Just over 110 years ago, the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, a landmark piece of legislation that basically said hey, maybe we should, like, set some basic standards for health and safety when it comes to things we are ingesting, because woah, people are getting really sick from eating contaminated food and taking worthless patent medicines. It was a big deal and it led to revolution in consumer safety in the United States. Now, many of the precepts are under threat, which is ludicrous, because how is basic health and safety a partisan issue?
Setting drugs aside for the moment, I want to take a closer look at food safety, because what’s happening with food safety in the US right now is starting to worry me. I, like you, enjoy not getting sick from things that I eat, although I understand that accidents do happen. And I have grave concerns about whether the current administration shares this view, as some of the moves being made by the Trump Administration suggest that making sure we don’t die from lemons or something equally absurd isn’t very high on their priority list.
The first warning sign isn’t entirely a Trump problem, but a Republican one. The GOP is very into deregulation and believes that the world would be a much better place if we have no rules in place at all, let alone people to enforce them. (Except for police, the GOP loves police.) Conservatives have constantly pushed on dismantling regulations and the agencies that draft and enforce them, so that’s nothing new. The fact that the White House is an active participant in this process and a gleeful collaborator is a big problem — because the White House is filled with conservative extremists who will happily support even the most ludicrously dangerous deregulation efforts proposed by the GOP.
Have you ever had a cat who pushes and pushes and pushes and whines and whines and whines and you finally say ‘ok, bro, do whatever,’ and the cat does it and promptly realises that this was a terrible plan? The GOP is that cat, except that instead of something like jumping off the couch and falling flat on the floor, it’s destroying decades of work to improve the safety of our food.
Our food system relies on rules and regulations that spell out how food should be handled from the moment it’s picked to the packaging you see on the shelf. Those regulations protect you, reducing the risk that pathogens will be introduced, creating a framework for sterilising food as much as possible, and reducing cross contamination. We are healthier, safer, and happier as a result of having access to clean food. So are the people who make our food — though they would benefit from many more protections that would help them as well as us.
Those regulations include things like restrictions on the kinds of medications that can be fed to animals. Handling requirements to keep facilities clean and avoid transmitting illness. Occupational health and safety standards to protect people doing vigorous physical work. Reams and reams and reams of documentation that provides clear guidance on how food should be handled if it is going to be sold commercially in the United States. Some of it is labyrinthine and onerous, but that doesn’t mean the fundamental principle of regulation is bad — it just suggests a need for revisions and updates.
It also relies on inspectors. While it’s nice to imagine that companies would smile and nod and do whatever regulations told them to, we live in the real world. Agribusiness would happily ignore these rules, but for the inspectors who keep an eye on activities at farms, slaughterhouses, and processing facilities. Even before the regime change, cuts to federal funding were making it hard to maintain sufficient numbers of inspectors. Now, the problem is worse, and with hiring freezes, when people leave the government because they’re retiring or conditions are so terrible that they can’t stand it, no one is being hired to replace them.
If you think that’s a problem in the produce world (it is), imagine how much worse it is for meat. USDA inspectors are responsible for making sure that meat is handled safely and meets the (minimal) humane guidelines set by the agency. If you eat meat, you want a robust USDA inspection system. If you consume dairy, you also want protections on dairy cattle and how milk is handled — notably, a number of incidents of dairy-borne illness have involved pasteurised milk that was mishandled during the cheesemaking process, making people sick on cheese that was ostensibly ‘safe.’
We need the complicated and broad web of regulatory guidance backed by inspection that’s designed to keep our food system safer. It’s not perfect, but the response to that shouldn’t be to throw it out. That’s what Republicans want to do, however, and Trump seems very supportive. It’s not just deregulation and hiring freezes that worry me, though, but also another issue, surrounding transparency.
Earlier this year, the administration abruptly yanked animal welfare inspection data off the internet. It’s making it harder to file FOIA requests, including those pertaining to activities like USDA inspection. The government is working very dutifully to make it more difficult to find information that should be in the public information, given that it pertains to systems we interact with and is paid for with our tax dollars. It shouldn’t be difficult to find inspection reports and trace what people are doing to protect the food system. If people are hiding information, that suggests that there is something to hide, and that’s the overwhelming message I get here: There are things the federal government doesn’t want us to see in the food system, and that worries me.
Image: Produce, Lisa Williams, Flickr