Tuesday, January 7, 2014

ALEC Wants To Keep Consumers From Knowing Which Country Provides Their Food

Bill O’Reilly is known for “Patriots and Pinheads” a recurring segment of his FOX program as well as a series of books celebrating those with whom O’Reilly agrees and mocking those with whom he does not. Stephen Colbert’s satirizes juxtapositions like O’Reilly’s, with “Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger,” and Jimmy Fallon finds humor with “Pros and Cons.” These contrasts, whether undertaken as political commentary or social satire, inform us, and it is in that vein that I introduce my own version, “Wisdom and Warnings.” 

"Ya Better Watch Out!"Photo of Tank,
A Cat Much Less Sinister Than He Here Appears. Photo by Al Griffin

Conventional Wisdom:

Once upon a time, certainly pre-Dust Bowl days, folks produced some of their own food and what they didn’t grow or raise themselves, they purchased from local sources. Refrigerated trucks, good roads leading to places where rails had never been laid, and chemical additives to preserve foods were in the nation’s future as were corporate farms and ranches.

Refrigeration and additives transformed food and food delivery in the 1940s, and people were grateful. My grandmother never failed to gasp and crow when she set foot in the market in her tiny, dusty town. Sliced, white bread, Wonder’s brand, was wonderful, she thought, and today, I’m sure she had in mind the labor-saving gift provided by this bread. 

Then, for her and many like her, the world seemed headed for enlightenment and prosperity, neither of which required men and women to sweat from field to table to produce just one loaf of bread. Now we pour ingredients into a machine, or we pick up a loaf at the corner convenience store. We never need to think about where it came from--or at least we never needed to think about it until the incidence of disease forced us to take another look.

Now we know that animal waste on unwashed produce can make us very sick and even kill the weaker among us. We know that slaughterhouses may co-mingle fecal matter and meat, that touching such tainted meat and not washing our hands thoroughly may lead to grief. We know that food handlers who fail to wash their hands transfer viruses, bacteria, and disease.

As a consequence, we require that food preparation areas be cleaned well; we even hire inspectors to insure the public safety.  Still, headlines and lead stories on the nightly news reports remind us that our regulations and oversight measures are insufficient to guarantee that every food, every morsel, is clean and safe. In fact, we’ve learned that we are doing harm to ourselves.

High fructose corn syrup, a bit cheaper than sugar, causes harm. Many hope to ban or significantly reduce its use.

And we’ve learned that transfats, guaranteed to deliver rich flavors cheaply, also deliver higher rates of obesity and heart disease. Many, Mayor Bloomberg in particular, have fought to regulate the use of transfats, and recently, the FDA agreed. 

Plastics too have taught us to rethink convenience. Plastic containers may be convenient and handy for food storage, sale and transportation, but they’ve also contributed to disease, even certain cancers. Now we regulate their use and composition, but we still have so far to go in protecting our environment from their ancestors and current incarnation

We’ve also learned that some food producers are more interested in profit than in the quality and quantity of life. Two tons of tainted meat found its way into the food chain by way of an illegal plant, and horse meat was being passed off as meat deemed acceptable for human consumption. Worse, perhaps, is the incidence of disease in animals that nevertheless become part of the food chain as happened in the U. S. through farms and food distributors in the Pacific Northwest. More recently, warnings about the fish from the same area have been issued after an earthquake and tsunami damaged Japanese nuclear power plants, causing them to leak into the ocean.

Surely these lessons teach us to us place our trust in regulation, research, and transparency because we now know
  • that producing huge quantities of food for markets across the land and world can lead to production lines that are not safe for our consumption;
  • that saving pennies with the use of high fructose corn syrup causes harm;
  • that banning transfats is a great idea;
  • that unregulated plastics may do irrevocable damage; and
  • that informing consumers about what is in food and where it came from allows them to make wise choices.
Nevertheless, warnings are in order:

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch (27 Dec 2013 online edition) reports that one of ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) 2014 goals will protect food producers and prevent consumers from making informed choices even though “More than 90 percent of consumers want labels saying what country the meat (and fruits, vegetables, and fish) they are buying comes from, according to polls."

Heed the warning, Reader. ALEC wishes to prevent you from knowing where your food comes from, and with ALEC’s track record on Stand Your Ground, education reform, and anti-workers' rights measures, this law opposing Country of Origin Labeling will soon appear in a State legislature of your choice.

But why would anyone seek to prevent consumers from making informed decisions? Is it in your best interest, or is it in the best interest of food producers and marketers.

I, for one, try not to buy Chinese farm-raised tilapia because I know that some Chinese tilapia farms use animal waste as fish food instead of more expensive feed, thus contaminating the water in which tilapia are raised and the fish taken from that water. I’m also worried because the FDA has recently approved the sale of food made in China using U.S. raised chicken, a compromise that opens trade from China to the U. S. while protecting U. S. consumers from Chinese birds that have frequently succumbed to avian influenza outbreaks. But how effective will inspections be? Is there a risk of chicken bred and raised in China entering our food supply?

As a consumer, I want the right to know if the tilapia or chicken I am about to feed to my family originated in the Pacific Northwest, China or the U. S. I want labels that tell me if the fish was plucked from fresh waters or farm-raised and where it was processed. Yet ALEC would like to draw a curtain between the wizard producing the food and poor little Dorothy just trying to get home. Don’t let them. Read more about County of Origina Labeling (COOL) here.