Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It started with a single recall of some commercial peanut butter....

And has not stopped expanding ever since.

"Peanut Corp. of America, the company that produced the contaminated peanut butter now being widely recalled, lied to Food and Drug Administration investigators about shipping food known to be contaminated with salmonella bacteria, the agency said Friday." - Chicago Tribune

This recall has now engulfed nearly every sort of product you could imagine containing peanuts (ice cream, cookies, brownies, candy) as well as some products you might not have thought of (pad thai flavoring mix, energy bars, pet food) not to mention peanut butter sold under a couple scores of brand names. It has engulfed hundreds of brand names and approaching two thousand products. The list of new recalls rolls through my email inbox daily like the litany of war dead on the evening news. Each day, several new products and brands are added to the list. Each week a new type of product is added to the universe of recalled products.

And now the scale of this has morphed from an unfortunate but widespread recall to a full blown scandal involving manufacturer’s shoddy practices and cover up, regulatory negligence and inaction, and possibly overt criminal acts by the manufacturer in terms of knowingly shipping tainted goods – to schools no less.

People have died as a result of this. Hundreds have been sickened.

Here’s a few things thought to be clear to anyone who was not previously paying attention:

  • When you walk down a grocery aisle and see all these brand names and product choices, consider the possibility that inside the boxes all the ingredients are in fact the exact same crap all from the exact same factory.
  • Our food supply system has been centralized to the extent that a huge portion of all the peanut butter food products in this nation run through a single company and even a single facility. A huge portion of the peanuts made in this country that go into other processed food products are transported to a single factory, tossed in a massive hopper, and then sent back out to the cookie and ice cream and dog food factories. It would be comical were it not tragic. A single point of failure. An opportunity for a single criminal company to sicken an entire nation. Terrorists could not design a more vulnerable and fragile system.
  • Much of the so-called “organic” and “natural” food we buy are also sent through the same system and share the same assembly lines as the chemical-ridden non-organic products. Just because it says “organic” on the label does not mean what you might think it means. It certainly does not mean that the products were lovingly hand-processed by monks living in a monastery with good hygiene practices. Given that we can trust so little about our food system, one ought to wonder also if perhaps we should be wary of the very claims of the “organicness” of the raw materials themselves.
  • The FDA is useless. Worse than useless; the FDA provides us false comfort that someone is watching out for us when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. The FDA has been “captured” by the companies it is supposed to regulate. It now serves only as a smokescreen.
  • Even if the FDA wanted to do well (as I am sure some of its civil servants would like to), decades of defunding, congressional and legislative attack, rhetorical attack from the right wing, partisan meddling by appointed bureaucratic hacks, abuse of science and use of secrecy by the White House, and abdication by a Democratic party largely captured by the same corporate contributors have left the FDA unable to be effective even if it decided to try.
  • It might surprise you to learn that our food regulatory system is largely voluntary for the manufacturers and mostly self-enforced with very few actual inspectors in the field. The FDA have very few tools at their disposal in terms of an ability to make unannounced inspections, to compel a mandatory recall, to impose effective fines or close down an operation. As a regulatory agency, the FDA is blindfolded and has their hands tied.
  • Faced with the choice between cutting cost and providing safe products, some companies will choose to cut costs.
  • Faced with the choice between shipping a tainted product or the expense of volunteering to recall it, some companies will choose to ship it anyway.
  • Faced with evidence that their products are making people sick, some companies will choose to cover it up rather than take corrective action.

If you are horrified by what we are now learning about peanut butter food safety, I suggest you stop eating meat immediately. You should probably be careful with prescription drugs as well, since these institutional problems are pervasive and infect every industry.

The true outrage here is this situation was avoidable. The destruction of the FDA was done very much on purpose. It is the direct result of greed hiding behind a false ideology of self-regulating free markets. A thirty year “conservative” campaign to destroy our system of regulation has succeeded in its goal. We have no regulation any more, just a fa├žade. What’s worse, the campaign to destroy our regulatory system succeeded in destroying our expectations. We have been fooled as a nation to accept that there is no need to protect us. In fact, large portions of the nation loudly screech day in and day out the real risk is not criminal corporations, the real risk to us is regulators. The Democrats, curse their cowardly corrupt souls, have played along with this crime every step of the way.

Added to the anti-regulatory suicide pill we were convinced to ingest, we embraced an economic system that sought absolute centralization and monopoly, which has led us to destroy our own food supply system, along with our family farms, small businesses, and local communities.

The only silver lining to this is that we are now witnessing the simultaneous collapse of the entire “conservative” ideology all at once. The deregulatory fever and greed is good mantra of Wall Street along with its celebration of excess compensation has brought the entire world to the precipice of full blown economic collapse, requiring unprecedented interventions and bailouts by the supposedly evil and useless government and its taxpayers. The fascist militaristic ideology of the right has left us with a world in turmoil, enemies everywhere, our moral authority drained, and a government that is bankrupt with a strained military. The false misnamed system of economic globalization has left our communities waking up to the value of local economic systems and small businesses, and now this latest scandal in deadly food will, I hope, reveal to the nation that the deregulatory fever and laissez faire attitude about our food system is threatening our health.

We would be much further along on registering and processing these realizations, of course if the media itself was not also captured and corrupted by the same corporatist interests that brought us these damned plagues of collapse.

Alas, this is the nature of addictions and infections; it seems there is no easy way to break their hold on us without some fever and convulsions. The suffering, as always, is borne mostly by people who did not participate in the profits. But we can hope at least that in the end we emerge a little better and a little smarter than we were before. We can hope at least that the next generation will remember these crimes and these outrages, and will not so easily sell their dignity and personal security to deceptive corporations and their purchased politicians.

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