Do We Need Another Jungle?

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

One year after Albert Einstein's publication of E=MC2, an unknown writer named Upton Sinclair published an exposé of the deplorable conditions within the Chicago meat packing industry.

The book, entitled "The Jungle," became a best seller that has stayed in print since its 1906 publication. It is not Sinclair’s impact on literature, however, that has led us to ask the question: Do we need another Jungle? It’s the recent influx of tainted goods from overseas that parallels the public outcry following the publication of "The Jungle," which resulted in the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It was that legislation which helped to establish the Food and Drug Administration.

The same FDA that now inspects less than one percent of incoming goods [1], that gives bonuses budgeted to retain scientists to their administrators [2], that is faced with the recall of millions of U.S. toys manufactured in China, a majority of all fish imported from China lacking in inspection, the melamine in gluten that killed so many of our beloved pets that did not get inspected...

And it's not only China [3]. The FDA is faced with growing imports from many countries, far more than they could ever inspect, had they the resources to do so.

The question then becomes: Do we need another exposé that will lead to a radical change in policy, a la Sinclair's "The Jungle?" This is an important consideration since these problems seem to be arising through lack of oversight. With the increasing amount of products manufactured offshore, we're at the mercy of the quality, or lack thereof, adhered to by our trading partners.

Since we do not have the inspection regimen to stop all of the dangerous products at our border, nor do we provide the incentives for our global trading partners to improve the conditions for their own workforce, and/or to regulate their diverse supply chain, we are relying on the "good faith" of foreign nations over which we have no ability to regulate. And, if we did, it might not solve the problem, as they may not be able to inspect their own supply chains of smaller manufacturers, many of which were responsible for the tainted products that then were sent on to increasingly larger companies outside our borders. -- layers within layers of inspection needed in a proactive, rather than a reactive program, as has been the case since the growing scandal of tainted products came to light.

An author, Ted Fishman (China, Inc.) made the point recently that only China can change China. Considering its size and the size of our debt to China, that seems a logical conclusion. But who then is responsible for the protection of our citizens if neither China nor our government can do so? Does it fall on the individual states to enhance their own consumer departments? Is it the impact on the marketplace that will lead corporations to both be more careful and to pressure their foreign suppliers to clean up their own supply chains?

Or is it the consumers who will apply the pressure as more problems come to light?

It was the public outcry after the revelations of the "The Jungle" that led to the change in policy in 1906. But it was a simpler society. Imported goods are now so pervasive, it may be impossible to avoid their use.

Where did the ascorbic acid in your Vitamin C come from?

Strong possibility it was imported from China.

How about that gluten in your bread (and in your pet food)? The shrimp you ate last night at that restaurant? And, here's a surprising fact: Garlic. Doesn't Gilroy, CA, [claim to be the] garlic capital of the world?

Most garlic is imported from China. [4]

If someone ever got inside the Chinese factories, a la Sinclair, and through their supply chain, and wrote about what really happens there, it begs the question: would it make for interesting story about a foreign land or will it be seen in the context of our need for cheap goods? On the impact on quality of life for those who make those goods? Of the quality of those goods we are now required to consume?

And, of course, the jobs lost here because manufacture has moved offshore?

Sadly, even with a major overhaul and a significant budget increase, it's unlikely the FDA will be able to monitor everything coming in to the United States. The money. [5] The cheap labor, the competition (they're doing it, so we have to...). And that startling amount of our debt the current administration has entrusted to China. It seems that might make our bargaining position a bit weakened when they're holding our notes, especially when it took
the FDA ten years to track down the toxic Chinese compound used recently in toothpaste.

It is our view that this should be a condemnation of the overworked FDA inspectors. In the case of the tainted glycerin it was a European importer that had stored the compound in their supply warehouses without the necessary paperwork from China.

Does the answer then rest with the consumer? If we can't rely on the FDA to inspect more the one percent of our imported goods. If we can't be assured that the corporations importing those goods will uncover their problems in a timely manner (many do, but not all). If we don't even know where the ingredients of a product we are about to consume comes from, how can we be certain what we're consuming is safe?
Carl R. Nielsen, former FDA Director of the Division of Import Operations and Policy: "The reality is, this is not a single-country issue at all, What we are experiencing is massive globalization. [6]

This problem is further exacerbated by the financial squeeze on the American consumer, as revealed by Walmart's recently declining quarterly profits. When the middle class can no longer afford cheap Chinese goods that line Walmart's shelves, what incentive will there be for anyone to buy more expensive products?

A solution -- only a partial solution, at best -- is to buy local wherever you can and reduce the amount of your consumption, where possible, to make up for the increase in cost. That means farmer's markets (list below) and goods that are made by local suppliers. This has the added benefit of fresher goods, supporting local business and reducing the carbon footprint required to come to market. For imported goods, we look to Fair Trade (list below), especially when it comes to products that could be used for conflicts, as has been reported recently with chocolate (yes, chocolate).

Beyond that, we're in the same predicament as everyone else: Crossing our fingers when we eat at a restaurant or take a vitamin or buy anything where a major corporate supplier does not reveal a point of origin on their goods. Which is why there should be no wondering as to why we're wondering if there's another Upton Sinclair who will save us from ourselves.

Here are useful links:

  • CPSC – Consumer Product Safety Commission (for recalled goods).
  • FDA – Food and Drug Administration (for recalled goods).

Farmer's Markets:

Fair Trade:

Chocolate products that are not produced by child slave labor [7]

chocolate, diamonds, coltan...

The website from the Mandela Project about conflict products (highly recommended):

The Inventory of Conflict & Environment (ICE)

Apologies to any links we missed and empathy for the 1,321,851,888 [8] Chinese at risk of their own tainted supply chain -- of which we have seen just the terrifying tip of the iceberg.