The industrial food system creates hazards to our health from the farm to the factory and ultimately to our dinner plates. Every year, thousands of Americans are put at risk from the harmful practices of factory farms and processed foods. In just the past few years, we’ve seen food scandals that have threatened our health and created mass contamination of our food. To note just a few examples:
- In late 2008, widespread salmonella contamination of peanut butter was traced to one of the nation’s largest peanut companies, the Peanut Corporation of America. Over several months, the company’s peanuts turned up in hundreds of brands of peanut butter, leading to more than 700 confirmed illnesses and nine deaths.
- For years, major cola brands, including Coke and Pepsi, used caramel coloring that contains a cancer-causing chemical. When CEH and other health groups brought attention to the issue, the companies agreed to change their coloring – but Pepsi lagged far behind Coke, and continued to sell the risky products for years (see more, below)
- In 2013, an unapproved variety of genetically modified (GMO) wheat was found to have contaminated natural wheat fields in Oregon. After USDA concluded its investigation (despite determining no explanation for the contamination), another unapproved GMO wheat was found in Montana fields. Similar contamination incidents with GMO rice and corn cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars in lost revenue when export partners closed their markets to US crops.
From the pesticides used on our food, to the additives and/or adulterants that can contaminate food, to the genetic food technologies that make up our food, CEH works to expose unsafe practices and pressure industries to adopt safer alternatives.
CEH works to end the reliance on pesticides used in food production, and in support of sustainable and organic farming solutions to pest problems. These toxic farm poisons have proven time and again to be harmful to our health and unnecessary in farming: studies since the advent of pesticides have found that overall losses to pests have not declined, while the poisoning of our food and farms increases with every spray.
Recent studies have found that pesticide exposures can interfere with all developmental stages of reproduction in women, and are associated with sterility in males, spontaneous abortion, diminished fetal growth and survival, as well as childhood and adult cancers. One study found links between pregnant women’s exposures to pesticides and autism and developmental delays. Even low-level exposures to pesticides have been linked to obesity, neurological deficits in children, and potential adverse hormonal activity and developmental problems.
CEH Research Director Caroline Cox is a leading national expert on pesticide dangers and sustainable alternatives. A former public interest member of the U.S. EPA’s Pesticide Program Advisory Committee, at CEH Caroline heads our work on pesticides and health. She also serves on the Board of the national organization Beyond Pesticides and as CEH’s representative on the steering committee of Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Food additives and contaminants
The global food industry relies on various chemicals to make processed foods palatable, shelf-stable, visually appealing, and for other qualities. But too often food additives have been linked to harmful diseases, after years of widespread use by major food makers. Contamination of food by harmful bacteria and other pathogens can also cause illnesses, including contamination by unsafe production and processing practices, by plastics and other materials used in storage and production, and by chemicals found in food ingredients.
CEH investigates toxic food additives and contaminants, exposes health threats to children and families, and works to eliminate harmful food production practices and unsafe ingredients.
Genetically engineered (genetically modified or GMO) food has been introduced widely into the food supply, despite no government rules requiring labeling or safety testing. Scientists and doctors have warned that GMOs could trigger unexpected allergies, increase levels of toxins in food, alter the nutritional value of foods and cause other unexpected problems. The evidence is also clear that the most widely planted GMOs increase farmers’ use of toxic pesticides, leading to higher levels of pesticide residues on our food.
CEH works with leading national food safety, consumer protection, farming and organic organizations in advocating for restrictions on unsafe GMOs and labeling of the GMO foods that are already on the market. We work in support of nonprofit watchdog organizations like the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the leading legal and advocacy group working to address food safety threats, promote safe, organic alternatives, and call for safety testing and labeling of GMOs. Our work with the international Health Care Without Harm coalition led to that group’s adopting a position calling for labeling and testing of GMO foods.