Food recalls show tie between mega-corporations and government

Credit: Juan Fernandez/Art Staff Credit: Juan Fernandez/Art Staff
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

It’s summertime. I’m watching Food, Inc. and eating Chef Boyardee, a bad combination to say the least. As the enriched wheat flour noodles slide down my gullet, aided by the melted, enzyme-modified cheese sauce that covers them, I begin my eye-opening journey to the truth behind America’s food.

Since the early 20th century, the American food industry — the meat-packing industry in particular — has had trouble maintaining quality products and staying transparent with the public. Everyone is somewhat familiar with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and its shocking exposure of the meat-packing industry. After the publication of Sinclair’s book, public outcry led to the enactment of the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1930.

Things seemed to get better; more regulation was put in place, and food quality and working conditions improved. However, in recent years, and especially this past summer, a rash of food scares has revealed the complacency striking the food industry. There have been 27 food recalls this summer alone, a bit much for my taste. The most recent one was a turkey recall by Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation, which infected 111 people in 31 states with salmonella. Large food recalls like this demonstrate the inability of the government and major food industries to consistently produce safe and nourishing food.

The regulatory system that is currently in place is obviously not cutting it, and hasn’t been for some time. Kevin’s Law, a proposed piece of legislation named for Kevin Kowalcyk — who died at the tender age of two of E.coli-tainted hamburger meat — would have given the Department of Agriculture the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produced tainted meat. Kevin’s mother, Barbara Kowalcyk, has been fighting since 2005 to have the law instated. However, Kowalcyk has faced a mountain of litigation for speaking out about her views on the meat industry. In her interview with Food, Inc., she went so far as to decline to talk about her diet because of fear of further litigation.

While heavily subsidized products like corn, poultry, and soybeans aid the fast production of cheap food, subsidies place an obscene amount of power in the hands of corporations in control of those foodstuffs. If you are legally attacked by one of these conglomerates for merely airing your views on food, nine times out of 10 they will win, because they have the money to hire the best lawyers and fight until your resources run out. Only in extreme cases, like Oprah Winfrey’s 1996 legal battle against cattle companies, does the “common man” — or in this case the extremely rich celebrity — win out.

When former executives of massive food corporations like Monsanto are appointed to influential positions in the FDA, the future of food regulation isn’t exactly going to be fair. For example, Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, was appointed the FDA’s deputy commissioner of Office of Foods in 2009. Call me paranoid, but I wouldn’t exactly trust a former executive of a company that controls one of the biggest crops in the nation to make unbiased decisions.

Other aspects of the food production industry — like pesticides, genetically modified organisms, cloning, labeling laws, farming conditions, and working conditions — ensure that the food Americans are eating is ultimately not food, but something very close to it. The tight control that food corporations have on the quality of food production, combined with their close relationship with the federal government, will continue to cause problems if left unaddressed. If you want to find out what is really in your food, and the reason massive food recalls continue to happen, do a little digging and the results might surprise you.

For myself, I don’t think I’ll be eating Chef Boyardee again any time soon.