Meet the Food Rights Network!

Welcome to the the Food Rights Network, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy. We are dedicated to investigative research and advocacy on crucial food issues.

We are exposing and stopping the “organic compost” scam through which the public and private sewage sludge industry is making America’s farm and ranch land, and now school and backyard gardens, a dumping ground for their “biosolids,” a PR euphemism for their contaminated sewage waste.

Have you been fooled into putting toxic sludge on your farm, school or home garden?  Click the Toxic Sludge tab at the top of this page for more information.

Please sign up for our email list so we can keep you informed and active.


John Stauber, Senior Adviser

PS: To contact us, send an email to:
We can be reached by calling: (608) 260-9713


July 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm


Sally Brown and BioCycle Magazine, Supporters of Growing Food in Sewage Sludge, Call Organic Food Advocates “Ecoterrorists”

CONTACT:  John Stauber, Senior Adviser, Food Rights Network
PHONE: (608) 260-9713; (608) 279-4044

Sally Brown and BioCycle Magazine, Supporters of Growing Food in Sewage Sludge, Call Organic Food Advocates “Ecoterrorists”

Organic Consumers Association and Food Rights Network Demand Retraction at April 12 BioCycle Conference (Brown Headlining)

SAN DIEGO–Leading organic gardening and food safety advocates who oppose  growing food in sewage sludge are attending the national BioCycle magazine conference Tuesday, April 12, 2011 in San Diego to demand an apology and retraction from Sally Brown, a columnist and editorial board member of BioCycle magazine, and from Nora Goldstein, the executive editor of BioCycle.

Sally Brown, who is also a research associate professor at the University of Washington, is delivering a keynote address at the BioCycle conference; she promotes growing food in sewage sludge “fertilizer.” John Stauber, senior adviser to the Food Rights Network and co-author of the bestselling book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!, plans to personally deliver letters to Brown and Goldstein demanding an apology and retraction.

Last month, Brown wrote and Goldstein published that “six ecoterrorists have the City of San Francisco quaking in its boots, leading officials to stop a compost giveaway program that was making hundreds happy.”

As John Stauber of the Food Rights Network and Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association note in their letter to the two:

“Dr. Brown’s column in the March 2011 edition of BioCycle magazine makes a false and defamatory charge calling us ‘ecoterrorists.’  The Organic Consumers Association and the Food Rights Network are proud to have led the coalition that successfully put this sewage waste disposal scam on apparently permanent hold in San Francisco. Indeed, we are expanding our efforts to warn the public at large that so-called “biosolids” and “biosolids compost” are actually sewage sludge and thus contaminated with toxic and hazardous substances.


Your smear of us as ‘ecoterrorists’ recklessly disregards the truth. We are the proponents of genuine organic food and farming practices and federal law forbids putting sewage sludge on organic farms and gardens. It is a fraud upon the public to promote sewage sludge products containing hazardous substances—such as pathogens, pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, flame-retardants, endocrine disruptors, metals, and thousands of other contaminants—as ‘organic compost.’ The success of our coalition in exposing and stopping this fraudulent practice bears absolutely no resemblance to the felony crime of ‘ecoterrorism.’ ”

“Such vilification is particularly pernicious in the post-9/11 environment, with the expanded powers of the federal government to investigate charges of ecoterrorism. . . . That BioCycle magazine would call us ‘ecoterrorists’ is also quite possibly malicious, given your financial interests in promoting sewage sludge-derived products.  We expect a written apology from both of you for your libel against us . . . .  Additionally, we demand that . . .  this retraction and apology be publicly announced from the podium at the national BioCycle conference April 12th in San Diego.”

The BioCycle conference begins April 12, and the keynote address at which Brown is slated to speak is scheduled for 9 AM PST.

The Food Rights Network is a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, based in Madison, Wisconsin:

The Organic Consumers Association is based in Finland, Minnesota:

# # #

April 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm 7 comments

Response to Sludge Proponent Sally Brown’s False and Defamatory Charge Calling Food Rights Network “Ecoterrorists”

The Food Rights Network
A Project of the Center for Media and Democracy
520 University Avenue, Suite 260
Madison, Wisconsin 53703
(608) 260-9713

Organic Consumers Association
6771 South Silver Hill Drive
Finland, Minnesota 55603

April 11, 2011 (by certified mail and hand delivery in San Diego, CA)

Dr. Sally L. Brown, Research Associate Professor
School of Forest Resources, University of Washington
Bloedel Hall, Room 203/ 4000 15th Avenue NE
Seattle, Washington 98195
(206) 616-1299

Ms. Nora Goldstein, Executive Editor
BioCycle Magazine/JG Press, Inc.
419 State Avenue
Emmaus, Pennsylvania 18049
(610) 967-4135

Re: Demand to Retract “Ecoterrorists” Libel and to Cease and Desist

Dear Dr. Brown and Ms. Goldstein:

Dr. Brown’s column in the March 2011 edition of BioCycle magazine makes a false and defamatory charge calling us  “ecoterrorists.”  We are the individuals who initiated and led the successful effort that on March 4, 2010 stopped the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) from giving away sewage sludge as “organic biosolids compost” for home and school gardens.

Specifically, Dr. Brown wrote:

“Here, six ecoterrorists have the City of San Francisco quaking in its boots, leading officials to stop a compost giveaway program that was making hundreds happy.”

