Would the Democratic candidates make your food safer?

An examination of the responses of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the biggest beef recall in U.S. history.

Published February 20, 2008 12:01AM (EST)

This weekend saw the largest recall of beef -- 143 million pounds -- in U.S. history. Now, in a presidential campaign, everything is an issue about which candidates release statements. Kosovo declares independence? Statement released. Civil rights leader's mother's cousin's old college roommate dies? Statement released. Largest beef recall ever? Statement definitely released.

So I was watching my e-mail in box to see what the Democratic candidates would have to say, both because I'm interested in the issue of the safety of our food supply, and have written about it for Salon, and because I've long thought it's an issue that's been strangely neglected by the Democrats. (It's always seemed to me a political winner; after all, it goes at the most basic of parental responsibilities -- an unsafe food supply makes even the act of literally just putting food on the table one potentially fatal for children. The easiest explanation for why the issue goes ignored is, frankly, contributions from big agriculture to both parties. For various reasons, it just so happens that for the most part, poultry producers contribute to Republicans while the cattle industry leans Democratic.)

Sure enough, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama weighed in on the recall, and both had very interesting things to say.

Clinton's response was surprising, if only for how far it went, and how good it was -- at least, to a point. The campaign released a food safety plan that included, among other things, a "thorough audit" of the food safety system, an increase in funding to the USDA, the creation of a single agency to oversee the food supply and mandatory recall authority. (Currently, the USDA cannot actually order a recall; companies must conduct them voluntarily. The USDA can withdraw its inspectors to pressure a company, but not much more, and those inspectors aren't really so useful in the first place.)

Those last two, the creation of a single agency and mandatory recall authority, are actually measures that "Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan had suggested in an interview I did with him in 2006. Actually, Pollan said that bringing food safety under the administration of a single agency would be "a huge step."

The problem with Clinton's response -- and I understand, I'm asking for absolute purity when the campaign had proposed real change -- was that it wasn't close to comprehensive. As might be expected during a political campaign, the response focused only on the meat of current concern, beef, and said nothing about attacking root causes or larger issues. No mentions of working to fix the problem of the unnatural diets food animals are given, to change the conditions in which food animals are held or to crack down on the rampant overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, which poses a very real threat to human health. (My article from a few months back on the role antibiotic overuse might be playing in the spread of new types of the antibiotic-resistant staph infection MRSA -- MRSA, as a reminder, was one of the big health scares of 2007, though, like many scares, the dangers were overblown -- can be read here.) And though the steps proposed were quite positive, there's nothing in the campaign's response about improving the inspection process, which currently amounts to little more than sniffing the meat.

Obama's response, on the other hand, was almost entirely devoid of substance or concrete solutions; it made Clinton look like good-food guru Alice Waters by contrast.

Obama's statement, in full:

Although the Department of Agriculture has now recalled the tainted beef, an estimated 37 million pounds has gone to school lunch programs, and unfortunately, officials believe that most of the meat has already been consumed by schoolchildren. This incident demonstrates yet again the inadequacy of the food recall process. Far too often, tainted food is not recalled until too late.

When I am President, it will not be business as usual when it comes to food safety. I will provide additional resources to hire more federal food inspectors. I will also call on the Department of Agriculture to examine whether federal food safety laws need to be strengthened, in particular to provide greater protections against tainted food being used in the National School Lunch Program.

As the parent of two young daughters, there are few issues more important to me than ensuring the safety of the food that our children consume. I commend the Humane Society of the United States for bringing this important issue to the public attention and believe that the mistreatment of downed cows is unacceptable and poses a serious threat to public health.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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