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Cantaloupe vs. al-Qaeda: What’s More Dangerous?
(Photo: News21 - National / Flickr)

Cantaloupe vs. al-Qaeda: What’s More Dangerous?

(Photo: News21 - National / Flickr)

One of the most important revelations from the international drama over Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks in May is the exposure of a nearly lunatic disproportion in threat assessment and spending by the US government. This disproportion has been spawned by a fear-based politics of terror that mandates unlimited money and media attention for even the most tendentious terrorism threats, while lethal domestic risks such as contaminated food from our industrialized agribusiness system are all but ignored. A comparison of federal spending on food safety intelligence versus antiterrorism intelligence brings the irrationality of the threat assessment process into stark relief.

In 2011, the year of Osama bin Laden’s death, the State Department reported that 17 Americans were killed in all terrorist incidents worldwide. The same year, a single outbreak of listeriosis from tainted cantaloupe killed 33 people in the United States. Foodborne pathogens also sickened 48.7 million, hospitalized 127,839 and caused a total of 3,037 deaths. This is a typical year, not an aberration.

We have more to fear from contaminated cantaloupe than from al-Qaeda, yet the United States spends $75 billion per year spread across 15 intelligence agencies in a scattershot attempt to prevent terrorism, illegally spying on its own citizens in the process. By comparison, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is struggling to secure $1.1 billion in the 2014 federal budget for its food inspection program, while tougher food processing and inspection regulations passed in 2011 are held up by agribusiness lobbying in Congress. The situation is so dire that Jensen Farms, the company that produced the toxic cantaloupe that killed 33 people in 2011, had never been inspected by the FDA.

In the past 10 years, outbreaks of foodborne illness have affected all 50 states, with hundreds of food recalls annually involving many of America’s leading brands, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Taylor Farms Organics, Ralph’s, Kroger, Food 4 Less, Costco, Dole, Kellogg’s and dozens of others. There have been multi-state recalls of contaminated cheese, organic spinach, salad greens, lettuce, milk, ground beef, eggs, organic brown rice, peanut butter, mangoes, cantaloupe and hundreds of other popular foods.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, foodborne pathogens have killed an estimated 36,000 people in the United States. During this same period, terrorism has killed 323 Americans worldwide. Imagine for a minute if food safety threats were marketed to the public in the same lurid fashion as terror threats. Here is a sample press release:

WASHINGTON, DC – Homeland Security announced today that America is under attack by deadly terrorist cells. These terrorists often originate overseas. The threat to our security is credible. They can destroy our way of life and must be stopped. They have no respect for individual life or democratic freedoms. They operate on a cellular basis and hide in darkened spaces. They kill over 3,000 innocent Americans each year and are likely to strike again at any moment. These deadly operatives are masters of disguise, often concealing themselves in peanut butter sandwiches, spinach salads, hamburgers, milkshakes or gourmet cheeses. Their leaders have code names such as E-coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Staph Bacteria and Hepatitis A. We urge all Americans to be alert.

With profound respect for the memory of the 2.997 people who lost their lives as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism, with 1 in 6 sickened every year at an annual cost to the economy of nearly $80 billion. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable because their immune systems are weakest.

The disproportion in risk versus spending when comparing terrorism and food-borne illness makes it clear that US threat assessment with respect to terror is irrational. It distorts the entire federal funding process and needs to be overhauled.

Inflating the risk of terrorism is a $14 trillion business

With only a few thousand al-Qaeda members worldwide, and an ideological leadership core now reduced to 300 to 400 individuals, few of whom operate outside the Muslim world, it is not far-fetched to suggest that delusional paranoia is driving US policy and budgeting in the “War on Terror.” Excluding September 11, 2001, fewer than 500 Americans have been killed by terrorism in the past 40 years.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Michael Morell, deputy director of the CIA, listed the top three security threats to the US as Syria, Iran and North Korea, in that order.

Michael Cohen, a political and foreign policy fellow at the non-partisan Century Foundation, noted that “What is most striking about Morell’s warnings is, in fact, the stunning hollowness of the threats he describes. If Syria, North Korea and Iran are truly what threaten us, we have little to fear from the world outside our borders.” Cohen adds that “. . . when the US fights a major war these days, it is generally because they’ve started it – with consistently disastrous results.”

Food-borne illnesses have killed tens of thousands of Americans and hospitalized nearly 1.5 million since Sept. 11, 2001. However, a 24/7 propaganda marketing campaign by America’s extravagantly funded terror-war-surveillance machine ensures that spending on these two threats is in inverse proportion to the comparative risks.

Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project estimated total 2011 national security spending of $1.22 trillion, with $751 billion in spending on the bloated Department of Homeland Security (DHS) between 2002 and 2013. The NSA budget is secret, although estimates range as high as $52.6 billion per year.

Extrapolating from these figures, we have had an obscene expenditure of at least $12 to $14 trillion on national security in the past 12 years. This spending orgy has produced a massive and illegal surveillance state, two enormously destructive and destabilizing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the large scale militarization of domestic policing, with training courtesy of Israeli special forces. In spite of the obvious erosion of constitutional rights and freedoms that has accompanied the new panopticon terror-war-surveillance state, the entire $14 trillion apparatus failed to prevent two deranged murderers from carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings, in spite of multiple detailed warnings from Soviet intelligence beforehand.

It is time to rethink our priorities. In an age of global corporate agriculture and food distribution, when the ingredients in a single street taco from a San Francisco food truck travel 64,000 miles, twice the circumference of the earth, to arrive on your paper plate, $1.1 billion is not enough money to address the lethal, tangible and ongoing threat from food-borne pathogens. We need to begin diverting money from the NSA and the $14 trillion national security state to the FDA, just for starters.

