Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is a coalition of activist groups and for-profit companies that are pushing Congress to pass costly legislation that many experts believe would lead to the over-regulation of many everyday products. The Coalition is coordinated by a little-known group called the “Environmental Health Fund,” the “mastermind” of the environmental health movement, which […]
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Background Andy Igrejas isn’t a scientist—he’s a professional environmental lobbyist constantly working to scare the public about the safety of nearly every item in their homes. Igrejas has been a registered lobbyist for nearly two decades and currently serves as the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF), an alarmist advocacy coalition that rails against […]
As head of a taxpayer-funded, federal government research agency, Linda Birnbaum should be focused on using government funds to promote unbiased, sound scientific research. Unfortunately, Birnbaum’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has become the go-to funding source and publisher for scaremongering science. Questionable Associates Birnbaum drew fire for her participation in a panel […]
The restaurant industry has survived a broad assortment of political obstacles in the last century, including market depressions, alcohol prohibition, and — more recently — even smoking bans. But the latest attempt to impose politics on our dinner plates comes from an unexpected quarter — chefs.
“The cuisine of trepidation is All About Me,” writes Greg Critser in The Washington Monthly (July/August 2001). “It is about what it takes to make chefs and foodies feel superior to the uneducated masses. If that means weeping over an organic cherry, then they will weep over an organic cherry (and charge you $10 for doing so). If it means traveling to Belgium to find real organic chocolate, then they do just that (and bore you to death by telling you all about it on the menu). And if it means denying poor kids in India and Africa cheap and more nutritious [genetically modified] rice — rice that might eventually prevent them from going blind — well, so be it.” This is the world of the Chefs Collaborative.
The Chefs Collaborative (CC) was started in 1993 to give voice to a growing contingent of “celebrity” chefs who want no less than to tell the rest of us what to eat (and when we may have it). CC was originally a project of an obscure Boston nutrition organization called Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, which came about in 1989 as the result of an unusual food fight.
In 1985 Robert Mondavi and Julia Child formed the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), and installed as board members a variety of noted chefs, food writers, and nutritionists. The organization’s mission was an apolitical one: highlighting the pleasure of eating and drinking. Its first meetings, however, were anything but pleasurable. Julia Child’s biography describes the legendary chef berating Alice Waters (who would later become a central figure in the Chefs Collaborative) for incessantly evangelizing about organic foods. Waters was “bringing the whole spirit of the thing down,” Childs would later recall, “with this endless talk of pollutants and toxins.” Childs wanted the AIWF to avoid emphasizing such talk of doom and gloom, because she believed that it would serve to reinforce “the country’s ingrained fear of pleasure.” She also believed that Waters’ “romantic beliefs would not help feed two hundred million people.”
After four years of political tug-of-war, AIWF board member K. Dun Gifford (who sided with Alice Waters) resigned to start his own organization, taking most of the high-profile “celebrity” chefs and a handful of staffers with him. Greg Drescher, a young man who had organized AIWF’s conferences, also went with Gifford and became his business partner. In addition to a “progressive” event-planning firm, the two founded a nutrition-advocacy group that they called Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust.
Oldways fancies itself as a sort of culinary-archaeological nexus, promoting diets based (literally) on old ways. That those “old ways” contributed to limited life spans, vitamin deficiencies, and high infant mortality has never seemed to matter to their proponents. At a 1993 Oldways conference in Hawaii, a bunch of chefs decided to form their own special-interest subgroup in order to bring the Oldways message into America’s restaurants.
After six years of umbrella protection, CC emerged from its parent group in 1999 and now poses a genuine threat to the food choices and menu selections that we take for granted. Built on a politically correct platform of “sustainable” (organic-only) produce, the group’s agenda has grown to include boycotts of popular fish species, prohibitions on biotech-enhanced foods, the abolition of chemical pesticides, a worldwide reduction in meat consumption, militant demands for “local” ingredients, so-called “living wage” mandates for restaurant employees, and even dystopian “green taxes,” to be levied on cuisine that doesn’t meet the Chefs’ definition of “sustainable.”
All of this is based on the flimsiest of justifications, usually resting on the shifting sands of junk science and wrapped up in the alarmist messages of other activist groups with which CC has “collaborated.” These include Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, the Worldwatch Institute, and Environmental Defense, just to name a few from the political far left.
The Chefs Collaborative’s own literature describes its work as a mission to “change the way people make their food choices.” Treating the general public less like customers than like children who need to be educated in “civilized” table habits, these chefs are self-anointed arbiters of “good food” and “bad food,” injecting activist politics into the simple act of eating. Chef Barbara Tropp (of San Francisco’s China Moon Café) saw the trend coming in 1994, when she reminded Eating Well magazine that “many of these chefs were [activists] taking over buildings in the ‘60s… It’s natural that their politics spills into the industry.” As with the politics of many a true believer, the rigid dogmas of today’s celebrity chefs are out of step with reality — in this case, with real-world tastes, modern agriculture, and even advances in food safety.
