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Food for Thought: Q & A with Susan Schneider

Susan Schneider is the Director of the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Farmers Legal Action Group, Inc. and past president of the American Agricultural Law Association. Her private practice experience includes agricultural law work with firms in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington, D.C. She also served as staff attorney at Farmer’s Legal Action Group Inc. and at the National Center for Agricultural Law Research & Information, and taught courses in agriculture-related law at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota and Drake University Summer Agricultural Law Institute in Iowa. 

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

How did you get into food safety?

My first interest in food safety goes back to my parents. My father was a dairy farmer who prided himself on the clean conditions in the dairy barn and the top quality rating his milk always received. His herd was always clean, healthy, and very well cared for. He gave the same attention and care to the family vegetable garden. Bountiful crops of tomatoes, green beans, peas, cucumbers, cantaloupe and onions were harvested from that big garden each summer in addition to our perennial beds of asparagus and the apple orchard. There was always something for my mother to freeze or can. Our family had a deep respect for food –  its care, its origin, its preparation.

Growing up on a farm, agricultural law was a natural fit for me, and I have practiced and taught a variety of agricultural law subjects throughout my career as a lawyer. My road to food law has been a fascinating, but rather natural journey.

When I first began practicing law, the Midwest was in the middle of a farm financial crisis. My role as an attorney was to try to save family farms from foreclosure and help farmers to restructure their debts. I admit that I did not think about food safety much at that time. Trends in agriculture and federal agricultural policy were working against the kind of diversified operations like my father had. My clients were primarily growing commodity crops, i.e. corn and soybeans that were destined for processing or livestock feed – no real food safety issues there. So it was only if I was representing a dairy that food safety was a concern. Then I knew that cleanliness  and the proper care of the milking cows was not only essential to a good operation but was legally required in order to maintain a high grade standard for the operation.  And that standard was essential to getting a decent price for the milk. So it all came back to the bottom line –  how could this farm be saved?

Like most Americans, it was the Jack in the Box tragedy that made me realize that food safety was not something that I could just assume. I realized how much our food system had changed just in my lifetime, and I began to wonder about where we were headed.

By this time, I was teaching agricultural law. My husband and I had been hired by the University of Arkansas School of Law to teach in their unique advanced law program, the LL.M. Program in Agricultural Law. We were looking forward: What were the issues that our students should know about to best prepare them for their future careers as agricultural attorneys? It occurred to us that not just food safety, but all aspects of food law in general had to become part of our agricultural law studies. An agricultural law attorney needed to understand how the food system is regulated and how our system of regulation and subsidization impacts that food system, and how it affects what our agricultural industry looks like.  We changed the name of the Program to be the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law to reflect our view that you really couldn’t learn one without the other.

The more questions I asked and the more I learned, the more I became fascinated with food law.  Food Law & Policy became one of my favorite classes to teach.

When I knew we needed to introduce our students to the very best food safety litigator, I reached out to Bill Marler and invited him to join us as a Visiting Professor. For the past three years, he has taught our Food Safety Litigation class, and we have all learned so much from him.  Even beyond his success in litigation on behalf of victims of food borne illness, his tireless work as an advocate for food safety has been an inspiration to our faculty and students alike.  Food Safety News is an important part of that advocacy, and we are proud to have a Marler Clark Graduate Assistant writing for it every year. I credit Bill and Food Safety News for raising my awareness.

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

Industry needs to step back from the treadmill that they are on –  faster, cheaper, easier –  and focus on quality. I recognize that this is hard to do, because businesses are competing against each other, but consumers are asking for change, and industry leaders can respond to that.  I also think that when there is a food safety or food quality issue, we need to go back and ask why that problem occurred, not just come up with a new technological system to fix the problem.

Government needs more resources to do their job in assuring food safety. State health departments are struggling with budget cuts, and yet they should be on the front lines in recognizing when a food borne illness occurs.  It takes manpower, expertise, and well-equipped labs to identify problems –  some departments just don’t have the funding to do what is needed.  The same is true on the federal level.  We finally have a new federal food safety law, but the FDA does not have the funding needed to carry it out as it should.

We also need more transparency from both industry and the government. When a food safety problem occurs, consumers should know what happened, where it happened, and what is being done to protect them. Transparency will benefit everyone in the long run.

