Progressive Populist

Trump’s Top 10 Tax Tricks

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, saying “It’s none of your business” and “there’s nothing to learn.” Of course, there is something to learn from the recent tax returns of a supposed billionaire who seeks to gain the trust of American voters. If we had access to Trump’s returns we’d learn Donald’s top 10 tax tricks.

Keep reading...Show less

Why Chipotle Has Seriously Shaken Up the Fast Food Industry

Chipotle recently shook the world — well, OK, not the whole world, but the fast-food one — by announcing that pork would be off the menu in 600 restaurants for an unspecified time because they weren’t able to source sustainably-raised pork.

Chipotle is trying to live within their motto “Food with Integrity.” According to their website, they buy from “farmers whose pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, are never given antibiotics and are fed a vegetarian diet. It’s the way animals were raised before huge factory farms changed the industry. We believe pigs that are cared for in this way enjoy happier, healthier lives and produce the best pork we’ve ever tasted.”

Yeah, I know that the “deeply bedded pens” is a troubling phrase. It means that the animals can be kept inside, but not on metal floors with no bedding. That “slatted floor” system is usual in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The mama pigs are kept in pens—gestation crates—for their pregnancy where they barely have room to move from a standing position to lying down. From the top, the mamas look like hot dog buns in a package, almost attached side to side. Then they are supposed to move to a birthing crate—called a farrowing crate. The movement, after three months of immobility, involves a lot of abuse from handlers, according to Ten Genoways’ new book The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food. In fact, if you get that book, you might want to skip the part where the mamas (called sows) have to move from one crate to another.

The Chipotle move is a strong idea for a food sector usually known for unhealthy recipes, exploited workers and cheap ingredients.

Rumors had been flying around the sustainable ag community for about a year that Chipotle wasn’t living up to its mission, but I don’t eat fast food, so I didn’t pay much attention. And, now that the word is out, I haven’t been able to find out exactly how the boycott, which is truly revolutionary, came about. Chipotle has been tightlipped about which growers, exactly, broke the rules.

So where did the discovery begin? Did consumers appear at outlets with signs to protest? Or did the action come from stockholders, threatening to sell and drive the price of stock into the cellar? Or did a conscientious manager figure out that Chipotle should put their policies into action?

Whatever the reason, the announcement gave Chipotle stock a nice little pop after years of steady growth. And other fast food chains should take note. They say it’s too hard to find good meats, but that’s changing fast.

Here in Missouri, consumers are really catching on and our farmers are also! One of the factoids I picked up at a recent conference was that in our state there has been a huge increase in the amount of meat butchered locally for the local market. Three years ago, there were 9 slaughterhouses with state inspection. Today there are 39 ... an increase of more than 400%.

It’s easy these days to find locally-raised meats in good restaurants and grocery stores. Fast food chains should take note.

At that same conference were a whole lot of row-croppers, the big guys with the huge combines and lots of debt, who want to get into something new. Biotech crops are not working as advertised, especially when it comes to failures in weed control. The resistant weeds are truly becoming a problem to ordinary corn-belt farmers. This year, they may adopt crops with different resistance—2,4D and dicamba have been approved. But row-croppers can see that 2,4D and dicamba, besides being dangerous, will quickly have resistance issues.

Also, commodity crop prices are unstable and the farmers have realized they don’t have diversity of markets. They’re stuck with the ups and downs, can’t set their own prices like we little guys can, selling directly to consumers that want what we raise.

I’ve had row-croppers tell me they want to sell food instead of fuel. They WANT the connection with consumers. The majority of our neighbors are afraid to speak out but they pull me aside and thank me for what we’re doing. I have always gone to all the ladies’ club meetings, so I see the wives a lot. Very sad they won’t speak out.

All this might be difficult for small farms like mine, as the big guys flex their muscles. They have the potential of raising lots and lots of local foods, consolidating the market so that little farms can’t compete. And the big guys have the muscle to change the rules so that standards like the organic standards are changed to confuse consumers.

It all remains to be seen, but the Chipotle move shows that consumers can benefit if restaurants and grocers decide to develop a conscience.

