Safe Food, From Soil to Plate

An endless deluge of foodborne illness outbreaks demands the reevaluation of our food system.

E. coli-laden romaine lettuce recently sickened dozens of Americans in five states, as a food-related listeria outbreak killed at least two Texans.

These were just the latest in a string of similar incidents. An endless deluge of foodborne illness outbreaks demands the reevaluation of our food system.

But Americans need to adopt a broader approach to evaluating the quality of their food, from soil to plate. We must consider the integrity of the overall production process in addition to evaluating the immediate safety of the food that reaches the consumer. While outbreaks and hospitalizations grab headlines, there are unseen other costs to our current production system.

Food integrity considers all players involved in the lifecycle of food production: the health and wellness of associated citizens, the environment, and product itself. Safeguarding the process ultimately yields the safe food consumers want to eat.

Foodborne illness sickens over 76 million Americans every year, causing 725,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. One recent Georgetown University study showed that the related costs of foodborne illness (medical bills, lost wages, decreased productivity) totals over $152 billion a year. But environmental byproducts of food production often lead to "foodborne" illnesses. Waste and contaminants from industrialized factory farms endanger our fragile ecosystem and place us all at avoidable health risks. Consider concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which are largely responsible for the low cost of meat, dairy, and poultry.

These facilities lower production costs by cramming animals into small spaces and enhancing animal growth to expedite the time between birth and slaughter. Chicken CAFOs, for example, can hold over 20,000 animals in an extremely confined area with little or no room to move, and without access to the outdoors. Numerous whistleblowers report these animals are subjected to further inhumane handling, which leads to wholly preventable, but serious, contamination.

Furthermore, CAFOs assault the rural environments in which they operate. Animal waste pollutes neighboring streams, poisoning wells and drinking water--which ends up sickening neighboring residents. This waste is teeming with the same harmful bacteria--E. coli, cryptosporidium and listeria--that often contaminate ground beef. Therefore, meat produced by these factory farms should never truly be considered "safe food."

Workers' rights also directly impact public health. The food industry routinely exploits laborers. These individuals earn unconscionably low wages while performing vile, strenuous, and dangerous work. Often migrant workers find themselves in the untenable position of safeguarding the nation's food supply, yet have no rights to speak out. If a worker witnesses gross violations and wishes to come forward, he risks not only his and his family's welfare, but possible deportation. These workers are often the only ones in a position to protect all of us from unsafe food. Is it any surprise that the vast majority of these workers choose to keep quiet?

Meanwhile, industry regulators, silenced by corporate influence on government, go unheard. Citizen activists, crushed by industry giants, are powerless to confront agribusiness as it pollutes the water and soil. Our system is failing.

It's easy to see why this has happened. Shoppers want cheap, convenient food. The industry is responding to consumer demand, and agribusiness is providing food at historically low prices. Today's consumer savings will come at far greater societal and environmental costs tomorrow.

It's been roughly 100 years since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, an expose about the nation's meatpacking plants that led to many of our modern food safety reforms. Contrary to popular belief, that groundbreaking work was written to address the plight of the American food worker--not to make our food safer.

When asked about the food safety laws created as a result of his book, Sinclair replied: "I aimed for their hearts. I got their stomachs instead." Either way, Sinclair advocated food integrity.

It's time for Americans to demand the same.

This column was distributed by OtherWords.