The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is accusing Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters (pictured left) of hypocrisy and intends to hold a picket demonstration outside her restaurant, Chez Panisse, tomorrow Thursday April 1 at 12 noon.

The subject that has provoked the upset? Sewage sludge, which, the Association says, has been wrongfully presented as organic in the past and used as compost for “unsuspecting” community gardens and edible schoolyards. The Association is not accusing Waters of promoting, or using, the sewage sludge. Rather it is “baffled” that she has not expressed opposition to the idea of growing of food on sewage sludge.

OCA spokesperson John Mayer says using sewage sludge as compost, even after it has been treated, is “fundamentally wrong because it is toxic”. “Sewage sludge is inappropriate for any farming,” he says.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has been giving away sewage sludge, which it calls biosolids compost,  since 2007 at its two waste-water treatment plants in San Francisco. SFPUC’s Vice-President, Francesca Vietor, is also the Executive Director of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation.

David Prior, Director of Communications for the Chez Panisse Foundation, told Berkeleyside that the Foundation refutes all the claims made by the OAC which, he said, were “baseless”. He pointed to both Alice Waters’ record on organic issues and Francesca Vietor’s credentials on environmental work.  Prior said no Alice Waters-related vegetable garden uses sewage sludge as compost. He said the Foundation would be issuing a press release Thursday morning.

Responding to a letter from the OCA’s National Director Ronnie Cummins, Waters wrote on March 30:

“I have been involved with the organic garden movement for 40 years. I believe in the transparency of public institutions and count on the government to offer the highest standards outlined by the Organic Consumers Association and other reliable advocates.  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. Alice Waters, Owner and Founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Foundation.”

On its website, SFPUC states that biosolids compost is not the same as “toxic sewage sludge” and that, while biosolids compost would not meet organic farming requirements, the “extensive treatment” it undergoes makes it “safe to use on home gardens”.

The sewage sludge issue made the headlines on March 4 when the OCA dumped a load of the stuff in front of City Hall in San Francisco.

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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  1. It almost makes me want to break out The Humanure Handbook. Notice I said almost…
    And to tie it back to the discussion on the Berkeley trash fees, it does make one think that diverting kitchen scraps to the EBMUD facilities for biogas production (and subsequent contamination with biosolids) might not be the best solution.

  2. TN: There are two reasons Berkeleyside is covering this: first because it is about an event (the picket) that is happening in Berkeley; second, because it raises legitimate, public- interest questions about sewage sludge — and Francesca Vietor holds senior positions at both the Chez Panisse Foundation and SFPUC which gives away the sludge.

  3. Why is Berkeleyside publicizing this? I can think of many legitimate criticisms of Alice Water’s stances on issues in which she is directly involved. She is not at all involved with the SF PUC’s compost from what I can gather.

    I don’t think that attention seeking attacks on prominent people ought to be noted unless they are actual parties to the issue.