EOH Professors Inspire GW Students to Consider Impacts of Food Choices

This spring, students in GW’s popular “The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization” class learned about the public health implications of food choices from professors in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH).  The students who attended those classes probably spent more time than usual contemplating their next meals.

The World on a Plate class is taught by world-renowned Spanish chef José Andrés in collaboration with GW professors and guest lecturers.  The class is open to all GW students.  Andrés’ achievements include the creation of the highly regarded local Jaleo restaurants and serving as the host of the “Made in Spain” PBS television series.  He is slated to be GW’s commencement speaker this spring. 

In their talks, Department Chair Melissa Perry and Professor Lance Price advised students about how the food we can eat can affect both our health and the health of the planet.

Pesticides

You may be directly impacted by how food is grown due to pesticide residues on your food, Perry told students.  Perry studies how exposure to pesticides may impact our hormones and endocrine systems, reproductive functioning, and metabolism.  “I don’t think we have it all figured out, in terms of how pesticides affect our bodies,” she said. 

“We know that some U.S. food can contain high levels of pesticides,” Perry said.  She pointed out that a surprisingly low number of samples of food, including fish, dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables, and spices, are tested for pesticides by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  In 2008, for example, only 4000 food samples were tested.  That year, approximately one-third of the tested domestic food samples contained measurable levels of pesticides allowed for use in the U.S., and less than 2% violated U.S. laws either because they contained illegal pesticides or levels of legal pesticide residues that were too high.  During the same year, around one-fourth of imported fruits, vegetables, dairy, and spices contained measurable levels of pesticides allowed for use in the U.S., and around 5-6% were in violation of FDA standards, Perry said. 

Antibiotics

Price’s research focuses on how the 30 million pounds of antibiotics annually administered to food animals impacts the growing trend toward antibiotic-resistant infections in people.  “We know that this practice helps foster the growth of drug-resistant bacteria,” Price told students.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 410,000 foodborne drug resistant infections occur in the U.S. annually.  People can be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria when they handle and eat meat, and Price is using DNA analysis to investigate the link between the antibiotics used in food animals and antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections. 

U.S. consumers can also have an impact on the lives of the individuals who grow and process our food by taking a stand against injustice, Eduardo Peña told students.  Peña is one of the leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.  Peña and Perry have both documented working conditions in meat-packing facilities that could impact public health to raise attention to occupational health issues faced by meat-packing workers.

Food industry workers

“The individuals who grow and process our food matter and have direct impacts on the quality of our food,” Perry said.  “Food production involves the labor of millions of workers globally,” she explained.  “Many food production jobs involve multiple risks to workers’ health and well-being… [and] people get hurt doing this work at a rate higher than in other occupations,” she said.  The risks include fatalities, as well as nonlethal injuries and impacts that may not come to light for decades.

A growing number of well-designed epidemiological and molecular studies provide substantial evidence that link the pesticides used in agricultural, commercial, and home and garden applications with excess cancer risk.  This issue is exacerbated by the reality that our food production system relies on pesticides and the chemical manufacturing economy essentially expects users to protect themselves, Perry said.  Unfortunately, for workers in settings ranging “from South African vineyards, to dairy farms in Vermont, to Tanzanian coffee producers, no one really is really able to fully protect themselves,” she explained.  Adopting the protections that pesticide manufacturers prescribe is not practical for many workers, she stated.

Perry showed the World on a Plate students images taken with radiolabeled pesticides to illustrate how workers could be unintentionally and unknowingly exposed to pesticides.  Measurements of pesticides in peoples’ blood and urine show that individuals who live in the proximity of where pesticides are applied can be exposed.  Children who live on farms and non-farm families who live near farms can have pesticides in their bodies, Perry said.

The problem can be much more severe in the developing world due to differing standards and lax enforcement of regulations related to pesticide usage, Perry explained.  Pesticides banned in the developed world are sometimes used in the developing world. 

Perry said that when she asks workers around the world if they wear their protective equipment, the answer is often that they do not.  The reasons vary: they may not understand the requirements, following them may be too much of a hassle, or their employer may not provide the necessary equipment to them.

Actions for change

Price’s research shows that meat from animals raised organically or without antibiotics—two different labels to look for at the grocery store—can have lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Infections by antibiotic-resistant microbes limit physicians’ options, making treatment more difficult. In some cases, microbes have become so resistant that no available antibiotics are effective against them, according to the CDC.  He advocated for students to vote with their dollars by avoiding animal food products that aren’t labeled as being either organic or raised without antibiotics. 

Peña, whose work on behalf of meat-packing and poultry workers was highlighted in the Food, Inc. documentary, pointed out that Americans’ food choices can have a political impact.  He stressed that actions taken by students and other politically minded citizens also can have an impact on the quality of lives of laborers such as the employees of chicken operations in North Carolina. 

Perry agreed:  “Please be the change you’d like to see in the world,” she urged the class.