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?

You cannot expect the meat industry to regulate itself with respect to antibiotics.  We have become too dependent on them in livestock production –  for growth promotion and for disease prevention in crowded growing conditions. Companies and the farmers that grow for them are subject to too many competitive pressures to produce faster and bigger animals. Federal regulation is going to be needed to break that dependency and get off the treadmill.

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?

Smaller is not necessarily safer on an individual level. Unsafe practices can occur at any size. Two size-related factors are really important to food safety, however.

First, if I am buying food directly from a producer, I can assess on a personal level whether I think it is safe. I can talk to the farmer, and I can ask questions. Or, even if I buy at a store, if I know that farm, I can buy based on what I personally know. I can’t do that if my food has passed through many different hands or beens shipped across the country to me, so I need some additional assurances, such as regulatory standards.

Second, if a small producer has an unsafe product, only a few people will become ill. If a pathogen makes its way into food that is part of a large, industrialized system, it can affect thousands of people all over the country, even the world. From an efficiency standpoint, government should focus on this wider impact.

I think it just makes sense that regulations should be size specific because the setting is so different.  Larger operations should be regulated more because there is more potential for a large-scale problem and because consumers have no way of protecting themselves.

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

I can’t say that I avoid any specific food for food safety reasons, although I like to know where my food comes from and how it was produced. That combines food safety, taste, health, animal welfare issues, environmental issues, even politics all into the mix!

© Food Safety News
  • Farmer with a Dell

    Susan has been away from the farm a long, long time by the sound of things. She also cherishes some carefully embellished and burnished reminiscences of bucolic perfection back in the days of her girlhood. Her dad might have slightly different memories of how much work and worry went into it and how imperfect some of it really was.
    Susan is sorta casual in her terminology and attitude, too, for a lawyer and college professor and all. She says we need to focus on “quality” without defining what that is, exactly. She admits smaller is not necessarily safer than larger, but then dreamily suggests that every little old customer can instantly and unerringly size up the quaint salesperson, cast a brief starry-eyed gaze over the landscape and unfailingly determine the “safety” of the food she’s being sold at a premium. The responsibility falls to the consumer to make “smaller” operations entirely safe, we are to suppose. Old MacDonald is off the hook the moment he stuffs the cash into his charmingly quaint bib overalls.
    Most intriguing, Susan seems to dismiss the “small producer” from food safety and the law. No mention of the moral and legal responsibilities of food producers of all sizes to operate safely. Susan shrugs off innocent people sickened by small producers as too few and too unimportant to matter. That’s a lawyer talking, alright — too few people with pockets too shallow to bother suing, so hey, no food safety liability there!
    Nice ivory tower careers for Susan and her husband. Nice work for anyone if they can find it. Too bad none of it contributes any meaningful advancement to progress in safe food production, but who cares so long as the politics work out, eh?

  • JC

    I thought it was a nice article with good points. She never dismissed the small producer; in fact she specifically stated smaller is not necessarily safer. She said that the laws governing a small operation might be very different from one operation on a large scale.. which makes sense. If you have 20 cows, your operation might have much different requirements or concerns than an 8,000 cow operation. In the end, saftey is safety, but the way you achieve it is going to be different from one producer to the next. She never said they shouldn’t be regulated.
    I think it’s time to go jump in your dell.

  • Gertrude “Trudy”

    I buy local small-farm MOFGA raw dairy (in returnable glass containers), grassfed pastured meat & free-ranged pastured eggs & fresh-picked produce. All products have the farm name, address, phone no. on each product, or for produce the farmers’ market or local-farms grocery will provide that information on request. I never had a problem, but if I did–they would make it good. If a cow has pus or blood in its milk, they don’t milk her, they call the vet. They charge extra because they pay extra–no volume discounts like agrifarms. In China, I read not too long ago that when a dairy worker knowingly allowed diseased milk to pass into the main supply, the other workers immediately took the man out and shot him. In the US, diseased milk is just added to extra milk to spread out the pus and blood and pathogens thinner, and US regs allow this. Same with moldy peanuts made into peanut butter. Don’t know where the unfit foods came from, and the producers are protected by law to keep on doing it. It’s A-OK in the USA. When is common sense going to enter the food safety debate?