Organic Consumers Association

Fast Food is a Major Public Health Hazard

3 Articles

1. Burgers on the brain Article - New Scientist - Diane Martindale
Sugar junkies
What constitutes an addiction?
Fat facts

2. Portion Distortion -- You Don't Know the Half of It - Washington Post- Shannon Brownlee

3. Food and Health
Fresh is Best
Chemical Stews
Food Poisoning
Factory Farms and Human Health

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Food is something everyone needs, every day. As we know, how it is produced
and who controls it, are important issues. But the way that it is processed
and marketed can have a big effect on health and economics too. In some
parts of the world, a lack of access to food is the tragedy, while in the
US, unhealthy eating is cited as the second biggest killer after smoking.
In an age of ³convenience², people in the West are eating more processed and
fast food than ever, and 60% of the population is considered obese.

Below is a selection of articles which explain how fast food is causing
problems for the health of Westerners in a number of ways. Firstly, it
seems that high levels of fat and sugar are not only unhealthy but
addictive, which creates a vicious cycle making it hard for people to choose
healthy food. Secondly, aggressive marketing in fast food restaurants is
leading to larger than ever servings and targeting children to set their
eating patterns for life. And thirdly, the agricultural, preserving and
processing techniques that go towards producing low-quality food for the
fast-food market are compromising the health of the consumer even further.

To quote the book Bringing the Food Economy Home (excerpt below), ³If one
considers some typical modern foods- hamburgers laden with growth hormones,
vegetables laced with pesticides, soft drinks full of refined sugar, and
foods too numerous to mention whose colour and taste have been artificially
enhanced by manufactured chemicals-one could easily imagine that the goal of
the global food system is simply to provide the global health care system
with more customers.²

Best wishes,



Burgers on the brain

Article from New Scientist vol 177 issue 2380. Date: 1 February 2003
Diane Martindale

Can you really get addicted to fast food? The evidence is piling up, and the
lawyers are rubbing their hands. Diane Martindale reports

MIDDLE-AGED janitors rarely make their mark on science. But Caesar Barber
looks like breaking the mould. Last July, Barber, a 56-year-old diabetic and
double heart-attack victim from Brooklyn, sued McDonald's, Burger King, KFC
and Wendy's, claiming that his illnesses were partly their fault. He had
eaten in their restaurants for years, he said, without ever being told that
the food was damaging his health.

Barber's class-action lawsuit was the first volley in a long-awaited legal
assault against the fast-food industry and its role in the obesity epidemic
that is swamping the US health-care system (see "Fat facts"). Inspired by
the success of Big Tobacco, the lawyers behind it believe they can force
fast-food chains to meet their fair share of the enormous cost of caring for
obesity. Pulling the strings is John Banzhaf, of George Washington
University Law School in Washington DC, who masterminded the Big Tobacco

That campaign won him plaudits all over the world. But "Big Fat" is a
different matter. To many - including a federal judge who last month
dismissed a similar lawsuit against McDonald's - it seems blatantly absurd.
Surely people who become fat and ill because they have eaten too much fast
food only have themselves to blame?

Perhaps not. New and potentially explosive findings on the biological
effects of fast food suggest that eating yourself into obesity isn't simply
down to a lack of self-control. Some scientists are starting to believe that
bingeing on foods that are excessively high in fat and sugar can cause
changes to your brain and body that make it hard to say no. A few even
believe that the foods can trigger changes that are similar to full-blown
addiction. The research is still at a very early stage, but thanks to Caesar
Barber it is about to be thrust firmly into the limelight.

Taking on the fast-food industry was always going to be a much tougher
assignment than beating the cigarette barons. Tobacco is obviously
addictive. Nobody needs to smoke. And the tobacco companies knew their
products were addictive yet covered it up. None of these accusations can be
levelled at food.

Banzhaf maintains that he can win regardless. He points out that he doesn't
have to prove that the fast-food chains are entirely responsible for
obesity. All he has to do is convince a jury that his clients' health
problems were not entirely their own fault - that the fast-food companies
share the blame. Perhaps, for example, they should have labelled the food to
inform customers of its high calorific value.

Any hint that the food is addictive, though, would make Banzhaf's job a
great deal easier. And he knows it. Banzhaf already says he believes that
fast food has "addictive-like" properties. "We might even discover that it's
possible to become addicted to the all-American meal of burgers and fries,"
he says.

But how can something you need for survival be addictive? The answer could
be in the food itself. The difference between a fast-food meal and a
home-cooked one is the sheer quantity of calories and fat it delivers in one
go. The US Department of Agriculture's recommended daily intake for a normal
adult male is 2800 kilocalories (11,723 kilojoules) and a maximum of 93
grams of fat. A meal at a fast-food outlet - burger, fries, drink and
dessert - can deliver almost all of that in a single sitting (see Diagram).
Biologists are now starting to realise that a binge of these proportions can
trigger physiological changes which mute the hormonal signals that normally
tell you to put down the fork.

