What Have They Done to Our Food?

“They” in my title refers to the major players in our food system. First is Big Ag—Monsanto and Dow being prominent—and those industrial farms that use Big Ag’s products. Second are large food corporations—General Mills and the like—who churn out processed foods and store their goods in warehouses before moving them to market. Third are those who breed and raise the livestock we eat. Fourth are those who import food from overseas. Many “theys” are involved in the food we eat, and many of those “theys” could care less about the safety of our food so long as “they” make a handsome profit.

I start with Big Ag and a childhood friend who recently died. My friend suffered a lingering death, in the end a wan skeleton hunched over a walker, barely able to shuffle along. Quality of life, about zero. The cause? Agent Orange—that chemical we spread by the millions of gallons over large areas of Vietnam. My friend spent his tour in Vietnam handling Agent Orange, and like thousands of other military personnel exposed to Agent Orange, multiple cancers assaulted his body. Those cancers killed many, including my friend. Agent Orange is an insidious poison, remaining in the environment for decades—in the water, in the soil, in the food.

I bring up my friend’s death from Agent Orange for a specific reason relating to food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMO). In the mid-nineties, Monsanto corralled the market for both corn and soybeans by engineering seeds with immunity to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. GMO seeds permitted Monsanto to make a lot of money by selling the seeds and massive amounts of Roundup that killed weeds but not the crop. However, the weeds quickly evolved—in about fifteen years—to the point where Roundup has become ineffective. In fact, over half of U.S. farms now have “super weeds” spreading aggressively, clogging irrigations systems, and strong enough to break some farm machinery. The massive corporate farms using Roundup needed something stronger.

Dow Chemical, which produced Agent Orange, stepped up with corn and soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist heavy doses of their new herbicide, Enlist Duo, one that contains 2,4-D, a key component in Agent Orange, which is why I brought up my friend’s miserable death from exposure to Agent Orange. Research has linked 2,4-D to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, reduced sperm counts, disease of the liver, Parkinson’s disease and to hormonal, immune, neurological, and reproductive system problems. It’s highly volatile, too, drifting wherever the lightest breeze takes it, setting at risk adjacent farms, especially organic farms, not to mention homes, schools, and hospitals. Research has also found 2,4-D to be “very highly toxic to slightly toxic to freshwater and marine invertebrates.”

But Dow’s expected profit in the first year is $1.5 billion, and we know that profit trumps all in the world of Big Ag. The EPA has approved the use of Dow’s GMOs and Enlist Duo in six states and may include another twelve. One can only wonder how much Dow spent on lobbying to guarantee this financial goldmine. Of course, no one is saying much about the millions of tons of toxic herbicide that will be spread on our lands, enter our waters, and get into our food. Nor is anyone mentioning that the weeds will adapt just as quickly to the new herbicide as they did to Roundup.

I can only suppose regulators at the EPA didn’t look too deeply into safety concerns. As reported by Food and Water Watch, “…scientists from the French National Institute for Agriculture Research suggest that ‘2,4-D tolerant plants many not be acceptable for human consumption.’” (Google “Genetic Roulette—the Gamble of Our Lives,” a program recently shown on PBS to see the research showing how GMO’s are damaging our lives—leading to spikes in everything from autism—up 600% since GMO’s were introduced into our food supply—to asthma to food intolerances.) GMO corn—80% of corn grown in U.S. is now GMO—and soybeans are the backbone of our food supply, whether used as food for livestock or processed into such things as high fructose corn syrup which ends up in much of our food. Perhaps American exceptionalism will protect us.

What about independent research on the health implications of GMOs in our food? Very little has been done because biotech companies won’t release seeds for such research. Of course the companies release their in-house research saying their products are safe. What else would they say? But a 2009 International Journal of Biological Sciences report found that liver and kidney functions deteriorated in lab rats after eating Roundup Ready corn for only 90 days. Another study showed higher metabolism in livers of rats that ate Roundup Ready soybeans. In a two-year study, independent researchers using 200 rats fed Roundup Ready GMO corn saw the rats develop severe liver and kidney damage and have a higher incidence of premature death. And get this, no company has to label their products as containing GMOs, so the consumer has no way to avoid them.

