I have gotten into the pattern of trusting the safety of any food that is available for purchase but does my blind trust put my health in jeopardy? It seems that having access to safe and healthy food has always been an assumed right as an American, but why? We have all witnessed food recalls, e-coli outbreaks and heard reports on unsafe food processing practices by US companies. Who is ‘approving’ this food for American consumption and through which process? What are the penalties for infractions and where can the average American access this information in order to make an informed decision about the food they consume?
Formed in 1906, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of the 6 centers making up the FDA is the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) which works to assure that the food supply is safe, sanitary, wholesome, and honestly labeled. In 1938 the Tugwell bill signed by Teddy Roosevelt, are you sure it was Teddy?! stated that food standards were required to be set up when needed “to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers.” This is still the principal foundation of the CFSAN today (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
The FDA inspects food facilities routinely, often in partnership with state regulatory agencies. The frequency is based on the type of facility, the type of food processed or handled at the facility, and the public health risk associated with the product. If a facility is found to need some corrective actions, follow-up inspections are conducted to review the implementation of the corrections. The FDA does not regulate meat and poultry (except for game meats, such as venison, ostrich and snake) nor is the FDA responsible for restaurants or grocery stores (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
Meat and poultry are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspections and licensing of restaurants and grocery stores are typically handled by local and county health departments.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been in official operation since 1860. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act. Under authority of the Federal Meat, Poultry and Egg Products Inspection Acts, USDA inspects and monitors all meat, poultry and egg products sold in interstate and foreign commerce to ensure compliance with mandatory U.S. food safety standards and inspection legislation (United States Department of Agriculture).
FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are the primary federal agencies “responsible” for regulating our food supply. The agencies work closely with state and local partners, as well as the food industry, to “oversee the safety of food sold in the United States.” The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires food manufacturers and distributors to employ a variety of measures to ensure that their products are “safe, clean, and properly labeled.” The same law empowers FDA to take action to keep “unsafe or misbranded” FDA-regulated food products out of the marketplace (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
Unpredictable events, mechanical and human error, and environmental conditions all play a role in the problems we continue to see in food production, processing, and distribution. FDA works within the industry to ensure products that may cause harm are recalled as quickly as possible. Recalling a food product may mean that a problem has been caught early before it has a chance to become an even greater one.
Unfortunately, as systems for detecting food borne illness evolve and improve, the very organisms at the root of much of food borne illness also continue to evolve. So, we find these organisms under circumstances in which we have never seen them before. However, FDA continues to work to “detect problems earlier so food borne illnesses can be prevented” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
As recently as May 7th, 2010, there have been E. coli outbreaks in the press. In an article written by Mary Clare Jalonick, she addresses the issue that 23 states have been sold E. coli contaminated lettuce, all stemming from one farm in Arizona.
This outbreak is responsible for the illness of 19 people so far, three of them with life-threatening symptoms. How can vegetables be dangerous? The damage of this outbreak was minimized by the fact that the main consumers of the tainted lettuce were college students and young adults. If the contamination had been able to reach an elementary school or a retirement facility, the damages and loss of human life would have been much higher as the young and the elderly have less resistance to E. coli. The FDA is investigating the lettuce farm as well as an unnamed processing facility that may also be associated with the contamination. In the mean time, whatever remaining un-consumed E. coli infected lettuce has been recalled. Jalonick reports:
Donna Rosenbaum, director of the food safety advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority and one of those briefed, said the agency held a phone call with public health advocates Thursday. Rosenbaum and other public health advocates have long been pushing for stronger food safety laws. The House passed a bill last year that would give the agency much more authority to police food protection, but the Senate has not acted on it. (FDA Investigating E. coli At Arizona Lettuce Farm)
In addition to immediate food safety issues, I am also concerned with the over-all health of our food supply. It has been predicted that 1 in every 3 Americans born after the year 2000 will fall victim to early onset diabetes. Because income level is a direct factor in obesity, the rate of early onset diabetes in minorities will be 1 in 2 people. Along with early onset diabetes, obese children will face a heightened risk for heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and poor general health, all of which lead to a shortened life expectancy rate. 2006 was the first year on record in the last 50 years that average life expectancy for Americans has decreased. Even with all of our modern medical advances, we are still no match for obesity (Food Inc.).
