With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am deputy director of the Energy and Environment Program at Public Citizen. We have campaigns on energy (fighting nuclear power and electricity deregulation), against the privatization of our water supplies, and on food safety (fighting food irradiation and other methods of industrialized food production that negatively affect people’s health and the environment). I work primarily on the food campaign.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch, and the courts. I think “mission accomplished” for PC would entail many specific policy changes — we cover issues ranging from campaign finance reform to international trade agreements to prescription drug safety — but overall it would be a government that is not driven by corporate interests but is transparent and accountable to citizens.
For the food campaign that I work on, mission accomplished would mean that we had a strong government meat inspection program to prevent contamination of food, rather than being told to accept technological fixes like food irradiation to zap the problem at the end of the line. We would also have regulatory agencies that acknowledged the way food is raised really does matter, instead of the current attitude which is that an industrialized food supply is a foregone conclusion and we just have to learn to deal with the consequences.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I majored in environmental science in college, decided I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist, went to grad school for environmental policy, and then worked for 3.5 years for a group called the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. CHEJ offers organizing and technical assistance to grassroots groups working on environmental issues in their community. I did a lot of editing and writing there, and spent a lot of time trying to help local activists translate science and government agency-speak into English that they could use to work in their communities. It was a great first job because on any given day I would talk about stuff ranging from dioxin, sewage sludge, recycling, and tire fires to how to run an effective community meeting.
I came to PC in January 2001 to work on the food irradiation campaign because I wanted to try working on one issue for a while. I was definitely nervous about “leaving” enviro issues, but it’s remarkable how similar food issues are to environmental issues — not just because the environmental and health impacts of how we feed ourselves are enormous (and really interesting), but because the politics and dynamics involved are basically the same.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Right now, there are 397. About 50 of the most recent are actually there for a reason. Beyond that it’s mostly articles I think I’m going to read eventually but will probably never get to. I try to be a good filer, with lots and lots of folders, but the amount of articles that fly around is really overwhelming and lately I’ve just accepted that you can’t read ’em all.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in the Philly suburbs. Now I live in Washington, D.C.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
Growing up I was always interested in “nature” and animals (which was not the norm in the semi-industrial suburb where I lived). But going to college and realizing that other people were not only interested in this stuff, but spent their lives working on it, was a turning point.
A more specific moment that crystallized my interest in environmental health issues was watching the local TV news coverage of an environmental fight in a city near Philadelphia called Chester in the early 1990s. Chester is a predominantly African-American, economically depressed city, home to most of the waste facilities (sewage sludge incinerator, municipal waste incinerator, contaminated soil incinerator, etc., etc.) in that part of the state. And the reporter was just so obnoxious about it — his overall tone was, “look what these people are complaining about now,” as if they should just shut up and take it. And that totally pissed me off and led to my interest in policy issues that went beyond the nuts and bolts of how ecological systems worked.
When it comes to the food issues I work on now, I think my entire first year at PC was pretty influential. I always thought I knew a decent amount about food, but there was just an enormous amount to learn.
What has been the best moment in your professional life to date?
A “best moment” was with a local group I was working with at CHEJ. They lived in Baltimore, in a neighborhood that was literally surrounded by chemical plants, with only one road that had hundreds of tanker trucks full of chemicals traveling on it every day. If there was an accident that blocked the road, they were completely cut off. They were fighting to get the city, state, and federal governments to help them relocate. They had a really important meeting with the mayor and we had spent days practicing what they would say to reporters after the meeting. They were super nervous and were really not digging our advice that it’s okay to “respond” to a question the way you want instead of strictly answering it, to make sure that your message gets out. But they walked out of the meeting, completely ignored the first question (which was pretty snide and could have tripped them up) and just delivered the message they had practiced. And that’s what was on the news.
Who is your environmental hero?
I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some amazing women. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Mary Beth Doyle, who was recently killed in a car accident. She worked at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor on environmental health issues, and she was an amazing organizer — always smart and strategic and fun, and she did everything with a style that was all her own. Definitely the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.
What’s your environmental vice?
I just moved into a house, and I find myself buying more stuff than I ever thought I would. And I’m having these bizarre debates about whether it’s okay to buy plastic sheeting for the windows that is made of vinyl (which I try never to buy) if I’m putting it up to conserve energy …
What are you reading these days?