In the past decade, researchers have discovered myriad hormones that play a
role in regulating appetite. Under normal conditions these hormones control
eating and help maintain a stable body weight. Leptin, for example, is
continuously secreted by fat cells and its level in the bloodstream
indicates the status of the body's fat reserves. This signal is read by the
hypothalamus, the brain region that coordinates eating behaviour, and taken
as a guideline for keeping reserves stable.

The problem is, people who gain weight develop resistance to leptin's power,
explains Michael Schwartz, an endocrinologist at the University of
Washington in Seattle. "Their brain loses its ability to respond to these
hormones as body fat increases," he says. The fatter they get, and the more
leptin they make, the more insensitive the hypothalamus becomes. Eventually
the hypothalamus interprets the elevated level as normal - and forever after
misreads the drops in leptin caused by weight loss as a starvation warning.

But you don't need to become overweight to perturb your leptin system. The
latest research suggests that it only takes a few fatty meals. In a study
published in December, physiologist Luciano Rossetti of the Albert Einstein
College of Medicine in New York City fed rats a high-fat diet and found that
after just 72 hours the animals had already lost almost all of their ability
to respond to leptin (Diabetes, vol 50, p 2786). The good news, says
Rossetti, is that these changes are reversible. "But the fatter a person
becomes the more resistant they will be to the effects of leptin and the
harder it is to reverse those effects."

Sarah Leibowitz, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York
City, has more evidence that eating fast food is self-reinforcing. Her
experiments show that exposure to fatty foods may quickly reconfigure the
body's hormonal system to want yet more fat. She has shown that levels of
galanin, a brain peptide that stimulates eating and slows down energy
expenditure, increase in rats when they eat a high-fat diet.

In fact, Leibowitz has found that it only takes one high-fat meal to
stimulate galanin expression in the hypothalamus. When the effects of
galanin are blocked, the animals eat much less fat. "The peptide is itself
responsive to the consumption of fat, which then creates the basis for a
vicious cycle," she says.

What's more, early exposure to fatty food could reconfigure children's
bodies so that they always choose fatty foods. Leibowitz found that when she
fed young rats a high-fat diet, they invariably became obese later in life.
She is still investigating what's going on, but her theory is that an
elevated level of fats called triglycerides in the bloodstream turns on
genes for neuropeptides such as galanin that promote overeating. This
suggests that children fed kids' meals at fast-food restaurants are more
likely to grow up to be burger-scoffing adults.

Rossetti's most recent studies have also found a connection between
triglycerides and food intake. Using a catheter implanted in the brain,
Rossetti delivered lipids directly into the arcuate nucleus - a region of
the hypothalamus - to either normally fed rats or overfed rats, and then
measured their food intake for three days. In the normally fed group the
excess fats curbed food intake by up to 60 per cent. But the overfed rats
just carried on scoffing. What's more, Rossetti discovered that this effect
is not dependent on the composition of the diet, whether high-fat or
high-sugar, but instead depends on the total amount of calories.

Hormonal changes may remove some element of free will, but on its own that
hardly means that fast food is addictive. However, there is another strand
of research that suggests gorging on fat and sugar causes brain changes
normally associated with addictive drugs such as heroin.

It is already well established that food and addiction are closely linked.
Many addiction researchers believe that addictive drugs such as cocaine and
nicotine exert their irresistible pull by hijacking "reward" circuits in the
brain. These circuits evolved to motivate humans to seek healthy rewards
such as food and sex. Eating energy-dense food, for example, triggers the
release of endorphins and enkephalins, the brain's natural opioids, which
stimulate a squirt of dopamine into a structure called the nucleus
accumbens, a tiny cluster of cells in the midbrain. Exactly how this
generates a feeling of reward isn't understood, but it is clear that
addictive substances provide a short cut to it - they all seem to increase
levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. Repeated use of addictive
substances is thought to alter the circuitry in as yet unknown ways.

Sugar junkies

Most of this research has been done with the aim of understanding drug
addiction. But a few researchers are now asking whether the brain's reward
circuits can also be hot-wired by mega-doses of fat and sugar. John Hoebel,
a psychologist at Princeton University in New Jersey, is interested in
whether it is possible to become dependent on the natural opioids released
when you eat a large amount of sugar. Along with a team of physiologists
from the University of the Andes in Mérida, Venezuela, Hoebel recently
showed that rats fed a diet containing 25 per cent sugar are thrown into a
state of anxiety when the sugar is removed. Their symptoms included
chattering teeth and the shakes - similar, he says, to those seen in people
withdrawing from nicotine or morphine. What's more, when Hoebel gave the
rats naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors, he saw a drop in
dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, plus an increase in acetylcholine
release. This is the same neurochemical pattern shown by heroin addicts as
they go into opioid withdrawal (Obesity Research, vol 10, p 478). "The
implication is that some animals - and by extension some people - can become
overly dependent on sweet food," says Hoebel. "The brain is getting addicted
to its own opioids as it would morphine or heroin. Drugs give a bigger
effect, but it's essentially the same process."

