E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Another myth: American agriculture yields world's 'cheapest, safest' food

(Sunday, April 4, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Keesia Wirt, DTN, via Agribusiness Examiner:
It's come to be one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most frequent sayings --- Americans have the cheapest, safest food supply in the world.

While that statement is widely believed by many Americans, it does not mean it's accurate, at least not by Charles Benbrook's standards.

"All of us in the agricultural world have heard this statement a million times, but have you ever heard anyone explain the basis for such a claim?" said Benbrook, an agricultural economist working as a consultant for The Organic Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Benbrook recently discussed what he believes are the biggest myths about U.S. agriculture during the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. He has studied agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues since 1979 and served as executive director for the National Academy of Sciences Board of Agriculture before leaving to run his own consulting firm in Sandpoint, Idaho.

The safest food?

When a cow in Washington tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in December, USDA and other agriculture leaders repeatedly assured the public that the U.S. food supply was the safest in the world.

"How do they know that? What's the scientific basis for this?" Benbrook said. "The European Union certainly doesn't agree. I've spent 25 years studying this and making international comparisons about food supply and safety."

To develop a fact-based international ranking of food safety, Benbrook said the ranking system must include, at a minimum, the following nine risk factors associated with food consumption:

  • pesticide residues,
  • animal drug and hormone residues,
  • foodborne pathogens and parasites of animal origin,
  • microbiological contamination,
  • natural toxins expressed by plants themselves,
  • antibiotic resistant bacteria,
  • mycotoxins such as aflatoxin,
  • transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, include BSE, and
  • mercury, or heavy metals, dioxins, and other environmental toxicants.

Benbrook said he does not know of studies in any of these nine areas done by any U.S. government agency, private organization or any international body that compares the safety of the food supply in various countries around the world.

"There has never been such a study because there is no way to carry one out," he said.

If an analysis were performed, Benbrook said, the U.S. food supply would probably be at the top, in terms of safety, pesticide residues, natural toxins, mycotoxins and mercury and other environmental toxicants.

"But in four other areas, the U.S. food supply would not rank in the top 10 percent of countries, and maybe not even in the top one-third," he said.

The categories the U.S. food supply does not score well in, Benbrook said, are foodborne pathogens of animal origin, animal drug and hormone residues, antibiotic resistant bacteria and transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Benbrook said he is not sure how the ranking would be for the ninth category --- microbiological contamination --- because it is complex and dynamic.

Several countries would score much higher than the U.S. in terms of food safety, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Japan, he said.

Those countries have all made major commitments and investments in food-safety standards and monitoring systems that are much more comprehensive and stricter than in the U.S., Benbrook said.

"The U.S. is likely to slip farther behind food safety leaders internationally as long as our leaders and public institutions remain in denial that the way we raise, manufacture, distribute and cook food has opened the door to some significant new risks," he said.

"Americans enjoy the safest food supply in the world. This is due in part to efforts by the USDA to follow a scientific approach in administering its food safety programs," according to a USDA food-safety report from 2003.

Ed Loyd, a USDA spokesman, directed DTN to this report to respond to the when asked how USDA knows the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world.

According to the report, the USDA's scientific approach has resulted in a 16% decline in foodborne illness, such as Listeria and Campylobacter, during the past six years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributed the decline in part to the implementation of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in all meat and poultry plants in the U.S.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has implemented a five- point strategy during recent years to further reduce the incidences of foodborne illness, according to the report.

The FSIS strategy includes improved management of inspectors, application of science in crafting regulations, better coordination with other agencies, an aggressive education campaign for food handlers and protection of the food supply against terrorist attack.

"In spite of these positive trends toward a safer food supply, FSIS recognizes that intensified efforts are needed to further reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses related to meat, poultry and egg products in the United States," the report said.

Benbrook believes it is also a myth that the U.S. has the cheapest food. He said economic measures such as cost and efficiency can be defined many ways and data can always be found to support specific claims, such as having the cheapest food.

During his speech, Benbrook showed two charts, each using different criteria to measure the cost of food in countries throughout the world.

The first chart ranked 34 countries based on the share of per capita income spent on food. The U.S. ranks number one on this chart, spending the smallest share of per capita income, 9.7 percent, on food of any country. Canada came in second, spending 11.7 percent, followed by Sweden at 13.3 percent, Japan at 14.9 percent and Australia at 15.1 percent. On the other end of the chart, Tanzania spent the most with 73.2 percent of per capita income spent on food.

"Does that make food cheap in America?" Benbrook said. "It depends on whether you are buying American food with an average American income, or the income of people living elsewhere."

He said this ranking does not reflect whether food is expensive or cheap; instead it reflects whether it is affordable.

The second chart Benbrook showed ranked the cost of food in the same 34 countries according to the dollars spent per 1,000 calories consumed in a given day.

"In reality, this is a more accurate international measure of whether food is expensive or cheap," he said.

In this chart, the U.S. ranks 23 out of 34 countries, spending $2.28 per person for each 1,000 calories consumed. The countries that spent the least for every 1,000 calories consumed were Sierra Leone, 39 cents; Mali, 46 cents; Tanzania, 51 cents; and Kenya, 63 cents. The countries that spent the most per 1,000 calories consumed were Korea, $4.43; Japan, $3.68; Argentina, $3.47; Australia, $3.28; and the United Kingdom, $2.96.

Benbrook said most people in developing countries spend far less on 1,000 calories worth of food than U.S. consumers.

"Some 90% of humanity spends less per calorie of food than Americans," he said.

Americans buy lots of convenience, packaging and services with their food dollars, and as a result, pay a lot more for it, Benbrook said.

To see the first in this series about agriculture myths, go to 'Analyst points out ag myths,' at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=2425