Fearing the Food We Love

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Last year thousands of food products containing peanut butter produced by one company, the Peanut Corporation of America, were pulled from store shelves due to salmonella contamination. The company was responsible for supplying over 200 companies with peanut butter for these food products, many of which were ultimately marketed to children. Suddenly our favorite snacks—from sandwiches to cookies to candies— were potentially dangerous.

Right now it’s cheaper—and easier—for big companies to produce unsafe food. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last week, highlighting the importance of food safety regulation. He points to the concentration and centralization of the food production industry as a major contributor to food safety violations.

Right now it’s cheaper—and easier—for big companies to produce unsafe food. And the companies that do spend the time and money to produce safe products have a hard time competing with the ones that don’t.

It’s not just foods made here at home that lack the regulation to protect consumers. Chinese companies have added lead-based whiteners to pasta, sold beverages made with industrial alcohol, and produced baby formula containing the toxic chemical melamine. Two years ago almost 300,000 Chinese infants were sickened from drinking this formula. In the United States, about 60 percent of apple juice is imported from China.

A recent bill, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act—which was approved by the Senate Health, Education, and Pensions Committee in November—aims to change all of that. The bill, if passed, will grant the FDA the authority to test more widely for dangerous pathogens and improve its ability to trace the source of unsafe ingredients so that irresponsible companies can be held accountable.  It would also hold foods imported from overseas to the same standards.

This bill has the support of advocacy groups like the American Public Health Association, the Consumers Union, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, among others.

Right now the bill is stuck in the legislative waiting room and has yet to reach the floor of the Senate for a vote this year. If it is not passed by the end of this session, it will be tossed and Congress will have to start all over again next year.

In the meantime, the rest of us will have to continue eying our favorite snacks with suspicion. As long as companies don’t see any incentive—financial or legal— to keep us safe, perhaps we should recognize that we don’t have any reason to trust their products. No matter how good they taste on a sandwich, as a cookie, or in a candy.

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