The Incredible Lies We Are Told About Wall Street

Fewer than half of the US population owns a single share of stock and even fewer Americans are in a position to start their own businesses. Nonetheless, at least in rhetoric this nation remains the land of the self-made man — and occasional woman. Many believe they still have the opportunity to be real entrepreneurs — by investing in corporate America through the stock market.

Keep reading...Show less

How Asia's Brutal Privatization Drives Are Creating Misery For Its People

In the 2012 elections in South Korea, Park Geun-hye, as a presidential candidate, pledged to rebuild the middle class and increase its size to 70% of South Korean society. It turned out to be an effective political strategy that greatly contributed to her election. In many Asian economies, economic polarization has become an important issue and it has its impact on the political debate.

Keep reading...Show less

A Vinyl Renaissance Is Supporting Record Stores Across the Country

Halleluiah! The 12-inch vinyl album that once revolutionized listening to recorded music and was instrumental in driving the massive growth of the record industry from the 1960s into the ‘80s, and was all but relegated to being an archaic artifact by the digital revolution, has made a huge comeback. And in the process has also all but saved the independent retail record store that was also in danger of nearly disappearing as a result of online music sales and thievery.

Keep reading...Show less

Dangerous Pesticides Showing Up More and More In Our Urine and Breast Milk

In early April, the shocking news that breast milk carries many times the allowable amount of glyphosate, also called Roundup, came out on the web. Glyphosate is a poison that defoliates plants, but back in the late 1990s, farmers began planting soybeans that resisted the chemical, bouncing back from a dowse of Glyphosate like they had just enjoyed a spring rain, while the weeds around them died. The Frankenstein soybeans were followed by releases of genetically modified corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. Now, many crops carry the gene.

As a result, according to the release, scientists found glyphosate at “760 to 1600 times higher than the European Drinking Water Directive allows for individual pesticides.” These levels are less than allowable levels set by America’s Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has been led to believe that glyphosate exits the body and does not accumulate. How could they think that?

Keep reading...Show less

Pathetic: How the USDA Cowers to the Poultry Industry

This article originally appeared at the Progressive Populist, and is reprinted here with their permission.

Keep reading...Show less

Low Testosterone Is a Gold Mine for Snake Oil Salesmen

You want to get rich. Most of us do. Here is a surefire way. Create a malady – not a disease or an illness, more a condition. Try a deficiency of a vitamin, a hormone, a chemical. Something that sounds natural. Describe the symptoms – nothing life-shattering enough to propel people to emergency rooms, more of an ineffable malaise. Convince people that they may have it. Then invent the cure. Make it simple – like a gel, patch, or tablet. Flood the web with offerings. Then wait for the anecdotal raves. Or create some raves. Voila – a stake on a pharmaceutical goldmine.

Keep reading...Show less

School District Backs Down on Its Plan to Chip Student IDs

The huge Northside Independent School District (NISD) in San Antonio, Texas announced July 16 it was scrapping its widely distrusted program of micro-chipping student IDs with RFID technology — which brave NISD student Andrea Hernandez opposed with all her might. With unwavering support from her father, she sparked a groundswell that overcame the NISD administration’s designs.

Keep reading...Show less

Look Out: Corporations Promote ‘Right to Farm’

Every year for the last six or eight, family farmers and small-town residents in Missouri have had to fight off legislations designed to take away our local control and put all the lawmaking privileges in the hands of state lawmakers. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that county, city and township ordinances and laws would be void. No more city zoning, no health ordinances guaranteeing special treatment such as special regulations against noise, air pollution, water pollution and so forth, for county residents that demanded it.

Keep reading...Show less

Twilight of the Pale Patriarchs

There’s always a scene in the grittiest vampire movies where the old bloodsucker is sleeping peacefully in his coffin, looking as innocent as the undead can look, and the handsome hero plants a pointed stake in the vampire’s sternum and takes a big swing at it with his mallet. Whether or not the blow turns out to be accurate and fatal, the vampire always wakes up when he’s pierced. His eyes pop open, his mouth opens on those awful canines dripping blood and saliva, and with a savage snarl he tries to sit up, as the audience draws a deep common breath. It’s a crowd-pleaser, if you like this stuff. And if the thing climbs out of the coffin, 20 minutes of premium violence are guaranteed.

