Despite best intentions, US still has food scares

By Daniel Shaw (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-11 08:43
Large Medium Small

Seeing the reaction to his novel The Jungle, the author Upton Sinclair famously lamented: "I aimed for the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Related readings:
Despite best intentions, US still has food scares Punishments against tainted food ramped up
Despite best intentions, US still has food scares Quality watchdog increases milk safety scrutiny
Despite best intentions, US still has food scares County focus to ensure food safety
Despite best intentions, US still has food scares China's food quality and safety (White Paper)

His portrayal of immigrant workers in the US meat-packing industry had failed to stimulate the foundation of a welfare state charged with protecting the weakest members of society, disappointing Sinclair's fondest hopes. But, whatever the author's intentions, the book did have an influence on US history.

Not long after the appearance of the novel in 1906, the public, literally disgusted at Sinclair's descriptions of the filth in which meat was then processed and packaged, protested loudly enough to the cause the authorities to take notice. The results of the agitation were the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, each aimed at setting a high standard for quality of the country's food supply.

To this day, the concern over the safety of what we eat has not abated - and for good reason. As many visitors to the United States have observed time and again, Americans love to eat. And we naturally want to be able to pursue our passion without fear of death, or at least of a really bad case of dyspepsia.

This leads us to take the business of food safety seriously. Unlike the schools, into which we pump millions while having no real demand for results, we expect the food inspector to do his job. The size of our concern is reflected in the bureaucracy that has grown up because of it.

Not only do we have the giant US Food and Drug Administration, responsible in general for the safety of most things we ingest, but also thousands of small county health departments, which often grade restaurants using a letter system similar to what's used in our classrooms.

Local newspapers will take the inspection reports produced by these county departments and publish them. The resulting columns are among the most-read parts of the paper. In the States, it's not uncommon to hear someone say, "I used to like going to Restaurant X, but then I read the inspection report in the paper"

All of this attention given to the quality of food tends to lead to a certain complacency among Americans. Many of us, though far from all, take it for granted that what we buy at the grocery store or order at a restaurant is safe.

Hence the trepidation Americans often feel when we come to a place like China, where food scandals seem to make up a large portion of what is reported in the news. As I was getting ready to come over to Beijing, I got a series of shots to inoculate me against whatever diseases - hepatitis A, typhoid - might be lurking in the food or the air.

I thought I had done well by taking those precautions. But the nurse who stuck the needle in my arm said they weren't enough.

As vigilant as I was about cleanliness in US restaurants, I needed to be even more so in China. Look at the servers' hands to see if they are clean, she warned. Don't buy food sold by anybody on the street. Above all, don't drink the tap water.

Since being here, the news has done little to calm whatever fears may have lurked in the back of my mind before I began this journey. One of the first articles I edited at the China Daily concerned the discovery of cadmium in native rice. A few days later, I read reports saying that dairy producers may be using leather-hydrolyzed protein - derived from animal hide and fur - to make adulterated milk products. And now food safety is an important topic of discussion in the current sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a priority of the government.

But the attention means little to me. Even without it, I would be far less worried than I perhaps should be. Why?

I can't say I'm capable of naming all of the causes of this carefree attitude. But one undoubtedly is a recognition that the US is powerless in the end to ensure the complete safety of the food supply, no matter how high it sets its standards.

Even while we look at China with a disapproving eye, we can't boast of being free of scandals ourselves. Anyone showing arrogance about the superiority of the US' food-safety net need only be reminded of the 2009 outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter.

What's more damaging to my peace of mind in the US, though, are the health reports that at times make it seem as if we consumers will never win. No sooner do we give up meat because we are told it has been pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics than we learn that our vegetables are coated with pesticides.

And we decide to stop drinking the tap water because we hear it's filled with heavy metals, only to find out that bottled water is tainted with a toxic substance called BPA, which the European Union has just banned from baby bottles.

For me, then, I suppose I have grown used to the thought that I will always be taking on some risk when I decide to put food in my mouth. It's unavoidable, because I must eat to live.