Watching the watchdogs
Sound Consumer | July 2007
by Goldie Caughlan
(July 2007) — You may start seeing stories in the media about what the government will do to improve food safety. Good ideas may surface, yet evidence suggests that more than regulatory tweaks are needed.
According to the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, a Harris poll last year found that consumer confidence in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has dropped sharply in recent years.
In 2000, 61 percent rated the FDA in the “good to excellent” range at safeguarding the public from dangerous foods and drugs. By 2006 only 36 percent held that opinion — a 25 percent plummet in trust in six years, with 20 percent of that freefall between 2004 and 2006. Even more striking, 60 percent now rate the FDA’s overall effectiveness in the “poor to fair” range.
The Food Marketing Institute provides insight from an even more current Harris poll from January this year — just after the national recall of E-coli contaminated spinach and other greens, all processed by one mega-facility in California. Responding to questions about food safety, 71 percent of respondents said they avoid spinach, 16 percent avoid lettuce, nine percent won’t buy bagged salads, and eight percent said they no longer eat beef.
Cloned meat and dairy
Speaking of beef, the January 2007 Harris survey was close on the heels of another controversy that received considerable publicity. In December 2006, the FDA issued a draft statement on animal cloning, announcing its decision that meat and dairy from most cloned animals is safe and that it soon will issue regulations for selling them. The document, as is required, called for public comments.
Yet pending finalization, the FDA asked producers with cloned dairy and meat animals to withhold them voluntarily from the market. Read that again: FDA asked — it did not order — that such products not be marketed. Not exactly reassuring that the FDA is a strong enforcer of food safety regulations.
What you may not know is that the FDA has no authority to do anything but ask — hat in hand, so to speak. And if producers do not comply? Nothing. The FDA is a watchdog with no teeth.
As the FDA took comments, the January Harris survey reported that 61 percent of respondents said they’re “not comfortable” at the prospect of eating any food from cloned animals. Eighty-four percent stated that if cloned foods are approved, the FDA should require they be labeled clearly to say they’re from cloned animals. Yet the FDA has indicated no intent to label cloned dairy or meat.
No raw almonds?
Another example of questionable regulatory actions involved the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Almond Board of California, a marketing board, successfully lobbied the USDA to make mandatory its previous recommendations — that no almonds sold commercially should be raw. The principal purpose was to reduce liability among producers from the potential of food-borne pathogens in raw nuts.
The USDA’s action was accomplished in a very low-key manner, under the radar. There were no press releases and no notification to any health or consumer groups, although notification was given to almond growers and marketers. When published in the Federal Register, the comment time was just 30 days. Few comments were received and none from the public sector.
The new almond regulation will begin September 1, 2007, affecting the coming harvest. All commercially marketed almonds (except those purchased directly from nut orchards) must provide proof of compliance with the USDA’s specifications to use heat or chemical sterilization methods. The natural and raw food communities in the United States are numerous, and several organizations have begun letter and petition campaigns in an effort to change the policy.
The USDA action on almonds appears arbitrary and out of proportion to any threat to public health, especially considering that just two limited and isolated incidents were involved. Two food-borne salmonella outbreaks — separated by geography and several years — apparently were traced to raw almonds from two orchards.
Still, when one thinks of high-hazard foods, raw almonds do not jump to mind. Raw eggs, raw fish, raw chicken — even raw sprouts and occasionally other produce — have been found contaminated with salmonella. Somehow those have escaped the USDA’s scrutiny.
Full label disclosure
When the USDA finished its work on almonds, it passed the baton to the FDA, which regulates labeling. The FDA apparently took the position that no nutrients, texture or flavor changes occur when almonds are sterilized by heat or chemicals to comply with the USDA’s regulation; so, the nuts will continue to be labeled “raw almonds.” (For the record, USDA certified organic almonds must meet the regulation, using the heat treatment.)
Yet perhaps the most galling instance of the FDA’s strong industry/non-consumer stance is its refusal to label genetically modified (GM) products. Innumerable surveys consistently find that 85 to 93 percent of Americans want mandatory labels on GM foods.
Whether the issue is irradiated foods and pharmaceuticals, cloned meat and dairy, genetically modified foods, or just almonds that are no longer truly raw (and therefore mislabeled) — the FDA remains deaf to consumers’ demands for full, honest labeling.
Without complete label information, we’re stripped of our right to know the health implications and scientific validity of what’s been done to food and rendered unable to act on our own best judgment. We need full label disclosure so we can adhere to our personal judgments and beliefs. Such considerations are appropriate and reasonable for consumers when making food and health choices.
