Food safety remains one of the hottest public concerns in the United States. The rapid development of food production technologies does not help protect citizens from the risks of foodborne diseases. Processed foods, ultra-processed foods, and genetically modified products have profound impacts on individuals and the environment. Unfortunately, the lack of effective regulatory mechanisms hinders the development of relevant quality assurance and safety frameworks in the food industry. The current system of food regulation in the U.S. relies on the premise that most, if not all, food risks are knowledgeable and, therefore, can be managed. However, product-based regulations have largely failed to address the most pertinent food safety concerns. By improving government regulations on the food production system, the United States can reduce health care costs, and positively impact our health, our economy and our natural environment.
Food safety in the U.S.: A pending problem
Food safety remains one of the biggest concerns facing the American society. Despite the rapid growth of food production technologies, the United States is still highly vulnerable to the risks of food safety failures. Foodborne diseases impact thousands of people in the U.S. every year. The nature of these safety risks changes, but the current system of regulatory mechanisms in the U.S. food manufacturing and health care has failed to catch up with the ongoing changes in the food safety environment. “While technological advances such as pasteurization and proper canning have all but eliminated some disease, new causes of foodborne illness have been identified” (Mead et al. 614). According to Mead et al., foodborne pathogens are responsible for not less than 35% of acute gastroenteritis cases in America (615). Of particular concern is the fact that 81% of all foodborne illnesses and 64% of deaths are caused by unknown agents (Mead et al. 616). Thus, as the government fails to regulate the food manufacturing industry and mandate the use of only known food ingredients, food manufacturers create an atmosphere of closeness, when even the latest medical technologies cannot detect the cause and proliferation risks of a particular foodborne pathogen. At the same time, the degree of underreporting raises many regulatory questions (Mead et al. 616). The strongest impression is that either individuals facing foodborne diseases do not know how to act, or they do not expect that the current regulatory regime will help them resolve their health issues.
Definitely, the scope of the food safety problem in the United States deserves professional attention. Processed foods are still one of the biggest factors of caution in the food industry. The growing commercialization of food manufacturing leads to the creation and popularization of the so-called “unhealthy commodities”, which include soft drinks, foods that contain solid amounts of salt, as well as alcohol and tobacco (Stuckler et al. 1). Being poorly regulated, these products represent a serious threat to individual and public health. They are known to result in the development of chronic noncommunicable diseases (Stuckler et al. 1). Consequently, they increase the financial and social burden on the national health care system. One of the main reasons why unhealthy commodities and processed foods have become so popular in the developed world is because of their convenience (Stuckler et al. 1). Globalization and market openness also favor the widespread distribution and consumption of “unhealthy” foods. These trends require heightened government attention towards the products, which are associated with the highest safety risks. So far, the regulatory system in the United States has been mostly ineffective and incapable of dealing with these issues.
Present-day consumers have access to a wide variety of food products, which necessitate the development of new regulatory mechanisms. More often than not, modern consumers seek to balance their convenience requirements with nutritional value and cost. No matter whether they choose raw foods or switch to ultra-processed products, only government regulations can guarantee their safety. Today, more and more consumers choose raw foods to diversify their nutritional choices. The demand for less processed foods is growing (Jay-Russell 1418). However, the health risks of raw product consumption should not be neglected. Consuming raw products, especially raw milk is associated with the elevated risks of foodborne diseases. It is only due to pasteurization that the U.S. community has managed to reduce the scope of foodborne diseases by almost 25% (Jay-Russell 1418). Concerted efforts have been made to eliminate milkborne tuberculosis and brucellosis (Jay-Russell 1418). Given these risks, many consumers choose another option and switch to the so-called ultra-processed foods, which also pose significant health risks.
Ultra-processed foods exemplify a novel category of manufactured foods that lack extensive regulation and control. Ultra-processed foods result from processing particular food industry ingredients and culinary products and minimally processed basic foods (Monteiro et al. 7). Ultra-processed foods are created by means of various industrial mechanisms, including frying, salting, baking, curing, deep frying, sugaring, pickling, smoking, canning, and with the help of additives and conservatives (Monteiro et al. 7). They are designed for convenience and durability, and most ultra-processed products are convenience foods and fast foods (Monteiro et al. 7). The health risks and implications of such foods are well-documented, and these ready-to-eat and pre-prepared foods demand absolute government control. In light of the expanding obesity epidemics in the United States, the government should become much more attentive to the ultra-processed foods that are being consumed by Americans on a daily or regular basis.