No genetic purity, no manure, no service
Celebrity chef Alice Waters has laid down the law for her own restaurant, Chez Panisse: “Flat out,” she says, “no genetic engineering.” The Chefs Collaborative generally echoes this sentiment, insisting that biotech foods have no place in the modern kitchen. This culinary dogma, however, flies in the face of the extensive review (8 to 10 years, in most cases) required before a genetically improved food product can be marketed in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has an extensive battery of examinations, inspections, and field tests. The EPA has its own protocol that must be satisfied, as does the USDA. Then there are exhaustive (and expensive) reviews conducted by the National Research Council, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Never mind all that, say CC spokespersons, who carp about food “purity” as though it were incompatible with science. Jane Henney, then the United States FDA Commissioner, addressed this concern in 1998 by explaining that Americans have already been eating biotech-enhanced foods for nearly 15 years with literally no evidence of added food safety risks. “Not one rash,” she said, firmly. “Not one cough; not one sore throat; not one headache.” Still, this group of over a thousand professionals maintains a steadfast hold on this scientifically illiterate position.
Not content with simply avoiding genetically improved foods, however, CC has plunged directly into the arena of anti-biotech activism. In 1998 the organization’s national leadership joined with Greenpeace in a campaign to deluge the FDA with consumer requests for mandatory biotech food labels. The following year, CC was a signatory to a similar petition from Mothers for Natural Law, a radical organization affiliated with the cultish empire of Indian mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The Chefs also had a hand in starting and promoting the “Keep Nature Natural” campaign. This effort, a product of organic food marketers and the “natural foods” industry, aggressively lobbies for tax breaks for organic farmers, while using junk science to spread fear of conventional and high-tech foods. It’s funded by organic food lobbyists on behalf of organic marketers like Eden, Nature’s Path, Wild Oats, and Whole Foods — and by Andrew Kimbrell’s misleadingly named Center for Food Safety.
Among the most vocal and dogmatic CC spokespersons on the biotech food issue, New York celebrity chef Peter Hoffman stands out. He has actually argued against the production of “Golden Rice,” a crop that could save literally millions of lives in the Third World. TIME magazine has said that “at least a million children who die every year because they are weakened by vitamin-A deficiency, and an additional 350,000 who go blind” could be saved by this innovative use of food technology. But Hoffman will have none of it, lambasting agricultural progress as unnecessary. “The Green Revolution was a dismal failure,” he insisted at a 2000 press conference. “We don’t need it now, we didn’t need it then.” The Nobel Prize committee heartily disagreed, awarding the Peace Prize to “Green Revolution” father Norman Borlaug in 1970.
It’s worth noting that CC has to contend with a few vocal dissenters within its profession. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in March 2000, the legendary Julia Child called genetic food improvement “one of the greatest discoveries” of the twentieth century. She takes issue with the anti-biotech-food movement, saying that its adherents have “a very backwards-looking point of view.” The Los Angeles Times had similarly unflattering things to say about Bitter Harvest, a frightening tome about modern food technology by CC’s Ann Cooper, noting that the author doesn’t “let facts get in the way of a good doomsday scenario,” and calling the whole exercise a giant serving of “anxiety pie.”
The price you pay for eating organic
The Chefs Collaborative continues to promote organic-only eating in an attempt to permanently “change the way people make their food choices.” One recent newsletter claimed that “promoting organic farming methods is crucial for sustaining the planet.” As an organization, CC organizes restaurants into “cooperatives” that agree to buy produce from local farmers, only then “work[ing] on bringing them into the organic fold.”
Once organic produce reaches the table, of course, it is more likely to cause deadly E.coli infections than conventionally grown food. Dr. Robert Tauxe, then chief of the Foodborne Diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control, explained why, in a 1997 article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. “‘Organic’,” wrote Dr. Tauxe, “means your food was grown in animal manure.” This is the “ick” in “organic,” and it is especially prevalent among farmers who opt for the expensive organic certification that celebrity chefs crave.
Even in Great Britain, where organic agriculture is skyrocketing, public health officials agree that “organic” doesn’t mean “healthier.” Professor Hugh Pennington, who chaired the UK’s 1996 investigation into E.coli infections, said that “organic food… is not healthier than normal mass-produced food, and in many cases is far unhealthier. There are problems over fungi infecting organic food and indeed the risk of getting E.coli from the ‘natural’ cow manure is very real.”
Even Katherine DiMatteo, head of the U.S. Organic Trade Association, won’t claim that organic food has any nutritional or safety benefits. When asked straight-out by ABC’s John Stossel whether or not organic food is safer for consumers, she replied that safety isn’t what organic food is all about. So why on earth is it selling? And why are celebrity chefs helping it along?
By lining up against genetically improved foods, the Chefs Collaborative has allied itself with the organic and “natural” foods industry. It’s no coincidence that Chefs chairman Rick Bayless’ line of organic sauces and condiments is marketed by Whole Foods, the nation’s largest organic food chain. Whole Foods executives have also sat on CC’s “board of overseers,” and the company underwrites its outreach and media campaigns. Whole Foods — along with its varied competitors — cashes in whenever CC raises the level of hysteria over non-organic foods. And some of that cash finds its way back into the chefs’ aprons. In 1996 the Chefs Collaborative announced a fundraising partnership with Whole Foods that delivered at least $150,000.
