"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, I am curious as to what the process of "scrutiny" and "delineat[ion]" is, and the "strict measures...taken" that will ensure that the consumer consumes no more than "trace amounts of such elements," which you say could only be toxic in "large quantities." My understanding is that some of these toxins are cumulative. So the concept of "trace" evolves into "concentration" at some point in time. My understanding of the word delineate means to sketch, draw, outline or depict. I'm not aware of that word meaning "remove." Merely identifying is not "removing." So, let's focus on removal, and what is known about it. There is a significant percentage of the public taking estrogenic compounds and other fertility and hormonal substances that are endocrine disrupting (EDC's), and are the most difficult to remove. There are in addition, large quanties of pain killers, anti-bacterial soap, etc. Those who study this (I worked with a water utility that did this research and explored treatment options for drinking water) know that there are as yet no agreed upon testing strategies and decision-making criteria for environmental monitoring and for sludge and water treatment. Most treatment plants do not yet have the more advanced methods, such as ozonation and activated carbon treatment, high enough temperature and nitification needed to remove the EDC's. Your reply to this blog strikes me as more of the "double speak" and vagary described as being used on him when he complained to Whole Foods. It is inaccurate to imply--as you have-- that these chemicals, now ubiquitious in the environment, can be removed to the degree that they are at a "trace" / unharmful level, and it is inaccurate to imply that there is scientific agreement even on what "trace" means in the context of the wide range of humans and animals, from pregnant mothers to infants to elderly with serious medical conditions.

I imagine the previous post refers only to fertilizers commercially manufactured from sewage sludge and tested for metal residues. It's good to have standards for traces of heavy metals but I doubt that any of these standards can take into account the long term accumulation of these metals in the soil. Many are chemically reactive and bind to the soil so they don't "go away". Continuous additions of biosolids will just keep increasing their soil concentration. But heavy metals are not the only dangerous components of biosolids coming from sewage. There are thousands of man-made organic compounds for which screening would be impossible. Research studies have found residues and metabolic products of pharmaceutical compounds that have passed through people using medications, including some radioactive tracers. We know some of these organic residues pose a health risk. I live in a rural area where pumping out homeowners' septic tanks is a thriving business. When mine was pumped recently I saw the operator add a bag of lime to the sewage being pumped into his tank truck. When I asked him why he did that he said "That will turn it into fertilizer." I said "I thought you would pump this into the sewage plant in town." He said "Oh no. This will all get used as fertilizer." I would guess that this practice is widely spread across the country and represents a significant source of sewage-derived fertilizer to which no processing and no standards apply. And since it is not strictly a biosolid it probably doesn't get reported even in those states that regulate biosolids.

