In 2011, the US Department of State reported that 17 US citizens were killed, worldwide, as a result of terrorism. That same year, an outbreak of listeria from contaminated cantaloupe killed 33 people in the US. Contaminated food illnesses affect 1 in 6, or 48 million, Americans yearly, resulting in over 3,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations each year, according to Bloomberg.
As Truthout reports, “We have more to fear from contaminated cantaloupe than from al-Qaeda, yet the United States spends $75 billion per year spread across 15 intelligence agencies in a scattershot attempt to prevent terrorism, illegally spying on its own citizens in the process.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012 data showed a “lack of recent progress in reducing foodborne infections and highlight[ed] the need for improved prevention.” CDC data identified 19,531 cases of foodborne infection last year. And, if over 3,000 deaths occur each year as a result of foodborne illness, contaminated food products have been responsible for over 36,000 deaths in the US since 2001.
In 2008, nine people died from eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter. That same year, an undercover investigation by the Humane Society led to the largest beef recall in US history after it was discovered that meat may have been tainted with mad cow disease.
Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than from terrorism, according to Truthout. And illnesses from food contamination cost the economy billions of dollars a year. In 2001, foodborne illnesses cost the US economy $77.7 billion.
Part of the problem is that Americans are so focused on illogical, fear-based, propaganda-driven news that domestic dangers such as a corrupt food industry are often overlooked. Another problem is that the food industry, like pharmaceutical companies and the oil and gas industry, has found ways to conceal its bad practices.
The FDA should be responsible for overseeing food safety. Because of their lack of funding and resources; however, inspections are often outsourced to private agencies that are frequently controlled by the food industry.
These for-profit private agencies, also known as third-party auditors, have little to no government oversight. Private auditors selected by industry companies often only inspect areas that their clients ask them to look at. Sometimes, private auditors have financial ties to executives of the companies they are inspecting.
And the FDA previously had no rules for how often inspections should take place. In 2011, the FDA inspected only 6 percent of domestic food producers and a mere 0.4 percent of imports.
Private inspectors do not have to publicize their reports, but reports obtained by Bloomberg Markets show that auditors gave “sterling marks” to the cantaloupe farm and other food producers either just before or just after they supplied contaminated food responsible for sickening thousands of people.
In 2010, the US Senate voted unanimously to enact the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would give the federal government new authority to inspect processing plants, order recalls, and apply domestic standards to imported foods.
When this measure reached the House, Republicans cut millions of dollars from the FDA’s budget, arguing that the US food supply was “99 percent safe,” the Washington Post reports. The House also reduced funding for the Department of Agriculture’s food and safety inspection service. Republicans said the cuts were needed to lower the national deficit. The cuts essentially denied the FDA the budget to implement food safety laws approved by the last Congress.
The Food Safety Modernization Act did become law, and it does require inspectors of imported food to be FDA-certified, and for their reports to be submitted to the agency. However, domestic auditors were exempted from these same requirements after food manufacturers stepped in, essentially ensuring that “the industry would keep an oversight network it pays for and controls,” according to a Bloomberg report.
Other aspects of the food industry such as factory farming constantly yield health nightmares. Their extensive use of antibiotics poses a worldwide health threat, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Food additives like beta-agonists, which are given to livestock in the weeks before slaughter to add up to 30 pounds of body weight, have been banned by other countries, but are still widely used in the US.
Pumping antibiotics into food animals allows the meat industry to house animals in unsanitary, overcrowded, and inhumane conditions. Now, antibiotic resistance is spreading due to the industry’s practices. According to the CDC, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year in the US. In 2011, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production, compared to 7.7 million pounds for the treatment of sick people.
Beta-agonists, or growth-promoting drugs for livestock, have long been controversial and have been banned by the European Union, China, Taiwan, and over 100 other countries due to concerns about drug residue on human health.
In the US, the relationship between animal scientists, universities, and pharmaceutical companies ensures that few scientists have been interested in examining the potential dangers that livestock drugs may cause to animals, and thereby the humans who consume the meat.
To make matters worse, recently, agribusiness has cleverly implemented anti-whistleblower or “ag-gag” bills intended to criminalize anyone who reports bad practices on factory farms. In the past, whistleblowers have exposed animal abuse, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and environmental hazards at factory farms.
These proposed bills are being lobbied by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose sole purpose is to pass corporate-friendly legislation. Some Republicans have also taken measures to protect factory farms’ bad practices.
In April, Senate Republicans interrogated the Environmental Protection Agency about information the agency released to environmental groups in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Republicans, including Senator David Vitter, accused the EPA of releasing too much information about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – big business factory farms. CAFOS, industrial-sized livestock operations, can house hundreds to millions of animals and often hide unhygienic and inhumane practices such as cramming pregnant pigs into gestation crates.
The use of antibiotics and growth-inducing beta-agonists has even created previously unheard-of health threats like the mysterious foam at factory hog farms in the US.
Since 2009, six factory-scale hog farms have experienced explosions resulting from this foam – a combination of excrement and anything from afterbirths, stillborn piglets, old batteries, bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes and anything that can fit through the floor slats, which ends up in holding pits that become highly toxic cesspools of bacteria.
Despite all the dangers posed to human health by the agribusiness, most Americans are more fearful of terrorist threats and government spying. Because of this irrationally disproportionate focus, the United States spends billions of dollars a year on counter-terrorism while the FDA continually struggles to find the resources to do its job.
In 2008, the FDA estimated that it would need $3 billion to adequately conduct safety inspections on domestic and imported food, one-twenty-fifth the cost of both foodborne illnesses on the US economy every year and the yearly expense of counter-terrorism programs.
The National Priorities Project estimates that the United States spends about $1.2 trillion a year on national security, while the FDA received $1 billion or less per year from 2005 to 2010. Meanwhile, the food industry develops increasingly dangerous practices, and foodborne pathogens put Americans at great and unnecessary risk and cost the economy billions of dollars a year.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.