At least it can be said that CC — and Oldways, its former parent group — are equal-opportunity profiteers. In 1997 Supermarket News described a marketing arrangement between Oldways and a Boston area “natural food” supermarket called Wild Harvest. Asked about her organization’s agenda, Oldways program manager Annie Copps replied: “We’re using primarily members of Chefs Collaborative to promote the use of produce that is clean, local and organic wherever possible, and to make the dishes as plant-based as possible, and using, of course, Wild Harvest products.”
Most smear tactics directed at biotech foods have their genesis in the communications offices of organic food marketers, and CC has become an active participant in this arrangement. If this sounds a little too conspiratorial, consider what one speaker said at a U.S. Organic Food Conference in 1999: “The potential to develop the organic food market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down.”
It’s not propaganda if you get course credit
Embedded deep within the Chefs Collaborative mentality is the idea of the chef as educator, telling consumers what they should and shouldn’t be eating. During an impassioned speech at the January 2001 annual CC retreat, chef Judy Wicks (of Philadelphia’s White Dog Café) summed up the organization’s outlook, saying that “restaurants are uniquely positioned to educate and activate consumers.” This is the same activist chef who has publicly conceded that the Chefs Collaborative “use[s] good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”
No surprise, then, that the Chefs Collaborative has been taking its anti-biotech, anti-agribusiness, anti-meat, and anti-pesticide messages directly into elementary schools since 1994 (Oldways officially reclaimed the school program in June 2000). Through its “Adopt-a-School” program, CC gets its unrealistic ideas in front of the tiniest consumers while they’re still young. This way, explains Rick Bayless, “there’s a better chance they’ll be choosing good foods over not-so-healthy foods as they grow. And by ‘good,’ I mean foods that are grown, harvested and prepared in ways that don’t harm the planet or the person eating them.” Today’s professional chefs should know better than anyone that the conventional U.S. food supply is safer, more varied, less expensive, and more nutritious than ever before. It’s regrettable that Bayless seems intent on ignoring these facts in order to push a radical agenda to the most vulnerable audience imaginable.
Of course, a whiny nation demanding “sustainable” cuisine is no good unless you’ve also trained the next generation of chefs to toe the party line. Never fear — the Chefs Collaborative has that covered as well. CC “board of overseers” member Eve Felder is an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and Oldways co-founder Greg Drescher is the “Director of Education” at CIA’s Napa Valley campus. Drescher’s ideological baggage was packed in Fairfield, Iowa — home of the Maharishi University of Management. This college promotes the questionable teachings of Transcendental Meditation inventor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose dietary edicts emphasize organic foods and whose medicinal tenets favor expensive organic herbal preparations. Greg Drescher, like many of today’s in-your-face organic high priests, draws inspiration from “The Maha” (as John Lennon used to call him). Few of Drescher’s converts, however, know exactly what it is they’re embracing.
Writing in a 2001 Chefs Collaborative newsletter, Eve Felder made no bones about the connection between CC and the CIA, asserting that “the principles of the Chefs Collaborative… are our principles.” Chefs Collaborative co-founder Ann Cooper has described herself during radio interviews as “a consultant to the Culinary Institute of America.” The CIA and CC have also co-hosted seminars showcasing anti-biotech issues in recent years, and featuring such session topics as “Organic companies vs. the Multi-National Global Networks,” “Plant-based cooking,” and “Chefs as Restaurateurs and Activists.” Invited speakers have included:
- organic-foods lobbyist Roger Blobaum
- Organic Valley marketing director Teresa Marquez
- Organic Farming Research Foundation chief Bob Scowcroft
- “Newman’ Own” (organic) proprietor Nell Newman
- Whole Foods Markets executive A.C. Gallo
- new age “wellness” guru Andrew Weill
- environmental scaremonger Brian Halweil (of the Worldwatch Institute)
- Rebecca Goldburg (Environmental Defense)
- organic meat marketer Bill Niman (Niman Ranch)
Chefs Collaborative was the first group to hop on board when Washington nonprofit SeaWeb announced its boycott of Atlantic swordfish (the “Give Swordfish a Break” debacle). According to some estimates, more than half of the restaurants SeaWeb listed as swordfish boycott enrollees were headed by Chefs Collaborative members. Never mind that the National Marine Fisheries Service said that “swordfish are not considered endangered,” and that the campaign would “end up having a detrimental effect on fishermen.” SeaWeb called the tune; the chefs danced.
And why not? SeaWeb is part of a tight-knit circle of aquatic mischief that runs on green fuel from the David & Lucille Packard Foundation (nearly $2.5 million so far). That same foundation made a $200,000 donation to Chefs Collaborative in November 2001, earmarked especially for “consumer education” on seafood issues. Other Packard Foundation donees include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Seafood Choices Alliance, and Environmental Defense — all of whom have “cooperative” agreements in place that financially benefit the Chefs Collaborative.