Your libelous description of those of us who organized the opposition to the City’s “organic compost” scam is defamatory.  Labeling us “ecoterrorists” injures our reputations and it smears all who challenged the SFPUC’s fraudulent and deceptive sludge giveaway program.

The Organic Consumers Association and the Food Rights Network are proud to have led the coalition that successfully put this sewage waste disposal scam on apparently permanent hold in San Francisco.  Indeed, we are expanding our efforts to warn the public at large that so-called “biosolids” and “biosolids compost” are actually sewage sludge and thus contaminated with toxic and hazardous substances.

Your smear of us as “ecoterrorists” recklessly disregards the truth.  We are the proponents of genuine organic food and farming practices and federal law forbids putting sewage sludge on organic farms and gardens.  We are working lawfully, democratically, and non-violently to raise public awareness of this sewage sludge “compost” scam promoted by the SFPUC, BioCycle magazine, Rodale Institute, the US Composting Council, the Water Environment Federation, Synagro and others comprising the public and private sewage sludge lobby.

It is a fraud upon the public to promote sewage sludge products containing hazardous substances—such as pathogens, pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, flame-retardants, endocrine disruptors, metals, and thousands of other contaminants—as “organic compost.”   The success of our coalition in exposing and stopping this fraudulent practice bears absolutely no resemblance to the felony crime of “ecoterrorism.” Your libelous assertion is utterly false and baseless.

Such vilification is particularly pernicious in the post-9/11 environment, with the expanded powers of the federal government to investigate charges of ecoterrorism.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has focused an increased amount of its new anti-terrorism powers on U.S. groups and individuals using violence as a means to change environmental policies and practices. See for instance the testimony of James F. Jarboe, Domestic Terrorism Section Chief of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, regarding “The Threat of Eco-Terrorism,” before the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health  (Feb. 12, 2002).   The FBI uses a variety of secret techniques in response to allegations of ecoterrorism, including national security letters and other surreptitious surveillance, which results in government files on subjects of such preliminary inquiries and may even result in watch-listing.

Hence, your published suggestion that we — Ronnie Cummins, the leader of the Organic Consumers Association, and John Stauber, the senior advisor to the Food Rights Network — engaged in terrorist activities portrays us in a false light and subjects us to serious potential harms.

That BioCycle magazine would call us “ecoterrorists” is also quite possibly malicious, given your financial interests in promoting sewage sludge-derived products.

We expect a written apology from both of you for your libel against us, and we demand that a written retraction and apology be printed in the next issue of BioCycle magazine.  Given our prominent role in the successful effort to stop the SFPUC “organic compost” scam, it is highly likely that the your calumnious statement will be imputed to us, and so we insist that you specifically name us and the others to whom you were referring when you retract your “ecoterrorists” smear.

Additionally, we demand that the online version of the March 2011 edition of your magazine prominently disavow and strike the reference to “ecoterrorists” in connection with our lawful, non-violent action against the SFPUC sewage sludge giveaway scam.

Finally, we also demand that this retraction and apology be publicly announced from the podium at the national BioCycle conference April 12th in San Diego, where John Stauber is personally delivering this letter.


John Stauber, Senior Advisor, Food Rights Network

Ronnie Cummins, Director, Organic Consumers Association

cc Phyllis M. Wise, Interim President of the University of Washington; Tom Hinckley, Interim Director of the School of Forest Resources; and Dan Sullivan, Managing Editor of BioCycle Magazine

April 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm 36 comments

Independent Scientific Testing Finds Toxic Contaminants in San Francisco’s Free ‘Organic Biosolids Compost’

PBDE Flame Retardants and Triclosan Found in Tests Conducted for the Food Rights Network

This news release was written by the Food Rights Network and published via PRNewsire August 10, 2010. FRN provided test results to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commissioners at a City Hall Meeting, 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, August 10, 2010.

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 10 — Independent tests of sewage sludge-derived compost from the Synagro CVC plant — distributed free to gardeners since 2007 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their “organic biosolids compost” giveaway program — have found appreciable concentrations of contaminants with endocrine-disruptive properties.

These contaminants include polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, nonylphenol detergent breakdown products, and the antibacterial agent triclosan.  The independent tests were conducted for the Food Rights Network by Dr. Robert C. Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

PBDEs are persistent and bioaccumulate in the environment, and elevated levels have been found in California citizens. The average total of the PBDE congeners tested in the compost was 731 ng/g (or ppb – parts per billion) (dry weight basis). The congeners found closely match those of the PentaBDE formulation, which are the congeners most commonly found in human tissue and wildlife.  PentaBDE has been banned in Europe and its manufacture was voluntarily ended in the US in 2004, yet exposure continues.

The antibiotic triclosan, another suspected endocrine disruptor, was also found in the sewage sludge “compost,”  at an average of 1,312 ng/g (or ppb). Last week, the Centers for Disease Control updated their National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals and noted that triclosan levels in people increased by over 41% between just the years 2004 and 2006. Also last week, a scientific paper showed that triclosan from sewage sludge can be taken up by soybean plants and translocated into the beans themselves, then consumed by people and animals.

Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist with Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine), has reviewed the study conducted by Dr. Hale for the Food Rights Network. Dr. Hansen told the Food Rights Network:  “Giving out sludge-based ‘compost’ that contains PBDEs, triclosan, and who knows what other toxins, while calling it ‘organic compost,’ knowing it would be applied to school and home gardens, is wrong on a number of levels.  Given the toxic compounds that have been found by Dr. Hale in this San Francisco sludge product, the ‘compost’ giveaway should be permanently ended by the City of San Francisco.”

