(With apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
It began with Veggie Booty. Or rather, I should say, it ended with Veggie Booty. As was my habit, I’d tossed it into the cart during our family’s weekend grocery shopping trip. I didn’t read the label, in part because I’d read it before, to make sure there were no animal products among the ingredients, and didn’t think I needed to read it again. Then I learned about the recall.
Also, shopping with a healthy, active five-year-old doesn’t lend itself to taking the time to read labels. So I didn’t. Until I read that Veggie Booty was recalled because it was tainted with salmonella, which was traced back to a spray-on seasoning, which was eventually traced back to China. Fifty two people became sick, complete with bloody diarrhea, including an 18-month-old.
My spouse and I each take about 30 seconds or less to read a food label. Even though we’re shopping with our five-year-old son and our two-month-old son, we have all the time in the world. In fact, because of them, we have all the time in the world to read food labels. We have 1,900 years, to be exact, because it will take the Food and Drug Administration 1,900 years to catch up on food import inspections.
The Food and Drug Administration is so understaffed that, at its current pace, the agency would need at least 27 years to inspect every foreign medical device plant that exports to the United States, 13 years to check every foreign drug plant and 1,900 years to examine every foreign food plant, according to government investigators.
Computer systems at the drug agency are so inadequate that it can only guess the number of the plants, and it cannot produce a list of those that have not been inspected. The situation is particularly dire in China, which has more drug and device plants than any other foreign nation but where FDA inspections are few.
These findings come from a series of reports by the Government Accountability Office — obtained by The New York Times — scheduled to be released Tuesday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In fact—since there are 31,556,926 seconds in a year, which means together we could read 1,051,897.53 labels in a year if we did nothing else—we could read 1,998,605,307 labels in the time it will take the FDA to get caught up on checking out where our food comes from.
It’s a good thing too, because the agency is only just now thinking about sending inspectors overseas.
The Food and Drug Administration intends to post inspectors to embassies and consulates throughout the developing world in hopes of improving the quality of the food and medicines increasingly flowing to the United States, a top official said Thursday.
The agency’s commissioner, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, said that he wanted to have “boots on the ground” in nations like India and China and regions like Central and South America and the Middle East.
The agency’s intentions—and old sayings about intentions—aside, the plan is “in its infancy,” and there’s no time line for its implementation nor any definite plans to seek increased funding to, say, buy plane tickets for these inspectors.
Despite helming an agency that’s lost 1,311 employees and $300 million in appropriations in the last 14 years, agency commissioner von Eschenbach is “not sure” whether he’ll ask Congress for the money to finance his cadre of jet-setting inspectors. (One of those lost employees, Rick Perlstein pointed out, was 32-year-veteran and food nutrition label originator William Hubbard, who left in disgust in 2005 , over the starving of the agency under the current administration.)
If I’m wildly optimistic, I imagine it would take at least a year for von Eschenbach and the F.D.A to decide whether to ask for funding, let alone acquire funding and implement the plan he currently just intends. And, anyway, even if the plan ever gets off the ground, von Eschenbach’s imaginary inspectors won’t visit unless host countries request it.
Meanwhile, our family will continue our weekend trips to buy groceries. If we were immortal, we could make 98,800 trips to the grocery store in the 1,900 years it will take the F.D.A to take a look at our food imports. If we did nothing but make the 10 minute drive between home and the grocery store, we’d drive that route, we’d make the trip about 99,930,265 times in the 1,900 years it will take for the F.D.A—which currently inspects less than1 percent of the food it has jurisdiction to inspect, and samples just a fraction of that—to catch up.
And while we may consider leaving anything that says “Made in China” on the grocery store shelves, it won’t do us any good, for several reasons.
First, it’s virtually impossible to avoid “Made in China.” And even if we spent 1,900 years reading labels while waiting for the F.D.A., we’d almost never see “Made in China” on a food label, even if the ingredients—like the spray-on seasoning that contaminated Veggie Booty—came from China.
