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U.S. Organic Sales Boom as
Consumer Alarm Over Food Safety Increases

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

A hard-hitting new book and several recent national consumer surveys underline the fact that America's food safety crisis continues. Predictably the Clinton administration and agribusiness absolutely refuse to address the underlying cause of the problem (i.e. the industrialization and globalization of food production) and instead are opting for a authoritarian "solution" that includes stripping away consumers' rights to know what's been done to their food and using nuclear waste to irradiate feces and bacterial-contaminated foods. As a corollary to their "nuclear option," America's food giants, joined by the White House, have launched a national PR campaign called "Fight BAC" (i.e. Fight Bacteria), which basically blames consumers for poisoning themselves with unsanitary hygiene, kitchen, and cooking practices. The only positive note in all this is that grassroots food activism is increasing and natural and organic food sales continue to climb.

Nicols Fox's new book, Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth About a Food Chain Gone Haywire, provides ample evidence that the routine U.S. practices of feeding antibiotics, steroids, hormones, rendered animal parts, and feces to intensively confined animals, using them essentially "as garbage dumps for agricultural waste" is literally poisoning the nation and laying the groundwork for disaster. As Fox points out, by fundamentally industrializing and dehumanizing the way we produce, process, distribute, store, and prepare food, we are evermore rapidly moving toward an ecological catastrophe, a "Chernobyl of food safety."

Among other unsavory details illuminated by Fox's book (Harper Collins Publishers $25.00 in hardback) are the following:

  • A top official at the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Morris Potter, admitted publicly in December 1994 that there may be as many as 266 million cases of food poisoning a year in the USA. And among at least 25% of the population (the young, the old, the ill, and those with compromised immune systems) food poisoning can be extremely dangerous, causing chronic illness, and even death. At least 10,000 people a year die from acute food poisoning in the U.S.
  • Although many consumers consider it a "healthier" alternative than beef, poultry is the "most contaminated product Americans bring into their kitchens," with a 1995 USDA study finding that 99% of broiler chicken carcasses had detectable fecal e-coli contamination. Other scientific studies reveal dangerous salmonella and campylobacter contamination on up to 80% of all chickens, poisoning and seriously injuring millions of consumers annually.
  • A USDA microbiologist told Time magazine that processed chicken is "no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it." Salmonella fecal matter in eggs and contaminated raw milk also pose increasing risks.
  • The genetically engineered L-tryptophan catastrophe in 1989 (39 dead, 1500 permanently disabled) and the narrowly averted case of allergenic gene-altered soybeans spliced with Brazil nut DNA nearly going onto the market in the early 1990s are just the beginnings of what will likely be another serious health threat, agricultural biotechnology.
  • Approximately 3% of all hamburger meat contains the deadly bacterium e-coli 0157.
  • Leading U.S. scientists, including Dr. C. Joseph Gibbs and the late Dr. Richard Marsh, have warned USDA officials for almost 10 years that a distinct USA strain of BSE or Mad Cow Disease is likely already present in American cattle; but top officials, concerned about agribusiness profit margins, continue to ignore or try to cover up the problem. Another top scientific expert, Dr. Paul Brown, warned in 1996 that Mad Cow-like infectious diseases may also be spreading among chickens and pigs.
  • Contaminated irrigation water, lack of hygienic facilities for agricultural workers and food handlers, toxic sewage sludge, and cross-contamination from filthy meat have now begun to taint even fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables with dangerous pathogens.

After finishing Nicols' book, Spolied, it comes as no surprise to read in a recent food industry poll by CMF&Z, a leading public relations firm, that 52% of American consumers say that they are now more concerned about food safety than ever before <>. The survey also found that only 40% of the public "had confidence" that the government and the meat industry were doing a good job in regard to food safety, while 73-86% were concerned about safe drinking water, food contamination, unsanitary food processing, and toxic pesticide residues.

A recent survey of U.S. consumers by Prevention magazine reveals how concerned consumers are increasingly turning to organic foods. According to poll results, 28% of Americans are already buying at least some organic produce, 43% are checking product labels to see if foods are certified as organic, 35% are willing to pay more for organic foods, 40% would like to buy organic processed foods, and 51% would be likely to buy organic meat and poultry if they were labeled as such. A poll by biotech and pharmaceutical giant Novartis released in February 1997 found 54% of American consumers stating that they would prefer to see chemical-intensive agriculture move toward organic production. In the same poll 93% said that genetically engineered foods should be labeled, with 73% indicating that they felt "strongly" about this.

Ronnie Cummins is National Director of the Pure Food Campaign, a non-profit, public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption in the U.S. and the world. The PFC's primary strategy is to help build a national and international consumer/farmer/labor/progressive retailer boycott of genetically engineered and chemically contaminated foods and crops.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 18, 1998.