Pretendment

December 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

David Gumpert does a great job dissecting the Tester-Hagan Amendment. Don’t be fooled by Michael Pollan’s support for this bill.

S510: The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

A few folks have asked what I think of S510: The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that just passed the Senate. The short answer is, “not much.” The slightly longer answer is below.The even longer answer can be found in my forthcoming book, Making Supper Safe, where I explore even another aspect of food safety: The need for bacterial diversity in our food and our bodies.

As S510: Food Safety Modernization Act stumbles toward what it beginning to feel like inevitable passage, with support from progressive food personalities like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, we would do well to consider the inherently weak assumptions that are propelling it forward.

It is often stated that foodborne illness kills more than 5,000 Americans annually, sends another 325,000 to the hospital, and provides a whopping 76 million of us an unwelcome opportunity to become overly familiar with the view from our toilet. It is less often stated that the 1999 study providing these numbers ends with a line that reads “unknown agents account for approximately 81% of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations and 64% of deaths.” In other words, a significant majority of assumed illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths are just that: Assumed. The numbers are merely extrapolated from estimates of all deaths by gastroenteritis of unknown cause. Indeed, the extrapolation accounts for 3,400 of the total study estimate of 5,194 deaths annually.

This does not mean there is no foodborne illness; it does not even necessarily mean there is less foodborne illness than previously thought. But it does underline the fragility of the assumptions on which the contemporary view of food safety has been forged. Too, it requires only a cursory examination of the food-related dangers at hand to understand just how narrow this view is.

Consider, for a moment, the shocking rise of diabetes in this country over the past four decades; consider that 300,000 American deaths can be attributed to obesity each and every year, a full 295,000 more than are believed to die from acute foodborne illness annually. Consider that a peer-reviewed study published in the January 26, 2009 edition of Environmental Health Journal showed that nearly half the samples of high fructose corn syrup tested contained mercury. A second study, conducted by industry watchdog group the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, found that nearly a third of the 55 brand-name foods tested contained mercury. Of the products that tested positive, most contained HFCS.

And what of the tragic rise in drug-resistant bacteria, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths annually, some of which can be attributed to the practice of feeding sub-clinical doses of antibiotics to livestock? Our nation’s meat production facilities have become breeding grounds not only for animals but also for the resistance genes that can insert themselves into bacteria that commonly infect humans, rendering antibiotics useless. Our medical community understands the problem; indeed, it has made strategic decisions to end the practice of treating certain groups of patients with prophylactic doses of antibiotics, even when doing so has been shown to save lives. Why? Because they recognize the greater danger of unleashing drug-resistant disease into the wider population. And yet we continue the practice of feeding antibiotics to our livestock, not to save lives, mind you, but so they might grow a handful of percent larger by slaughter time.

Does S510 address any of these issues? It does not. This is not to say that S510 is a wholly ineffectual bill; indeed, it does provide a measure of accountability that has long been lacking in our nation’s food supply.

But let us be clear: S510 addresses only a shallow, perhaps even hollow, elucidation of food safety. It does nothing to address the utter lack of transparency in the methods of production, processing, and distribution; it does not acknowledge the rapidly increasing consolidation in our food industry, whereby a single facility can sicken ten of thousands with a single incident of contamination. It certainly does not recognize the mounting danger inherent to common 21st century meat production practices.

The largest unspoken truth about food safety in the United States is this: Our food doesn’t need pathogenic bacteria to sicken us. It does just fine on its own. And S510 does absolutely nothing to change this.

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