Is Your Food Safe?

Marion Nestle has just released a new book – Pet Food Politics…The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.

But don’t be fooled by the title. This book looks at the entire global food-safety system.

Up until this latest melamine in the baby formula debacle, the Menu Foods recall was literally the Chihuahua in the coal mine.

Here is an interview that was printed in today’s Toronto Star.

Tainted milk and the politics of pet food

The common link between last year’s pet deaths and 50,000 sickened babies

September 28, 2008

Murray Whyte

In March 2007, Menu Foods, a Mississauga-based pet food manufacturer, issued a massive recall. The reason: Melamine, a polymer used to make countertops and glue, among other things, was causing so much trauma to the kidneys of cats and dogs that some had to be euthanized.

It’s the same substance found in tainted milk formula that has sickened more than 50,000 babies in China and Hong Kong this month. Two days ago, H.J. Heinz Co., as a precautionary measure, recalled a small batch of vegetable cereal baby food in Hong Kong that showed trace levels of melamine.

Tracking how melamine ended up in the products of North America’s largest pet food maker is the thrust of Pet Food Politics, the new book by Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health. What follows is an edited version of a phone interview she gave last week from New York.

The book starts with the Menu Foods recall but isn’t restricted to the pet-food industry.

I didn’t do a book on this because of the emotional attachment of pet owners to their dogs and cats. I saw it as a huge gap in the food-safety system. And guess what? It is. And it’s everywhere. I just got something from a reporter that says melamine has turned up in candy in New Zealand. Chinese-made candy, of course.

Melamine is plastic, isn’t it?

Yes. Plastic dinnerware, that sort of thing. The production of it leaves an industrial scrap, and it must be water-soluble. So this scrap is very high in nitrogen, and it looks like protein when you test for it. The fraudulent use of it goes back 30 or 40 years, at least. In the ’60s they showed that it killed sheep, so you knew right away that it was toxic. In Italy in the 1970s, melamine contamination of animal feed was so common, they developed a test for it. They found that 60 per cent of the fish feed in Italy was contaminated.

Manufacturers know this stuff is toxic but choose not to test for it. The obvious question is why?

Protein is expensive. Melamine is cheap. And these are unscrupulous producers who are only interested in making money in a hurry. This is rampant, unbridled capitalism in action. This is the kind of thing that was done in the U.S. before we had food and drug laws. And one would hope that China will do the same.

One of the revelations about the pet-food recall was the number of ingredients that were coming from China. The reason everybody had gone to China to get wheat gluten, for example, was because nobody made it here – it was too expensive. A number of pet-food companies told me they had to go to China to get ingredients because they couldn’t source them here. Most of us just assume that, in the West, we have a whole litany of protective measures when it comes to something as essential as our food supply.

No, we don’t. We don’t have farm-to-table food safety in the United States. Absolutely not. We have a food safety system that begins with animals at the slaughterhouse, and vegetables whenever they appear – certainly not at the farm. We only have oversight of vegetables for sprouts and fruit juices.

Why those two?

Because they caused problems, and the FDA, during the Clinton administration, was able to require food-safety regulations for those two products because of it.

So there has to be a problem, first, before any kind of enforcement comes to bear?

When I’m at my most cynical, I’ll say it has to be a very big problem that personally affects the family of a very important senator. Without that, I don’t think we’ll get any movement on it at all.

So if Cindy McCain were to eat some bad clams…

That’s right.

That’s extremely cynical.

Isn’t it, though? But I actually believe that. That’s why we have (problems with contaminated) spinach two years ago, and tomatoes, or jalapenos, or cilantro this year – they still don’t know. And I believe you have a little listeria problem up there, don’t you?

Indeed. It’s been a terror. But you hope more rigorous standards will come of these things.

Yes, you’d hope. But it doesn’t always happen. And it’s convenient to blame China, but the Chinese look you straight in the eye and tell you, “Nobody ever told us they cared about anything except price.” That was in April, in The New York Times.

Given the volume of goods coming from China, how realistic is it to police that entirely?

They don’t have to inspect everything coming in to the United States; they just have to inspect enough for these producers to understand they have a good chance of getting caught. And everybody should be testing for melamine. Everybody.

It seems like the most basic thing in the world – what we eat. It must frustrate you to no end to see this political morass surrounding it.

I think it’s astonishing, but I understand it. We have an industry in the United States, across the board, that doesn’t want regulation. The moment the regulators come in, they say, they make you do things that you don’t want to do. Well, yes, they certainly do. That’s their job.

What will it take to change the situation? A complete disaster?

In the wake of all this, the industry has started begging for regulation. They want to write it themselves, mind you, but the loss of consumer trust has them begging for it. They seem to have decided they’re better off with it than without it.

But as you say, they want to write it. Is it a case where something is better than nothing?

Oh, certainly. One thing is very clear: We know how to produce safe food. This is not a mystery. We know for a fact that other countries do it better than us, but we can do it. It requires a political will, it requires a very intelligent look at the processing procedure, identifying where problems occur, and fixing them; and then, diligent and constant monitoring. Companies that do that don’t have problems.

So, unfortunately you might have a few more books to write.

I call it job security. It’s awful to be right in these cases, but we have incident after incident after incident, and it doesn’t get fixed.


For more info on this book and others by Marion Nestle, visit her website or her blog.


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  1. Hopefully, the death of all those babies in China marks the line in the sand after which capatalist money-chaseing at any price goes no further.

    We can hope.

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