Book Review Published on March 30, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
From Our Archives
Last Meals? How Corporate Power Taints Safety Rules
by Anne Lappe
By Marion Nestle, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS; 350 PAGES; $27.50
By Maxime Schwartz; translated by Edward Schneider, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS; 238 PAGES; $24.95
"[P]roducing safe food is not impossibly difficult," writes Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, in "Safe Food, " the companion to her critically praised "Food Politics." But if it's so easy, then why are 76 million of us getting sick, 325,000 becoming hospitalized and 5,000 dying every year from unsafe food? Nestle's answer is, in large part, that corporate influence has subverted democracy.
As an on-again, off-again insider in federal agencies responsible for food safety, as well as a nutrition adviser for the likes of the American Cancer Society, Nestle offers a unique vantage point, letting us in on conversations we'd never otherwise hear. What we learn may be more than we can stomach.
The subversion of our food safety, Nestle says, begins with overlapping and unclear authority within the federal bureaucracy. For example, the Department of Agriculture regulates dehydrated chicken soup, but the Food and Drug Administration regulates dehydrated beef soup. The FDA regulates chicken broth, while the USDA regulates (you guessed it) beef broth. In the latest bureaucratic twist, Nestle sends up this red flag: The FDA is not identified as a key department within the Office of Homeland Security, even though it's responsible for the safety of three-quarters of our food supply.
While convoluted bureaucracy poses safety threats, Nestle argues, corporate influence over public policy is even more worrisome. Exposing what she sees as the revolving door between the food industry and regulators, Nestle notes Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's choice for chief of staff: a former National Cattlemen's Beef Association lobbyist.
Corporate food and agriculture interest groups also influence policy through their contributions to the Republican Party, known for its anti- regulation stance. In 2001, for example, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association donated 82 percent of its total campaign contributions to Republicans, the National Food Processors Association 96 percent and the United Dairy Farmers 100 percent.
Nestle also argues that big business has consistently used litigation to prevent strict food safety rules. In 1993, the American Meat Institute, the nation's oldest and largest meat and poultry trade association, brought the Agriculture Department to court for mandating that meat and poultry be labeled with handling and cooking instructions. The public, the association argued, would be unnecessarily frightened. The association won; public health lost. Less than a week after the court ruling, three children in Texas died from eating meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
Another result of this bullying: Federal agencies can only request recalls, and even when companies do so voluntarily, product recovery rates are abysmal. From 1997 to 2000, the average percent of products recovered in recalls fell from 40 percent to 17 percent. A late-1990s Beef America recall recovered only 400 of 442,656 pounds of contaminated meat.
From widespread antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture (the leading cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) to the appearance of salmonella (by the late 1980s, officials were finding it in one-third of all poultry), to traces of nonhuman-approved genetically modified products in our food chain (the StarLink corn scandal cost the Agriculture Department $20 million to buy back commingled seeds), to the presence of potentially fatal E. coli O157:H7 (unheard of a few decades ago), our food is less safe, not safer, than ever before.
Nestle asks us to consider food safety in the context of bioterrorism. She offers this red flag: Though the FDA is responsible for the safety of three- quarters of our food supply, it's not even identified as a central department within the Office of Homeland Security. She offers the case of anthrax as another: From front-page headlines and the rush on Bayer's Cipro, we all became familiar with anthrax and the drug that best protects against it. Most of us probably didn't know that at the same time, Bayer was making $150 million annually on sales of Cipro's close cousin, Baytril, to poultry farmers worldwide. By 1999, research on poultry was revealing bacterial resistance to Baytril that, Nestle argues, could increase the numbers and kinds of resistant bacteria, potentially reducing Cipro's effectiveness against anthrax. The FDA feared the same thing. In 2000, the agency proposed banning the use of this particular antibiotic in poultry feed. Nestle writes: "Bayer contested the ban. " And Baytril? It's still on the market.
Bioterrorism, genetically modified foods, food irradiation, "Safe Food" weighs in on all the hot topics. While Nestle's arguments are consistently solid and persuasive, she makes a few definitive scientific claims where others would argue the science is still up for debate. For instance, she states that the effects of food irradiation "are not so different from those induced by cooking," while new research from France suggests that a group of gene-damaging chemicals is produced by irradiating meat and that these chemicals are picked up and stored in fatty tissues with as-yet-unknown effects. She states that nontransgenic and transgenic plants are inherently the same: "DNA is DNA no matter where it comes from," though other scientists have argued that similar DNA can behave differently. DNA of an anthrax bacterium, for instance, will force it to make a lethal toxin, while DNA of related bacteria is unlikely to do so. I mention these examples only to underscore Nestle's own thesis: Because our knowledge about these complex issues is constantly evolving, open dialogue is essential, and caution, instead of presumption of safety, should be paramount.
"Safe Food" gains weight when read alongside French molecular biologist Maxime Schwartz's "How the Cows Turned Mad," which traces the scientific history that has led to mad cow disease and its presence as Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans. We now know CJD is transmitted to humans by consuming meat of animals fed meal made from rendering (grinding up dead animals to make meat and bone meal). It's one thing to worry about a stomachache from rancid meat, it's another to worry about a fatal disease that attacks the brain, leading to delusions, wasting and eventual death. Schwartz says there was nothing inevitable about its spread from sheep to cows and other animals and ultimately to humans.
The book is thorough and well researched, but it's not for the scientifically faint of heart. For those of us who've had barely a lick of science since high school, there's Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's "Mad Cow U.S.A." (Common Courage Press). Published in 1997, it's the "could the nightmare happen here" corollary to Schwartz's analysis of the history and the crisis in Europe. Rampton and Stauber have an uncanny ability to spin even a complex science story into a gripping tale. An updated paperback version to be published this summer will contain news about the rendering ban of 1997, which, the authors say, was inadequate to begin with and has been poorly enforced. Stauber and Rampton also report on chronic wasting disease, a "mad deer" epidemic spreading across North America. They examine the unsettling evidence that CWD, like British mad cow disease, could infect livestock and humans.
These books add to a growing literature (consider Greg Critser's "Fat Land : How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World" and Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation") arguing that corporate influence subverts government responsibility to protect our health. These cautionary tales indicate that it's high time for national dialogue about the corporate ethics and shared values that will make our food safe.
In her book, Nestle reminds us that food safety is profoundly political. It forces us to ask: Who benefits? Who decides? In a democracy, the answer should be us.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle