Under Pressure, Whole Foods Agrees to Stop Selling Produce Grown in Sewage Sludge

Sewage Sludge "Yuck" KidThe Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) broke the story that the $12.9 billion-a-year natural and organic foods retailer Whole Foods Market had a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to "conventional" -- or non-organic -- produce being grown in fields spread with sewage sludge, euphemistically called "biosolids." Certified organic produce cannot be fertilized with sewage sludge, which is the industrial and hospital waste and human excrement flushed down the drains and later -- in some cases -- spread on some crops.

Since this story broke, nearly 8,000 activists and PRWatch readers have sent emails to Whole Foods executives asking the company to require its suppliers to disclose this information and to label produce grown in sewage sludge so that customers can make informed decisions.

Mario Ciasulli, a semi-retired engineer and home cook living in North Carolina whom CMD profiled in December 2012, blew the whistle on Whole Foods' don't-ask, don't-tell policy. As soon as he found out that shopping at Whole Foods was no protection against this potential contamination unless he could afford to buy only certified organic produce, he worked extensively to engage Whole Foods on this issue. He has insisted that management address his concerns about potential contamination of non-organic produce, price barriers to organic produce for those who are concerned, and the difficulty of finding out what non-organic produce may have been grown in soil fertilized with sewage sludge without labeling and accountability.

Mario CiasulliIn late 2013, Whole Foods announced a new set of standards for the fresh produce and flowers it sells. Sewage sludge was not mentioned in the announcement, but Ciasulli received word from the company that "[p]rohibiting the use of biosolids will be part of our core requirements. All of our suppliers will be compliant with the core requirements by the time we roll out the program." A follow-up email to Ciasulli indicated, "This initial release was meant to be high-level. There are far too many nuances to include on a press release."

This month, Whole Foods Market spokesperson Kate Lowery confirmed to CMD that the new standards will eventually prohibit the use of "biosolids."

Sewage sludge is created by all of the human waste flushed down the toilet and sinks -- which includes all the pharmaceutical residues from all the prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs taken by the men, women, and children in the city using the sewage system -- and all the material corporations flush down the drain, which can include industrial materials like solvents and other chemicals, plus medical waste. The water is removed from the sludge, and it is heated to kill certain bacteria, but the heating of the sewage sludge does not remove dissolved metals like silver, flame retardants (which California recently listed as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent), and other chemicals that remain in the sewage sludge sprayed on the fields where some "conventional" food crops are grown.

In addition to flame retardants and metals, sewage sludge has been shown to contain toxic substances and other contaminants such as endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical residues, phthalates, industrial solvents, resistant pathogens, and perfluorinated compounds. Some of these contaminants can "bioaccumulate" in plants grown in sludge-contaminated soil and remain as residue on vegetables in contact with the soil.

These plants are then eaten by children and adults.

Whole Foods Market's press release states, the chain "will present customers with a three-tier rating system and begin displaying ratings of 'good,' 'better' and 'best' throughout produce and floral departments. With the help of sustainable agriculture experts and with considerable input from suppliers, Whole Foods Market developed a science-based index to measure performance on important sustainable farming topics, including:

  • Pest management, including prohibited and restricted pesticides
  • Farmworker welfare
  • Pollinator protection
  • Water conservation and protection
  • Soil health
  • Ecosystems
  • Biodiversity
  • Waste, recycling and packaging
  • Energy
  • Climate"

Whole Food's prohibition against produce grown in fields spread with sewage sludge is a major victory for consumers, CMD readers who contacted Whole Foods, and particularly the tenacious Ciasulli, who illustrates the positive change that one determined person can make.

"I am encouraged that Whole Foods has made the commitment to ban biosolids in their produce in 2014, and that the company will require supporting documentation from their suppliers," Ciasulli told CMD. "We expect Whole Foods to follow through in a real and meaningful way."

You can thank Whole Foods for listening to Mario and other concerned customers, ask Whole Foods to make this announcement public, and tell the company that you'll be watching to see that these changes are made HERE.


