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May 30, 2007

Globalization and Food Safety

The recent discovery of a toxic chemical in animal feed imported from China into the U.S. has produced a slew of criticism of U.S. food safety agencies and Chinese regulators. But IATP President Jim Harkness points out that widespread contamination of imported food is an inherent weakness in a global food system. Harkness writes, "Our food system’s increasing dependence on imports is no accident. Import dependency is a defining characteristic of an industrial food model driven by U.S. farm and trade policies over the last half century on behalf of agribusiness. U.S. farm policy has encouraged the mass production of only a few cheap crops largely used as food ingredients, animal feed and exports. U.S. trade policy has aggressively pushed for the removal of trade barriers paving the way for the global food trade."

Recently, two of our top political columnists have caught on to the role of globalization in food contamination cases. Harold Meyerson writes in the Washington Post on May 23 about how we've missed "in all those impassioned defenses of globalization, the part about uninspected and unregulated food from distant lands showing up, unannounced, for dinner." Paul Krugman admits in the New York Times (sub required) on May 21 that "those who blame globalization do have a point." He points out that the FDA only has the resources to inspect a small percentage of imports, "this leaves American consumers effectively dependent on the quality of foreign food-safety enforcement."

As Congress writes a new Farm Bill this summer, it has an opportunity to re-think this global export/import model for our food system. It's clear consumers are thinking about it. We've seen an explosion in the number of farmers' markets around the country and supermarkets are including increasingly more information about where their food is produced. A recent poll by Consumer Reports found that 92 percent of Americans want Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for all food. In 2002, Congress passed COOL for meat, poultry, fish and fruits and vegetables. But agribusiness has successfully delayed implementation of COOL for all but fish.

Harkness writes that the Farm Bill is, "an opportunity to accelerate the transition toward a more local-based food system by funding greater crop diversification, incentives for local food purchasing in schools and other government institutions, and full implementation of country of origin labeling in 2008. It’s time to put the public’s interest ahead of agribusiness in setting our nation’s food policy."

Ben Lilliston

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