Legend has it that Teddy Roosevelt was lustily enjoying his breakfast sausage when he happened upon a particularly gruesome passage in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle describing the foul conditions under which that breakfast staple was made.
“There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust,” wrote Sinclair. “There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.” Meat packers would scatter poisoned bread to kill the vermin, and then “rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together,” destined for the tables of unsuspecting consumers—at least as Sinclair told the story.
Reading that passage allegedly caused the redoubtable TR to spit the sausage from his mouth in horrified disgust and pursue federal regulation of the food industry. The result was passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair said with some satisfaction, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Granted, the story that Sinclair ruined Roosevelt’s breakfast is probably apocryphal. But many Americans suffered a similar blow when it surfaced that the same tainted Chinese grain products—wheat and corn gluten, protein from soy and rice, cornmeal and rice bran—that apparently poisoned pet food across North America may be found in foods, including breakfast sausage, destined for their tables.
Lurking in the background as Americans try to digest that unsettling news is an issue few have the stomach to contemplate: the perils of not controlling our daily bread. Thanks to what one FDA official calls the “globalization of the food supply,” the U.S., once the legendary breadbasket to the world, has come to rely on foreign food sources that are questionable at best. This dependency even affects some domestic food sources, such as slaughter hogs that were fed the tainted Chinese grain derivatives.
On April 20, FDA inspectors an-nounced that traces of melamine, a toxic industrial chemical used to make plastics, fire retardant, and fertilizers, had been found in Diamond Pet Foods feed given to pigs at California’s American Hog Co. Within a few days, it was learned that an estimated 6,000 hogs in eight states had been given the pet food, and several hundred of them had entered the food supply.
This discovery was the proverbial other shoe many had dreaded since the March 16 announcement by Canada’s Menu Foods that it was recalling various kinds of pet foods that used Chinese-produced gluten, a protein extracted from grains such as wheat, corn, and rice and used as a binding element. Pet owners had reported the deaths of dozens of cats and dogs and severe kidney problems in hundreds more after they were fed products containing the Chinese gluten. Within a few weeks, some 60 million cans of pet food, marketed under 95 brand names, had been recalled across North America.
Investigators from the Food and Drug Administration found that some of the imported gluten from the pet food contained melamine. Officials in New York discovered some brands contained aminopterin, which is used in some countries as rat poison. Melamine contamination was later found in Chinese rice protein. In late April, inspectors discovered the presence of yet another toxin in some imported Chinese wheat gluten—cyanuric acid, which is used to clean swimming pools.
Melamine may have been added to the gluten “in order to increase what appears to be the protein level” and thereby “command a higher price” for the pet food, observed Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, the FDA’s leading veterinarian.
A public outraged by the deaths of cats and dogs from eating the contaminated pet foods was assured that the damage was limited to “animal-grade” products. That assurance evaporated in mid-April with a recall announcement by Natural Balance Pet Foods. Canadian analyst Ann Martin points out that Natural Balance is among the brands made with “human grade” ingredients. That is, “ingredients that have been inspected and passed for human consumption.”
This was an ominous prelude to the discovery of traces of melamine in pigs’ urine in California and the revelation that nearly 3 million chickens in Indiana ate tainted food. While it’s not yet known how badly the food stream has been compromised, just a small amount of melamine-laced gluten could cause significant problems. “One pound of tainted wheat gluten could, if undetected, contaminate as much as a thousand pounds of food,” warned Peter Kovacs, former president of NutraSweet Kelco, in an April 23 Washington Post op-ed.
Investigators traced the poisoned wheat gluten to Xuzhou Anying Biological Technology Development Co., a tiny agricultural products vendor “whose main office seems to consist of just two rooms and an adjoining warehouse,” wrote David Barboza of The Hamilton Spectator in an on-site report. Company officials denied knowing how their gluten ended up in products sent to North America or that it contained melamine. The company has, however, frequently made requests for large quantities of “melamine scrap” through Internet trading sites.
