Cauliflower infested with microscopic parasites. Hamburger with a side of e.coli. Eggs from filthy chicken houses. Chicken, cereals and cut melon responsible for widespread salmonella outbreaks. These are just a handful of the serious food safety incidents wthat have been uncovered in the past month.
Even more insidiously, many have come from well-known and trusted producers: the noxious cauliflower was Del Monte brand, the contaminated cereals Kellogg’s, and the blighted eggs came from Rose Acre Farms, the second-largest egg producer in the United States which even provides eggs for the White House Easter Egg Roll.
This appalling array of contaminated food sounds like something from the early 1900s, when the powerful food industry held tremendous sway over the government. Industry bosses exploited this control to skirt regulations, using similar arguments to those they still trot out today— namely that “regulation hurts business”. Using this excuse and their pull with policymakers, the food industry was able to mix deadly additives such as copper sulphate and formaldehyde into everyday foods to enhance their colour, smell or shelf life.
From this toxic atmosphere arose unsung hero Harvey Washington Wiley, who, seeing that the government was unwilling to act, set up so-called “Poison Squads” in the Agriculture Department. He began feeding groups of healthy young men isolated additives like borax, to chart these substances’ impact on public health. Unsurprisingly the men suffered from a variety of illnesses, some so severe that the experiments were halted for the wellbeing of the participants.
These Poison Squads garnered so much public attention that the United States Congress had no choice but to confront the powerful food industry with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which eventually led to the creation of the modern Food and Drug Administration. In the early 1900s, similar regulations were passed in other countries, including the UK and Germany.
Yet despite these institutions and regulations, serious food safety concerns persist around the world. Europe may have a reputation for having stringent food safety regulations, but Germany was recently forced to pull thousands of Dutch eggs from its supermarket shelves. The problem? Fipronil, an insecticide often found in flea and tick treatments, was given to chickens in the Netherlands to control for pests. That compound found its way into the eggs, which were then exported for sale.
Fipronil toxicity in humans can result in headache, nausea, dizziness, agitation and seizures and can cause organ damage in large quantities, which is why the EU banned the insecticide for use in animals intended for human consumption. Individual European nations, including France and Italy, have banned its use altogether. The Dutch government seems worryingly unable to get the memo, however, as this isn’t the first time Fipronil has been found in Dutch eggs.
Just last summer, millions of eggs from the Netherlands had to be removed from European shelves after Fipronil residue was discovered, costing poultry farms more than €150 million and forcing farmers to destroy their entire stocks of chickens. A dramatic series of police raids ensued, with the investigators quickly zeroing in on the poultry farm cleaning company Chickfriend. The company’s two owners, who had promised unsuspecting farmers that their insecticide’s “secret herbal formula” did not contain Fipronil when it in fact it consisted of huge amounts of the banned chemical, were arrested and are currently being prosecuted for endangering public health. Investigations into a Belgian company, Poultry Vision, suspected to have supplied Chickfriend with the prohibited insecticide, are still ongoing.
At the time the scandal broke out, the Belgian Agriculture Minister accused Dutch authorities of doing nothing to stop the adulteration despite knowing about it before the problem spread. Although officials in the Netherlands dismissed the accusations, Dutch internal documents have since shown that the country’s food safety agencies had been tipped off back in 2016 that Fipronil was being used in chicken pens around the country and had likely tainted eggs—and yet did not bother to carry out even the most basic tests.
This is a refrain seen over and over around the globe. The food industry’s profits take precedence over human health—often with the complicity of government officials, who are either actively involved in getting subpar foodstuffs on the market or willing to turn a blind eye to products’ health hazards.
The latest instance of this has occurred in Kenya, which has been inundated with sugar dumped on the market after an ill-advised policy imposed a 3-month reprieve on import duties. Testing this imported sugar revealed high levels of copper, lead, yeasts and mould as well as substandard moisture levels. Hundreds of thousands of bags of sugar have already been confiscated throughout the nation, but much like in the Dutch case, investigators have found that the government is just as complicit as the food industry in bringing these goods to market. Ongoing investigations indicate that elements inside the Kenyan Bureau of Standards (KEBS) were working with unscrupulous traders as well as the company which managed to win the tender to produce Kenya’s quality assurance labels, Madras Security Printers. Together, they supplied fake KEBS quality badges to substandard and dangerous products. While numerous arrests have been made in this case, the ordeal has decimated trust in the government’s quality assurance programme, impacting consumers who rely on it to ensure the food they buy for their family is safe to consume.
These incidents—and many more—underline how much work remains to be done in securing that the world’s food supply is safe and emphasize that no matter how many regulations exist to protect consumers, high level government corruption can easily undermine the entire system. Much like the early 20th century, when it took sensational experiments to jumpstart government control over the food industry, our current society needs its own tipping point to ensure that consumer safety remains a priority.
*Allan Swenson is a Paris-based international development practitioner and social entrepreneur with a focus on African life and society