Finding the political courage for safe food


Finding the political courage for safe food

When it comes to food safety, caution is key: Clean, separate, cook and chill, says the USDA, which offers pages of fact sheets and resources on its website.

With the scale of our industrialized food supply, however, that is not enough. In an eloquent plea to Congress for leadership and the political will to enact food safety regulation, Eric Schlosser writes that every day about 200,000 people in the U.S. fall ill from contaminated food.

.... Every year, about 325,000 are hospitalized by a food-borne illness. And the number who are killed annually by something they ate is roughly the same as the number of Americans who've been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The most vulnerable group, he says, is children under the age of 4.

Kevin Kowalcyk, 2½ (and in photo at right), was one of those children. Home video of him at play, paired with the voiceover of his mother, Barbara, telling the story of his death from eating contaminated hamburger from a fast-food eatery, was among the most powerful segments of "Food, Inc."

We do want a safe food system that protects our children and the rest of us.

What are we to make, then, of the tale (and video) from the 1,600-member Rawesome Foods cooperative in Venice, CA? P.J. Huffstutter, an able writer with an eye for detail, sets the scene:

With no warning one weekday morning, investigators entered an organic grocery with a search warrant and ordered the hemp-clad workers to put down their buckets of mashed coconut cream and to step away from the nuts. Then, guns drawn, four officers fanned out across Rawesome Foods in Venice. Skirting past the arugula and peering under crates of zucchini, they found the raid's target inside a walk-in refrigerator: unmarked jugs of raw milk.

She says that regulators point to epidemiological evidence linking disease outbreaks to raw milk, citing E. coli O157:H7 (the bacteria that killed Kevin Kowalcyk), salmonella, campylobacter and listeria.

Raw-milk fans, she writes, point to the industrialized, consolidated food system, and products from it that have been at the root of some of the country's deadliest food contamination cases.

Consider, for example, the case of the Peanut Corporation of America that killed eight people and is cited by Mr. Schlosser:

Thousands of different products, manufactured by more than 200 companies, including candies and cookies marketed to children, were potentially tainted thanks to that one plant. And in the end, roughly 20,000 Americans got salmonella; about half of them were under the age of 16 and one-fifth were younger than 5.

Another problem, he says, is the rise in imports from China, with its pervasive quality control problems - lead-based whiteners in pasta, beverages made with industrial alcohol, melamine added to baby formula, rampant overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. "About 60 percent of the apple juice in America -- like peanut butter, a product consumed largely by children -- now comes from China."

Ms. Huffstutter notes that raw milk has drawn scrutiny largely because the politically powerful dairy industry has pressed the government to act.

That government action seems to stop at the door of Congress, where food safety is stuck in limbo. Legislation, Mr. Schlosser says, has strong support among the public and advocacy groups, but:

Food processors reluctant to oppose the bill openly will be delighted if it dies a quiet death. That's because, right now, very few cases of food poisoning are ever actually linked to what the person ate, and companies that sell contaminated products routinely avoid liability. The economic cost is instead imposed on society ... about $152 billion annually.

Add that to the annual $147 billion in medical costs of obesity - a slow version of a food safety problem - and annual direct and indirect costs of $174 billion for diabetes, and the evidence is clear. It's time for a $473 billion change. Imagine having those funds to invest in clean air, good food, pure water - and the future of our children.


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