America's beef about food safety

Intensive farming has made food in the US cheap and plentiful. But, says Mary Dejevsky, Americans are beginning to realise that their diet may also be bland and dangerous
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The Independent Online
There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans had a simple, if - to Europeans - somewhat naive, attitude to the food they ate. If the government said it was safe, then it was. That confidence was grounded, first, in the touching belief that the government had the best interests of Americans at heart, and, second, in the plethora of rules, regulations and labelling requirements that govern food production and sales in the US.

It was further reinforced by the near-certainty that the food in the supermarket, with few and clearly displayed exceptions, was all-American, produced in the US by Americans, for Americans. Thanks to their innate optimism and their faith in the benefits of scientific advance, Americans also had few qualms about intensive methods in agriculture, or the swift application of technical advances.

The interests of farmers in economies of method and scale, the interests of the food industry in efficiency and profit, and the interests of consumers in cheap and plentiful food, all seemed to come together in a symphony of affordable abundance that is still the envy of world. Whether you want a restaurant meal of steak and salad, a T-bone for the home barbecue or a hamburger and fries from the local takeaway, the national consensus is that it should be accessible to all - and, mostly, it is.

This admirable picture, however, has another side which is reflected in the shortcomings that have come to light during the investigation into the recent outbreak of E coli food poisoning in Colorado.

The United States is a huge market, and vast food processing conglomerates have grown up to supply it. Dubious practices at one plant - in this case a meat plant in the cattle country of Nebraska belonging to an Arkansas- based firm Hudson Foods Inc - can affect wholesale and retail customers across America. The hamburgers produced by Hudson Foods made their way into 28 states, two of the country's biggest supermarket chains - Wal- Mart and Safeway - and most of the Burger King restaurants in the Midwest (which were suddenly unable to supply any burgers at all, when the suspect meat had been recalled).

The reams of regulation invite different interpretations and corner-cutting which may negate the hyper-hygiene dictated by law, however dutifully observed. It is no good having automatic toilet-flushing and requiring staff to wear caps and gloves and cover all hair and beards (as at Hudson), if even a small portion of one batch of what turns out to be contaminated meat is held over and added to an unspecified part of the next day's production. At Hudson, this practice made it impossible to trace where the bacteria might be found, which is why the plant was summarily closed.

Public insouciance about the application of technology has led to the acceptance (or ignorance) of developments that may be insufficiently tested or regulated. The use of hormone additives in beef cattle, for example, is now widespread and there is no requirement on the farmer, abattoir, processor or shop to label the meat accordingly. The beef farmers who use the hormones say that they enable the cows to reach slaughter weight more rapidly, so cutting costs; that the additive is a naturally occurring hormone (and thus harmless); and that no "residue" remains in the beast at slaughter. Extensive scientific testing, they say, also shows that the procedure is harmless. The World Trade Organisation now appears to accept these arguments and last week decreed that the EU's ban on beef bred with hormone additives is unwarranted.

Exactly what proportion of fruit and vegetables on sale in US supermarkets has been genetically modified is not recorded - a supermarket chain that tried to find out received replies from only 20 per cent of suppliers. The modifications are designed not just to make the product require less water, or resist particular ailments or insects, but to make it sweeter, rounder, more or less juicy or a more attractive colour. There was never any public debate about the pros and cons of this, such as is starting up in Europe (some scientists believe it can increase allergic reactions); there is no special labelling; it simply happened.

To a European living in the United States, one of the results is a plentiful supply of relatively inexpensive food, which none the less often lacks quality and taste. The water content of even fresh food seems very high compared to that of food bought from European supermarkets, and as for the taste - well, bland would be the kindest qualifier.

The size of the US food industry, moreover, makes it one of the biggest interest groups in the country, both as a whole and by sector. Challenging farming or producer practices brings down the wrath of some very powerful lobbies on the hapless questioner. It is even an offence in 13 states to "disparage" food quality; legislation was introduced after one of the periodic (and often exaggerated) cancer scares implicated Alar, a substance used to make apples look shinier - and caused the apple market to crash. The same law is currently being used in Texas against the television celebrity Oprah Winfrey, and a scientist who appeared on her programme to question whether the US was really free of BSE (mad cow disease) and caused losses to Texas stock breeders.