As I write this, a bill is expected to be introduced in Congress any day that would prevent the federal government from requiring that food containing GMOs be labeled. It would also deny individual states the right to enact legislation requiring labeling—even though 93% of the American public favors GMO labeling, according to the Environmental Working Group. And 64 countries, including Russia, China, and the EU, all require labeling. Oh, and just recently, genetically engineered apples have been introduced, the quintessential healthy food, but without labeling, how will anyone know whether they are getting a real apple or a GMO? Why are Americans being turned into lab rats?

Now Dow wants to blanket corn and soybean crops that have been genetically modified with an herbicide that contains a major component of Agent Orange. And these GMO crops will get into almost everything we eat. The stakes in permitting the use of Dow’s seeds and pesticide are massive. Dow’s greed—I think their company slogan must be “profit before people or planet, always”—will make billions for the company, but what of the health costs of more cancers, more birth defects, more Parkinson’s disease, more immune and neurological problems? And what of psychological suffering to individuals and families who experience these devastating health problems? All because our food is produced primarily for profit, not for the safety of the consumer.

Second is the livestock industry, an industry that uses eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in this country (30 million pounds) each year, which has led to antibiotic-resistant (AR) bacteria on a global scale. According to Food and Water Watch, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that at least 2 million Americans each year experience AR infections, leading to a least 23,000 deaths.” Does the livestock industry care? Not too much, it seems, because they keep pouring antibiotics into their livestock, much of that livestock in confined feeding operations, those hellish environments where animals live out their brief, miserable lives.

Many of us know something about the multiple evils of confined feeding operations (CFO’s)—though we manage to forget when buying neatly packaged meat at the market—but let me mention one example that should infuriate us all. The chemical ractopamine is a drug used to increase livestock growth, especially in pigs. Yet ractopamine has triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market, according to the FDA. Pigs can also become agitated and difficult to handle when given ractopamine, which puts farm workers at risk. Far more importantly, what long-term exposure to this drug means for humans has not been fully studied. But ractopamine is considered so dangerous that 160 countries have banned it. A number of organizations, including the Center for Food Safety and the Humane Society, have filed suit to get the FDA to ban this toxic chemical. Yet the FDA continues to approve its use, and approximately 80% of the hogs in the U.S. receive ractopamine.

Now get this! Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, has stopped using ractopamine for the pork it sells to China because China will not accept such meat. But ractopamine is still used in hogs for U.S. consumption. Do officials at Smithfield care about the health of the people who produce their hogs, much less the people who consume their pork in this country? The evidence would suggest the only thing the suits at Smithfield care about is profit.

Of course, it’s not just producers doing execrable things to animals in order to increase profits. The New York Times reports that a research facility at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, in its experimental attempts to create livestock that produce more offspring, more meat, and is less expensive to raise, have subjected livestock to pain, illness, and death. In other words, we taxpayers are financing horrific experiments on animals by our government that, given the descriptions in the Times article, can only be described as cruel and unusual punishment to innocent animals. Immoral? I think so. Outrageous? Definitely.

Third, we have the big food corporations like General Mills who manufacture all sorts of processed foods. Do they care about the health of their customers? Not so much when profit margins are involved. Take, for one example, General Mills’ Vanilla, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Chex cereals, all displaying a label stating, “no high fructose corn syrup.” The problem? It’s a bold-faced lie. These products contain HFCS-90, the term Big Ag uses for high fructose corn syrup-90. But since the Corn Refiners Association changed the name of HFCS-90 to simply “fructose,” General Mills can use this alias to appear to be doing something healthful, making the customer feel good and, well, yes, perhaps increasing sales from health conscious individuals.