Keep reading...Show less

Overprotective Parents Gone Over the Edge -- Vaccine Hysteria on the Rise, and Old Diseases Are Making a Comeback

Disease Amnesia hovers. It afflicts, for the most part, upper-income, upper-educated parents, vigilant over their children’s safety. You can spot the parents buying fiddlehead ferns at Whole Foods, coaching soccer games, volunteering at PTA meetings.

Keep reading...Show less

Take a Look at What Paul Ryan Did to His Own Congressional District, and Be Very Scared for Your Country

Before Paul Ryan was anointed as the Republican vice presidential candidate, Ryan reigned as the GOP’s resident economic genius and “leading intellectual.”

Keep reading...Show less

A $2,167.02 Water Bill? How a Water Company Forced a 91-year-old Woman To Sell Her Home

The notion of a profit-driven multinational corporation controlling the supply of water to our homes (yes, the water we as humans rely on daily to drink, bathe and live) seems odd to many. Perhaps as odd as the notion of a corporation controlling (and charging us for) the sunshine we enjoy, or air we breathe. But with so much to worry about these days, it often takes an extreme case to remind us all just how absurd the privatization of water is. The recent case of 91-year old Camden, N.J., resident Eleanor Sochanski and her $2,167.02 water bill should do the trick.

Keep reading...Show less

How Conservatives Manipulate Language to Gain Power

As kids we learn that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Some time later, sophomore year in college for example, we learn that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “names have the power to slay.” As an aside, Nietzsche also said “Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive,” which is a good observation, even though Oscar Wilde would have found a better way to say it. Conservatives, the modern version anyway, aren’t good for much, but they retain a marvelous talent for manipulating language. How else do you explain the fact that a bunch of people who managed to effectively destroy the world economy and are in a rush to eviscerate the social programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, that millions of Americans depend on for basic survival, are unashamed to call themselves “conservatives” while liberals, who were on the right side of both history and economics, try to hide behind “progressive”?

Keep reading...Show less

Corporations Move in on Your Garden

A couple of weeks ago, I was crowing about the amazing progress of the national media in following the home gardening story. No doubt about it, stories about gardening appear in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and countless smaller newspapers. Since I believe that home gardening is one of the answers to hunger in this nation, not to mention obesity, poverty and boredom, I was thrilled. If people become gardeners, I’ve reasoned, they’ll feed themselves and re-learn some of the self-sufficiency and memories of culture that they must re-learn to gain power over their lives. The gifts of neighborhood and democracy will flower again.

Keep reading...Show less

The Real Drug Lords

Early December of last year provided evidence of why we need a genuine drug war -- one that targets not medical-marijuana users but America's pharmaceutical companies (a.k.a. "Big Pharma"), the nation's true drug lords.

The evidence concerned the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, maker of the diabetes drug Glucophage, which was engaged in an ultimately unsuccessful PR campaign to have its patent on the popular medication extended so as to prevent comparable generics, which would sell for less, from entering the marketplace. Reports indicate that Bristol-Myers Squibb's effort, aimed at securing a favorable congressional vote for extension, cost the corporation $250,000 in political donations to the Republican party, but did convince Representative Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, to champion its cause.

If the Bristol-Myers Squibb example is not sufficiently convincing, here's another, more recent indicator of undue drug-company influence peddling. In April of this year, according to the New York Times, the White House, acting at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry, dropped the expected nomination of Dr. Alastair Wood of Vanderbilt University to be head of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Wood's offense: He was a recognized expert on drug safety who threatened to be "too zealous" in regulating Big Pharma's products. The good doctor had intimated he would more aggressively monitor drugs already on the market, a suggestion that under his leadership, the FDA might actually do its job as a public watchdog; that was clearly unacceptable to the industry, and in matters pharmaceutical, the industry rules.

One more example of Big Pharma's hardball tactics: Last year, Maine and Vermont were taken to court by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drug industry's leading trade organization. The two states, it seems, had the temerity to legislate prescription-drug programs aimed at lowering prices for low- and middle-income people through negotiated bulk-purchase discounts. The Vermont law has been successfully overturned by PhRMA's lawyers; Maine's legislation remains, for now, in legal limbo.

