Tag Archives: food

When the Food Industry Inspects Itself

According to the government-is-unnecessary crowd, the market gives industry all the motivation it needs to police itself. Even without government inspectors, they claim, airlines wouldn’t cut corners on maintenance, because planes falling out of the sky would look really bad for them. In the long run it would hurt profits, so they just wouldn’t do it. Even if nobody was looking. Not even a little bit, in a pinch.

We could have endless what-if arguments about this theory, but we don’t have to, because (unknown to most of the public) we’ve been running an experiment on ourselves for many years now, as the government slowly retreats from food inspection.

This week, Bloomberg News took a look at how it’s going. Not so well, apparently.

Food-borne illness kills about 3,000 Americans a year, which you might think would be a big deal politically, given that most voters eat and don’t want to die. But as I’ve observed before, eaters don’t think of themselves as a special-interest group, so they don’t have a national organization that hires lobbyists and makes campaign contributions. Food companies, though, do all that stuff. So the system works better for them than for us.

One way it works for them is that food inspection is mostly privatized.

In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and just 0.4 percent of importers.

The rest? Well, they sort of inspect themselves.

The food industry hires for-profit inspection companies — known as third-party auditors — who aren’t required by law to meet any federal standards and have no government supervision. … The private inspectors that companies select often check only those areas their clients ask them to review.

In some cases, for-hire auditors have financial ties to executives at companies they’re reviewing. AIB International Inc., a Manhattan, Kansas, auditor that awarded top marks to producers that sold toxic food, has had board members who are top managers at companies that are clients.

… “There’s a fundamental conflict,” says David Kessler, a lawyer and physician who was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. “We all know about third-party audit conflicts. We’ve seen it play out in the financial world. You can’t be tied to your auditors. There has to be independence.”

As with most privatization schemes, the problem is that even honest for-profit auditors do not have a broad protect-the-public sense of mission. At best, contractors fulfill their contracts. They don’t take a step back and say, “Wait a minute, people could die from this.”  (Another egregious example is privatized juvenile detention facilities. The mission “care for these kids so that they don’t become hardened criminals” is difficult to express in an enforceable contract.)

In the food industry, it works out like this:

Auditors evaluate their clients using standards selected by the companies that pay them, says Mansour Samadpour, owner of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Washington, which does testing for the FDA. The auditors sometimes follow a checklist that the company they’re inspecting has helped write.

“If you have a program for adding rat poison to a food, the auditor will ask, ‘Did you add as much as you intended?”’ Samadpour says. “Most won’t ask, ‘Why the hell are we adding poison?”’

This business-can-inspect-itself stuff sounds so Republican. Surely things changed when the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. Right? Well, this is one of those cases where industry owns the Republicans, but when that’s not enough they can rent some Democrats too.

The FDA is trying, so far without success, to wrest back control of food inspection from the industry. In 2008, the agency estimated that it would need another $3 billion — quadrupling its $1 billion annual budget for food safety — to conduct inspections on imported and domestic food, the FDA’s former food safety chief David Acheson says.

Instead, the food industry lobbied for, and won, enactment of a law in January 2011 that expanded the role of auditors — and foreign governments — in vetting producers and distributors of food bound for the U.S.

I’ve skimmed the ideas out of the Bloomberg article, but the human-interest stories — of people who died because they foolishly ate cantaloupes or something — are horrifying. Don’t put yourself through it (unless you’re one of those radical pro-eater activists).

Food-eaters are not a special interest group

You probably don’t think much about government as you push your shopping cart down the aisle of your local supermarket. But nothing the government does affects your life more often and more directly than food policy. What food is available, what it costs, what’s in it, what you can find out about it, and whether it’s safe — the government has a hand in all of that.

Naively, you might expect a democratic government’s food policy to work out one of two ways: Either food would be hotly debated in every election, or our common interest as eaters would produce a completely non-partisan pro-consumer consensus.

Strangely, though, our government has a pro-food-industry policy which is often anti-consumer, and that policy is hardly ever a major issue. Candidates constantly try to make hay out of invisible threats like Iran’s nuclear weapons program or even completely imaginary ones like the death panels of Obamacare. But when was the last time you heard a politician pledge to do something about the growing rate of salmonella infections?

Obesity and policy. Everybody knows that America has a obesity problem. Because of it, we spend more on healthcare and die younger anyway. But to the extent this issue gets public attention at all, it is framed as an individual character problem — we don’t have the discipline to eat carrots instead of carrot cake — rather than as a problem with the way our food is produced and marketed.

But isn’t it strange how the American character degraded so suddenly since the mid-1970s (when the average American was 18 pounds lighter)? Shouldn’t a major cultural change take longer than that?