To learn more about toxic sewage sludge, aka 'biosolids', including compost made from toxic sewage sludge being used to grow food by unsuspecting consumers, visit http://sewagesludgeactionnetwork.com

This report reminds me of the book titled "Toxic Sludge is good for you" published a decade ago. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=toxic%20sludge%20is%20good%20for%20you&sprefix=toxic+sludge+%2Caps%2C421

<p>That was the first book CMD published, in 1995:&nbsp;<a href="http://www.prwatch.org/books" target="_blank">http://www.prwatch.org/books</a> .</p>

here is my response in general: I would go to my local WF outlet and simply mention that I and my friends will go to their local competitors as I no longer trust them. I went through an equivalent of this sludge business with them on recycled water a year or so ago. And now this? I work with the produce manager at the Fresh Market (thefreshmarket.com) and they buy local certified organic and nearby California or local produce so we have some idea of where it is raised. I know that sludge is not allowed in Santa Barbara County, very little in San Louis Obispo County, but I am not sure about Salinas Valley but they do use recycled sewage water in Salinas. They, Fresh Market, are competitive with Whole Foods (WF). WF is now a store that has completely lost credibility with me. Are they so clueless that they could not connect the dots on what's in sludge that would transfer to farm products? If not, do I want them choosing what I might buy to feed my family? The studies are abundant and go back for years, thus nothing new here. Contaminants of emerging concern are, like sewage sludge, found in recycled water. The the pass-through of pathogens and antibiotic resistant pathogens and their genes is noted in sewage sludge and reported in the scientific literature. These are also in recycled water. The fact is that we are running out of antibiotics while at the same time the pathogens are becoming superbugs. This also needs a better discussion. Buying your food, if you want to protect your family is no longer a slam-dunk, especially if you can see through the PR rhetoric. Front Microbiol. 2013 May 28;4:130. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2013.00130. eCollection 2013. Reclaimed water as a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes: distribution system and irrigation implications. Fahrenfeld N, Ma Y, O'Brien M, Pruden A. Author information Abstract Treated wastewater is increasingly being reused to achieve sustainable water management in arid regions. The objective of this study was to quantify the distribution of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in recycled water, particularly after it has passed through the distribution system, and to consider point-of-use implications for soil irrigation. Three separate reclaimed wastewater distribution systems in the western U.S. were examined. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) was used to quantify ARGs corresponding to resistance to sulfonamides (sul1, sul2), macrolides (ermF), tetracycline [tet(A), tet(O)], glycopeptides (vanA), and methicillin (mecA), in addition to genes present in waterborne pathogens Legionella pneumophila (Lmip), Escherichia coli (gadAB), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (ecfx, gyrB). In a parallel lab study, the effect of irrigating an agricultural soil with secondary, chlorinated, or dechlorinated wastewater effluent was examined in batch microcosms. A broader range of ARGs were detected after the reclaimed water passed through the distribution systems, highlighting the importance of considering bacterial re-growth and the overall water quality at the point of use (POU). Screening for pathogens with qPCR indicated presence of Lmip and gadAB genes, but not ecfx or gyrB. In the lab study, chlorination was observed to reduce 16S rRNA and sul2 gene copies in the wastewater effluent, while dechlorination had no apparent effect. ARGs levels did not change with time in soil slurries incubated after a single irrigation event with any of the effluents. However, when irrigated repeatedly with secondary wastewater effluent (not chlorinated or dechlorinated), elevated levels of sul1 and sul2 were observed. This study suggests that reclaimed water may be an important reservoir of ARGs, especially at the POU, and that attention should be directed toward the fate of ARGs in irrigation water and the implications for human health. ******************************************************************************************* Environ Toxicol Chem. 2006 Feb;25(2):317-26. Presence and distribution of wastewater-derived pharmaceuticals in soil irrigated with reclaimed water. Kinney CA, Furlong ET, Werner SL, Cahill JD. Author information Abstract Three sites in the Front Range of Colorado, USA, were monitored from May through September 2003 to assess the presence and distribution of pharmaceuticals in soil irrigated with reclaimed water derived from urban wastewater. Soil cores were collected monthly, and 19 pharmaceuticals, all of which were detected during the present