Finally, one of the biggest pending problems is the evolution of the so-called genetically modified foods (GMO) and functional products, which are expected to benefit the American population. Despite the promise of improved quality, efficiency and utility, these products need to be strictly monitored and regulated, at least because their exact impacts on individual health and the environment are poorly understood. In terms of functional foods, their conceptual meaning is in providing additional nutritional value to consumers (Hasler 3772). The concept of “functional products” was first used in Japan at the beginning of the 1980s, when the country’s Ministry of Health initiated a complex program to deal with the growing aging of the population (Hasler 3772). Yet, unlike other countries, the United States has no regulatory or at least conceptual framework for functional food products (Hasler 3772). Several organizations proposed their ideas to legitimize this category of foods. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board recommended defining functional foods as any modified food or food ingredient that delivers additional nutritional benefits beyond their basic properties (Hasler 3773). Later, the American Dietetic Association proposed describing functional foods as fortified, enriched, whole, and enhanced (Hasler 3773). Despite those developments, no explicit regulatory framework to manage functional food issues has been created. As a result, consumers are left alone in their food decisions, bearing the full responsibility for them.
Problems facing consumers in terms of GMOs are quite similar. On the one hand, the individual and public health benefits of GMO consumption are questionable. Recent research findings have shown that the ingestion of GMO raises numerous health risks for consumers. GMOs can act as toxins or allergens (Altieri & Rosset 156). These food products can lead to irreversible changes in metabolism, causing the production of new toxins and allergens (Altieri & Rosset 157). Some scientists suggest that genetically modified soybeans do not contain the necessary amount of isoflavones, a natural ingredient that is believed to prevent many forms of cancer in women (Altieri & Rosset 157). On the other hand, genetically modified foods keep flooding the American market, although most scientists cannot predict their health impacts. Most genetically modified foods go unlabeled, and consumers cannot say whether the products they buy in malls are genetically modified or not. In these situations, any health problems that emerge due to the use of GMOs will be extremely difficult to detect (Altieri & Rosset 157).
The remarkable profitability of GMOs pushes food manufacturing companies to deploy massive transgenic crops without proper understanding of their environmental impacts and appropriate testing of health consequences. These trends lead to the subsequent uniformity and simplification of the national and international cropping systems (Altieri & Rosset 158). The use of pesticide-resistant crops negatively affects crop diversification (Altieri & Rosset 158). The transfer of modified genes to semi domesticated and wild crops leads to the emergence of superweeds (Altieri & Rosset 158). The massive spreading of Bt crops modifies the existing feed paths for insects while also reinforcing the potential for vector recombination that result in the creation of new virulent strains (Altieri & Rosset 159).
“There are many unanswered ecological questions regarding the impact of transgenic crops. Many environmental groups have argued for the creation of suitable regulation to mediate the testing and release of transgenic crops to offset environmental risks and demand a much better assessment and understanding of ecological issues associated with genetic engineering” (Altieri & Rosset 160).
At present, the United States is facing numerous food safety problems and risks, and only regulation has the potential to solve these problems effectively and quickly.
Food regulations in the U.S.: The current state
It should be noted, that food regulations have always been one of the most popular objects of economic, social, and health evaluation. In the past centuries, the rapid cheapening of the food products due to the use of artificial ingredients had become an essential regulatory issue (Law). New regulations emerged in response to changes in food manufacturing technologies having to legitimize the use of safe additives and outlaw the use of dangerous food ingredients. Nonetheless, information asymmetries in the food industry continue to persist, and many consumers simply do not know what they buy. One possible explanation to this problem is that regulations do not always improve efficiency and safety of food products; at times, regulations are used by food manufacturers to shift the balance of the competitive market to suit their profitability needs (Law). At the same time, it is wrong to believe that, in all cases, food regulations advance manufacturers’ interests at the expense of food safety. However, regulatory agencies and governmental organizations do not always find the most appropriate balance between excellent public health, exclusive food safety, and fair competition in the food industry.
