Why Federal food safety regulation is a slippery slope: Part I- Safe Food vs. Healthy Food

The senate is trying to push through a bill that would increase the power of the FDA to be able to control food that is grown by farmers.  This food safety bill is in response to multiple food recalls on beef, eggs, and even spinach.  If you have seen news on any of these recalls you would probably not question the need for a federal food safety bill.  I would say there are 2 questions that need to asked before we would pass such sweeping legislation: 1) what affect does federal food safety regulation have on the health of our food and 2) what affect does federal food safety regulation have on the health of small, local farmers?

In part I of this blog series we will answer the question 1) what affect does federal food regulation have on the health of our food.

Does Safe Food= Compromised Freedom, Unhealthy Food

Judging on how food safety has been viewed so far in this country it seems the only safe food is food that has been stripped of anything that can sustain life.  It’s easy to keep food safe when you process the food so much that not even bugs will eat it.   I think if food safety people had their way we wouldn’t grow food in dirt anymore because it’s just too dirty.

I agree that the food landscape has changed dramatically in the last 100 years and needs new legislation to help deal with those changes.  But what about those farmers who grow food the way we did before the industrial revolution?  Should they be subject to the same laws as agribusiness, factory farming done by corporations?   As in other regulations that promote safety, will federal food safety regulation compromise our freedoms as Americans.  I am especially concerned about our freedom to have access to healthy foods.

Let’s take a look at one of the oldest food safety regulations and how it has affected health and the freedom to access healthy foods.

Pasteurized Milk as a Model

Originally used to kill off pathogenic microbes and extend shelf life; pasteurized milk is now consumed by almost every citizen in the US.  Only 150 years ago, everyone on the planet was drinking raw milk.  Today, if I want to get a glass of raw milk in Illinois; I need to own part of a cow or goat.  Neither grocer nor farmer can sell it to me.

Now, I do understand that we need regulation on pasteurized milk if we want people in the cities to have it, but what if I have a farmer friend next door.  Can’t I buy a gallon from him every week without risking him or myself with legal ramifications?  Today pasteurization of milk is so much the norm that few would question its “benefits” for society.  But can the pasteurization of milk have negative effects on health?

During pasteurization the bacteria in milk are destroyed, this includes the good bacteria that are beneficial for human health.  Based on how much milk we drink, milk could be one of the best sources of good bacteria, probiotics, in the diet.  We also are consuming less of other sources of good bacteria, such as raw foods and fermented foods.

Couple the disconnection with raw foods that we have as Americans with medications designed to destroy bacteria in the body, and we have opened ourselves up to a plethora of digestive health issue.  To top that off we add antibacterials to the food we eat and the water we drink.  The hope for healthy bacteria in the system is all but crushed, and now we face an era of poor digestion and immune health, both of which are improved by good bacteria.

We don’t think about it much now, but pasteurized milk is truly a case of both infringement on our freedom to have access to healthy food and a destruction of beneficial properties that make food healthy.  Now I can’t have access to milk with naturally occurring probiotics and I have to go to my local health food store and pay for probiotics.

We alter food so it doesn’t “kill” us or make us sick but we destroy its medicinal properties.  So much for let your food be your medicine.

Keeping Food Safety in Perspective

Speaking of medicine, did you know that pharmaceuticals that are taken as prescribed kill over 20x as many people as food-borne illness.  Over 100,000 people die every year due to properly taking their medication.  This doesn’t include medical errors or drug abuse, nor does it take into account the other side effects of medications.

We are more scared of healing foods than we are of deadly medicines.  We will destroy or remove beneficial portions of food that promote health for the sake of possible pathogens that are primarily an issue at large manufacturing facilities and factory style farms.  We are moving toward a model of replacing healthy food with safe food.  If a food loses its disease fighting properties is it safe?  If a food is “safe” according to food regulators does that mean it will help us fight disease?

So we remove or destroy the disease fighting properties of food and take deadly poisons for our medicine.  This all just seems a bit too ironic.

Dangerous Food Additives

I also find it ironic when we legally mandate that beneficial properties of food be destroyed but in the same system it is completely legal to add in dangerous chemicals to our food that increase our risk for disease.   Let’s take trans fat for an example.  We now know that this type of fat is the only one proven to increase heart disease, even though fat in general takes the blame.  Trans fat also has been shown to increase the incidence of  certain types of cancer.  The criminal act of adding trans fat to food goes unpunished while local and federal agents with guns drawn are stopping people from selling wholesome, raw milk.

Healthy and Safe Food

One important key to moving forward with safer foods should be to consider how a  food increases health and decreases the risk for disease.  Part of that equation is making sure food does not contain dangerous microbes.  But the food safety picture is incomplete if we are not taking into consideration the effects of food safety processing on the risk for disease and effects on overall health.  We are a very intelligent society.  You would think we could control the adulteration of food without limiting people’s freedom to access healthy food.

Be on the lookout for part II of this series when we talk about the effects of federal food safety regulations on small farmers.