John Stauber is a co-founder of and adviser to the Food Rights Network, and author of the 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You that first exposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) sewage sludge disposal scam of renaming toxic sludge “biosolids” and encouraging its use to grow food. Today, fifteen years later, half of all sewage sludge is spread on farmland.  Said Stauber:  “In the face of a public protest on March 4, 2010, the City of San Francisco temporarily suspended its toxic sludge giveaway.  The staff of the Public Utilities Commission and  Mayor Gavin Newsom have allowed Bay Area residents to become guinea pigs in a heinous scam that has fooled gardeners into thinking they were receiving real organic compost for their gardens, when they were tricked into allowing the sewage sludge industry to use their gardens as a waste dump.  This must stop.”

John Mayer, Bay Area resident, former researcher for the Food Rights Network and San Francisco area representative of the Organic Consumers Association stated:  “The sludge tests that the PUC released in late July, 2010,  are grossly insufficient, relying on outdated science and regulatory standards, and limited to ‘priority pollutants,’ a list developed more than 30 years ago.  As the Center for Food Safety noted recently, the PUC failed to test for nanoparticles,  ‘antibiotics and their degradation products, disinfectants, other antimicrobials, steroids, hormones, and other drugs present in sewage sludge as indicated by EPA’s 2009 Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey.’ Our ongoing investigation of this issue has shown that the Office of the Mayor and the staff of the PUC have colluded with the national sewage sludge lobby, Synagro corporation and other private interests to promote and defend growing food in sewage sludge.  We call upon the five PUC Commissioners to put this issue on their public agenda for September, and to stop allowing sludge politics to trump health, environment and the precautionary principle in San Francisco.”

The Food Rights Network is a national, non-profit, non-partisan research and advocacy organization. FRN opposes dumping sewage sludge on farms and gardens; no food should be grown in toxic sludge.


John Stauber, Senior Adviser
Food Rights Network
(608) 260-9713; Email:

Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist
Consumers Union (Publisher of Consumer
Reports magazine)
(914) 378-2452; Email:

April 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Chez Sludge: How the Sewage Sludge Industry Bedded Alice Waters

This report by Food Rights Network consultant John Stauber appeared on the Center for Media and Democracy website July 9, 2010:

The celebrity chef Alice Waters is probably the world’s most famous advocate of growing and eating local, Organic food. In February 2010 her Chez Panisse Foundation chose as its new Executive Director the wealthy “green socialite” and liberal political activist Francesca Vietor. Vietor’s hiring created a serious conflict of interest that has married Waters and her Foundation to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and its scam of disposing of toxic sewage sludge waste as free “organic biosolids compost” for gardens.

Alice Waters

For the first time, thanks to an ongoing “open records” investigation by the Food Rights Network, the public and the press have easy online access to dozens of internal SFPUC files (SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline), documenting the strange tale of Chez Sludge, or how the sewage industry bedded Alice Waters.

How It All Started

San Francisco’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom, appointed Francesca Vietor as one of the five Commissioners who run the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in 2008, just a year after the SFPUC began giving away toxic sewage sludge as “organic biosolids compost.” San Francisco, often dubbed the green city with a green mayor, was seemingly providing free “organic compost” to urban gardens. It sounded too good to be true, and it was. While San Francisco does have an admirable program to collect vegetable waste and turn it into valuable garden compost, the city sells that stuff, the good stuff, Organic with a capital “O.” What the city gives away for free as “organic Biosolids compost” is actually hazardous waste, sewage sludge, from San Francisco and eight other counties.

But don’t call it sewage sludge! Under a PR program first exposed in a book I co-wrote in 1995, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!, the sewage sludge lobby — the Water Environment Federation — has renamed the massive mountains of constantly-produced and hazardous sewage sludge. It’s now called “Biosolids.” This Orwellian term was chosen to simply fool the public into applying toxic sewage sludge to farms, ranches, yards and gardens as “organic fertilizer,” a waste disposal program endorsed by the EPA.

San Francisco’s SFPUC is in the forefront of the latest maneuver in this toxic scam, “composting” its toxic sludge and marketing it as “organic biosolids compost,” thus co-opting a venerable terms used in organic agriculture. This greenwashing scam slipped rather unnoticed by the public from 2007 until the fall of 2009. That is when the San Francisco Chronicle reported on an effort by two public interest groups who petitioned the SFPUC to halt the program. In December 2009, The Atlantic reported that the city had rejected the petition and that the SFPUC was preparing to increase its toxic sludge to gardens giveaway ten-fold in 2010.

In early 2010 the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) picked up the baton in the San Francisco sludge fight. Their Bay Area researcher and organizer, John Mayer, now with the Food Rights Network, began organizing environmental, gardening, and food safety groups to endorse a letter to Mayor Newsom opposing the sludge giveaway. The OCA planned and executed a theatrical protest, a “sludge dump” on the steps of City Hall, on March 4th.

The previous evening, March 3rd, the CBS TV affiliate KPIX in San Francisco ran a devastating investigative report by journalist Anna Werner, noting that testing and analysis of San Francisco’s “organic biosolids compost” confirmed toxic contaminants, including dioxins. The morning of March 4, even before the OCA sludge protest, San Francisco media reported that the toxic sludge giveaway had been placed on temporary hold, and that’s where it is today.

