Think our food system is the 'safest in the world'? Read on.

  • by By Christopher Ketcham, via FERN's Back Forty e-news
  • 05-Sep-2023 12:00

The U.S. food system is a marvel of abundance, not least in the toxins it disseminates to consumers.


The U.S. food system is a marvel of abundance, not least in the toxins it disseminates to consumers. It sickens roughly 48 million people each year. Every four minutes an American is rushed to the hospital for treatment of foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control investigates 36 outbreaks a week. We get hepatitis A from fresh strawberries and listeria from fresh melons. From romaine lettuce, onions, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, salami, ground beef, and cut fruit we get E. coli 0157:H7, which sickens 265,000 people a year, hundreds of whom on average will die. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, salmonella poisoning, mostly from raw chicken, afflicts 1.37 million people, resulting in 26,000 hospitalizations and 420 deaths annually. Both salmonella and E. coli can cause long-term debility and a kind of psychic maiming from the trauma of riding them out — if they don’t kill you first.  

Despite all this sickness and death, elected officials and agricultural industry representatives boast that the U.S. has the “safest food system in the world.” Such claims are inherently fraught. Due to the way foodborne illness data are collected, for instance, it is difficult to make accurate comparisons among countries. Is the U.S. food system safer than those of sub-Saharan Africa? Yes. Is it safer than Canada’s? Probably not. At the very least, the numbers cited above should make us wonder about how “safe” is safe. 

That is the point of Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food, a new Netflix documentary written and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, whose brisk, workmanlike approach carries us from the worst of the foodborne outbreaks of the 1990s to the untenable status quo of a system that today continues to threaten life and limb.

Like the 2011 book on which it’s based, by investigative journalist Jeff Benedict (who serves as executive producer for Soechtig’s documentary), the film opens with a momentous turn in food-safety history: the 1993 E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. The result of contaminated ground beef at the Jack in the Box fast food chain, it became the largest foodborne outbreak ever recorded in the U.S. E. coli in the burger meat sickened 732 people, killing four — all under the age of 10 — and left 178 victims (also mostly children) with permanent injury, including kidney and brain damage.  

There is harrowing footage and graphic storytelling in Poisoned of what E. coli 0157:H7 does to the human body. Among the complications of infection by this particular strain (many other strains cycle harmlessly in mammals’ stomachs) is the release of Shiga toxin, one of the most potent known bacterial toxins. The effect of Shiga’s lightning spread in a human body is “like a nuclear bomb exploding inside you, where it hits every single organ and you have to get in there and pick up the pieces,” says a doctor who treated a 17-year-old victim from a later outbreak.  

Among the four children killed in 1993 was 18-month-old Riley Detwiler, whose tiny form we see affixed to a monstrous array of wires, tubes, gadgetry, and towering machines, until at last it’s determined the boy’s insides have been more or less melted by the toxins. To keep him on life support, as his grief-stricken father describes it, would have been “abusive.” Riley dies as his parents hold him.  

The industrial process of producing ground beef is perfect for incubating toxic adulterants and distributing them to the public. A single batch of hamburger can contain meat from 400 different cows, and if just one of them carries E. coli 0157:H7, the entire batch is toxic. 

Incredibly, until the 1993 outbreak, the official policy of the USDA was that preventing toxicity in meat was “not the responsibility of the regulatory system or the industry.  Consumers are expected to cook these products and make them safe themselves.”  Michael Taylor, tapped to improve regulations of the industry as administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA under President Bill Clinton, declared this “a shocking and highly unacceptable revelation.” 

The Clinton years come off as the sole example of good government in Poisoned. Under the direction of Taylor, the USDA declared that any detected presence of E. coli 0157:H7 in the meat supply would result in immediate recall. The effect of this regulation was stunning: E. coli poisoning from ground beef consumption plummeted and today is nearly non-existent.

It’s the only happy-ending moment, and, coming as it does relatively early in the film, what follows is a dismal ronde of agricultural interests and government regulators exhibiting negligence, greed, shrugging indifference, and/or psychopathic callousness about the dangers to human life from toxified food products.   

In the case of the Peanut Corporation of America, CEO Stewart Parnell and other corporate executives knew in 2008 that salmonella was rife in their peanuts, but let the products go to market anyway, sickening 714 people and killing nine. The incident triggered what was then the largest food recall in U.S. history, involving 46 states, 360 companies, and some 3,900 foods made using PCA peanuts. Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.  

Today the main source of E. coli spread is leafy greens, including, infamously, romaine lettuce, which has been subject to massive recalls in recent years. The cause of the contamination is the filth inherent in industrialized animal agriculture. Livestock carry toxic forms of E. coli in their guts, and once pooped out it can easily make its way into the irrigation water used on nearby produce farms. 

Does the USDA do anything to prevent animal waste from getting into the irrigation water on produce farms? Of course not. “We have no direct authority on any of the production pieces of food animals,” says a representative of the agency. Translation: the USDA has zero regulatory mandate to prevent the spread of deadly toxins on farms where animals are raised. (Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency, which does regulate water pollution at animal feedlots, declined to strengthen those regulations.) 

Tim York, CEO of the industry-controlled California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA), which was established to regulate the spread of harmful bacteria on leafy greens, claims his organization has been successful in preventing foodborne outbreaks. But the steady stream of outbreaks since the establishment of LGMA, in 2007, suggests otherwise.   

Poisoned focuses on the epidemiological evidence in the five years prior to the film’s production, starting in 2017, with E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks in September and November of that year, both tied to leafy greens. Between March and June 2018, an outbreak tied to romaine lettuce sickened 210 people in 36 states, killing five. In October 2018, 135 people were sickened from leafy greens, and in November 2018, 167 people fell ill. Leafy greens were tied to more outbreaks in November 2019 and October 2020.  Asked if this was a good track record for the LGMA, York replies with boilerplate nonsense. “I think we have a lot to be proud of,” he says. 

So it goes, with industry representatives and government regulators spouting so many evasions and falsehoods that you lose your appetite.

I was hoping the movie would also explore the toxification of our food supply from pesticides, herbicides, microplastics, and other adulterants, and investigate what these poisons are doing to our bodies. Fodder for the sequel, I suppose. In terms of practical advice on how to avoid being killed or brain-damaged at snack-time, Soechtig concludes with a list of verboten foods, emphasizing the dangers of bagged and boxed lettuces (especially romaine), leafy green vegetables (especially spinach), and fruit such as cantaloupe. Bottom line: Sickness and death are lurking on the American dinner table, and a lot could be done to prevent their spread. Yet despite all the talk of regulatory crackdown over the last 30 years, consumers are still effectively on their own when it comes to food safety. So wash your leafy greens, make sure your chicken is cooked through, and hope for the best.