Currently, Oregon has the lowest childhood obesity rate in the country with just less than 10% of children ages 10 – 17 years old being obese. This may sound like good news but the fact remains that even with the lowest obesity rate in the country, one out of every 10 Oregon children in this age bracket is obese. The national average for childhood obesity in 2007 was 16%. So although Oregon ranks at the bottom, the margin is not very large with the national average being 16 children out of 100 being obese (Cooper 1).
What has changed in the way we eat? You may be wondering why diseases like diabetes and obesity are on the rise. The simple answer is that the food we eat has changed. Food production is no longer based on providing healthy and nutritious food. The focus has been changed to “bigger, faster, quicker’” according to Joel Saltin, owner of Polyface Farms. Profit is now the name of the game. Saltin believes:
When you have a small group of multinational corporations who control the entire food system from seed to the supermarket, they’re gaining control of food. If we put glass walls on all the mega- processing facilities, we would have a different food system in this country. Is cheap all there is? Who wants to buy the cheapest car? (Food Inc.)
It seems that we have become a culture of technicians at the cost of our food sources. In the year 1900, one farmer was able to feed 6-8 people. Now the same farmer is able to feed 126 people. The scientific advances made in food production have one underlying goal- to make food faster and cheaper in order to allow for more profit. This profit is coming at the price of the American people’s health and most of us don’t even know it’s happening (Healy 151).
To save time and money, we visit the drive-thru instead of grocery shopping and preparing a meals at home. Most of us have a choice as what we can have for dinner and are not entirely limited by finances. In Food Inc. Kenner highlighted the fact that a low income family could purchase a meal at McDonalds cheaper than they could purchase groceries, including vegetables at a grocery store. I was surprised and disgusted by this so I wanted to do my own investigation in Eugene.
Turns out, Kenner is right. I visited several local grocery to get an average price for ingredients in a dinner I often prepared for my family; stir fry with teriyaki chicken and brown rice. It takes less than 30 minutes to prepare and is overall, a healthy dish with only 400 calories and 5 grams of fat per serving. Average price of ingredients to feed a family of four- $17.59 and this was not for organic items. To go the all natural route, the price went up to $26.42.
On the other hand, a family of four can EACH have 2 items off the dollar menu at their local fast food restaurant for a grand total of $8.00. Sounds like a bargain right? It is until you factor in that a dollar menu cheeseburger from McDonalds has 300 calories and 12 grams of fat and an order of medium french fries has 380 calories and 19 grams of fat. For those who think they are picking a healthier option by ordering chicken, think again. The Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich at McDonalds may cost only a dollar but has plenty of punch with 420 calories and 10 grams of fat. (McDonalds)
In comparison, a family of four could end up conservatively eating 3,000 calories and 110 grams of fat for this McDonalds dinner vs. 1,600 calories and 20 grams of fat for a meal prepared at home. Some unfortunately do not have a choice between the price tags. At the end of the week, a family of four could spend $122.43 on ingredients used to prepare 7 dinners at home or the same family could spend $56.00 for 7 nights of McDonalds Dollar Menu dinners. How can it cost more to eat healthy? Is anyone questioning why a cheeseburger costs less than a head of lettuce?
The largest slaughterhouse in the world is Smithfield Hog processing plant in Tarheel, NC. On a daily basis, this one plant processes 32,000 hogs. Unfortunately, most of the work gets done not only by cutting corners but also by exploiting illegal workers. Large manufacturing companies such as Smithfield Hog, actively seek temporary employees in Mexico. Advertisements promoting good wages and even promises of provided housing and transportation falsely lure illegal immigrant workers into this very dangerous job. Because they are here in this country illegally, they are not able to go to the authorities when their safety or rights are violated. This is what these mega-coperations are counting on. They burn through these temporary work forces with no regard for the actual workers. If a company can process humans like this, imagine how they process the pigs, our food (Nestle 128)
Sadly, the U.S. government is not cracking down on these companies for their labor violations, but instead are focusing on the illegal workers. Big food processing plants who practice this form of employment often have an agreement with the local immigration offices. In Tarheel, only 15 illegal workers a day will be arrested and deported so that it lessens the impact on the production line at the Smithfield Hog plant. An anonymous Immigrations Officer interviewed by Michael Pollan says, “These illegals are here for 10 or 15 years processing your bacon, your holiday ham and now they are being picked up like criminals while these companies are profiting millions of dollars”. At what point should these illegal workers be considered American? They are being exploited and used for profit. They come to this country on the promise of making money to support their families and better their lives. They perform jobs that are deemed unsafe or undesirable by American people and then when they have served their purpose, we send them back and replace them with a fresh illegal workforce, prolonging the cycle. I have to wonder that if these foreign food processors were given the same rights as American citizens would the dirty secrets of food processing plants remain secret? Is this illegal workforce being deported and recycled in order to silence them from whistle blowing? (Pollan, In Defense of Food 86)
Watching Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc., I am SHOCKED at the corner-cutting food processors and farmers implement while producing our food. 80% of the bacteria in beef could be eliminated by allowing cattle to grass-graze for 3 days prior to slaughter. How could this benefit not be profitable? Scientists have reengineered poultry genetics by shortening the maturity cycle and enlarging the most expensive part of the bird, it’s breasts. Food production is about profit and not about feeding people, and farmers have become mad scientists.