The one-two punch of the CBS news reporting and the OCA protest, which itself received much national media attention, won the day. Or so it seemed. Actually, March 4th turned out to be the day when the entire issue took a new and somewhat bizarre turn, revealing the ongoing conflict of interest that has dragged Alice Waters into Chez Sludge.

Two Hats Are Better Than One?

On March 4th, I Googled the SFPUC to see who was in charge, and read on the SFPUC website that Francesca Vietor, someone I had met and the wife of the environmental reporter Mark Hertsgaard whom I knew, was the SFPUC Vice President. We all had friends in common, including the San Francisco environmental journalist Mark Dowie. I emailed Francesca that day, telling her I’d just discovered that she was on the SFPUC board, and explained that “you can be a hero on this issue by stopping the sludge on gardens in San Fran.”

Shortly after sending her my email, I learned that Francesca was also the new head of the Chez Panisse Foundation, when yet another mutual friend suggested to me that “Alice isn’t going to like this,” referring to Alice Waters, the celebrity chef and advocate of local, natural Organic gardening and the founder of Chez Pannise Foundation. Hmmm, I thought. What was Alice Waters thinking? What was Francesca Vietor thinking? The potential conflicts of interest were obvious to me.

Mayor Newsom, who appointed Vietor, defended the growing of food in toxic sludge, as did the SFPUC. Francesca was now wearing two hats, one representing the sludge-dumping interests of the SPFUC and the other the mission of her new employer, Chez Panisse Foundation, to promote Edible Schoolyard gardens. Wearing her Chez Panisse Foundation hat, her mission was introducing kids to the wonders of preparing and eating their own natural food, grown themselves in healthy and safe soil. Hopefully that soil was not contaminated with toxic sewage sludge from the SFPUC, or anywhere else. Toxic sludge versus safe gardens. The conflict seemed huge, and indeed it has proven so.

February 8-9, 2010: Red Letter Days

When I emailed to Francesca on March 4th, the day of the OCA sludge protest, I did not realize that I had also sent her information on the sludge issue a month earlier, on February 8th, 2010. That day, I published a brief story about the San Francisco toxic sludge controversy and emailed it to a list of journalists, activists and other contacts in the Bay Area. Francesca, her husband Mark Hertsgaard, Mark Dowie, and dozens of others received that email. Francesca read it, and she forwarded it on to Ed Harrington, the General Manager of the SFPUC.

On February 9th, Vietor received an email about the SFPUC’s sludge-to-gardens giveaway. This email went to her at the Chez Panisse Foundation, and it was sent by John Mayer, then with the Organic Consumers Association, who was organizing for the March 4th protest at City Hall. Mayer emailed Vietor the sign-on letter that OCA and other groups were planning to deliver to Mayor Newsom, calling for a permanent ban on the sludge-to-gardens giveaway. Mayer did not know that Vietor was on the SFPUC board, and that she was and is, in fact, its Vice President. Nor did she mention it to him when she declined to add the Chez Panisse Foundation to the protest letter to the Mayor who had appointed her to the Commission, the agency distributing the sludge to gardens as “organic” compost. Wearing her hat as the head of the Chez Panisse Foundation, she wrote back to John Mayer, “Thank you for your note and the good work of the Organic Consumers Association. We do not generally sign on to letters so cannot offer you support at this time.”

February 9th was also the day that John Mayer contacted the SFPUC, requesting information under sunshine-in-government laws, as part of an ongoing investigation that has provided us the internal documents allowing the Chez Sludge story to be told.

March 5 to March 7, 2010. The Conflicts Get “Sticky”

Move ahead to March 5th. I had emailed Francesca the previous day about how she could be a hero and stop the sludge dumping, but I had received no response. I now knew that she was also the head of the Chez Panisse Foundation, as well as the Vice President of the SFPUC.

I sent her another email, trying to talk with her directly, with no success. In fact, documents from the SFPUC files show that Vietor was consulting with Ed Harrington, the General Manager of the SFPUC, trying to decide how best to respond to me. In their email exchange it was Harrington who told Vietor that the sludge-to-gardens giveaway program was on temporary hold. He wrote, “We have told them we have no plans to do any further giveaways at this time — feel free to tell them that again. We do not want to promise anything more than that — our real concern is the larger issue of our disposal of sludge … on land in Solano County which they may go after next.”

Harrington also told Vietor, “In my humble opinion these people are mostly being misinformed by a small group of people who don’t really believe anything we tell them and don’t particularly care for or trust whatever available science is out there. … And one test we did shows that the amount of minerals in the compost is less than what you would get if you ate a Centrum vitamin. Having said that, this was a giveaway program — no one was forced to take any. And we typically held it once a year in October … Our other choice for this would be incineration which no one seems to want to talk about because of some serious environmental issues (even though it could create renewable power). This compost was frankly our best, most ‘recyclable’ idea. Here is what we are sending out if someone asks about it,” he wrote, attaching a sludge promotional flyer.

The sludge promotional flyer that Harrington gave to Vietor she then sent to me, finally responding to my email of the day before. Vietor was taking her lead on the sludge-to-gardens controversy directly from the sludge dumpers at the SFPUC: Ed Harrington, Tyrone Jue and the rest of the public relations and professional staff who were running the sludge giveaway.

