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Poisoned: The Dirty Truth about your Food (2023)

What do you think about when you bite into that juicy hamburger or sink your fork into barbeque chicken or a leafy green salad? Do you consider anything beyond taste? Well, you should, and a gripping new Netflix documentary, Poisoned: The Dirty Truth about your Food (2023), that tackles food safety in the USA explains why. Now before you say that Canada is not the USA, how certain are you that our food production, inspection, and supply chains are not riddled with the same dangerous problems? Furthermore, now that agriculture and food industries are globally linked, the produce and other items that you eat daily are as likely to come from another country as from Canada (never mind that Canada simply can’t produce certain tropical food items in our temperate climate).

This insightful and eye-opening film takes us from grocery store, to laboratory, to farm, to slaughterhouse, and the halls of political power in Washington D.C. with the intention of unmasking the problems in the American food system that lead to foodborne illness and death. Director Stephanie Soechtig starts by bringing us along on a trip to the local supermarket with the film’s key expert, lawyer Bill Marler, a food safety advocate with three decades of experience. Marler has spent that time fighting for victims, people who have been harmed, disabled, or killed by what they ate. His revelations are quite shocking. For one thing he debunks the widespread belief that the perimetre of the supermarket – meaning the produce – is the safest way to eat. It’s not. According to Marler, it is actually the riskiest. Why, you ask? As Marler explains, this is because of potentially contaminated products. He has litigated cases involving romaine lettuce, cut fruit, strawberries, caramel apples, tomatoes, onions, cookie dough, Similac Infant Formula, and Lucky Charms. And as for chicken, as Marler proclaims while standing in front of a cooler filled with the raw poultry, “all these products are likely contaminated.”

So, how bad is the problem of foodborne illness? In the USA, some 48 million people get sick each year according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) which investigates thirty-six outbreaks per week. (By the way, Canada’s version of the CDC is the Public Health Agency of Canada, and yes, we had to look that up!) That number in Canada is 4 million people per year, or 1 in 8, meaning that we Canucks have nothing to be smug about. This translates to 14.46% of the US and 10.46% of the Canadian populations (both based on 2021 populations sizes). So, what do these outbreaks entail? Well, things like hepatitis A, salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. As the film makes clear, all these outbreaks are happening within an environment in which countless politicians are parroting the party line that “America has the safest food system in the world.” In 2014, Canada captured that top spot, but since Canadians consume far more than just Canadian-raised and Canadian-grown foods, we still have a problem.

The movie, based on the book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat (2011) by Jeff Benedict, presents several heart-wrenching case studies of key outbreaks from the perspectives of the people directly impacted by foodborne illness: the survivors, those left grieving when their loved ones have died, and the advocates who have fought for them. The 1993 Washington state E. coli outbreak caused by undercooked Jack in the Box burgers is the first under the microscope (so to speak). The employees at this American fast food chain were not adhering to regulations that stipulated burgers be cooked to an internal temperature of 140-degrees Fahrenheit (the Washington state regulations at the time stipulated 155 degrees.) Through the painful recollections of former nuclear engineer, Darin Detwiler, the director focuses on the tragic death of his son Riley who passed away after eating a burger from the restaurant. In Riley’s case, and others presented throughout the film, the documentary makes clear that many of the outbreaks were preventable because they occurred after people in positions of authority (like the owners of restaurant chains and food processing plants) flouted government regulations in search of profit.

Another case study which exposed this corporate malevolence is the Peanut Corporation of America, a major American peanut producer that sold its product to many other companies that manufactured products containing peanuts – think peanut butter, cookies, crackers etc. After employee, Kenneth Kendrick started in 2006, he quickly surmised the health risks of a plant that, as his notes and photographs reveal, had a leaking roof (through which bird feces could enter the facility), insect and rodent infestations, and was generally filthy. Increasing the lethal risk, Kendrick uncovered evidence that the facility was doctoring internal salmonella tests to make their tainted products seem safe. After his concerns were dismissed by the CEO and owner, Stewart Parnell, Kendrick bravely turned corporate whistleblower and, in the process, almost 4000 products were recalled, and Parnell and an associate were found guilty on related felony charges.

But the movie also happily features the work and advocacy of many heroes, including Marler and Detwiler, now an Assistant Dean and Professor whose research focuses on regulatory affairs of food and food industries. After his son’s death, Detwiler changed his career to ensure that he worked to prevent similar deaths and suffering. Significantly too, he and his wife turned down the multi-million-dollar Jack in the Box settlement which would have prevented them from speaking openly about the tragedy that had befallen their family.

But as with any good documentary, the film does not just tackle the question of what – foodborne illness in this case – but of how? That is, how does our food get contaminated in the first place? There is not one simple answer. Regarding beef, we must turn to the slaughter facilities, where for instance, bad things happen when the gut of a cow gets nicked during slaughter. But as Marler ably explains, the meat industry has been premised on the belief that the responsibility for food safety fell not on the beef producers, but on the consumers who had to cook the E. coli out of their products. But as the film explains, not all meats are equal. For instance, while searing a steak on both sides will likely kill any E. coli that is present on its surface, the preparation method and contents of ground beef means that parts of different animals (as many as 400) get ground up, mixing “inside” parts with “outside” parts and ensuring that any contamination may be present throughout the product. According to the USDA (yet another regulatory branch of the American food safety system) the responsibility for killing this E. coli rested with the consumer; that is until the Food Safety and Inspection Service (yes, another branch of the US government’s regulatory apparatus) declared that the presence of E. coli 0157 in a product was illegal. What, you mean they got something right? Indeed, they did, and according to Marler, while thirty years ago all his cases were about E. coli, this ruling was a game changer.

