Friday, January 30, 2015

History Lessons

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There was a time, during the late sixties and early seventies, when food hit the top of the agenda in the US. Part of the reason was the politicization of a wide swath of the "Boomer" generation, and part of it was the "inside the beltway" work of Ralph Nader and his crusaders.
The underground press, in conjunction with political bookstores and health food stores, spread the word among the newly politicized public, while Nader's appearances in front of Congress put the word out in the above-ground media. What is appalling is how many of the issues raised then are the issues that are still being raised, as this short excerpt from Harvey Levenstein's Paradox of Plenty shows:
[The three major television networks] repeated charges such as that meat packers relied on the “4D' animals—dead, dying, diseased, and disabled—for processed meats. Realizing that public confidence in all of their products was being shaken, the large meat packers, some of whom owned intrastate packing companies, abandoned their opposition to the bill [to enable the USDA to enforce standards at state-level meat packing plants], enabling it to pass easily.

The quick victory amazed the reformers. Rarely had a bill shot though Congress in less than six months, particularly in the face of stiff opposition in the key committees responsible for it. It showed, some Naderites said, that American politics was not, as current intellectual fashion had it, based on irrational appeals; the public had been given the facts, and its representatives had been forced to respond. Yet in fact the critics soon began to use food issues for quite the opposite reason—their emotional punch. After all, the news that hot dogs contained rat hairs and that breast milk harbored DDT hardly provoked cool reasoning. The activists hoped that a public emotionally aroused by issues such as these would support their wider campaigns to protect the nation's health and welfare from the effects of business greed. Nader was rather rueful about the packers' quick cave-in. They had thereby managed, he said, to put the lid back on the Pandora's box of other issues—chemical adulteration of meat, microbiological contamination, misuse of hormones and antibiotics, pesticide residues, ingredient standards—that would have been useful in rallying the public to his larger crusade to curb corporate abuses.

But the food industries were hardly more successful than Pandora. After confidently announcing to a skeptical audience of newspaper editors in 1968 that food would become the top news story of the coming year, Nader recruited enthusiastic young law and college students to ferret through the food industries' dirty linen—combing the obscure reports of government agencies, analyzing lists of ingredients, asking chemists and biologists about their additives, assembling statistics to document the continuing concentration of economic power in fewer hands. By mid-1969 he was ready with enough evidence to begin the massive assault along the broad food-processing and agribusiness front he relished.

Appearing before the Senate's new Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, he charged that the food industry was dominated by immensely powerful oligopolies who cared only about selling their products, not about their nutritive value. Their “manipulative strategies” bilked the consumer; “the silent violence of their harmful food products” caused “erosion of the bodily processes, shortening of life or sudden death.” Geneticists feared that “the river of chemicals
that all of us use and breathe” might be causing genetic defects among the newborn. Yet the “skilled salesmen” of the food industries used “applied social science” to shape consumer preferences in order “to maximize sales and minimize costs no matter what the nutritional, toxic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic impact may be on humans or their progeny.” Again, Nader cited the beloved frankfurter as an example of corporate greed and irresponsibility. They should really be called “fatfurters,” he said. They were loaded with so much cholesterol that they were “among America's deadliest missiles.” The oligopolies had also ruined the hamburger, which was ofter so adulterated as to be worthy of the name “shamburger.” Nor did baby foods escape nefarious corporate influence. They were flavored with salt which would adversely affect a child with a hereditary susceptibility to hypertension, and sugar, which was “nutritionally poor, carcinogenic, and possibly atherogenic [i.e., caused clogging of the arteries].” Why? Not to please babies, said Nader, but to please the mothers who tasted the food. The same went for modified starches, which added smoothness and bulk to the baby foods, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), whose flavor-enhancing properties were unappreciated by babies but which seemed to pose dangers to their health. Strong congressional action was needed to educate the public and combat this “multimillion dollar fraud”with its “massive assaults on human health such as fat content, unnecessary salt content, untested chemical additives.” Congress must pass strict food labeling [sic] laws, greatly increase funding for research on chemical additives, strengthen the FDA, force the USDA to take the interests of consumers into account, and alert the nation to the dangers it faced.
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America
Harvey Levenstein pages 170-172

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