SFPUC Biosolids Compost

"To Help Grow Healthy Plants, Fruits, and Vegetables; this garden uses high quality, nutrient-rich, organic Biosolids Compost." From the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission:

Vietor and I exchanged further emails on March 5th: I criticized the sludge industry promotional material she was sending me. She discontinued the email exchange by sending me a final email on March 5th and copying it to SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington. She wrote to me, “John, I have not had a chance to take a closer look as I have recently starting (sic) a new job, and I won’t be able to in the near future, as I need to focus on other PUC business at present. I have asked Ed Harrington to respond to your concerns but please, specifically outline them, and address the points you find ‘sad, misleading and inaccurate’ in the PUC staff response, as I do not find your reply below at all constructive” (emphasis added). Her new job was, of course, as Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, promoting schoolyard gardens.

Documents Tell the Real Story

Francesca Vietor told me that she had “not had a chance to take a closer look” at the sludge controversy because of her new job with Chez Panisse Foundation, and that she would not “be able to in the near future.” But the internal documents tell a very different story and show just the opposite. Vietor was busy working March 5-7th with Harrington, Jue and the rest of the SFPUC’s sludge promoters to edit and write copy for the SFPUC website, explaining and defending the biosolids programs of the SFPUC.

Although Vietor’s potential conflict of interest in representing both the sludge dumpers and the Chez Panisse Foundation was known to me, it did not receive any media attention until March 7th, when author and food writer Jill Richardson broke the news on her site. She wrote, “the Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) (Francesca Vietor) is now the Executive Director of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation. I’ve contacted her to ask for her comments on this, and I intend to continue following the story….”

Clearly Vietor was upset by the article, and seemingly aware of the conflict of interest in which she had put herself. She sought advice from Ed Harrington of the SFPUC, writing “this is getting sticky. lets talk in a.m.

Things were “getting sticky” because Vietor insisted on wearing two hats and keeping both positions, despite the obvious conflicts in their missions. At any time, then or now, Francesca Vietor could have stepped down from the SFPUC, and devoted herself to promoting Edible Schoolyard gardens. Or she could have left her job at the Chez Panisse Foundation and become an outright advocate for applying municipal sewage sludge to gardens and farmland. But she insisted on keeping both jobs, wearing both hats, and there was the rub. She continued to help the sludge dumpers at the SFPUC tweak and edit their material defending and promoting their biosolids program, while representing the Organic gardening and the food growing ethics of Alice WatersChez Panisse Foundation. The conflicts of interest she embodied were real, growing, and spinning out of Vietor’s control.

In the meantime, reporter Jill Richardson was underscoring with Vietor what OCA and others had been emphasizing: that there were contaminants in the sludge products that Harrington and the rest of the SFPUC staff depicted as so benign. Richardson made a point of informing her about the EPA’s 2009 Targeted National Sewage Sludge Survey, which found widespread contaminants in all the samples of sewage sludge it tested nationwide and found that sludge was not routinely tested for these and other toxins.

On March 12th, Vietor forwarded Richardson’s email to Harrington, suggesting a change in some of the wording on the SFPUC website promoting sludge. She wrote, “one other edit on the response that Ty is creating — I think the word ‘stringent’ should be taken out of the federal guidelines descriptor as I am learning that the fed guidelines do not regulate a lot of toxins so may not be as stringent as we may want.”

March 16 – March 25: Chez Sludge Goes on the Offensive

Although it was reporter Jill Richardson who on March 7th first pointed out to the public Vietor’s potential conflict of interest in serving both the SFPUC and the Chez Panisse Foundation, it was an article of mine, published on March 16th, that set her on an offensive against me. There quickly emerged a Chez Sludge PR team that included our mutual friend Mark Dowie. Its goal was to intimidate me and neutralize my reporting on this issue. Mark Dowie would threaten me with libel and demand retractions on March 25th, and a week later, on April 1st, Vietor herself would charge the UK Guardian newspaper with libel and blame it on me.

On March 16, 2010, I reported on her conflict of interest on the website of the Center for Media and Democracy. In a story titled Waiter, There Is Toxic Sludge in my Organic Soup! I wrote: “I suspect that Bay area celebrity chef Alice Waters would never dump sewage sludge onto her own organic garden, nor serve food grown in sludge in her world famous natural foods restaurant Chez Panisse. The mission of her Chez Panisse Foundation is to create “Edible Schoolyards” where kids grow, prepare, and eat food from their own organic gardens. But Francesca Vietor, the new executive director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, is at the same time actively promoting dumping toxic sludge on gardens in her role as Vice President of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.”

Looking back at this article now, having read dozens of internal SFPUC documents and emails back and forth showing Vietor’s faithful role in working closely with Harrington and Jue and others promoting and defending the biosolids program of the SFPUC, what I wrote seems oddly understated. But the article hit a nerve; the truth hurt Vietor. I became the target of a nasty and concerted effort by Vietor and the SFPUC’s public relations staff. They spent the next several days trying to figure out how best to strike at me and my reporting.

SFPUC Hatches A Plan

On March 19th, the head of PR for the SFPUC, Tyrone Jue, provided Vietor with a draft response to use against me, a document that I have not yet obtained. Jue wrote to Vietor, “So far, based on our web monitoring the . . . posting of Mr. Stauber was pretty isolated. I would recommend not personally posting this response under your name. We certainly want to make sure it covers everything you would like said, but I’m hesitant to dignify his post and create a mechanism for further online back and forth dialogue that includes you. The response instead would be posted under the name of Ed, Tommy or I. Laura and I definitely want to talk to you about our next steps. Ed, Laura and I have outlined a draft strategy moving forward. Let us know when you are available and if you have changes.”

