Archive for February, 2009
We are a nation of 300 million eaters.
And anyone that eats can attest to the utter confusion that our food supply has become. As headlines swirl about beef recalls large enough to feed every American two hamburgers, baby formula laced with melamine, and controversial additives used to preserve processed foods, eaters can’t help but yearn for the days when all we had to worry about was contaminated spinach.
To be candid, I was never much of a foodie. When I heard about Michael Pollan’s PBS Interview with Bill Moyers, I couldn’t relate when he said that his “path was through the garden“. My path was through the aisles at Costco and the tubes of blue yogurt, since I saw the organic thing as a lifestyle choice that I couldn’t afford.
But as 2008 headlines exposed our tainted financial system, stories followed about our tainted food supply. As I read about baby formulas and jars of salsa laced with who-knows-what, I was left slack-jawed as I learned that the financial industry wasn’t the only industry that had experienced deregulation, lack of transparency and failed oversight.
In the last eight years, the Food and Drug Administration, charged with safeguarding the health of our nation’s 300 million eaters, has not only seen its budget decline but has also seen its staffing levels fall behind its workload.
From 2003 to 2006, the number of food safety inspections conducted by the agency dropped by 47 percent, leading its own Science Board, chaired by Barbara McNeil, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Department of Health Policy at Harvard Medical School and a radiologist at the Brigham and Women’s in Boston, to declare that the agency could “no longer fulfill its mission without substantial and sustained additional appropriations.”
In “an alarming report,” the New York Times stated that the FDA had also declared that “American lives at risk” and that the FDA lacks resources and “can no longer ensure the safety of the food supply.”
And I thought all I had to worry about was the declining stock market and sick kids.
As I dug into additional research from organizations like the Cato Institute, the Environmental Working Group and the Royal Society of Chemistry, I learned that a lot of the scientific data highlighted in the press has been funded by the food industry and propagated by groups with legitimate sounding names like the American Council on Science and Health. I also learned that in the last ten years, our food supply had been chemically engineered in order to enhance product shelf life, productivity and profitability of food corporations.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States is the world’s largest corporate producer of genetically engineered organisms. Since the introduction of these bio-engineered ingredients into our food just over ten years ago, we are also one of the only developed countries allowing these ingredients into our food supply (stats from USDA/ERS: Rapid growth of adoption of genetically engineered crops continues in the US).
As I continued to learn more from the Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, I also learned that no human trials had been conducted to assess the safety of consuming these genetically modified and bio-engineered foods, prompting government agencies around the world – from Europe to Russia to Australia – to either ban or label these ingredients due to the health risks that they may present.
Through documentaries like The Future of Food and a May 2008 Vanity Fair investigative story , which detail the remarkable relationship that the agrichemical, food corporations have with our government, I learned about a “revolving door” that exists between the food industry and our government agencies. Candidly, the stories read much like a James Bond movie or George Clooney’s Michael Clayton and reminded me of a recent New York Times piece titled “The Guys From Government Sachs” about the “revolving door” between the investment banking industry and our government.
As I struggled to reconcile what I was learning about these corporations, their profit-driven strategies, our government and the global food crisis, I was fascinated by an article by Michael Pollan, “Playing God in the Garden” and a recent Catholic News document from the Vatican stating that “the responsibility for the food crisis “is in the hands of unscrupulous people who focus only on profit and certainly not on the well-being of all people. If one wants to pursue GMOs (genetically modified organisms) one can freely do so, but without hiding that it’s a way to make more profits” given that “a more just system of distribution and not the manufacturing of genetically modified foods is the key to addressing the problem.”
According to the Wall Street Journal‘s Money and Investing section, one of these corporations has recently seen their stock price rise 170 percent.
As the Vatican cries “moral foul”, is this a signal that there’s more fire than smoke on the horizon? We will have to wait and see.
In the meantime, I may listen to a few earnings’ calls as evidence continues to mount regarding health risks like infertility that these bio-engineered foods present. I may also clean out my cabinets in an effort to reduce my family’s exposure to these genetically engineered organisms now found in conventional corn, soy and milk in the United States.
And as I do, I will reflect on the headlines of 2008, The Audacity of Greed, and the impact that the corporations, lobbyists and bankers spinning through the “revolving door” have on our policy decisions, while the theme song from Donald Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, runs through my head:
“Money, Money, Money, Mon-ey, MON-EY!”
As Pfizer swallowed Wyeth and Bank of America started belching up Merrill Lynch, you just might have missed the heartburn-inducing headline of the year: heavy metal has been found in our daily bread.
According to a report in Environmental Health by a former FDA scientist and whistleblower, the heavy metal, mercury, “a potent neurological toxin” removed from vaccines due to concerns that it “is a danger to unborn children whose developing brains can be damaged if they are exposed to low dose micrograms exposures in the womb”, has now found its way into your kitchen cupboards, your fridge, your mouths and your bellies.
Talk about a “fly in your soup” kind of news!
You just might be thinking, “How in the world did mercury get into our food supply?”
Funny you should ask. According to a must-read report in Environmental Health, Mercury in Measured Concentrations in Food Products by Renee Dufault’s team, mercury is used in thousands of food ingredients such as citric acid, sodium benzoate and high fructose corn syrup.
Little did we know!
According to the report, the EPA learned this in 2003 when it reported that “tons of mercury were missing”. Shortly thereafter, an employee at the EPA tipped off someone at the FDA to investigate a corporation called “Vulcan Chemicals.” The FDA’s Environmental Health Officer (glad to know we have one) then decided to conduct an investigation of Vulcan Chemical’s “mercury balance sheet” in an attempt to locate the missing neurological toxin.
Did John Grisham write this?! You couldn’t make this stuff up!
Not only did they locate the missing neurological toxin (phew!), but Dufault’s team learned that “mercury grade caustic soda and hydrochloric acid are primarily used by the high fructose corn syrup industry” to “stabilize food products enhance product shelf life”.
“Stabilize food products and enhance product shelf life”? Translation: mercury is good for business.
But neurological toxins in the high fructose corn syrup in our food?
What about those commercials running on TV telling us that high fructose corn syrup is “natural”?
In case you missed them, “back in June, the Corn Refiners Association embarked on what the Wall Street Journal described as an 18-month, $20-30 million campaign to “rehabilitate the reputation of the longtime sweetener.” The blitz includes full-page ads in more than a dozen newspapers and prime-time television spots.”
I wonder if those actors read Dufault’s report that states that several chemicals are required to make HFCS, including caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, alha-amylase, gluco-amylase, isomerase, filter aid, powdered carbon, calcium chloride, and magnesium sulfate?
Heaven help us all.
Given the remarkable influence that the corn industry has on everything from bailouts, to ethanol policy, to lobbying efforts that were set in place in the 1970s with the informal public-private partnership between grain-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland and the federal government, I sure hope that Obama isn’t too distracted by economic bailouts or the fact that Illinois based ADM is the “supermarket to the world” with 2008 revenues of $70 billion to address this issue.
And even if he is distracted or only sees the inevitable industry-funded response likely to hit (perhaps a ‘shock and awe’ headline about Canadian bird flu, melamine scandals in China, or a likely response by the corn industry claiming that the amounts reported in the study are “negligible”), I hope that Michelle will give him one of those discerning looks, then cue Malia to load her dad’s iPod with some heavy metal and have Sasha belt out “Pour Some Sugar On Me!”
Maybe it’s time that “we put aside childish things” and get this “natural” sweetener out of our food supply like other developed countries have. What do you think?!