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Can The Government Be Trusted To Fix The Safety Of Our Food?

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The safety infrastructure for food in this country is failing. It’s regulated by about a dozen federal agencies implementing about 35 laws. You would think that with that much oversight and checking, something would be working right.

The public is most certainly aware of the problem, as is evident by regular media coverage of the food safety shortcomings in our system. Weekly or daily we are notified of yet more food recalls or outbreaks of foodborne illnesses:

Are these problems occurring because in general, foods are dangerous to consume – or is it perhaps the type of foods we are eating that are causing the problem? The answer is yes to both.

Will new legislation being proposed bring an end to pathogenic bacteria that are making people sick, or will it effectively hinder smaller, more sustainable farms and food operations from staying in business?

Our government has a powerful, federally regulated body called the FDA whose job is to regulate food safety. Despite the existence of this entity and thick layers of affiliate government and laws, regulators fail time and time again to prevent the repeated occurrence of food contamination problems we continue to face on an almost daily basis.

The pending bill FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, which would give the FDA yet more more authority and control of funding for this issue was expected to come to the floor in Congress this week, but has been stalled yet again due to “more pressing issues” such as health-care reform. Multi-billion dollar conglomerate giants Tyson, Monsanto, and Cargill have shown unwavering support in their lobbying for this bill, which has also received backing by the pharmaceutical industry.

History of food regulation

Starting in the late 1800s, advancements in technology allowed the pace of food production to be stepped up beyond anything ever seen before. Never before had corporations been able to produce so many food products in so little time.

An 1886 report by the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics claimed that “New machinery has displaced fully 50 percent of the muscular labor formerly required to do a given amount of work”.  With the advent of these mechanisms and improvements to the agricultural industry, processed and packaged cereals and canned foods became more prevalent.  Synthetic substances which replaced both natural medicines and foods began to fill the shelves of warehouses and stores, all created to make life more convenient.

In the late 1800s and into the 1900s, the appearance of systems designed to put a stop to the insidious behavior of food manufacturers who were beginning to cut corners for the sake of steam-lining their processes and to increase profit made their debut.

For awhile, those regulations halted the incidence of food safety issues, and all was well. By the 1950s, positions in meat packing plants were coveted. They were relatively safe, protected by unions, and the workers were well-compensated for their efforts. But over time as the food industry expanded even more, the food regulatory divisions of government and food industries began to develop relationships which were a conflict of interest of regulation and compliance. It became common for people in positions of authority in food industry corporations to occupy slots in government agencies as well.

When a large regulatory agency falls into bed with an industry, it becomes difficult to maintain the level of necessary transparency that allows for the public to know what’s going on – and in particular, accountability is compromised.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his novel, The Jungle. Although this was a work of fiction, its emergence was noted by many as a serious commentary on the state of the food manufacturing industry. The publication of this work was a primary impetus in the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act, which occurred the same year.

More government regulations are not going to fix these problems. Small family farms not only are unable to afford all the mandatory regulation and inspection fees that large, commercial businesses pay without a backward glance, but the recalls and issues we are seeing in the food supply simply don’t originate from these sources where food is produced. Every single instance of recalling can be traced back to some large arm of the food industry.

How will the legislation serve the people?

Some people believe the Senate Committee has made some useful changes to satisfy those in support of local food. However, I am of the opinion that this bill still contains some provisions that would be detrimental for local and small family farm producers, or at the very least, will have individuals overseeing it which may not have the best interests of citizens at heart – such as Michael Taylor, Vice President of Monsanto (and the head of food safety during the Clinton Administration).

Also, according to Wikipedia, Rosa DeLauro (whose husband, Stanley Greenburg, is a political consultant who has a business relationship with Monsanto) introduced HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, on February 4th 2009. The purpose of this bill was to create a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to regulate food production. The problem was this measure would possibly place restrictive regulatory encumbrances on backyard gardening and small-scale organic agriculture.

While many people and sources have been labeled “paranoid” and “fanatical” for their warnings and trepidations about this legislation, this may just be one of the first of many steps in a larger process to limit our freedoms and abilities to be able to procure safe, real food.

The big player

Monsanto is the world’s biggest producer of herbicides and genetically-engineered seeds. They were responsible for the creation of Agent Orange, DDT, and the chemical Roundup – the most commonly used herbicide in the United States. Monsanto also created the genetically-engineered growth hormone rbGH under the direction of VP Michael Taylor, now administered to many cattle who are slaughtered for food and provide milk to drink.

Monsanto views themselves as environmental stewards and preservers of humanity. Their acknowledgment of the earth’s ever-growing population ignites a call to produce more and more food to sustain that mass.

“In our minds, that means we have to increase the production of food at a level that we will effectively double food production by 2050,” said Brett Begemann, Monsanto executive vice president of global commercial. “When you think about what that means, it means we have to produce more food between now and 2050 – which is a short 40-year period – than the world has produced in the previous 10,000 years combined.”

And it is precisely this attitude which grants license to a multi-billion dollar conglomeration to “feed the world”. It is done under the convincing veil of benevolence and humanitarianism, and with no revelations about the cost to human health and the environment.

Hazards of GE (genetically-engineered) foods and crops (as listed in the Food, Inc., Participant Guide):

  • toxins and poisons
  • increased cancer risks
  • allergies
  • damage to food quality and nutrition
  • antibiotic resistance
  • increased pesticide residues
  • damage to beneficial insects, soil fertility (and diversity)
  • creation of GE “superweeds” and “super pests”
  • new viruses and pathogens
  • genetic bio-invasion
  • socioeconomic hazards
  • ethical hazards

I just have to ask this question: why is that people persist in the idea that somehow if we step up government regulation – which is currently failing – these problems will cease to exist? Is this the answer we need to change the landscape of food safety?