It was in this charged environment that four days later, on March 23, 2010, the Organic Consumers Association hand delivered a letter to Alice Waters, the founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation. The letter read, “We imagine that you would want to be one of the first to unequivocally and publicly state that sewage sludge is unacceptable for farming and gardening — organic or conventional,” pointing out that it “seems to us a clear conflict of interest that Francesca Vietor should serve as both the Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Vice President of the SFPUC. In light of your dedication to non-GMO foods, would you have the Vice President of Monsanto as your Executive Director? The two do not seem much dissimilar as both work for organizations that compromise the integrity of the movement for which you are both a pioneer and a leading voice. … In 2000, you took a stance against GMOs by telling your food suppliers they had to stop using all GMOs and stating publicly, ‘Flat out, no genetic engineering.’ We at the OCA applaud this position and ask that you now do the same for toxic sewage sludge: ‘Flat out, no toxic sewage sludge for our food!'”

Vietor quickly sent this letter, that was addressed to Alice Waters, directly to the SFPUC staff, with whom she was now working in a war-room atmosphere. The conflict of interest that had only become “sticky” on March 7th was now, just over two weeks later, becoming a full-blown PR crisis for Vietor. She worked hand in hand with the head of PR for the SFPUC in an attempt to manage it. Sending the OCA letter to the SFPUC, she wrote, “[[Alice Waters|Alice]] and [[Chez Panisse Foundation|CPF]] are not going to respond but it’s really important for SFPUC staff to come up with answers about whether the stuff does or does not contain the chemicals that Stauber, et al, say it does, and if so, in what doses and what those dose levels mean. … Can you get these answers quickly — as now that people are trying to oust me from the PUC — so I can decide whether to go on the offensive against these guys.” (emphasis added). The OCA letter to Alice Waters had not asked her to take any action regarding Francesca Vietor and her increasingly “sticky” conflicts of interest. But clearly Vietor’s biggest fear was not toxic sludge on gardens, nor how her “sticky” conflicts would impact her friend Alice Waters. Her fear was that media attention might mean she would have to give it up one of her two hats. That she would not, and has not, done.

The Attack

The next day Vietor and her SFPUC PR team went on the offensive against me, using a surprising weapon to try to intimidate and chill my reporting: our mutual friend the journalist Mark Dowie. Not only was Dowie a mutual friend, but also he had written the introduction to my book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! Dowie sent me a bizarre and chilling email on March 25th, threatening me with libel. Dowie claimed to be approaching me on his own, but the internal documents show differently. Dowie the journalist had become Dowie the PR flack, part of the team Vietor assembled at Chez Panisse Foundation and the SFPUC to attack me and other reporters and activists as she went “on the offensive.” Chez Sludge was now complete: the SFPUC and Alice Waters’ Foundation run by the SFPUC‘s Vice President were all pulling together, rowing the same boat. There was no potential conflict of interest; the conflict was manifest and growing.

With Friends Like Mark Dowie …

Dowie’s threatening email to me, sent the evening of March 25th, is fascinating. It reads in part: “I have conducted a small private investigation of the PUC Toxic Sludge situation in San Francisco and found some problems with your reporting, problems that could land you in trouble.” He was referring to my March 16th story. He further wrote, “Let me cut right to the quick. From what I can find, Francesca Vietor, has never ‘actively promoted’ the PUC giveaway of sludge, nor has she ever defended it. If you have hard evidence to the contrary I suggest you produce it quickly or at least have copies ready to produce if you need them … I also understand that when you e-mailed with Francesca she told you that that was the first she had heard of the whole matter, and you left that statement out of your report. I suggest you find a way to work it back into your reporting if possible. I am not doing this in defense of Francesca Vietor, who is, I admit, an acquaintance. But as I told you a while back, that it is her husband Mark Hertsgaard who is my friend.”

Dowie’s email struck me as bizarre, disingenuous, and insulting. He wanted me to think it was personal, but it was in aid of the SFPUC via Vietor, Jue and Harrington. He wrote, “And I am not doing this as a favor to (Mark Hertsgaard, Vietor’s husband) either. I am doing it in defense of good journalism and to protect you from possible litigation. This is not a threat, John, from me, Francesca, Mark or the PUC, just my observation and the observation of others who have read your reports (and OCA’s letter to Alice Waters) and who know the facts behind the story, that you are treading a thin fine line between truth and libel.”

But of course it was a threat, and a very naked one, from Francesca and the SFPUC. It concluded, “In short I encourage you to step back, take a closer look at everything you have, and if you can prove your case against Vietor with strong documentation, fire away.” Now, today, in light of the cache internal documents that show Dowie’s letter to be direct result of the SFPUC offensive against me, the email is even more astonishing.

Alice Speaks — Sort of

On March 30th, Alice Waters publicly responded to the OCA letter of a week earlier, March 23rd. I remember the moment well, because as an advisor to OCA I was pressing Waters to respond. The threats from Dowie had tipped me off to the degree to which the SFPUC and the Chez Panisse Foundation had morphed into one PR entity, “Chez Sludge,” fighting primarily to make sure that Francesca Vietor continued wearing her two hats, holding her two jobs, now so clearly in conflict.