The Food Safety and Modernization Act Under Siege

Food safety experts both in and out of government agree that the FDA’s food inspection programs are chronically underfunded and understaffed, receiving $1 billion or less per year from 2005 to 2010. Absent adequate funding, the FDA is relying to an ever-increasing degree on voluntary monitoring and reporting by food producers at a time when a few large corporations have begun to consolidate their control of our food supply. Four corporations control 83.5 percent of beef slaughter in the US, with similar figures for poultry and pigs. US food imports have doubled in the past 10 years. Nearly two-thirds of fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the United States are now imported, yet the FDA inspected just 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of food importers in 2011.

The internationalization of the food supply chain makes inspection, tracking and monitoring of food more complex than at any time in US history. Until we find alternatives to the corporate industrial model of agriculture, we need increased spending, and tougher, more proactive standards for food safety and intelligence.

The Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama in 2011 with exactly this intention.

Although it is far from perfect, FSMA is intended to not only increase FDA funding, but to shift US food safety programs from a defensive posture to an aggressive, preventive posture. FSMA was originally supported by large agribusiness lobbyists, but a 2012 amendment that exempted small farmers with annual gross revenue under $500,000 turned the larger agribusiness players against the bill.

FSMA has therefore faced a tough path to implementation because of Republican obstructionism in the House and intense lobbying by agribusiness, which deploys an army of Congressional lobbyists to thwart FDA oversight, spending $133 million in 2009, with an additional $65 million in campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle.

During the first week of August, for example, as Russia’s grant of asylum to Edward Snowden set off an international media frenzy, Republicans in Congress generated almost no media attention as they quietly derailed funding to implement FSMA. Bowing to pressure from corporate fruit growers, they objected to FSMA’s more stringent standards and inspection requirements.

During FSMA hearings by the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Dan Benishek, (R-MI), who sits on the committee and whose Northern Michigan district includes corporate fruit and produce growers, introduced a new amendment to conduct a “scientific and economic analysis” of the proposed new FSMA food safety requirements. Benishek is a Tea Party favorite who was endorsed in 2012 by AgriPAC, the lobbying arm of the corporate-funded Michigan Farm Bureau. (MFB) The MFB is also one of Benishek’s top donors.

Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says Benishek’s amendment could “significantly delay” the implementation of FSMA. “What this provision does is totally undermine the process we have for regulations in this country,” said Eskin, noting that FDA has already published regulatory impact reports that include analysis on the costs and benefits of each proposed rule.

While FSMA funding and implementation is stalled for the foreseeable future, the NSA budget is so safe, the agency is planning to double the size of its facilities and operations over the next 10 years, surpassing the Pentagon in square footage. At the same time, proposals for minuscule cuts in the bloated Pentagon or DHS budgets consistently draw howls of protest from a bi-partisan chorus of Congressional leaders, most of whom depend on Pentagon and/or DHS spending in their home districts.

Taking Action

A coalition of food advocacy groups is fighting to secure adequate funding and full implementation of FSMA. In August, 2012, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sued the FDA and its commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, to force implementation of new FSMA regulatory and food inspection programs. U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ordered the FDA to begin meeting FSMA deadlines immediately.

The FDA has until mid-2015 to comply fully, but the FSMA amendment introduced by Rep. Benishek throws the entire FSMA compliance and implementation process into doubt. Getting to full implementation requires continued political pressure from voters, who can work through organizations such as CFS and CEH to multiply their efforts.

Looking Ahead and Shifting Public Opinion

To focus on domestic quality of life issues such as food safety, the manipulative and irrational hold of the fear-based, terror-war-surveillance complex on our national psyche, politics and economy has to be broken. This may seem like an impossible task, but the terror-war state is not impregnable. It has failed miserably by turning malignant, routinely exaggerating threats, spying on its own citizens, succumbing to bureaucratic bloat and failing to maintain the adroit, flexible intelligence and response mechanisms required to fight terror.

A July 26, 2013, nationwide poll by Pew shows 56 percent of the public believe we need stricter limits on anti-terrorism surveillance, 70 percent think intelligence data is used illegally, and for the first time since Pew began asking the question, a 47 percent to 35 percent majority are more concerned with threats to civil liberties than terrorism. Recent Reuters polling also reveals 53 percent of Americans oppose a US military attack on Syria.

This shift in public opinion may be modest and is certainly overdue, but it is nonetheless an opportunity to begin redefining homeland security and working for a radical change in national priorities. Food safety should just be a start. Tens of thousands of Americans die every year from a long list of preventable or controllable risks. In 2001, the worst year for terrorism deaths in US history, with nearly 3,000 fatalities, diabetes killed 71,372, there were 29,573 gun deaths and 13,290 were killed by drunk drivers.

When working for change, it is worth remembering the example of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. (UFW) During their massively underfunded, but still successful boycotts of grapes and lettuce in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UFW mounted a national field and PR campaign, using volunteers to hand out flyers at grocery stores across the nation. By taking their nonviolent campaign directly to the public at street level, they ultimately convinced millions of consumers not only that farm labor wages and conditions were inhumane, but that the same pesticides and chemicals that were sickening farm workers who picked grapes and lettuce were also dangerous to their own families if they consumed these foods.

Said Chavez, “I think one of the great, great problems . . . is confusing people to the point where they become immobile.” We cannot afford to become immobile. Every small victory that contributes to a new narrative beyond the politics of fear and terror is meaningful, whether in improved food safety or reduced gun violence.