Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cannon Fodder

Just before I mixed up the barley and favas for dinner this morning, I read this article in the LA Times.  It struck me as yet another misguided volley in the food morality wars.

At issue is whether BPA levels in human bodies are reduced by not consuming food that has been in contact with packaging containing BPA. From this rather small study, there is evidence that levels are reduced. What does it take to produce that reduction? From the article:
The "Food Packaging and Bisphenol A" study tracked five Bay Area families for eight days in January 2010, collecting urine samples from family members after each individual ate normally. Participating families each had four members: an adult male, an adult female and two children between the ages of 3 and 11. Each family regularly ate meals prepared outside the home, including canned foods, canned sodas and frozen dinners; they also microwaved foods in plastic.
For the study, the families then switched to a modified diet of fresh organic meals and snacks for three days. Prepared and delivered by a caterer that avoided using foods packaged in plastic or cans, the meals were stored in glass and stainless steel containers. Urine samples were collected during the families' diet change and after they went back to eating as normal. Urinary BPA levels decreased by more than 60% on average within three days of switching to a diet with minimal canned foods or plastic food packaging, the study found.  
"One of the main sources of BPA is believed to be food packaging, but there weren't any studies that had actually looked at having people eat a normal diet and then stop eating foods that had been wrapped in BPA-containing products," said Janet Gray, Ph.D., director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Vassar College and science advisor to the Breast Cancer Fund. Gray co-authored "Food Packaging and Bisphenol A," a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
"We wanted to be able to ask the question: Could we have fairly simple changes in people's lives, both adults and children, that would alter their exposure and body burden of BPA?" Gray said. 
Switching to fresh foods decreased BPA levels very quickly.
Let's unpack this. Five Bay Area families who eat commercially packaged foods were provided several days' worth of catered meals, prepared from fresh, ostensibly non- or minimally processed foods that represented a dramatic change in their eating habits. BPA levels in their bodies dropped by a measurable amount as a result. "Switching to fresh foods decreased BPA levels very quickly."

Do you see the move here? The final conclusion makes it the individual's (or, let's be more precise, the woman of the house's) decision to pick healthy alternatives and dedicate herself to preparing wholesome meals for the family. It does not address the use of BPA in the first place. It does not try to use packaging that is just as effective in preserving food while also keeping down food costs. There was no mention or calculation of the cost difference between the ordinary diet and the catered meals. The red herring of "organic" tossed in there inserts another panty-sniffing bit of moralism that it isn't enough to get fresh food. Oh, no! It must be "organic" fresh food.

Well, my regular readers know my jaundiced take on "organic" (it isn't actually chemical free and there's no conclusive evidence that it is any better than the dinged up seconds I get at the local ethnic market) but the warning flags for me is the focus on the mere presence of the chemical without the context of why people buy and consume food packaged in this way at all. It's not just convenience, as though the people who pop open the pinto beans and canned tuna are simply too lazy to cook their own beans and catch and home-can their own tuna. (By the way, I have a great recipe for canned pinto bean and canned tuna salad. It's delish!) Commercially packaged food is cheap. Much of it is plenty nutritious, like the canned favas I used in my dinner tonight, or the canned tomatoes I used in the chickpea and potato curry a few posts back. It provides ingredients that are not readily available from local growers. It is not merely lower cost than fresh prodice; it is also consistent quality at a consistent price, which allows for budgeting of both time and money.

The problem is not what the consumers are doing, but what the packagers are doing. This is not a matter of individual inattention. It is a matter of public health. The study's conclusion is not that food packaging should be reformulated to avoid BPA or even that food packages should be labled that they use BPA. The conclusion is that everyone needs to have fresh, organic meals delivered to their doorstep.  This is not much help to the people who don't have the income to afford meals made from minimally processed food delivered on demand. We poor schmucks are left with poisonous chemicals in our food supply. This is the privatization of a public health problem, with the less well off left to play roulette with their health, while Whole Foods Nation feels superior about eating minimally processed, lovingly prepared meals.

This is another move towards the deliberate dismantling of the public health system, when Whole Foods do-gooders walk hand-in-claw with the corporate profit takers to shift the burden of social risk onto the backs of those least able to resist.



Alessandro Machi said...

If consuming less canned and plastic packaged foods reduces BPA levels in the human body, and if it recognized that that is a good thing, then what exactly are you complaining about?

Your position could be plastered over cigarette studies that proved cigarettes are bad for one's health, you could simply say that alternatives to cigarette smoking are much more expensive and such studies don't help those economically depressed solve their problems.

So what? Does that mean the studies can't be published without an accusation that they are manipulative in nature?

Apparently not.

Anonymous said...

Taking aim at the fodder canon?

Interesting series of posts - love the puns.

redscott said...

Spot on, as usual. This is on a par with the stuff I read from Yglesias and Klein and co. during the HCR debates where they would earnestly talk about Cadillac plans and the crying need to make the consumer bear the burden of increasing health care costs by making smarter choices, etc. Totally absent from the discussion was the unstated assumption that we couldn't even examine the overhead and profits flowing to the insurers and providers, or entertain the notion that health is a public good rather than a market commodity to be exploited for as much as it can bear. Even our "progressive" (read: neo-liberal) opinion "leaders" have accepted that the market is God. Sick making, but I certainly appreciate your pointing out yet another way in which this plays out. The truth sucks, but you can't get anywhere without it.

portia.vz said...

This week it's BPAs, "last week" it was artificial dyes. Did you read Derek Lowe's blog In the Pipeline recently? Turns out that all of those dyes we've been avoiding and sheltering our children from are useful to the body as a means of getting rid of aggregated carcinogenic proteins. Whodathunkit?
There's danger all over the place. But the new food police remind me of the same kind of people are are taking all of the fun out of childhood by insisting on padded playgrounds and guilting mothers into not leaving their children unattended for one second, not even to go take a pee, for fear that the little tike will swallow a kinder surprise toy and choke to death or will be snatched from their ultra safe playpens by strangers just passing through the neighborhood.
Food morality? Societally enforced helicopter parenting? Lots of increased pressure on women, particularly mothers, to be hyper vigilant, perfect and exhausted?

Koshem Bos said...

Late as usual, I totally agree. THEY want to take over everything; this latest chapter forces the poor to pay more for food. The whole BPA story reminds me of the physician that started to wear sport garbs and encourage everyone to start exercising vigorously otherwise doom. It turns out that if you walk decent distances regularly its good enough for everyone. (I do run because I like it and because I am old enough to not be able to.)

It's the health tea party.