Consumers have a gut response supporting the right to know where and how our foods are grown, how they’re processed, what changes they’ve been subjected to, or what ingredients have been added or removed. That’s basic, common sense. But it’s an uncommon commodity in regulatory realms.
Mad cow loopholes
It’s not only the FDA that has a resistant attitude toward the consumer’s right to know. One obvious example is the USDA’s handling of mad cow disease after it was first discovered in the United States. Many of us are very concerned with the inadequate USDA regulations, full of loopholes that don’t protect animals or consumers from contamination.
As the Sound Consumer reported last fall, the USDA’s own Inspector General reported serious flaws in the testing process: Testing is voluntary, the USDA pays for samples, and slaughterhouses have incentive to send in samples from animals less likely to test positive.
Two cases of mad cow disease in the United States were confirmed last year, yet the USDA responded by cutting back on testing even more. The USDA now tests less than 1 percent of slaughtered cows. It also tried to block private ranchers from testing their stock voluntarily, until a federal court ruling cleared the way.
Whether the federal court ruling will be appealed by the USDA remains to be seen. But lost in this volley is the fact that the guardians of our food safety seem to have lost touch with much of what they’re charged with.
The global and industrial food system is proving to be broken — disconnected from the issues that matter most to consumers. We want access to an abundance of good quality, diverse food produced in a manner that doesn’t poison the water, pollute the air and degrade the land — wherever that is on the globe.
We’re seeing the harvest from “what goes around comes around.” We cannot continue to live in a fool’s paradise of false plentitude at the expense of the environment — or we all lose.
Food is not just another “widget” to be produced at the lowest cost and to be moved around the globe unchecked. The pet food scandal, caused by contaminated ingredients from China, bears witness.
With increased globalization also comes more pressure from industrial interests to irradiate foods, such as fruit and meat. Within the past month — and again, with only thin media coverage — the FDA granted a request by the irradiation industry to raise the ceiling on the amount of irradiation that food can be subjected to. No mention of the fact that whatever the contaminating substance, it’s still there on the food; you’re still eating it, even if it is “sterilized!”
As the industrial/global food movement lurches along, it’s obvious that not just irradiation but many new ill-conceived technologies will be tried. Whether these are “approved” by one agency or another is cold comfort.
Experience tells us that despite approval by the FDA, the USDA or international groups, such as CODEX, we should decide for ourselves what’s OK. We cannot do that if we don’t assert and secure our right to know.
Asserting consumer rights
The Coalition for a Stronger FDA, referenced in the beginning of this report, includes multinationals, such as Cargill, Kraft and Pepsi as well as most of their cohorts in the pharmaceutical business. It includes some of the standard “health foundations,” but the lines really blur when all these folks are at the table. Whose interests are they seeking to serve?
Unless the administration in Washington D.C., with a bi-partisan effort in both houses, can demonstrate they understand the necessity for a fresh and independent approach to food safety, I’m not holding my breath. At the moment, our best bet is to work hard for a good Farm Bill (See The 2007 Farm Bill. What we need and why., April 2007 Sound Consumer) and call it a Food Bill!
We should stop funding the dangerous, polluting practices of concentrated animal feeding organizations (CAFOs), stop subsidizing corn and soy growers and the unhealthful results, and shift that $20 billion per year in subsidies to support farmers who want to farm organically, or at least will work with low-inputs and more stewardship.
The most efficient way to address food safety is to overhaul the entire food system from the ground up. The industrial, commodity-driven model is the root cause of the most dangerous hazards affecting our food.
As a grocery operation dedicated to wholesome, healthy food, PCC endeavors to know where our food comes from, how it’s produced and processed, and to share that information with shoppers. We may never know the origin of every ingredient in processed foods, but we’re asking for what the vendors know. We’re also seeking domestic alternatives to imported foods from China because of reports indicating an increased risk of contamination.
The safest foods are likely to be certified organic, regionally grown foods. The more we choose whole, unpackaged foods, the more control we have over what goes in our bodies.
Life without risk isn’t realistic. But we must keep declaring firmly the consumer’s right to know and the right to an informed choice. I’ve resolved to put more effort into local and state approaches to food security, while continuing to support the Center for Food Safety, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sustainable Table and other heroes.
Goldie Caughlan has been with PCC for 30 years in a variety of positions and has served on innumerable food-related boards, including the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and the Washington state Organic Food Program.