The Chefs Collaborative also uses its influence to direct the flow of commerce to “approved” fish vendors. CC officers hold nine seats on an advisory board at EcoFish, a for-profit vendor of “sustainable” fish (the Packard Foundation also holds a seat). And when CC bigwigs Rick Moonen and Eric Ripert came out in support of a “moratorium” on Caspian Sea caviar (December 2000), few noticed that Whole Foods Markets was less than two months into promoting its own “domestic, farm-raised” caviar line.
Moonen and Ripert participated in the boycott at the request of Fenton Communications, a leftist Washington PR shop whose tactics have produced dozens of baseless food scares (including the phony 1989 Alar-on-apples fiasco). Fenton promoted the caviar boycott on behalf of a client — Whole Foods Markets.
Fenton Communications’ links to Chefs Collaborative began in 1999, when Environmental Defense (another Fenton client) wanted a culinary partner to promote its “dying oceans” agenda. With a $50,000 contribution from Environmental Defense, CC co-produced Seafood Solutions, a guide to cooking fish in an “environmentally responsible” manner. Not surprisingly, the October 2000 press conferences unveiling this book featured representatives from both groups as well as SeaWeb. And Fenton Communications handled all of the arrangements.
In addition to declaring dozens of fish species politically incorrect (Chilean sea bass is the latest), the Chefs Collaborative has a history of pushing a diet that’s as meatless as possible. When Greg Drescher and K. Dun Gifford founded the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust (which later spawned the Chefs Collaborative), they were also in the event-planning business — organizing “health” and “nutrition” conferences for environmentalists and animal-rights devotees. A full year before CC was born, Drescher told the New York Times that he saw the animal rights agenda’s extremist public image as the biggest roadblock to widespread vegetarianism. “What’s being missed,” he said, “is an opportunity to support a strong position for reduced meat consumption from a nutrition and environmental perspective without the other baggage.”
To be sure, one plank in CC’s platform is the dramatic reduction in meat consumption. Gifford confided to Vegetarian Times readers in 1998 that the purpose behind Oldways’ attempts to tinker with the American diet “is to get people to eat more vegetarian meals.” True to form, where there’s a social objective, there’s a scare campaign to get the ball rolling. Chefs Collaborative overseer Ann Cooper told a National Public Radio audience in September 2000 that “it is not only possible but it is actually probably probable” that mad cow disease was present in the United States. “Many people,” she insisted, “think it’s already happening here.”
Of course, if you must eat meat, Chefs Collaborative will be happy to recommend a number of “certified organic,” “natural,” or “free range” options, all of which come with inflated price tags — if you have to ask how much it costs, goes the old adage, you can’t afford it. A Spring 2001 “Chefs Collaborative Communiqué” began with a horrific exposition on mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, followed by thinly-veiled sales pitches for specific brands of “earth-friendly” and “safer” meats. The “approved” vendors included names like Farm Verified Organics, Niman Ranch, and Conservation Beef — all of whom count on consumer fear to sell their products. The Summer 2001 CC newsletter continued the sermon, barely containing the group’s glee that “the meat and dairy industries… are under siege” by government regulators as a result of infectious disease concerns.
Another great example of a fear profiteer is Jim Goodman. Along with his wife, Goodman raises organic beef and sells it to “L’Etoile,” a Madison, Wisconsin restaurant (run by CC member Odessa Piper), among others. Goodman’s activist streak runs so deep that he was a co-plaintiff in a pair of 1999 lawsuits brought against the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health & Human Services by a trio of anti-consumer groups (the Humane Farming Association, the Center for Food Safety, and the Center for Media & Democracy). These legal actions attempted to establish in court what scientists were saying wouldn’t happen (and still hasn’t) in a scientific setting: a link between mad cow disease and garden-variety human Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Goodman is a member of the Chefs Collaborative.
Environmental “Worry” Group
EWG has overseen a Reign of Error lasting more than two decades
If you’ve picked up a newspaper during the last twenty years, odds are you’ve come across a breathlessly written news report warning against some item that is secretly poisoning you. “Sunscreen is causing cancer” the headlines might scream. “Why your baby’s bottle is poison,” says the local newscaster. “Non-organic vegetables are covered in toxins,” another report might ominously warn. If you actually read the story that accompanies these attention-grabbing headlines, you’ll notice that many of them come from the same source: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and related organizations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
There’s really only one thing you need to know about the Environmental Working Group when it comes to their studies of toxins: 79 percent of members of the Society of Toxicology (scientists who know a little something about toxins) who rated the group say that the Environmental Working Group overstates the health risk of chemicals.
That’s because the EWG has a history of passing shady “science” off as solid facts. Their main talent isn’t research, it’s duping reporters into credulously transcribing their “findings.” A nonprofit organization that has learned how to turn public panic into a stream of hefty donations, the Environmental Working Group has no problem ginning up outrage that causes families needless worry and does incalculable damage to honest industries. Hyperbole, it seems, is big business – last year the EWG raised more than $6 million.