Of course, General Mills doesn’t want the consumer to know some crucial facts—that highly concentrated HFCS-90 is molecularly different from fructose, a naturally occurring fruit sugar suitable for human consumption. This difference might have something to do with the health consequences of ingesting HFCS-90, which permeates so many processed foods—things like the explosion of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic problems. That HFCS-90 is more toxic than sucrose, or traditional sugar, has been documented in a number of studies, the most recent from the University of Utah. Let’s be honest here. Overeating either HFCS-90 or natural sugar will lead to problems. But the public ought to be able to make that decision for themselves and not have that decision made for them by a company interested primarily in profit, not health.

A lot of food passes through warehouses on its way to market. Shouldn’t be much of a problem with that, right? Wrong. According to an FDA report on food warehouse inspections, they often found the environs contaminated with rats, animal feces, and mouse carcasses. Over 90 warehouses were cited by the FDA in 2014, but not much happens because inspections are infrequent and penalties are small. As one senator said about these conditions, it’s “a page straight out of Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle.’” Yet high-risk facilities are only inspected once every three years, while other facilities are inspected even less. How curious that we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a military to keep the country safe from—sorry, I can’t think of an enemy that really threatens the homeland right now—someone, yet we permit hazards to proliferate in our food system that cause multiple illnesses and deaths each year. Where’s the logic?

Fourth are those who export foods from abroad into our system. I will use China as the prime example since it is now a leading food exporter to the U.S. Just a sampling from 2009 statistics will give some idea of how pervasive food from China is in the U.S. market—70% of our apple juice, 22 % of our frozen spinach, 43 % of our processed mushrooms, and 78% of our tilapia. Try to find, for example, canned mushrooms that don’t come from China. Difficult. Perhaps impossible in many places.

The problem is that China has multiple problems with the safety of the food it exports, perhaps most clearly illustrated to the U.S. public not long ago when the chemical melamine—it can give poor quality food the appearance of higher protein content than it actually has—was found in pet food imported from China. The melamine caused serious illnesses and some deaths among thousands of pets in the U.S. But that was just the tiniest tip of a massive iceberg. Melamine has been used in China in everything from animal feed to milk to infant formula, all done to increase profit by making foods appear more nutritious than they actually are—and leading to all sorts of serious health problems, from kidney stones to renal failure, especially among the young. Hong Kong is so leery that it now tests for melamine all pork, farmed fish, animal feed, chicken, and eggs imported from China.

It’s an open secret in China that melamine scrap is widely used in fish food as well as animal feed. And remember, 78% of the tilapia we eat in the U.S. comes from China. While Hong Kong inspects all fish from China, we inspect virtually none. In fact, the FDA inspects less than 2% of food imports—over a billion pounds of seafood in 2010—and seldom checks food producers on site in China, even though chemical adulteration and unsafe drug residues continue in a well-documented pattern. Food and Water Watch states: “China’s food supply is polluted with agrochemicals, veterinary medicines and intentional chemical adulteration in food-processing factories. China’s farmers and fish farmers often use dangerous levels of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides—including banned chemicals. These chemicals can remain on foods long after harvesting and processing.” Shouldn’t consumer safety be our government’s highest priority? Especially when it comes to the food we eat?

Almost 48 million Americans get food poisoning each year, leading to roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and almost 3,000 deaths. Think what 3,000 deaths on 9/11 resulted in—the amount of money spent to prevent another such highly unlikely attack, and yet 3,000 deaths each year due to food poisoning don’t even get a nod from major media outlets, much less Congress. Companies are permitted to feed us genetically engineered food that’s only been studied in limited ways—though research suggests the possibility of grave problems with human consumption—and few seem to care. Of course, Big Ag and the rest of the food supply chain have deep pockets and the willingness to spend big bucks to keep their cash cow producing big profits. I wonder what sort of catastrophe will have to occur before we actually hold those who produce our food accountable for providing safe food. Right now, “safe” does not seem to be writ large for the major players who supply food to this country. That’s why the initial question: What have they done to our food? And, more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Craig Etchison, PhD, is a retired professor emeritus who has written many articles on war, peace, and the environment. He is especially concerned about the kind of environment—including the food being produced—that we are leaving for coming generations. Read other articles by Craig.