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Losing the Face-to-Face in the Global Food Market

Opinion

On Tuesday, November 3, 2009, I made a presentation at the Fourth International Conference on Food Safety and Quality.  The presentation was one of two keynote speeches given that morning, which kicked off this two-day conference.  The topic of this year’s conference was Global Food Safety.  Marler Clark was one of the sponsors of the conference, and Bill Marler had been originally scheduled to speak.  But when a food safety conference in China  that he had committed to was rescheduled to this same time period, I was invited to pitch-hit.

For the speech, I decided to do an expanded version of a presentation that I had made earlier in the year at the 2009 Joint Annual Meeting of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS)‚Ä® and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).   The title of the presentation–both the original one, and the one given this week–is  “On Faceless Transactions: How Tort Law Evolved to Manage the Sale of Food Between Strangers.”  It is my hope to this year finish work on a long article based on this presentation, which can then be published in a scholarly journal (and perhaps eventually in a book I plan to write).  What follows, however, is a summary of the main theses, provided in the form of an abstract, followed by a video presentation of the PowerPoint slides I used when delivering my presentations.

By examining the history of food regulation, beginning with Mosaic law through passage of “modern” U.S. food regulations at the beginnings of the 20th Century, it becomes apparent that as food production moved outside and then away from concentrated centers of human community–or, in Martin Buber’s terminology, the “living center”–the obligation to produce food that was honest, safe, and wholesome moved from the ethical realm to the instrumental realms of economics and politics.  

The increasing distancing of food-making from the “living center” radically disconnected food from place (terroir) and local flavor (gout du terroir).  This disconnection coincided with the increasing industrialization of food production, the loss of all traces of human activity, of the personal. Food-making was no longer artisanal (of specific hand and home); it was artifice and artifact, evidence of a prior authenticity that was used to (try to) legitimize its own loss, like in the irony-free claim–“Tastes just like homemade!”

 Also lost with the industrialization of food, and the increasing distance between its making and its sale, was the face-to-face transaction necessary for the buyer to be able to make an ethical claim–in the sense of what Buber’s I ask of Thou, or what Levinas’ “face” demands of the “self” of the “other.”  Anonymity increasingly came to define the food marketplace, along with a complete loss of transparency. The buyer and sellers were strangers to each other, and food products generic.  Consequently, the sole source of obligation became law, which is to say, the power to enforce a claim.  

As regulatory law increasingly served economic interests in favor of a national market for food, at the expense of local community-based production, food (as product) became the subject and source of a transformation in the law of torts–namely, the downfall of the “rule of privity”–which had denied legal remedy to only those party to a contract for goods, and the rise of the doctrine of strict product liability as a kind of social insurance intended to protect the public from danger of defective products. The doctrine of strict liability, which had its origins as a judicial response to the manufacturing of food “under modern conditions,” quickly came to be adopted nationwide and applied to all products.

During the last decade, as foodborne illness outbreaks grew larger and more frequent, and gained increasing media attention, a backlash finally began against the industrialization of food-production, against “factory” farms, and the global marketplace. The “local food” movement is arguably the evidence of such a backlash.  It is also implicitly a critique of the industrialization of food, and its banishment from the ethical realm.  By seeking face-to-face transactions in places closer to the “living center,” like in farmers-markets, and wanting to know where their food came from and  who made it, consumers in the United States may be in the early processes of a rejecting the industrial food-production model.     


I hope you enjoy looking at the PowerPoint slides that form the basis of the presentation.  Feel free to email any questions or comments that you may have.

For more information on the conference, go here: http://www.foodhaccp.com/conference09/

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