Nor is it true to say that quality and safety monitoring arrangements in the United States are as foolproof as is often believed. Yes, there are separate authorities overseeing agriculture (the Department of Agriculture) and food (the Food and Drug Administration) - the model that the new British government says it will adopt. But the US structure is in fact more complicated, and the separation of producer and consumer interests less clear-cut, than appears. Meat, poultry and egg production are all overseen by the Agriculture Department; they are not the province of the FDA, while seafood and other food products are. The powers of the Agriculture Department, moreover, are limited. It cannot recall produce or close plants without the agreement of the company concerned.

The fact that all this is emerging into the public domain suggests that a new, more questioning mood is emerging in the United States where food safety is concerned. The administration's reaction - to some critics it is a huge over-reaction - to the fewer than 20 reported cases of E coli poisoning in Colorado, and the record speed with which the food recall was announced, indicate an awareness at the highest political level that public confidence in food, and its quality and safety, can no longer be taken for granted.

This is by no means the first food scare this year. An earlier outbreak of poisoning was traced to the cyclospora parasite in a basil sauce supplied by a gourmet delicatessen chain. Raspberries also contaminated by cyclospora caused 1,000 people to fall sick. Annually, food poisoning is thought to claim around 9,000 lives in the US, and reported cases are increasing.

In previous outbreaks, including the raspberries, there was an automatic - and ignoble - tendency to blame foreign imports, especially from Mexico and other Central American countries. (The raspberries came from Guatemala.) Food imports, which have doubled in quantity in five years, are a relative novelty, and attract suspicion and prejudice. What the two latest outbreaks had in common, however, was that - despite extraordinary efforts in the basil case to prove the contrary - both outbreaks were "home grown".

The increase in food imports (facilitated by the three-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement) and the perception of an increase in food poisoning outbreaks have undoubtedly contributed to a sense that food is less safe than it was. But there were signs of a more questioning public attitude well before this summer. The evidence - in America's cities, if not yet in the heartland - is everywhere. The small health-food shops that set up on the West Coast and in urban areas of the East during the Eighties have spawned several big supermarket chains that cater specifically to the demand for organically produced food, with no additives.

The Fresh Fields chain, which originated in 1991 in Maryland and merged with the Texas-based Whole Foods company in 1996, is just one of a flourishing genre that profits from the fears of middle-class Americans about the harm that poor quality and junk food may inflict on them and their children. This year, mainstream supermarkets such as Safeway and Giant have followed the trend, buying in, advertising and labelling not just organic, but also locally grown produce.

Over roughly the same five-year period, the number of farmers' markets held at least weekly in many US towns and cities has increased dramatically. The first farmers' market to be held in central Washington DC - a city that often lags behind East Coast urban trends - was set up earlier this summer. It is held on Sunday mornings in a bank car park on the edge of Dupont Circle, a fashionable city district populated mainly by young professionals.

This food is, as a rule, considerably more expensive than standard American supermarket fare. Those who can afford it, however, are now prepared to pay for what they perceive to be better quality. Consumers seem to be shifting away from the decade-old desire for slimness and fitness at all costs (the no-fat, no-cholesterol preoccupations that still dominate mainstream supermarkets) towards a preference for food that is itself pure and healthy.

This shift, if it continues, could have implications that go far beyond the supermarket and extend into America's international relations. Some of the most acrimonious disputes in the Western world pit the US and the European Union against each other on the matter of food: its quality, safety and labelling. A few of the regulatory problems were resolved earlier this summer. But there remains a seemingly unbridgeable gulf - caused as much by cultural attitudes as by scientific evidence - on the question of altered foods: beef produced with hormone additives and genetic modification of fruit and vegetables. The US Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, went so far as to say recently that this difference was shaping up to be the "battle royal of 21st-century world agriculture".

The EU is demanding, at very least, that US produce which has been altered should be labelled as such. France, with a large domestic market to protect, and ultra-demanding and traditionally-minded consumers, is in the forefront of the objectors. The Americans say this is discrimination, and accuse the Europeans of using specious scientific arguments to keep cheaper US produce out. The Europeans retort that the Americans use their labyrinthine regulations for the same purpose.

Until recently, the American public would have sided unquestioningly with the US government in this argument. The revelations that have followed the recent E coli poisoning outbreak, however, and the growing movement in the United States for healthy, natural and, if necessary, more expensive food, suggest that American consumers are starting to raise questions similar to the ones that worry European consumers. If that is so, the gap between the US and the EU on food exports may begin to narrow by itself.