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A Healthy and Sustainable Food System

This week on Rootstock Radio, we talk with Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth. Kari’s extensive background in challenging, changing and improving our food system includes five years with the Environmental Working Group where she focused on a wide range of food and agriculture issues from the U.S. Farm Bill, to organic agriculture, to food security and conservation policy. She has also done extensive research on the link between food production and climate change and was the lead author of the comprehensive web-based Meateater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health.

In speaking of her current projects at Friends of the Earth, Kari explains that nearly half of all food budgets are spent outside of the home—i.e. at restaurants or other institutions. She says, “In order to move forward and to shift production practices on the ground and give consumers healthy, sustainable, humane food, we really need to focus on the market where people are getting their food.” And this, she adds, is exactly what Friends of the Earth is doing right now.

Another issue of mounting importance to Friends of the Earth—and truly the world at large—is the use of routine antibiotics in livestock. This alarming practice has contributed to a global crisis with people dying yearly from antibiotic-resistant super-bugs. When asked, “Why now? Why is this issue finally coming to a head right now?” Kari attributes the timing in part to new science-based evidence on the severity of the issue. She says “people have so much agency in the market. They get to decide what they buy, they get to decide where to put their money. They are deciding in leaps and bounds that they don’t want meat raised with drugs.”

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here with Kari Hammerschlag, who is the deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth, a terrific organization that I’m very proud to be following, be a part of, and really appreciate their work. Prior to joining the Friends of the Earth, Kari worked as a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, another fantastic group, led by our friend Ken Cook. And Kari is focusing on a wide range of food and ag issues. Besides being the lead author of the comprehensive Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health—and it’s a website—she worked for many years as a sustainable food and policy and fair trade consultant. Welcome, Kari.

KARI HAMMERSCHLAG: Great to be with you.

TM: I am just so excited about the work that you’ve been doing, and really excited to be talking with you. For our listeners, when I said that Kari was an instrumental lead author in the comprehensive Meat Eaters’ Guide to Climate Change and Health, one of the things Kari was instrumental in doing is helping move McDonald’s to really look at antibiotics in their chicken. Kari, tell us a little bit about that.

KH: Yeah, sure. So we have been focused for the last couple of years on putting pressure and raising awareness of the public about the dire problem of antibiotics in meat. So a lot of your listeners might be surprised to know that up to 80 percent of all the antibiotics that are used in the country, that are sold in this country, are actually used to keep animals alive in really unhealthy, unsanitary, cruel conditions in factory farms. And so we’ve been focusing a lot on the big buyers of the meat, who have a responsibility, really, to address this issue.

So a couple of years ago I met McDonald’s at a conference where they were talking about their support for a set of sustainability principles that was developed at something called the Menus of Change. And I asked the question in front of four hundred people, “So does that mean that you are supportive of getting routine antibiotics out of your supply chain?” And the response was, “Well, we’re working on it.” And afterwards I went up and talked to the person speaking and some of their other senior management that were there. I said, “We’d really love to start a dialogue with you all about this and talk with you more.” And we did. And we pulled together a coalition of organizations to work on this issue and decided that really it’s not just McDonald’s, it’s all of these companies.

And so we decided to put together a scorecard called Chain Reaction that grades the top twenty-five restaurant chains on their policies on antibiotics, and we released that last year in September. And since then, and throughout, we’ve been doing different campaigns targeting different big companies on this issue. And we’ve had some great successes. Just in the past year, we’ve seen McDonald’s make their announcement just a couple of weeks ago, really, that 100 percent now of their chicken is raised without the routine use of antibiotics. So that is a really phenomenal thing.

