The melamine scandal in Chinese agribusiness refuses to die down. Not only has the echo of contaminated milk continued to reverberate around the world through chocolate, Koala March cookies, and infant formula - but now eggs are showing up with high levels of melamine contamination. Melamine was banned in China for animal feed only in 2007 - but is clearly still being used illegally. The experts warn us not to panic ... a child would have to eat two dozen eggs to get melamine poisoning ... but this misses the point. It's a case of lost trust and lost face. What other contaminants are being used in food manufacture, that are going undetected?
Just as the banking industry relies on trust (and we discovered what happens when that evaporates) so does agribusiness. We assume that the government is providing oversight to make sure that our foreign and domestic food suppliers are playing by the rules - and those rules are keeping us safe from harmful chemicals. Even if melamine was the ONLY chemical that Chinese farmer adulterated their product with, it destroys the delicate web of trust that holds up our belief in the whole system.
We believe that empowered consumers can provide an additional check and balance. Ignorance is bliss only as long as we're all healthy.
Michael Pollan (the next administration's food safety tsar?) outlined the future perfectly in a recent New York Times Magazine editorial:
The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced: in the case of crops, images of the farm and lists of agrochemicals used in its production; in the case of meat and dairy, descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen, as well as live video feeds of the CAFO where they live and, yes, the slaughterhouse where they die. The very length and complexity of the modern food chain breeds a culture of ignorance and indifference among eaters. Shortening the food chain is one way to create more conscious consumers, but deploying technology to pierce the veil is another.
Sound familiar? Watch this space...