What's behind this coordinated, industry-wide resistance to change is simple economics: a desire to maintain the lucrative status quo and protect profits. And no industry has more to protect than Big Pharma. In 2001, says Fortune magazine, America's pharmaceutical companies collectively ranked first in return on revenues (18.5%), first in return on assets (16.3%), and first in return on shareholders' equity (32.2%); median figures for the rest of the Fortune 500 were 3.3, 2.4, and 10.4%, respectively. The top 14 drug firms, Fortune reports, brought in a spectacular $215 billion last year and made a combined profit of $38 billion; their median return to investors was a tidy 14%.

This is nothing new. According to Public Citizen's Congress Watch, the drug industry has been the most remunerative in the US for the past decade, chalking up annual profits three times those of any other American industry. It's been so for most of the 20th century; in 1961, a congressional subcommittee chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., found that pharmaceutical makers had a higher rate of return for the previous five years than any other industry, doubling the average for the nation's manufacturing sector as a whole. The only change that's taken place since then has been a growth in the disparity; Big Pharma, its coffers swollen from the start, has been getting richer year by year and decade by decade.

Consumers, naturally, are paying the price. They're paying it at the drug counter, where prescription costs have risen by 10% in each of the past two years (to $50 on average) and are expected to jump by over 12% in 2002; they're also paying in increased health-insurance premiums, which rose by an average 11% last year due largely (says the Kaiser Family Foundation) to the rising expense of prescription drugs, which now account for almost a fifth of all health-care costs nationwide. Some of this can be blamed on steady increases in what drug companies charge for existing drugs, and some of it on greater reliance on drugs by physicians, but the single biggest factor (40% of the rise, according to the Kaiser Foundation) is the recent introduction of new, more expensive drugs.

During the 1990s, overall wholesale drug prices rose at an average rate of 7% a year, with some new miracle cures carrying price tags in the thousands of dollars for an individual patient's annual supply. At the retail level, this has been particularly hard on senior citizens, who statistically purchase 18 prescriptions per year. Typical seniors now spend a third of their fixed yearly incomes on prescriptions, and according to an ABC News report increased numbers are involuntarily returning to work in order to meet their drug bills.

There's a rationale for all this, of course. The drug companies claim that the astronomical prices they charge are absolutely necessary for "research and development" -- for inventing and perfecting new medicines and bringing them to market. Interference with this process by such means as tighter drug regulations, government price controls, patent reform, or group price negotiations will, they argue, bring catastrophe in the form of an end to pharmaceutical breakthroughs beneficial to the public, killing, in effect, the golden goose.

To hedge its bets, Big Pharma has reinforced its research rationale with direct political action. During the 1999-2000 election cycle, reports Public Citizen, the drug industry employed 625 lobbyists (the most for any special interest) at a cost of $177 million and spent an additional $85 million on campaign contributions and issue ads to guarantee itself a friendly hearing in the nation's capital. Nevertheless, it is the superficially plausible and oft-repeated R&D rationale, accepted by many, that forms Big Pharma's real bulwark against reform and preserves its morally questionable rates of profit. For that reason, the R&D argument begs further analysis.

The drug industry's chief intellectual defense for its pricing policies quickly dissolves under careful scrutiny. The notion, first of all, that pharmaceutical firms are plowing their vast profits back into public-spirited research is simply a myth; annual returns to their shareholders alone are sufficient to puncture that balloon. Furthermore, as a variety of news sources have reported in recent months, between a third and half of all US drug research is actually carried out with tax dollars through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services based in Bethesda, Maryland. The rights to NIH research results are then routinely transferred to a private company for a drug's final development and marketing. At some point, the FDA gives its stamp of approval.

Drugs initially created at government expense later earn private distributors profits that climb into the billions. One such example, cited by drug-industry critic Merrill Goozner of New York University, is the cancer drug Taxol, a product of the NIH-affiliated National Cancer Institute; it is now a staple of the Bristol-Myers Squibb line. In effect, the public paid twice, once in taxes to fund the drug's research and again in inflated prescription costs to aggrandize the company.