I don’t have to tell you just how much a mega-corporation like Monsanto would benefit from the passage of the newer version of this bill (S. 510). To see what’s in this bill, read the text of H.R. 875, introduced last year (2009).

Even though web sites like Slow Food claim that there is no reason to be unnerved by this bill or anything remotely resembling it, the motives behind why such a bill would be introduced by individuals working for such a corporation really need to be called into question.

History is doomed to repeat itself

Time and time again, reports of food recalls and contamination occur within the industrial food supply realm. When are the authorities governing these arenas going to wake up and realize that what is needed is massive change in the way food is produced? The industrial food market needs to be forced to clean up its act, and we need to maintain the protection and rights of local and sustainable producers providing healthy and safe products, which means not adding monumental federal regulatory sanctions for farming that only the big, multi-billion dollar players can actually meet.

Here are some quotes by individuals in the agricultural industry:

“The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GMOs] that there’s nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender.”

Don Westfall, biotech industry consultant and vice-president of Promar International quoted in, “Starlink fallout could cost billions”, Toronto Star, 9 January 2001

“It’s important for countries around the world to adopt a uniform standard of acceptable levels of contamination.”

Biotechnology Industry Organization spokesperson, Lisa Dry quoted in, “Engineered DNA found in crop seeds“, Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 24 February 2004

“People will have [GM] Roundup Ready soya whether they like it or not.”

Monsanto spokesperson in Britian, Ann Foster, “The politics of food“, Maria Margaronis, The Nation, 27 December 1999

“Cross-pollination of the environment is an issue, and that has to be addressed. And for those countries that have very small landmass, there’s no way they can segregate GM crops from conventional crops or from organic crops, and so the likelihood of cross pollination exists.”

Prof Patrick Wall, until 2008 the Chairman of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU Agency mandated by the European Commission to advise on the safety of genetically modified food and animal feed for the European Union, in an interview: “We cannot force-feed EU citizens with GM food“, 2 December 2008

Source, OpEd News

Here are just some of the gross oversights occurring in our current food regulatory system (source, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics):

  • Over time, the number of facilities that actually receive inspection has decreased – the FDA inspects less than a quarter of food facilities annually
  • Of the total, 56 percent of total facilities have gone 5 years or longer without FDA inspection.
  • The number of facilities that received OAI [Official Action Indicated] classifications has declined over time. In addition, nearly three-quarters of the facilities that received OAI classifications in FY 2008 had a history of violations. Two percent of facilities that received OAI classifications refused to grant FDA officials access to their records.
  • FDA took regulatory action against 46 percent of the facilities with initial OAI classifications; for the remainder, FDA either lowered the classification or took no regulatory action.
  • For 36 percent of the facilities with OAI classifications in FY 2007, FDA took no additional steps to ensure that the violations were corrected.

Ideally, I’d like to see legislation supporting amendments that would place exemptions for small-scale and direct-marketing producers. Small farmers and food producers currently answer to state and local authority regulation, so to impose additional federal regulation upon them would at the very least hamper their abilities to produce a safe product and could very easily shut operations down completely.

I’m concerned that if the new legislation favors larger, industrial agricultural system, too much federal regulation would cause smaller, local producers to go out of business. The real answer lies in the cultivation and support of local food systems to alleviate the burden of these food safety issues.

In the states of Florida and Wyoming, state legislatures have been considering bills that would decentralize regulation of local food. This movement would be a change in the right direction to affect food safety in a positive way.

How exactly does supporting local agricultural business accomplish this, and what are the benefits?

  • Food produced near those consuming it can observe farming practices
  • In some areas, fresh, seasonal food is available all year round; in others, communities without certain types of food can purchase from neighboring communities
  • There is more accountability and ability by the consumer to be able to know how the food is produced
  • With closer proximity to customers, farmers can have relationships with those individuals and develop a better understanding of what their customers want
  • Food quality is generally higher because the nutrients in foods are not compromised due to excessive processing, packaging, and travel
  • Your food dollars go to support your local communities – not a big, bloated agribusiness giant that destroys the environment, the economy, human, and animal health by unsafe and unhealthy production and “farming” practices
  • Saves petroleum and other forms of energy and reduce pollution generated by those efforts by buying from producers and farmers who are close to where you live
  • Contribute to the success of families trying to earn an honest living
  • The use of CSAs (“subscription” programs where food growers allot certain packages of food for certain times of year to customers) helps farmers fund their efforts more evenly during the year

How can you make a difference?

  • Watch what your politicians are doing – call or write to your state senators and representatives, and let them know these issues are important to you! Put pressure on politicians at every opportunity to vote for legislation that supports sustainable farming.
  • Learn to cook at home – avoid eating out and buying packaged foods.  See our recipes section for some ideas on getting started.
  • Vote with your food dollars – that means not supporting big corporations, but buying local and regional food products to support the farmers and food growers in your area.
  • Avoid processed foods – that means, foods in boxes, packages, and cans. Buy foods that are recognizable, have the least ingredients, and create the smallest footprint.
  • Get to know the people who produce food you eat. When people have respect for one another and the work necessary to produce or create something, they gain an appreciation for life.
  • Organize forums, web discussion groups, local organizations, and news-making events around boycotting genetically-engineered foods and supporting local agricultural producers that use sustainable farming methods
  • Learn the difference between local and sustainable – local does not necessarily mean production and/or farming methods used are going to benefit human and environmental health.  Read How Well Do You Know Your Food? Find Out!
  • Learn about From Grass to Cheese – a small, family farm based in Nolan, Ohio is hoping for directors to gain enough funding by their goal – April 22, 2010 to bring a documentary to the world about the importance of supporting the sustainable family farm. Please listen to this podcast and donate your dollars to help them reach their goal of making this important film!