The media inundates us with stories about how to diet, but seldom touches the government’s role in subsidizing fats and sugars over healthier fruits and vegetables. Here’s the exception that proves the rule: Peter Jennings’ “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” from 2003. (Here are the ad-free links for parts 1234, and 5.) Would I have to go back to 2003 to find a major-network piece about dieting?

Free enterprise? Any threat to our current food system is quickly labeled as an attack on free enterprise: If industry produces something and people want to buy it, what’s the problem? If it’s bad for them, that’s their own fault. They should eat something else.

But the current food system has little to do with free enterprise. Michael Pollan explains:

So much of our food system is the result of policy choices made in Washington. The reason we’re eating from these huge monocultures of corn and soybeans is that that’s the kind of farming that the government has supported, in the form of subsidies, in the form of agricultural research. All the work is going to produce more of  those so-called commodity crops that are the building blocks of fast food.

GMOs. As an example, ask yourself: When did you decide to start eating genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)?  Probably you didn’t. Probably you ate products made from genetically modified corn and soybeans for a long time before you realized that you were eating them at all. Maybe you still don’t realize you eat GMOs; but unless you’re totally obsessive about where your food comes from, you do eat them.

That also is due to government policy: Kellogg’s doesn’t have to tell you whether their corn flakes have GMOs. They like it that way, whether you like it or not.

The basic research behind GMOs was funded by governments; the profit goes to corporations like Monsanto. The risks have been passed on to the consumer without anyone asking the consumer. That’s not how free enterprise is supposed to work.

And who knows? Maybe there are no risks. Maybe eating GMOs is as harmless as Monsanto claims. Maybe GMOs aren’t responsible for systemic effects like the collapse of bee colonies.

None of the claims against GMOs have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor will they be, most likely, because neither government nor industry has much interest in funding that research. (You can bet the research being done at Beeologics won’t implicate Monsanto, because Monsanto just bought them.)

The Farm Bill is a Food Bill. Your power as a consumer is not going to change the food system until your power as a voter makes it changeable. To change food policy, Pollan says, we need to change the Farm Bill that goes through Congress every five years.

But it isn’t really just a bill for farmers. It really should be called the Food Bill, because it is the rules for the system we all eat by. And those rules are really lousy right now, and they need to be changed.

That 5-year process is almost complete now, so the positive changes that are still possible are minimal. Absent a vocal popular movement, food is a perfect issue for lobbyists: The affected industries have a lot of money to spend, and the general public isn’t paying attention.

We’re not going to raise a vocal popular movement in the next few weeks. Most people don’t care and don’t know why anyone thinks they should care. And that’s what needs to change between now and 2017.

I’m still in the process of raising my own consciousness about this stuff, so I can just point in a general direction. (If you’ve got better advice, make a comment.) I’ve just added Food Politics to the list of blogs I cruise regularly. (Worthwhile recent posts pointed me to the report How Washington went soft on childhood obesity and explained where that supermarket sushi comes from.) Suggestions of other blogs/authors/websites are welcome.

Rootworms, Monsanto, and the Unity of Existence

You know what I envy most about the Right? They’re holistic.

I know that sounds crazy. Conservatives are individualists, liberals are the ones who understand that everything is connected. And yet … liberals get involved in labor issues (if they belong to a union), education (if they have children), race and gender (if they’re black or female), and so on. Otherwise, life is short and energy is finite. We can’t all be into everything.

But conservatives happily take on a wide range of issues, because they’ve got an ideology that pulls it all together.

This week there was a news story about rootworms in corn fields in Iowa. Probably you’re not an Iowan, a corn-farmer, or a rootworm, so your eyes are glazing over. But bear with me. Everything is connected.

Bt and Monsanto. The rootworms are newsworthy because they’re not supposed to be there. The fields were planted with a corn seed that Monsanto genetically modified to kill rootworms. It contains a gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring insect-killing bacteria. Apparently the Iowa fields have evolved a rootworm resistant to Bt, or at least to this particular expression of Bt.

That’s bad — and not just for Monsanto.

This possibility was considered when the Monsanto corn was approved by the EPA in 2003. The remedy was for farmers to plant 20% of their fields with non-Bt corn. Basically, you want to prevent insects with low-level resistance from mating with each other and producing high-level resistance. The 20% “refuge” area keeps non-resistant rootworms in the evolutionary picture, so that the species as a whole doesn’t become resistant.

Now it looks like 20% wasn’t enough. That’s what independent scientists told the EPA in 2003. They wanted 50% non-Bt corn, but Monsanto lobbied the EPA down to 20%. Now it looks like their lobbying screwed up their own product.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 1. Smart government regulations aren’t job-killing or money-wasting. Corporations are short-sighted. In the long run everybody — even industry — does better if government doesn’t let industry do whatever it wants.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who buy its seed. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have saved some of their crop to plant the following year. Since the dawn of the seed industry that has been a problem, because seed companies always want to sell farmers new seed.

