"Don't Ask, Don't Tell": Concerned Citizen Uncovers Whole Foods' Policy on Selling Food Grown in Sewage Sludge

Don't fancy the thought of your spinach and carrots being grown in sewage sludge?

Neither does Mario Ciasulli, a semi-retired electrical engineer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Mario likes to cook, and enjoys good food. When he found out last year about the practice of spreading dried and heated human and industrial waste as "fertilizer" on food crops, he was upset.

Certified organic food cannot be grown in sewage sludge -- or "biosolids," the Orwellian PR euphemism used by the sewage sludge industry.

But sometimes the vegetable Mario needs for a dish isn't certified organic, or he can't afford the higher price of the organically grown version. Until he found out about sludge, he thought that as long as a "conventionally" grown fruit or vegetable he used wasn't one of the "dirty dozen" for pesticide residues, he had nothing to worry about.

Sewage sludge is created by all of the human waste flushed down the toilet and sinks -- which includes all the pharmaceutical residues the men, women, and children in the city using the sewage system use -- and all the material corporations flush down the drain, which can include industrial materials, solvents, medical waste, and other chemicals. 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 metals, flame retardants (which California recently listed as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent), and other chemicals that remain in the sewage sludge when food crops are grown in it.

Toxic Sludge Yuck KidIn 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.

Because he thought that other food shoppers would be as nervous about eating food grown in sewage sludge as he was, Mario believed that information about which "conventional" produce is grown in sewage sludge should be publicly available. So he decided to ask around at local grocery stores, to see what their policy was on purchasing from producers who grow crops in sewage sludge, and notifying their shoppers of the risks.

Mario asked first at Whole Foods Market, because he believed its public statements about transparency and educating its shoppers.

Mario went back and forth for months with the "team members" and "team leader" at his local store in Chapel Hill. He even had an email conversation with the vice president of his southern region of Whole Foods stores.

Everyone told him that Whole Foods neither asks farmers whether or not they grow food in sewage sludge, nor will they tell consumers about the possible risks from sewage sludge when they buy "conventional" produce instead of certified organic fare.

Whole Foods: The More You Know, the BetterWhen Mario asked the regional vice president, "Why does WF allow non-organic produce on shelves without checking the conditions they're grown in?" he called the answer he got "corporate doublespeak" and summed it up as: "Whole Foods don't ask, [and] they [the farmers] don't tell."

Mario has suggested that Whole Foods Market ask farmers who supply non-organic produce a simple question: "Do you spread 'biosolids' on any land where you grow crops sold to Whole Foods?"

Then, armed with this information, Mario has asked Whole Foods to label produce grown in sewage sludge. As signs in Whole Foods' meat departments say, "The more you know, the better."

Tell Whole Foods to end its "don't ask, don't tell" policy about food potentially grown in sewage sludge. Click here to ask Whole Foods Market DO ask and DO tell customers about sewage sludge. Watch CMD's Food Rights Network's interview with Mario on YouTube here and share it with your friends.


As someone who is currently creating a job analysis and selection procedures for soil scientists, I have been given great insight into biosolids, soil chemistry, microbiology, agronomy etc. to complete these tasks. The information I have gathered from the usage of biosolids on plants is not something that should be met with such backlash. Yes, there are trace elements in these pelletized biolsolids, but strict measures are taken to ensure that "if" the state even allows the use of biosolids on plants for direct human consumption, of which Illinois and various others ARE NOT allowed by regulations, these trace elements are kept under close scrutiny so as to not be able to have significant impacts on human health. The standards that this "sludge" goes through is a very sophisticated and arduous process that is able to delineate all but the trace amounts of such elements, of which some "could" be toxic in large quantities. As someone who tries to eat organic at all costs, I don't see this as being the huge problem you are making it out to be. As long as the regulations are in place to ensure these very trace elements, of which are already found in some types of soil depending on your location, then the usage of pelletized biosolids on should not pose any direct risk to one's health.

