by Marion Nestle
Mar 14 2008

Food safety as part of homeland security?

I’ve just been interviewed by HS (Homeland Security) Daily Wire about food safety in a globalized economy.  The interviewer started off asking about the implications of mature capitalism so we were at it right away.  I’m not sure what this group is, but the interview was fun to do.

  • Bix

    “Concentrated food production is not going to go away, so we need to deal with it.”

    I am so glad someone with a public voice said this. I just do not see the bulk of US food supply ever returning to production from small, local, caring growers.

    And down a little ways, HSDW asked:

    “Would people be willing to pay more for (statistically) safer food?”

    Dr. Nestle said that surveys showed that yes, people would be.

    I suspect these surveys are slanted toward people of economic means.

  • I suspect these surveys are slanted toward people of economic means.

  • Yes, I picked up on the “willingness to pay more” thing, too. I really doubt it. People say they would, but then you hear people at farmer’s markets bitching because eggs there cost $4/dozen instead of the 79 cent salmonella bombs you buy at the grocery store. Where on earth do they expect to get safer food unless they go outside the Food-Industrial complex with its overcrowded, pathogenic conditions? And many of these same people would go to Dunkin Donuts and pay $4 for a breakfast sandwich that has one egg, a slice of processed cheese, and a nutritonally bereft bagel. Yet they resent getting 12 whole eggs for the same price? When did we stop teaching math in the schools, anyway?

  • And will it be safer anyway? The nature of industrial food, conventional or organic, is that we are constantly one or more steps behind the pathogen du jour. We may lick one pathogen with ann expensive new technology or processing system, only to find there is a new one that has circumvented the barriers and causes a new danger. Evolving pathogens are inherent in *food that defies nature*, which is what “centralized” or industrial food does. We all know that Mother Nature has the last laugh, but we don’t seem to respect it.

    And even if we could really achieve a “safe fodo supply”, we really have to beware of unintended consequences. We could seriously be complicating long term health and safety for short term safety (I would argue that we have already done this). The increasingly sterile food supply that we already have is increasingly implicated in diminished immune function in high numbers of seemingly healthy people, so ironically, the “safer” we make our food supply, the more vulnerable we seem to be when glitches and “oversights” do inevitably happen.

  • Fentry

    I believe that in the future we could be willing to pay more for food. Didn’t we do so willingly in the past?

    We pay more for fuel now than we did a few years ago and we pay–don’t other people in other countries pay even more for food and fuel (as a percentage of income) even today?

    Americans used to be known for thriftyness, back when we used to have something called the “pioneer spirit.”

  • Bix

    Good questions, Fentry.

    And I do want safer food.

    If we can find $12 billion/month for the Iraq War, I’m sure we can find a few billion to improve food safety (especially when you figure in the threat of bioterrorism).

    If it comes down to Congress saying we cannot afford to spend more money on food safety (a stand they presently take), then, well, I don’t know … there are people who say that industry can police itself, and that market forces can improve food safety (and defend against bioterrorism). I’m skeptical.

  • Fentry’s spot on. In 1947 Americans spent 1/4 of our incomes on food, and that in a time of postwar prosperity where incomes were relatively large. Today it’s 10%. Europeans still do spend more than Americans. I just saw a discussion on Bix’s blog where some of her commenters were marveling at how much Europeans spend on food. But what do Americans spend money on? Cable TV? Gas, to drive over an hour each way to go to work in our ridiculous SUVs instead of living near our jobs?

    Bix, I think we both agree that the industrial food supply represents an unacceptable level of risk. I’m not sure what you would advocate spending all that money on, though. More inspectors? More chlorine? More irradiation? Inspectors don’t actually check for bacteria levels; they check for temperature, and a cold temperature only means that bacteria are dormant, not that they are absent. And bugs are notorious for resisting every chemical onslaught we subject them to; why should irradiation be any different? So we’ll have the worst of both worlds – no actual testing for bacteria, combined with bacteria that are resistant to chlorine, irradiation, acid, and whatever else we throw at them. A recipe for pandemics of food poisoning, all on the taxpayers’ dollar. This increases the price of food both directly (by increasing the hoops food producers must jump through) and indirectly (by reducing the buying power of consumers through increased taxation).