As yet no one knows how a big hit of fat and sugar compares with a dose of,
say, heroin. But Hoebel says: "Highly palatable foods and highly potent
sexual stimuli are the only stimuli capable of activating the dopamine
system with anywhere near the potency of addictive drugs."

Ann Kelley, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Medical School
in Madison, has uncovered more evidence that the release of opioids in the
nucleus accumbens tells your brain to keep eating. She found that if rats'
opioid receptors are overstimulated with a synthetic enkephalin, the rats
eat up to six times the amount of fat they normally consume. They also raise
their intake of sweet, salty and alcohol-containing solutions, even when
they are not hungry.

Kelley has also discovered that rats that overindulge in tasty foods show
marked, long-lasting changes in their brain chemistry similar to those
caused by extended use of morphine or heroin. When she looked at the brains
of rats that received highly palatable food for two weeks, she saw a
decrease in gene expression for enkephalin in the nucleus accumbens. "This
says that mere exposure to pleasurable, tasty foods is enough to change gene
expression, and that suggests that you could be addicted to food," says

However, the idea that food is addictive is far from mainstream. And while
many nutritionists think it is a plausible idea that deserves more research,
others are sceptical. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, a Washington DC lobby group that focuses on
nutrition, doesn't think the argument will fly. So far, the CSPI has not
seen any evidence that fast food is addictive."Considering the paucity of
evidence, I think the burden is on advocates of the addiction argument to
provide evidence of addictiveness," Jacobson says.

Some practitioners also dispute the idea. There is no reliable evidence that
addiction can account for bingeing and obesity, says Jeanne Randolph, a
psychiatrist at the University of Toronto who specialises exclusively in
treating obese patients. Randolph admits that the behaviour of many of her
patients is remarkably similar to drug cravings: at predictable times of
day, in predictable circumstances, they describe an increasingly intense
drive to obtain their preferred sugary snack or junk food, and afterwards
feel immediate relief and calm. But, she says, you can explain this without
invoking addiction. Fast food, sweets and snacks in which simple sugars
predominate can set up a cycle of instant satiation followed by a plunge in
blood sugar, which leads to a natural desire for another snack."It's a
set-up for a late-afternoon binge rather than an addiction."

The argument has a long way to go. But chances are it won't get the chance
to mature naturally. Some time soon the allegation that fast food is
addictive will be made in court, and once that happens the terms of the
debate are out of the scientists' hands. It won't make for a scholarly
discussion. But it is still a debate worth having.

What constitutes an addiction?

Addictiveness has proved surprisingly hard to define, and there are several
different ways of judging whether a substance is addictive. One of the most
widely used is known as the DSM-IV criteria, devised by the American
Psychiatric Association. To be addictive, a substance has to meet at least
three of the following criteria:

* Taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
* Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use
* A great deal of time spent seeking the substance out, using it or
recovering from its effects
* Important social, occupational or recreational activities given up or
reduced because of substance use
* Continued use despite knowledge of harmful consequences
* Increased tolerance with use
* Withdrawal symptoms

Fat facts

* More than 60 per cent of American adults and 13 per cent of children
and adolescents are classified as overweight or obese. The adult figure has
doubled since 1980; for children and adolescents it has trebled
* In 2000, the US healthcare system spent $61 billion on the diagnosis,
care and prevention of obesity
* Last year, Americans spent about $115 billion on fast food, more than
on higher education or personal computers or new cars
* Americans spend about half of their food budget on meals and drinks
consumed outside the home, and consume about a third of their daily energy
this way

Diane Martindale
Diane Martindale is a science writer in Toronto


Portion Distortion -- You Don't Know the Half of It

Article from Washington Post. Date: 29 December 2003
Shannon Brownlee

It was probably inevitable that one day people would start suing McDonald's
for making them fat. That day came this summer, when New York lawyer Samuel
Hirsch filed several lawsuits against McDonald's, as well as four other
fast-food companies, on the grounds that they had failed to adequately
disclose the bad health effects of their menus. One of the suits involves a
Bronx teenager who tips the scale at 400 pounds and whose mother, in papers
filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, said, "I always believed
McDonald's food was healthy for my son."

Uh-huh. And the tooth fairy really put that dollar under his pillow. But
once you've stopped sniggering at our litigious society, remember that it
once seemed equally ludicrous that smokers could successfully sue tobacco
companies for their addiction to cigarettes. And while nobody is claiming
that Big Macs are addictive -- at least not yet -- the restaurant industry
and food packagers have clearly helped give many Americans the roly-poly
shape they have today. This is not to say that the folks in the food
industry want us to be fat. But make no mistake: When they do well
economically, we gain weight..

