When you’re standing in the aisle of the supermarket, trying to decide between this and that brand of fried onions for your famous green bean casserole for the Thanksgiving feast, wouldn’t you like to know—without a lot of bother–all that the government knows about it? Such as whether that brand has been subject to recalls because of bacterial infections, or whether the claims the company makes on the label are trustworthy? The government collects terabytes of data on food—from safety to marketing to subsidies—funded by taxpayers and consumers. But that does not mean this crucial information is available to you on-line and in real time so you can actually do something about it.
Turkey. What are the results of the latest federal safety inspection of the plant where your turkey met its end? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) knows, but it’s hard for ordinary consumers to get their hands on that information. While the agency posts results of bacterial sampling for different type of meat and poultry, it’s not available in a format that consumers could use to compare brands or products.
Cranberry sauce. If you serve the canned kind (my husband always insists on it)—can you believe the claims on the label? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues warning letters to companies that violate labeling laws for offenses such as false health claims (This oatmeal can cure memory loss!) or if it fails to list information about a chemical preservative. On the FDA’s website, you can search them by company, date, download them, all good stuff. Except that last year the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the agency because it had neglected to post at least 220 warning letters and had also posted some duplicates. We don’t know what the FDA doesn’t tell us.
Stuffing. Was there ever a recall on the brand of stuffing mix you are thinking of buying? While you can sign up to receive alerts on recalls of contaminated products, whether meat (USDA) or not (FDA), there’s no central searchable database where you can look up a particular brand name and research any history of safety problems associated with it. After the scare last year involving salmonella poisoning, the FDA set up such a database; however, it’s restricted to products containing peanut butter (and later one for pistachios). It’s great to have that specific information, but while my five-year-old son thrives on a diet primarily based on peanut butter, most of us like to vary our diets.
Sweet potatoes. Here’s a fresh breath of transparency: in September the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that it was moving forward with a plan to disclose all the “inert” ingredients in pesticides. These are the chemicals contained in a pesticide that are not designed to kill the insect or mold or other pest in question. Instead, they make it easier to spray, or keep the chemicals evenly distributed, or some other function. But until now, the government did not require that labeling include this information, even though many of these chemicals are hazardous and the agency evaluates them along with the “active” ingredients in pesticides. That said, at least for now, it’s tough to know exactly what’s been sprayed on your sweet potato.
The whole farm. As every preschooler knows, food comes from farms. But the sticker price on food doesn’t reflect the entire cost of what we spend on it. As part of the massive economic plan, Congress has provided $28 billion for U.S. agriculture as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This includes funding for a wide range of programs, from direct loans to farmers to wastewater projects to funding for food banks. But while the Obama Administration has pledged to make stimulus spending transparent, much of the information provided has proven inaccurate, conflicting, or has been given to contractors cited for management problems. Last June, the investigative site ProPublica reported that according to Recovery.gov, the USDA had allocated just $610 million, but had paid out $1.68 billion. Then in another place, the site claimed the department had provided funding notifications of $362 million, which was less than a quarter of what Recovery.gov reported had been paid out.
Hat tip to Sarah Klein, staff attorney at Center for Science in the Public Interest, who provided valuable insights for this post.