Eco-label watchdog Urvashi Rangan answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m an environmental-health scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union. I also manage two public-education websites. Consumers Union also publishes Consumer Reports magazine, and I do dip into the testing and publishing side of the organization, but my work is mostly on the public service, technical policy, and advocacy side. I work on a broad range of sustainability issues and spend much of my advocacy time on food safety/quality and truthful-labeling policy issues. My officially vague title is senior research associate.
How does it relate to the environment?
Most of my work, unless it is just super-technical scientific analysis, is about communicating complicated science-based information in clear and concise language to the public. For example, helping consumers understand how conventional food production practices can have adverse effects on the environment as well as public health and how short-term savings in production can turn into long-term costs related to environmental cleanup and human and animal health protection.
Pesticide residues in kids who eat conventional produce seem to be much higher than in kids who eat organic — our tests in 1999 confirmed that organic produce does indeed bear less residue than conventional produce. The feeding of animal byproducts back to animals (including chicken poop) are practices associated with the transmission of the mad cow infectious agent. Most antibiotics produced every year are fed to healthy animals at low levels, which has been associated with the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance — our tests have shown that 49 percent of chicken samples are contaminated with the pathogens salmonella and/or campylobacter, and 90 percent of the campylobacter and 34 percent of the salmonella showed resistance to one or more antibiotics. Very often, our testing can help inform our policy work, and the technical research on the policy side can help identify research gaps for us to address in testing projects and articles.
But it isn’t just about telling consumers about all of the gloom and doom. We are also in the business of providing tools to help consumers make better, informed choices. Our eco-labels.org website is a free public-education site (that was funded through foundation grants) where labels are evaluated for meaningfulness as well as several other criteria we use to assess what makes a good label. Like any product test, we hold each label up to the same set of criteria and inform consumers about how they stack up. The site covers eco-labels on food, wood, personal-care products, and household cleaners. We use the term “environment” broadly to include worker welfare and animal welfare in addition to environmentally sustainable labels. We now have over 150 labels in the database and if there is one lesson we have learned, you can’t judge a label by the logo alone. Here’s an interesting quiz that I like to give … compare your answers with the answer key at the end of this interview, and search the claim in eco-labels.org for a complete explanation of what these labels mean and don’t.
- When you see meat or dairy products with the claim “NATURAL,” it means the food:
A. Came from an animal that ate a natural diet
B. Came from an animal that was raised in a natural environment
C. Contains no colors or other additives during processing
D. All of the above
- When you see products with the claim “HYPOALLERGENIC,” it means these products:
A. Are less irritating to your skin
B. Cause less allergic reaction than others
C. Are made with all natural ingredients
D. Have been tested to be pure
E. All of the above
F. None of the above
- The “ORGANIC” label is not meaningful and/or verified on:
E. All of the above
- When you see poultry products with the claim “FREE RANGE,” it means that the meat or eggs:
A. Came from a chicken that ate a diet from the range
B. Came from a chicken raised outdoors
C. Came from a chicken that had continuous access to the outdoors
D. All of the above
E. None of the above
My most recent project is managing the development of our new GreenerChoices.org (“Products for a Better Planet”) website. This public-service site is expected to grow, but here’s a sneak peek at what the site will contain. We’ve gathered and reshaped the green information that percolates throughout our information products, testing reports, and ratings, and are making this information available for free to the public. Things like energy and water efficiency, fuel economy, and toxic substances are a few examples of the types of information that will be available. At launch, there will be information for about 25 specific products across autos, appliances, electronics, home and garden, and food categories, and five cross-cutting issue areas including energy, climate, toxics, waste, and agriculture. The site will be full of advice on how consumers can make changes, big and small, to help improve the environment, save money, and live healthier. Finally, there will also be information on what the government and industry are doing to address sustainability issues.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
No two days ever really look alike — for me, that keeps things fresh and interesting. I like to have a balance of right- and left-brain activities. Just this past week, I’ve been working with designers to finalize the logo and header for the new green site and making sure that the colors and font size are just right. I’ve interviewed with two magazine reporters on egg labels and meat labels — again, those labels don’t always mean what you think. I also watchdog the National Organic Program and standards and work with a great network of people from different organizations to make sure that the integrity of the organic label stays strong. We have been having weekly meetings (in Washington and on the phone) to address recent developments from a lawsuit filed against the USDA. I also had a meeting about the press kits we are developing for GreenerChoices.org and presented the site prototype to our editorial department. I also interviewed with a masters student from MIT who is doing a research project on greenhouse gases. There’s more nitty gritty, but I can’t bear to write about it.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I certainly don’t think that I could have planned where I landed. It was really a process of keeping things broad and open so that I would always have choices. My parents had high academic aspirations for my brother and me, and I did feel like I was on some kind of autopilot until I finished grad school. (My parents had let me know at age 12 that they would not tolerate boyfriends in my life until I had my doctorate! That taught me how to be discreet.) So by age 26, I got my Ph.D. and was on course for an academic position. I had been fortunate to receive National Institutes of Health grants, and my professors were very willing to help me find an academic position after I graduated. But I didn’t want to stay in academia or be cooped up in a lab — I wanted to work with people. Many of my professors were not very supportive of leaving academia, and one even said to me, “You want to be a hired gun?”