The Chinese-produced gluten was imported into North America through a Las Vegas company called ChemNutra, which proudly advertises itself as “The China Source Experts.” According to its literature, the company imported some 4,000 tons of “high-quality nutritional and pharmaceutical chemicals” from “quality-assured” Chinese sources. The products were sold to manufacturers of food for both pets and humans. ChemNutra’s CEO, Stephen S. Miller, claimed that Xuzhou Anying provided a chemical analysis showing that the gluten was free of contamination.
Melamine is a synthetic polymer created by fusing urea, a mammalian waste product, with formaldehyde. While useful in manufacturing and superb as a fire retardant, melamine is obviously not suitable as a foodstuff for animals, much less for human beings. The Hamilton Spectator’s Barboza points out that the wheat gluten supplied by Xuzhou Anying “could be used to make bread, bakery and other food items.”
Americans consume an estimated 400 million pounds of wheat gluten annually, and according to a U.S. Customs survey, more than 13 percent of imported wheat gluten comes from China. In other words, the same poison that crippled thousands of pets could eventually find its way into bagels, pizza, pasta, and pancakes.
But given that the U.S. is the world’s largest wheat exporter, and China is the world’s largest wheat importer, why are we importing Chinese wheat products of any kind?
An important part of the answer resides in the fact that as of last August the United States became a net food importer. Since 1990, notes Fred Stokes, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, the U.S. “has run up a $6 trillion cumulative trade deficit, which grows by $2 billion a day—and the fact we’re a net food importer is just one illustration.”
“We’re a net importer of wheat, beef, and many other key agricultural products,” Stokes told me. “We import anything that is cheaper to bring in than it is to produce here. And this in turn helps boost the profit of a handful of politically connected transnationals”—such as Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, and the grain giant Cargill—who “put extravagant profits ahead of the well-being of their communities.”
Stokes describes himself as a Ronald Reagan Republican, albeit one thoroughly disenchanted with the prevailing free-trade system. A.V. Krebs is a left-leaning populist who heads the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project in Everett, Washington. Across the partisan gulf that separates them, Stokes and Krebs agree that the corporatist trade system has left our nation severely compromised in one of its most vital areas: the integrity of our food supply.
After 9/11, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) proposed a multi-billion-dollar, ten-year program to combat the threat of “agro-terrorism.” Senator Roberts urged the federal government to “move quickly to prevent attacks on grain and livestock production.” Krebs contends that the concern displayed by Roberts, “a dedicated supporter of ‘free trade’ and the disastrous 1995 ‘Freedom to Farm’ legislation” were “wrong-headed and misplaced.”
“As corporate agribusiness races to the bottom throughout the world to find the cheapest raw materials and cheapest labor possible for its giant food manufacturing system, we see under the guise of ‘free trade’ more and more food imports flooding our country,” notes Krebs. The past decade has seen consistent increases in supplementary food imports, which compete with domestic products, and equally pronounced reductions in complementary imports, which do not. Supplanting U.S.-grown food with cheaper imported foreign food has created a threat at least as acute as that posed by “agro-terrorism,” according to Krebs.
“Growing conditions in foreign countries, little or no work and safety standards, the use of highly toxic chemical poisons previously banned in the US are all real and present threats to the integrity of much of the imported food we eat, yet in the name of improving the ‘bottom line’ by buying on the cheap, corporate agribusiness practices pose a far greater threat to human safety and health today than a handful of alarming anthrax exposures,” he writes.
Thomas Giessel, a grain farmer in Larned, Kansas, complains that even before they were thrown into uneven competition with low-cost imports from China, American farmers and ranchers were “already going above and beyond by burning up their assets to ensure mass quantities of cheap commodities.”
“Probably the easiest way to ‘contaminate our food supply’ is with imports,” stated Giessel. “Very little is inspected or even traceable. A lot is perishable and moves fast. But I am sure that angle is ‘trade-distorting’ in some politician’s mind.” Since everyone shares in the benefits of cheap food, Giessel maintains, “they can also share in the cost of maintaining that safe and constant supply.”
