Truth Hurts Your Stomach and Is At Times Poisonous

Editorial |Author: Irina Samokovska | June 15, 2011, Wednesday // 11:10|  views

If it is true that you are what you eat, then I am fear. My next-door neighbor is couldn't-care-less. I wouldn't advise you to meet my neighbor, not if you want to subject your body to the dictate of crappy food choices that will take you to the point of no return sooner than you bargained for. What happens, however, if the food choices have already been made for you?

As a Bulgarian, I am told on a daily basis that the food I eat is of poor quality. Or contaminated. Or both.

Although I am constantly led to believe that I live in a surveillance society, with security cameras installed on every corner, the indiscriminate use of phone tapping devices, airport checks including full body scanners, and a host of other encroachments on personal space, the enforcement of stringent control over food quality and food safety has proved to be a gargantuan task. Are food corporations more powerful and more elusive than terrorists?

Being a Bulgarian, and therefore an EU, consumer, this is what I have been swayed into thinking of my consumer basket.

I buy meat. Mostly poultry, sometimes beef, with pork being a no-go area out of cholesterol considerations. I also love dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables. Now every bite is potentially substandard, potentially harmful and potentially toxic.

The animals I eat are bred to gain weight as quickly as possible. They are being fed antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones, appetite stimulants, additives, etc, in a bid to fast-track the farm-to-table process and cut production costs while ensuring maximized profits.

According to different sources, an estimated 50 to 80 percent of all antibiotics in the US go to livestock, not humans. The chemicals are administered to the animals through their feed or water to make sure that they stay healthy despite the squalid, unsanitary and crowded industrial farms they inhabit.

These drugs leave a toxic residue in animal tissue, which is later consumed by people as a food product. As a result, the resistant bacteria in animals due to antibiotic exposure is passed on to humans, who, in turn, "open the gates" to a range of infections by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Another widespread practice among livestock producers is to inject meat with saltwater solutions, allegedly making it tastier and juicier.

The process has been found to substantially inflate the sale weight of the product, at the same time increasing stroke rates and cases of high blood pressure among consumers.

This corrupt practice stirred a scandal on the Bulgarian market in end-May 2011, with 7 poultry manufacturers facing fines over the rampant and undocumented misuse of saltwater solutions.

Apart from providing poor-quality meat, farm animals raised unnaturally and inhumanely have been repeatedly reported to cause epidemics of food-borne diseases like avian flu, swine flu, mad cow, FMD, etc.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic afflicted over 126 000 people in Europe, claiming the lives of hundreds. Although the H1N1 virus is not spread by eating pork or foods containing pork, swine flu was transmitted to humans through contact with live flu-infected animals and the virus mutated, allowing it to spread from human to human.

Bird flu, or avian flu, a strain of influenza that can be transmitted to humans via chickens, first drew public attention in 2004, when it began to spread to the human population in Vietnam. Since then, it has been an almost annual occurrence in different parts of the words, emerging in new, evolved strains, sowing panic and taking the lives of people and infected animals. Most cases of bird flu in humans have resulted from bird to human transmission of the virus, with isolated cases reported of human-to-human transmission.

The mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle. When humans are exposed to food infected with BSE, they contract Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). The vCJD scare surfaced as people ate contaminated beef products in Europe. It is believed that scrapie-infected sheep products were used in cattle feed, and thus the cattle became infected with BSE. The mad cow disease grabbed public attention in 1996, with intermittent outbreaks claiming scores of lives since then.

The foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious and difficult to contain disease, predominantly affects cloven-hoofed animals, including domestic and wild bovids. Susceptible animals include cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, etc. Humans can be infected with foot-and-mouth disease through contact with infected animals, but such cases are extremely rare. FMD is a plague to the agriculture industry because it spreads rapidly among animals. During the 2011 FMD outbreak in Bulgaria, farmers were forced to slaughter hundreds of animals, incurring huge losses from plummeting milk and meat production and going out of business.

The dioxin scare flared up in January 2011, when over 4700 German farms were closed after the animals were found to have been given feed contaminated with dioxin, a poisonous chemical linked to the development of cancer in humans. Dioxins are toxins formed by industrial processes and waste burning. The dioxin contamination spread to pork, poultry and eggs. Consumption of eggs, milk and meat in Germany immediately nosedived. The scandal over the dioxin-tainted food prompted a series of instant checks in Bulgaria which failed to identify any cause for concern.

All these outbreaks resulted in deaths, social and economic earthquakes, large-scale food recalls, suspended imports of the discredited products, soured relations between countries.

If all the above seemed a distant threat to vegetarians and vegans, there is plenty of bad news for them too. Under a fairly optimistic scenario, the fruit and vegetables they buy will have been picked too early and will have ripened in the isles of supermarkets, depriving them of their essential nutritional value, of vitamins, antioxidants and, yes, flavor.

A much bigger problem, however, is the one of pesticide residues. Unlike other toxic chemicals that may come into contact with food, pest-control substances are used on purpose. Pesticides are used to regulate the growth of plants, to preserve wood, to kill and combat pests, and as disinfectants. Overexposure to pesticides may lead to cancer, affect the hormone, endocrine or nervous systems, etc. To avoid undesired exposure to these harmful substances, people are advised to buy organic.

However, fans of organic farming were recently dealt a severe blow with the Escherichia coli bacterial outbreak. The infection spread to 16 countries, with more than 3000 reported cases of infection and a current death toll of over 30. Contaminated Spanish cucumbers were first cited as the culprit for the outbreak, only to give way to organically grown bean sprouts from Germany as the main suspect. The source of the infection has not been conclusively pinned down, with health authorities emphasizing the use of manure on organic farms as a high-risk factor that may have triggered the E.coli outbreak.

Supporters of green living are also struggling with the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a politically-charged question that has not been resolved conclusively on a global scale. Amid pressure from non-governmental organizations, farmers and citizens, Bulgarian parliament moved to ban all cultivation of GMO products on March 18, 2010. The measure alleviated public fears over the yet unstudied long-term effects of genetically altered organisms. The Bulgarian parliament also required food producers to place exhaustive and easily readable labels on products with GMO ingredients.

Conscious consumers in Bulgaria and around the world were also alarmed by the radiation leak in Japan in March 2011. Massive food inspections were launched on a global scale to detect contaminated milk and vegetable products. The Fukushima disaster triggered bans on imports from Tokyo and neighboring prefectures, causing many agricultural workers to suspend production. The impact of the radiation leak is yet to unfurl, given that environmental NGOs estimate milk, mushrooms and berries in parts of Ukraine are still contaminated by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, 25 years after the disaster.

The food scares we fall victim leave us with two conclusions. First of all, we have the right to not remain silent and to demand constant and transparent food quality checks.

That said, we ought to be aware that food-borne illnesses can be used as a weapon of bio terrorism. Whether voluntary or involuntary, food contaminations can cause mass destruction and have a devastating social and economic impact.

Buying food is a political decision one makes on a daily basis. Demanding healthy, sustainable food is a prerequisite for the much-desired civil society. The rest is junk food. Feel like quitting? Call my neighbor.

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Tags: GMO, E.coli, e. coli outbreak, swine flu, avian flue, mad cow, pesticides, Fukushima, nuclear plant, radiation leak, scrapie, foot-and-mouth disease, fmd, terrorism


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