The EWG issues press releases and studies on a wide range of topics, from sunscreen to cosmetics to drinking water to plastics to vaccines. They have become a go-to resource for the mainstream media, earning mentions in virtually every major newspaper in the United States. Even some conservative outlets, like the National Review, uncritically cite the EWG’s online farm subsidy database that tracks government payments to “Fortune 500 companies.”
In reality, the Environmental Working Group is a cauldron where many of the worst pseudoscience smear campaigns are cooked up. They prey on the public’s distrust of polysyllabic scientific jargon — and reporters’ ignorance of the same — to make it sound as if everyday items with complicated names are, in fact, deadly dangerous.
The EWG’s game plan is simple. It releases “scientific” analyses designed to make the public (especially parents) worry about extremely tiny amounts of “toxins” in everyday items. It throws around scary phrases like “cancer risk” and “nervous system toxicity” that is catnip for environmental reporters, many of whom uncritically pass along the EWG reports without scrutiny or fact-checking. If the EWG had its way, America would turn its back on the scientific advances make our crops more productive, prevent cancer, and keep our food fresh and safe.
What readers are rarely told is that these studies are often based on extremely thin evidence and have a tendency to jump to conclusions unsupported by the science. Before taking anything this ridiculous group has to say seriously, it’s important to understand their pattern of peddling falsehoods. Here’s a sampling of some of the EWG’s greatest misses from the last 20 years:
In July 2010, the Environmental Working Group released a sunscreen guide; in it, they argued that certain chemicals that are commonly used within sunscreen solutions are dangerous carcinogens and should be avoided. Their bad guy du jour was retinyl palmitate. As Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society pointed out in the Montreal Gazette, “better known as vitamin A, retinol plays an important role in maintaining normal skin function. When added to creams or lotions, it can reduce the appearance of fine lines, giving the skin a more youthful appearance.” Since it’s not stable, it is turned into retinyl palmitate, which enhances collagen formation and increases cell division.
The EWG based its report on laboratory experiments showing that mice exposed to ultraviolet light while having retinyl palmitate applied to their skin developed tumors more quickly than mice that didn’t. The only problem, as Dr. Schwarcz points out, is that the study has not been peer reviewed, no sunscreen lotion consists solely (or even primarily) of retinyl palmitate, and another study from 2009 on hamsters concluded the exact opposite of what the new study shows. (Make that “the only three problems.”) Indeed, the New York-based Skin Cancer Foundation disputed the report’s findings and, according to the Palm Beach Post, is worried that “consumers confused about the report might stop using sunscreens.” This is a legitimate concern, since over-exposure to sunlight is a well-known cause of skin cancer.
The Skin Cancer Foundation and Dr. Schwarcz weren’t the only ones to express concern. The Orange County Register reported that “Dr. Matt Goodman, a dermatologist in the melanoma program at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, says the Environmental Working Group’s claims on retinyl palmitate are suspect because they rely on research done on mice. … ‘This leads me to conclude that risk is extremely low, if nonexistent.’”
An offshoot of the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a report in 2007 decrying dangerous levels of lead in lipstick. Thirty-three red lipsticks were tested, and, using the standard for lead in candy of .01 parts per million, they concluded that more than half had “dangerous” amounts of lead. The only problem with the study is that it is total nonsense.
The first problem comes from comparing lipstick, which is applied topically, to candy, which is ingested in full. Common sense dictates that there is clearly a difference between putting on some lipstick and eating the whole tube. Furthermore, testing conducted by the FDA and published in the July/August 2009 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmetic Science found that “lead levels found are within the range that would be expected from lipsticks formulated with permitted color additives and other ingredients that had been prepared under good manufacturing practice conditions.”
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is just as questionable in its use of data as the parent organization that is driving it. “These things sound terribly scary, but there’s a massive disconnect between how toxicologists evaluate risks and how activist groups evaluate risk,” Trevor Butterworth of George Mason University’s Center for Health and Risk Communication told the New York Times. Indeed, the Society of Toxicologists survey found that only 6 percent of toxicologists believe that “any” exposure to a harmful chemical like lead is unacceptable. They feel that the media (and the public) does not understand that “the dose makes the poison.”
This point is driven home by the fact that the CSC provides no evidence showing that the trace amounts of lead in lipstick have caused any sort of problem. That comports with scientist’s understanding of the situation; in the aforementioned survey of toxicologists, only 26 percent think that cosmetics “pose a significant health risk.” The disconnect between the toxicologists and the EWG’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics isn’t hard to understand. Real scientists try to determine whether or not a substance is harmful; the Environmental Working Group and its offshoots simply point to a substance’s existence, claim the sky is falling, and put out a press release.
At the end of 2009, the Environmental Working Group released a report on the quality of water available out of the tap in various localities across the country. Their results were both explosive – generating many unquestioning headlines from newspapers worried about their local water supplies – and mostly bunk.
