July 13, 2009

You really are what you eat.

Food and health care reform have been in recent headlines, and there is a connection. More than half of chronic diseases are linked to our diet. You really are what you eat! 17 percent of our gross national product is now spent on health care, and that is on track to increase by 5 percent in the next few years.

Whatever your view on health care reform efforts in Congress, you probably realize that obesity is a major factor in driving up American health care costs, and the number of overweight and obese Americans still grows. There’s also a big jump of diabetes in adults as well as children. You can’t have health care reform in this country without changing our food system and food habits.

Plus, I’m not even addressing the pollution from fertilizer and poultry farm runoff that easily makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay or whatever the closest watershed might be. Or the countless gallons of fuel expended in the “food miles” to transport these foods.

“Food Politics” is here. Not familiar with this term? The Washington Post just launched Ezra Klein's new bi-weekly food politics column, appropriately called “Gut Check,” about the high cost of cheap meat and farm subsidies. Simply put—subsidized food may not be in your best interest. Suspected carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and developmental or reproductive toxins may be in your pantry. Meat dosed with antibiotics and genetically-modified foods? Milk with bovine growth hormone (rBGH)? Yum! By the way, rBGH has never been approved for commercial use in Canada or the European Union due to concerns about the drug’s impact on animal health. AND the FDA is seriously looking at antibiotic use in animals destined for our tables.

A small farm with a white picket fence and cutesy red barn? Erase that iconic vision in your brain. Agribusiness is really big industrialized business. A handful of corporate farms put cheap foods with minimal nutrients on our plates. Subsidized corn and soy goes into hundreds of foods, as well as cheap feed for cattle. Small farmers who are not getting a sovernment subsidy can’t compete with the mega-corporations.

We taxpayers thus subsidize crops that make certain foods dirt-cheap at the check-out counter or fast food window, and possibly make us less healthy and overweight by turning into sugar in our bodies. Plus it takes a lot of gasoline to transport these processed food to our stores.

Profit ahead of public health and environment? It certainly seems so. 30 percent of U.S. cropland is planted in corn—for livestock feed and fructose and corn syrup, a major ingredient in so much of our food.

Food recalls — Are becoming a regular occurrence. The world’s largest beef producer just recalled tons of sketchy beef possibly tainted with E.Coli. Did you know that these recalls are voluntary? There is no legal requirement that the products be tracked down by the processor and yanked from store shelves. Surprised?

The White House just directed its agencies to design tougher production standards for marketers of poultry, beef, leafy greens, melons and tomatoes, some of which may make it harder for small farms. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be designing a national food registry so contaminated food can be traced back to its source, and so consumers can be alerted immediately once a problem is discovered. But don’t get complacent. There are more than 150,000 food processing plants and a small number of FDA inspectors.

The FDA recently announced a special initiative on eggs. Egg producers will have to buy chicks and young hens only from buyers who monitor for salmonella bacteria.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Make responsible food choices, by reading labels carefully. But you need reliable information to do so, and we’re not getting all we need. We finally have mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and several kinds of nuts, helping us make informed choices about where our food is from and how it was raised. But there’s a huge loophole that allows a lot of these foods that are roasted, smoked, or cured to go unlabeled.

Then there’s Genetically modified foods or GMOs. Did you know that up to 40 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered and 80 percent of soybeans? 60 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.

What is a GMO? We get them after scientists combine the DNA of a plant with the DNA of something else and create a novel organism that has not yet existed in nature. Many of the GMO crops currently approved and marketed in the United States make their own pesticides or resist herbicides, so that farmers can spray an entire field with a strong chemical herbicide and kill everything but the GMO crop. You’ll start to see the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal on products in stores this fall.

Look for the words "no artificial hormones or antibiotics used" or rBST-free” on your milk carton the next time you shop.

August 2009 Update: The Food Safety Enhancement Act was approved by the House. Check it out at Food & Water Watch at http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/. They watch out for the interests of both consumers and small-scale farmers. This bill does NOT cover farms, but it would give the FDA the power to recall suspect food—but NOT meat or poultry, since the USDA monitors that. Sure seems like some reorganization is needed soon. The bill gives the Department of Health and Human Services 3 years to set "science-based standards" for growing, harvesting, packing, and transporting our foods.