I just finished a book called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, which is a compilation of interviews with people who have every type of job (kind of an update to Studs Terkel’s book Working) and I am now starting What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
The plastic bag thing. I’m fairly religious about bringing my own bags to the store, and I compulsively reuse plastic sandwich baggies — I’ve been on the same box for over a year now, which I’m realizing, as I type this, is a little neurotic.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I can’t pick just one. Top two:
1. The Precautionary Principle: If there is scientific uncertainty about the long term health/environmental impacts of something, maybe we should wait before we use it. Basically, people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but chemicals/technologies don’t deserve the same treatment.
2. Some kind of full-cost accounting for “external” costs that society gets stuck with. This would go a long way toward showing that our “cheap food” policy really isn’t cheap if you consider the health, environmental, and social costs of how we produce it.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Then it was probably a tie between Depeche Mode and The Cure. Now the heavy rotation CDs at my house are Modest Mouse, Neko Case, and Johnny Cash. They’re all somehow conducive to home-improvement chores.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do something to educate yourself about what you eat. Read Fast Food Nation, go to a farmers’ market and talk to a farmer, find a sustainable meat producer in your community, and don’t buy irradiated food!
Scientifically, what is wrong with irradiated food? I haven’t seen any studies indicating illness or unhealthy effects. The articles I did read indicated that some foods could be preserved without refrigeration safely and longer. — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
Concerns center around the potential health effects of eating chemical byproducts created in the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation. Some of these chemicals are things we know about, like benzene, and some are found only in irradiated foods. The most recent research on these unique byproducts has been taking place in Europe, where researchers are investigating an association between these chemicals, called alkylcyclobutanones, and genetic damage and tumor promotion. Here’s a summary paper on health concerns [PDF].
On the bigger-picture level, it’s important to consider what kind of incentives meatpackers have to prevent contamination by, for example, slowing down lines to keep manure off the product, if they have irradiation at the end of the line to zap the E. coli carried in the manure. For fruits and veggies, irradiation is being promoted as a way to increase the global trade of produce. This brings with it fossil-fuel use, worker exposure to pesticides in countries with weak regulations, and social-justice concerns about developing countries devoting their agricultural land and labor to producing food for export. While countries like Brazil are interested in installing irradiation machines, they are not using them to treat food to feed hungry Brazilians — they’re using them to treat tropical fruit for export to the U.S.
My question for you has to do with the safest sources of beef. Kosher beef and grass-fed beef seem like the safest choices, but I can’t find a source for the general public to buy kosher. Can you offer some guidance? — Lynette Buckman, Stockton, Calif.
Some things to consider as you search:
- Kosher certification is focused primarily on how the animal is slaughtered and the conditions inside the meatpacking plant. You can learn about the process here, and KosherQuest has some advice on finding kosher meat.
- Organic certification covers what an animal is fed and other husbandry issues including disease treatment, access to outdoors, etc. The organic standard requires that animal feed contain no animal by-products, which is an important measure for preventing mad cow disease.
- Unfortunately, there is no government standard for verifying labels like “grass-fed” or “natural” on meat, though the USDA is in the process of developing such standards. In the meantime, you may want to do some homework — see if the company has a website that describes their production methods. Or if you are buying direct from a farmer, ask what they feed their animals and what their policies are on hormones, antibiotic use, etc. Here’s a list of questions to ask, and some information on labeling issues.
- For resources on where to buy, try Eat Well Guide and the USDA’s farmers’ market map. You may also want to check for natural food stores or food co-ops in your community. The demand for organic and grass-fed beef has increased so much lately that more stores may start carrying it.
Could you provide information on the recent discovery of jet fuel in dairy products? Where did this take place? Are there any logical explanations? — Elizabeth Shelleda, Aurora, Colo.
Sadly, the logical explanation is that contaminated water often leads to contaminated food. When lettuce or alfalfa or sprouts are irrigated with contaminated water, some of the contaminants can be absorbed by the plant. And if that crop is fed to cows, they retain some of it, and you find it in their milk. Recently, government surveys found contamination in milk and lettuce samples nationwide. Perchlorate, found in jet fuel, is commonly used on military bases and by defense contractors, which are not restricted to one part of the country.
This is not just a problem with chemical contamination. Last year, there was a major outbreak of hepatitis linked to green onions grown in Mexico. The FDA determined that the onions carried the virus because the water used to irrigate or clean them was contaminated by sewage.
Did Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, make a major blunder when he wondered why the terrorists had not yet targeted our food supply? Or was Tommy blowing the whistle and sounding his own orange alert on America’s food security? — Ger Agrey-Thatcher, Ruidoso, N.M.
