Food Notes & Tousim 26/11/2013

New analysis shows USDA struggling to protect consumer health

A new look at the US Department of Agriculture finds the agency is dogged by internal conflicts that skew its focus and jeopardize Americans’ health. In Meatonomics: How The Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013), attorney David Robinson Simon reveals a schizophrenic USDA that routinely fails to protect consumers or inform them of health risks. “The USDA is saddled with dangerous conflicts of interest,” says Simon. “The agency can’t effectively reconcile its mandate to safeguard consumer health with its drive to keep industry clients happy by pushing product sales.”

For example, Simon shows the agency is to blame for:

· Failing to block sales of meat containing dangerous substances. Weak oversight results in the regular presence in meat of toxins or pathogens like arsenic and E. coli, with the latter often found, according to federal investigators, only by “happenstance.”

· Allowing misleading labeling. Foods certified by the USDA as “organic” may contain any of more than 300 inorganic substances, including artificial colorings and flavorings.

· Giving industry an open door. Industry players move around the agency with ease. For example, most of the panelists who drafted the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans had ties to industry, prompting the Harvard School of Public Health to dismiss the guidelines as the product of “intense lobbying efforts from a variety of industries.”

· Issuing confusing dietary advice. The agency’s conflicting nutritional and marketing programs are often confusing and hard to understand. For example, the USDA promotes cheese while simultaneously advising that we eat less of it.

· Getting the facts wrong in dangerous ways. Sometimes the agency gets the facts wrong in ways that help industry and threaten consumer health. In one example, the USDA told Americans that swine flu is unrelated to pigs. But a study published in a prestigious journal a few months later showed the disease actually starts in pigs.

· Pushing products we don’t need. The U.S. leads the world in per-capita meat consumption, and USDA data shows Americans in practically every demographic group consume more meat and dairy than the agency recommends. But USDA-overseen programs continue to spend $550 million yearly to promote these foods.

“This book empowers people to take control of their buying decisions,” Simon says. “By informing themselves about some of these USDA practices and other features of the food industry, consumers can make wiser, healthier and more economical choices about what to eat.”

Meatonomics is the first book to explore the unseen economic forces that drive our animal food system, and the strange ways these forces affect our spending, eating, health, prosperity, and longevity. Among other things, the book shows that the “externalized” costs that the animal food system imposes on taxpayers, animals and the environment total about $414 billion yearly.

David Robinson Simon is a lawyer and advocate for sustainable consumption. He works as general counsel for a healthcare company and serves on the board of the APRL Fund, a non-profit dedicated to protecting animals. David received his B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and his J.D. from the University of Southern California. He lives in Southern California with his partner, artist Tania Marie (, and their rabbit, tortoise, and two cats.

di S. C.