Food-borne disease – think eggs, ground beef, peanut butter, spinach – is difficult to trace to its sources because of the complex web of national and international shipments of food. Antibiotics are routinely fed to factory-farmed animals (European meat producers & US organic farmers do not use them). These substances end up in manure, leach into ground water, and breed resistant bacteria. The FDA and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) have both stated that the routine use of medically important antibiotics in animal feed is a significant public health problem. Pesticides, food dyes and hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (recently banned in Canada) are found in the foods and containers commonly used by most of us. Mercury has been found in high-fructose corn syrup. According to Dr. David Wallinga, writing in the November issue of San Francisco Medicine, these crises are an interrelated result of our industrialized food system, which is unhealthy, responsible for the fast (junk) food eaten by many of us, and for the obesity and health care crises. The food system is desperately in need of change. Individual change can only go so far – think about smoking and seat belt use before laws were in place. Here are some action-oriented organizations suggested by Wallinga: For children and schools – www.iatp.org, and www.OneTray.org. For communities –www.HealthyFoodAction.org is an excellent source for understanding the present and future policies around food and the farm bill in a very readable way.
Take Action: Brian Raymond, a Senior Policy Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Institute of Health Policy, wrote an article in San Francisco Medicine entitled Taking Action. Here are some of his ideas. The Farm Bill is revised every 4 years, and will be reauthorized in 2012. This important bill addresses issues such as nutrition, food stamps, and food policy. The 2008 bill did not have health sector involvement, and this must change.
*The new bill should include more support for sustainable and organic agriculture, small and mid-sized farms, and regional food systems.
*Food safety and expanded plant inspections should be included.
*Subsidies for corn, wheat and soybeans, mainly used for animal feed and unhealthy calories should be shifted to support fruits & vegetables.
*CAFOs – huge enclosed animal feeding operations should be regulated to protect the communities surrounding them, their water supplies, and the public health. Our local author and rancher, Nicolette Hahn Niman, has written about CAFOs in her fascinating and persuasive book, Righteous Pork Chop.
*The use of routine antibiotics for healthy animals should be stopped.
*Support for healthy food access in underserved neighborhoods is needed.
*Food stamp programs should be increased and used to support farmers markets and grocery stores.
*Advertising of unhealthy food to children on television should be addressed.
*Food labeling should include information about chemicals, hormones, and additives. Food that has been genetically engineered should be labeled, to give consumers a choice to assess the environmental implications of this food – be it corn, soy, canola oil, salmon et al.
Each one of these proposed changes will meet strong political resistance, so citizen pressure and action will be needed. Your awareness of the issues involved in the politics of food will enable you to make a difference this year and next. After writing this column, I am changing from being a health-foodie to a political-health-foodie. Take a look at www.HealthyFoodAction.org keep up with what’s going on, and to learn how you can influence the outcome.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH back issues on this blog