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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > ‘Good News’ Reagan Won’t Focus on Serious Health Issues

This week it was a multistate recall of watermelons con­taminated with the pesticide aldicarb sulfoxide in southern California. Grocers in California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington were warned by health officials not to sell these watermelons. So far, about 100 persons in these states and Canada have fallen sick, suffering tremors, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting or blurry vision.
Last month, 40 deaths and stillbirths and scores of injuries in the greater Los Angeles area were traced to Jalisco’s Mex­ican-style cheeses containing the bacteria Listeria monocy­togenes. The food product was made at a plant in southern California. Recalls were ordered in 13 other states. Government inspectors found defects in the pasteurizing equipment at the Jalisco plant. Plant records indicated that the company proces­sed more raw milk than its equipment could pasteurize.

In April, more than 15,000 people in five mid-western states were victims of salmonella food poisoning traced to pasteurized milk sold by the Jewel Food store chain in the Chicago area. Disease investigators identified the strain, responsible for the sickness and as many as six deaths, to be the drug-resistant “salmonella typhimurium.”

These three tragic episodes and their investigations raise important scientific and political questions. How much of the problem is due to raw milk being a source of salmonella infection? Only 30 states ban sales of raw milk. The health estab­lishment, including the Food and Drug Association and the American Public Health Association, believe that raw milk presents some health risks. There was preliminary evidence in the Jalisco-cheese case that the deadly bacteria possessed an ability to live as parasites inside the white blood cells where they apparently survived the heat of pasteurization. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study is nearing completion which should throw more light on this presumption. But the FDA still has not acted to restrict or ban routine use of antibiotics in animal feed that leads to drug resistant bacteria and infections.

How effective is our nation’s food inspection system anyhow?

Over the years I have asked government inspectors this question and their answers are not reassuring. They are up against reduced budgets, staff and enforcement resources. They have to confront powerful food industry influence trying to weaken the food safety laws. And on top of all this, they are overwhelmed by a flood tide of pollutants, animal drug residues, chemical additives, and unsanitary conditions which contaminate the lengthy food chain from the fields and ranches to the marketplace and, finally, to your dinner table.

What keeps these health assaults from being headline news is that we cannot see, smell or taste these contaminants and our government has not devoted resources necessary to pinpoint their source and hold those responsible to the law. It is a pernicious kind of silent violence. How do you sense when the food you buy is tainted with dangerous pesticide residues?

In 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that there were more mother’s milk samples which showed worrisome PCB residues than did not. PCB is a toxic industrial chemical that is pervasive in the environment.

In going through a myriad of technical reports on the percentage of food samples, from red meat to chicken to fruits and vegetables, which were found to be contaminated, I noticed a rather significant fact. Almost all of the federal reports were dated prior to Ronald Reagan taking office in 1981. The good news President and his aides do not like telling us the bad news, nor do they like to upset powerful corporations with unsettling scientific data. There is also a sharp decrease in the enforcement of the food safety laws under Reagan when compared with the modest record of the previous Administration.

On February 16, 1978, a General Accounting Office report told a Congressional committee that “with few exceptions, neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the Food and Drug Admin­istration can locate and remove from the market raw meat and poultry found to contain illegal residues.” The beginnings of some corrective moves following this and other reports drew to an abrupt halt when the Reaganites came to town. At the same time, American detection technology, cancer and genetic damage research have advanced to give us more tools and knowledge for action. Yet, Reagan has not focused any public attention on the benefits to the health of millions of people and their progeny when good laws and new technology are put to work for a change.