Re-prioritizing Food Safety: Getting out of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, Again

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his classic book The Jungle, awakening America’s consciousness to the horrors of corruption in the U.S. meatpacking industry with the story of Chicago’s stockyards. The Jungle so shook the American people’s confidence in how their meat and food was processed, that President Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration to quell public outcry.

Fast-forward a hundred odd years later and all evidence points to the fact that we are living in an era of food crisis that rivals the turn of the last century. Regretfully, America’s modern food system has become – The Jungle 2.0.

Indeed, there have been prodigious grumblings from Washington, D.C., over food safety issues in the past months. Thanks to the current peanut butter fiasco from the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America, our nation is once again in the throes of a record food safety recall, signaling that we need a serious overhaul of our nation’s food safety system and the industrial food model.

America’s current food system has the potential to create an epidemic food safety crisis much larger than even Sinclair or Teddy Roosevelt could imagine. For a variety of reasons, including the corrosive influence of agribusiness corporations and lack of government funds, staff and training, we now live in a world where food safety in America is on the verge of facing a collapse similar to that of our recent financial, mortgage and housing industries.

The current crisis is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to make bold change in how this country addresses how our food is grown, raised and processed, tracked, sold, cooked and fed to American consumers.

Like all warnings that have come in the past, it would be easy to bury our collective heads in the sand and once again accept Washington’s standard approach — throw a band-aid on the system. But the truth is, we can’t afford it. At least nine people are dead from the latest contamination and over 650 have been sickened.

However, food safety is not only important from a human health standpoint, but also for reasons of commerce. With over 3,000 products taken off the shelf because a corporation failed to live up to the law, the impact of this recall could total over $1 billion. According to peanut industry estimates, sales have dropped 25% for a loss of over $500 million for the industry.

If consumers lose faith in how America food is grown and processed, they will lose confidence in the companies and brands that have become household names. This not only hurts the food company, but also harms the small family farmers who grow and raise their food safely and can’t absorb the losses like large agribusiness conglomerates.

If the corporations that have helped create and reinforce the current flawed system don’t care about their customers’ safety, they should care about their profits. Simply put, a poor food safety system is bad for business.

Leading food safety advocates are recommending an end to band-aids as usual.

“What everyone needs to understand is that our country’s food safety system is deeply dysfunctional. As evidence, I need merely recite the recent scandals: spinach, pet food, tomatoes, and now peanut butter,” says author and nutrition and food safety expert Dr. Marion Nestle.

As a former member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee, Nestle understands the root of the problem.

“The system is fragmented between the FDA and USDA and deals with individual foods, not food systems. It begins at the packing house, not on the farm. And the rules that do exist are hardly enforced.  We know what we need to do to produce safe food and it’s time we did it,” continued Nestle.

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Several proposals are out there to reform the system, including a call for a single food safety agency. But the real question we must focus on now is WHO will be appointed to do the actual work.

The ability to reform a system starts not only with ideas or policy or even problems, but also with personnel. Who is hired for the job matters as much, if not more than, the policy proposal going forward, which is something that large corporations have understood from the beginning and is why we are in this current mess.

So the first place to begin reforming the system is by choosing the right person for the job, which is why Food Democracy Now! has advocated from the beginning at the secretary and under secretary levels. Like President Obama, we agree that it’s time to close the revolving door between government, corporate lobbyists and the private sector. And, while we got some good news when President Obama announced Kathleen Merrigan as the next Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, there’s a lot more work to be done.

The individuals chosen to head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and other food safety positions in this administration need to come from the mindset that food safety begins at the farm level and that it must come before corporate convenience and profit. They should not have a preexisting bias towards technologies that try to paper over serious flaws in our nation’s food supply. Nor should they have served as lobbyists for or executives in large agribusiness corporations that profit from the status quo.

We need candidates with a proven record of objectivity, individuals who have the courage and record to put real teeth into regulation, inspection and enforcement.

The fact is, food safety cannot be legislated or ruled into being if federal inspectors are not properly trained or enough workers are not hired or if farming practices are not fundamentally safe. Food safety cannot be cloned, genetically modified, implanted with an electronic chip or medicated or irradiated into being. Nor can food safety be solved by a quotidian reliance on additional technological interventions such as factory farming, excessive use of antibiotics, pesticides, massive slaughter houses and a consolidated non-regional processing system which have all converged to create the current food safety crisis.

Our political leaders need to understand what the grassroots already knows, that reforming the food safety system will come out of reforming agriculture. The problem has been created by rampant market concentration and consolidation; the solution is local and regionalized food systems, using sustainable practices that rebuild America’s rural economies and produce the healthiest, safest food in the world.

Now is time to plant the seeds for a 21st century food system that respects the biology and cycles of nature, that protects family farmers, worker rights, farm animals, rural communities and offers clean, safe and healthy food to American eaters.

We must invest in America and stop speculating with our future by continuing along the same old trajectory that brought us to where we are. Americans are ready for visionary leadership and creating a real food safety system that works is a good place to start.

Photo: Original cover of The Jungle; Upton Sinclair, from 1934

11 thoughts on “Re-prioritizing Food Safety: Getting out of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, Again

  1. This is a great article that American’s need to read and understand. Our system needs to be changed and acknowledging this problem in this blunt and clear a way is a great first step!

  2. Another Humpty-Dumpty ready to fall.

    I am sure that there is actual reporting on this but without a citation in hand I can only point readers to today’s op-ed piece in the NY Times by Nicholas Krisof on the Pig industry in Indiana and the spread of MRSA. It is a crisis in full bloom.

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  4. we need to get better people into the food safety agencies that already exist. creating new agencies with new laws will not help anything. there’s some very scary food-safety legislation proposed in the House that could <a href=”http://www.ftcldf.org/news/news-02mar2009.htm” title=”unintentionally devastate sustainable agriculture.”

  5. we need to get better people into the food safety agencies that already exist. creating new agencies with new laws will not help anything. there’s some very scary food-safety legislation proposed in the House that could

  6. sorry about the above two comments. not sure what happened with the xhtml there. anyway, i hope you get the idea.

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  8. Andrew is very astute and informed. We absolutely do not need sweeping new laws. We need people to simply enforce the laws and channels already in place. If inspectors would have ACTUALLY been inspecting the peanut plant, the problem would never have been able to progress or to make anybody ill.

    Why are we not crying out against the inspection failures instead of jumping on the new law wagon?

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