You don't think there is even a problem on the issues of sewer sludge biosolids used as crop fertilizer? Do you really have faith in the govt. to monitor the level of toxic substances in our food? This is the same govt that rules GMO genetically engineered organisms are safe to use on crops and livestock - despite ZERO scientific peer review journal articles proving GMO is safe. The USDA lacks funding to properly inspect meat proceessed in slaughterhouses - so on a routine basis ground hamburger meat has so much e-coli that routinely ammonia is added to hamburger meat and supermarket brand beef. There are plenty of toxic substances in America's food supply the FDA and USDA certifies as safe for humans to eat - Hexane is routinely used to process oil out of soybeans and seeds - hexane is banned in food products in over 50 nations internationally. Hexane is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic - this is a well established fact, yet our govt allows it to be used in food. There is current research in a preservative used in Top Ramen noodles - I think the initials are HQBT - because this preservatives blocks the Top Ramen noodles from being digested in the intestinal tract - a You Tube clip posted by a scientist who is currently researching the side affects of HQBT has a tiny camera inside a clear covering swallowed by research subject - this tiny camera goes thru the entire digestive tract and photographs a video of what happens when Top Ramen noodles are in the intestines - the research scientist simultaneously did studies with research subjects eating home made ramen noodles - the homemade ramen noodles were digested within a few hours - the Top Ramen supermarket brand noodles with BQHT perservative would not digest, nor break down in an manner after 8 hours in the digestive tract - but were excreted undigested - this is due to a LEGAL preservative our govt allows to be used in food. Approximately 8 years ago the FDA and Congress/Senate passed a law which requires 100% of almonds to be processed in Propylene Oxide. PPO is banned in dozens of countries because it is an endrocrine disruptor, neurotoxin and causes cancer. All raw almonds in the USA must either be heat treated with pasturization (for organic raw almonds) and 100% of all conventionally grown, non organic almonds in America MUST be treated with Proplyene Oxide PPO. The ONLY way for consumers to get non-Propylene Oxide treated almonds is to buy them direct at a Farmers Market from an organic grower. Despite the fact that America's almond supply is drenched in PPO neurotixin biocide - IT IS NOT LABELLED with any consumer info. Safeway, Trader Joe's and many other supermarkets label their almonds are "raw" but they are not raw - they are heat treated and also drenched in Propylene Oxide - after checking dozens of supermarkets - I only saw one brand of almonds which was labelled witht the acronym "PPO" as an ingredient. The average American has NO IDEA what PPO is. I suppose you think toxic nuclear waste goes through a "sophisticaed and arduous process" before the govt allows it to be buried in HAZMAT toxic waste dumps? Nuclear fall-out from Fukushima nuclear power plant has drifted through the air and ocean from Japan to America through wind and wave current - yet our govt insists "there is no problem". Remember how our govt kept denying for many years there was any hazard for New Yorkers and folks in New Jersey who were breathing toxic air after September 11th? A good friend of mine worked in the World Trade Center as an EPA scientist - she was actually 15 minutes late for work on the morning of September 11th - so fortunately she was not in her office when the planes hit the towers. My friend was down in the subway when the planes hit the towers and as soon as she got off the train and was walking up the stairs to street level, she was enveloped in a thick toxic cloud of biocodes and toxic crappy air which was airborne debris from World Trade Center after the planes hit the buliding. She has clinically diagnosed lung disease and will die within two years. She breathed in toxic biocides on Septey mber 11th, 2001 - now it is January, 2014 and she has NEVER received any help from the USA governement despite the fact she was a federal worker employed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Senior Staff Scientist! The federal government denied her application for Social Security disability benefits - she had to cash in her retirement plan for money to live on - now she lives with relatives in Florida - because the govt dumped her and refused to help her with any benefits from September 11th......and THIS is the same government you alleged "sophisticated and arduous process" to protect Americans from biocides and toxic carcinogens? landfill? If you trust our govt to secure safe food - then you are extremely naieve and ingenuous! Bottom Line - The problem I have with Whole Foods (and Trader Joe's) is their lack of accountability and refusal to give full disclosure to their customers. This is why I never shop at Whole Foods - supermarkets or Trader Joe's. I buy 75% of my groceries at local Farmers Markets and I know my grower. I also educated myself about farming/agricultural practices so I can ask informed questions to ranchers and growers how they raise their crops and livestock.

If there is no harm in consuming these "foods" then why do you "try to eat organic at all costs?" Are they using bio solids on organic foods?

With Ebola being tested for in a Sacramento patient tonight (within a couple of weeks of Ebola being imported to the CDC in Atlanta), and news indicating that the Atlanta Ebola patient fecal wastes are going into the Atlanta sewage system (it being therefore assumed the federal government will authorize same in CA), and there being no known way to treat sewage to rid it of Ebola virus, how can we see sludge-grown crops as anything but potentially deadly?

Fortunately change is coming. Unfortunately, when people like u defend the use of sewer sludge, ignorant people sidesaddle along and that slows matters down a bit.

Just so that its known, the earth is covered by a thin layer of animal waste. Its that thin layer of waste that makes it possible to grow plants, which in turn feed us animals so that we can - once again - feed the plants. Maybe its just me, but it seems to be a beautiful thing. Plants use solar energy and our waste products to produce food for us. We use that concentrated solar energy to move our bodies and return plant food to the cycle. Whether you realize it or not, the earth is a closed system. All the raw materials we will ever use are already here, and most of them have been used before by our ancestors or other life forms. That water you are enjoying out of that plastic bottle was at one time or another the urine of someone or some thing. Failure to see this does not make it false. Using sterilized human waste to grow food for humans keeps that waste out of the rivers and streams and causes it to shorten the cycle that MUST happen to keep us all alive.

If you will do your homework, you will find that the pharmaceuticals, chemicals and other toxins are of man made origins and not part of the network you described. You need to do some homework before you pollute with bad information.

Shouldn't $h!† where we eat. Sewage sludge contains heavy metals and other waste products that are absorbed into crop foods through a process called phytoremediation (google it). Even "trace amounts" (if you want to call them that) of these toxins don't belong in our soils. They need to be processed and disposed of properly, not fed to the cycle to cause disease to sell more medicine. I'd love to find out how these entities are tied to big medicine.