Has Politics Contaminated the Food Supply?

By Eric Schlosser
New York Times
December 11, 2006

This fall has brought plenty of bad news about food poisoning. More than 200
people in 26 states were sickened and three people were killed by spinach
contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. At least 183 people in 21 states got
salmonella from tainted tomatoes served at restaurants. And more than 160
people in New York, New Jersey and other states were sickened with E. coli
after eating at Taco Bell restaurants.

People are always going to get food poisoning. The idea that every meal can
be risk-free, germ-free and sterile is the sort of fantasy Howard Hughes
might have entertained. But our food can be much safer than it is right now.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million
Americans are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year
because of something they ate.

Part of the problem is that the government¹s food-safety system is
underfinanced, poorly organized and more concerned with serving private
interests than with protecting public health. It is time for the new
Democratic Congress to reverse a decades-long weakening of regulations and
face up to the food-safety threats of the 21st century.

One hundred years ago, companies were free to follow their own rules. Food
companies sold children¹s candy colored with dangerous heavy metals. And
meatpackers routinely processed ³4D animals² — livestock that were dead,
dying, diseased or disabled.

The publication of Upton Sinclair¹s novel ³The Jungle² in 1906 — with its
descriptions of rat-infested slaughterhouses and rancid meat — created
public outrage over food safety. Even though the book was written by a
socialist agitator, a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, eagerly read it.

After confirming Sinclair¹s claims, Roosevelt battled the drug companies,
the big food processors and the meatpacking companies to protect American
consumers from irresponsible corporate behavior. He argued that bad business
practices were ultimately bad for business. After a fight in Congress,
Roosevelt largely got his way with passage of the Meat Inspection Act and
the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The decades that followed were hardly an idyll of pure food and flawless
regulation. But the nation¹s diverse agricultural and food-processing system
limited the size of outbreaks. Thousands of small slaughterhouses processed
meat, and countless independent restaurants prepared food from fresh, local
ingredients. If a butcher shop sold tainted meat or a restaurant served
contaminated meals, a relatively small number of people were likely to
become ill.

Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food
system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13
slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million

And the fast-food industry¹s demand for uniform products has encouraged
centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now
being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result,
a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center
in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli
supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations
have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries
have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican
candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively
been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

The current chief of staff at the Agriculture Department used to be the beef
industry¹s chief lobbyist. The person who headed the Food and Drug
Administration until recently used to be an executive at the National Food
Processors Association.

Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety
inspections conducted by the F.D.A. to about 3,400 a year — from 35,000 in
the 1970s. The number of inspectors at the Agriculture Department has
declined to 7,500 from 9,000.

A study published in Consumer Reports last week showed the impact of such
policies: 83 percent of the broiler chickens purchased at supermarkets
nationwide were found to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

Aside from undue corporate influence and inadequate financing, America¹s
food-safety system is hampered by overlapping bureaucracies. A dozen federal
agencies now have some food safety oversight. The Agriculture Department is
responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products, while the F.D.A. is
responsible for just about everything else.

And odd, conflicting rules determine which agency has authority. The F.D.A.
is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells; the Agriculture
Department is responsible once the shells are broken. If a packaged ham
sandwich has two pieces of bread, the F.D.A. is in charge of inspecting it
— one piece of bread, and Agriculture is in charge. A sandwich-making
factory regulated by the Agriculture Department will be inspected every day,
while one inspected by the F.D.A. is likely to be inspected every five

Neither agency has the power to recall contaminated food (with the exception
of tainted infant formula) or to fine companies for food-safety lapses. And
when the cause of an outbreak is unknown, it¹s unclear which agency should
lead the investigation.

Last year, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Richard
Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, introduced an important piece of
food-safety legislation that tackles these problems. Their Safe Food Act
would create a single food-safety agency with the authority to test widely
for dangerous pathogens, demand recalls and penalize companies that
knowingly sell contaminated food.

It would eliminate petty bureaucratic rivalries and make a single
administrator accountable for the safety of America¹s food. And it would
facilitate a swift, effective response not only to the sort of inadvertent
outbreaks that have occurred this fall, but also to any deliberate
bioterrorism aimed at our food supply.

The Safe Food Act deserves strong bipartisan backing. Aside from industry
lobbyists and their Congressional allies, there is little public support for
the right to sell contaminated food. Whether you¹re a Republican or a
Democrat, you still have to eat.


Eric Schlosser is the author of ³Fast Food Nation² and ³Reefer Madness.²

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *