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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 26, 2007

Shorten the distance between the farm and the fork,
And make private industry accountable to the public

For centuries, when society was agrarian, people largely ate the food they produced. This was a direct way of knowing what was consumed.

The world has changed. We are now part of a global economy. Individuals in our society have become specialists. The man who earns his living as an expert on labor law or the woman whose reputation is based on designing high-rise buildings probably no longer have a hand in growing their own food.

As Americans, we trust our government to make sure the food we buy and consume is safe. This trust was a long time in coming. Each week, as we peruse century-old editions of The Enterprise we are amused or aghast at the products routinely advertised for sale — ranging from elixirs that would cure palsy to pills that would grow hair.

Few federal laws regulated food and drugs until writers like Upton Sinclair raised Americans’ awareness of problems. Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, published in 1906, described in nauseating detail what he had observed in Chicago’s meat-packing industry: diseased cows slaughtered for beef, dead rats shoveled into machines that ground meat for sausage, filth swept from floors into potted hams.

The book, said Winston Churchill "pierces the thickest skull and most leathery heart."

"I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach," opined Sinclair.

The same year that The Jungle was published, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Food and Drugs Act into law. Its duties and powers have expanded over the years with the passage of federal legislation.

But how safe are we" We all read the headlines earlier this year about contaminated pet food. American pets died because of imports from China. A chemical used in anti-freeze was then found in Chinese toothpaste, and the modern-day muckrakers have detailed rampant problems in China that rival or exceed those in Sinclair’s 19th-Century Chicago.

Other developing nations have problems, too. In the last year, the FDA has rejected 1,901 shipments of cosmetics or food from China, 1,787 from India, and 1,560 from Mexico. But that could be just a tiny portion of the violations since FDA inspectors check only about 1 percent of the nearly 9 million imported food shipments each year.

The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, receives about 200 reports of tainted food products each month in its 193 member states, but many food-borne diseases go unreported and outbreaks of salmonella or E. coli bacteria can take on massive proportions.

These are not just problems on the other side of the world. Our fates, like our economies, are interrelated. That fact hit home recently for a Voorheesville family. The Scheelses triplet toddlers ate a snack the Scheelses purchased locally and thought was safe — Veggie Booty.

Two of the toddlers became ill; they were among 65 affected nationwide. Thirty-six of those, the Scheelses among them, are working with a Seattle lawyer, William Marler, to sue Robert’s American Gourmet, the company that produced the snack.

The food was tainted with salmonella, which comes from feces.

Marler, who specializes in representing people sickened by tainted food, says that most of the poisoned food is from America. The United States green onion and spinach supply was called into question last year after two outbreaks from E. coli and there was a massive recall of Peter Pan peanut butter after more than 600 people reported salmonella poisoning.

The WHO Media Centre states that the global incidence of foodborne disease is hard to estimate but that, in 2005 alone, 1.8 million people died from diarrhoeal diseases and a great portion of these were caused by contaminated food and drinking water. In industrialized countries, says WHO, the percentage of the population suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 percent. In the United States, for example, about 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, are estimated to occur each year.

So how can we protect ourselves" A simple solution, although limited, is to return to our roots and look to local producers. If we can’t grow our own food, we can buy from farmers we know and trust. Farm stands and farmers’ markets abound this time of year. Consumers can talk directly to the grower and ask about use of pesticides or whatever concerns them.

We’ve expounded before on the virtues of supporting local farmers — it builds community and preserves open space as well. But not all foods can be purchased this way, and not in all seasons.

This brings us back to our opening issue of trust. If the FDA is to do its job thoroughly, and inspect more than 1 percent of imports, it needs more funding to pay for more inspections.

One American company’s plan to label its products "China-Free" is not a solution. The problems come from many countries, including our own.

"Food safety is an issue for every country and ultimately every food consumer," says Dr. Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety, in a Media Centre report on recent food scares. "All countries can benefit from taking stronger measures to fill safety gaps in the sometimes considerable journey food takes from the farm to the table."

A survey conducted by Consumer Reports in May showed that 92 percent of Americans want to know which country produced the foods they are buying. In June, the United States Department of Agriculture said it would re-open public comment, until Aug. 20, on its country-of-origin labeling measure.

The more important issue, though, is transparency in the private sector. The contaminated Veggie Booty that sickened the Scheels toddlers is a case in point.

Only the snack’s manufacturer, Robert’s American Gourmet, has said the tainted substance, the spices, came from China. But the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control told our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, the spice’s country of origin has not been identified.

The spices that may or may not have been responsible for the contamination came from a company called Atlantic Quality Spice and Seasoning. It was recently sold but a spokeswoman for Atlantic would not tell our reporter who bought the company because the new company doesn’t want its name associated with the salmonella story, she said.

The spokesman for the New York City financial company that brokered the deal pretended not to know anything about it.

Knowing the country of origin alone is not particularly useful. What consumers need to have in place, to guarantee their safety, is a system that makes private industry accountable to the public.

Our advice: Shop locally, question globally.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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