We’ve also been able to move other restaurant chains to adopt better policies, like Subway, which is one of the largest restaurant chains in the country—in the world, really. Subway has actually adopted a policy for all of its meat. So in the case of McDonald’s, they said they’ve adopted a policy for chicken, just in the United States, and they’ve made good on their policy—they’ve actually 100 percent implemented [it]. But they still haven’t yet made a policy that addresses antibiotic use in pork and beef, and so that’s where we’re continuing to put pressure. And people who are interested in this should reach out to McDonald’s, let them know that you care about this issue, let them know that you appreciate the progress that they’ve made but that you want to see more progress made. There is a global campaign right now targeting McDonald’s on this issue, on the pork and beef supply. There’s also been shareholder resolutions that have been put forward, urging McDonald’s to adopt policies for all of their meat. So that’s really where we’re focused with McDonald’s.

And we’re really excited—we’ve had some other great victories. Friends of the Earth has been working with PIRG and Center for Food Safety and a few other groups to target In-N-Out Burger and ask them to source meat, and they’re really just beef, raised without routine antibiotics. And very soon after we sent them letters from dozens of public interest groups, they announced to the media that they were going to be changing their policies on this. And so we’re really excited about that, but we haven’t yet seen them take the next step of actually sourcing the meat raised without routine antibiotics, so we’re pushing them to actually take those steps.

And with In-N-Out Burger, you know, we’re, at Friends of the Earth and some of our allies, it’s not really enough—we don’t think it’s enough to just stop using antibiotics. That’s just a first step. We would like to see them source meat from producers that are treating the animals humanely. We’d like to see them source from growers that are raising their animals on pasture, which is healthier for the planet and healthier for people.

TM: Hear, hear!

KH: So we’re urging them to also source grass-fed, organic burgers, in addition to just changing the use of antibiotics in their supply chain. And that’s really, ultimately, what we’d like to see all of these companies do. Addressing the antibiotics issue is critical for human health, but there are so many other important issues to address in animal agriculture. You know, it’s just one, it’s one step—it’s a really important step. And it’s something we’ve been trying, really, for forty years there’s been an effort to get the animal ag industry to stop using these drugs. And it’s just gone nowhere on the policy front because our policy makers are so beholden to the big corporations, the pharmaceutical companies, that we’ve had very little progress. And so now, with all the market campaigns and the market pressure and consumer interest and consumer concern, and the media, really positive media coverage, we really are making great progress. And I’m just so thrilled about that, because it’s hard to move things in this world sometimes when you have so much corporate control over our food system.

TM: Well, you just said a mouthful—I mean, as far as corporate control and all the issues. But I’d love to back up for just a moment because, you know, you mentioned routine antibiotics. Could you explain what the difference is between routine… Isn’t there like routine and then is it called therapeutic antibiotics?

KH: Right. So up to 80 percent of all the antibiotics that are sold in this country are sold by pharmaceutical companies to the animal agriculture industry. They’re used in animals, and they’re primarily used on animals that don’t need them, or they’re used to keep animals alive in terrible, in the unsanitary, cramped, also cruel conditions that a lot of animals are raised in this country in factory farms. And so—

TM: In other words, each animal hasn’t been diagnosed that they have anything wrong with them. They just get the antibiotics anyway, just in case. Isn’t that kind of how it works?

KH: Yes. So it’s in the absence of any diagnosis. For example, it’s very common for a piglet, just born, in the first day, to get an antibiotic shot. It’s administered in the feed and it’s continual. And it’s unnecessary and it breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which then can infect humans and have infected humans. And we now have over 22,000 people that are dying every year from antibiotic-resistant superbugs. And it’s not all from animal agriculture—it’s also that we overprescribe antibiotics in human medicine as well. But the connections are very strong between the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.

So routine—we don’t oppose the use of antibiotics when animals are truly sick. What we oppose—and a lot of the grass-fed systems do not need to administer antibiotics, you know. In organic they’re prohibited, actually. So if you’re buying organic you’re not going to get meat that’s been raised with routine antibiotics at all. So it’s really about the need to keep the animals “healthy,” if you can call it that, because they’re not all that healthy in the horrible conditions in which they’re raised.