The pharmaceutical industry's well-oiled propaganda machine, programmed to justify high prices, has long denied the crucial role played in drug creation by the public sector, a role that extends back at least half a century. World War II saw government labs take the lead in the practical development of antibacterial sulfa drugs and penicillin, used to prevent infection from combat wounds, and synthetics, such as Atabrine, a substitute for quinine in the treatment of malaria. Private industry played a complementary but decidedly subordinate role.

Drugmaker Pfizer, for instance, didn't invent the antibiotic penicillin that eventually made it rich beyond its dreams, but it did find a way to mass-produce the drug in usable form. That, in a nutshell, is the contribution to pharmacology made by America's private-sector drug lords; they rarely do the pure, painstaking scientific research that leads to discoveries, concentrating instead on processing, packaging, mass-producing, and marketing the discoveries of others. This qualitative difference is nowhere to be seen in their corporate advertising, however. There, private, for-profit labs are portrayed as responsible for the critical breakthroughs that improve the quality of life.

The truth is mostly the reverse. Data submitted to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that public research, not private, led to 15 of the 21 most therapeutically valuable drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992, and other studies done in the 1990s suggest that only a minority of important drug discoveries in recent years -- estimates range from 17% to 40% -- were the result of commercial research. Those new cures were instead the product of the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH), either the "intramural" (or in-house) research performed by NIH scientists, which accounts for 10% of the agency's $20 billion annual budget, or the "extramural" research contracted out through NIH grants to universities, medical and pharmacy schools, nonprofit foundations, and private laboratories, which accounts for most of the rest.

If drug-company money is not going into pure drug research, then, where (other than to stockholders) is it going? The pharmaceutical lobby PhRMA claims its member firms sank $26 billion into R&D in 2000, slightly more than the NIH, but industry analyst Merrill Goozner maintains that probably half of the total went to develop "me-too" drugs, copycat versions of cures competing manufacturers were successfully marketing, or slightly altered versions of drugs already in a company's repertoire that could qualify for new (in effect, extended) patent monopolies. Goozner's charge is supported by a study emanating from the National Institute for Health Care Management, which shows that only 15% of new drugs approved by the FDA from 1989 to 2000 could be called "highly innovative"; the rest were simply modifications of older drugs with expiring patents.

Even bogus research on me-too drugs (a term coined by Sen. Kefauver during his pioneering industry hearings of 1959-61) accounts for only a small portion of total drug-company expense budgets. Kefauver discovered that just 6% of pharmaceutical revenues were going toward research during his time, a figure that had inched up to 13% by 1996, but only because the pressures of patent protection instigated an acceleration in chemical retooling. If only a fraction of Big Pharma's total expenditures are funding drug research of any kind, pure or derivative, what's left after production costs and salaries is drug promotion, and it should come as no surprise that promotion -- selling and advertising -- is where the money is spent.

Forty years ago, Sen. Kefauver found that advertising actually outstripped research by four to one in dollars allocated by private drugmakers; it was, he revealed, the single largest item of overhead for the major pharmaceutical firms next to actual production, swallowing 25% of their operational outlays. Little has changed since the Kefauver days to alter established trends; between 1996 and 2000, reports the health-care information firm IMS Health, the US drug industry expended $54.5 billion on product promotion, or nearly $14 billion a year -- substantially more than for serious research. In addition to the traditional marketing ploys used for decades -- visits to doctors by the industry's approximately 55,000 drug representatives, mailings of brochures and samples, advertisements in medical journals, and exhibits and proselytizing "educational programs" at medical conventions -- recent years have seen vast sums spent on television ads aimed directly at health-care consumers.

These marketing techniques, most especially the increased dollars spent on TV commercials, are the real cause of high drug prices; the industry's much-vaunted research spending pales by comparison. And the reason Big Pharma has that advertising money available to spend is the monopoly position it finds itself in by virtue of exclusive patents. The United States is the only major country that allows the private inventor of a drug or medicine to patent the discovery, even if it was made with the help of a public grant, and to retain exclusive rights to its production and sale, thereby avoiding competition. This is the primary reason why American drug prices are double (or more) those of Canada, Japan, and Europe at the retail level, and also why newly patented drugs for ailments like arthritis are 10 times more costly in the domestic market than older, off-patent medications.

