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Cancer in a Can

Terry J. Allen

Fifteen years ago the Food and Drug Administration said, Trust us.” Its scientists had found benzene, a known carcinogen, in some sodas and fruit drinks. The same levels in drinking water would have triggered mandatory action and public notification through newspaper, radio and TV ads. Yet the FDA neither sounded the alarm nor required the beverage industry to fix the problem.

Instead, it cut a private deal. FDA chemist Greg Diachenko told bev​er​agedai​ly​.com that Soft drinks manufacturers told us that they would get the word out and they were reformulating.”

It wouldn’t have been hard. Benzene, linked to leukemia and other cancers of the blood, is created by the reaction of two common additives: sodium benzoate, a preservative, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Ignoring basic chemistry, major brands left the avoidable combo in many drinks, especially those featuring fruit juice or fortified with vitamin C to lure health-conscious parents. 

According to a 1990 internal FDA memo, the National Soft Drinks Association clarified industry priorities, expressing concern about the presence of benzene traces in their products and the potential for adverse publicity associated with this problem.” 

Fifteen years later, the benzene is hitting the fan. Recently, Germany and the United Kingdom announced investigations and the FDA admits it is taking another look. But Washington’s drink of choice remains a heady cocktail of campaign contributions and secrecy, impairing its ability and will to regulate the safety of everything from mines to meat, from skyscrapers to soda.

Some states have circumvented Washington’s lax standards and weak enforcement. California’s Proposition 65, which requires companies to alert the public of potentially dangerous toxins in food, has sparked lawsuits over mercury in canned tuna and lead in Mexican candy. 

The Republican-dominated House has countered with a circumvention of its own. On March 8, as lawmakers pledged allegiance to industry, and FDA officials chanted another dreary chorus of Trust us,” the House passed the National Uniformity for Food Act. If the Senate follows suit, the FDA would control almost all food labeling, and states would be barred from posting stricter warnings on carcinogens, genetic engineering, carbon monoxide-treated meat or growth hormones.

This bill is going to overturn 200 state laws that protect our food supply,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D‑Calif.). Why are we doing that? What’s wrong with our system of federalism?”

President Bush’s answer to that question lies in the ways he has undercut states’ rights and tilted the constitutionally defined balance of powers by expanding executive authority. His sentiment, if not his language, echoes Dick Cheney’s suggestion to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D‑Vt.). With go-fuck-yourself verve, his administration has launched a stealth campaign to centralize regulatory power in Washington, while cronies, lackeys and co-conspirators work to disable safeguards and to hide outrages that range from abusive detention camps to poison in your kid’s drink. 

The FDA bill that cuts states out of the food labeling business is but one part of a broad strategy leaving the country’s regulatory system increasingly vulnerable to political and financial pressure. Changes quietly imposed by the administration include limiting an individual’s right to sue in state court over defective or injurious products, undermining state laws on discriminatory lending, and barring states from requiring tougher vehicle emission and safety standards. The New York Times referred to the practice as silent tort reform” and noted that, Using a variety of largely unheralded regulations, officials appointed by President Bush have moved in recent months to neuter the states.”

The administration’s most gung-ho allies are the lobbyists and interest groups that profit from less regulation. All insist that the industry they represent has the public’s interest at heart and that it can and will police itself without government interference.”

The backers of the FDA labeling bill, led by the corporations and trade groups in the National Uniformity for Food Coalition (NUFC), say their key goal is preventing consumer confusion.” Meanwhile, legislators are indeed getting an unambiguous message – in the language of cash. NUFC members contributed more than $3 million in the 2005-06 election cycle and $31 million since 1998, according to data the San Francisco Chronicle crunched using Center for Responsive Politics data.

Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Kool-Aid (Kraft), Tropicana and Cadbury Schweppes all produce drinks that contain the potentially dangerous benzene-producing combo according to research by the Environmental Working Group. And a look at the NUFC Web site confirms that all of these companies are members of the trade group that pushed for the bill. 

The average American consumes almost 70 gallons of fruit drink and soda a year, while males 12 – 29 swill more than double that in soda alone. The American Beverage Association (also an NUFC member) declares on its Web site that the public craves a choice. It neglects to note that if consumers choose a benzene-contaminated drink, that choice may result in cancer.

Terry J. Allen is a veteran investigative reporter/​editor who has covered local and international politics and health and science issues. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Boston Globe, Times Argus, Harper’s, the Nation​.com, Salon​.com, and New Scientist . She has been an editor at Amnesty International, In These Times , and Cor​p​watch​.com. She is also a photographer. Her portraits of people sitting in some of the 1900 cars lined up outside a Newport, Vt., food drop can be seen on www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​t​e​r​r​y​a​l​l​e​n​/​a​lbums. Terry can be contacted at tallen@​igc.​org or through www​.ter​ry​jallen​.com.
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