Between 2004 and 2008, the EWG found that the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida “reported 45 impurities in the water,” according to the Pensacola News Journal. The ECUA then commissioned the University of West Florida to examine the water. The results? “The UWF study showed that the ECUA did not exceed a single water quality standard set forth by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. ‘According to the accepted drinking water quality regulations, the water provided by ECUA offers minimal risk and is safe for human consumption according to federal and State of Florida standards,’” the study said.
Other responses were blunter, and the study’s methodology was called into question. “The fault is with the Environmental Working Group,” David Wright of the Riverside Public Utilities told the Press-Enterprise. “They lied about groundwater test data and represented that as tap water data.” The EWG had tested water that had yet to be treated and passed it off as the stuff that comes out of your tap.
One of the worst things that the Environmental Working Group has done is contribute to the myth that vaccines are leading to a spike in autism in America’s children. In 2004, the EWG published the paper “Overloaded? New Science, new insights about mercury and autism in children.” The paper reported that there are “serious concerns about the studies that have allegedly proven the safety of mercury in vaccines” and stoked fears that childhood vaccines like those for Measles, Mumps and Rubella are responsible for increased incidences of autism.
The EWG was playing a dangerous game here. By trying to put a scare into parents about the health of their children in order to score some free media coverage, they contributed to a growing subculture in which vaccines are shunned and kids are getting sick. In 2010, for example, an unvaccinated San Diego boy contracted measles during a trip to Europe, exposing 839 people to the disease upon return to the U.S.
The EWG is literally putting children at risk of devastating childhood illnesses by propagating this phony science. And that’s what the vaccine-autism scare is: phony. It was first cooked up by a charlatan who fudged his data and is no longer allowed to practice medicine in his home country, and the theory has been rejected not just by autism activists but by the federal court system. Meanwhile, the EWG’s website continues to host articles alleging a link between vaccines and autism.
Vaccines aren’t the only healthy products that the Environmental Working Group has tried to scare people away from utilizing; they also have claimed that trace amounts of mercury in fish represent such a health risk that people should avoid eating seafood altogether. Instead of trying to balance concerns over mercury in fish with the health and nutritional benefits of eating seafood, the EWG put out scary press releases designed to oversimplify the issue and ensure a hyped-up response.
As a result, Americans are now depriving themselves of the health benefits of fish. An article in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, when it comes to scaring non-pregnant women away from eating fish because of mercury, “the net public health impact is negative. Although high compliance with recommended fish consumption patterns can improve public health, unintended shifts in consumption can lead to public health losses.” They also found that pregnant women who ignore fish altogether are also worse off with regard to heart disease, stroke, and prenatal cognitive development. Tuna is called brain food for a reason, after all.
Of course, an even-handed look at the benefits and risks of eating fish is unlikely to convince reporters to cover the topic. Over-the-top warnings about the dire threat unborn children face from mercury? That’ll be sure to grab some eyeballs, keep the EWG in the public spotlight, and keep the donations flowing in.
The EWG has long argued in favor of organic agriculture, claiming that pesticides are a danger to our health and a horrible threat to humanity. What they’re not telling us, of course, is that most of the pesticides we find on fresh produce are natural, and manufactured by plants themselves. In a 1995 interview with Vegetarian Times magazine, the award-winning Berkeley biologist Bruce Ames insisted that “99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators… Reducing our exposure to the 0.01% of ingested pesticides that are synthetic is not likely to reduce cancer rates.”
And even that small portion of agricultural pesticides that are synthetic have resulted in tremendous gains for humanity, despite EWG’s unfounded assertions to the contrary. Man-made agricultural chemicals have been in use for over 50 years in the United States, and they are among the most rigorously tested and heavily regulated products in the economy. They have undeniably made fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper and more readily available for Americans, especially for the economically disadvantaged. The U.S. Public Health Service says that “such nutritional advances are largely responsible” for much of the 30 years of increased life expectancy that we’ve all gained in the last 100 years. Organics aren’t necessarily any healthier; only one in ten toxicologists thinks that “organic or ‘natural’ products are inherently safer.”
Founded in 1892 by John Muir to “make the mountains glad,” the Sierra Club is the oldest and arguably the most powerful environmental group in the nation. But its concerns are no longer limited to the happiness of the valleys. Once dedicated to conserving wilderness for future human enjoyment, the Sierra Club has become an anti-growth, anti-technology group that puts its utopian environmentalist vision before the well being of humans.
This is not your father’s Sierra Club. Some of its leadership positions are held by activists with radical ties and even violent criminals. The Club has done well preserving a “mainstream” image, despite its increasingly radical bent.
The Club’s new extremist priorities are best illustrated in the person of animal-rights extremist Paul Watson, elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors in 2003. Watson founded the ultra-radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) in 1977 after being booted from Greenpeace (which he also co-founded) for espousing violence in the name of the environment. Watson and his Sea Shepherd pirates sail the high seas, terrorizing the fishing industry by sinking ships and endangering lives. “I got the impression that instead of going out to shoot birds, I should go out and shoot the kids who shoot birds,” says Watson (as quoted in Access to Energy, 1982).
