We don’t usually think of food as technology, but where modern agribusiness is concerned, the two are inseparable. With or without public awareness, a great deal of engineering – chemical and otherwise – goes into the food you eat, much of which is processed.
In certain circles, “processed” is a dirty word. Those who advocate eating an organic diet would have you believe that to “process” food is to load it with toxins whose only purpose is to poison you. This is all done, you’re told, as gleeful “Big Food” executives rub their sweaty palms together in anticipation of your demise.
While it’s certainly true that corruption, casual disregard for consumer welfare and simple greed can and do drive actions by food industry movers – the proliferation of tainted products from China is a good example – the fact is our food is remarkably safe. This is common sense. There are hundreds of millions of Americans eating food every day, several times a day. If industry critics, doomsayers and hysterical environmentalists are to be believed, we are all of us every day spinning the chamber of a loaded revolver and putting the barrel in our mouths … and we’re doing it more than once.
Consider, then, that there have been so far this year a total of five completed food recalls. Yes, that’s correct: Five. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lists a mere five recalls concluded and another 36 in progress. That’s less than one per state. Go back to the 2011 archive and you find a total of 80 recalls – not even two per state for that 12-month period. Among the reasons listed for the recalls are things like “misbranding” and failure to reveal on the label a potential allergen.
The latter is certainly worrisome for the small minority of Americans who have serious, even fatal allergies, while salmonella and even E. coli are even more troubling. Several hundred people have died of botulism caused by improper home canning, too – though even this number is fairly low considering the number of possibilities for error. For that matter, count the number of times you’ve been violently ill from “food poisoning” in your life. Most people can do it on one hand, and they’re still alive to tally it.
Given these statistics, it is curious that we are so quick to freak out over potential toxins repeatedly touted as omnipresent, longstanding threats. This is a complicated way of saying we don’t worry about it, nor even suspect a problem, until someone brings it up. Some media darling or supposed whistleblower will speak up, or some study will be published, and we collectively execute elaborate histrionics.
Saccharin is a superb example of this. You may remember when saccharin was proclaimed harmful – mostly because a 1980 study, consisting mainly of pumping rats full of many times their body weight in saccharin, declared it a potential carcinogen. The problem with this diagnosis was that nobody actually managed to connect saccharin to cancer in humans. You may remember saccharin, and you may think its use was discontinued because of the public outcry. It’s in plenty of the stuff you eat and gargle now, though. It never went away, and it has not been proven harmful, yet many people old enough to remember the product by name also believe it was shown to cause cancer.
Want a more current example? Ask the average person how they would feel about having their food irradiated. Given the hand-wringing over fallout from Fukushima (fallout that hasn’t managed to kill anyone), a typical consumer would probably be horrified at the notion. Yet food irradiation is a safe and useful practice that does not make food “radioactive,” does no serious damage to that food’s nutrients, and kills parasites and pathogens that would otherwise end up in your mouth. The practice is taken for granted in parts of Europe, but our fainting anxiety over anything that sounds scary has prevented us from embracing the practice.
Similar hysteria has now cost roughly 650 people their jobs. When a former microbiologist for the USDA coined the term “pink slime,” our media found this much more sensational that what the food industry calls it – lean, finely textured beef, or LFTB. The stuff is “connective tissue, trimmings, and scraps” treated to kill things like salmonella. Its use has been making ground beef cheaper for two decades and it has never, as far as we know, killed anyone.
But somebody called it slime. That must mean it’s bad. Who would want SLIME in their food? Nobody you know. So now the industry is reeling from the public outcry, local butchers are selling more expensive cuts of beef, and the company that makes LFTB is closing several of its plants. The utility cost of this hysteria is higher prices and less supply … not to mention yet more people out of work and suffering in Barack Hussein Obama’s miserable economy.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are scrambling to change the chemical formula of their products’ coloring to avoid their soda being branded a cancer-carrier. Their drinks haven’t given anybody cancer, that we know of, but such mundane facts don’t matter: somebody, somewhere poured enough caramel coloring into a lab animal to make it unwell, and now the figurative pitchfork- and torch-wielding mob of public angst is circling the soda companies, ever eager to point an accusing finger and scream in outrage.
“Here is a population,” wrote Sinclair in “The Jungle,” “low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality is exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it is under the system of chattel slavery.”
This is a bleak indictment of food as industry. Without that industry, however, we could not begin to feed enough people. Sinclair had a point, for all that it was made with melodrama. Today, however, most of our would-be muckrakers are simply overreacting.