by Eric Schlosser
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Severely obese schoolchildren, E. coli outbreaks, salmonella in ground beef, arsenic in apple juice and rice, poultry sickened by avian flu, hog farms dumping manure into rivers and streams, meatpacking workers routinely injured on the job, the cruelty of factory farms—all of these problems have inspired activists to seek a variety of solutions. But the seemingly disparate problems with America’s food system have a common explanation: The handful of corporations that now dominate the system are imposing their business costs on the rest of society. And the greatest harm is being suffered by the poorest Americans.
To create a truly sustainable food system for the 21st century, we will have to address not only the well-publicized, harmful symptoms but also their underlying cause. Although it may be tempting to blame those problems on the workings of capitalism, the changes in food production during the past few decades have been largely driven by the elimination of free markets and real competition.
As the food system has become more centralized and industrialized, the income of ranchers, farmers, and food workers has been squeezed. State socialism is hardly the solution. Communist-led China has been responsible for a series of food scandals that would’ve shocked Upton Sinclair: Three hundred thousand infants sickened by adulterated baby formula, pasta tinted with lead-based whiteners, rat meat sold as lamb, soy sauce made from human hair.
In the U.S., the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture is one of the most shocking examples of how private interests have triumphed over the public interest. More than three-quarters of the antibiotics sold in this country are routinely fed to healthy poultry and livestock at factory farms to prevent disease but also to promote growth. The dangers of that practice—the creation of lethal, antibiotic-resistant organisms—have been recognized for decades. And yet the practice continues because the meat industry has successfully blocked strict regulations on antibiotic use. About 2 million Americans are now infected every year with antibiotic-resistant bacteria from a variety of sources, and more than 20,000 are killed by them. The annual healthcare costs stemming from the misuse of antibiotics are estimated to be at least $20 billion. The financial cost pales beside an unacceptable reality: Thousands of Americans have died so that chickens and hogs can grow a little faster.
The corruption of the political system helps to explain the wide discrepancy between what’s best for the American people and what benefits the leading food companies. Elected officials accept millions of dollars in campaign donations from the food industry; government regulators find lucrative jobs in the industry after leaving office—and as a result, the government now obeys the companies it’s supposed to regulate. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 wasn’t a radical bill. It sought to give the federal government the power to order the recall of contaminated foods and to punish companies that knowingly sold them. It was supported by about 80 percent of the American people and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And yet, thanks to food industry opposition, the bill was stalled in committee for almost two years and gained passage only through the last-minute efforts of a lame-duck Congress. And the new food-safety measures still haven’t been adequately funded.
The battle over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) illustrates the threat to democracy posed by our current food system. Twenty-five years ago, none of the processed food consumed in the U.S. contained genetically modified ingredients. Today, about 75 percent of it does. The spread of GMO crops has greatly increased the sale of glyphosate, now the most widely used pesticide in America. Studies have found glyphosate in the raindrops, drinking water, and air of the Midwest. Last year the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” More than 90 percent of the American people favor labeling GMO foods so that consumers can choose whether to buy them. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives passed an industry-backed bill last year that would prevent states from requiring labels on GMO food. George Orwell would’ve loved its name: The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. [Editor’s note: In March, the Senate version of this bill was rejected by lawmakers.]
A food system reflects the values of the nation that created it. That was the thesis of “Fast Food Nation,” published 15 years ago. The racism and inequality that still plague the U.S. are evident in how we produce our food. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the restaurant industry, the federal minimum wage is about one-third lower today than it was in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. California is the nation’s largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods deemed essential for a healthy diet. And yet the mainly Latino workforce that harvests those crops now lives in abject poverty. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, all 800,000 farm workers in California had a combined income about one-third lower than that of America’s top 25 hedge fund managers. A food system based on that sort of injustice is not sustainable.
Despite these problems, I’m deeply optimistic about the possibility of creating a better food system. A nationwide food movement is now demanding better wages, healthier foods, local and organic production, an end to government policies that subsidize junk foods. I can’t predict what Americans will be eating in the future. But I feel confident that a food system appropriate for the 21st century is gradually emerging. It will be regional, diverse, kinder to livestock, less dependent on pesticides, more respectful of the environment, and far more compassionate.
In May 1936, the first issue of Consumers Union Reports (as the magazine was called then) warned readers about the dangers of contaminated milk. During the 80 years since then, the organization has uncovered the mysterious ingredients of hot dogs, exposed the false marketing of olive oil, measured the pathogen levels in supermarket meat, and called for a long list of reforms to protect Americans from being harmed by what they eat. Consumer Reports has arduously defended the basic consumer rights outlined by President John F. Kennedy in 1962: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard. In the absence of those rights, market forces are distorted, rewarding unethical business practices and punishing companies that play by the rules. The kind of citizens’ movement led by Consumer Reports is essential for a functioning democracy. As President Kennedy noted, “Consumers, by definition, include us all.”
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation” and a co-producer of the documentary “Food, Inc.” His most recent book, “Command and Control,” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.