Eric Schlosser on food safety: “A perverse economic incentive guides the marketplace”
By Consumers Union on Monday, July 26th, 2010
In his New York Times op-ed, Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a co-producer of the documentary Food, Inc., invokes Upton Sinclair‘s novel that outraged the country and helped pass laws to protect consumers from many of the ghastly practices common to the food industry in the early 1900’s.
While true that we can now trust (we hope) that no factory worker will fall into a vat and get ground up into lard sold to consumers (one of The Jungle‘s more grotesque anecdotes), food production in the global economy of 2010 presents its own challenges.
Today, a problem at a single factory can swiftly lead to an outbreak that extends nationwide. Last year’s peanut butter recall illustrates what can go wrong. Executives at the Peanut Corporation of America knew that peanut butter from their filthy, rodent-infested plant was testing positive for salmonella — but shipped it anyway, for months.
Thousands of different products, manufactured by more than 200 companies, including candies and cookies marketed to children, were potentially tainted thanks to that one plant. And in the end, roughly 20,000 Americans got salmonella; about half of them were under the age of 16 and one-fifth were younger than 5.
Maybe our current practices aren’t so far removed from The Jungle after all?
Without tough food safety rules, a perverse economic incentive guides the marketplace. Adulterated food is cheaper to produce than safe food. Since consumers cannot tell the difference between the two, companies that try to do the right thing are forced to compete with companies that couldn’t care less.
Which is why we so desperately need to reform our current system of oversight and pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization bill, says Schlosser.
What the legislation actually seeks is some restraint on unchecked corporate power. We’ve seen what happens when Wall Street is allowed to regulate itself and when the oil industry is allowed to regulate itself. How could it possibly make sense to let the food industry continue to write its own rules?