What Does Politics Have to Do With Food?

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I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics. My answer: everything. Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press. According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it:

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as six months after the media report.

Last week's bad press was about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming:

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear ... Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats? Consumers are not stupid. They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle. All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That's food politics in action for you.

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Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a t-shirt with this logo on it. I suppose it's naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: "Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment." Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion "incredible" egg recall. Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: "USDA and FDA. Make eggs edible. Now that would be incredible."


This post also appears on foodpolitics.com.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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