It wasn't always thus. Readers of a certain age can remember a time when a
trip to McDonald's seemed like a treat and when a small bag of French fries,
a plain burger and a 12-ounce Coke seemed like a full meal. Fast food wasn't
any healthier back then; we simply ate a lot less of it.

How did today's oversized appetites become the norm? It didn't happen by
accident or some inevitable evolutionary process. It was to a large degree
the result of consumer manipulation. Fast food's marketing strategies, which
make perfect sense from a business perspective, succeed only when they
induce a substantial number of us to overeat. To see how this all came
about, let's go back to 1983, when John Martin became CEO of the ailing Taco
Bell franchise and met a young marketing whiz named Elliott Bloom.

Using so-called "smart research," a then-new kind of in-depth consumer
survey, Bloom had figured out that fast-food franchises were sustained
largely by a core group of "heavy users," mostly young, single males, who
ate at such restaurants as often as 20 times a month. In fact, 30 percent of
Taco Bell's customers accounted for 70 percent of its sales. Through his
surveys, Bloom learned what might seem obvious now but wasn't at all clear
20 years ago -- these guys ate at fast-food joints because they had
absolutely no interest in cooking for themselves and didn't give a rip about
the nutritional quality of the food. They didn't even care much about the
taste. All that mattered was that it was fast and cheap. Martin figured Taco
Bell could capture a bigger share of these hard-core customers by
streamlining the food production and pricing main menu items at 49, 59 and
69 cents -- well below its competitors.

It worked. Taco Bell saw a dramatic increase in patrons, with no drop in
revenue per customer. As Martin told Greg Critser, author of "Fat Land: How
Americans Became the Fattest People in the World," when Taco Bell ran a test
of its new pricing in Texas, "within seven days of initiating the test, the
average check was right back to where it was before -- it was just four
instead of three items." In other words, cheap food induced people to eat
more. Taco Bell's rising sales figures -- up 14 percent by 1989 and 12
percent more the next year -- forced other fast-food franchises to wake up
and smell the burritos. By the late '80s, everybody from Burger King to
Wendy's was cutting prices and seeing an increase in customers -- including
bargain-seeking Americans who weren't part of that original hard-core group..

If the marketing strategy had stopped there, we might not be the nation of
fatties that we are today. But the imperatives of the marketplace are growth
and rising profits, and once everybody had slashed prices to the bone, the
franchises had to look for a new way to satisfy investors.

And what they found was . . . super-sizing.

Portion sizes had already been creeping upward. As early as 1972, for
example, McDonald's introduced its large-size fries (large being a relative
term, since at 3.5 ounces the '72 "large" was smaller than a medium serving
today). But McDonald's increased portions only reluctantly, because the
company's founder, Ray Kroc, didn't like the image of lowbrow, cheap food.
If people wanted more French fries, he would say, "they can buy two bags."
But price competition had grown so fierce that the only way to keep profits
up was to offer bigger and bigger portions. By 1988, McDonald's had
introduced a 32-ounce "super size" soda and "super size" fries.

The deal with all these enhanced portions is that the customer gets a lot
more food for a relatively small increase in price. So just how does that
translate into bigger profits? Because the actual food in a fast-food meal
is incredibly cheap. For every dollar a quick-service franchiser spends to
produce a food item, only 20 cents, on average, goes toward food. The rest
is eaten up by expenses such as salaries, packaging, electric bills,
insurance and, of course, the ubiquitous advertising that got you in the
door or to the drive-through lane in the first place.

Here's how it works. Let's say a $1.25 bag of French fries costs $1 to
produce. The potatoes, oil and salt account for only 20 cents of the cost.
The other 80 cents goes toward all the other expenses. If you add half again
as many French fries to the bag and sell it for $1.50, the non-food expenses
stay pretty much constant, while the extra food costs the franchise only 10
more pennies. The fast-food joint makes an extra 15 cents in pure profit,
and the customer thinks he's getting a good deal. And he would be, if he
actually needed the extra food, which he doesn't because the nation is awash
in excess calories.

That 20 percent rule, by the way, applies to all food products, whether it's
a bag of potato chips, the 2,178-calorie mountain of fried seafood at Red
Lobster or the 710-calorie slab of dessert at the Cheesecake Factory. Some
foods are even less expensive to make. The flakes of your kid's breakfast
cereal, for example, account for only 5 percent of the total amount Nabisco
or General Mills spent to make and sell them. Soda costs less to produce
than any drink except tap water (which nobody seems to drink anymore),
thanks to a 1970s invention that cut the expense of making high-fructose
corn syrup. There used to be real sugar in Coke; when Coca-Cola and other
bottlers switched to high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, they slashed
sweetener costs by 20 percent. That's why 7-Eleven can sell the 64-ounce
Double Gulp -- half a gallon of soda and nearly 600 calories -- for only 37
cents more than the 16-ounce, 89-cent regular Gulp. You'd feel ripped off if
you bought the smaller size. Who wouldn't?