“As much label reading as I did, there’s no way I could know whether or not I was buying something with ingredients from China,” says [Sarah] Bongiorni, who documented her experience in a book, “A Year Without ‘Made in China.’ ”
…The amount of food imported from China has grown dramatically in the past decade. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imported $4.1 billion worth of seafood and agricultural products from China in 2006. In 1995, it was $800 million.
In June, the United States banned five types of fish and shrimp from China because inspectors found traces of cancer-causing chemicals and antibiotics in the products.
The United States requires labels on seafood to mark where it came from. However, that’s the exception. With most foods, companies are not required to label where ingredients come from, only where the food was packaged or processed.
As Rick also pointed out earlier, Country of Origin Labels (COOL) would help our family and others to at least know where our food is coming from, if the F.D.A. can’t keep tainted food off our grocery store shelves. But the food lobby has worked effectively to block useful abels so far.
Shoppers like these are the ones farmers and ranchers, including many in California, had in mind when they pressed Congress to pass a law requiring that more food be required to carry “country of origin” labels.
The COOL law (for country of origin labeling) passed in 2002, and it’s the reason consumers now see signs in stores telling them where their fish and shellfish were caught and processed.
But opponents – food processors, grocery stores and most of the meat industry – had the political muscle to keep the bill from going into effect for produce, meat and nuts. It took effect for seafood in April 2005.
Heightened consumer pressure – because of things like the pet food recall, E. coli scares, the locavore (eating local) movement, and seafood sustainability campaigns – has now persuaded Congress to let the bill go into effect this year, on Sept. 30.
An updated version of the law is contained in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, which passed last year but lingers in conference committee. The COOL section is widely expected to survive conference tweaks.
But it remains far from clear exactly what consumers can expect to see in stores come Sept. 30. That awaits U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations governing what’s actually covered. Industry lobbying remains relentless.
…Canned fruits and vegetables already get a “product of” label to enter this country – but the label tells you where it was packed, not where it was grown.
The same is true of processed foods. Olive oil that says “product of Italy” can be made from oil bought anywhere and bottled in Italy.
Neither does COOL apply to ingredients in cereals, soups or any other foods processed in the United States, no matter where they come from.
Processing, under federal law, means that a product is “substantially transformed” – and the last country where any kind of processing took place is the one that goes on the label.
Under USDA’s regulations for country of origin labeling on fish, that meant salmon caught in U.S. waters but canned in Canada say “product of Canada.”
Besides, China isn’t the only problem. There are several countries that import food to this one—food that often doesn’t (or shouldn’t) pass muster, like melons from Mexico, grown in fields irrigated from sewage-laden rivers and connected to a salmonella outbreak that killed two people in the U.S. and sickened 18 others.
It takes our family about an hour to finish our grocery shopping, especially if my spouse and I “divide and conquer” by each taking a cart and a kid and then meeting up at the cash register. In the 1,900 years it will take the F.D.A to catch up on inspecting what’s going into our cart, we could theoretically wander the aisles of the grocery store for 16,655,020 hours.
And ever hour, every aisle, would probably hold an unknown threat. If it’s not the Veggie Booty, then maybe it will be the melons from Mexico. Maybe it will be the toothpaste. Or maybe the fish sticks that have become one of our five-year-old’s favorite lunchtime snacks will be made with tainted seasonings from a country that doesn’t appear on the food label. Or maybe the fish will come from toxic waters in China, but get process somewhere else, and then get seasoned with salmonella before ending up in our grocery store’s freezer, without ever being inspected.
We can’t know, and we won’t know from reading food labels. And even the best label can’t tell us anything about the conditions of the place where the food destined for our shopping cart, our dinner table, and our children’s stomachs, originated. The F.D.A could, but not for a long time. For that, we have a 1,900 year wait; and, potentially, 1,900 years of salmonella, e. coli, or some other unknown, unchecked threat.
I don’t think it should be that way. Maybe someone does. If so, I’d like them to explain it to me like I was five years old. Then explain it to my five year old. He’ll have 1,900 years to make sense of it. Unless he has lunch first. Then, maybe not.