Vietor emailed Ed Harrington a draft of Waters’ response on March 30th, asking him to please review it because “we are going to try to send this out end of day.” Harrington emailed back to Vietor, “Sounds perfect to me. Let me run it by a couple of folks in case I’m missing something and get back to you quickly.” Alice Waters was like a hand puppet on the lap of Francesca Vietor, Ed Harrington and the SFPUC.

The final version of the Alice Waters’ response to the OCA letter of March 23, 2010, was emailed to me by the Chez Panisse Foundation public relations director. Just before it was sent, my phone rang and there on the other end was none other than Alice Waters.

Alice told me that she was calling to assure me that this was the first she’d really heard about all this. She sounded flustered and said that of course she would do the right thing and she told me how much she trusted Francesca Vietor. What struck me most was her assertion that this was the first time she’d heard about all this hubub, and how she was putting all her trust in Vietor. But Vietor had dragged Alice right into bed with the sewage sludge industry, Chez Sludge.

After Alice called, I was foolishly hopeful that she actually would do the right thing and publicly oppose growing food in toxic sludge. Silly me. This is the statement I was emailed that was supposedly from Alice Waters, but that had been fully vetted by the SFPUC staff and whomever they had shared it with:

I look forward to reviewing the science and working with the SFPUC to ensure the safety of composting methods. I support Francesca Vietor, Executive Director of the Chez Panisse Foundation and a PUC commissioner, whose environmental work I have admired for many years and whose integrity has been questioned.

What I have come to call Chez Sludge — the merging of the sludge dumpers at the SFPUC and the organic garden purists at Chez Panisse Foundation — was now complete, if invisible to the public, at least until now. Alice Waters had been married off and dumped into bed with the municipal sludge industry, the scam artists behind dumping toxic sewage sludge — misleadingly termed “organic Biosolids compost” — onto farms and gardens. In a statement the SFPUC vetted, she had committed to working with them to ensure the “safety” of their phony organic toxic sludge “compost.” Alice Waters had been made into a hand-puppet of the sewage sludge industry, their latest PR conquest, their greatest victory, in their decades-long effort to greenwash their hazardous waste disposal goals moving mountains of toxic material onto the farms and gardens of America as “organic Biosolids compost.” What a PR coup. Ed Harrington, Tyrone Jue, and the rest of the SFPUC staff were fully in charge of the messaging.

“Alice, Please, No Toxic Sludge!”

In response to the failure of Alice Waters to oppose the dumping of toxic sewage sludge, and in the face of her commitment to work with the sludge dumpers at City Hall in San Francisco, the Organic Consumers Association decided to heighten the contradictions and stage a small demonstration on April 1st, the 30th anniversary of the Chez Panisse Cafe.

Chez Panisse — the Cafe, the Restaurant and the Foundation — are all located at the same address in Berkeley. Over the noon hour on April 1st, two OCA activists held a colorful banner with image of a birthday cake and the polite appeal, “Happy Birthday Chez Panisse Cafe. Please, Alice, No Toxic Sludge!” A third OCA activist spoke to the press and passed out leaflets. It was small, it was dignified, and it was covered by the press. And it caused all hell to break loose, culminating in a threat of libel by Francesca Vietor against the (UK) Guardian simply for reporting on what is now not just Vietor’s conflict of interest, but also a conflict for Alice Waters and her Foundation.

Francesca Saved the Day! (April Fools!)

Chez Sludge — the PR team that now included Vietor, Dowie, Tyrone Jue and the Chez Panisse Foundation (CPF) staff — wrote and issued from the Foundation a news release fully appropriate to April Fool’s day. It had little or no relationship to reality, and it wove a (now) demonstrably false public mythology of the role of Francesca Vietor in the growing sludge-to-gardens scandal. It employed what in PR and propaganda parlance is called the Big Lie tactic. In this case, the lie — that Vietor had been the one who put the sludge give away on hold — worked like an April Fool’s day charm. It fooled most of the press and some activist groups completely and they swallowed the CPF/SFPUC PR tale completely, hook, line and sinker.

The Big Lie tactic only works when the falsehood is delivered by somebody trusted by the news media, somebody like Alice Waters. It is an audacious and dishonest tactic that works because it is so audacious to think that a trusted public figure would indeed spin such an outrageous falsehood, or read a script that did so. The news media fails to question the claim or demand proof of the speaker of the lie.

The Chez Panisse Foundation news release attacked me by name and demanded that I publicly apologize for things I had said or written (things not specified) that offended Vietor. It read in part:

Ms. Vietor has never promoted the SFPUC program. In fact, as soon as Mr. Stauber brought the program to her attention, Ms. Vietor asked the staff of the SFPUC to do three things: 1. Put the program on indefinite hold until sound scientific data can be gathered and evaluated; 2. Conduct additional, rigorous testing of the material the PUC had been giving away; and 3. Issue a public call for solutions to the larger question of how San Francisco and municipalities everywhere should be dealing with their waste.

This statement is clearly false in all aspects. Our search of the SFPUC’s documents shows that there was never any request by Vietor to put the sludge giveaway program on hold at any time. The SFPUC has responded so when asked to provide all documents specific to this claim. There are none.

