It’s been a big week for food politics in my local newspaper. First, the Obama’s new garden (see earlier post) and now Andy Martin’s recap of the events leading to the current push for a healthier and more sustainable food system. This starts on the front page of the Business section (note photo) and continues on to a full page on the inside. And in the Week in Review, Mark Bittman writes about the organic revolution. Full disclosure: I’m quoted in both.
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My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of the wild message about how proposed food safety legislation will kill organic farming. Ordinarily, I ignore such rumors, but I’ve had two requests to comment on this one. From Cynthia: “Can you please point me in the right direction on this rumor that the new bill will eliminate organic gardening.” From TSR: “Just got an e-mail about the FoodSafety Modernization Act of 2009: HR 875 — and I’m kind of terrified. I have been checking out many different sources online — this does indeed seem to be something to be very scared about and very real.”
I have no idea what this is about but it makes no sense to me. My suspicion (based on no evidence, really) is that the message comes from opponents of animal traceability who think that having to track animals will be difficult for small farmers. The food safety bills up before Congress are designed to either redesign the system or fix the FDA (see previous posts). As far as I am concerned, all food producers should be following HACCP safety plans and safety rules should apply to all of them. So I don’t see the connection.
Or am I missing something here? If anyone has any idea about what this is about, please enlighten.
Update: the Eating Liberally folks forward this summary of myths and facts about one of the food safety bills.
Update March 24: here’s a reasonable analysis of the benefits of the legislation.
The Environmental Working Group has just issued its guide to coping with pesticides on fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s handy shopping card identifies the Dirty Dozen (highest in pesticides) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest). Organics, it says, are still the best choices!
As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it. That is why inspections are absolutely necessary. Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted. In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.
As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system. Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops). Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”
When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products. The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it. I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.
All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them. Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too. And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit. Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?
The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control. These are issues for Congress to handle. I keep wondering: How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?
Slow Food USA is promoting efforts by groups who want an organic garden grown at the White House and who would like to see some representation of interest in sustainable agriculture at the USDA. Here’s your chance to sign petitions on both those issues. And the American Gothic illustration of the Obamas is pretty cute too.
This week, EatingLiberally.org wants to know whether I think organics are honest. Do organic food producers really follow the USDA’s Organic Standards? I think most do, but the question comes out of an incident in California where a fertilizer seller was passing off an unapproved chemical fertilizer as organic. Apparently, state agriculture officials knew about this but didn’t bother to tell anyone or do much about it. Not a good situation. Here’s my response to all this.
Actually, they are more or less here already, but the USDA National Organic Standards Board has just given them a big OK. According to yesterday’s Food Chemical News, the Board approved (13 to 1) a rule to allow “farmed carnivorous fish to eat meal and oil derived from sustainably wild-caught fish — a practice to be phased out over 12 years until non-organic fish feed is no longer needed” (huh?). It also approved a more controversial recommendation (the vote was 10 to 4) to “allow use of open net pens in organic aquaculture, but with restrictions to prevent escapes of farmed fish and recycling of nutrients. Net pens would only be allowed in specified areas to avoid lice contamination.”
USDA-approved agencies have been certifying farmed fish as organic for several years now, so the Board was forced to take a stand on this question. As I have mentioned in previous posts on this topic (and written about extensively in What to Eat), organic rules are supposed to be about the conditions of production.
Since when is ocean water organic? And isn’t feeding “sustainably wild-caught fish” to farmed fish something of an oxymoron? The producers of farmed fish are desperate to be able to market them as organic. So isn’t this move more about marketing than about producing fish sustainably and healthfully?
While we are on the subject of marketing, I’ve just gotten a press release from a company selling what it says is the first certified organic bottled water. Since when is water not organic? And what’s so special about this one?
The National Organic Program says it welcomes feedback and comments. Here’s where to send them.