Until relatively recently, US drug patents applied for 17 years, allowing a total market monopoly for that period. In the early 1960s, Sen. Kefauver proposed reducing this to a three-year monopoly followed by a 14-year licensing period during which competitors could gain production rights in exchange for royalty payments. He was denied his reform, and, incredibly, Congress in 1994 extended the long-standing 17-year patents to 20 years, giving an added lease on life to drug monopolists. The battle isn't over, however. Within the past year, organizations like Seniors USA have begun calling for a 10-year maximum patent life for drug discoveries made with private funds and the entire elimination of patents for drugs developed with public monies, in order to force down prices.

A multiplicity of other solutions to the existing American drug-price dilemma, aimed mostly at seniors, have been offered: government vouchers, drug discount cards, a prescription benefit under Medicare. All are inadequate and would only shift the burden of payment without reducing basic prices. The real answer lies in two alternative directions: (1) serious patent reform to limit the monopoly status conferred on new drugs and their manufacturers, and (2) direct drug-price regulation of the sort routinely employed in most civilized countries.

Despite the refrain that price controls never work, they have been successfully imposed on pharmaceuticals by the Canadian government since 1987. Empowering direct price negotiations by the Medicare program is one form of regulation that could be easily implemented. The drug industry's fond belief that its high administered prices are deserved simply because of the importance of its products to the public is a defunct idea that should have long since been interred. Estes Kefauver said it best over a generation ago: "The justification of high price in terms of value to the public is the ideology of monopoly."

Nuked Food Makes it to Grocery Shelves

Don't blame Tom Harkin for being fooled. He was just trying to tell a good story.

On a fall day back in 1985, Harkin, newly elected Democratic senator from Iowa, told his former colleagues on a House subcommittee about how, while serving as a Navy jet pilot during the 1960s, he lived on pork that had been treated with radiation, ostensibly to make it safer to eat by killing harmful bacteria.

"I can remember eating some processed meat -- I think it was bacon or ham -- that had been irradiated and kept on the shelf in a vacuum-sealed package. I think it was preserved for seven years," Harkin told the panel, which was debating a food irradiation bill at the time. "We ate it, and I had never heard of such a thing. I thought to myself at the time, 'Why aren't we pursuing things like this?'"

Harkin's fascination surely would have been doused had someone leaned over and told him that in 1968, the year after he left the Navy, it was revealed that rats fed irradiated food by military scientists died younger, gained less weight, and apparently grew more tumors than rats fed normal food.

Fooled once.

Later that fall day, the House subcommittee heard an American Medical Association official proclaim that using radiation to rid food of bacteria "is not a public safety hazard, and I can't emphasize that strongly enough."

Too bad no one was there to remind the fellow that just a year earlier, he wondered in a memo to his AMA colleagues whether irradiated food might harm the offspring of animals (not to mention humans) who eat it, create mutant radiation-resistant bacteria, or sicken people who eat the stuff for long periods of time.

Fooled twice.

Since that hearing in 1985, Americans have been fooled time and time again -- by government bureaucrats, and food and nuclear industry executives trying to sell irradiation as a way to kill E. coli, Salmonella and other food-borne pathogens, while extending the shelf life (and, thus, the global market reach) of meat, fruit, vegetables, spices and prepared foods such as TV dinners and baby food.

Like salespeople, though, they're not telling the whole truth. Information that could help citizen/consumers make better decisions -- information about how irradiation depletes nutrients in food, causes health problems in laboratory animals, spawns mutant life forms, kills beneficial microorganisms, turns some food rancid, marginalizes already struggling family farmers, encourages the proliferation of nuclear technology, and masks filthy slaughterhouse conditions that foul meat with feces, urine, and pus -- has been craftily excised from the public debate.

While an all-out scientific and philosophical war is being waged over genetically engineered food, federal officials and corporate interests such as Kraft, Tyson and Wal-Mart are quietly attempting to legalize and commercialize an under-tested, over-hyped technology -- which claims to make food safer by zapping it with the equivalent of tens of millions of x-rays -- that could pose just as many dangers to the public. If not more.