How are our vegetables getting infected? It makes me quiver to think that eating a vegetable could be dangerous to my health. I am really shocked that the Toyota recall delay scandal has generated the press and government attention that it has when Toyota has only been responsible for 58 deaths, not yet even confirmed. Foodborne illnesses kill hundreds of people a year here in the US. Kids served their school lunches, college kids trying to make healthy salads, busy moms on the run, stopping through the drive thru. We are all susceptible to this danger every time we put food in our mouths but our government seems to be soft-spoken when it comes to the safety of our food supply.
There are two main issues with our current food protection policies. First, the approved methods are not being regulated or enforced strictly enough. Not fitting of the crimes, the second issue we face is that the currently approved food processing laws, even if enforced, are not strict enough. They allow for too many quantity over quality corners to be cut and worse, there are no labeling requirements to allow the consumer to make an educated choice. The role, or lack thereof, our government plays in these issues is not by accident. It is not a coincidence that many high-ranking government appointed officials who are in charge of our food safety have previously worked for or had ties with big food corporations and chemical companies. There is no protection from the obvious conflict of interest and this is a crack in the system that is being exploited time and time again by the people in charge of producing America’s food sources (Simon 34). We call this corruption.
Dangerous food is everywhere and the government we elected to create regulations is not able to enforce or chooses not to enforce the laws when violations occur. We need to collectively come together and have one voice and make sure it is heard by our law makers and protective agencies when it comes to the punishments and preventative measures in food processing practices. It IS our right to have healthy and safe food available to everyone.
When I first started this project it was with some hesitation. I like eating out, I love food, burgers being among one of my favorites. I expected to learn gross and disgusting things that would shock me into not wanting to eat these items for a while on pure principal. However, so far, based on the information I have uncovered, I not only do not crave fast food (once a guilty pleasure of mine) I can’t even stomach the thought of biting into something that isn’t locally made from local, organic ingredient. I was raised pretty naturally so I obviously knew that fast food and packaged convenience foods are not the best option, I might even go as far as to say they are unhealthy. But what I have learned is what ‘unhealthy’ really means. It doesn’t just mean that the food does not benefit you. It can and does mean that it can harm or hurt you. Food shouldn’t be doing this to my body.
Organizing this project has been hard. I want to write a well focused, informative but interesting paper. I don’t want to gross people out or guilt them out of their own food choices, I don’t want to rant about government conspiracies. I want to limit the scope of my research to a few main topics that can be a starting point for anyone who wants to begin their own food education process. I could probably write for months and still not cover everything that is out there about food safety and the why’s and how’s of it. It all comes down to that I want to write a helpful paper that doesn’t overwhelm me and that allows me to make better, more informed food choices.
Through my research I have uncovered a few tricks to help make healthier food choices easier. We are so lucky to live where have access to a growers market and U-pick farms. The price in grocery stores for organic produce is high and just because the food is organic doesn’t mean that it didn’t come from Ohio. I think the best suggestion I have for bringing real food back into our lives is to visit local markets. It’s a cheap way to get great locally grown produce (Foodmatters).
There is something to be said about looking the person who grew my salad in the eye. I wouldn’t just trust anyone to borrow my car or house sit for me, why should we trust faceless corporations to feed us. Their goal is profit, not my health.