Dispatch September 2008

Back to The Jungle

"The food-tainting scandals, as much as the economic crisis, are the result of predictably unreliable 'voluntary' industry self-regulation that leaves the foxes guarding the henhouse."
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The Chinese tainted-milk scandal is depriving people of their beloved White Rabbit candies—Tootsie-Roll shaped candies in red, white, and blue wrappers that are emblematic of childhood for Chinese all over the world and to anyone who has been in a Chinese-language class, in which students or teachers inevitably pass around a bag.

That's a facetious way of saying that soon everyone will be checking labels to see whether there's milk in the ingredients list, the way people have learned how many unexpected products have, say, peanuts. Soon consumers will be learning different words that flag milk, like "casein," the way people who are gluten-intolerant have learned a new vocabulary of substances to watch out for.

So far there's no evidence that U.S. products contain milk powder tainted with melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastics (think 1950s tableware) whose nitrogen raises protein levels in tests. But the day isn't far off. Already the FDA has issued warnings to avoid poor White Rabbit, and also Mr. Brown brand instant coffee and tea.

The Chinese government hasn't executed anyone connected with the scandal, which has killed four infants and sickened 53,000 people. But it will have to do something to convince people that it wants to keep its promise last year to crack down on lax inspections and corruption. And a long article this weekend in The New York Times about the reports of sick babies the government squelched in order to avoid negative publicity leading up to the Olympics will only make the world less confident in any food from China they buy.

Not that they'll be able to tell: U.S. laws passed five years ago requiring manufacturers to identify which country ingredients and foods come from have consistently been delayed by companies—particularly meat producers—who call them expensive and cumbersome, and unnecessary because of voluntary compliance and inspection. The limits of voluntary compliance are, of course, self-evident and predictable to everyone except the Bush Administration, as the disease outbreaks from hamburgers and salsa show every few months.

There's a direct link between the pet food that caused fatal kidney problems in cats and dogs last year and the watered-down, tainted milk that has killed four infants and sickened many thousands of people so far, as Marion Nestle points out in her new book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Dairies and food manufacturers buy milk based on fat and protein levels. Pet food makers buy wheat gluten, a flour derivative, based entirely on protein levels. Even if it's toxic, melamine raises both, and it's cheap. It was tainted wheat gluten that caused the pet deaths.

Nestle's book is a detective story that identifies plenty of perpetrators as well as victims—non-human when she was writing it, but including frequent warnings that the problems wouldn't stop with animals. Did you know that pigs and chickens and farmed fish, including on U.S. and Canadian farms, are fed old and unsold pet food? Nestle didn't either, and a chapter called "More Melamine Eaters: Farm Animals and People" is particularly alarming in light of the day's headlines. (Nestle doesn't speculate on how concerned we should be about buying pork, chicken, and fish; industry says that the possible content of melamine is so small and diluted that there's no chance of sickening adults, who in any case are far less susceptible to harm than infants).

The larger problem is that no one has studied the risks, and when the pet food scandal broke, no one even bothered to look at prehistoric studies of the effects of melamine in farm animals—which had in fact been conducted. By prehistoric I mean pre-Internet, and Nestle uncovers indicative studies on sheep from the 1960s that could easily have indicated how dangerous contamination would be for cats and dogs.

As Nestle's reporting makes clear, the predictably frantic finger-pointing and blame-ducking as the pet-food scandal spread went all along the chain from Chinese suppliers to Chinese wholesalers to U.S. brokers and manufacturers. The current stories about Chinese authorities denying or hushing up the milk scandal only echo the behavior she describes in her book.

Some heroes of the U.S. pet food recall are surprising: several enterprising USA Today reporters who traced the taint to individual manufacturers much faster than the FDA did, and the food giant Procter & Gamble, which initiated the first pet-food recall before the FDA required it to and prompted smaller, foot-dragging manufacturers to follow suit. Toward the end of her book Nestle draws the links that will occur to any reader familiar with Upton Sinclair and the history of the FDA: China is in the unbridled free-trade days America was before The Jungle prompted the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and is no more lax or unscrupulous than American food producers were. As she says, we've been here before. But, as the reverberating news points out, we don't know where we're going.

For U.S. readers the most upsetting condemnation is saved for the FDA. In the pet food scandal—as in all the recent contaminated-food disease outbreaks—the agency has acted slowly and failed to say when and how it received its first warnings (shades of the Chinese government). As critics continually point out, deregulation-minded, industry-boosting Republican administrations have left both the FDA and the USDA far too weak and underfunded to conduct the kind of studies on human toxicity that could allow them to act quickly and decisively. A new administration must recognize the fact that the food-tainting scandals, as much as the economic crisis, are the result of predictably unreliable "voluntary" industry self-regulation that—in this case literally—leaves the foxes guarding the henhouse.

Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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