TM: It’s so clear that, you know, when you follow the natural habits of livestock, they’re way healthier—i.e., livestock was meant to be out eating grass and grazing. A lot of people say, how can you do this without antibiotics? And you have to have a healthy animal.

What really I’d love for you to speak to as well is you said “for forty years.” You have obviously been a very strong activist and a pioneer in this. And I know that now you worked with it with Environmental Working Group; now you’re working with these animal issues with Friends of the Earth. But I’m seeing now a real focus that actually seems to be working, on, instead of trying to charge the Hill with the different government agencies to change policy, that you’re using the marketplace. And maybe you could speak to that a little bit. You’re also doing policy, I assume, change as well.

KH: Yeah, so the two are definitely related. And I think we’re going to be doing a lot more policy work as the next Farm Bill comes up, which is this big, big, big legislation that affects all of the food and farming policy in this country.

But because we do have a democracy problem in this country—everybody is aware that companies have just undue influence over our government. So whether it’s the issue of unregulated GMOs or pesticides or the overuse of antibiotics, or most recently we were working on the dietary guidelines to get a strong message around the need to eat less meat, we are blocked every step of the way because of the capture of our government by agrichemical, big pharma interests, et cetera.

And so we feel like in order to move forward and to shift production practices on the ground and give consumers, eaters, healthy sustainable humane food, we really need to focus on the market where people are getting their food. And the fact of the matter is that nearly half of all the food budgets are spent outside of the home. So we thought, we think campaigning to shift the practices of restaurants and institutions is really key to shifting what people eat and how food is produced.

And in that process of campaigning, we’re also building a lot of awareness. People now really do understand, I think many people do understand the issue of antibiotics. And we’re also building the power that we’re going to need to make the change in the political system and put more pressure on the political system for the resources and the investment that we need to create the kind of food that consumers are demanding. So we have these market campaigns that are focused on increasing access while getting companies to make commitments and source differently, and it’s not just antibiotics. Like I said, we have some other market campaigns.

We last year launched, with a coalition that we call the Good Food Now Campaign, targeting Olive Garden, which is a restaurant chain owned by Darden, which is the largest restaurant company in the nation, with over 1,500 restaurants. And our focus there is really on, we’re working with animal welfare, public health, faith-based groups, worker justice groups, to ask the company to provide living wages and to make its menu offerings, especially its meat and dairy, healthier, more sustainable, humane, and fair. So we’re focused on kind of a broader set of issues. At Olive Garden right now, Darden is also under a lot of pressure on antibiotics, so we’re doing, we’re producing pressure on them on that front as well, and there’s a shareholder resolution that’s going to be voted on at the end of September.

But we do see that, by putting pressure in the market and getting the producers to feel the pressure from the marketplace, even on getting more support for organic and more support for pasture-based systems, that then when we go to the policymakers next year around the need to do more investment and more support for organic and pasture-based systems, that they’re going to be hearing it from the producers as well. They’re going to be hearing it from the restaurant industry. They’re going to be hearing it from the supermarkets. I think the more we can build demand, the more the policymakers are going to feel that pressure. And we’re already seeing that on the issue of antibiotics, where a lot more resources are going into research about how to improve the conditions and create alternatives for animal health.

TM: You know, I’m so struck with how powerful your market focus is and can be, and it’s exciting. But you know, why now? After forty years of trying to do this, why do you think that the public and the marketplaces are ready now to put this pressure on these different food corporations?

KH: You know, I think that part of the reason is because of the science-based evidence of the severity of this issue. This is a global crisis, particularly on antibiotics. It’s a global crisis. There’s absolute consensus in the medical community, the Centers for Disease Control—I mean, our own government. I mean, the government is saying that this is a crisis. And unfortunately, other parts of the government that are more controlled by the pharmaceutical industry and the Big Ag meat industry, they’re not listening.