I’m not going to speculate on what goes through Tommy Thompson’s head. The FDA did just release new rules on recordkeeping for imported foods that are intended to allow better tracking and trace-back of imported foods in case contamination is discovered. Now if only the FDA could manage to inspect more than 1 percent of the food imported into this country, we might be making some progress.
I think the best assessment of the security of our food supply comes from David Orr of Oberlin College. He said “… no society that relies on distant sources of food, energy, and materials, or heroic feats of technology, can be secured indefinitely.”
A couple of other thoughts:
- Dangerous things are happening to our food supply all the time — in the name of economic efficiency or technological advancement. When a company has to recall 19 million pounds of meat due to contamination (which happened twice in 2002), that should be as motivating as the prospect of some kind of deliberate attack. So if the debate about “security” focuses only on the possibility of a terrorist attack on the food supply, we will be missing an important opportunity to talk about how we can feed ourselves in a more sustainable way.
- Our food is traveling farther than it ever has, which creates more opportunities for someone intent on tampering with food to get access to it. It also wastes energy, wreaks havoc on local markets, and means we are all losing out on the chance to eat food that is fresher or unique to the place we live. That’s why it is so frustrating to see the meat and grocery industries fighting against country-of-origin labeling, which is the “radical” idea that consumers should be informed about what country their food came from.
- Our food production is more concentrated than ever before in terms of who profits from it (for example, the top four beef companies control over 80 percent of the market), where it is produced and processed (there are fewer farms raising livestock and fewer slaughterhouses, but they are bigger than they used to be), and where it is sold (as the grocery chains eat each other up and wipe out independent stores). This means a system with less diversity in breeds of animals and varieties of crops, fewer people with the ability to grow food, and less capacity to process and distribute food to consumers. That kind of system is not going to recover quickly from disease outbreak or intentional disruption. A “secure” system would be more decentralized, with different parts of the country retaining the capacity to feed themselves.
Unfortunately, a lot of the interest in D.C. and in industry seems to be on “hardening” the targets in our food supply — measures like making it illegal to take a picture of a factory farm, putting up better fences around meat plants, or perfecting technology to trace food in the event of an emergency — instead of thinking about how our food system could be less vulnerable in the first place.
Are people wise to purchase fresh produce and home-prepared food at farmers’ markets rather than at big-box grocery stores? Also, would you recommend home gardens instead of lawns? — Jan Danforth, Founder, Urban Forest Initiative, Baltimore, Md.
Chances are that the food you buy from a farmers’ market is going to be fresher than what you get at a big grocery store. Obviously, food grown at home will be too. These are great options that more people need to check out. But most of us still feed ourselves by going to a grocery store, so we can’t write them off yet. As their customers, we have to let them know that we want them to find local suppliers, and meat that doesn’t come from factory farms. There are producers out there who are itching for access into these stores, so grocery chains need to hear from us that we want more locally produced and sustainable options.
You mentioned the importance of seeking out sustainable meat producers, but wouldn’t an overall reduction in our meat intake be the most efficient step toward sustainability? — Sam Bridges, Asheboro, N.C.
I don’t know. But given Americans’ devotion to meat, shifting some of that consumption toward products raised with more humane, less environmentally damaging methods is a good place to start.
Has Public Citizen taken a stand on the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered crops, and will you be addressing this issue? — Bonnie Bonse, Makawao, Hawaii
Our food campaign hasn’t taken on the GMO issue. But we agree with groups working to stop the expansion of this technology. There are similarities between the issues of irradiation and GMOs — the lack of examination of long-term effects before approval, the propaganda used by proponents to portray it as a silver bullet for world hunger, and the opposition to labeling. A good source on GMOs is the Center for Food Safety.
After reading Fast Food Nation and Food Politics a few years ago, I went full force into doing the right thing about where I bought my food and what I prepared for myself. Since then I’ve lapsed, and I am desperate for a retraining program! Do you have any suggestions for websites or other resources to help get back on track? — Name not provided, Olympia, Wash.
A good place to start is Sustainable Table. Labels like “organic” give you some information. Reading articles by someone like Michael Pollan (of The New York Times) will help too — he has helped me grapple with how to prioritize what I look for when I’m buying food.
And since there have been a lot of questions about consumer action, I have to make my standard little speech about the need for us all to act as citizens, not just consumers. In addition to voting with our dollars, we also need to be conscious that leaving this all up to the market could leave us two food systems — one that meets tougher standards for those who can afford it, and one for everybody else. There is still a vital need for government standards to ensure that all food is safe, and that it is raised with less impact on the environment. And we all have to act as citizens to make that happen.