Do we trust our food system anymore?
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ekilby/ Some rights reserved.
We used to generally trust the corporations that make and package most of the food we eat. Whether they earned that trust or not, the titans of the industrial food industry made our meals easier to make and much more delicious (at a substantial health cost). Sure, there was the occasional scare, like Alar in apples in the 1980s.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a constant drumbeat of reminders that a package of spinach, a bouquet of cilantro, a jar of peanut butter, or a pound of beef can make you severely ill, or worse.
The latest outbreak is a massive, multi-state salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people who ate tainted chicken. The outbreak has been made worse by the fact that federal food safety experts have been on furlough due to the government shutdown. According to Politico:
The outbreak is exactly what food safety advocates and several lawmakers earlier feared.
“I can’t tell you what might be missed while the CDC is shut down,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an ominous floor speech last week.
“Important programs like protecting public health are going by the wayside. Our food safety is in danger,” warned Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
With thousands of its employees furloughed, CDC’s ability to monitor and maintain its surveillance system for the 30 clusters of illnesses it was already tracking took a major hit. CDC had just one person instead of eight monitoring important pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, as POLITICO previously reported.
Even before the furloughs, there's been a growing sense that food safety is not keeping up with changes in the increasingly multinational and consolidated food industry. Late last month, a wide swath of groups were aghast when the USDA ruled to allow poultry raised in the U.S. to be sent to China for processing, then reimported for sale here.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer expressed significant objections:
"Based on prior outbreaks and a pattern of violations, we know that there are real risks from eating meat raised in China, and we have to be vigilant to ensure that unscrupulous processors in China are not trying to take shortcuts while processing chicken from the U.S., and are not trying to substitute cheaper and less safe Chinese fowl."
Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch linked that news to the merger between pork-producing giant Smithfield and a Chinese company to warn that the system is spiraling out of control:
“Smithfield wants the public to believe this merger is just about exporting pork to China. And the USDA is trying to soothe consumers by promising that imported processed poultry products will be made from U.S.-origin birds. But it is only a matter of time until these initial conditions ease and we are importing meat and poultry from China.
“U.S. consumers should know that the politics of trade are trumping common sense when it comes to our food. Our regulators shouldn't be making it easier for the chicken breasts or pork chops on our plates to be born, raised and slaughtered in China.”
And it sure didn't help ease concerns when Chinese police discovered fake beef that was actually pork "treated with chemicals such as paraffin wax and industrial salts to make it look like beef." Yuck.
So. Where are we now? Even if you're pretty rigorous about buying local and knowing where your produce and meat comes from, we all go to the grocery store, where the food comes from the mainstream system.
Do you trust the American food system? Are you confident that cucumber or bunch of spinach is ok? Or do you cross your fingers and hope for the best?
Tags: agriculture, food, food safety, health, usda