© Norman Sperling, February 8, 2015
Many kinds of contaminants and adulterants afflict products sold in the US and elsewhere, often imported from places with lower standards. The press reports most often on problems coming from China and Mexico, but I don’t doubt there are many other sources too. The salmonella peanuts that recently poisoned so many Americans were native-grown US products.
Contaminants include lead, melamine powder, and listeria. A lot of adulterants are chemically not too hard to identify. A lot of infections are biologically not too hard to identify.
Government inspectors inspect just the tiniest proportion of goods. Cheaters wheedle their way in, often with bribes, or discounts, or maybe just winks, from unscrupulous distributors and retailers.
HOW TO SOLVE IT
Thanks to the advance of technology, and with only a minor change in law, we, the public, can now fix the bulk of this problem. Bring in citizen scientists and science students.
Professional societies should establish standard testing protocols that can be learned by high school students of their subject (such as chemistry and biology), and conducted with equipment typically found in high schools.
Those societies should establish standards for affordable kits for retailers. Encourage smartphone apps. Each kit should include “how to report”, to what institution or agency, etc. Open-source testing will teach citizen scientists and all America what it takes to determine scientific measurements, and the importance of getting the amounts right.
Make it a very common standard exercise to test products sold in stores and online. Tentative positive results should be brought to chemistry and biology teachers for re-testing. If they indeed look suspicious, bring the suspect stuff to the local college for more sophisticated testing. If adulteration is confirmed, ring the hotline of the professional society, USDA, FDA, US Attorney, or other appropriate agency.
Though food supplements and cosmetics are too-lightly regulated, crowd-sourced testing can clean up some of their acts, too. Where the FDA cannot or will not reject something dangerous, that danger violates plain laws against poisoning and infecting and mislabeling.
The project will need an initial grubstake, but should become self-funding as soon as court fines are collected. Set those to:
• repair the damage already done,
• penalize guilty businesses and imprison their guilty decision-makers so harshly that it will deter everyone from pulling a similar stunt, and
• award a share of the fine to the citizen scientists and testing labs who blew their whistle.
This should make manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers a lot more leery of under-the-table deals. Only fly-by-night risk-takers would dare to pull a fast one, and with the entire supply chain poised against them, even they would find it harder. Horrible negative publicity can put a company out of business, as happened with Arthur Anderson accountants. Competent individuals can bring down a big adulterator.
Testable products will become more correct, less poisonous, and less infectious. The resulting greater trust in products will INCREASE trade in those trusted items.
Funding should not run out unless there are no more violations found. What a wonderful problem to have!