After the New York City Board of Health unanimously voted yesterday to give giant soda the boot, there was an immediate outcry. “Nanny state!” cried those who weren’t in favor. “I don’t want government controlling what I eat!” But as a pretty repulsive article on Buzzfeed today points out, the government is already involved in what does (and doesn’t) show up on your grocery store shelves–and there’s still rodent hairs and bug legs in almost everything you buy. Which kind of makes me wish for more government intervention, not less.
Food itself is pretty fallible and prone to unwelcome additions. After all, vegetables grow in the ground, meat comes from farting, pooping animals, factories are giant establishments full of who-knows-what, and pests (like mice and bugs), are just a fact of life.
So it’s natural that bugs, pest detritus, and other crap can–and, in fact, almost always do–end up in your food. Which is what that Buzzfeed article was calling attention to; the FDA has standards measuring not whether or not adulterating substances can be in food, but rather, at what level.
The descriptions from the FDA look like this:
Yup. Noodle products can contain small levels of bugs and rodent hair. Canned fruit can contain a mild amount of rot. Popcorn can contain a little bit of mouse poop. It’s just the way the hairy, insect-covered cookie crumbles.
However, with public health inspection agencies and consumer protection agencies like the FDA to pass laws to require that no more poop, hair, and rot make its way into your food, you can rest assured that unscrupulous food manufacturers looking to make money would allow even more repulsive stuff. Just consider life before the foundation of the FDA, which was largely spurred by Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.
…the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.
Yup. That was life before government intervention.
I mentioned The Jungle yesterday, when writing about “pink slime,” another pretty icky food additive that the government considers safe. Because, in spite of the fact that these agencies exist to protect consumers, consumers often don’t support them or their existence. Many taxpayers don’t want–and vote against–their money going toward food regulation. Then the same voters complain when the governing body can’t keep roaches out of their chocolate.
Governing bodies also oversee things like recalls–without them, all of those tainted melons, deadly spinach, pathogen-filled meat products, and other unsafe foods would probably remain on the market. Recalls cost companies money and usually, they only agree to voluntarily recall because of government pressure and the fear of bad PR.
The FDA is still deeply in the pocket of big food lobbies, which, I would argue, keeps it from doing its job. They rely on outside monies to ensure operations, which often means endorsing less-than-healthy food. It is an imperfect system, and the FDA is an imperfect organization.
But a little government oversight to keep the bugs, mice, sand, rot, poop, and poison out of my food is, I think, a necessary evil.
Image by Flickr user Steven Depolo