study, were measured in 5-cm increments of the 30-cm cores. Samples of reclaimed water were analyzed three times during the study to assess the input of pharmaceuticals. Samples collected before the onset of irrigation in 2003 contained numerous pharmaceuticals, likely resulting from the previous year's irrigation. Several of the selected pharmaceuticals increased in total soil concentration at one or more of the sites. The four most commonly detected pharmaceuticals were erythromycin, carbamazepine, fluoxetine, and diphenhydramine. Typical concentrations of the individual pharmaceuticals observed were low (0.02-15 microg/kg dry soil). The existence of subsurface maximum concentrations and detectable concentrations at the lowest sampled soil depth might indicate interactions of soil components with pharmaceuticals during leaching through the vadose zone. Nevertheless, the present study demonstrates that reclaimed-water irrigation results in soil pharmaceutical concentrations that vary through the irrigation season and that some compounds persist for months after irrigation. PMID: 16519291 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE] ****************************************************************************************** Letters to the Editor * The APUA Newsletter Vol. 30. No. 3 • © 2012 APUA To the Editor: There are several parts necessary to an approach for controlling the accelerating loss of antimicrobial drugs, drugs which are not being replaced by the pharmaceutical industry. Briefly, however, there are at least two main branches to this approach or effort and coordination of these necessary branches, then, will be critical to accomplishment of this goal. One branch is that of conserving the existing stocks of these tools through prudent usage, the other is to understand and then diminish the reasons for their destruction, including the acceleration in the resistance and virulence of the pathogens themselves. This acceleration is, in part, related to facilitating the transfer of genetic material. One of the principal sources of not only passing on but actually generating new genetic combinations of drug resistant organisms is seen in the processing of wastewater (sewage). Through-put of resistance via sewage treatment sees the waterways and drinking water of this nation becoming reservoirs of resistant organisms. Thus while medicine may be reducing the unnecessary use of these drugs in an effort to stem their loss in efficacy, sewer plants are spewing these organisms into the environment, and doing so at hyper-industrial volumes. Dr. Amy Pruden's work has brought focus upon the environmental routes for generating and transferring genetic material (antibiotic resistance genes) as contaminants of emerging concern. Her work includes potential mitigation strategies to limit the spread of antibiotic resistance genes via environmental pathways and to treat water to remove genetic material. Her basic research mission is to build fundamental understanding of complex microbial communities in environmental systems in order to improve engineered approaches for meeting public health and water sustainability goals. Without this understanding, medicine will be fighting an uphill battle and at some point, many of the elective surgeries will become too risky due to the potential for unstoppable infections. It need not reach this stage but grasping both aspects of the approach to the loss of antimicrobial drugs warrants serious understanding. Sincerely, Edo McGowan, Ph.D

I have noticed until very recently that CalOrganic kale, supposedly an organic produce, sold in WHole Foods had a distinct and strong sewage smell. I wonder?

I'm not particularly inclined to thank Whole Foods for doing what they're supposed to do After not doing what they're supposed to do If they do indeed do it. And it would seem justice would be better served if there were some punishment for their previous duplicity. But there I go trying to be all morally rational again ...

Bear in mind that it's not all that long ago that fertilizing with sewage sludge was seen as the environmentally friendly approach, and was even allowed in organic foods. Things have actually come a long way since I was told that by my friend who worked for a Canadian health food distributor, and visited sites to determine whether or not to carry certain product lines. And it's only recently that research has shown that much more was absorbed by plants than was thought to be the case decades ago, when it was generally accepted that plant roots filtered out all the bad stuff ...

Much of the concentrated sewage sludges which are referred to as biosolids are run through the process of composting. Composting only reduces biolgical organisms and does not reduce heavy metal contaminants or many other contaminants of concern. The World Health Organization has maximum contaminant levels for food safety. The US does not have these minimalistic protective measures.

Whole Foods is anything but on many fronts. Please sign my petition http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/stop-whole-foods-from/