Biter Beware

Eat well, but eat wisely this holiday season, dear readers, for the food on your plate ain’t what it used to be. Product recalls are becoming a staple on newspaper pages, which only proves that regulation is part of a healthy diet.

Last week, Del Monte Foods announced a recall of more than 60,000 cans of seasoned corn, due to “under-processing.” Via its spin doctors at Coyne PR, the industrial food giant emphasized that “there have been no reports of illness associated with these products to date” but also advised that said products may or may not have been contaminated “by spoilage organisms or pathogens, which could lead to life-threatening illness if consumed.” The suspect corn has already been distributed across 25 states, including Florida, as well as 12 international markets.

The news comes on the heels of last month’s massive Romaine lettuce recall. That incident did lead to dozens of reported illnesses. And the company responsible for the tainted produce, Adam Bros. Farming Inc., just announced another recall. On Dec. 13, the California company advised—“out of an abundance of caution,” of course—that consumers in 15 states should avoid its red and green leaf lettuce and cauliflower like the plague. (Florida does not seem to be affected this time.)

These recalls are a direct result of industrial deregulation. The Trump administration has cut funding to the USDA and FDA, the bodies responsible for holding food producers accountable when it comes to health and safety standards. At the same time, it has given aid and comfort to multinationals like Monsanto, delaying legal regulations and offering loopholes and incentives. The ongoing dismantling of the EPA not only spells disaster for the environment, it threatens to re-introduce pesticides that could contaminate the food we eat.

Most Republicans love to argue that there are “free-market solutions” to this and every other problem. Some really believe it. It’s comforting to think that national and even international economies are as simple, as transactional, as mathematically coherent as balancing your personal checkbook. And the closer you get to the ground level, the more that might hold true.

But free-market solutions only work when consumers are given credible and timely information on which to base their purchasing decisions. When we zoom out to the national and multinational level, we find the action infinitely more complex and often entirely opaque to the end consumer. In these cases, “buyer beware” is worse than a useless mantra; it’s downright harmful. It gives consumers a false sense of agency and undermines support for vital regulatory bodies, like the FDA and EPA, which have been left to die on the vine.

The full effects of carcinogenic pesticide contamination might not be felt, for example, for decades. By then, it will be too late to get a refund—and too late to vote out the “leaders” under whose watch we were poisoned.

These recent food recalls are just the early indicators of a looming food-safety crisis. We need to stop seeing “regulation” as a dirty word and start holding Big Ag accountable through the only mechanism robust enough to do the job: not our meager pocketbooks, but the government that is supposed to represent us.