St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.), August 3, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: "Without any precautionary principle in effect, consumers had now unwittingly joined their pets as subjects in a massive food safety experiment."]

By John E. Peck (Madison, Wis.)

Back in early March when it was first revealed that pet food across the United States contained imported gluten with toxic melamine, many expected the White House to take swift action, ordering a national recall and implementing country of origin labeling as mandated in the last farm bill.

Alas, neither occurred. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration was swamped with more than 12,000 complaints as thousands of dogs and cats died from liver failure. Without the right to know where the food they bought came from, consumers fell victim to that old Latin adage: caveat emptor -- buyer beware.

By late April federal officials were doing a second round of damage control. As one might expect with corporate globalization, the same tainted gluten that had found its way into pet food also had been dumped into livestock feed in nine states.

More than 56,000 pigs were held in quarantine until May 15, when the government determined it was "safe" to release them for slaughter. Another 80,000 suspected chickens were also deemed "fit to eat" on May 18. Without any precautionary principle in effect, consumers had now unwittingly joined their pets as subjects in a massive food safety experiment.

Melamine is a plastic coal derivative used in fertilizer manufacture that has never been tested for animal or human consumption, yet -- as reported in The New York Times on April 30 -- there is a massive underground market in China selling melamine scrap for livestock feed as a cheap "filler" replacement for urea, creating the appearance of higher protein content.

Unknown to many, the United States has been a food deficit nation for years now. The average U.S. consumer eats 260 pounds of imported food annually -- about 13 percent of the total diet. As regulatory barriers crumbled under free trade regimes such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and imports skyrocketed, corporate agribusiness raked in unprecedented profits.

U.S. food supply

Most people in the United States still have some faith -- perhaps misguided -- in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's capacity to safeguard our nation's food supply, but the reality is that the USDA deals only with about 20 percent of what we consume -- meat, eggs and milk.

The FDA is responsible for the other 80 percent: fruits, vegetables, baked goods, snack foods, candies, beverages and other processed foods -- such as gluten.

While the USDA has 7,400 inspectors and 300,000 plants at home and abroad to regulate, the FDA has only 650 inspectors to cover 60,000 plants, plus 420 ports. The upshot is that barely 1 percent of food imports is monitored.

China, which is already notorious for its sweatshop production, forced eviction of peasant farmers, dumping of toxic wastes and other export- friendly cost-saving measures, is now ranked No. 3 (after Canada and Mexico) when it comes to provisioning an increasingly hungry U.S. population. China's food exports to the United States topped $2.26 billion in 2006.

On July 10, China went so far as to execute its former State Food and Drug Administration chief on corruption charges, but no heads rolled in Washington, D.C. In fact, agribusiness lobbyists are now working overtime to make sure that "country of origin labeling" is not part of this year's farm bill debate.

Consumer ignorance

Mandated in the 2002 farm bill, "country of origin labeling" has been stonewalled by the White House ever since. The only food item that now has mandated labeling is seafood.

Imposed consumer ignorance means greater profit, which is why groups such as the National Cattleman's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council, along with major retail chains such as Wal- Mart and Whole Foods, continue to oppose "country of origin labeling."

Even U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has proposed hamstringing "country of origin labeling" in his latest farm bill proposal by linking it to a federally mandated National Animal Identification System.

Consumers should have the right to know where their food comes from, which is why "country of origin labeling" needs to be fully implemented as part of this year's farm bill with no strings attached.

Whether it is last year's E. coli-contaminated spinach or this year's melamine-tainted gluten, the solution to our food crisis is better consumer labeling, more diligent government regulation and broader domestic support for sustainable food self-sufficiency -- not less.

This is the opinion of John E. Peck, originally from the St. Cloud area, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national grass- roots organization based in Madison, Wis.

Copyright 2007 St. Cloud Times