by Marion Nestle
Sep 17 2010

A decent food safety system: will we ever get one?

I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.

This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That’s food politics in action for you.

Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”

  • Re: China

    What do you mean ‘considers’? They’ve already done so.

  • Subvert

    We do not have legislators any more, only minions who aspire to one day achieve the rank of their masters. I have come to expect little from their toiling in D.C. these days, except for the ensuing raw deal that will be served to the common people…which we will no doubt have to thoroughly cook to ensure it’s safe to eat.

  • Cathy Richards

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” · Mahatma Gandhi

  • DennisP

    Should read today’s column (Saturday, the 18th) by Bob Herbert on how our legislators have lost all connection with the public, with the way people are hurting (from economics, from lack of food safety) and with their needs. I think he nails it. I live in the 7th District in Wisconsin, where Dave Obey is retiring. I have just one question for both the Democrat and the Republican running for his office: “How long will it take, and what will be your price, before your vote is bought by corporate largesse?”

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  • Anon

    IMO we need to move from a government administered direct food safety regulatory system to one with government supporting a indirect third-party system with the proper incentives, including moral hazard, aligned for all the parties.

    Much like other food labeling, such as organic and others, this system has to be based on branding that has sufficient value to each stakeholder in the marketplace chain that anyone damaging the brand is held financially liable by the others in that chain. If the brand value is sufficient, third parties providing the bonding and insurance would provide strong enforcement on each party in the product chain as well as the third parties providing the testing and certifying services.

    In other words, sort of a HACCP of accountability with the jeopardy coming from all the actors in the market place, which moves far more swiftly and with far more precision than any regulatory structure.

    IMO if the incentives for all the parties in the product path aren’t present and aligned properly, Congress can’t write enough legislation or throw enough taxpayer money at the problem to fix it through direct regulation, whether it is food safety, the drug war, or financial derivatives. As a consequence of improperly aligned incentives, we move from wreck to wreck to wreck.

    Indirect regulation for our wealth works reasonably well (without infinite resources, perfection is impossible) through CPAs and accounting firms auditing public stock companies falling under the jurisdiction of the SEC. The USDA Organic and similar label claim processes with the USDA auditing the third party certifiers appear to work reasonably well in light of the taxpayer investment compared to what would be needed if it were direct.

    Compared to our current direct regulation-based system, a properly constructed third-party system would be more flexible, cost less, and players would move much more quickly to incorporate new technologies and to develop solutions to problems due to such things as producer scale and the emergence of new products, new forms of distribution. Such a system would likely reduce the constant battle between the opposing stakeholders who shower legislators with large sums of money to gain the upper hand, would reduce the incentives for political tinkering and grandstanding, and would reduce the problems due to regulatory capture that inevitably and naturally occurs with the present system.

    The current system rewards continual ineffective actions on Congress’s part. During such a sausage making process organized, powerful stakeholders invest significant money or other resources to enhance incentives favorable to them, such as tax incentives, and eliminate those they view as unfavorable, such as enhancing marketplace competition or rewarding economic efficiency. It is no surprise that as a government agency benefiting from the additional funds to support additional regulatory authority, the FDA doesn’t have any incentive to opt for a more efficient regulatory system. Similarly, without positive incentives it is no surprise that little formal cooperation occurs between Federal agencies down at the inspector level. In fact, doing so without a formal structure is more likely to get you fired than a pat on the back.

    With a properly established third-party system the marketplace would quickly euthanize the bad actors because firms at the end of the chain wouldn’t stand for this – Albertsons, Safeway Eggs Recalled ( ). Then this type of wreck – – would happen infrequently if at all because it would be stopped before a wreck started. That facility would have failed a third party audit and the eggs never labeled with the standard that Albertson, Safeway, and others use.

    Private parties with skin in the game would have incentives to figure out the linkages detailed here – – and act accordingly.

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  • Anita

    After reading your book about the politics of food safety, I doubt that our government could successfully implement an effective food safety program. Even irradiation and pasteurization don’t remove contaminants. They may kill live germs, but they leave dead bacteria, dead mold, and their waste products (mycotoxins) in the food.
    Perhaps your book will alert customers to the problem and encourage them to ask food companies lots of questions about the safety of their products. Some companies already post on the internet the steps they take to protect their food. If all companies did this, people could make informed choices.

  • Food industry are widely spread in the which traditional and regional cousin is prepared for serve.If u have to succeed in food industry so you should have to lot of awairness about it.
    1.If u have right ingredents and meat so u can cook a delicious meal.
    2.First of all u have to decide that u want to be budget oriental or quality wise.I f u want quality wise so u will be success or else??

  • Joann Palazzola

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