At the turn of the 20th century, food was an unregulated wilderness. Anyone could package anything and sell it, whether it was wholesome, toxic, poisonous, or merely dubious; you could package up some cocaine and morphine in a jar and call it a tonic, sell tomatoes picked by farmhands with hepatitis-covered hands, and market poison pills for ‘health.’ That began to change thanks to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, along with a growing push from food reformers and others who realised that the industrial age was providing a growing number of opportunities for food to make people very, very sick.
As people grew abstracted from the source of their food, food became more dangerous. Dense settlement in cities meant that fewer people were growing their own food and sustaining themselves, while centralisation of food and services severed the link between farmer and customer. Suddenly, food was sitting around for days, providing time for bacteria to breed when they never had been able to do so before. Huge lots of food, meanwhile, were being combined, allowing one item to contaminate a whole batch. High demand for food items made it hard to keep pace with safety issues, and members of the public began clamoring for convenience foods that wouldn’t have been at all familiar only a generation earlier, upping the stakes even higher.
This heady combination of factors was a recipe for disaster: in a culture where food-related profits were rising, corners were correspondingly cut, and no one was there to spot it, let alone stop it. At least, that was the case before the FDA, USDA, and other government agencies put in charge of monitoring health and safety in the US, forever changing the food landscape as we know it by cracking down on food safety, conducting inspections, requiring products to be tested, developing nutrition standards, and more.
Over the course of the 20th century, both agencies remained relatively strong, but in the early 21st, we’ve seen them slowly undone. While Republican presidents have always been eager to undermine their work and push for privatisation of inspection and food safety, the final nail in the coffin may have been the radical funding cuts that took place in recent years as a result of economic difficulties, shifting priorities, and lobbying from the industry, which naturally has an interest in pushing for lighter regulation and monitoring that isn’t as tight or as focused; like the push for allowing the meat industry to self-inspect products for sale rather than enduring USDA inspections for safety.
This has been an issue of growing concern for me because I believe both the FDA and USDA play an extremely important role in society, with their dual food safety missions. This is because safe food should be a human right, one as basic as few others. It’s not just that people should always be able to access nutritious food in amounts suitable for their needs, with culturally-appropriate food available at all times to make it possible to eat a varied, pleasing, and healthful diet. It’s also that this food should be safe to eat, because it is absurd to have one without the other.
What good does it to to ensure that people have access to produce if you’re not going to make sure that produce is safe? Where’s the incentive, for that matter, for people to buy produce if they can’t be sure it won’t make them sick? Food safety should be an important part of food culture because it matters, and because too many people become ill through tainted food: people should not be falling sick because of consuming food, and they should be assured that the food they buy, whether at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or other locales, is free from contamination and safety issues.
Produce should be safe to eat. Cheeses, meats, and other animal products should be free of defects. Grains and products like bread shouldn’t contain molds and other contaminants. These should be basic, simple things, because safe food should be a basic, simple thing: all people should have access to wholesome food, and that includes not just food which is ‘healthy’ (a troubled and complex concept), but food that will not actively make them sick because it contains contaminants like chemicals, heavy metals, bacteria, or viruses.
I should be able to eat a head of lettuce with confidence, without having to fret that I might be ingesting hepatitis bacteria or chowing down on something covered in pesticides. The fact that I cannot (except when I’m growing lettuce) is a testimony to deep flaws within not just the US food system, but government culture surrounding food, because a government that does not value food safety does not really value the health and safety of the people who reside within its borders.
Access to safe food is one of those things that seems like it should be so obvious, yet so many governments seem to get it so wrong. It can save untold amounts of money every year by eliminating the need for costly epidemic investigations, medical treatment, evaluations of companies and manufacturers involved, and more. It can reduce lost time at work, deaths caused by foodborne illness, and a variety of other problems, making it something that should be an obvious priority for purely utilitarian reasons, even if a government can’t bring itself to care about the intrinsic value of food safety.
When will the United States accept that fact that food safety is just as critical for its citizens as having a snug roof, as having access to education, as being healthy? I suppose it will do so around the time it recognises that all of the above should be human rights too.