Food Fight

Nestle is chair of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and a leading food safety expert who has sat on numerous government panels devoted to the subject. The first part of her book is chiefly concerned with the not always successful federal efforts to keep deadly bacteria out of the nation’s food supply. The historic 1906 Meat Inspection Act, for example, required food inspectors to “poke and sniff” animals and carcasses to make sure they weren’t infected–not a very good way to detect invisible pathogens. And though a scientific method of detecting foodborne bacteria arose out of NASA’s 1959 attempt to provide astronauts safe food in outer space, thanks to industry lobbying, it took until 1994 for the government to extend these protections to the planet earth. “Food safety,” Nestle concludes, “is as much a matter of politics as it is of science.”

It’s not exactly the most provocative thesis, but it’s basically true. In most respects, the campaign to bring safety to food production is a classic Washington tale, with big corporations energetically lobbying Congress, generating pseudo-science, gaming the regulatory process, and subverting the public good to preserve profits. Not unreasonably, Nestle argues that what the United States needs is a centralized, European-style food safety agency to replace the current dysfunctional regulatory structure (which gives the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over cheese pizza and charges the Department of Agriculture with pizza that has meat toppings).

The book veers off course, though, when it turns to the subject of biotechnology. (Bioterrorism, the third focus of the book, gets short shrift.) In particular, Nestle worries about the almost complete lack of regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods, a problem she treats as parallel to feces-smeared steer carcasses and salmonella-ridden ground chuck. There’s certainly some similarity between efforts to regulate foodborne pathogens and genetically modified foods, respectively: Neither industry wants it. Just as the National Meat Association tried to block new federally mandated procedures for keeping pathogenic microbes out of meat, the biotechnology industry strenuously resists calls for the FDA to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Yet as Nestle herself admits up front, foodborne pathogens are a proven threat, and GM foods are not. Bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria kill some 5,000 people each year in the United States. (Full disclosure: Salmonella from a McDonald’s chicken sandwich nearly killed me when I was 17 years old, and forced me to miss high school graduation.) By comparison, in Nestle’s own words, “Eating food containing transgenic ingredients appears unlikely to cause direct harm to human health.”

Nestle tries to justify yoking the two issues by claiming that the debate over GM foods, like that over foodborne pathogens, is at the root of a debate over food safety. But since there’s no solid evidence that GM foods are dangerous, Nestle is left to argue that anti-GM groups like Greenpeace have raised safety questions “as a surrogate” because they have been cut off from discussing more sweeping concerns about the technological manipulation of nature, corporate corruption, economic inequality, and so forth. For example, during the spat over the escape of StarLink corn into the human food supply several years ago, Nestle contends that the question of whether the corn caused allergic reactions in those who consumed it–all evidence suggests it did not–was a side issue. Rather, “the real issues had to do with the company’s control over the food supply and evasion of democratic processes of government oversight.” It’s hard to see the connection to the question of food safety except in the loosest sense.

What’s puzzling is that Nestle is no anti-GM radical. She more or less admits that GM foods aren’t dangerous according to any scientific standard of risk assessment, and on several occasions in her book lavishly praises food advocates who have staked out a very different stance from her own on biotechnology. In particular, she highlights the work of Carol Tucker Foreman, who founded the Safe Food Coalition and lobbied forcefully for science-based pathogen standards, yet also headed a D.C.-based consulting firm employed by the agricultural biotech firm Monsanto–“Monsatan” to the anti-GM activists. Consider, also, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading consumer group that pops up in Nestle’s account of the battle to reduce foodborne pathogens. The organization’s head, Michael Jacobson, has gone on record opposing anti-GM activism, writing in The Wall Street Journal that “too many biotech critics have resorted to alarming the public about purported environmental and food risks.”

The truth is, Nestle is far too kind in her description of advocacy groups’ use of food safety as a “surrogate” for other concerns about biotechnology. It’s one thing to label genetically modified food so that consumers can choose whether they really want to eat it or not, as Nestle advocates. It’s another to burn down fields of transgenic crops, as groups like Greenpeace have done. That’s not to say that the folks at Monsanto are saints. They have oversold the benefits of their products while belittling the public’s understandable worries about genetic engineering. But what makes the food biotechnology debate so intriguing is that, unlike the issue of foodborne pathogens in meat, it’s hardly a black and white story of a greedy industry threatening public safety. Nestle’s distrust of the biotech industry blinds her to the fact that anti-GM activists, too, are a well-organized special interest whose objectives don’t always overlap with everyone else’s. Recently, in the face of disastrous food shortages, Zambia has balked at accepting U.S. food aid because of fears of GM foods–fears inspired by European activist groups like Greenpeace. Yes, that’s right: Food safety is political.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a reporter for Climate Desk (climatedesk.org) and cohost of the Inquiring Minds podcast.