Thanks for you interesting comment, however seems that you may have a conflict of interest given your position. Fine for you not to be concerned about 'trace' amounts. Accidents happen, and food is an exceptional product. As pointed out in the post above, Whole Foods needs to 'walk the talk' of their slogans. People shop at Whole Foods because they trust the company to go the extra mile and verify what their suppliers are doing. Customers deserve to know that human waste is being spread on their food.

"to not be able to have significant impacts" OK...what's a significant impact? Does that mean I could be affected in ways that won't impair my body function to a large degree, but would indeed have a less than beneficial affect, especially long term? And "delineate all but the trace amounts of such elements, of which some "could" be toxic in large quantities." Boy! Is that a dodgy answer or what?? What if the person eating these foods is in less than excellent health? What if these foods are being fed to infants and young children?? What if the person is a vegetarian? I am not impressed with this answer! When you start putting quotes around a word it's an effort to diminish the impact of that word. And in science that is not acceptable!

I'm trying to restrain myself, it's difficult. Initially, your vested interests are waving a very large RED flag. Secondly, I think you might be full of that very topic you claim to have recently studied. It is thoroughly accepted in the scientific community that the stuff that is flushed IS NOT and cannot be "treated" with our current water treatment facilities. They weren't even designed to remove or handle the everyday "contaminants" entering the sewer systems. In large part, the chemicals were not even in existence when these treatment facilities were built. The pharmaceuticals people poop are left to "act on" anyone or anything that comes in contact with their residues, not to mention, paints, solvents, landscape fertilizers, "round-up" type herbicides. The half-life of these ingredients is a Pandora's box and if you want to see just how healthy it really is ask that the bio-solid's CEOs subject their grandchildren to eating from vegetables raised in it exclusively. Do as I say, NOT as I do! I appreciate the hard work this responsible citizen put out to bring us some incredibly valuable information. I believe he has probably saved lives of those who may have health challenges and thought they were doing the right thing, spending extra money to eat "healthy" foods from certain stores.

Come on. Human shit to grow our foods. Soylent Green will be next I guess. There are other ways to grow our food. Keep human waste out of it.

Yes, I agree, but my background extends in a slightly different direction. Human waste has been used for thousands of years to fertilize fields. I remember around twenty years ago a college professor friend who went to China to study cultural and political topics. He wrote about "honey buckets." You can assess what these were about from the expression, but these were buckets in which people deposited their urin and feces. The buckets were taken to the fields and dumped. The contents of the buckets were prized, and it was, in the context in which the professor was working, a compliment to deposit in somone's honey bucket. Granted, China has changed, and industry and scale make a difference, but I agree that negatively reacting to use of human manure for fertilizer is probably not merited. If there is a problem, it is not the fertilizer itself so much as the materials that accumulate in our sewer systems, mercury and lead being two of them. But EPA and other people who have knowledge of environmental engineering can deal with such things, and in the end, we might make better use of a fairly constant element of human life. With over seven billion of us, it would be cool if we could figure out some better approaches to closing ecological cycles. Industrial phosphates are fine, but so is natural fertilizer.

<blockquote>As someone who is currently creating a job analysis and selection procedures for soil scientists..."</blockquote> Would it compromise your anonymity too much to tell us specifically what organization, agency or company is employing you to create this job analysis and selection procedure? Where should I submit my resume if I were interested in applying?

You make some interesting points. Unfortunately, since you chose to identify yourself as "Anonymous", there is no way I can accept your statements as valid. You statement "As someone who is currently creating a job analysis and selection procedures for soil scientists . . . " causes me to question exactly how "unbiased" you are. Who is funding your work? There needs to be some transparency before I am convinced you are not employed by the exact people who foist this on an unsuspecting public.

She has sound research advise to me. It sounds about true. People need to get back to the truth and how foods are grown. Go live on a farm for 5 years and you'll find the anonymous information closer to the truth than the hype being stirred by this article.