Since the colonial times, most food safety regulations had been enacted only at the local and state levels, not until the end of the nineteenth century that witnessed the rise in federal food regulations. The first system of federal food regulation was justified by the profound changes in food manufacturing, including adulteration and the use of analytical chemistry to cheapen food products (Law). Through the 19th century, federal food regulations could be described as piecemeal (Law). The first salient act to regulate food safety was passed in 1906 and became known as “Pure Food and Drugs Act” (Law). The 1938 Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act, the 1962 Drug Amendments, the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, and other regulatory propositions were passed to make the existing regulatory system more effective and up-to-date. Some regulations were implemented to strengthen the government’s power over food manufacturing and trade (Law). Others, by contrast, weakened government’s authority over food manufacturing and trade (Law). However, the field of food manufacturing has become so complex that the existing system no longer captures its most intangible aspects. The greatest problems arise in relation to the production, trade, and consumption of genetically modified foods.
Since the time genetically modified products entered the American market, the Food and Drug Administration had been placed under the enormous legal and public pressure to make GMO product labeling mandatory. The FDA discovered that (a) consumers were almost unanimously willing to see GMO content labeled; and (b) consumers were outraged to learn that genetically modified products had already been in the market without their knowledge or prior consent (Robertson 4). However, even despite the growing public pressures, the FDA does not require that food manufacturers label their GMO products. The problem is not in the FDA’s unwillingness to regulate food labels. In reality, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act gives the FDA limited powers to regulate labeling procedures (Robertson 4). The problem is in the nature of the FDA’s powers to regulate labels. The FDA is not omnipotent, and its authority in labeling regulations is quite limited. Under the present law, the organization is allowed to engage in labeling monitoring and control, whenever food manufacturers use inappropriate labeling and, thus, misbrand their products (Robertson 4). Labels are considered misleading if they do not reveal factual information regarding the consequences to which the use of a particular food product may lead (Robertson 4). Labels are also regarded as misleading, when they do not inform the customer about the material change the product has undergone while being processed by the manufacturer. At present, there is still no consensus on what constitutes a “material change” and how labeling can help to reduce the public health controversy surrounding food products.
Early in the 1990s, the FDA took a position not to require labeling for genetically modified products on the basis that such products were not materially different from traditional ones (Robertson 5). The FDA listed four essential exceptions when labeling GMO products was mandatory, including cases when food products were significantly different from their traditional alternatives or when genetic engineering impacted the way the food product was used and the consequences of such use (Robertson 5). Certainly, such position is actively supported by both the FDA and food manufacturers. The absence of mandatory labeling requirements reduces food manufacturing costs and at the same time, creates favorable ground for fraud and manipulations in the food market. By not requiring mandatory labeling for GMO foods, the FDA implicitly confirms that these products are nutritionally equivalent to their traditional alternatives (Robertson 5). This message can serve an effective advertising slogan for dozens of companies producing GMO foods, but it cannot guarantee their safety for individual and public health. Without mandatory labeling, the FDA tries to persuade consumers that they can eat GMO foods in exactly the same way as they eat traditional products (Robertson 6). The FDA also implies that no scientific evidence confirms that GMO foods are dangerous for health and the environment. Finally, the FDA tries to prevent the risks of stigmatizing GMO foods (Robertson 6). However, scientists have not found any evidence that genetically engineered foods are dangerous does not mean that such evidence does not exist. While the FDA believes that labeling genetically engineered products can provide these products an unfair advantage over traditional foods, it is clear that such labeling regulations are necessary. Consumers deserve to know what they buy in order to avoid unnecessary health complications.
Such labeling regulations could become a veritable source of accurate information for consumers. Most, if not all, food labeling regulations are designed to advance the idea of informed dietary choices among consumers. On the one hand, consumers need complete information about food products to make reasonable choices (Caswell & Padberg 460). On the other hand, labels can be used to motivate consumers to buy healthy foods. It is through labeling that consumers can assess the attributes of the given food product in their entirety (Caswell & Padberg 461). Modern food industries produce technically complex products, and consumers cannot detect the nutritional and safety attributes of the desired product only by their senses (Caswell & Padberg 461). As mentioned earlier, food industries are well-known for their information asymmetries, and only sound regulatory mechanisms can mandate food manufacturers to provide information that helps resolve these issues. Food labels can be regarded as effective shopping aids, which enable customers to make relevant buying decisions. They also make markets more efficient, by improving the competitive and information environment and awarding success to those products, which have the best quality attributes (Caswell & Padberg 463).