In 2003 Watson announced that he was openly “advocating the takeover of the Sierra Club,” claiming to be just three votes shy of controlling a majority of the group’s 15-member board. During the Sierra Club’s 2004 election season, Watson allied himself with candidates endorsing strict limits to legal immigration. Promising to “use the resources of the $95-million-a-year budget” to address both immigration policy and animal-rights issues, Watson actively promoted his chosen slate of candidates — and lost big in a record turnout. Nevertheless, Watson will remain on the Sierra Club’s board until 2006.
Bashing Food Technology
Genetically modified food crops have been heralded for their environmental benefits, including the ability to grow more food on less land, and a decreased need for pesticides. Biotech crops are widely considered one solution for chronic food shortages and starvation throughout the world. Nobel laureates and green activists alike have praised agricultural biotechnology and encouraged its advancement.
Despite all the promise that these revolutionary crops hold for the future, the Sierra Club demands “a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and the release of all GEOs [genetically engineered organisms] into the environment, including those now approved.” This technophobic stance falls right in line with former Sierra Club executive director David Brower’s creed: “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.” The natural conclusion of this flawed logic is the much-maligned “precautionary principle”; like many other green groups, the Sierra Club uses it to thwart technological progress in the biotech sector. The Club states its official policy on agricultural biotechnology on its website: “We call for acting in accordance with the precautionary principle … we call for a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops.”
As international food policy expert Dr. Robert Paarlberg has noted in The Wall Street Journal, the “precautionary principle” has run amok, putting millions of lives at risk. “Greens and GM critics,” says Paarlberg, “argue that powerful new technologies should be kept under wraps until tested for unexpected or unknown risks as well. Never mind that testing for something unknown is logically impossible (the only way to avoid a completely unknown risk is never to do anything for the first time).” Anti-biotechnology zealot (and former Council for Responsible Genetics head) Martin Teitel candidly disclosed activists’ “precautionary” motivation in 2001: “Politically, it’s difficult for me,” Teitel told a scientific conference, “to go around saying that I want to shut this science down, so it’s safer for me to say something like, ‘It needs to be done safely before releasing it.'” Teitel added that implementing the precautionary principle really means: “They don’t get to do it. Period.”
The Sierra Club united with Greenpeace and organic-only food activist groups in 1999 to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its approval of genetically modified crops. In the same year, the Club joined the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Defenders of Wildlife in petitioning the EPA for strict regulation of corn modified to produce the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin. Bt is a naturally occurring insect poison that protects plants from devastating pests like the European corn borer.
The Sierra Club’s EPA petition was part of a coordinated campaign to convince the public that Bt corn posed a risk to the Monarch Butterfly. However, both the USDA and the EPA later concluded that Monarchs were never in any danger. This reinforced the findings of federal regulators who had performed a comprehensive safety review of Bt corn before it was allowed into the marketplace. Yet despite conclusive proof to the contrary, the Sierra Club continues to promote the false notion that biotech corn kills Monarchs.
The Sierra Club is also a member of “Genetically Engineered Food Alert,” a PR campaign dedicated to demonizing genetically enhanced food products. In 2002 the Club co-hosted an event called “Reinventing the Meal: Ecological Food Choices for the 21st Century.” Attendees were urged to only “grow and buy organic food,” shun food from large, modern farms, and avoid foods produced through biotechnology.
According to Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, widely acknowledged as the “father of the green revolution,” the reckless actions of groups like the Sierra Club may hinder our ability to feed future populations: “I now say,” Borlaug told a De Montfort University crowd in 1997 “that the world has the technology — either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline — to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks.”
Bashing Modern Farming
Biotechnology is just one of the food production practices in the Sierra Club’s crosshairs. The group pushes an animal-rights agenda and maintains a coordinated campaign against what it calls “the growing menace” of modern livestock farms.
It’s clear that the Sierra Club is fond of putting its ideological cart before the scientific horse — if you can use that term without offending the growing animal-rights faction within the organization. Sierra Club activists in Florida endorse PETA’s mantra that eating meat is a form of animal abuse that contributes to world hunger. In 2002, the Broward Sierra News promoted “a vegetarian lifestyle as a way to counter the alleged abuse animals endure to feed a hungry and growing global population.” The newsletter plugged PETA and their message that meat-eating in general, and livestock operations in particular, are a cause of world hunger and animal abuse. Sierra Club chapters in New York and Michigan promote the “Vegetarian Starter Kit” distributed by the misnamed Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a PETA front group), as a way to fight “corporate greed.”
These chapters also encourage people to sign EarthSave International’s “VegPledge” as a way to “save the Earth” by going vegetarian. The New York chapter of the Sierra Club cosponsored an event with People for Animal Rights in 2002 dubbed “Behind Closed Doors.” The purpose of the gathering was to vilify livestock operations, and appropriately featured Farm Sanctuary co-founder Gene Bauston.
