On March 14 President Obama used his weekly radio/video address to talk about food safety and to announce the nomination of Margaret Hamburg as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner. His announcement came as recent cases of salmonella poisoning in peanut products forced the recall of millions of dollars worth of product.
“These cases are a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job,” Obama said, noting that contaminated food outbreaks have more than tripled to nearly 350 a year from 100 incidents annually in the early 1990s.
The president is also creating a Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety laws and advise him on how to update laws. Many, essential to safeguarding the public from disease, haven’t been touched since the time of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt spearheaded passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, a law that provided federal inspection of meat products and forbade the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated food products and poisonous patent medicines. The 1906 Act paved the way for the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
One can argue that without the novel, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt wouldn’t have been pressured to reform the food processing industry at all. Upton Sinclair came to Chicago in 1904 and spent countless hours among the immigrants who worked in meat packing plants.
Sinclair documented the abuses the workers suffered in gruesome detail at the same time he exposed the disgusting process meat went through to get to our tables. “. . . There is no place in it where a man counted for anything against a dollar,” wrote Sinclair of the conditions in the factories. The public, shocked when his book came out in 1906, demanded reform. If Sinclair were alive today he would tell Obama that our food cannot be safe until workers are.
Today workers in America’s food production and processing industry are under attack from anti-union politicians and an anti-immigrant movement fighting to keep immigrant workers in the shadows. Immigrant workers make up the majority of those working in our food production, food processing factories and corporate farms. If they are afraid to speak out, how can we ever expect to end unsafe food production practices?
The Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize, is being fought tooth and nail by anti-union groups. According to the National Journal the following groups are among the biggest donors:
- Chamber of Commerce: $20-30 million
- Coalition for a Democratic Workplace: $30 million
- Employee Freedom Action Committee: $30 million
- Freedom’s Watch: $30 million (from one anti-union contributor)
- Center for Union Facts: unknown, but in the millions
As Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, “They are trying to save their souls and who but a fool could fail to see that all that is the matter with their souls is that they have not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?” Without serious reform, funding, and increased regulation there will be no end to our food safety woes. Without immigration reform and a strong labor movement, there is no hope of sustaining any advances the Obama administration might make.