    A wonderful book with an alternative view of how to achieve food safety is Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. If you ever wondered why humanely produced, local bacon costs $6/pound and mega-industrial bacon from confinement pigs costs $3/pound, or supermarket eggs cost 6 cents each and local eggs cost 25 cents, this is the book for you. If Salatin is right, we could make a safer food supply AND do it cheaper if we only had the political will to support local farms and stop the subsidies to giant agribusinesses.

  • Exactly. Salatin’s book is just what came to mind as this discussion progressed. His earlier book is also good – Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyers Guide to Farm Friendly Food, but the later book really describes how transparency works in a more direct relationship with consumers and producers. Joel explains very well why transparency is the missing ingredient in industrial food and why when the farm-to-table route is fairly short and direct, transparency is practically built-in.

    Some other issues in the food safety dilemma haven’t been mentioned. Two that immediately come to mind are out-sourcing of our food supply and concentrated corporate control of gene, seed, and breed patenting. We no longer even own some of our own body’s genetic material. True, look it up. Companies already own genes in our bodies, without our permission or sale. But that’s another rant.

    Increasingly, more of our food is coming from overseas. Not just luxuries like out-of-season fruit, candies, and beverages, but staples and major nutritional heavy-hitters, like meat, dairy, fish, poultry, and vegetables (I’ll grant some of you would add grains & legumes, but my bias considers those lower in necessity and quality, but either way, those are being out-sourced, too) are coming from other countries now. Granted, humans have imported spices and food for a very long time, but even the Romans and trade empire-building nations learned that heavy reliance on basic foods from far-flung places has a heavy cost, with sustainability of remote sourcing being just one of the challenges. Outsourcing a majority of our food supply perpetuates old problems, like balance-of-trade deficits, and creates new problems of decreased transparency, and as we’ve already witnessed, a very great potential for less safe food, delayed reaction, difficult tracking, and negligible accountability. I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg on these issues; there is much worse looming unseen to most consumers, though I don’t doubt that industry insiders see it but often turn their gaze. I can’t imagine how “homeland security” (the collective agencies charged with food safety issues) will manage if the trend continues (I’d argue they already don’t manage well). Is it really not obvious to nearly everyone that a centralized food supply is most vulnerable, from both unintentional, negligence, and intentional (bioterrorism) threats?

    The other issue of corporate control of our most basic of resources – seeds, is something I am just now learning about, but apparently there has been much alarm about this for some time by people closer to the issue, and efforts to save seeds for the public domain have begun to counterbalance the “locking up” of access to seeds by corporate interests.

    And those companies are increasingly larger and more concentrated, as smaller companies and their seed stock is bought up by larger corporations (do you know who owns your favorite seed catalog business?). Added to that are gene and breed patents, so that it the future, it may even become difficult to grow/raise one’s own food or source from small local farms who would prefer not to use patented genetic material. We’ve already seen the challenges created by many GMO-patented products, where non-GMO farmers are sued by corporations with big legal pockets when GMO crops inadvertently grow on their land or contaminate their crops without royalty payments. Another tip of the iceberg. Industry support of university research has hastened the patenting of new knowledge and information as it pertains to genetic material in both animals and plants, and this has great potential to confuse the nature of who can do what with what was previously commonly available. There are other issues in the use of patented genetic material (patented “disease genes”), but seeds are a critical part of the food supply, and “locking up” access to seeds is already happening at an alarming rate.

    I used to think these sort of things could never come to pass in a democracy because the people wouldn’t stand for it. I’m not so confident now. They just don’t move until shocked into action, and that doesn’t happen until grave damage is already done. Not only are citizens not protesting in great enough numbers, most are clueless, and couldn’t be bothered even if they do recognize the issues because to them, the only things they notice is that the grocery stores are always full of “food” and someone always has a “better” price.