The final step in the fattening of America was the "upsell," a stroke of
genius whose origins are buried somewhere in the annals of marketing..
You're already at the counter, you've ordered a cheeseburger value meal for
$3.74, and your server says, "Would you like to super-size that for only
$4.47?" Such a deal. The chain extracts an extra 73 cents from the customer,
and the customer gets an extra 400 calories -- bringing the total calorie
count to 1,550, more than half the recommended intake for an adult man for
an entire day.

When confronted with their contribution to America's expanding waistline,
restaurateurs and food packagers reply that eating less is a matter of
individual responsibility. But that's not how the human stomach works. If
you put more food in front of people, they eat more, as studies have
consistently shown over the last decade. My personal favorite: The
researcher gave moviegoers either a half-gallon or a gallon bucket of
popcorn before the show (it was "Payback," with Mel Gibson) and then
measured how much they ate when they returned what was left in the
containers afterward. Nobody could polish off the entire thing, but subjects
ate 44 percent more when given the bigger bucket.

The downside, of course, is that 20 years of Big Food has trained us to
think that oceanic drinks and gargantuan portions are normal. Indeed, once
fast food discovered that big meals meant big profits, everybody from
Heineken to Olive Garden to Frito Lay followed suit. Today, says Lisa Young,
a nutritionist at New York University, super-sizing has pervaded every
segment of the food industry. For her PhD, Young documented the changes in
portion sizes for dozens of foods over the past several decades. M&M/Mars,
for example, has increased the size of candy bars such as Milky Way and
Snickers four times since 1970. Starbucks introduced the 20-ounce "venti"
size in 1999 and discontinued its "short" 8-ounce cup. When 22-ounce
Heinekens were introduced, Young reported, the company sold 24 million of
them the first year, and attributed the sales to the "big-bottle gimmick."
Even Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers now advertise "Hearty Portions" of
their diet meals. Everything from plates and muffin tins to restaurant
chairs and the cut of our Levi's has expanded to match our growing
appetites, and the wonder of it all is not that 60 percent of Americans are
overweight or obese, but rather that 40 percent of us are not.

Where does it end? Marketers and restaurateurs may scoff at lawsuits like
the ones brought this summer against fast-food companies, and they have a
point: Adults are ultimately responsible for what they put in their own
mouths. But maybe there's hope for us yet, because it looks as if fast-food
companies have marketed themselves into a corner. "Omnipresence" -- the
McDonald's strategy of beating out competitors by opening new stores,
sometimes as many as 1,000 a year -- "has proved costly and
self-cannibalizing," says author Critser. With 13,000 McDonald's units
alone, most of America is so saturated with fast food there's practically no
place left to put a drive-through lane. Now, fast-food companies are killing
each other in a new price war they can't possibly sustain, and McDonald's
just suffered its first quarterly loss since the company went public 47
years ago.

The obvious direction to go is down, toward what nutritional policymakers
are calling "smart-sizing." Or at least it should be obvious, if food
purveyors cared as much about helping Americans slim down as they would have
us believe. Instead of urging Americans to "Get Active, Stay Active" --
Pepsi Cola's new criticism-deflecting slogan -- how about bringing back the
6.5-ounce sodas of the '40s and '50s? Or, imagine, as Critser does, the day
when McDonald's advertises Le Petit Mac, made with high-grade beef, a
delicious whole-grain bun and hawked by, say, Serena Williams. One way or
another, as Americans wake up to the fact that obesity is killing nearly as
many citizens as cigarettes are, jumbo burgers and super-size fries will
seem like less of a bargain.

Shannon Brownlee is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company


Food and Health

Excerpt from the book Bringing the Food Economy Home. Date: 2002
International Society for Ecology and Culture
Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield, Steven Gorelick

If one considers some typical modern foods- hamburgers laden with growth
hormones, vegetables laced with pesticides, soft drinks full of refined
sugar, and foods too numerous to mention whose colour and taste have been
artificially enhanced by manufactured chemicals- one could easily imagine
that the goal of the global food system is simply to provide the global
health care system with more customers. Local food systems, on the other
hand, are not only healthier for the environment, they provide people with
healthier food as well.

Fresh is Best

Local systems excel at providing fresh food, and health practitioners of
every stripe agree that fresh food is the most nutritious. Some
nutritionists have even determined that the best nutrition of all comes from
foods that are in season in one¹s locale. Since the vitamins in almost any
food are gradually lost from the time of harvest, even fresh foods from the
global system are usually less nutritious than local foods, because they may
have been harvested days or even weeks before reaching the kitchen table.
Tomatoes, for example, are often picked green and hard so that they can
survive mechanical harvesting and long-distance transport, and then ripened
in rooms pumped full of ethylene gas, which artificially initiates the
ripening process. Tomatoes like these are much less flavourful and
nutritious than the ripe tomato from a local farm, plucked from the vine and
eaten the same day.