But I think it’s because the public has been educated enough, we’ve seen a lot of really serious, we’ve seen a lot of impact on the ground. And I think that’s the case with a lot of the issues that we work on in our food system: eventually the roosters come home to roost. Eventually, eventually the impacts are so great and they’re so right before you that you have to do something about it.

And I also think that the companies themselves, we really have been able to get consumers mobilized and caring about these issues. And at the end of the day, what makes the marketplace so powerful… And it’s not a replacement for democracy—we absolutely need to vote with our vote, and we need to always encourage people to get involved in the political process, because ultimately that’s the only thing that’s going to really, fundamentally change the system we’re in. But people have so much agency in the market. They get to decide what they buy. They get to decide where to put their money. And they are deciding, in leaps and bounds, that they don’t want meat raised with drugs. They’re very concerned about all the chemicals in the food, they’re concerned about the hormones, the antibiotics, all the things that you get when you’re just buying conventional, industrially produced food.


TM: If you’re just joining us, listeners, you are listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am speaking with Kari Hammerschlag, who is the deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth.

Well, you know, you’re just making me think of about a hundred questions. But just to back up for just a second, back to McDonald’s: I’m really happy about the chicken there, but, you know, they probably use much, much more beef. What do you think—what’s our chance of getting them to get routine antibiotics out of their Big Macs?

KH: Yeah, that’s a big, big challenge. And we have been talking with them about that for a while. And there is something called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. And I put “sustainable” in quotation marks, because there’s nothing sustainable about the systems that these companies are promoting, made up of primarily the largest pharmaceutical and meat industry companies, and some environmental groups—like World Wildlife Fund US is involved with it as well, giving it some cover and allowing it to be completely greenwashed, but… And McDonald’s is very involved with this roundtable. And that roundtable came out with some standards, which included the use of routine antibiotics and growth promoters as part of the standards or the principles. The principles did not say anything, did not require that producers stop using these drugs, and there’s just nothing sustainable about the use of either of these drugs.

TM: So what is sustainable about the initiative?

KH: I think they are working with their suppliers to identify what some of the big issues are in their supply chain, and they talk about trying to improve practices, which is good. It’s a good thing that they’re engaged in dialogue with the producers, and I really applaud McDonald’s for engaging with its suppliers, much more so than many other companies. And I think that they are serious about wanting to reduce the impacts of their beef supply. But at the same time, they don’t have specific benchmarks that are concrete enough to be able to show real progress on these issues, and they don’t require specific reductions in the use of pesticides, or specific reductions in the use of fertilizer, or anything very specific, honestly, which I think is really greenwashing.

And I’ll just say one other thing about that, which is that I just don’t think you can talk about sustainability of beef without talking about the need to dramatically reduce the consumption of beef. And so at the same time as they are touting a sustainable beef initiative, they went ahead last year and increased the size of one of their beef patties to a third of a pound per person, which is absolutely not sustainable. And all the evidence shows that if we, as a globe, as globally, and in the United States, if we continue to consume meat, especially beef and pork, the red meats that are more resource intensive, that we will essentially, we will never be able to hold the emission threshold of two degrees Centigrade increase that was agreed upon in Paris with current consumption levels. We’re going to hit that two degrees Centigrade without any other sector involved. Our meat consumption, globally and in the U.S., is just rising very quickly.

And McDonald’s is a part of the problem when it comes to that. They need to be reducing the size of their patties. They need to be looking at other alternatives on their menus—plan forward too. That’s a really key part of the sustainability equation, you know—we need less meat and we need better meat. That’s our next battle with McDonald’s, I think, is on the sustainable beef. And we just can’t let them get away with using the word “sustainable.” It’s just not sustainable.