    Do we really want a corporate controlled police state to keep our food safe? Is it so unthinkable that it would ultimately come to that? Do we already have such a system? Any trip through an airport already points in that direction. We don’t seem to notice that we are sheepishly handing over considerable amounts of our liberty, not to mention to mention our dignity and time, in exchange for the appearance of security. I fear “safety and security” for our food will be much the same, if it already isn’t – that is, lots of illusion and little reality. And we are already so passive, that most people probably won’t even notice until it is a done deed.

  • The other point that I want to make is the “cost of food” and the “cost of food safety” are interesting concepts to ponder. We’ve been paying grossly distorted amounts at the cash register for generations and making up the difference in our taxes, rising health care costs, and impact on the environment instead. A small minority are finally recognizing that now. Our children and their children and perhaps their children will be paying this debt for years to come.

    Additionally, I’d like to address where we “found” some of that money for the Iraq War, since someone has used that as evidence that we can easily pay for additional food safety.

    Also, for anyone who doesn’t know what “basic” research is (in contrast to translational research and clinical research), I’ll give an illustration. My husband (his research is primarily on apoptosis, or programmed cell death), likes to describe basic research as dropping a 1957 automobile into a paleolithic human setting. That’s where we are in understanding the human body, figuring out what the parts are, how they work, how they fit and work together, what happens when the parts don’t work together properly, and how we can fix what doesn’t work right. Our knowledge is actually still quite primitive and crude. Before we can fix it or cure what doesn’t work right, we need to understand every part and how it works, and develop all the tools needed to understand (research technology). That takes generations of investment. Cutting NIH funding for basic research then also sets translational and clinical research back as well. So if we want to cure disease and advance in healthcare, we must invest in basic research.

    For several years, there have been severe cuts in basic scientific research funding from NIH, specifically because of the costs of the Iraq War. I’ll be transparent and say that this is a very personal issue as well, because my husband is a NIH funded scientist at a not-for-profit research institute (his job is dependent on “soft money”, i.e, outside grant funding) and NIH cuts directly affect the availability of funding for his research. If you stop hearing from me, it’s because grant funds ground to a halt, the internet service was cut, and we’re trying to figure out how a highly educated, highly specialized scientist can survive without going over to the “Dark Side” (industry). 😉 We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that, but I can tell you, there is a lot of morose humor like that going around in this community right now. It’s really that dark.

    First, there was an across-the-board cut in NIH grant funding a few years ago and was specifically labeled as a cut to fund the Iraq war. Currently, NIH funding is at such critically low levels that really good scientists with proven track records (I’m not talking about “dead wood”) are leaving public research institutions to work for industry (especially Big Pharma) or other professions because they can no longer keep their labs (full of trainee post-docs and graduate/undergraduate students) going. Fewer and fewer worthy grant applications are funded and the future funding looks equally as bleak.

    This is *really critical* because without basic scientific research, no advances in disease and clinical research are possible. Yes, industry will take up some of the slack, but they actually do little of the basic research unless there is a commercial payoff (look up patented “disease genes” and the problems that is causing). Senior scientists are scrambling for what crumbs, I mean funds, are still available.

    More importantly, and this is really significant, younger scientists are having serious problems getting “seed grant” funding and are leaving the profession and applying their talents elsewhere, never to come back, creating a severe break in the research pipeline and substantially depressing the future of scientific research in this country. This will have a huge negative impact on the future of innovation in healthcare for generations to come.

    By the way, this isn’t “pork-barrel” spending, either. The amount of money to fund NIH research isn’t very much by government standards and it is one of the most efficient systems in the government. But 10% cuts from an already underfunded system is significant and there are additional non-monetary costs down the pipeline.

    So, no, I don’t think we have “found” the money for the Iraq war. That’s wishful thinking, just like thinking that food is cheap. In truth, we have diverted the funds, we have fabricated money, and more than anything, we have borrowed up to our eyeballs. The monetary debt and the non-monetary losses will hobble us. If we try to fund the food safety issues the same way, I fear we are crippling ourselves and our children.