The 2002 Farm Bill required country of origin labeling (COOL) for meat, shellfish, produce, and peanuts, but most of its provisions are suspended until next September. And the COOL legislation doesn’t apply to products like wheat gluten, which can find their way into the food stream after being fed to livestock.
Although it would be considered an affront to free-trade ideology, Congress does have the constitutional mandate to regulate foreign commerce. It can expand COOL requirements to include all food imports, thereby permitting American consumers to know who’s producing the food they eat. It’s quite likely that fully informed grocery shoppers would avoid Chinese imports—and they would be wise to do so.
During the past decade, food imports from China have increased roughly 20-fold to $2.26 billion in 2006. This includes poultry, shellfish, apple juice, sausage casings, and spices of various kinds. Despite the fact that the USDA can only inspect a tiny fraction—an estimated 1.3 percent—of the food imported to the United States, a substantial volume of Chinese food products are rejected. Often this is because of inadequate or deceptive labeling, such as omitting the producer’s name. Associated Press writer Christopher Boden points out that inspectors have turned away “pesticide-laden pea pods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with salmonella.”
The April 27 issue of USA Today observed that “mass poisonings from tainted products are common” in China. There, Boden notes, “pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in excess to boost yields while harmful antibiotics are widely administered to control disease in seafood and livestock. Rampant industrial pollution risks introducing heavy metals into the food chain.”
Contamination by antibiotics and pesticides prompted Europe and Japan to ban imports of Chinese honey and shrimp. Even Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region controlled by Beijing, has halted some fish imports after inspectors found traces of the suspected carcinogen malachite green. Earlier this year, European officials discovered that a batch of Chinese-produced Vitamin A intended for use in baby formula contained Enterobacter sakazakii, a bacterium that can be lethal to newborns.
At least some of the contamination is deliberate. Chinese food producers “sometimes dye meats to make them look fresher and even sell fake milk powder for babies,” reported the April 12 New York Times. Some Chinese pig farmers have given their stock an asthma medicine in an attempt to produce leaner meat. Because eggs that have red yolks command higher prices domestically, some Chinese poultry farmers mix an industrial dye called Sudan Red, a suspected carcinogen, into their chicken feed. Those eggs aren’t sold in the United States, but traces of the dye have been found in products sold by the KFC fast-food chain.
Because of its “cheap labor [and] artificially low prices,” China now manufactures most of the world’s vitamins, notes Peter Kovacs, and it will soon command the world market in food additives. “The uncontrolled distribution of low-quality imported food ingredients [from China] … poses a grave threat to public health worldwide,” he insists.
Of course, China is not the only source of unsuitable food imports. Last October, FDA inspectors found salmonella in Mexican and Costa Rican cantaloupes. A recall was ordered for 700,000 melons distributed by five U.S. importers, but by that time the produce had already blended into the retail stream.
In 2003, three Americans died from liver failure and more than 600 others across several states were left seriously ill after eating Mexican green onions that carried the Hepatitis A virus. The FDA alert describing the outbreak observed that “Hepatitis A is transmitted by fecal-oral route,” a mincingly delicate way of describing a very unpleasant disease vector.
Agency inspectors sent to examine the Mexican farms that produced the onions found appalling sanitary conditions well-suited to transmission of the virus. And the disease has been carried by other Mexican produce: seven years earlier, 175 Michigan schoolchildren contracted Hepatitis A after eating imported Mexican strawberries in their school lunches.
We’ve recently been hit with domestic food contamination episodes as well, from salmonella found in peanut butter produced in a run-down ConAgra plant in Georgia and spinach grown in California. These incidents demonstrate that the FDA is overwhelmed by an explosive growth in “the number of food processors and the amount of imported foods,” reported the Washington Post.
“Never before in history have we had the sort of system that we have now, meaning a globalization of the food supply,” observes Robert Brackett, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA. It’s enough to make an informed American lose his appetite.
William Norman Grigg is editor at large for The Right Source (www.rightsourceonline.com)