TM: I was just thinking that, and I thought to myself, what, as consumers and as activists, can we do to hold them accountable to using that word “sustainable” in a better way? And I’m not even sure how to even attack that problem of “greenwashing,” especially when you get groups like World Wildlife Fund, who also supports GMO soybeans around the world—it looks like, gee, World Wildlife Fund is supporting it, it must be good. How can we know when we’re being greenwashed and when we’re not? And how do we, as a public, hold some of these large global businesses accountable?

KH: Yeah, I mean, I think everyone needs to have increased scrutiny over these claims when companies come out and make these claims. And we’re seeing a lot from Subway. I don’t know if you watched the Olympics—they came out with some ads that were really touting how they’re moving on this path of sustainability. And I’m sure they have maybe some good intentions, and we want to support them to do better. And it’s certainly a step forward that they’re thinking about these issues.

But I think, in terms of consumers and eaters, I do think communicating with the companies, writing letters, sending emails—you know, you can go onto their website—and let them know what you think, and that you think if they’re going to talk about sustainable beef, well, that that should be beef that is raised on the pasture, it should be raised on well-managed pasture; it should be raised, these animals should not be given drugs. Like, that’s not what you’re thinking when you think “sustainable.” Do you want hormones in that hamburger? I mean, I don’t think so! I don’t know any sustainability certification out there which would permit that. So I think we just, the consumers have to be communicating with the companies.

And I think that’s what makes our market approach so much more powerful, because companies really do listen to their consumers. And the more people write to them, the more they tweet and they post on Facebook and share information with their friends and family, we will change this. And they are very sensitive to what the consumers think.

And they’re also very sensitive to what the press thinks. And so we need to get this information out to the media and make sure that they’re covering it, and we need reporters that are going to be really looking deeply and closely at what the companies are saying they’re doing. And unfortunately, we have fewer and fewer investigative journalists working these days, so that’s harder. But we do try to work with journalists to help them understand fact from fiction.


TM: Kari, I’d really love for you to say what that website is, if you can give that, for Friends of the Earth. Because if you’re listening out there and you really want to keep track of how we’re doing as far as using the marketplace to change food, it sounds to me like Friends of the Earth is a great place to start.

KH:, really easy to find. “Good Food, Healthy Planet” [on the FOE website] is another good place to go. You can find lots of great resources and reports there. We also just did another report recently called “Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World,” which is also another attempt at really pushing back on all the myths that the agrochemical industrial food sector puts out there about the need for industrial farming and monoculture and factory farms to feed the world, and why we believe that it’s really the organic and agroecological approaches to farming that are what’s needed to protect the resources—the soil, the water—that we need to feed future generations and to feed ourselves right now without damaging the planet and without killing the bees.

TM: And I loved the way you said is we need a whole army of people, because I actually call what’s happening here in the Midwest as a war on our food and on our land and on our bodies. And so thank you so much for the way that you’ve framed how we all, as consumers and as activists, can be involved and stay involved. And it’s going to take my lifetime and another person’s lifetime who is just being born now to solve some of these problems. But I’m very, very confident we have the solutions. You know, they’re just all over. And certainly one big solution that I hope everyone is real aware of is we need to eat less meat.

KH: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. Thank you for saying that, because really, the simplest thing people can do is eat less meat. Really, that is really the simplest way someone can have a huge impact, both on their own health and on the health of the planet, and the health of animals, is just to eat less. You don’t have to give it up—just eat significantly less. And that’s actually the only way we’re going to avert the worst catastrophic impacts of climate change and water quality and so many other things. It’s the death of the bees—it’s all connected, and it comes back to, really, our industrial factory farming system. So thank you for saying that.

TM: And by the way, I would also add, when you start cutting down your meat, it actually is fun because you start exploring other food. And diversity in food is like diversity in everything—it’s a good thing.

Kari, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today, but I’m mostly so thankful to you, to Friends of the Earth, for taking on these absolutely critical food change issues. You’re taking on the biggest food change issues we can possibly grapple with. Thank you so much, Kari.

KH: All right, thank you so much. Great to be with you.