Importantly, the film indicates some other areas that need our immediate attention, like leafy greens and chicken. In the former category, the threat stems from the simple fact that consumers don’t tend to cook lettuce, eliminating the preparatory controls that would eliminate any bacteria. And if you thought buying organic produce eliminates such risks, think again! Organic does not mean “pathogen free”. If you’re wondering how E. coli finds its way onto vegetables in the first place, you’re not alone. We were confused too. As it turns out, it has a lot to do with how we raise animals for food. Overcrowding does not help. Neither does allowing animal waste to contaminate rivers and irrigation canals from which water is then drawn to spray agricultural fields. Yes, friends, in many cases the E. Coli from animal waste is literally being sprayed onto our produce! Ok, you say, let’s just move the animal feed lots away from the agricultural fields. Silly, you’re being far too logical. You see, the cattle farmers do not bear any responsibility for produce safety and the produce farmers do not control the practices of cattle farmers.

Another key problem then, as author Marion Nestle explains, is that “the regulation of animal waste is minimal,” and the laws on the books are largely “not enforced.” Now in case you’re thinking, I live in Toronto, Red Deer, Fredericton (or fill in the blank with your Canadian city), why should I care about America’s food industry problems? As we have already stated, the industries that put food on Canadian tables are now globally networked with, for instance, romaine lettuce grown in Arizona and California being exported all over the world.

As for that tasty chicken, a part of the industry problem seems to reside in the fact that it is far too consolidated. A mere two companies produce all the eggs that are sold to the dominant American chicken producers, only four companies. It is telling that the facilities of the big two firms are off limits to inspectors since they do not sell directly to consumers. But what is happening on the ground in the facilities that hatch the eggs into chickens and raise them until they are slaughtered? If a disguised USDA food inspector is to be believed (she spoke only on condition of anonymity), she typically “examines” 175 chicken carcasses a minute and there is only one inspector at the end of a factory floor line. What has she witnessed? Hmm, let’s see, inspectors sleeping on the line, employees who did not wash their hands after returning from the washroom, and the use of knives that had been dropped on the factory floor. Let’s do the safety math. The inspector continued “we run millions of birds a month” and only test “five salmonella samples a month of a whole bird and five samples of parts.” But as Nestle points out, this now antiquated inspection system was meant to catch visibly diseased and spoiled meat, not bacteria, which is of course invisible to the naked eye. Indeed, when the documentary team tested 150 chicken samples, 17% of the samples tested positive for salmonella.

As the film ably conveys, a part of the problem is America’s web of regulatory bodies (that included the FDA, USDA, federal government, Environmental Protection Agency, CDC etc.) and the blind spots they produce. Another problem though is that corporate lobbying has allowed some industries to set up associations to regulate themselves, like the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA)which oversees the likes of Dole, Fresh Express, Ready Pac, Taylor Farms, Organic Girl, and others. When asked how often irrigation water is tested, LGMA’s CEO, Tim York, had no response.

Just how easy is it to contaminate your kitchen with that package of chicken. Well, you open the chicken and salmonella gets on your hands, so you wisely use your foot to open the garbage can to avoid spreading the salmonella to the garbage can lid. But you then turn on the stove and the nob gets contaminated. Next, you touch the tongs to pick up the chicken and put it in the frying pan. So, the tongs are now contaminated too. Thereafter, you turn on the faucet to wash your hands and contaminate the faucet. You then re-contaminate your hands when you touch the faucet to turn it off. After that, thinking your hands are clean, you make a salad and, yes (you get it) that is now contaminated too. And if you’re thinking that this contamination will simply disappear from your kitchen surfaces, dry salmonella can live on surfaces for months. The lesson here is that hyper vigilance is necessary in the kitchen!

But all is not lost, indeed the Europeans have shown what is possible with their reform of the chicken industry and their packaging of “pathogen free” chicken, a promise that US companies do not profess to make and one that we have never seen on Canadian chicken.

As the film makes clear, the bottom line is that America does not actually have the safest food system in the world, and furthermore, according to congresswoman Rosa De Lauro, the American food lobby is more powerful than the American consumer.

So, what can we do at home and politically? First, we Canadians need to step up our game and figure out what the Canadian equivalents of the American CDC, FDA, and USDA are, what they’ve been up to, and if they are truly keeping us safe. Next, the documentary features a list of food items that the team of experts avoid eating. They include sprouts and cantaloupe (because of difficulty in washing the skin). They are also weary of bagged leafy greens that claim to be “triple washed”, undercooked or raw fish and meat, and oysters. Lastly, Marler still indulges in that delicious hamburger, but only when it is cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees F. If the restaurant can’t guarantee that, he says, order something else.