Listening to the Past

Though it was fully 100 years ago that an MIT professor discovered that radiation could be harnessed to kill bacteria in food, it wasn't until the 1950s -- under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative (which also promised that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter") -- that food irradiation began to nudge toward the mainstream. But once the procedure started to gain popularity, it didn't take long for problems to crop up.

That pork that a young Tom Harkin ate when he was in the Navy? Turned out it might not have been safe after all. Military-sponsored tests yielded all sorts of nasty problems in lab animals fed irradiated food. A short time later, three executives of the firm hired by the military to research irradiation during the 1970s were convicted of doing fraudulent work. No matter. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continued to allow potatoes and wheat flour to be irradiated and fed to the public.

Then came the innocuous-sounding Byproducts Utilization Program, under which the federal Department of Energy (DOE) started hunting around for places to pawn off deadly waste from its nuclear installations -- such as the radioactive cesium-137 wallowing at the nuclear bomb factory at Hanford, Washington (arguably the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere).

With the government's blessing -- if not its encouragement -- the private sector started to get into the act. Given the spotty record of companies using radiation to sterilize medical supplies, however, one wonders how the government could have allowed them to start irradiating food. From 1974 to 1989, there were 45 recorded accidents at US irradiation plants. Among the worst:

* In 1977 a worker at the Radiation Technology plant in Rockaway, New Jersey, received a near-fatal dose of radiation, after which company president Martin Welt ordered staffers to give false information to federal investigators. After some 32 violations for such offenses as throwing out radioactive garbage with the regular trash, Welt was forced to resign (though the government soon after hired him as a $100-an-hour consultant and he eventually started another irradiation company.)

* In 1982 cobalt-tainted water was flushed down the public sewer system at the International Nutronics plant in Dover, New Jersey, leading to the federal conviction of a company executive who tried to cover up the incident.

* From 1985-99 the Neutron Products plant in Dickerson, Maryland was cited for 192 safety and other violations. The place was so hot with radiation that a company vice president's contaminated clothes set off an alarm at a New York nuclear plant he was visiting in 1988.

* In 1988 a Hanford-harvested capsule of cesium-137 sprung a leak at the Radiation Sterilizes plant in Decatur, Georgia. The ensuing cleanup cost taxpayers more than $45 million.

Government officials and industry execs still hold out hope that cesium-137 will find a niche in the food irradiation market, despite the Decatur disaster -- and despite the deaths of four people in Goiania, Brazil, whose bodies were buried in lead-lined caskets after they mistakenly handled radioactive cesium in 1987.

Ruining Your Appetite

If irradiation plants sound scary, listen to what happens to food when it's blasted with gamma rays, electrons or x-rays.

For starters, dozens if not hundreds of formal studies conducted over the past 40 years -- all rejected by the FDA as being poorly done -- have revealed serious health problems in lab animals fed irradiated food. You name it -- shorter lifespans, low birth weight, kidney damage, immune and reproductive problems, chromosomal abnormalities, tumors. If it could go wrong, chances are it did.

In one of the few recorded studies conducted on people, Indian researchers discovered in the mid-1970s that malnourished children fed freshly irradiated wheat developed polyploidy, a defect in the chromosomes of blood cells. (FDA officials triggered an international incident by rudely discounting the study, going so far as to publish false information in the Federal Register.)

What's worse, irradiation -- with all of its deadly unknowns -- creates an entire new class of mysterious compounds by literally smashing apart the chemical bonds in food and sending electrons flying all over the place. Even though these "unique radiolytic products" -- as well as well-known toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene, and formic acid that irradiation can produce -- have mutagenic and carcinogenic potential, government officials have not come close to adequately studying how they could harm people. And, irradiation can stimulate the creation of carcinogenic aflatoxins in grains and toxic solanine in potatoes, the latter of which sent 17 English boys to the hospital in 1979.

What's worse still, vitamins and nutrients take a beating under the onslaught of irradiation, destroying up to 95 percent of vitamin A in chicken, 86 percent of vitamin B in oats, and 70 percent of vitamin C in fruit juices. Essential amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids can be depleted as well.

