by Marion Nestle
Jan 14 2011

If I had a food safety magic wand…

 Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer in Seattle, is asking for responses to the question, “if you had a magic wand, how would you fix the food safety system?” 

I’ve been mulling over his question in light of the recent enactment of the food safety bill, as yet unfunded.  Magic wand in hand, here’s what I’d do:

Create a single food safety agency: the new law is designed to fix the FDA.  It does nothing to fix the USDA’s food safety functions.  These remain divided between the two agencies, with USDA responsible for the safety of meat and poultry, and FDA responsible for everything else.  This division pretends that animal wastes have nothing to do with the safety of fruits and vegetables which, alas, they do. 

Require safety control systems for all foods.  Everyone who produces food should do it safely using proven methods for identifying where hazards can occur, taking steps to prevent those hazards, monitoring to make sure the steps were taken, and—when appropriate— testing to make sure the system is working. 

Apply safety controls from farm to table.  The new law does this for FDA-regulated foods.  But USDA safety regulations begin at the slaughterhouse after animals have already been contaminated in feedlots or in transport.  Everyone involved in food production, even farmers large and small, should be actively engaged in food safety efforts.

Fund food safety through congressional health committees.  For irrational reasons of history, the FDA gets its funding through agricultural committees, not health—even though FDA is an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.   As a consequence, the FDA is at the mercy of appropriations committees whose mandate is to protect agricultural interests.  This anomaly explains why 80% of food safety funding goes to USDA, and only20% to FDA.  The new chair of the House agricultural appropriations committee has made it clear that he does not believe FDA needs any more funding.   Health appropriations committees might view FDA’s role in food safety in a more favorable light.

Fund food safety adequately.  To protect the domestic food supply—and to ensure the safety of imported foods—more money is needed to pay for inspection, testing, and research. 

Give the food agency cabinet-level status.  Everyone eats.  Food safety affects everyone.  Food has critically important economic and food security dimensions, domestically and internationally.   

Require election campaigns to be publicly funded, with no loopholes. This is the only way we will be able to remove corruption from our political system and elect officials who care more about public health than corporate health.

Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability.  Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety.  Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.

Even a magic wand may not be enough to do this.  It will take more than a magic wand to do this, I fear.  Hey, I can dream.

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  • MYoung

    What is most disturbing about all facets of the FDA and the USDA is the fact that laws and criteria have to be enacted to require behavior that should be common sense.
    Clean food should be common sense. Why does the human race need laws to tell us to separate waste from food consumption. When did the human race lose this function to act responsibly? Somewhere along the way, when countries were forming and humanity was excelling, the amount of progress became more important than the quality of progress. The size of the disconnect from where meats, eggs, vegetables, and grains are grown and the appearance of processed foods in the basic grocery isle has become a gulf. It is going to take REAL education for all of humanity, all over the world, for us to be able to overcome this famine of knowledge and we must begin with the education of the children.

    In large cities, children never see where cattle amble to become our roasts, steaks and yes fast food burgers. They do not see that it is born, fed, watered, slaughtered. Perhaps we can blame part of our ignorance of the actual act of civility. We have become too civilized and sheltered from this aspect of life and no longer have the basic knowledge of growing foods to feed ourselves.( Who wants to visit a slaughterhouse in their present state?) In most cases, the knowledge a city child has of food production is the “bean” they all grow in kindergarten. Or a trip to the local grocery where food magically appears in beautiful, colorful boxes, bags and cans on store shelves. You acquire this food with money. You, most times, do not know where this food came from. You do not know if pesticides were used. YOU DO NOT KNOW.

    Every year I grow SOMETHING. I have had chickens, eaten their eggs, watched them hatch chicks. Yes I purchase food a the grocery. But I know that my Uncle Paulie never got $4.25 a pound for his cattle. I know that to get a good crop of green beans you must amend your soil. I know that a freeze will kill my eggplants. And I know this is all relative to what I pay for fresh, healthy produce. I just prefer to pay for my food with dirty fingernails and sunburns. I enjoy the food I grow more than any other. And I plan on growing a lot more in the future. Because I know I can learn how to be more responsible. And I am teaching my children the same. If more learn now then the future will be secure.

    I am in no way trying to encourage those with no interest in this type of sustainability to attempt it. In fact, please don’t. But also don’t impose your unknowledgeable ways upon those who are interested in obtaining and maintaining clean food supplies, educated consumers and sustainable staples.
    Keep it up FoodPolitics. You are doing a good job.

  • Anthro

    Marion, you do know that the new chair of that committee and his supporters refer to you as the “Food Nazi”?

    I think I despair too much to dream right now.

  • If you have a magic wand, why waste it reforming the government? Reform the businesses and consumers and you won’t need a government to impose the order you want to see. Yes, you did get to one market-side point at the end, and it’s a good point. But there’s so much more that could be done to adjust incentives and rearrange the fabric of society to bend to your will without needing an intermediary.

  • Joseph Docu

    remove money from politics? this is surely a humorous entry, because there’s not a snowballs chance in hades that this will happen in the modern america that you and I love so much.

    Not that it isn’t the number one way for citizens to retrieve gov’t from the vast hordes of special interests presently writing america’s laws.

    I love marion!

  • Evan Livingston

    My immediate reaction towards the proposition for broader and more stringent safety controls is that it would likely affect smaller producers who are unable to either pay for tests and inspections or unable meet the legal “safety” requirements while maintaining a completely safe production environment. Are these stricter controls not the ones often threaten small farmers markets and CSA programs?

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  • Mike

    The best strategy would be to have more folks like Bill Marler out there. These big companies only focus on one thing, profits. Hit them where it hurts and hit them often and they will change. Make unhealthy food less profitable, more costly and a liability to sell. By trying to force more regulations down their throats, they only become martyrs to the politicians and people who believe them.

    It’s all about marketing. If you want better food safety, you have to “market” it better. Forcing rules on people only strengthens resistance. Right, wrong or indifferent, it’s all about motivating people to your cause.

  • Marc

    “Require Wall Street to rate corporations on long-term sustainability. Wall Street pressures on corporations to report growth every quarter are at the root of corner-cutting on food safety. Food corporations should be valued for excellent food safety records and for maintaining high ethical standards in every aspect of their business.”

    I’d even go beyond this and change how corporate charters are written. Currently, the sole fiduciary duty of corporations is to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. As an alternative, I’d like to see the rules changed so that the fate of the environment and other humans are also considered. In other words, the “triple bottom line” would become the metric for corporations, not only the $ bottom line.

    In addition, considering national health by something other than the gross domestic product would be on my wish list. Some have talks about “gross domestic happiness” ratings and similar metrics that count more than economic activity.

  • sarah

    I’d be interested to know what you think about food products that are often in contravention of food safety laws – raw milk cheeses, for example.
    I find it an interesting interplay between the local and artisanal food movement, and the food safety one.
    Do you think that what can be an effective ban on their production is appropriate, or do you see a need for new regulation specifically concerning them?

  • Marion

    @Sarah: I have commented on raw milk any number of times in this blog. If you click on Raw milk in the topics cloud, you will quickly pull up those posts. Thanks for your interest!