Of course, the usability potentials of labeling are not unlimited: an average consumer who visits the food store once a week and spends an hour making food purchases has to evaluate more than 15,000 food items (Caswell & Padberg 463). In these situations, even the best food labeling regulations may cause confusion and impede consumers’ decision making capabilities. Moreover, because most consumers perceive GMO products as inferior to their organic alternatives, GMO labeling may prevent GMO producers from marketing their foods more effectively (Robertson 7). However, none of these arguments is valid enough to justify the absence of effective regulatory requirements regarding genetically engineered foods. If food manufacturers believe that labeling will impose new product costs and create unfair competition that favors organic food producers, then they will have to (a) engage in active marketing campaigns to spread the message of GMO foods and at the same time, (b) invest considerable resources in the analysis of GMO foods and their health safety. Consumers deserve to know the characteristics and contents of the complex food products they buy, and only regulatory changes will make food manufacturers more responsible in their relations with consumers.
Today’s system of food regulations in the U.S. is based on the premise that all food risks and problems are known to the public and, for this reason, can be easily managed and deterred. This is also the case of GMO regulations, whose primary framework was developed in the 1980s and involved the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture (Applegate 232). The fundamental principle of food regulations in the United States is that most food products do not require any regulation at all. Even when it comes to new substances and products, including genetically engineered ones, the United States believes it can use the existing legislation to proceed (Applegate 232). As a result, customers in the U.S. have to believe that genetically modified foods are merely a logical continuation of all existing products and do not require any additional regulatory covering. They also need to accept that all new products and ingredients created by food manufacturers are merely a newer version of the existing products and, therefore, do not require FDA approval.
Under the influence of the existing regulatory philosophy, consumers in the U.S. learn to take novelty as normal. They learn not to question the benefits of new products, including GMOs. As a result, everything that is considered as scientifically unknown it transformed into something that is already familiar to the customer (Applegate 234). Although the FDA has the right to demand pre-testing of any product before it is presented in the consumer market, it does not act in this way. The U.S. Department of Agriculture takes a similar approach (Applegate 234). Some regulatory organizations require that food manufacturers notify them about new products or ingredients that are used in consumer foods (Applegate 234). Most regulatory approaches do not go beyond notification. The EPA has been much more active in its striving to regulate food manufacturing and trade, by licensing pesticides before they are marketed and used (Applegate 235). However, even this organization has done nothing to stop the development or at least test the legitimacy and safety of various food products that are available to American consumers.
Thus, it is possible to say that public health professionals in the U.S. have lost the fight for food safety and public health in the U.S. They have been willingly or unwillingly slow in responding to the emerging nutritional threats. The most uncomfortable explanation to this reluctance is that action goes directly against vested interests (Stuckler & Nestle 1). In other words, food manufacturers have much greater influence on the regulatory agencies than consumers. The U.S. has experience trying to prove the direct link between tobacco and lung cancer: it took nearly five decades to overcome the pressure of the largest tobacco companies and make the results of empirical studies available to the public (Stuckler & Nestle 2). The American public does not have another five decades until the government finally decides to adopt a more salient regulatory framework and, thus, limit food manufacturers in their striving to earn enormous profits by all means. Statistically, over the past 15 years, no single food ingredient implemented in the U.S. received official regulatory approval (Eng). Since 1958, more than 1,000 have been incorporated into the food supply without notifying government officials (Eng). Self-regulation has become a norm and, to reduce bureaucracy, the FDA has transferred the responsibility for pre-testing food safety to food manufacturers and suppliers (Eng). This lack of oversight poses a serious threat to public health. All food products need to be regulated and monitored to reduce the scope of foodborne diseases and ensure that customers choose only those food products, which meet their expectations and match their individual health characteristics.
Food regulations: Why care?