Foods for the global market are bred for monocultural growing
conditions rather than nutritional content. Another high priority is visual
perfection. Decades of agribusiness and supermarket advertising, combined
with numerous senseless regulations, have persuaded people that fruits and
vegetables must conform to narrow standards of size, shape and colour.
Customers expect to find only bright red, unmarred apples, potatoes that are
properly shaped and without blemish, and carrots that are large, straight
and orange. Most western consumers are now so disconnected from
agricultural reality that heirloom varieties of unusual shape or colour are
not considered to be real food at all. And food grown in living soil where
insects are allowed to survive- sometimes leaving their mark on the produce-
is considered substandard, even though it is likely to be better tasting and
more nutritious than its more perfect-looking industrial cousin.
Biotech varieties are no exception to the rule among global foods.
Thus, despite the inflated claims about the virtues of genetic engineering,
the varieties that have reached the supermarkets so far have not been
improved nutritionally. Roundup Ready products, for example, are engineered
to survive herbicide drenchings; Flavr-Savr tomatoes are designed to sit on
supermarket shelves for long stretched of time without rotting; and Bt corn
and Bt potatoes have been engineered to contain a potent pesticide- not
extra nutrients- in every cell. Although so-called Golden Rice has been
engineered to contain extra amounts of vitamin A- and is being touted as a
cure for a form of blindness called by vitamin A deficiency- its main
beneficiary thus far has been the biotech industry, for which it has served
as a much-needed public relations vehicle.

Chemical Stews

Global foods tend to undergo a great deal of processing, which destroys
nutrients. Some highly refined products such as white flour, white sugar,
and white rice have had most of their nutritional content stripped away.
Since processing can also remove much of the taste and colour from food, the
global food industry often compensates by adding artificial flavourings and
colourings. In some cases, these chemicals are used simply because they are
cheaper than real flavourings and spices- as when real vanilla is replaced
by vanillin, a chemical substance that approximates the flavour that comes
from vanilla beans. Chemical preservatives are also deployed, to add to the
extended shelf life global foods require.

Local foods often contain no chemical additives, since they are
less likely to need processing. And because of the prevalence of small,
diversified, organic farms in local food systems, these foods are less apt
to contain residues of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic

Although these chemicals now routinely turn up in our food and
water, they are very recent in human evolutionary history, and our defences
are therefore unprepared to protect us from them. They can cause cancer,
birth defects, immune system breakdown, and neurological damage, and can
interfere with normal childhood development. Some of these chemicals are
endocrine disrupters and have been implicated in the early onset of puberty
so prevalent in the industrial world. Studies have even indicated a
correlation between aggression and exposure to pesticides. The chemical
fertilizers used in industrial agriculture also pose a health problem:
nitrates in water, for example have been linked to blue-baby syndrome in
infants, birth defects, and cancer of the gastrointestinal tract.

The health of farmworkers is seriously compromised by their
exposure to agricultural chemicals on the job. According to a United Nations
study, from 20,000 to 40,000 farmworkers die each year from pesticide
exposure. Another study indicates that as many as 300,000 farmworkers in the
United States alone suffer from pesticide ­related illnesses. But one
doesn¹t need to be a farmworker or even live near a farm to be exposed to
these toxic compounds. As Peter Montague of the Environmental Research
Foundation points out, ³Tens of millions of Americans in hundreds of cities
and towns have been drinking tap water that is contaminated with low levels
of insecticides, weed killers and artificial fertilisers. They not only
drink it, they bathe and shower in it, thus inhaling small quantities of
farm chemicals and absorbing them through the skin.²

If anything, Montague may have understated the extent of the
problem. A recent survey by the US Environmental Protection Agency found
that 80% of adults and 90% of children in the United States have measurable
concentrations of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in their urine.

Although agribusinesses insist that all of these chemicals have
been tested for safety, they are not tested in the multiple combinations to
which people are routinely exposed, nor are they tested over the long
periods of time that would be necessary to fully understand their effects.
Determining the so-called safety of individual chemicals is a an all but
meaningless exercise since people in the industrial world are effectively
immersed in a stew of such chemicals- arising not only from industrial
agriculture but from fossil fuel use and manufacturing processes as well.
In the United States, for example, roughly 1,000 new chemicals are marketed
each year, adding to the 70,000 already on the market. A study in the
journal Science points out that testing the commonest 1,000 toxic chemicals
in unique combinations of three would require approximately 166 million
experiments. Even if just one hour were devoted to each experiment and one
hundred laboratories worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the
process would take more than 180 years to complete. Needless to say, no one
is planning to conduct those tests.

In any case, the proven health hazards of a particular
agricultural chemical are no guarantee that its use will be prohibited. The
herbicide Atrazine is a known carcinogen whose use has been banned in seven
European countries.. Nonetheless, it is perfectly lawful to use it on fields
throughout the United States. Unfortunately, Atrazine is not the exception,
but the rule; the US government agencies that regulate agricultural
chemicals allow at least thirty other pesticides classified as either
³definitely² or ³probably² carcinogenic to be used on US crops. Even
chemicals commonly advertised as totally benign to humans can turn out to be
harmful. For example, a 1999 study in the journal of the American Cancer
Society linked exposure to glyphosate- the active ingredient in the
herbicide Roundup- to non-Hodgkin¹s lymphoma, a form of cancer. In 1998,
more than 112,000 tonnes of glyphosate were used worldwide.

