"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.


Anonymous is misleading readers about sewage sludge and the regulatory agencies that continue to defend the rules governing using sludge as fertilizer: FIRST: sewage sludge is NOT human manure or night soil. It is a complex and unpredictable mixture of human waste and thousands of man-made industrial chemicals which didn't even exist fifty years ago and some of which are highly toxic and persistent. The Federal Clean Water Act defines sludge or biosolids as a pollutant. Every entity that is connected to a sewage treatment plant is permitted, every month, to discharge 33 pounds of hazardous waste into this system. Here these, and other pollutants are REMOVED from the waste water and end up, by necessity, in the resulting sludge. SECOND: treatment does not remove most of these contaminants. In fact, some processes used to treat sludge actually encourage the growth of antibiotic resistant pathogens. THIRD: EPA and USDA, who wrote the current unprotective rules, continue to cover up the many reported problems linked to sludge-exposure; they ignore or silence scientists who document problems. Most of the researchers who get grants to study sludge, are those who promote land application. EPA and USDA worked with University of Georgia faculty to publish a paper that used fudged and fraudulent data, claiming that hundreds of prize-winning dairy cattle could not have died after ingesting forage grown on land treated with sludge. The courts ruled otherwise. Yet the paper was never retracted. FOURTH: A National Academy of Sciences biosolids panel warned that sludge is such a complex and unpredictable mixture of biological and chemical agents that it is impossible to assess its risks when applied on land. The panel also emphasized the need to address the health affects of exposure to interactions of pathogens and chemicals in complex mixtures, such as sludge. FIFTH: : the trace-element- argument is meaningless, since endocrine disrupters --sludge is full of them- can damage developing organisms in very small amounts: in parts per trillion. Finally, Whole Foods' argument that they can't have a sludge policy because land application of sludge is legal contradicts their primary mission: Whole Foods sells all sorts of products and produce that do not contain dangerous chemicals--which are perfectly legal--but may cause serious harm to human health and the environment. Why make an exception for sludge? Why not follow the example of dozens of companies, such as Heinz, DelMonte, Kraft, and Western Growers, that do not accept produce grown on fields treated with sewage sludge? For more information visit www.sludgefacts.org

I spoke of "sewage sludge" in my July 9, 2007 letter to Henry A. Waxman, Charman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.... QUOTE: "Simultaneous production of biopesticide and alkaline proteases by Bacillus thuringiensis using sewage sludge as a raw material." http://www.biotechawareness.com/images/6.9.2007TRENDtoWAXMAN.pdf

The terms I recognize only too well, meant to give us all a much needed sense of security and safety; terms such as "strict measures," "regulations" and "close scrutiny," only serve to further confuse and concern me, now that I have some life experience. It took me far little time and energy than I'd expected, to find a number of reliable sources on the subject of emerging and undetectable pathogens. As it turns out, we are pitifully ill-equipt, our bodies and our minds, and certainly our actual equipment, even having excellent people in the field, to detect, identify, or certainly to eliminate, the number of pathogens that are developing as we read this article even. There is no comprehensive, or accurate test; there is nothing reliable for us to look to or work with or plug in, that can promise the eradication of or even treatment for or even to somewhat predict, the number of emerging infectious threats. Sadly, the one thing that we are figuring out, after generations of collective experience, is that if a food is grown organically by local farmers that we know, or ourselves, we have a healthier option than the one that is grown out of chance and hope for the best. We have learned that processed foods and massive amounts of sugars, syrups and sodium, are harmful. We have figured out, just by looking around us and feeling our own bodies, that there is something wrong with the trust we have so quickly and so willingly put into those whose businesses are for profit. So I suspect that we are going to have to think more like the "buyer beware" libertarian idea, however unappealing this is, and research every place we get our food. And we cannot accept food grown in anything that comes with it promises of "strict measures," "regulations," and "close scrutiny."

OK, so this guy has an issue about sewage sludge and he knows that certified organic is not allowed to be grown using it but he can't always afford to buy certified organic so he expects his retailer to label all produce according to whether or not it was grown with such sludge. That's a pretty big ask, dude. No effort is made to present actual data on to what degree any toxins, pharmaceuticals, or heavy metals are introduced into the soil by using this input. People have a sense or a feeling that it's wrong but provide no data supporting this. Perhaps more significantly, absolutely no data are shown to indicate whether or not these substances may then be taken up by plants grown in that soil. Wild guesses are not evidence. Look, if you don't want to eat food grown with sewage sludge, there is a solution: eat certified organic! Or work to ban sewage sludge as an ag input altogether. But expecting that your intuition is adequate reason for a retailer to label inputs used to grow each and every type of produce, that's living in fantasy land.

