Control your food. It is your business

Our control over our food and our health requires inventive institutional reordering and new ideas about the way food regulations work.

Last fortnight I discussed the problem of antibiotics in honey. This contamination is harmful and shows complete disregard of the regulatory system to mind our safety over business. What can be done? The obvious answer is to improve the science of food regulation. But no one is discussing how India should device its regulations in a way they can promote food which is good for its people in terms of nutrition and health.

In fact, the answer is not so obvious because even though food regulations are designed for consumer safety, they end up compromising the consumer’s health by willy-nilly pushing bad food and bad industrial food practices. So the question I have is: how does India improve not just the science but also the art of good food?

Even as I write this, two important discussions are taking place in two important food countries. In the US, the Senate is debating the Food Safety and Accountability Act 2010, which would give more powers to the country’s food and drug administration to inspect and recall contaminated or mislabelled food. The proposal came because 1,500 people fell ill on eating salmonella-contaminated eggs. It led to supplier companies recalling some half a billion eggs across the US.

It is interesting to note that the proposal to strengthen food safety in the US is being opposed by an unusual combination of the left and right wing small farmers, reports The New York Times. They have come together because they fear more powers to regulators will increase their costs and risks—they are more vulnerable to food inspectors. Raised costs will drive them out of business. Organic farming will be hit, they say. This would defeat the very purpose of legislation. The massive food recall was needed precisely because of industrial agribusiness, which has compromised health of consumers for profit. In this case, the company, Wright Country Egg, packs some 80,000 hens in one building, with no room to even lift a neck. It injects them with growth hormones, antibiotics and other not-so-nice things to keep them egg-productive. This kind of agriculture or poultry is not good for health. So can regulation work to kill the industry and not the egg?

The same question was raised a few years ago when avian flu spread across global borders and more recently when the swine flu virus hit the world. In both cases it was understood that the mutated virus had emanated from somewhere inside the bowels of the factory farms of the rich world. In this massively integrated business the use of medications like antibiotics and other veterinary practices are breeding a cocktail of drug resistance and mutant viruses, injurious to our health. But the ultimate food tragedy was that the efforts to contain the contagions only destroyed the household poultry industry or piggery. It did nothing to contain the hazards of industrial farming. The food regulator, it seems, make this business thrive.

This is why in the UK the Food Standards Agency is becoming inconveniently powerful; the county’s powerful agribusiness wants this agency reined in. The government is doing the bidding. The main sin of the UK’s food agency was to find the driver to reform food, not the business alone. It proposed an innovative ‘traffic lights’ proposal by which companies would be forced to label their food red, amber or green, based on the amount of fat, salt and sugar in each serving. But this was too easy to understand for consumers and too devastating for business.

So first, the EU rejected it, accepting instead the scheme proposed by multinational food companies, writes the Guardian. In this scheme, the companies would provide a guideline daily amount, which would denote the percentage of recommended daily allowance of ingredients in each serving. The advantage of this is nobody can figure out what they are buy ing and eating. Perfect for food business. Secondly, the newly elected British government has decided to dismember the Food Standards Agency, dividing its work into three agencies. Government knows a weak food regulator is good for business.

These developments are vital for us to understand. We eat relatively good homemade and locally grown food only because we are not rich. As we proceed on the wealth ladder, the business of food also changes—moves to industrial and processed food. Unfortunately, this also means we will move down the food-nutrition ladder unless we put protective systems in place.

So how can we get rich without first throwing in pesticides and antibiotics in food and then trying to discover the lost art of organic food? How can we continue to eat local food, built on local biodiversity? How do we improve food safety without deploying inspectors, who dest roy small and local good food businesses, but do not hurt the ever evolving and sophisticated industry of global food? These are critical questions. We are running out of time in the food-health trajectory. The discovery that honey is part of this integrated food business should shock us. If this is the case with honey, think of eggs or cooking oil. Our food is our business. Do not let that be forgotten.

—Sunita Narain