Our organization has also been active on that issue.  There are pollution issues generated by fracking.  We don’t know the composition of the chemicals that are going into the wells that they are using to perform the fracking.  In a number of places, the process itself has polluted the environment.  There have been instances where people actually have methane coming out of their faucets, or instances where pollution from the fracking process has poisoned local streams and animals have died from drinking water out of these poison streams.  I’ve raised the issue with folks over at the USDA when we first learned of farm animals dying, asking what kind of precautions they are taking for animals that are being presented for slaughter as meat for human consumption.  They were just completely unaware that this issue was out there.  The pollution from fracking is problematic on a number of fronts.

CC Whistleblower: What about the use of antibiotics in the food industry?

Tony Corbo:  Now people are starting to realize what has happened over the last 30-50 years in terms of how our food production system has changed.  You’ve got the concentration of power in a few hands, who are taking these shortcuts to keep animals alive in very squalid conditions, because you’re dealing with these huge concentrated animal feeding operations, and they’re just feeding these animals antibiotics as a preventive measure so the animals don’t get sick rather than treating the animal with antibiotics once they do get sick.  That has now rendered these antibiotics ineffective.  You have strains now of pathogens that are showing up in our food.  If people get sick from these pathogens and go to the doctor, the doctor gives them an antibiotic, but it may not work because these pathogens have developed a resistance to the antibiotics.

So people are starting to realize, sometimes the hard way, through recalls that have been initiated, that consumers are getting sick in food borne illness outbreaks, that something is going on in our food production system that is breaking down.  You’re starting to see polls showing that people have less confidence in our food safety system because of what is going on in the way food is being produced.

CC Whistleblower:  So here’s the million dollar question, at least for those who believe we have a problem right now . . . how do we get out of this mess?

Tony Corbo:  There are a number of avenues.  I think we have to hold our legislators, state local and federal legislators accountable for what they are doing, and people ought to show up to town hall meetings and raise these issues to their legislators saying, “look we’ve got a concern here.”  People have to organize themselves to prevent legislation that would weaken the ability of our regulatory agencies to effectively police our food supply.  There are pieces of legislation in Congress that have languished for years to deal with this antibiotic resistance issue!  Those pieces of legislation deserve at least a hearing, which hasn’t happened.

 “The other thing people need to do in addition to being politically active is to vote with their pocket books.”

CC Whistleblower:  What do you think our food and water supply is going to look like 50 years from now?

Tony Corbo:  Unfortunately, if this doesn’t stop we’ll essentially have one or two entities controlling everything.  We really have to get our regulatory agencies and the DOJ to look at the monopolistic practices.  The Obama administration actually started to do that in agriculture.  They held field hearings in 2009 and 2010, but then it just died.  The other thing people need to do in addition to being politically active is to vote with their pocket books.  They can stay away from products they don’t feel comfortable with or they think the company is taking advantage of them or if the company has a track record for using genetically engineered ingredients in their food.  People can use their purchasing power to shy away from those products.

CC Whistleblower:  How do people vote with their pocketbooks when the right vote might be much more expensive?

Tony Corbo:  That is something that needs to be worked on.  For example, I understand that in general organic foods tend to be more expensive, but I think if people shop around they can probably get organic food for a more reasonable price than what is being offered at the giant supermarket chains.  You may need to go to some smaller operations or directly to farmers’ markets rather than going to a supermarket chain.

CC Whistleblower:  Access to better choices seems to be a key issue, which we could actually break into two parts: one is price but the other is availability. 

Tony Corbo:  The access issue is something that definitely needs work.  Even with your conventional grocery chains there are food deserts in this country where you have no access to a traditional grocery store.  The distribution of good and healthy foods needs to be developed.  There is a growing movement with local food hubs where you have farmers kicking in fresh foods.  Farmers in northern climates are investing in hoop houses, which are essentially green houses to grow fresh during winter.  The distribution system is not where it needs to be, but eventually we are going to get to a place where it is going to be a more common occurrence, where people are getting their food locally instead of going to these big distributors.

CC Whistleblower:  It seems like you are painting two very different pictures of our future.  One with a few big corporations controlling our food supply and all that goes with that.  The other, where local cooperatives are a major source of supply.  It is two very different worlds.

Tony Corbo:  I know which one I would choose!

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