Safety of sewage sludge for table crop farming depends entirely on the source of the sludge. If it comes from industrial sources, it is likely to contain unacceptable levels of one or more toxic substances such as heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, or dangerous chemicals. Milorganite (R) a product long on the market as a fertilizer contained significant levels of some toxins until Milwaukee, WI, separated their sludge sources and eliminated industrial wastes. Milorganite (R) is now considered safe for vegetable gardens. The following exerpt by another author explains how that came about. "Posted by the_virginian Zone 7 NoVA (My Page) on Fri, Feb 22, 08 at 18:53 The Milorganite and local tap water were tested not the soil. It was a study and test paid for by the DoD and the EPA at a lab my friend was working at for a bioremediation project. In the many years past, before Milwaukee upgraded and regulated its segregated sewer system from industry plus now does continuous testing and monitoring, some heavy metals were in concentrations that were a concern for plants that would be used for human consuption. The new Milorganite is far below the maximums for heavy metals and not even close to many of the common lawn and general purpose fertilizers/supplements like Ironite for heavy metals. My friend did have a control soil sample and indicated the Milorganite that they tested was only slightly highier in certain heavy metals than the virgin soil used in the study. It was also found that the soil was highier in certain heavy metals than the Milorganite. Go figure! Household cleaners are in such dilute concentrations that they are either evaporated out of the sewage or digested out in the treatment process. City tap water eventually can have the same stuff dumped into it, but nobody makes a fuss about that and will water their garden with not at worry. Based on the research I and others have done on Milorganite, it seems like a very clean product compared to many, including some farm waste products that are sold as organic."

Dear Jane: Did you listen to the the interview? Farmers (even organic farmers) are NOT required by LAW to disclose whether or not they use sewage sluge as a fertilizer. BTW - there are TONS of data and plenty of studies that show what's in sludge and that plants absorb many of the toxic constituents found in sludge in their tissues that are then consumed by an unsuspecting public. Feel free to call me for more info: (336) 525-2003. Best - Sue Dayton

You should read the data. Sewage sludge was banned from being thrown in the ocean because it was killing the fish. Why do you think that was happening? There is a reason why sludge is bad for you. There is growing evidence that there are a lot of toxins in the soil that has had sludge added to it. People who live on land around sludge areas are sicker and higher incidences of illnesses. Please go to the website www.sewagesludgeactionnetwork.com to see why we want to ban sewage sludge being put on farmland. Please look at what small data is available. When some brave scientists try to study sludged farmland, their money is suddenly is pulled or the sludging stops so that the study is not valid.

If you want to eat vegetables grown in sewage sludge, that is "OK" by me, but, people should have a choice. Apparently,now, we can assume all vegetables are grown in sewage sludge, unless labeled certified organic. People should buy accordingly. We need to grow our own vegetables. Many people have gotten sick from what used to be safe vegetables. One would think, that by 2013, we would have developed a good way of disposing of human waste. As far as most meat is concerned, people have to assume the animals have been fed, not only antibiotics and hormones, but, bits of animal parts, as well. I don't know what I'm getting, when I eat out ( not very often), but, I don't buy that stuff. Grass fed is all I buy. I have a fish card from foodandwaterwatch.org, that I go by for fish.

Jane, Read "Organic Chemicals in Sewage Sludge" which refers to the "National Sewage Sludge Survey". Read that too. Tell me if you feel safe after reading the data you paid for. The EPA has spent millions and still do not have all the facts. One thing is common in all the research I have read. "limited pollution" and "Risk" associated with the use of sewage sludge. It would be OK if the farmers were the only ones at risk but that is not the case is it? A blind person can see why this is happening. This is the large city dumping sewage sludge on the surrounding counties. Why, it is produced in such large quantities that it was the cheapest way to get rid of it. They tried dumping it in the ocean killing large areas that will never support life again. They tried putting it in land fills. Heck NY even trained it down to Texas and dumped it openly out on a 1000 acre spread out by El Paso in 1989. THE CITIES ARE DUMPING ON THE SURROUNDING AREAS. The word "biosolid" was made up to fool farmers and citizen into thinking it is OK to dump on farmland. IT IS SEWAGE SLUDGE. THE MOST POLLUTED SUBSTANCE ON THE PLANET NEXT TO RADIATION.