Vietor had nothing to do with putting the program on temporary hold, where it sits today. That was accomplished by the CBS TV news report of March 3rd, and the approaching OCA demonstration at City Hall on March 4th. The internal documents show this clearly. On March 4, when Vietor was asking for help from Ed Harrington to formulate a response to my first email to her, it was Harrington who informed Vietor of the program being put on hold. He wrote,

We have told them we have no plans to do any further giveaways at this time – feel free to tell them that again. We do not want to promise anything more than that — our real concern is the larger issue of our disposal of sludge … on land in Solano County which they may go after next.

And what about claims 2 and 3? Again, an exhaustive search of the SFPUC files has produced nothing, and the PUC says that they have nothing, absolutely nothing, supportive of the specific claims above. Vietor and her Chez Sludge PR team created a mythology based on lies. And it worked.

None of the many and fine reporters who used these false claims bothered to demand any proof or documentation of their veracity. They simply printed them. Anna Werner of CBS Channel Five; Brady Welch of the San Francisco Bay Guardian; Leora Broydo of the New York Times; Barry Estabrook of the Atlantic; all of these reporters, various public interest groups including the Environmental Working Group, and the public were lied to and misled by the Chez Panisse Foundation in its desperate attempt to create a mythology for Vietor that could make her look like the hero and prevent her from having to give up either of her two positions. And in all of the SFPUC files, with the SFPUC staff desperately searching for some documents to support the false claims of the Chez Panisse Foundation on April 1, there is nothing, nada, zip, zero.

The Chez Panisse Foundation also called upon “Mr. Stauber and the OCA to retract their false statements and issue Alice Waters and Francesca Vietor a public apology.” Now, as I write this article, having reviewed dozens of Vietor emails with the SFPUC staff and other internal documents, I realize that I am owed an apology for the lies told on April 1st by Vietor, Waters and the entire Chez Sludge crew at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. I won’t hold my breath.

Vietor to the Guardian: “You Have Libeled Me”

How could the April 1, 2010, behavior of Francesca Vietor, caught up in her conflict of interest, slinging lies and false statements, sink any lower, at least on one day? It did, when Vietor again lied to the UK Guardian newspaper in an email cc’d to her attorney Chris Desser, an email whose subject line screamed: “You Have Libeled Me.”

She again used the same chilling tactic that she used when our mutual “friend” Mark Dowie threatened me with libel on her behalf. But this time, the legal threat came directly from Vietor in a news release she sent to Suzanne Goldenberg, a U.S. based reporter for the UK Guardian.

On April 1, 2010, the Guardian ran Goldenberg’s excellent article on the conflict of interest at the Chez Panisse Foundation, quoting me. Vietor fired an email to the Guardian with the subject line “You have libeled me.” It reads in part: “I was unaware of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s program until I was contacted by John Stauber on March 4, 2010, after which I took immediate steps to have the program suspended and additional testing undertaken.”

Again, Vietor simply tells a lie in a blatant attempt to chill the press. She claims she heard about it from me on March 4, but the internal documents show that she forwarded to Ed Harrington my story of February 8, and the next day she also received and then responded to John Mayers’ email.

Vietor’s threatening email to the Guardian was cc’d to her friend and attorney Chris Desser, although according to the California Bar Association Desser’s license to practice law is “inactive.”

Vietor’s threat against the Guardian also names and blames me. “Mr. Stauber, who was the original source of this libelous charge against me, has been repeatedly informed that it was false, yet he has persisted in charging that I am somehow ‘actively promoting sewage sludge.’ Now, your article has repeated the libel.”

Public officials like Francesca Vietor have a problem when they lie, when they attack the press, when they inappropriately merge their business affairs with their public job, and when they collude in emails that end up in the files of public agencies. Their problem is that occasionally investigators like John Mayer and myself will spend the weeks and weeks necessary to use “open records” laws to force the hidden evidence of their lies and collusion into the light of day. That is why you are able to read this piece now. Our newly formed Food Rights Network is on the case, and we won’t go away. This investigation is ongoing. Stay tuned.


John Stauber is an investigative writer, author, and activist. He works with the Food Rights Network. His views are his own and those of the Network. Visit the SFPUC Sludge Controversy Timeline on the SourceWatch wiki website for further information and documentation.

April 8, 2011 at 5:38 pm 1 comment

Why Won’t Alice Waters Just Say NO to Toxic Sludge?

It is happening on April Fool’s Day, but it is no joke. The Organic Consumers Association, upon whose Advisory Board I serve, is picketing chef Alice Waters’ world famous Chez Panisse Restaurant, Cafe and Foundation offices in Berkeley, California, over the noon hour on April 1, 2010. The protest is a direct result of the growing controversy in the Bay Area where the City of San Francisco, through its Public Utilities Commission, has been giving away and selling thousands of tons a year of toxic sewage sludge to be put on farms and gardens. The nasty entropic stuff, filled with a potential stew of thousands of chemicals and microbes, has even been bagged by the PUC as “organic compost” and used by unsuspecting victims who would never have intentionally put sewage sludge on their home or school gardens.

Continue Reading March 31, 2010 at 9:29 am

Waiter, There Is Toxic Sludge in my Organic Soup!

Fifteen years ago, the Center for Media and Democracy in my book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You first exposed the deceptive PR campaign by the municipal sewage industry that has renamed toxic sewage sludge as “biosolids” to be spread on farms and gardens. Unfortunately, the scam continues to fool more people than ever, even in San Francisco which is often dubbed the country’s greenest city.

Continue Reading March 16, 2010 at 9:42 am

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