Public Radio Commentary
Presented by Sandy Courtnage
June 5, 2007
Safe Food Debate Continues
Over the past several months, China has dominated the food safety news since the pet food scare that first surfaced in February. Here we are in June, and the news of mislabeled and handled food products just keeps increasing.
I’m wondering if American consumers will shift their food budgeting from a focus on cheap prices, and instead begin voting with their purchasing power for safety? That is the $64,000 question.
The list of food safety problems has grown in the last few months. From Chicago last week, the FDA warned consumers not to buy or consume imported fish from China labeled as monkfish because it might actually be pufferfish, which contains a potentially deadly toxin. Several people were hospitalized.
Further food problems from China include 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, marketed for children, were found to contain the antifreeze ingredient diethylene glycol.
Also in Panama, 46 barrels of diethylene glycol, which was mislabeled as 99.5% pure glycerin, were mixed into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine. 100 people in Panama died.
In Europe, harmful bacteria in Vitamin A nearly made its way into infant formula.
And, found in the U.S. were dried fruits, and breaded shrimp preserved with cancer-causing chemicals, antibiotic laden or outright toxic fish, vegetables laced with illegal pesticides & Chinese poultry products labeled as “dried lily flower.” And, here at home, we are not immune: last week it was announced that a US firm also has been adding melamine to animal feed ingredients.
The fact that these infractions and fraud were even discovered is somewhat surprising given the fact that FDA and USDA have minimal inspection capability, with the FDA having the budget and people necessary to inspect just 1% of imports.
Until Congress fully funds the FDA and USDA inspection capability, these problems will persist. But, an increase in funding seems unlikely.
Many domestic needs currently are being set aside while dollars that would otherwise be available for these crucial programs at home are being spent overseas.
The Urban Land Institute & Ernest & Young LLP released report last month entitled: Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective. The report says the failure to address infrastructure needs across the country will lead to disasters on the magnitude of the levee failures in Hurricane Katrina. The report focus is on transit, power and water systems in the U.S., which are graded as “poor.”
The report estimates that “…the U.S. faces a $1.6 trillion deficit in needed infrastructure spending through 2010 for repairs and maintenance.”
Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor and 2001 Nobel prize winner for economics, has said the administration has undertaken a “deceptive policy of saying you can have both guns and butter” He co-authored a study that predicts the Iraq conflict alone will eventually cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion, counting military rebuilding and health care for wounded veterans. “It’s actually turning out to be a very expensive war,” Stiglitz said. But “it has been designed to be a war the American people don’t feel.”
I’m sure that in addition to the obvious human costs, many people now can come up with their own list of costs and what is being short-changed.
In fact, David Leonhardt, a New York Times economic analyst, has itemized some of what could have been accomplished here at home. His list includes:
10 years of universal health care, covering every American who is now without it;
Doubling the cancer research budget;
Global immunization of the world’s children against measles, whooping cough, tetnus, TB, polio and Diptheria; and
Universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child in America.
So what, really, does this have to do with food safety? With US dollars increasingly being diverted away from domestic needs – everything from disaster relief to food safety is left scrambling for the budget crumbs. For starters, we need government inspection agencies funded adequately, and we need country-of-origin food labels.
With even part of one trillion dollars available, we would not have to choose between cheap and safe.
For the Montana Farmers Union, I’m Sandy Courtnage. Thanks for listening.