Our Unsafe Food Supply Is Killing Us

Much of our food supply is unsafe, with 310,000 Americans a year going to early graves from diet-related issues. Melanie Warner on the FDA’s impotence.

Alan Marler/AP

The 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, for which rules finally were drafted last week, is inarguably a victory for those of us who want to eat our spinach salads and cheeseburgers without the worry of ingesting deadly foodborne bacteria. This long overdue legislation finally gives the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees about 80 percent of our food supply, authority to help prevent outbreaks instead of just reacting to them. Yet if the goal is a safe food supply, this law barely scratches the surface.

The 3,000 annual deaths and 130,000 hospitalizations due to foodborne illness, though tragic, are miniscule compared with other deaths related to our diet. Every year at least 310,000 Americans go to an early grave and many more are sickened because of largely preventable diet-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, strokes, and some cancers. The big problem with our food supply isn’t pathogens, it is processed food. We’re being killed not by E. coli, salmonella, or campylobacter, but by the nutritionally hollow contents of the bags, boxes, and fast-food clamshells that have managed to pass as nourishment in our society.

Over the last century, our diet has undergone unprecedented change. Some 70 percent of the calories Americans consume now come from highly processed foods—loaded up with salt, sugar, fat, strange additives, and refined grains and bereft of naturally occurring nutrients and antioxidants. We’ve outsourced so much of our cooking to highly efficient food companies that “cook” very differently than we do in our home kitchens.

The result is food that often is out of sync with our ancient Stone Age biology and dizzyingly technical and complex. Behind the scenes, processed food is not so much grown or raised as it is carefully engineered from dozens of ingredients, many of them incomprehensible.

The fact is that much of our food supply is not safe, and the FDA, despite its new powers of oversight, doesn’t have anywhere near the authority or the political will it needs to help change this. The agency has done nothing to set controls on the massive quantities of sodium going into processed food, especially restaurant food, and still allows trans fat, an acknowledged poison, into products. And its oversight of the vast number of ingredients going into our food is much less reassuring than we might hope.

Of the roughly 5,000 substances that can be directly added to food, the FDA has no knowledge whatsoever of an estimated 1,000 of them. And more disturbingly, fewer than half of those 4,000 substances known to the FDA have ever gone through the sort of testing you might hope something you’re feeding yourself and your kids would be subjected to, namely toxicology tests on mice or rats. On top of that, a scant few additives have been tested according to the way they’re actually consumed—that is, in combination with a multitude of other additives.

Consequently, there are substances in our food that function efficiently as preservatives or manufacturing aids, but that have questionable effects on our health. Just to name a few, there is BHA, a known carcinogen found in things like Tang, Kool-Aid, DiGiorno pepperoni pizza, and McDonald’s sausages and breakfast steak; azodicarbonamide, a flammable, pseudo-edible chemical used widely in bread making that tests have shown breaks down into a carcinogenic compound when heated; and brominated vegetable oil, an ingredient in Gatorade and the subject of a recent, widely circulated petition by an enterprising 15-year old from Mississippi. In the 1970s, the FDA allowed brominated vegetable oil’s legal status to continue pending more studies, which haven’t materialized.

Some of this lax oversight is due to agency officials who don’t have the stomach for protracted fights against well-funded food-industry interests. Certainly it’s harder to banish substances that don’t sicken or kill us immediately the way E. coli and salmonella can. But a lot of the blame—and the potential to change things—is in the hands of Congress, which has not given the FDA the authority or funding resources it really needs for the monumental task of overseeing our $1 trillion food supply.

While we wait for the slow gears of government to step in with stronger regulation of what the food industry is allowed to package and sell as food, the way we eat is making too many Americans sick and overweight. What can we do in the interim?

Despite the alluring ubiquity of junk food, the ability to eat healthy is available to all of us, if we are willing to choose it. Yes, processed food, even the worst stuff, can have a role in our busy lives. But if we care about people dying before their lives are really over or having to endure preventable suffering, and our neighbors racking up huge medical costs that we all share, then that space on our plates for processed food shouldn’t be anywhere near 70 percent. Perhaps closer to 20 or 30 percent. It’s only then that we can call our food supply truly safe.