Poisoned Peppers, Poisoned Politics

Isaiah J. Poole

I was sitting in an Austin, Texas, restaurant, eating a concoction made with corn chips, chili and cheese, when the federal government announced that tomatoes that had been suspected as the source of an e.coli outbreak were now safe to eat. The jalapenos that topped the plate of food I was eating, however—well, we’re not so sure.

Score another one for e.coli conservatism, where a bit of heartburn from too many peppers could be the least of your problems.

We’ve written much about how the agencies responsible for keeping our food supply safe have been weakened under the Bush administration. But in a session at Netroots Nation, a panel shed some light on how what is left has been co-opted by corporate food interests.

The consequence is that healthy food practices have been put under undue regulatory pressure—by an administration that protests about the burdens government imposes on small business—while large agribusinesses are allowed to engage in practices that have increased our safety risks, says Judith McGreary, the director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance in Austin.

McGreary, who runs her own livestock farm in Austin, is an advocate for small, sustainable farms. “One of our central problems is the centralization of our food supply,” she said. When meats, vegetables and fruits travel thousands of miles to large processing plants, where workers are pressured to meet inflexible production quotas, the result is a setup for widespread food contamination problems.

That’s just made worse by a political atmosphere in which “Big Ag permeates Washington, D.C.,” she said.

How do we fix this? Panelists at the food session agreed that more has to be done to promote smaller, more localized farming operations. Food safety regulations should be tailored with the capacities of smaller farms in mind, but they should be tough. The benefit is that when there are safety lapses, their scope can be contained and the source more easily identified.

There are a host of other reasons why a buy-local movement is building among food advocates, but the safety of our food supply is among the most compelling. The conservatives’ practice of allowing corporate agribusiness the untrammeled ability to reshape our food supply chain and the safety rules that govern it has literally made us sick.

Updated to correct the description of McGreary’s farm.

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