On pet food scares, food safety, pesticides, and ethics

May 11, 2007

There used to be a regulation called the Delaney Clause, which required zero cancer-causing chemicals to be allowed in any food products for human consumption. Despite the impossibility of zero parts per million (we can get close but never a perfect 100% all the way), the philosophical security this clause offered consumers became the bedrock for a lot of what we’ve come to expect regulation to do for us. I believe the legacy of Delaney, which expired more than a decade ago, is partly responsible for the outrage we as pet parents are experiencing now.

A trio of carefully reasoned articles, written by the late Donella (Dana) Meadows in 1996, the year the clause expired, explains the issue quite clearly. Meadows taught environmental studies at Dartmouth and was founder and director of the Sustainability Institute.

The gist of Meadows’ writing, archived at the People-Centered Development Forum, is that it’s impossible to eliminate 100% of all risk, all the time. Problems arise especially where processed food is concerned. Pesticide residues may be present in raw foods, and if present in a high enough concentration to be deemed carcinogenic, the Delaney Clause, calling for zero risk, would have kicked in.

But absent Delaney, what should we make of toxic substances in the food chain? Where humans are concerned, if there are no deaths directly attributable to lingering residues in our bodies, but the residues are still there, is that OK? Are we still OK?

Think about that in weighing the merits of public health (how disease and illness spread through an entire population, i.e., epidemiology) vs. private medicine (how disease and illness affect a single individual). Are we as a society willing to sacrifice a few individuals who may die, while treatments that can save entire cities and regions are being developed? Is the greater good worth more than one individual person’s life? What if that one person is someone close to you? Or even you yourself?

I pose these questions rhetorically, or Socratically, and often find myself thinking about them. Would I be willing to say farewell deliberately to those I love, including my pets, to benefit “the greater good”? What if I myself were the case at risk? Some of these questions I really don’t know how I would feel until or unless they happen to me directly. It’s one thing to be an armchair philosopher and quite another to be the victim oneself.

A few years ago my Public Relations Case Studies students did a “living” study about communicating the pros and cons of cloning pets. (Thankfully, as reported elsewhere on this blog, cloning of pets never took off and is no longer being allowed.) Dr. Ray Stricklin, a professor of animal science and behavior at the University of Maryland College Park, spoke to the class as a guest, addressing, among other things, several different ethics approaches to the relationship between humans and animals. These considerations have relevance whether the issue is cloning or animal welfare in general. An evolutionary biologist, Stricklin outlined the issues in normative terms (what society believes should be done) for personal benefit and/or for societal benefit. Should we approach ethics as an individual struggle as distinct from a basis of controlling the behavior of others?

Among the principles to consider are benevolence, paternalism (parenting, mentoring, shepherding or care in pursuing the best interests of others when they can’t do so themselves), and doing no harm. In addition, a community should consider whether any laws are being violated, honesty and absence of deceit, the degree of autonomy (freedom over one’s own actions), and who has what rights.

In that light, what about our pets, who are dependent on us, and the foods we feed them? What about our children? What about us? What about anyone who is hungry?


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