Saturday, May 26, 2007

Just eat it?

In regard to food, consumers in capitalist economies are both powerful and increasingly vulnerable. On the one hand, the varieties of relatively affordable foods available are astounding. Supermarkets are local exhibitions of globalization, with fruits from Jamaica and vegetables from Japan and seafood from Thailand in stock 24/7. But consumers often have little time to cook for themselves -- home cooking seems to be on the decline -- much less carefully check the ingredients of every little thing that they are putting into themselves. The obesity epidemic in developed countries indicates that much of 'processed' and 'prepared' food is just plain bad for you. But there are also signs that some foods circulating in the global economy may be downright hazardous.

China has been in the spotlight lately. There was the recent scandal involving the deaths of domestic pets in the US caused by the presence of an industrial chemical (melamine) in a Chinese pet food company product. But if it can happen with pet food, it can happen with food destined for human consumption, because the problems have a common and familar root: the desire for as big a profit margin as possible by producing goods using the cheapest means (including labor) under the least amount of regulatory oversight. National Public Radio has a piece on China and the increasing US dependence on its cheap exports, including food and food ingredients, that makes for chilling reading. Toothpaste from China is currently being tested by the FDA for diethylene glycol (a chemical used in antifreeze); when it turned up in cough syrup in Panama last year, it was responsible for 51 deaths. There is an anecdote about companies speeding up the drying process of herbal tea by laying the leaves out in large quantities and driving trucks over them, using the exhaust of the trucks as 'dryer'. Unfortunately, Chinese trucks use leaded gasoline. Another shocker is the presence of antibiotics in Chinese fish and seafood, which is apparently meant to counteract the effects of the polluted waters they were raised in. Bon appetit.

Should bioethicists bioethics workers weigh in on such issues? Or should they stick to the standard repetoire of bioethics issues: abortion, euthanasia, informed consent, reproductive health, genetic research and access to health care? Taking the 'bio' in bioethics seriously means being prepared to understand and discuss any ethical issues raised by developments that seriously impact on human health and well-being. This means, as David Resnik argues in a recent Bioethics Forum, analyzing the ethical issues raised by the myriad interactions between humanity and the natural environment. It also means discussing the dependence and vulnerability of food consumers, food safety, the politics of global markets, and the role of national and international regulatory bodies. Eating always requires a certain amount of trust, but it shouldn't involve a leap of faith.