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Food for Thought: A Q&A with Donna Byrne

Donna M. Byrne is a full-time law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN, where she teaches a seminar on Food Law and Policy, as well as courses on less nutritious topics such as income tax and estates and trusts. In her spare time she is learning to make vegan recipes for her 16-year-old daughter. Donna recently took up telemark skiing. Her philosophy is that food should be safe enough and nutritious enough to make all fun things physically possible.


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Olivia Marler interviewed Donna for a series of conversations with food safety leaders that she calls “Food for Thought.”

How did you get into food safety?

I don’t think of my field as food safety, so much as food LAW.  I’m interested in a wide range of legal and policy issues involving food and nutrition. As a law professor, I have the freedom to study any aspect of law that catches my attention.  Food has always been interesting to me.  My younger sisters struggled with anorexia when they were younger, and we all became interested in nutrition as a result.  Somewhere along the way, I also became interested in organic food production and what it meant.  But what really got my attention was the 2005 USDA Food Pyramid.  The popular media had included numerous stories suggesting that people should eat somewhat more protein and somewhat less carbohydrate, but the 2005 food pyramid looked a lot like the 2000 food pyramid — grains and starches were the biggest segment.  I wondered who gets to decide what goes in the pyramid, and I wondered whether it matters.  (It turns out it does matter — USDA food policy has ramifications for government-subsidized food programs.)  And a little light bulb went off saying, “this is Law — I can study it!” 

Nutrition policy was my starting point, but I am also interested in how food is grown, what chemicals are used, how environmental protection standards apply, patent rights in genetically engineered seeds, and how organic standards are developed and applied. Moving along in the food production process, I am curious about what must or can go on food labels, how ingredients are approved, and how health claims come to be. Of course, I also pay attention to food safety issues, but even if all food were safe all the time, I would still have lots to think about.

 

What is the most immediate change that could be made to improve food safety by industry? And by the government?

I am certainly not qualified to answer this one, but I feel very strongly that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from.  Consumers should also have a right to know about safety issues as they arise.  Every time government or industry decides that consumers don’t need information because it is either “irrelevant” or “misleading” my trust in our food system erodes a bit more.  The appropriate response to consumer confusion is not hiding the ball, it’s educating consumers.  

 

Antibiotic resistance arising from antibiotics in feed is a hot topic in food safety circles.  What, if anything, do you think should be done to regulate animal antibiotics? Should it be industry or government regulated?

I think it has to be government regulated.  The profit motive is too strong for industry regulation to be effective.  I don’t know as much as I should about food animal production (and I know far more than I wish I did), but in my opinion, animals should be raised in such a way that there is no need for antibiotics most of the time.  I should put in a disclaimer here — my daughter and I are vegan, primarily because we are appalled at the way food animals are treated.  The place to start is animal treatment.  If the animals we intend to eat were not kept in conditions conducive to disease, there would be much less need for antibiotics.

 

What do you think of the argument that smaller is safer, and that local, sustainable farms should be subject to different regulations than large, industrial farms? 

While I know that smaller is not always safer, the outbreaks from small producers tend to be much smaller because small farms have smaller customer bases. There is another aspect to smaller, sustainable production that may be important too, though.  That is that in smaller operations, the people at the top are in contact with the food itself.  The operation is not merely producing a commodity to be mass distributed; it is producing food, the stuff you eat with your family at Thanksgiving.  It is hard to imagine a CEO sending food to a family table knowing there were positive tests for salmonella.  But it is not such a stretch to send an imperfect product to market. 

 

Several years ago I attended a breakfast sponsored by an agricultural law organization.  A woman in the buffet line struck up a conversation with me.  She was an agricultural lawyer from North Dakota.  When I told her I was interested in food law, she seemed surprised.  “Huh.  I don’t think any of my clients think of themselves as producing food!”  Thinking of agriculture as producing food rather than a commodity, changes the whole way we approach safety and profit.  And I think that many small farmers are closer to the notion of producing “food” than are industrial scale farms.

Do you generally avoid eating specific foods because of the risk associated with eating them? If so, which foods?  

I don’t eat sprouts.  Also, I used to make vegan cookie dough so I could eat it without worrying about Salmonella, but now I avoid eating anything with raw flour. For that matter, raw foods make me a bit nervous in general.  If I were a meat eater, I would not eat hamburger or anything raw.  

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