In addition to the inputs chemical farmers intentionally pour on
their crops, there are numerous pathways by which global foods can be
unexpectedly tainted with toxic chemicals. In Belgium in 1999, for example,
chicken farmers noticed signs of acute poisoning in their flocks. An
investigation revealed that the potent carcinogen dioxin had somehow
contaminated the chickens¹ feed. And in Taiwan recently, 30% of the rice
crop was found to be contaminated with arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

Food Poisoning

Proponents of the global food system would have us believe that industrial
processes have left our food all but free of bacteria, but the data do not
support that contention. A recent US study found one in five samples of
supermarket ground meat and poultry contaminated with salmonella, while
another study found the sometimes fatal germ, enterococcus faecium in 86% of
the supermarket chickens tested.

In fact, food poisoning incidents have risen in tandem with the
growth of the industrial food system. According to the Centres for Disease
Control and Prevention, salmonella-related illnesses in the United Stated
have doubled in the last two decades, and similar increases are reported for
illnesses from E. coli, campylobacter, and lysteria bacteria.

In the United Kingdom, food poisoning incidents increased
five-fold between 1982 and 1999, according to the British Public Health
Laboratory Service. In 1997 alone, over 54,000 food poisoning incidents
were reported in England and Wales. That sounds like a lot, but the
situation may actually be far worse. Research has shown that the ratio of
unreported to notified cases is 30:1- pushing the 1990¹s annual, average to
1.4 million food poisoning cases per year.

Although most cases of bacteria-tainted food are the result of
unsanitary conditions in the large-scale facilities that mass-produce and
process foods, the response from corporate agribusinesses and health
regulatory agencies has nothing to do with cleaning up, let alone reducing
the scale of, the global food system. In the United States, approval has
instead been granted for irradiation as a method of sterilizing meat and
other food products. Although polls indicate that three-fourths of the US
public does not want to eat irradiated food, this techno-fix is cheaper for
industry and allows the fundamentally flawed global food system to go

In the long run, however, this solution is likely to create more
problems than it solves. A large body of scientific evidence shows that
irradiation reduces the nutritional value of food and leaves byproducts in
the food that are themselves health hazards. Although e-beam technology is
now being hailed by the food industry as a safe alternative to gamma ray
irradiation- which uses radioactive materials- their effects on food are the
same. According to Public Citizen¹s Critical Mass Energy Project,

³Food irradiated by either process is deficient in vitamins and other
nutrients, has caused serious health problems in laboratory animals, tastes
and smells worse, is bereft of beneficial microorganisms that keep botulism
and other potential deadly maladies at bay, may contain carcinogens and
mysterious chemical compounds, and in the case of meat may still be tainted
with faeces, urine, pus and vomit resulting from filthy slaughter-house

Techno-fixes like irradiation provide, at best, temporary solutions to food
safety problems whose roots lie in the excessive scale of the global food
system. But proponents of global food never cease imagining that these
problems can be eliminated by ratcheting up the scale one more notch. For
example, Ray Goldberg, professor of Agriculture and Business at Harvard¹s
Business School, believes that the proper response to food scares is simply
to apply more technology and to ³barcode every product, from a grain of
cereal to a loaf of bread.² And even though the increasing scale of the
global food system is responsible for most food safety problems, Professor
Goldberg stubbornly believes that scaling up is the solution: ³These huge
multinational corporations that have huge plants throughout the world have
to lead the waySand as consolidation grows in the food system, it will
become safer.²

Factory Farms and Human Health

There is little doubt that animals raised on small-scale diverse farms are
apt to be healthier. When allowed to range freely, particularly in
organically maintained yards and pastures, they receive more exercise, their
diet is more varied and they are exposed to commensal bacteria that help
exclude, and build resistance to, harmful pathogens. Some organic
practitioners also argue that free-ranging animals actively seek out plants
with medicinal properties that can build their resistance to illness,

When Livestock production is carried out on a scale that suits
the global market, however, huge numbers of animals are kept in tightly
confined conditions, and the potential for disease outbreaks is much higher..
The important considerations of animal welfare aside, these methods lead to
the rampant use of antibiotics, which poses a significant health risk, not
only for the livestock, but for consumers as well, since antibiotic residues
can remain in meat and milk. Roughly half the 25,000 tonnes of antibiotics
produced in the United States are used in the raising of animals for human

There are other reasons for concern about the overuse of
antibiotics in giant livestock operations. Some 40 to 80 percent of the
antibiotics used in farming are thought to be unnecessary even under factory
conditions, as 80 percent of their use is as a preventative measure and for
growth promotion. Overuse has already rendered some drugs ineffective and
may even make some strains of bacteria untreatable. According to the Public
Health Laboratory Service in Britain, a new strain of salmonella that first
appeared in the United Kingdom in 1990 is resistant to at least four
antibiotics and now accounts for 15 percent of all salmonella food poisoning
cases. The newest class of antibiotics, fluoroquinolones- viewed as the last
line of defence for some human infections- are already proving ineffective
against some bacteria strains. An epidemiologist for the US Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention says that among public health officials
³there is no controversy about where antibiotic resistance in food-borne
pathogens comes from²: the heavy use of antibiotics is to blame.

