Remember that time when Stewart Parnell, who ran the Peanut Corporation of America, knew about the salmonella bacteria contaminating his filthy factory’s peanut butter and covered it up, telling his workers to “just ship it” anyway? The infected peanut butter, prosecutors alleged, killed nine people and sickened thousands. As a result, Parnell is now in federal prison until 2040 (hopefully) and the FDA introduced the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The point of this legislation was to insure the safety of our food as it passes through the industrial system (despite rumors to the contrary). Federal inspectors who raided Parnell’s factory found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, accumulated grease, bird excrement, and a leaky roof that let rain water into a dry processing facility, making contamination just that much easier.
[Editor’s Note: after being contacted by a member of the Parnell family with concerns over the cause of the 9 deaths, we chose to update this piece with the italicized text above. No conclusive evidence could be found re: the deaths as the transcript is no longer publicly available and the Parnell’s cannot provide additional information due to a pending appeal.]
And then there was that time when the fast food restaurant chain Chipotle had an E. coli outbreak that sickened people in 11 states. Many of their restaurants closed for a while so the incident could be investigated, but no main culprit could be definitively identified, because fresh Mexican-style food is complex and contains many different ingredients. Still, Chipotle worked with the FDA to improve the safety of their food by taking actions that included better food hygiene procedures, such as marinating chicken only at night (after other fresh ingredients have been put away) and blanching their lemons, limes, jalapeños, onions, and avocados, in order to kill any germs on their skins. E. coli is found in the intestine, and since vegetable matter (like lettuce) can be contaminated by matter from nearby animal farms, it’s important to keep animals out of industrial vegetable fields. You can blanch a lemon, but blanching lettuce doesn’t work as well.
Truth is, even with the FDA’s “food police” regulating food safety, inspecting factories and fields, and tracking down sources of contamination, industrial food passes through a huge, Byzantine system that is often too convoluted to properly focus on the safety of our food. A lack of transparency, from ag-gag laws to industry efforts to fight mandatory labeling legislation, highlights how badly the food industry doesn’t want anybody peeking behind the curtains. At the same time, overworked and tired Americans have come to rely on processed ingredients and even fast food restaurants in order to fill their bellies quickly and easily. Demanding that food be as cheap as possible also incentivizes these producers to cut corners to save money, often at the expense of safety. When the desire for everything (even government) to be cheap means that an overburdened, underfunded FDA can only inspect 1-2% of food imports at the border each year, the safety of our food cannot be guaranteed.
It is into this situation that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump introduced his plans to (presumably) improve the safety of our food by rolling back the ability of the “FDA food police” to regulate such important items as “farm and food production hygiene” and “food temperatures.” Apparently Trump intended to Make America Great Again by all but insuring that more incidents like the Peanut Corporation of America and Chipotle outbreaks would happen, more often. Trump’s press release was later purged from his campaign’s website, but thanks to Twitter user @nycsouthpaw, you can see a screencap of the Donald’s rant about “inspection overkill.”
Does the quick release-and-reversal of this policy position mean that Trump has sincerely repented of this idea? Who knows. The man flips and flops like a freshly-caught fish. A list released by NBC News earlier this month detailed 117 distinct policy shifts on 20 major issues since he announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, so your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps his idea of taking America back to its glory days involves a “beneficial reduction in the surplus population” in order to return not just to the white male supremacy of the Leave it to Beaver era, but the headcount, too. In the end, he either knows what he’s doing, which is scary, or he doesn’t know what he’s doing, which is also scary.
For those who have the desire and resources, leaving the industrial system behind and growing your own is an appealing option. Not everyone can, though, and most people still rely on industrially produced food to survive. The danger inherent in the industrial food system is already bad enough. Rolling back FDA regulations and inspection schedules would further imperil the safety of our food.
FDA Investigates Multistate Outbreak of E. coli O26 Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants