I just spent the better part of a year writing my book, What the Fork Are You Eating (Tarcher/Penguin Random House) due out at the end of this year. While I considered myself pretty knowledgeable about food and food regulations prior to writing this book, what I now know has been taken to new heights. In fact, so much so that I think I need a fast exit from my brain for a while. But let me enlighten in a nutshell: Today, our food is regulated through the joint efforts of several agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps an eye on all the plants that are grown and animals raised in their natural habitat, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that our products (and drugs) are safe for consumption.
This is the general picture but note that food regulations are one of the most complex and convoluted processes that I have ever tried to navigate. So much so that I am not sure that even calling them “regulations” is truthful.
On the tail end of editing my manuscript (for a third time), I received a very disturbing report from one of my most cherished food and farming advocates on the failures of the USDA. As this article in Time Magazine so eloquently summarized:
"A new report finds that the government was unable to provide proof that many meat and poultry producers are living up to many of their feel-good labeling claims.
The advocacy group Animal Welfare Institute spent three years requesting documentation from the USDA about companies that boast their animals are well cared for or raised in accordance with high environmental standards. The USDA failed to supply documentation supporting these sorts of claims—which range from “Humanely Raised and Handled” to “Sustainably Farmed”—for 20 of the 25 products AWI investigated."
In other words, producers are smacking terms on your food that are not substantiated. Pretty scary! But much more on this and how to pilot this mysterious territory in What the Fork…
I also received this on food additive safety (that would be FDA territory) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of my most favored consumer advocacy groups for the beat on everything food, nutrition and health. And they had this to say:
"Many people presume that some federal agency is overseeing the safety of the ingredients in our food supply. That's reasonable, because that is actually what the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to be doing, and what Congress told it to do in a 1958 law.
But since 1997, FDA has punted on that core responsibility, allowing companies to make their own secret determinations of a substance's safety for use in our food.
The legal standard is supposed to be that an ingredient is "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS. That originally applied to things like oil and vinegar-foodstuffs that are widely accepted as safe to consume. Now the loophole is swallowing the law: companies are deciding in secret that almost anything they want to put in food is GRAS, and FDA is letting them.
If companies decide a new ingredient is GRAS, they don't have to tell FDA what their investigations show about safety or even tell the government what or how much of anything they have decided to add to food. In short, the food industry—not FDA—is in charge of what you eat."
In the end, food regulations or the lack thereof are a super sad story to tell but you can do something about it by joining CSPI’s campaign to strengthen the FDA’s role on food safety. As for what’s going on with the USDA, stay connected with the following organizations and they will inform and inspire:
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Environmental Working Group
- Food and Water Watch
- GRACE Communications Foundation
- Organic Consumers Association