A host of other unintended consequences can result, including onions that turn brown on the inside and meat that smells like a wet dog, the elimination of such beneficial microorganisms as the yeasts and molds that help keep botulism at bay, and the possible mutation of bacteria into forms resistant to radiation.

Reinventing Government

Without exception, FDA officials -- for one reason or another -- have chosen to ignore the piles of research suggesting that irradiating food may be problematic. But that's not the half of it. The government has built its entire case in support of irradiation on a mere five studies -- none of which were done after 1980 -- that officials not-so-enthusiastically said two decades ago "do not appear" to indicate the process is potentially harmful.

Moreover, since the FDA began stepping up its approval of the food and nuclear industries' irradiation requests in 1983 -- beginning with a request by the infamous Martin Welt to irradiate parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and other seasonings -- no significant research has been done on whether the process is safe for the additional food groups and at the higher doses. For instance, FDA officials, who said in 1982 that irradiating food with 1 kiloGray of radiation was probably safe, have little or no idea whether it's safe to irradiate beef and lamb with 7 kiloGrays, which the agency approved in 1997.

The government, as is often the case, should know better. The feds ignored the concerns of one of their own experts, former high-ranking FDA scientist Marcia van Gemert, who cautioned back in 1982 that no long-term studies had been done on irradiated food likely to become a significant part of people's diet.

Van Gemert's warning is as timely as ever. At this writing, the FDA is considering a proposal from the powerful National Food Processors Association to irradiate ready-to-eat food such as TV dinners and luncheon meat. The agency has also provisionally allowed pre-packaged food to be blasted with electrons (or "e-beam"), even though US Food Safety and Inspection Service chief Thomas Billy wrote that "we have no data specifically supporting the assumption" that the procedure is safe.

Donald Louria, chair of preventive medicine and community health at the New Jersey University of Medicine, has been raising red flags about the dangers of food irradiation for more than 10 years. And he's still as worried as he's ever been: "Until the industry is willing to agree to nutritional studies on each type of irradiated food and to put the results on the label, and until there is a proper study of the potential chromosomal damage of irradiation, we should not be irradiating our foods."

In Our Hands

Slowing -- much less stopping -- the government-blessed, corporate-bankrolled food irradiation movement is a tall order, to say the least.

This spring, Wal-Mart -- the largest retailer on Earth with $160 billion in annual sales -- began test-marketing irradiated meat to its customers. Wal-Mart is buying the products from meat-packing giant IBP, which zapped them at an e-beam facility in Sioux City, Iowa, operated by Titan Corp., an erstwhile defense contractor notorious for its polluted iron plant in Keasbey, New Jersey. Titan is also irradiating meat for Tyson, Cargill-owned Excel, and Philip Morris-owned Kraft, among other major players in the ever-consolidating, ever-globalizing meat industry.

Corporate giants are also showing up on the research end of things. For instance, work at the Illinois Institute of Technology, one of the nation's leading irradiation research installations, is funded by Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Kraft, Nestle, and Pepsico. And, many "food safety" advocacy groups throwing their weight behind irradiation are actually industry front organizations. The corporate-funded American Council on Science and Health, for example, is chaired by A. Alan Moghissi, whose anti-environment and anti-consumer positions include fighting the removal of asbestos from schools and proclaiming that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing for the agriculture industry.

Funny, the food industry hasn't always been unified in its support of food irradiation. Just seven years ago, the editors of Meat & Poultry magazine took the technology to task, warning that it should not be embraced as a panacea to protect people from contaminated food. "To think we can literally cram irradiation down the throats of consumers because it is the 'right' answer to our problems," the editors wrote, "is to step on the opinion of the very people we depend on for survival."

With industry and the government evangelizing in unison for food irradiation, it is, in fact, only the consumers can stop this under-tested, over-hyped technology from being crammed down their throats.

Mark Worth is senior researcher at Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. Those interested in voicing their concerns about food irradiation can contact:

Wal-Mart: 1-800-966-6546 (ext. 3) or 1-800-WAL-MART

Donna Shalala, Secretary, US Department of Health and Human Services: 202-619-0257 or 1-877-696-6775

Thomas Billy, administrator, US Food Safety and Inspection Service: 202-720-7025

For more information on food irradiation, call Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program at 202-546-4996, or visit

@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by