The huge amounts of manure that the industrial livestock farms
produce also represent a human health risk. In the Cape Fear region of
North Carolina, for example, factory hog farms produce ten million metric
tonnes of waste annually, equal to that produced by forty million people.
When heavy rains hit in 1999, numerous lagoons containing the manure burst.
In one case, two million gallons of hog waste spilled when a lagoon ruptured
at a farm that raises hogs for a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the largest
pork producer in the United States. Such manure spills were one reason the
storm left 400,000 wells in North Carolina contaminated. Health officials
expressed concern that an outbreak of gastrointestinal and other diseases,
such as pathogenic E. coli, might be caused by contaminated drinking water.

Other agribusiness livestock practices are equally alarming.
Monsanto has been aggressively marketing rBGH, a recombinant form of a
naturally occurring hormone, for use in dairy cows. The use of the
genetically engineered hormone increases milk production by 15 percent or
more, but has numerous side effects: treated cows do not live as long; they
are prone to develop mastitis (an infection of the udder, usually treated
with antibiotics); and they often give birth to deformed or stillborn
calves. As far as human health is concerned, perhaps most worrisome of all
is that researchers have found elevated levels of another hormone, IGF-1, in
milk from cows treated with rBGH. IGF-1 has been linked to increased
likelihood of cancer in humans.

Unfortunately for the general public in the United States, on of
the very few countries where the use of rBGH is legal, the human health
effects of this biotech product have hardly been explored. As Brewster
Kneen points out,

³The only actual testing of the drug is currently being carried out as an
uncontrolled experiment on the American people, who are unknowingly
consuming the milk from the drugged cows. They are unknowing because the
drug¹s manufacturer has lobbied, litigated and intimidated, with near-total
success, to make labelling that would indicate whether or not milk comes
from rBGH-treated cows virtually illegal.²

One of the most disturbing human health consequences of industrial livestock
production is the spread of Mad Cow Disease across the species barrier from
cows to humans, in the form of the deadly Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD).
It is generally believed that the cow variant of the disease, bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), became widespread throughout the United
Kingdom because of the practice of feeding the remains of dead livestock to
cows- an ³innovation² of large-scale agribusiness. Dead livestock were
boiled down, ground up, and added to cattle feed, even though cows are
naturally herbivores.

Another innovation of the global food system- the mechanical
separation of meat- is thought to have played a role in spreading the
disease to humans. The process extracts minute amounts of meat from bones
by forcing it through a sieve under high pressure, resulting in a paste-like
product- a legal ingredient in various cooked meat products- that may have
included spinal cord tissue from infected cows.

BSE eventually killed 175,000 cows in Britain; since the disease
is believed to have a latency period of ten years, far more were undoubtedly
infected. Although the British government initially insisted that there was
no link between Mad Cow Disease and CJD in humans, it was later forced to
reverse this stance and eventually ordered the destruction of every cow
older than thirty months, some 2.5 million animals.

By the end of 2001, more than one hundred people had died of CJD
in the United Kingdom. Like BSE in cows, however, CJD has a long latency
period, and it is still unknown how high the death toll will eventually
rise. The UK government¹s chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson,
admits, ³We¹re not going to know for several years whether the size of the
epidemic will be a small one, in other words hundreds, or a very large one,
in the hundreds of thousands.² Meanwhile, cases of Mad Cow Disease have
turned up in most other European Countries and now in Asia as well.

The UK beef industry was still reeling from the impact of BSE
when an outbreak of classic swine fever struck Britain in 2000, leading to
the slaughter of tens of thousands of pigs. It is believed that the
outbreak stems from practices all too common among industrial pig
operations: transporting animals in contaminated vehicles and feeding them
waste food containing infected meat.

Problems like these are an inherent part of a food system that
is so large that companies can increase their profits by millions of dollars
simply by saving a few cents on each animal¹s feed, or by using chemicals or
processing methods that reduce costs by a fraction of a percent.

We all want safe, healthy food, but we cannot rely on the global
food system to provide it. The corporate food chain has grown so long and
the distance between producers and consumers so vast that no one can really
know how their food was grown, how it was processed, and how it was treated
during its long travels. Only by localising and reducing the scale of our
food systems can we once again trust the food we eat.

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