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Waiter, there’s a lobbyist in my burger! March 4, 2010

Posted by mtaliafe in Environmental Health.
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Have you ever considered the amount to which industry influences the regulations pertaining to your food? Consider one of the most popular American menu items– the hamburger. On average, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that Americans eat about 60 pounds of beef annually. But is this meat safe to eat?

You probably recall several recent recalls of beef, implemented by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). In fact, the FSIS indicates there have already been 2 this year totaling over 865,000 pounds of recalled meat due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination, and we’re not even through the 7th week of 2010 yet! This is hardly a new problem.  In 2008 in one recall alone, 143 million pounds of beef was recalled according to a CNN article. In recent years, you might remember other recalls for a variety of food, including green onions, hot peppers and peanut butter due to a variety of contaminants, such as E.coli, Listeria and Salmonella. Of course, this was after they made people severely ill. CDC reports that each year about 5,000 Americans die from foodborne illness.

Don’t you think the death of 5,000 people per year on account of contaminated food  is excessive? Some would cite our federal regulatory agencies as having something to do with the problem.

The USDA is responsible for the consumer safety of meat, poultry and related products.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates fruits and vegetables, as well as food packaging, labeling, and medicine and food supplements for humans as well as veterinary medicine for treating livestock. Industry is closely invested in regulation efforts by USDA. Did you know that the beef industry, via the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has close ties to it? For example, a former USDA director was a large-scale pig farmer according to Food Politics by Marion Nestle. Another top USDA official,  Ann Veneman, was a former NCBA lobbyist according to the Leiter Reports blog, which further posits that there was inside influence to more loosely regulate food industry.

Finances also play a major role in the regulation of our food:  Agriculture IS big business. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that in 2008, the agricultural industry donated over $143,000,000 to federal political campaigns, with the majority of that funding going to the Republican party. Over $2,000,000 of that came from the livestock industry, the largest portion coming from the National Cattlemen’s Association.

In light of all of the food-borne illness stories making it to the papers in recent years, citizens have organized to ensure that the food industry is more responsible in ensuring that food is more safe for consumption. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 resulted largely from that effort. This act attempts to improve the ability to expect that our food supplies will be safe for ingestion by emphasizing prevention and shifting some of the responsibilities to agribusiness.  Though the bill is still in legislation, it has been roundly espoused from within and without the food industry. Consumer groups such as Consumers Union and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been especially vocal about improving food safety.  In light of all of the illness and lost productivity brought by contaminated food, it’s hopeful that this bill becomes law.

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