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As Food Prices Spike, Food Safety in the U.S. is an Overlooked Issued
As food prices have outpaced "inflation" [price-gouging], many consumers are paying more, but assuming food safety concerns are non-existent. They should rethink that position.
Gabriela Hernandez | CLMI Learn4Life Fellow
Inflation and food security have ended up becoming major concerns and making frequent rounds in the American buzzword lexicon in recent years, especially since the pandemic. Inflation has risen steadily since 2021, with prices for some necessities increasing by 20 percent. The cost of things, from good to homes, continued to explode from 2020 to 2022, with analysts point to some easing in inflationary pressures now. Despite that easing, there’s no way to avoid the reality of 34 million “food insecure” people in the United States. Indeed food prices are much higher compared to the overall increased Consumer Price Index (or CPI), with many Americans struggling financially to afford safe and healthy options to feed their families.
Unfortunately, staples like eggs and bread are becoming gradually out of reach for quite a few Americans. The cost of cereal, bread, fruit, meat, ready meals, and hot beverages, globally, have been the highest ever since record keeping on those items began in January 1989. Families across the nation struggle to keep food on the table for their families, including the major basics.
For millions of Americans going to the grocery store, it is a pain in the pocketbook, which would explain political grumpiness throughout the electorate heading into 2024. Some states, meanwhile, are now trying to take matters into their own hands, including New York, where the Attorney General recently proposed rules against price gouging. Changes would include prohibiting corporations with large market shares from increasing their profit margins during market disruptions.
Corporations will take advantage of inflation. While Americans struggle to keep up with global food prices, agribusiness is making more profit than ever. “These Mega corporations are cashing in and getting richer, and the consumers are paying the price,” said Groundworks executive director Lindsay Owen. “Not only are prices of eggs going up necessities such as flour, lettuce, and Butter are rising.”
With price gouging, it's no surprise that 53 million people turned to food banks, food pantries, and meal programs for help in 2021. But during this time big corporations were making the most profit since 1950, with pre-tax profits rising to $2.5 trillion. Millions of people were food insecure at this time while large companies felt compelled to cash in and fatten bank accounts. Recent analysis shows that only four companies control more than half of the market for nearly 80 percent of grocery items, according to an investigation from the Guardian’s Food and Water Watch. In 2020 and 2021 alone the food and beverage industry recorded more than $155 billion in profit according to Forbes. There are no expansive federal laws that put limitations on corporate pricing, although there are anti-trust laws in existence that, if enforced, could hinder corporate price-gouging of foods. We're being told that inflation is cooling off, yet grocery prices have remained stubbornly high. There’s no indication that states are stepping in, either, to calm food prices.
The Food Safety Connection
How then do food prices impact food safety? Many agencies on every level of government help regulate our food but still, the CDC reports 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases yearly in the United States. If food prices are that high, consumers should be confident that food safety risks are not that high. We put the responsibility on the USDA, FDA, and local, county or state public health departments to keep our food safe and the United States ranks 3rd, globally, in overall food safety and security. Still, annually, the number of people getting sick and dying is rather high. The number of outbreaks on leafy greens or “pre-washed” lettuce bags is alarming. The most common recent foodborne illness in leafy greens is E. coli, which is estimated to cause 63,000 foodborne illnesses and 20 deaths in the United States each year. The pace and magnitude of E. coli outbreaks have increased in recent years, according to CDC data. According to the new study, 58 percent of recent E. coli illnesses were attributed to vegetable row crops, largely leafy greens. Americans are told to eat healthily but face the risk of getting sick just from doing so. In another outbreak in late 2020, 40 infections occurred in 19 states, and 20 people were hospitalized just from eating romaine lettuce. They developed hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS, which is a rare but serious disease that affects the kidneys and can trigger blood clotting in infected people. The reason we see food born illnesses in leafy green products is that farmers tend to expand and move closer to animal feedlots and dairies. These places are more prone to flooding, which then forces polluted runoff into the water used to irrigate all leafy greens. “In the current system, there is not much water testing,” and much of the testing that does occur is on a voluntary basis, said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports in a Washington Post article. “And the agencies have a limited ability to test.” Also with leafy greens, there is no “kill step:” you can’t cook lettuce to render the bacteria harmless. “America claims to have the safest food supply in the world yet nearly 75 percent of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides,” according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to create a healthier environment.
Large food corporations are gouging consumers in the grocery store, but at the same time selling us unhealthy and unsafe food. Lots of Americans now can't afford safe and healthy options like organic food. One in two Americans can't afford to eat healthy and 55 percent feel forced to buy unhealthy food because it's cheaper. That raises the prospect more Americans are exposed to much less nutritious food. The cheaper options contain excess sodium trans fat and calories which are major reasons why Americans die from lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Lack of regulations combined with corporations now prioritizing astronomical profits over actually making healthy nutritious food is a dangerous situation. Many foods allowed for sale in the US are actually banned in other countries, which is why you won’t find Gatorade, farm-raised salmon, wheat thins, Coffee-Mate creamer, Little Debbie Swiss rolls, Ritz crackers, Frosted Flakes, Mountain Dew in places like Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Not only are we faced with unsafe options, but with prices rising the number of people forced into poverty also increases.