The government must do more to protect our food supply

The government must do more to protect our food supply
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More and more these days, the most insidious dangers we face as consumers are playing out in ways we can’t see. In an age marked by hidden threats, it’s no surprise that a major cause of concern comes from another area of daily life that is nearly impossible for us to observe for ourselves: the safety of our food.

The truth is, we have no way of knowing what’s inside the meals we eat — without the ability to analyze food on our own, we have to rely on the promises of producers, the safeguards of government standards, and the scientific tests of independent experts.  A recent Consumer Reports analysis of government data on common meat products, as well as recent testing of packaged foods marketed to young children, have revealed a deeply troubling reality. 

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The data studied and the tests conducted suggest that potentially dangerous substances have made their way into our food at disturbing rates.  The appearance of concerning levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in baby foods, and drugs such as the anemia-linked chloramphenicol, the banned anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, and the hallucinogenic antidepressant ketamine showing up in the U.S. meat supply, is deeply worrisome. 

Consumer Reports’ scientists have concluded that there is something wrong with the system for assuring the safety of our food, and it is imperative that both food manufacturers and government rulemakers take action right away to protect our health and the health of our children.

For its part, the Food and Drug Administration must act aggressively to set limits on the amount of heavy metals allowed in foods fed to children aged four and under — specifically, the goal should be to allow no measurable amount whatsoever.  Already-proposed limitations on arsenic in products like fruit juice and infant rice cereal must be finalized quickly to bring foods commonly consumed by babies and toddlers up to standards experts consider safe.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must establish more stringent standards for drug residues in meat products, devote resources to investigating risks and holding violators accountable, and alert the public any time a producer is in breach (like the letters that Consumer Reports sent FDA and USDA to call for action).

For parents who don’t want to wait for companies and government decisionmakers to do the right thing, there are steps that can be taken immediately.  By limiting the amount of rice cereal and fruit juices our children consume, cutting back on packaged children’s snacks, seeking out whole foods like apples and bananas as well as proteins like beans and hard-boiled eggs, and cooking rice in excess water, we can reduce exposure to potential dangers.

Routine as they are, the choices we make about food are among the most important and personal decisions we make every day.  Not only do they directly impact the health of our own families — they help determine the integrity of our entire food system, which, like any market, responds and adapts to consumer choices in the aggregate. 

As consumers gain awareness about contaminants in our meat, and as parents seek to ensure that the food they give their children is healthy and safe, manufacturers of these foods and the government agencies that are supposed to ensure they are safe must act now to reduce the risks to our health — and consumers should raise their voices to insist that they do.

Marta Tellado is the president and chief executive officer of Consumer Reports.