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: