Food safety: band-aids vs. real solutions

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, December 2, 2010 13:57 EDT
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A number of people have asked me to blog about the food safety bill that passed through the Senate and is fixing to pass through the House, if they can hammer out some procedural issues. KJ at XX put some useful links together, if you want to read up on it. Grist has been blogging the hell out of it, and Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser endorsed it in a NY Times op-ed. The reason that a lot of people are skeptical of this bill is that it’s widely supported by Big Agra, which doesn’t bode well. The fact that it passed with wide margins in the Senate also makes me nervous—if it didn’t meet widespread Republican opposition, that’s a good sign that it’s toothless.

Yes, the Tea Partiers are up in arms about it, but that’s because they believe not regulating our food system will piss off the liberals. They’ve gotten to the point where they’ll take a bunch of dead people from food poisoning if it’ll piss off the liberals. And it’s true! When children die for no good reason, that pisses me off way more than when Bristol Palin did better than she ought to have on “Dancing With The Stars”. Anyway, their squawking is irrelevant, and at best a demonstration of how the problem with teabaggers is they’re committed to this idea that nothing bad could happen to them because they’re god’s chosen assholes. But food poisoning strikes the rich and poor alike.

Doing some reading on this, my feeling on the bill is that I, like most environmentalists and people deeply interested in food issues, tacitly endorse the bill while being clear that it’s a band-aid. The amount of lobbying money spent by Big Agra on this is troubling, but as Pollan and Schlosser point out, industrial agricultural trade groups are coming out against it. Part of the reason might be that an amendment was added to give protections to small farmers, and perhaps Big Agra was hoping to stomp out their teeny-tiny competitors with this bill and now they can’t. Or maybe, as Pollan and Schlosser argue, they never liked the bill in the first place, and all the interest in it was a matter of trying to make it less bad than the alternative.

The problem is that they did succeed in making the bill way weaker than it needs to be. The good news is that it gives FDA regulators some power—they have more testing authority and they can force a recall. It’s too little testing authority, but it should help. Basically, this is one of those rare situations where Congress is actually accountable to voters, in no small part because the issues at hand aren’t so complicated that they can be wildly distorted by the news media. But Congress did as little as they could get away with.

Tom Philpott laid out the major issue with the bill, and why it’s a band-aid solution: it’s outcome-oriented instead of tackling root causes. All the focus has shifted to testing and recalls, but the real problem is that our animal-based food systems are unhygienic in their practices, but wide in their scope. Let’s tackle these two problems in order.

First is the lack of hygiene at industrial farms that raise animals for either meat or secondary products like milk or eggs. The problem is that animals are crammed together and stressed out for their short lives, both of which mean that disease can spread rapidly. Animals are also the main reason for the massive produce recalls—when you cram that many animals together, they shit. A lot. And that has to go somewhere. On smaller farms, the amount of shit animals produce is reasonable and can be used as fertilizer. But it’s so much shit in the industrial farms that it turns to toxic sludge. Tom refers to this NY Times piece about how a dairy farm that had 41,000 cows managed to put off so much shit that there wasn’t enough land to spread it on, and it seeped into the water, causing widespread health problems in the area. Tom contrasts this with a story about a small farm that produced raw milk and had some of it test positive for listeria. Now, I’m generally skeptical of the raw milk aficionados, who remind me of anti-vaxxers and every other group of people whose education hasn’t shielded them from falling for woo—it’s easy to forget how many lives innovations like pasteurization has saved. But while I don’t drink raw milk, it’s also true that raw milk cheese is by and large a minimal threat, especially when compared to the larger threats we tolerate from industrial dairy and egg producers, even, as Tom points out, to people who aren’t their customers.

Which brings me to my second point: distribution. Small farms are able to spread out more and practice better hygiene than industrial farms, but even if there’s bacteria in the system, the number of people who consume it is minimal. But as we discovered with the egg recall, one industrial farm has foul eggs in it, and you’re talking a massive problem that goes coast to coast.

The solution being offered is more testing for bacteria. In theory, looking at output is a way to force industrial farms to adopt better practices, but what we know from practice is that industrial farms actually prefer to deal with bacteria by feeding a stream of antibiotics to the animals. And that doesn’t do anything to address the problem of epic amounts of shit in concentrated doses.

As Tom notes, the main thing that needs to happen is decentralization. Obviously, you can’t feed a nation on small, organic farms that set up at farmer’s markets, but you could split the difference and have big farms that aren’t so big, and more organic, humane practices. Every move in right direction counts, even if it’s less than ideal. If you could just cut the amount of shit produced by one farm in half, for instance, that would be huge.

But I’d go a step further and say that one of the reasons that we don’t have a decentralized system is that we, as a country, eat too much. Or at least we buy too much food. And that’s why this bill is such a band-aid, since it doesn’t do anything to address the forces that are creating these centralized, disgusting industrial farms. I’ve just started reading the book that is supposed to be the best one out there about the food industry, Food Politics, and right off the bat, author Marion Nestle says the problem is that any discussion of eating less—or at least buying less—is forbidden in our current political atmosphere.* The number she cites up front is chilling—our food system delivers to U.S. consumers 3,900 calories a day per capita. That’s twice what we need. People eat more than they should, but a lot of food is just tossed out. And that’s how the food industry wants it. They want you to buy a gallon of milk, only drink half, and then toss the rest out when it spoils. They don’t want you buying a half gallon. They want you to eat until you’re stuffed at every meal. They want small children eating adult portions. The more they sell, the more money they make. But the more they sell, the more incentive there is to cram more and more animals into each square foot, which means disease and environmental damage in rampant.

These new regulations don’t do squat to address this problem, which is too much food. To fix that problem, we need a much bigger bill, probably a series of bills. Almost anything truly useful that could be done would raise the price of food, so we’d probably need to subsidize food for those who don’t have enough money to buy enough calories. We’d have to shut down a lot of the fast food market, or at least make it more expensive to eat there, because they’re just in the business of cranking out maximum calories for minimum dollar, and making their money in bulk. These are all political nightmares, but it’s what needs to be done.

*I’m not talking about the diet industry. I would argue that the diet industry is part and parcel of the eat-more food industry. Most of the food industry coaches you to eat more, and then when you gain a bunch of weight, this sector coaches you to eat less by buying their overpriced products. Instead of, you know, just eating less, which should, in theory, be pretty cheap. I see the cycle a lot like the one the financial sector created, where it was creating investment products and then creating an industry to insure those, so either way, they’re making money. Until the system collapsed under its own weight.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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