It's Election Day: May I Take Your Order?

Millions of Americans will turn out to vote today, and millions more won't. It's pretty weird when you think about it. Not voting is like going to a restaurant with some friends, and then, when the waiter brings you the menu, deciding that you can't be bothered to look at it, so you're just going to let somebody else decide what you should get.

Of course, hardly anybody ever does this; in fact, we spend an absurd amount of time agonizing over what to order, given how quickly today's soup du jour is destined to become tomorrow's poop du jour.

And yet, though we're willing to engage in a lengthy debate on the respective merits of a reuben versus a blt, many of us won't give equal time to choices that can have reverberations for years or even decades.

Whom you choose to represent you--or what legislation you decide to support--can be a matter of life or death, literally. For example, thousands of Americans die needlessly each year from preventable food-borne illnesses because too many of the elected officials we've entrusted to represent our interests have opted to safeguard corporate coffers rather than protect citizens.

We all have to go, sometime, but who wants to die from eating E. coli-tainted ground beef, as two more unfortunate folks apparently have in the latest outbreak, which will likely cause more deaths before it runs its course? And how many people will be killed by the swine flu epidemic because of government policies that failed to protect us?

I'm not talking about the vaccine shortage. Clearly, that doesn't help, but what's equally unhelpful is our failure to provide paid sick days for every worker. Do you really want the guy who assembles your sandwich or the day care worker who diapers your little darling to show up for work even when they're carrying a contagious disease? That scenario is all too common, as Tuesday's New York Times reports:

...workers who deal with the public, like waiters and child care employees, are jeopardizing others by reporting to work sick because they do not get paid for days they miss for illness.

Our government agencies and employers advise us to stay home when we've got a contagious illness. But until Congress enacts legislation to guarantee paid sick days to every worker, millions of wheezing, sniffling workers will drag themselves into the workplace despite feeling awful because the prospect of losing a day's wages makes them feel even worse.

Legislators have addressed this problem in San Francisco and Washington, but, as the Times notes, "similar measures face obstacles in Congress." Still, despite pressure from powerful business groups to squelch such measures, more than 100 representatives have signed on to sponsor a bill "that would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide seven paid sick days a year."

And that's just one example of legislation that has an impact on how well equipped we are to handle potentially fatal health threats. What about taking steps to prevent contagious diseases like the H1N1 virus from occurring in the first place?

You'd think our health agencies would be hard at work attempting to determine the source of the swine flu outbreak. But as muckraker extraordinaire Tom Philpott noted over at Grist recently, our government has shown shockingly little interest in tracing the origins of the H1N1 virus, which, Philpott notes, is suspected of being linked to industrial hog operations.

Acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer, whose latest book, Eating Animals, is a measured but merciless indictment of industrialized meat production, makes the connection unequivocally. As Foer wrote in an op-ed for CNN last week:

Today, the factory farm-pandemic link couldn't be more lucid. The primary ancestor of the recent H1N1 swine flu outbreak originated at a hog factory farm in America's most hog-factory-rich state, North Carolina, and then quickly spread throughout the Americas.

It was in these factory farms that scientists saw, for the first time, viruses that combined genetic material from bird, pig and human viruses. Scientists at Columbia and Princeton Universities have actually been able to trace six of the eight genetic segments of the most feared virus in the world directly to U.S. factory farms.

Foer notes that the rampant use of antibiotics in factory farming is widely thought to be a significant factor in the creation of drug-resistant pathogens:

Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms...

...Today, institutions as diverse as the American Medical Association; the Centers for Disease Control; the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences; and the World Health Organization have linked nontherapeutic antibiotic use on factory farms with increased antimicrobial resistance and called for a ban.

It hasn't happened, though, because, as Foer points out, "The factory farm industry, allied with the pharmaceutical industry, has more power than public-health professionals."

Our state health departments have been doing an abysmal job when it comes to tackling food-borne illnesses, as Reuters recently reported. How can we demand better from our represented officials?

On Election Day, we have the power to support the politicians and policies that are dedicated to protecting us from potentially lethal business practices. Today in Ohio, for example, voters have the opportunity to weigh in on Issue 2, a measure intended to protect the industrialized farming methods that Foer, Philpott, and a wide range of experts have cited as contributing to the disease outbreaks that are becoming all too common.

So, before you decide to blow off that trip to your local polling booth, consider the possibility that you may well be passing up a once-a-year opportunity to support legislation that actually has an impact on your life and the lives of those around you.

Think of your ballot as a list of menu options. Would you like your burger with, or without, deadly pathogens? Do you really want to let someone else make that choice for you?

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.