So the 20th-century seed industry developed high-yielding hybrids that were either sterile or would regress in subsequent generations. You could save your seed, but if you wanted the 100-bushel-an-acre corn, you had to buy new.

When it couldn’t figure out how to make that tactic work for genetically modified seeds, Monsanto changed its retailing model to be more like Microsoft’s. Like Windows 7 DVDs, Monsanto’s seeds are just media. What farmers are really buying is a one-year license to use the patented genetic information in the seed. Farmers who replant the descendants of their purchased seeds risk being bankrupted by Monsanto’s patent-infringement lawsuits.

A lot of law had to be changed or re-interpreted to make this scheme work. For one thing, the whole idea that naturally occurring genes can be patented is not obvious, and may even be a little bizarre. Property law could just as easily have settled out the way that seemed like common sense to one unintentional patent-infringer: “I assumed that after I paid the tech fee [the seeds] were mine.”

Everything-is-connected Lesson 2. Conservatives talk about property rights as if they had been sacrosanct since God evicted his tenants from Eden. But in the real world property is whatever corporations want it to be. If centuries-old notions of property get in the way of corporate profits, the rules will be changed.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 3. The term judicial activism is hardly ever applied to cases that expand corporate rights. But patenting life-forms stems from Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980), where it is the liberal dissent of Justice Brennan that invokes judicial restraint: “We must be careful to extend patent protection no further than Congress has provided.” He lost.

Monsanto vs. the farmers who don’t buy its seed. Some farmers who never bought Monsanto seed are growing patented plants because birds drop seeds on their property or pollen blows in from a neighbor’s field. Other farmers who stopped using Monsanto seed nonetheless see “volunteer” seeds from last year’s crop sprout in their fields.

Occasionally such a farmer loses a patent infringement suit. And no one knows how many innocent farmers — less determined than this family profiled by CBS — just pay up when confronted with evidence of patented plants in their fields and the threat of Monsanto’s expensive legal team. (Sixty different organic-farming organizations have preemptively filed suit against Monsanto to avoid being sued later for inadvertent patent infringement.)

Farmers who hope to export to countries that ban genetically modified crops are harmed if the wind blows Monsanto pollen onto their fields. But Monsanto’s licensing agreement puts this responsibility on the farmer who plants its seeds. So you can sue your neighbor, but not Monsanto.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 4. Corporatist political rhetoric often emphasizes freedom and responsibility. But it’s all one-way. The corporation has the freedom and you have the responsibility.

Organic insect control and the genetic commons. Being a naturally occurring bacterium, Bt is one of the few insect-control treatments available to organic farmers. They typically use it sparingly. Their first line of defense against insects is to rotate crops (as all farmers used to do). That way, eggs of corn-eating insects will hatch in a field of soybeans, and vice versa. When organic farmers use Bt, it is applied only to the insect-infested field, and it soon washes away.

Monsanto’s Bt seeds, by contrast, expose the entire field, all season long. And one of the seed’s touted advantages is that you don’t have to rotate. The Iowa fields where resistance developed had been planted in corn for many years in a row.

So, used as directed, Monsanto’s seeds are breeding Bt-resistant rootworms. (It’s not clear yet if the Iowa worms are universally Bt-resistant or just resistant to the particular protein Monsanto engineered its seeds to produce. In any case, they are a step in the direction of Bt-resistant rootworms.)

Once they exist, these rootworms are unlikely to respect property lines. They’ll be a problem for everybody, including the organic farms. So Monsanto has profited by using up a common resource that could have lasted for centuries otherwise.

Everything-is-connected Lesson 5. By their insatiable nature, corporations make all tragedy-of-the-commons problems much, much worse. Antibiotic-resistant disease is a similar story, as the meat industry uses massive quantities of antibiotics without concern for the consequences. Ditto for air quality, water rights, and any other common asset that a corporation can profit from. If there’s a horse in the common stable, a corporation will ride it to death.

How do we connect everything? Urban or suburban liberals may find such farm-based issues uninteresting, but conservatives of all stripes jump into opposition if anyone tries to fix the problem. Why? Because government is evil and industry is good. It’s that simple to them.

If liberals are going to unite efficiently, we need to develop a few reality-based but easy-to-apply lenses of our own, so that we have a common view of many diverse situations.

I propose this one: Corporate rights are driving out human rights.

Even if an issue seems to have nothing to do with you, check whether this lens brings it into focus. Because the battle for dominance between corporations and humans is everybody’s battle, and we need to fight it on all fronts.