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Deadly Cantaloupes: A View from the Ivory Tower

Last fall, I started teaching at Seattle University School School of Law, doing so in part to give myself more time to do scholarship (research and writing) about food, in all of its fascinating aspects and implications. I knew that I would miss many things about the full-time practice of law. But I also knew that the nearly 20 years that I have spent handling food cases provided a fertile ground from which to till ideas, articles, policy-proposals, books, and anything else that I might grow given the time and space to cultivate and harvest. Plus I have a real joy for teaching.

Now, if you think the metaphor employed in that last sentence was me merely being fanciful, that is not the case. In particular, I have been thinking lately about an issue that I addressed before in an article here on Food Safety News. In that article I observed (and I am paraphrasing myself now) that cultivation of any kind requires a suitable place, a locale, and amenable conditions. This thinking of mine had been renewed by, among other things, a Brownbag lecture that I recently gave during Social Justice Week at the law school.

  

During an energetic discussion that I more listened to than led, students took turns questioning whether local agriculture in an urban setting was realistic. “Where is the land to grow the food?” one student asked. Another student pointed out that the Seattle P-Patch Community Gardening Program had been around a long time, but that the amount food produced was not significant. And more than one student pointed out that too many people lack the time or money to, for example, shop at a farmer’s market, or to use fresh, raw ingredients to create a meal. In response to all of this I posed a simple-seeming question that, I freely admit, was not simple at all.

How do we make these issues the start of a conversation, not the end? Too often, it seems, almost regardless of the topic, saying that something “costs too much” is the best way to shoot down an idea. Similarly, saying that “there’s not enough time,” or “the conditions are not right,” is an answer that becomes an excuse for inaction and silence. Again and again, over the years, I have seen these kinds of responses not only stop progress from being made, but stop any discussion of the possibility of progress. And, again and again, the only thing that restarts the discussion is crisis and death.

 

Take the recent tragedy of the Jensen Farms cantaloupe outbreak, for example. It is not as if the danger of cantaloupe contamination is new or surprising. Marler Clark handled one of its first cantaloupe-related death cases about a decade ago,  and outbreaks linked to contaminated cantaloupes have occurred with regularity since then. But in light of this most recent outbreak, in which at least 25 people have died, the cries for food safety reform are as loud as they are predictable.

 

For example, the Colorado Agriculture Commissioner, John Salazar, was on October 27 quoted as saying that Colorado (where Jensen Farms is based) will take a “bigger role” in the oversight of the cantaloupe industry following a Listeria outbreak, including some sort of safety-certification program. Of course, Salazar added that the “state does not have resources to pay for a certification program and farmers might have to pay for it.”   On the retail side of things, the head of food safety for Costco is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I don’t think the cantaloupe industry can continue on doing the very same thing and expecting a different result. It’s time for companies to get more aggressive. If they know this is going to happen, let’s step up and not let it happen.” 

 

How much do you want to bet that someone has said this before about an outbreak linked to contaminated fruit or produce?  (Hint: Many, many people have, and will again.)

In other words, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Which brings me back to my most recent conversation about food safety that I had on campus. This was a conversation with a law student who is working on an article about the Food Safety Modernization Act. The student wanted to get my thoughts on the Act, whether I thought it a good or bad thing and, in particular, what about the impact of the Act on small and local agriculture. The conversation lasted almost an hour, and together we covered lots of ground. But when asked to sum up my thoughts, based on what we had discussed so far, I closed by saying this: “Well, the Act won’t really matter at all, for good or bad, if the FDA never finds the time to draft the necessary regulations, and if Congress does not appropriate the necessary funds to implement the Act.”

 

And there you have it–the need for time and money. Again. 

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org Chris Curtis

    I’ve been involved with the local Farmers Market movement here in Seattle for close to 20 years. We started out with 17 farmers on a small playfield in the University District. Since that grass roots beginning, we have grown to be a city-wide network of seven farmers markets which in 2011 provide 105 small farm businesses with the majority of their annual income, host 350,000 shoppers, and keep over 9000 acres of cultivated farmland and ranchland viable. Because of the popularity of the local Farmers Market movement, I’ve seen part time farmers become full time farmers and conventional growers transition to organic. Small scale farming is now seen as a viable and profitable profession for a new generation of farmer wannabees. This trend couldn’t have been imagined 20 years ago so I remain optimistic about the current discussion about who will feed us, what does it cost and how convenient is it. Folks will have to continue the discussion and educators, policy makers, electeds and the financial community will have to help, support and facilitate the next steps.