Defense proposed against ‘intentional adulteration’ of our food, but not the kind for ‘economic gain’

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January 9, 2014

Cookies under a metallic locked cage

BY BILL BONVIE

Try to imagine some person or group engaging in “intentional adulteration of the food supply” that killed 7,000 Americans in a single year — more than twice the number that died in the 9/11 attacks. Would that qualify, do you suppose, as an act of domestic terrorism?

Actually, you don’t have to imagine that many deaths resulting from such “intentional adulteration,” because, according to a U.S. government agency, they’ve already occurred — not just once, but for a number of years — and continue to do so.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 7,000 individuals die annually from heart disease directly resulting from the addition of partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), the major source of trans fats in our diet, which is why the Food and Drug Administration has finally gotten around to proposing that this insidious ingredient be phased out (rather than removed immediately).

Now, the FDA wants to take another step to protect the lives of consumers as well — a “food defense” measure called the “FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) Proposed Rule for Focused Mitigation Strategies to Protect Food Against Intentional Adulteration.”

The FDA itself is frank to acknowledge that “(i)ntentional adulteration of the food supply with intent to cause public health harm is unlikely to occur.” In the event that it did, however, it “could have catastrophic results including human illness and death, loss of public confidence in the safety of food, and significant adverse economic impacts, including trade disruption, all of which can lead to widespread public fear.”

And all of which might lead one to ask why the “intentional adulteration” of our food that has been causing such “catastrophic results” for years doesn’t seem to be part of this picture.

The answer, apparently, has to do with the type of intent implied in “intentional.” As the agency notes on the web page dedicated to this proposition, “FDA’s proposed rule on food defense would require domestic and foreign facilities to address vulnerable processes in their operations to prevent acts on the food supply intended to cause large-scale public harm.”

So there you have it. The rule wouldn’t seem to apply as long as no “large-scale public harm” was intended by the adulteration, even if it was done deliberately (as in continuing to add an ingredient to food that has long been known to clog arteries and put consumers at risk of a fatal heart attack).

What the proposed rule would do is require food-processing facilities to review their production systems to determine if they include “any of four types of activities that are most vulnerable to such forms of adulteration.”

One such activity, called “secondary ingredient handling,” is described as “the step where ingredients other than the primary ingredient of the food are handled before being combined with the primary ingredient.” In other words, the point at which the additives are actually added to the food.  But then, since the agency’s approach to this “unlikely” problem is one “that targets certain processes within a facility that are most likely to be vulnerable, rather than targeting specific foods or hazards,” no additives need apply.

Once that is completed, “focused mitigation strategies” would be implemented to reduce the risk of adulteration with the intent to cause harm, along with monitoring, corrective actions, verification, training and record-keeping. (If you want to know further details, you can read the proposed rule yourself here).

Distinguishing between different forms of ‘adulteration’

Should you opt to read the summary of the proposed rule, however, you might well be puzzled (as we were) by the description it offers of two other “acts of intentional adulteration” that apparently aren’t covered.

Such adulteration, it notes, “may take several forms, including those where the intention is to cause large-scale public health harm; acts of disgruntled employees, consumers, or competitors; and economically motivated adulteration.” Now here’s where things really get interesting (or bizarre, if you prefer): According to the summary, “(a)cts of disgruntled employees, consumers, or competitors are generally directed at attacking the reputation of the company and not at causing public health harm,” whereas  “(t)he primary purpose of economically motivated adulteration is to obtain economic gain, and not to impact public health, although public health harm may occur.”

Does this mean that if you’re either a “disgruntled employee” (which might also be considered a “whistle blower”) or a disgruntled consumer, anything you say that could be construed as an attack on a company’s reputation could be considered a form of “intentional adulteration” (presumably of food)?

Might we ourselves, for example, be engaging in such adulteration by criticizing companies for putting harmful additives in food to increase their “economic gain” (such as adding PHO to give products a longer shelf life even while shortening the lives of those who consume them)?

Of course, we see nothing wrong with the idea of protecting the food supply from deliberate sabotage, no matter how unlikely a prospect that’s considered by the FDA.  But we’d just like to again take this opportunity to remind our readers that ingredients capable of causing harm to consumers are being deliberately added to food products every day, for no other reason than “economic gain” — ingredients that will continue to include the partially hydrogenated oil that has been blamed for all those thousands of fatalities until such time as it can be removed from the food supply without incurring great expense and inconvenience to the industry.

We’d also like to remind you that the only way you can know whether the products you buy contain such harmful substances is to read the list of actual ingredients and know which ones to beware of.

That’s your best form of “food defense.” Even if our saying so might somehow be interpreted as another form of “intentional adulteration.”