Deja Vu All Over Again

Last April MSNBC reported from Shanghai, “The list of Chinese food exports rejected at American ports reads like a chef’s nightmare: pesticide-laden peapods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with Salmonella.” The report went on to say, “China’s chronic food safety woes are now a national concern.” Yogi Berra might respond, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
If so, Yogi would be right on. We are now fighting the same struggle for a safe food supply on a global scale that we once fought at the national level something like a century ago. Muckraker Upton Sinclair led the charge with his 1906 classic, The Jungle. Considered Sinclair’s masterpiece, the novel chronicles the misadventures of an immigrant employed in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. A typical example of Sinclair’s lurid prose reads like this:
“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and they were paid by the United States government to certify that all the diseased meat stayed in the state…. [A] physician made the discovery that the carcasses of steers which had been found to be tubercular by the government inspectors, and which therefore contained ptomaines, which are deadly poisons, were… carted away to be sold in the city; and so he insisted that these carcasses be treated with an injection of kerosene — and was ordered to resign the same week! So indignant were the packers that they went farther and compelled the mayor to abolish the whole bureau of inspection…. There was said to be two thousand dollars a week hush-money from the tubercular steers alone; and as much again from the hogs which had died of cholera on the trains, and which you might see any day being loaded in box-cars and hauled away to a place called Globe, Indiana, where they made a fancy grade of lard.”
Professor Maura Spiegel of Columbia University commented in a recent edition of The Jungle, which has never been out of print, “Sinclair wanted to arouse not sympathy, and certainly not pity, but indignation and outrage.” Indeed, The Jungle fueled a firestorm of debate about food-sanitation laws. During the decades that followed, Americans slowly but surely came to enjoy the safest and most plentiful food supply on earth.
The bad news out of China has caused many Americans to wonder whether we are slipping backwards into the bad-old-days of The Jungle. They may be right. On Tuesday, July 17th, according to the New York Times, Congress was treated to testimony that food importers “have been able to bring tainted products into this country because the F.D.A. has neither enough resources nor inspectors to stop them. And each year it has become easier: since 2003, the number of inspectors has decreased while imports of food alone have almost doubled.”
According to the Times, “Over all, the Agriculture Department inspects 16 percent of imported meat, while the F.D.A. inspects about one percent of the food over which it has jurisdiction. Just a fraction of that is actually sampled.” The hearings were prompted by the FDA’s announced intent to close seven of its 13 testing labs, including one close to home here in Philadelphia.
If the effluvial emanations from abroad bring with them a silver lining, perhaps it is that we consumers — our consciousness raised — are circling back to homegrown produce and meat products. At farmers’ markets, such as Philly’s Reading Terminal and Suburban Square in Ardmore, Amish and Mennonite family businesses are booming. Nationwide, organic-food sales are growing at the rate of 17-20 percent per year, while conventional food sales are only increasing by a puny two to three percent, according to Internet sources. Most supermarkets now point out local produce and organic products with pride.
For decades, family farms have been under pressure from population growth, suburban sprawl, and anemic food prices — driven down in no small part by import competition. Could it be that the supermarket will be the battlefront where we Americans for the first time ever turn back an unwelcome onslaught of globalization? Now, that’s food for thought.
Jim Castagnera of Havertown is the Associate Provost at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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