"An average of one rodent hair per one hundred grams of peanut butter is allowed."
-FDA Food Defect Action Level (Guide for foreign contaminants in foods)
In the 1905, the socialist magazine, Appeal to Reason, published a serial depicting the conditions of the meatpacking industry. In what became the best-selling novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair shocked a reading public with descriptions of the meatpacking floor:
"Worst of any, however, were the fertilizer men, and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor,--for the odor of a fertilizer man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards, and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,--sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!"
President Teddy Roosevelt, who considered Sinclair a socialist rabble-rouser, was skeptical of Sinclair’s claims. In the age of the muckraking yellow press, Roosevelt did not want to be associated with anything that smacked of “socialism,” and instead, sent out federal agents to independently verify Sinclair’s claims. Even though the companies were warned ahead of time about the inspections, the agents were sufficiently appalled to recommend to Roosevelt some kind of legislative oversight over the food industry. This resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Bureau of Chemistry - now known as the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture.
One hundred years later. August 31, 2006, 81-year old Ruby Trautz of Nebraska dies after 4 agonizing days of cramps, nausea, diarrhea and bleeding. Etiologically, nothing. By September 25th, they knew: E. Coli O157-H7. By then, 3 others, 2 elderly women and a 2-year old, had also died of E. Coli O157-H7. But they were in different states. E. Coli is primarily found in ground meat supplies, but the 3 women primarily ate vegetables. And what 2-year old eats vegetables? Only if mom sneaks them into a smoothie. No links, no clues – just dots of bacteria.
On September 14th, after seeing a cluster of E. Coli outbreaks across 8 states, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the FDA advised Americans to stop eating bagged spinach. The next day, the advisory was expanded to all fresh spinach. It would take one month for a coordinated effort by the FDA, CDC, state and local health departments to finally trace the source of the outbreak – a 2.8 acre sliver of land at Paicines Ranch in California’s agricultural heart, the Central Valley.
A year later, August 29th, 2007, Metz Fresh, LLC in Salinas, California, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach for possible salmonella contamination. January 13th last year, Peanut Corporation of America recalled any products that were made by them in the past six months, but only after 5 people had died and more than 400 people became ill with salmonella. Two weeks later, they expanded the recall to all products (over 400) that were made since January 1, 2007. By then, 3 more had died and another 100 were sickened, bringing the total to 8 killed and 500 affected over 43 states – half of the victims were children.
August 2010, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg Farms recalled 500 million eggs due to salmonella poisoning. The F.D.A. inspection reports filed included observations such as: “Liquid manure was observed to be streaming out of the east door of the manure pit;” “Uncaged birds [chickens having escaped] were observed using the manure, which was approximately eight feet high, to access the egg laying area;” and “Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed. The live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, eggs, and walkways in different sections of each egg-laying area. In addition, live and dead maggots too numerous to count were observed on the manure pit floor.”
As of 3 days ago, the Senate has passed a version of the F.D.A. Food Modernization Act or S.150 (the House passed its own version of S.150 in July 2009). While the House and the Senate versions differ (the House version provides funding for inspections and fewer exemptions), whatever compromise bill is reached will provide much needed oversight and accountability of a food industry (and I do mean industry) that cannot and will not (unless it means profits) police itself. First and foremost, the bill authorizes the F.D.A. power to declare mandatory recalls of tainted food, increase inspections for farms and create concrete accountability (read: big fines and automatic shutdowns) for food processors, companies and farms that do not comply with food safety standards. Second, as 20% of our food supply is foreign sourced (75% of our seafood is), the bill also demands that foreign food suppliers meet US food safety standards, via F.D.A. inspection at ports of entry. And third, as food supply becomes increasingly compartmentalized, the bill mandates an increase in tracking technologies, so when outbreaks do occur, they will be able to pinpoint the source more quickly.
While the bill had wide bi-partisan support (one of the only things that Congress has been able to do with bi-partisan support this year), there have been quite a few detractors, mainly from interest groups for big agricultural and food concerns. Some progressive consumer groups (although CPSI is on board) want tougher standards as well as corporate influence [read: Monsanto, which helped main sponsor Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) write the bill] out of any food safety regulation. There has been a cry from smaller independent farmers who claim that they will be burdened with paperwork and standards that do not apply to their line of business. And there is Senator Tom Coburn’s filibuster – mainly to protest the $1.4 billion dollar cost of administering the bill. (He also sponsored his own version of the bill which implied that the free market and trial lawyers would do the work of regulating the food industry. It didn’t pass.).