The job market was terrible at the time, so I opted to do a post-doc outside the lab and with Superfund-site communities. After attending several public meetings with various state and federal agencies, I realized that the public was not being very well informed about toxics, exposure scenarios, health effects, and site-cleanup plans. As a result, people felt very frustrated, to say the least. Sometime during that year, I had applied for another NIH grant. The review of my plan to work on science communication in Superfund work was scathing. It made no sense to this committee whatsoever. I felt dejected at the time but have come to realize that listening to yourself is more important than listening to those who are so indoctrinated in the process and can’t break the mold.
After two years of Superfund and benzene toxicity research, I started looking for a job that could really serve the public and had decided that academia was definitely not for me. My professor at the time asked me if I just wanted to be a “professional know-it-all.” Maybe I did. Part of the problem with being in academia for most of your life is that it isn’t considered to be “previous job experience” when you apply for jobs. And since the public-interest community was not flush with job openings for recent over-educated grads, I had a lot of trouble finding a job that I wanted.
So I temped for Citibank at their job displacement center. I learned how to build databases and organize information, which ultimately helped me get a job doing web production. I also did a good amount of nonscientific writing and designed the logo for the center, and I really liked working with people — even disgruntled people. I worked there for nine months and wondered if I would ever use my degree. I did get one offer from Exxon, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then I replied to an ad in The New York Times for a scientific consultant. I had no idea what it really entailed but the idea of being a “consultant” sounded good and independent and, well, I was wrong.
I worked for this consulting group for nine months. I consulted for all sorts of big industry players — big pharmaceutical, tobacco, alcohol — for drug approvals, lawsuits, and preemptive strategies to deal with possible future lawsuits. I saw all sorts of backdoor deals, under-the-table handshaking, scientific government boards riddled with conflicts of interest, and just complete disregard for good science. I learned the painful way that a client can ultimately trump the analysis; I was naive, and in the end, they fired me over an antibiotic resistance campaign I had done for Pfizer where I recommended that they should not feed healthy animals daily antibiotics. I had been growing increasingly uncomfortable there and by the time I got fired, I was relieved. I went back to temping at the job displacement center.
A few months later, I applied for this part-time job at Consumers Union building their eco-labels website. A few months after that, I picked up another part-time website production job at Environmental Defense. Both jobs required scientific analysis but also allowed me to work with other people, be creative, think in colors, run meetings, give presentations … and I really started to feel like I could thrive while using my degree. A year or two later, I became a permanent and full-time employee at Consumers Union. By the time I had finished building the eco-labels site and developing much of the content, I had a new expertise in labeling and food production systems. That, combined with my environmental-health/toxicology background became the basis for the technical policy and advocacy work I do today and love. And I get to do it without any undue influence or bias from “clients.” Just last year, I went back to my grad school, and two professors said, “Oh, so you decided not to be a real scientist.” And I realized that attitude is a big reason why I decided to leave academia.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with constant pain in my ass but certainly, there are times when ugly groups rear their heads. So-called public-interest groups like the American Council on Science and Health or the Hudson Institute run by Dennis and Alex Avery are primo examples of groups who are supported by massive industries but claim to be serving in the public interest. They are experts at spinning the science and dumbing it down into black and white, which does such a grave disservice to the public.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I have been pleasantly surprised with certain departments within government agencies who are capable of putting the public interest in line with or ahead of industry’s. I have also come to respect many of the organic farmers, certifiers, and inspectors who got into organic because they wanted to do something better for the environment, for animal health, and for their families. Profit margins were not the driving force, and for that, I really do have much respect for them. Many of them still come to the public meetings to fight for keeping the standards strong.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Queens, New York. My family moved to California when I was four, and I grew up in the East Bay Area near San Francisco. I went to elementary and high school in Oakland and then went east for college and grad school and met my husband who was cut from the New England stone. We now live at the tippy top of Manhattan. In short, I’m back where I started, and yes, I do miss California.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
It was probably during my stint at the consulting firm when I realized that I was working on the complete wrong side of the fence.
