The Food Policy Vacuum
Almost a week ago, Tara Lohan published an interview on Alternet with documentarian Robert Kenner, whose latest project is Food, Inc. While tens of millions of people flocked last weekend to the theaters to see Transformers II, Food, Inc. was also released in theaters on Friday with hardly any fanfare. Indeed, you can be officially and legally classified a nerd if you'd rather sit through a documentary about how our food is processed, packaged and marketed than a CGI-laden sci fi epic about Optimus Prime.
But we don't have to be activists or nerds to want to educate ourselves about what we're putting into our mouths and stomachs, not to mention the very legal jeopardy into which tens of millions of us can place ourselves just in merely exercising our first amendment rights to criticize these food conglomerates and their products. After all, we all have to eat.
It may surprise you to know about the veggie libel laws that are in effect in 13 states. One of the first victims of the veggie libel laws was Oprah Winfrey. Even though Winfrey, one of the most powerful and influential people in the entertainment industry, was eventually vindicated, the very threat of the lawsuit was enough to put her into a state of permanent silence.
One of the many valuable bits of information gleaned from Ms. Lohan's interview with Kenner was that neither the FDA or not USDA have the power to recall food. Jurisdiction over even hamburger that has been proven to kill people seems to depend entirely on whether or not E.coli-tainted meat was a plain hamburger or a cheeseburger (if a cheeseburger, then the FDA claims its hollow jurisdiction because then a dairy product is involved).
In other words, when it comes to recalling tainted or even deadly food, we're actually using the honor system. The individual corporations are in charge of policing themselves. And one suspects, given the irresponsible, bottom line-driven mentality of corporations, for every recall we hear about in the news, there are probably about 100 others that ought to be taking place.
If that seems like an alarmist and flippant number pulled out of thin air, a quick internet search of food giants such as Monsanto and Smithfield Farms and the unimaginable evils they have visited on the entire world will suddenly make that 100 to 1 ratio seem frighteningly plausible.
Kenner is not a food activist but a filmmaker. Yet he tells Tara Lohan that the focus of his documentary Food, Inc. kept changing as he learned more about Big Agro and its legalistic bullying tactics and iron curtain of secrecy that surrounds its products. Under the shady veil of proprietary secrets, corporations such as Monsanto have launched countless hundreds if not thousands of lawsuits against small farmers who have been judged guilty of using patented GMO's, have criticized them publicly or who had merely attempted to differentiate their non-genetically modified product from Monsanto's own tampered product.
Kenner puts his finger right on a point that thus far has hardly even been mentioned in a prominent forum: That the health care debate that's raging on Capitol Hill and from coast to coast really doesn't address one of the core issues that actually underpins such reform, which is food reform.
According to Kenner and the two food experts in Food, Inc., Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), one third of children born after 2000 will develop Adult Onset Diabetes and such diseases have already been conclusively linked to some of the food we're eating. Diabetes is obviously a potentially life-threatening disease and can be very expensive to treat. Alone, it can devastate a health care system already too expensive for nearly 50,000,000 Americans to afford, a managed health care system that's all too eager to deny coverage to even premium payors based on "pre-existing conditions."
Even educated people such as Pollan and Schlosser are content to label the current disconnect from the interests of the US consumer as a mere "policy deficit". Yet the way I see it, it's a policy vacuum in which responsibility has been systematically kept out of the hands of federal regulatory agencies such as the FDA and the USDA and into the grasping hands of multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Smithfield.
As Kenner also states, real food reform and passing much more stringent laws cannot begin until we have transparency and a free flow of information between the government and these corporations and the American consumer. It's a system in which even if one chooses to eat healthy by buying organic, you're penalized for wanting to do so by the outrageous prices charged for it. There are local farm stands, many of them producing affordable organic produce but those of us who eat meat are still ingesting chemically-laden beef, fowl and pork that are produced not on pastoral farms but inhumanly crowded feedlots and killing floors.
At the end of the Lohan interview, Kenner seems almost absurdly optimistic about the inevitability of real food reform. It's absurd when one does a little reading up on the enormous forces that corporations such as Monsanto, Smithfield Farms and others bring to bear in order to silence critics, whistleblowers and those who merely want to educate the public about what they're ingesting.
But Kenner is absolutely right when he says that we cannot even begin to responsibly initiate a dialogue about health care reform until we first begin to make inroads toward one of the underpinning root issues that forms a health care debate, which is what we put into our stomachs.