Friday, May 25, 2007

Mmm, mmm, good!

Back in the '70's, The Wall Street Journal published an article called something like "We don't want your paprika to walk off the plate," about how spices and similar ingredients contain "permissible levels of filth"--rodent hair and feces, pieces of dead moths, that sort of thing. Given that spices are milled from flowers, leaves and seeds into tiny pieces or powders, and as they can be contaminated everywhere from field to factory, it is inevitable that some nasty stuff gets into the final product. Not a pleasant prospect, but then we don't see many people collapsing from the pepper they put on their eggs. Our bodies can fight off a certain amount of toxins and beasties. Still, we all know that contamination can make us sick and even kill us.

I was reminded of that WSJ story by a piece on NPR today, about the dangers we face from food imports, especially from China. Some of it is pretty chilling stuff.

You may wonder why the brouhaha about food imported from China. Isn't this the country that was buying our wheat to stave of starvation a couple of decades ago? Yes. Today--as Americans learned this spring--we are importing wheat gluten from China. We are also importing lots of other food and food ingredients from the People's Republic. Did you know that 80 percent of our ascorbic acid--otherwise known as vitamin C, comes from China? Me, neither. The NPR website (link above) has an interesting table showing the amount of some food imports from China, including almost $160 million worth of concentrated apple juice (they have apples there?) used as sweeteners, $60 million in fresh garlic and another $18 million in powdered garlic. So it isn't enough to avoid food products from China; ingredients in made-in-America products is being imported with increasing frequency.

Last month--not last year, last month--FDA inspectors rejected more than 250 shipments of food from China, more than from the rest of the world combined. Reasons include such defects as obvious decomposition of meat and fish to the presence of drug residues. Yecchh.

What's really scary is that the FDA inspects only a tiny portion of the food products that are imported. Given that China is not going to increase food safety or wholesomeness to American standards any time soon, a complete overhaul of the agency's inspection system, and a drastic increase in resources, are necessary to avoid serious threats to our health. To do that, however, will mean yet another battle with the small-government, no-new-taxers, at least until they get scared for their own health.

It's more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, but the fight for food fit to eat goes on.

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