What’s been the best?
In the summer of 2004, after receiving a press release announcing the American Chemical Society’s symposium session on Consumer Reports’ misreporting on organic and other food issues, my fellow advocate Jen and I drove down to Philly in my overheated Neon on a 95-degree summer day with the heat on and made it just in time for the 45-minute talk. Afterward, knowing reps from CU were coming, they thanked the audience and said there would be no questions.
Jen and I went straight to the podium and introduced ourselves. The speaker was so rude and defiant and told us to take our wacko-innuendo science and save it for our readers. He asked me if I was a scientist; I said, “yes.” He then asked “Soooo, what school did you go to?” I said “Johns Hopkins.” Then he said, “Well did you learn anything there?” I said, “Yes, I learned how people like you dumb down science into black and white where there are many shades of gray.”
Long story short, we made a point of highlighting where he was just plain wrong, short-sighted, and rude, and over the next few months, the saga played out in the letter section of the journal Nature where we were able to explain to the public how this man and the symposium had skewed the science and presented a one-sided debate by handpicking the science he and they wanted to present.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
W’s rollbacks in the Clean Water and Air acts.
Who is your environmental hero?
Arundhati Roy is such an elegant speaker and writer on global environmental issues. She has such an incredible way of framing the issue and can really bring an audience to tears. Michael Pollan is also such a great communicator on environmental issues and has made issues like animal welfare in food production something people want to read. Eric Schlosser is also another favorite of mine.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
Well, I think it has to be a bit of both. Making better personal choices, and understanding how markets and government policy need to shift in order to improve those choices, need to happen simultaneously. In the end, educated consumers have the most influence of all — more than any industry, lobby, or advocacy group. Thanks to the internet, there are more ways to engage with other like-minded people to mobilize and effect change.
What are you reading these days?
Since I do so much scientific reading, I don’t find myself craving novels to read in my spare time. I am a big fan of Harper’s and Utne magazines, and I listen to a ton of NPR. I also love arts, crafts, cooking, gardening — so I have lots of books on those things as well. I’m taking a shoe-making class right now and am planning to take a cheese-making course this summer.
What’s your favorite meal?
I do love an egg breakfast with tasty potatoes. I even like to have what my good friend Rich coined “breakfast in the night.”
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m passionate and opinionated.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The National Seashore on Cape Cod is among my favorite places, and it is great for camping near the beach!
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I think the environmental movement has become particularly good at using the internet for advocacy purposes and mobilizing thousands of consumers to weigh in on important issues.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it improve?
We need to be able to reach across the political divide. That’s why if we can frame the message of being better to the environment as having pocketbook benefits or health benefits, we have a much better chance of engaging people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists. People have diverse and sometimes odd combinations of values. The messages around environmental issues should reflect those differences.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Economics in this country is all about the bottom line and not about the sustainability of the production systems we use. For example, our economy favors a chicken producer making more money by getting its chickens fatter faster by feeding them arsenic and having the cost reduction passed on to the consumer. What is missing from this cost-benefit analysis is the price we pay to get arsenic out of our drinking water or in treating people who develop cancer or neurological disorders from arsenic toxicity. Or the fact that each hamburger produced sucks up a half-gallon of gasoline. Where is that integrated in the overall cost to society? So my one reform might be to create more tax incentives for companies and people who make better environmental choices.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
I can’t just pick one band. So my top picks at 18 were the Grateful Dead, the Cure, and Yaz. My favorites now are Luna (they just broke up, sad), Wilco, and Beck.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Sex and the City and, most recently, Supersize Me.
What are you happy about right now?
I have a great husband who really listens and cares about me and my work, my interests, and my craziness. He’s a musician who can now talk the science! I’m happy that we can live near the city but that I can garden and compost and even build a brick oven in our backyard. And last but not least, I have wonderful colleagues who make the uphill battle stronger, safer, and much more fun.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
I think a valuable lesson for people is being able to appreciate the true value of a particular product. I have often thought that people who don’t understand why organic should cost more should try to grow a tomato plant without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It is quite an art unto itself and worth the extra cost for the care of the production and the quality of the product.