Food regulations will undoubtedly have enormously positive impacts on the quality and safety of food products in the United States. Depending on their nature and type, food safety regulations and government oversight decisions can profoundly affect consumers’ dietary choices. To begin with, government can become more active implementing the so-called farm assistance programs; the latter are intended to monitor the quality of raw foods produced by farmers and, at the same time, subsidize and stabilize food prices (Ralston 333). Federal support programs and marketing orders for specialty crops, vegetables, and fruits will make food manufacturers much more responsible in their manufacturing decisions and focus on quality while, at the same time, secure consumers from the elevated prices that may result from the use of advanced quality assurance systems in food manufacturing.
Advanced food regulation systems and frameworks will motivate the government and private food manufacturers to invest resources in comprehensive food safety research projects. A number of national research programs have already been initiated by the government, and it is high time to take a different approach and move away from the traditional towards alternative approach towards genetically modified products (Ralston 334). As their popularity is growing, consumers must know whether or not it is safe to use GMOs on a daily basis. As a democratic society acting in the interests of every single citizen, the U.S. must be prepared to handle these research projects and inform citizens about their progress and outcomes.
Food regulations will boost consumer confidence in the safety of food products and, consequently, increase the demand for products that used to be a matter of public concern. Whenever a food product causes foodborne illnesses, consumer confidence in the safety of this product deteriorates (Ralston 339). For instance, after an outbreak of Hepatitis A in 1997, the demand for strawberries that were believed to be responsible for the incident rapidly decreased (Ralston 339). Undoubtedly, many regulations will also affect food supply since the FDA has the authority to inspect, block, and eliminate the bulk of products that do not meet the basic standards of quality (Ralston 340). Again, these steps will propel food manufacturers to adopt relevant quality assurance systems and supply only the highest quality products to avoid regulatory confusion.
Food regulations will reflect in positive economic and environmental changes. It is through food regulations and federal policymaking that the government decides which crops should be supported (Story et al. 262). Government decides which crops farmers will grow, how much these crops will cost, and how these crops will be processed and availed to consumers (Story et al. 262). At present, the U.S. has a highly unbalanced concept of food manufacturing, where certain crops are being overrepresented at the expense of other crops and commodities (Story et al. 262). Food regulations will improve the economic situation, by creating a more balanced picture of agricultural development and monitoring the contents and quality of the crops grown in the U.S. At the same time, food regulations will reduce the negative impacts the overrepresented crops have on the environment, especially when it comes to transgenic crops that lead to the development of superweeds and shift the balance of natural forces in the environment.
The U.S. government and regulatory organizations need to enhance the quality of food safety technology procedures, approvals, and regulations. At present, a number of food technology safety regulations govern business and organizational decisions within the food industry. Such regulations are needed to provide assurance to consumers and food suppliers that the technology used in food manufacturing is safe (Ralston 341). Of particular importance is the study and monitoring of food additives, which can pose numerous threats to individual and public health (Ralston 343). The costs of these regulations can be considerable and quite tangible even for the biggest food manufacturers, but these costs are readily offset by the enormous cost-savings through reduced incidence of acute and chronic diseases, as well as enhanced quality of consumer products and increased customer satisfaction. Quality will remain fundamental in the evolution of the future food systems (Caswell 422). Therefore, food regulations are the only way to reduce the burden of quality issues in food manufacturing – the issues, whose impacts extend far beyond the food industry and represent one of the most complicated social, economic, and health controversies facing the American land.
Food safety is a matter of public concern in the U.S. The risks of foodborne diseases and adverse health consequences due to the use of genetically engineered foods continue to persist. By improving government regulations on the food production system, the United States can reduce health care costs, and positively impact our health, our economy and our natural environment. At present, the system of food regulations in the U.S. is based on the philosophic assumption that the society knows everything about food risks and can manage them. In reality, new and existing food products require government oversight. Food regulations will reduce the negative impacts of transgenic crops on the environment, by regulating their growth and distribution. Food regulations will facilitate the implementation of national research projects to explore the benefits and drawbacks of functional foods and GMOs. By reducing the risks of acute and chronic foodborne diseases, food regulations will also alleviate the burden of costs on the health care system. Food regulations are the only way to reduce the burden of quality issues in food manufacturing.