Whole foods bans biosolids – but does it matter for food safety?

Ashley Chaifetz, a PhD student studying public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill writes,

Whole Foods announced recently that they are banning produce grown with biosolids (also  known as its less-friendly moniker, sewage sludge), which sounds pretty awesome. But it’s hard to know if the new rule makes their products safer. Biosolids are a fertilizer that comes from municipal waste. Treated human poop. Like composted animal manure, it’s seen as a way to enrich the soil.  According to the U.S. IMG_4169Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sludge is used on less than 1% of agricultural land and promotes the growth of agricultural crops, gardens and parks.

Sewage is full of whatever it is that people consume or flush and can sometimes include pharmaceuticals and heavy metals. But the abundant fertilizer mix is treated, through what EPA says are physical, chemical and biological processes to remove contaminants and solids. The sewage is then treated with lime to lessen the smell and it is all sanitized to control pathogens.

The EPA has 2 tiers of standards regarding sludge. The National Academy of Sciences has looked at the outputs and states “the use of these materials in the production of crops for human consumption when practiced in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations, presents negligible risk to the consumer, to crop production and to the environment.”

According to NPR’s The Salt, even Whole Foods doesn’t think the ban changes much.

Whole Foods spokeswoman Lindsay Robison tells The Salt that biosolids were banned in the name of transparency and being consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, which doesn’t allow the material on fields where any certified organic product is grown. But, she adds, the company’s new biosolids ban won’t actually impact any of the company’s growers because, as far as the company knows, none of them use the material.

Some soil folks have weighed in on the ban, suggesting that Whole Food’s approach here is more about marketing and business decisions than food safety.

This is a resource that’s really undervalued,” says Sally Brown, a soil scientist at the University of Washington who has been studying biosolids for over a decade. “If you do the carbon accounting, you see that biosolids actually capture carbon, unlike synthetic fertilizer, which is what farmers would otherwise be using.”

The opposition to biosolids comes from the fact that people are still uncomfortable with any material made from human waste, even if it’s been heavily processed and treated, Brown notes.

“People have been taught that poop is dangerous and it makes you sick, and so they’re suspicious of it,” she says. “And municipalities have done a terrible job of communicating what they do and what wastewater treatment really is.”

So where does the Whole Foods ban come in?

“Whole Foods,” says Brown, “made a business decision rather than a sustainability or environmentally based decision.”

This entry was posted in Food Safety Culture, Wacky and Weird and tagged , , by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.
  • Ken Martin (@kenmartinsafety)

    There are two types of SLUDGE. This first type is supposed to be nothing but treated human waste. The second type is treated human waste that contain unknown minerals, chemicals and unknown commercial/industrial waste. The second is the most dangerous.

  • Whole Foods decision to ban product grown on land treated with sludge is based on a growing body of science that has concluded that using sludge as fertilizer is neither safe, beneficial, or sustainable. Sludge is not just human poop. . All land-applied sludge contains thousands of chemicals, many highly toxic and persistent that are impacting soil, drinking water, killed farm animals, sickened people, affecting wildlife. Most land-applied sludge is generated in our highly industrialized urban centers. This unpredictable and complex mixture of industrial and human waste is probably the most pollutant-rich material created in the 21st century. Sewage sludge does not belong on the land where we grow our food or graze our animals.
    No major food processing business accepts produce grown on land treated with sludge, including Heinz and Del Monte, and Western Growers. Almost a hundred health, environmental, and farm groups, including the National Farmers Union, the Sierra Club, Rodale, the Food Rights Network oppose using sludge to grow the nation’s food. For accurate information about the many risks linked to this practice visit http://www.sludgefacts.org

  • This post is fraught with inaccuracies, and it is surprising that Ms.Chaifetz, being a Phd candidate at UNC-CH would write this without doing more thorough research.

    This post begins by stating: “Biosolids are a fertilizer that comes from municipal waste. Treated human poop. Like composted animal manure, it’s seen as a way to enrich the soil. ”

    Wastewater treatment plants {WWTP} are not in the business to produce fertilizer. They accept sewage, and turn sewage into waste water and sewage sludge …. PERIOD….
    True fertilizer is a product that a farmer can put on his land, with the assurance that he knows exactly what the product contains, and that there is a certain quantified ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, AND NOTHING ELSE. Biosolids is a euphemism for sewage sludge, which is a mixture of largely unknown and untested contaminants, making it TOXIC, and is not just “treated human poop”… it contains everything that goes down a drain in a city, including drainage from the multi-acre landfill and storm water runoff!!! To call sewage sludge “treated human poop” is a silly, naïve, and uninformed notion. To call it something to ‘enrich’ the soil is further drivel …..

    EPA might say less than 1% of land is sludged, but over 4,000 acres of Orange County, NC is sludged with over 25,000.000 gallons are spread per year…. that adds up to over 25% of the crop land in the county in which you live and go to school!!!

    Ms.Chaifetz, if you would like to learn the truth about this issue, please go to this website: http://www.sewagesludgeactionnetwork.com... contact me through this site; I will be more than happy to meet with you, bring you copious amounts of peer reviewed research, maps, pictures, etc. etc. and tell you about my first hand true experiences of having to live among toxic sludge.

    Myra Dotson

  • Jo Overbey

    I farm and garden organically, and have done so for a number of years. Like most folks who go this route, I have found that it is “all a matter of the soil.” Take proper care of your soil and plants flourish and pests and weeds are a minimal problem. One can observe in the garden that pests only attack the weak, unhealthy plants. Weeds like soils that are out of balance. Their whole purpose is to restore balance to the soil. Acres USA has a wealth of material supporting these claims.

    Since WWII, we have stripped our soils of nutrients with the use of chemical fertilizers. Humus has been used up, and many nutrients taken up from the soil are not replaced because only nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous are replaced. Top soil has vanished. Thus, “biosolids” looks like a wonderful answer, for it does return humus and a number of the nutrients that have been lost. The problem is that it does not return a soil to balance, as it contains 10x the amount of phosphorous that any crop can use. Further, it incorporates many elements that are very undesirable, such as chemicals and heavy metals.

    A healthy soil is alive. It is a virtual world of microbes that are interconnected. No-till farming is an improvement in not destroying this world and these critters, but the same cannot be said for “biosolids.” It is poison. Murray McBride of Cornell did a study years ago of what happens this population after the application of sewage sludge, aka “biosolids.” He found the populations decreased by millions. Further, imbalanced soil leads to less healthy plants, which leads to pests. Imbalanced soil leads to strong weed development. Both of these factors require greater inputs of pesticides and herbicides in order to grow crops. Is this the picture of a sustainable agricultural practice? Do you want to eat the food that comes from these fields? I certainly do not. I applaud Whole Foods for taking a stand, even if it does not significantly impact their business. The more people we can make aware of these problems, the sooner we can find another way to fertilize our fields and to handle our waste.

  • Mark

    What would you do with biosolids? Not like people will stop flushing. The problem isn’t the biosolids; it is what we let into our sewers and expect a treatment plant to fix. Metals could be solved by getting industries off the sanitary sewer system. Pharmaceuticals that are persistent should be limited to the neediest. Besides pollution from cars will kill us all first!