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Food "Safety" Reform and the Covert Continuation of the Enclosure Movement

By       Message Nicole Johnson     Permalink
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The take-away message is clear: the US can't require foreign producers in less developed nations to have a system that is equal to ours; we have to accept their different or lower standards as equivalent to domestic standards. Nevertheless, the legislation will hold domestic producers to higher standards than foreign producers. Once you understand this reality, the argument that thelegislation is needed to improve the safety of imported food reveals itself to be a fraud.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization identifies globalization of the food supply as a key cause of foodborne illness worldwide, such trade will increase, even displacing US production. We are legally prohibited from doing anything meaningful about it, unless we're willing to sustain vast fines or withdraw from the WTO. As explained by Helena Paul and Richard Steinbrecher in Hungry Corporations: Transnational Biotech Companies Colonise the Food Chain, "The World Trade Organization (WTO), created out of the GATT in 1994, is a perfect vehicle for extending corporate rights. Unlike other international instruments, it has legislative and judicial powers that can be enforced against states through its complaints mechanism. Governments can use this procedure to change laws and lower environmental and social standards in the interests of "free trade.' Yet it does nothing to limit the ability of transnationals to use their economic power to drive competitors out of the market by unfair means; absorb competitors through mergers and acquisitions; or form strategic alliances with competitors to share technology, production facilities and markets.'" [31]

It's long past time we understood that the call for "free trade" is a euphemism for supranational control. When barriers to trade are removed, the obstacles being removed are the protections necessary to preserve a nation's economic and social welfare. The removal of these protections have hurt people worldwide while transferring control of national resources and sovereignty itself -- to supranational transnational corporations that run the global food system.

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Is Our Food Really That Unsafe?

Now that we understand how trade rules force us to accept as equivalent the safety regimes of less developed nations from which we import so much of our food supply, we should turn to another myth: the food safety "crisis" itself. With all the newspaper headlines endlessly trumpeting new food-borne illness outbreaks and numerous articles profiling the stories of the victims of the most dangerous cases of E. coli O157:H7 food contamination, people can't be blamed for getting the idea that something is terribly wrong with the safety of our food supply. However, perception isn't always reality. And perception especially one manufactured to gain a population's consent for something to which it wouldn't normally agree can be a very powerful thing.

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As Edward Bernays observed in his 1928 work Propaganda, a little book that became a sort of bible for the public relations industry, "No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group of leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliche's and verbal formulas supplied to them by their leaders."[32] Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood better than most that nothing aids the manufacture of perception like a good dose of fear.

Using a page from Bernay's playbook, the wealthy trusts and foundations that are generously underwriting the public policy campaign waged by Make Our Food Safe, the consortium of groups tirelessly pushing for food "safety" reform, repeatedly employ fear to their advantage. One such effort is the"Produce Safety Project" at Georgetown University, an enterprise funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which published in February a report that recalculated the "Health-Related Costs of Foodborne Illness in the United States."[33] The stated purpose of the study "is to provide policymakers with measures of the economic burden of foodborne illnesses both at the aggregate level and at the pathogen level." The report's author, Robert Scharff, received a grant of $47,000 for his work,[34] which recalculates the economic costs associated with foodborne illness. His new estimate dramatically increased previous estimates of $6 billion to $38 billion a year to $152 billion a year -- a piercing headline screamer guaranteed to heighten public pressure on the Senate to hurry up and pass the legislation.

While Scharff's math itself isn't a problem, the figures on which he bases his calculations present numerous problems. The figures, derived from the 1999 Mead Study and adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been the subject of much debate. The Mead Study, entitled "Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States,"[35] is the source for the infamous sentence "We estimate that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year." This sentence has become a mantra of sorts, repeated endlessly by practically everyone demanding that the government do something to make our food safe. Along the way, most people seem to forget the figures are estimates and not necessarily an accurate picture of reality, because they are based on multipliers as large as 40 for every actual case proven to be caused by foodborne pathogen.

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Journalist David Gumpert has examined the report and makes a number of perceptive points. He notes that not only is the study ten years old "but the data it draws on goes back as far as 1948."[36] Gumpert also points out that the numbers appear to be "wild estimates of the real situation": "Even allowing for the multiplier effect the likelihood that for every reported illness, there may be between ten and forty times that number not reported the numbers don't obviously add up to the millions projected by the CDC. Consider that in 2007, the CDC reported a total 21,183 cases of foodborne illness, based on reports from states and localities around the country. Multiplying that by 40, you still only get 847,000 illnesses, a far cry from 76 million."[37]

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Nicole Johnson is a researcher and activist living in Ventura county, California. Her kids wish she would go back to painting and stop worrying so much about the world.

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