Fear Factors

Frightening foods, and what you can do about them

Creative Loafing Tampa

TAMPA, FL, December 29, 2004

By Laura Fries

There were maybe four small fruit flies on the sunken flesh of the cantaloupe. A few more buzzed in the air around the decaying melon. It was an odd note of reality in the fluorescent place that is the American grocery store, where our veggies are shrink-wrapped to a Styrofoam tray, our breads are chock full of preservatives, and almost everything you’d ever want to eat comes in a box or a bag or a can.

Sooner or later, one of the employees probably noticed the unfortunate melon and whisked it away, so that shoppers like me wouldn’t ever have to see what it looks like when a fruit dies. The store was safe and clean and full of prosperity, but my heart sank. There was only this one little melon that was part of the life cycle of real food — one connection that hadn’t been ripped away, triple-washed, sanitized and precut for “your convenience.”

This is a hard column for me to write, because I truly love food. I believe eating is one of the most inalienable pleasures we have in life. But there are so many dangerous things going on with our food right now that it’s scary.

Did you know that our milk and our lettuce are contaminated with rocket fuel? That pregnant women shouldn’t eat too much tuna fish because it’ll give their babies brain damage? In the Potomac River, male small mouth bass are growing eggs inside their sex organs. And when was the last time you drank tap water without wondering what was in it? All of these stories have been reported by the mainstream press — AP and Reuters — and have been reprinted in countless news sources.

In November, when the FDA issued its preliminary findings about perchlorate, there were no set government standards for how much rocket fuel is too much rocket fuel in the milk you pour on your kids’ cereal.

The FDA took samples of lettuce and milk from all over the country — both organic and regular — and found perchlorate in 217 of the 232 lettuce and milk samples. Lettuce from Belle Glade, Fla., is at the top of the chart, boasting 71.6 parts of perchlorate per billion. When the mainstream media reports these stories, they give you the party line of the scientists and the FDA: preliminary results, not clear what the impact is, continue with your balanced diet. This is all true, and good advice. In November, when the FDA issued its preliminary findings about perchlorate, there were no set government standards for how much rocket fuel is too much rocket fuel in the milk you pour on your kids’ cereal.

But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that eating poisoned food cannot be good for you.

There’s this little thing called bioaccumulation. It’s pretty simple. A chemical that’s found in the water will make its way into the plants that grow in it. Little fish that eat those poisons store them in their fat cells — things like PCBs and Dioxin cling tight to fat. So big fish eat the little fish, and then we eat the big fish — and we inherit a whole food chain of pollution. (That’s why it’s more dangerous to eat predatory fish higher up on the food chain, like swordfish and sharks.)

These poisons accumulate in our bodies, too. With a nice, healthy meal of Caesar salad topped with tuna, polished off with a tall glass of milk, you’ve just put a whole host of chemicals in your body.

Here’s where it gets really scary. Right now, scientists are still learning what happens to humans when we ingest one class of chemicals. They’re years away from discovering what happens when these chemicals interact.

But there are things that researchers do know. Perchlorate really messes up your thyroid, especially for little kids. Mercury is a neurotoxin: it messes with your brain, and your nervous system. If the fish in the Potomac are growing eggs due to elevated levels of estrogen in their habitat — the prevailing theory of researchers — what will that estrogen do to you?

I don’t want to come off as an alarmist, but I’d like to remind you that the FDA is the agency in charge of making sure our food is safe — the same folks who brought us Vioxx, Celebrex and Aleve. If, in a few years, the scientists come back and announce that everything’s fine, and that none of our poisoned foods can hurt us, there will be no one happier than I. But do you really think that is what the scientists will say?

You could just avoid milk and lettuce, limit your tuna sandwiches to two a week, as recommended by the EPA, and stay clear of the mutant fish in the Potomac. But those are spot solutions to a much larger problem: We’re really hurting our environment, and food is one of the places where it’s most obvious.

But we can fight this. We really can. Remember when the obesity fervor reached a pitch, and fast food chains responded by adding salads, dropping their super-sizing and introducing lower-fat sandwiches? Sure — it’s a small step, but we proved the most inviolable fact of modern American life. The marketplace rules. If we — the consumers — demand something, corporations will have to give it to us. Why stop at salads and chicken sandwiches that suck? Why not ask for free-range meat that’s fed a vegetarian diet, not the extracted-meat carcasses of other animals? Why not demand labeling on our foods, telling us exactly what’s been genetically modified (practically everything); how many cows are in your ground-beef patty (50-100), and what chemicals have been sprayed on your vegetables (petroleum)?

There’s a whole hell of a lot we can do if we want to. And the best way to start is to share the love of food.

Awaken someone’s senses by throwing a dinner party. Share a perfectly ripe apricot when you find one. Start just one conversation with someone about a food you care about.

Get people thinking about food, eating it, loving it. Help them become invested in what they put into their bodies. It’s a small step, and only the first. But it’s the easiest one to take.

THIS STORY

was one of the few times I stepped on my soapbox to talk about food culture. Particularly interesting in retrospect is my closing admonition to get folks to care about food:

“There’s a whole hell of a lot we can do if we want to. And the best way to start is to share the love of food.

Awaken someone’s senses by throwing a dinner party.”