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."

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).

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. 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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