Margin Notes
spit that out Spit that out!

Tainted foods from the agricultural-industrial complex are giving new meaning to your favorite casserole “surprise.”

No one would ever mistake me for a member of the Birkenstock brigade. I can’t even figure out how to pronounce vegan, and to me patchouli is the sound you make when you sneeze. But my nearest and dearest deride me as the family hippie when I start pontificating (OK, ranting mostly) about what passes for produce in America’s supermarkets.

It’s true that the delivery box from my community-supported agriculture cooperative typically includes organisms that seem more like specimens from an extraterrestrial expedition than something my befuddled family actually knows how to cook. What I also know to be true—because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells me so—is that last year 76 million Americans were struck by food-borne illnesses, and more than 300,000 were hospitalized. Sadly about 5,000 each year succumb to microbial infections.

Despite such figures, while I patiently outline the rank foolishness of our mass-produced, shelf-shocked food delivery system and marvel over the small organic miracles that arrive in my weekly produce box, my friends persist in mocking my faith in the superiority of organically grown, localized foodstuffs. It’s just food, they tell me. To them my finicky predelictions are eccentric, suspicious, anti-capitalist—somehow un-American.

Yet over the course of the last year or so, the following crises have jolted America’s food delivery system:

At least 425 people nationwide became ill after eating salmonella-enriched Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter that had become contaminated at a single Georgia processing plant.

Three deaths, including that of a 2-year-old boy, and at least 200 poisonings were reported after consumers ate E. coli-tainted bagged spinach, prompting grocery stores to yank the greens from store shelves across the country.

And the most recent food fiasco: After hundreds of pets were sickened or killed by pet food tainted by melamine, a byproduct of coal mining typically used to manufacture plastic goods, it was eventually determined that the same melamine-laced wheat gluten, a ginormous commodity import from China, had been used in feed for millions of hogs and chickens whose ultimate destination was your family’s dinner table. (Melamine chops! Now that’s good eatin’!)

While the nation’s increasingly centralized and industrialized production system has made the entire food chain uniquely vulnerable to wide-scale contamination, the recent trend to diversify by importing more and more food offers its own worries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that its agents are checking less than 1 percent of imported food, even as imports have vastly escalated. American consumers now have to implicitly trust that foreign producers will honor food safety standards that took decades to establish in this country.

All indications are that trust is being misplaced. Recent studies indicate that imported food harbors salmonella at four times the rate of domestic products. Pesticides long outlawed in the United States are regularly, even liberally, used elsewhere, and as the melamine debacle attests, one industry’s malevolent byproduct can be another nation’s food “filler.”

Just as we stood by while good-paying manufacturing jobs were outsourced, threatening our long-term economic health, now we stand by as the United States becomes a net importer of finished food products, opening a door to a long-term threat to our personal well-being.

OK, let me see if I properly understand my family mockingbirds. So, relying blindly on the good graces of our industrialized, transcontinental food system, U.S. consumers end up eating the chemical byproduct of coal mining in China, foods that have been genetically modified to endure herbicide sprays or artificially extend shelf life, or products spiked with industrial-strength, possibly carcinogenic chemicals or trans-fat narcotics. And I am the crazy one for hippie-hugging my organic produce box once a week?

You want to see a crazy person eating, wipe the donut glaze off your glasses and take a look in the mirror. Me, I’m going to crack open my totally organic surprise produce box and see what kind of alien vegetables fall out.

Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the July 2007 (Volume 72, Number 7; page 42) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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