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Debunking the Myth that the U.S. "Has the Safest Food in theWorld"

April 2, 2004, Issue #335
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
>From a Public Interest Perspective

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KEESIA WIRT, DTM COMMDITIES EDITOR: It's come to be one of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's most frequent sayings --- Americans have the
cheapest, safest food supply in the world.

While that statement is widely believed by many Americans, it does not mean
it's accurate, at least not by Charles Benbrook's standards.

"All of us in the agricultural world have heard this statement a million
times, but have you ever heard anyone explain the basis for such a claim?"
said Benbrook, an agricultural economist working as a consultant for The
Organic Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Benbrook recently discussed what he believes are the biggest myths about
U.S. agriculture during the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in
LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He has studied agricultural policy, science and
regulatory issues since 1979 and served as executive director for the
National Academy of Sciences Board of
Agriculture before leaving to run his own consulting firm in Sandpoint,

The safest food?

When a cow in Washington tested positive for bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE) in December, USDA and other agriculture leaders
repeatedly assured the public that the U.S. food supply was the safest in
the world.

"How do they know that? What's the scientific basis for this?" Benbrook
said. "The European Union certainly doesn't agree. I've spent 25 years
studying this and making international comparisons about food supply and

To develop a fact-based international ranking of food safety, Benbrook said
the ranking system must include, at a minimum, the following nine risk
factors associated with food consumption:

* pesticide residues,

* animal drug and hormone residues,

* foodborne pathogens and parasites of animal origin,

* microbiological contamination,

* natural toxins expressed by plants themselves,

* antibiotic resistant bacteria,

* mycotoxins such as aflatoxin,

* transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, include BSE, and

* mercury, or heavy metals, dioxins, and other environmental toxicants.

Benbrook said he does not know of studies in any of these nine areas done by
any U.S. government agency, private organization or any international body
compares the safety of the food supply in various countries around the

"There has never been such a study because there is no way to carry one
out," he said.

If an analysis were performed, Benbrook said, the U.S. food supply would
probably be at the top, in terms of safety, pesticide residues, natural
toxins, mycotoxins and
mercury and other environmental toxicants.

"But in four other areas, the U.S. food supply would not rank in the top 10
percent of countries, and maybe not even in the top one-third," he said.

The categories the U.S. food supply does not score well in, Benbrook said,
foodborne pathogens of animal origin, animal drug and hormone residues,
antibiotic resistant bacteria and transmissible spongiform encephalopathy
(TSE). Benbrook said he is not sure how the ranking would be for the ninth
category --- microbiological contamination --- because it is complex and

Several countries would score much higher than the U.S. in terms of food
safety, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Japan,
he said.

Those countries have all made major commitments and investments in
food-safety standards and monitoring systems that are much more
comprehensive and stricter than in the U.S., Benbrook said.

"The U.S. is likely to slip farther behind food safety leaders
internationally as long as our leaders and public institutions remain in
denial that the way we raise, manufacture, distribute and cook food has
opened the door to some significant new risks," he said.

"Americans enjoy the safest food supply in the world. This is due in part to
efforts by the USDA to follow a scientific approach in administering its
food safety programs," according to a USDA food-safety report from 2003.

Ed Loyd, a USDA spokesman, directed DTN to this report to respond to the
when asked how USDA knows the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world.

According to the report, the USDA's scientific approach has resulted in a
16% decline in foodborne illness, such as Listeria and Campylobacter, during
the past six years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
attributed the decline in part to the implementation of the Hazard Analysis
Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in all meat and poultry plants in the

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has implemented a five- point
strategy during recent years to further reduce the incidences of foodborne
illness, according to the report.

The FSIS strategy includes improved management of inspectors, application of
science in crafting regulations, better coordination with other agencies, an
aggressive education campaign for food handlers and protection of the food
supply against terrorist attack.

"In spite of these positive trends toward a safer food supply, FSIS
recognizes that intensified efforts are needed to further reduce the
incidence of foodborne illnesses related to meat, poultry and egg products
in the United States," the report said.

Benbrook believes it is also a myth that the U.S. has the cheapest food. He
economic measures such as cost and efficiency can be defined many ways and
data can always be found to support specific claims, such as having the
cheapest food.

During his speech, Benbrook showed two charts, each using different criteria
to measure the cost of food in countries throughout the world.

The first chart ranked 34 countries based on the share of per capita income
spent on food. The U.S. ranks number one on this chart, spending the
smallest share of per capita income, 9.7 percent, on food of any country.
Canada came in second,
spending 11.7 percent, followed by Sweden at 13.3 percent, Japan at 14.9
percent and Australia at 15.1 percent. On the other end of the chart,
Tanzania spent the most with 73.2 percent of per capita income spent on

"Does that make food cheap in America?" Benbrook said. "It depends on
you are buying American food with an average American income, or the income
of people living elsewhere."

He said this ranking does not reflect whether food is expensive or cheap;
instead it reflects whether it is affordable.

The second chart Benbrook showed ranked the cost of food in the same 34
countries according to the dollars spent per 1,000 calories consumed in a
given day.

"In reality, this is a more accurate international measure of whether food
is expensive or cheap," he said.

In this chart, the U.S. ranks 23 out of 34 countries, spending $2.28 per
person for each 1,000 calories consumed. The countries that spent the least
for every 1,000 calories consumed were Sierra Leone, 39 cents; Mali, 46
cents; Tanzania, 51 cents; and Kenya, 63 cents. The countries that spent the
most per 1,000 calories consumed were Korea, $4.43; Japan, $3.68; Argentina,
$3.47; Australia, $3.28; and the United Kingdom, $2.96.

Benbrook said most people in developing countries spend far less on 1,000
calories worth of food than U.S. consumers.

"Some 90% of humanity spends less per calorie of food than Americans," he

Americans buy lots of convenience, packaging and services with their food
dollars, and as a result, pay a lot more for it, Benbrook said.