And the Sierra Club embraces those with designs on combining environmental activism with animal-rights dogma. The Club’s board of directors chair Lisa Renstrom explained: “The [Sierra] Club could begin to include animal rights positions in decades to come as members and the American public acknowledge the impact of our high animal protein diet on sustainability.” The Club’s “sustainable consumption committee” issued a report in 2000 that listed “eating less meat” as a “Priority Action for American Consumers,” right alongside “buying a fuel-efficient car.” Joan Zacharias, one of this committee’s leaders, is scheduled to address the “Animal Rights 2004” convention in Virginia. Her influence is seen in the committee’s stated goal of developing “stronger ties with vegetarian organizations.”
The Club’s “Rap Sheet on Animal Factories” lists farms that the Sierra Club has targeted for “action.” What type of action? In the May 2000 issue of Sierra, the Club announced its intention to sue large-scale livestock farms across the nation: “No one [court] case,” wrote Sierra’s editors, “will be a magic bullet … You have to fight on multiple legal fronts.”
On February 28, 2001 the Club announced an alliance with trial lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.’s radical Waterkeeper Alliance as a “full partner in litigation” against pork companies. That same day, the Sierra Club declared that it had filed multiple lawsuits “across the United States” targeting Smithfield farms. One of the suits filed accused Smithfield of mafia-style racketeering — a charge that was ultimately laughed out of court.
The Sierra Club has sued time and again in its war against farmers. Between 1998 and 2002 it joined multiple lawsuits to prevent the construction of dairy farms in California. In 2003 it filed suit in Nebraska to stop a new hog farm from opening. Filing lawsuits is cheap, especially for Sierra’s well-funded team of lawyers.
Not Just a Club, But a Law Firm
In 1971, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund was founded as a nonprofit law firm to serve as a legal arm to the Club’s grassroots operation. In 1998, its name was changed to the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund. (It now operates simply as “EarthJustice.”) EarthJustice exists to use the courts as a weapon against businesses and public agencies, in the hope of forcing them to operate in a manner acceptable to the Sierra Club. EarthJustice’s aggressive legal posture regarding everything from livestock farms to mining doesn’t harm the Club’s reputation as much as it might, since few members of the public realize that the two groups work hand in glove. Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Sierra Club 38 times in 2003 alone.
Not even something as critical as military training can escape the Earthjustice legal machine. In early 2004, Earthjustice filed suit to stop Marine training exercises in the Makua Valley (Hawaii) citing concern for supposed endangered species habitat. The Army issued a terse statement in response to Earthjustice’s irresponsible legal maneuver: “To win the war against terrorism and get ready for future battles, the U.S. military must be prepared. The conduct of realistic live-fire training in Makua is part of that preparation.” In 2000, Earthjustice also sued to stop military training on the small, uninhabited island of Farallon de Medinilla, citing concern for migratory birds.
Just as the Sierra Club is no friend of farmers, it has also made enemies of ranchers. Sierra Club board member Lisa Force once served as regional coordinator of the Center for Biological Diversity, which brags of prying ranchers and their livestock from federal lands. In 2000 and 2003, the two groups sued the U.S. Department of the Interior to force ranching families out of the Mojave National Preserve. These ranchers actually owned grazing rights to the preserve; some families had been raising cattle there for over a century. No matter. Using the Endangered Species Act and citing the supposed loss of “endangered tortoise habitat,” the Club was able to force the ranchers out.
Not to be outdone by its former parent group, EarthJustice has sued the federal government to curb grazing on more than 13 million acres of public land in New Mexico and Arizona.
Suing for Profit
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology notes that one of Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope’s “major accomplishments” is his co-authorship of California’s infamous Proposition 65. “Prop 65” requires any product containing one of several hundred “known carcinogens” to bear a warning label — even if the chemical appears in concentrations so low that adverse health effects are essentially impossible.
Prop 65 has a “bounty hunter” provision to encourage frivolous lawsuits by trial lawyers looking to cash in on any product containing a listed “carcinogen” and lacking a warning label. Prop 65 “violators” can be fined up to $2,500 per day, per violation, and plaintiffs can collect up to 25 percent of the total take. Between 2000 and 2002, one California group called As You Sow (AYS) reaped more than $1.5 million playing the Prop 65 lawsuit game.
Sierra Club president Larry Fahn is also AYS’s executive director. A self-described “leading enforcer of Proposition 65,” As You Sow functions as a litigation machine, conjuring up lawsuit after lawsuit. The group has sued everyone from scuba gear manufacturers and retailers to the makers of nail care products.
Under Fahn’s leadership, AYS routes its Prop 65 money to some of the most radical groups around, including the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society (both co-founded by Earth First! godfather Mike Roselle), as well as California affiliates of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance and David Brower’s Earth Island Institute.
Another group funded by AYS is called Environmentally Sound Promotions — it’s run by Earth First! organizer Darryl Cherney. On a 1990 CBS broadcast of “60 Minutes,” Cherney made it clear where his Earth First! sympathies lead him. “If I knew I had a fatal disease,” Cherney said, “I would definitely do something like strap dynamite to myself and take out Grand Canyon Dam, or maybe the Maxxam Building in Los Angeles after it’s closed up for the night.”
Despite this web of extremist connections, few seem aware that the Sierra Club has institutionally embraced the most radical side of the green movement.