It’s not perfect. It doesn’t provide enough money to enforce the new standards. It doesn’t coordinate across the several Federal and state agencies that are responsible for the inspection and enforcement of food safety standards. The standards for food safety should be tougher. Inspections should be more frequent. And Monsanto is not really known for being food or agriculture-friendly. But it sure beats living in a society of food-safety haves and food-safety have-nots. I know I have written previously about the importance of sustainable food, but I am always for the bigger picture: sustainability only works as if it actually sustains lives – all humans, animals and plants. Everyone in the US and across the world should have the right to safe food – whether it be organic, conventional, local, foreign, animal or vegetable - not merely those who can afford to buy organic, sustainable local produce.
In some ways, industrialization of food is necessary to feed a world of 6.7 billion persons. But it doesn’t have to be a necessary evil. At the same time, we need political institutions. But they also don’t have to rank political gain above moral accountability. While it isn’t a panacea for the systemic problems in the food supply chain, we need passage of more laws like the F.D.A. Food Modernization Act. The 307 million eaters across America can’t wait.
African Spinach and Peanut Butter Stew
I was a vegetarian for nearly 10 years. After a while, you get really bored with tofu dishes and need something, anything, which tastes good and is nutritionally sound. During grad school, this dish served that purpose. I can only hope that S.150 will be signed so I don’t have to have to worry about sickening my guests or me at dinnertime.
3 tbs. peanut oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced into half-moons
2 large tomatoes (if they are decent), peeled, or 1 can of tomatoes (San Marzano, preferably)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 in. chunk of garlic, minced
1 hot chili, according to taste, minced (jalapeño, Thai Bird’s eye, habanero, etc.)
2 pds. fresh spinach, washed thoroughly, trimmed and chopped coarsely (see note)
4 tbs. peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)
salt and pepper
chopped peanuts and coriander for serving
1. Heat peanut oil in a Dutch oven or similarly glazed heavy pot over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Sauté onions until soft and translucent, but not browned.
2. Add minced garlic, chili and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add tomatoes and smash with a back of a wooden spoon to release juices. Add spinach and stir. Lower heat to medium-low, and cover pot, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking (keep an eye on the pot – it will stick). Cook for about 5 minutes.
3. Thin peanut butter with enough hot water to form a thin paste. Stir into stew. Season with salt and pepper, and cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. If stew seems too thick, add water to desired consistency.
4. Adjust seasonings. Garnish with chopped peanuts and coriander, and serve over steamed rice, couscous or quinoa.Note: This also works with 2 packages of frozen spinach. Just defrost and squeeze most of the water out (you will need some liquid for the stew).
 Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co. 1906.
 Colonel “Rough Rider” Roosevelt didn’t seem to have any problems with the yellow press during William Randolph Hearst’s Spanish-American War of 1898. I don’t think Teddy saw the irony.
 The professional historian in me admits that I am using a very canned version of the history of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. But this still remains the dominant narrative regarding the FDA and food safety standards. The actual story behind the 1906 act is a complex interplay between the development of a consumer public, the food and drug industry, and science policy. This is not to dismiss the importance of the press or the Progressives with regard to the passage of the 1906 Act, but by ignoring other actors, we may miss ulterior motives in the creation and passage of food safety legislation, both past and present. See Ilyse D. Barkan, “Industry Invites Regulation: The Passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906”, Am. Journal of Public Health, Vol. 75, No.1, 1984, pgs. 18-26.
 “Cloacadoodledoo,” Harper’s Magazine. Vol. 321, No. 1926. 2010, pg. 24.
 For a full text of the bill, click here. As of today, there has been of a painful snag in the hopeful passage of S.150. For all you political junkies, the problem is a procedural one. The Senate version of the bill, which includes fees on importers and food companies that have recalls due to contamination, violates Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution, which demands any revenue raising measure to be originated in the House. This means that the bill will have to be re-considered in the Senate, despite a 73-person bi-partisan majority. The main obstacle to easy re-passage of an altered version of the bill is Sen. Thomas Coburn’s (R-OK) filibuster. Furthermore, the bill could die simply due to the packing of the legislative calendar. With a lame duck Congress, other political agendas, unfortunately, will take precedence over food safety.
 The Senate version of the bill passed has added the “Tester” [brokered by Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC)] amendment, which excludes regulation from small farms that make less than $500,000 a year and sell directly to consumers or restaurants within a 275 mile radius or in-state.