Editor’s note: If you had a magic wand, how would you conjure up sustainable and safe ways to feed the world? We asked several people to consider the possibilities. Here is the first response, from contributor Jill Richardson of “La Vida Locavore”:
What would I do if I were the magic Food Safety Fairy? I believe that this answer requires taking a rather long view of U.S. history to understand where we are now and how we got here before deciding how to fix our present situation. The current U.S. food safety system first came into place following the initial rise of prepared and canned foods in the early 1900s. Canned foods themselves came into widespread use beginning around the time of the Civil War, and, to a public that was unused to purchasing food that they couldn’t see, the cans posed a problem. All of a sudden, a swindler could fill cans with sawdust, water, and food dye, then label them with a picture of mouthwatering food, and the customer would not know he or she had been ripped off until after the purchase was made. Or, of course, even a well-meaning manufacturer could put food in the can without taking proper safety precautions and make the customers sick.
This was also the time of the horrific scenes in the Chicago stockyards documented by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle,” which were made possible by another 19th century development: railroads (and more specifically, refrigerated rail cars). Prior to the advent of refrigerated rail cars, live cattle were transported for sale on the east coast–a costly trip. Transporting whole cattle when only a part of the actual carcass would be sold and eaten was costly, but producers also lost money as the cattle lost weight during the long and difficult trip. Once refrigerated rail cars were invented, the cattle could be slaughtered in Chicago at their top weight and then only the meat would be shipped east for sale. If this system ever worked well, by 1906 it had degenerated into the grotesque spectacle Sinclair wrote about. (Among other observations, Sinclair said, “there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”)
Prior to the passage of the food safety laws that make up the backbone of our food safety system, large food corporations opposed regulation. (No surprise, right?) But at a certain point, they had a change of heart. If Congress passed food safety legislation, perhaps their smaller competitors would not be able to afford to comply with the regulations, and it would push them out of business? And they were right. Consider if you wanted to get into the food business today. Could you simply start baking cookies in your own kitchen? Of course not. You need to use a commercial kitchen. Farmers selling meat and dairy products face even more strict (and costly) regulations. Not that these regulations are a bad thing–in many cases, they are necessary and they save lives. However, it’s interesting that the same issue that came up in the recent food safety debate was also present a century ago. As the 2010 food safety bill was debated, small producers claimed it would put them out of business unless they were exempted from its regulations, and food safety advocates claimed that the addition of such loopholes would allow larger operations to duck under the regulations.
Until the recent Food Safety Modernization Act, the two bills that governed our food safety system were the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. By 1906, America already had slaughterhouses with disgusting, unsanitary conditions, but even by 1938 we still lacked technologies, food additives, farming methods, and even foodborne pathogens that we have today. Small wonder why, over 70 years later, our food safety system is ready for an overhaul.
That said, before continuing discussion about any new regulation, I want to share some recent experiences in food safety. During 2010, I traveled to Latin America four times, to Cuba, Bolivia, and two different parts of Mexico. The food safety situation on these trips was utterly terrifying. When we arrived in our destination on one trip, a tiny town in Jalisco, Mexico, our leader very clearly pointed out the two restaurants in town that have never caused anyone on her trips to become ill. The message was clear: eat anywhere else at your own risk. I stuck to her advice religiously. Others didn’t. All I can say is before that trip, I never thought I would ever see a grown man have diarrhea in his pants. Fortunately, on that trip or any other, none of the food poisoning incidents were serious.
On another trip, also to Mexico, our group cooked our own food. This was even more terrifying to me. At one point, we made a salad. “A salad?” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Unless we washed the vegetables in water with bleach, there was no way to safely eat it. And who wants to ingest bleach? Mealtimes were serious business. Everything had to be boiled or sanitized with bleach. Communication had to be perfect, and it wasn’t. At one point, one person on our trip drank un-boiled water (which he followed up with some sort of medicine to prevent illness after he realized his mistake). In another case, we thought for a moment that someone had accidentally poured a water and bleach solution into a pot of beans, assuming that it was just water. I nearly drank coffee laced with bleach once, but poured it out and refilled my cup. For me, eating had never been so perilous before!
I bring this up because I want to note that there is some truth when people boast about the safety of the American food supply (even though I disagree with the sentiment they are usually trying to convey, that we have no need to make our food safer). Back in those golden days before our food safety laws were passed, before we had a need for food safety laws, Americans probably faced a situation somewhat similar to what I faced in Latin America. They did not have to worry about food additives, pesticides, genetically engineered foods, nanotechnology, irradiation, clones, or mad cow disease, but they did have to worry about good old-fashioned bacteria, viruses, parasites, and any other biological cause of foodborne illness. The difference between then and now was that people typically produced their own food, or purchased their food from someone who did. Want to make sure that your milk isn’t contaminated with manure? Well, then, clean the udder of your cow before you milk her!
Back when people produced their own food, stupidity or carelessness could certainly lead to food safety problems (just as it does today, and will continue to forever). However, those problems were never widespread on the scale we see today (i.e. the recall of half a billion eggs), nor were they usually the result of greedy businesspeople who were guilty of criminal negligence (or worse). (Greed and criminal behavior have always existed, but it would take a real schmuck to knowingly sell unsafe food to his or her neighbor!) What people had to protect them was common sense, tradition, attention to detail, and–to whatever extent it existed–outreach by schools, government, or community groups that disseminated advice on food safety. (In one village in Mexico I visited, the local hospital had a mural on one wall with such sage health advice as “Don’t poop outside,” “Don’t allow pigs in the house,” and “Wear shoes.”) The one major role government can and should play even in a food system where people produce their own food is providing potable water for both drinking and irrigation. So many of the current food safety difficulties I experienced
abroad could have been elim
inated simply by the availability of potable water.
So where does that leave us here, in the United States, in 2010? We’ve got ourselves a new food safety law, and while I believe and hope it will do some good, I don’t believe for a second that it will solve our problems. Food safety is still split between a number of federal departments and agencies, and the USDA, which overseas meat and poultry, has somewhat conflicting goals (promote agriculture and regulate agriculture). Step one, I believe, is to move all of the federal food safety responsibilities under a food safety agency, which would be under the Department of Health and Human Services. Finally, we would have all of our food safety responsibilities in one place, in a department that has a clear mandate to protect the health of the American people, and we could sort out the duplications and gaps in responsibility that now exist under the current system.
Step two is to eliminate additives that simply should not be in our food. Often, such ingredients are determined to be “GRAS” or generally recognized as safe. But are they? A great example of food additives to eliminate from our food is artificial food dyes. They don’t cause foodborne illness like E. coli, but they are scientifically linked to behavioral problems in children and they are banned in some other countries. In this country, chemicals tend to be innocent until proven guilty. We legalize them before all of the science is in, use our own population as guinea pigs, and then only ban chemicals if, and only if, they cause widespread, provable harm. Let’s adopt the Precautionary Principle, and wait until a substance is proven safe before we allow it in our food.
Step three, clean up the pollution that finds its way into our food supply. Specifically, I am thinking of instances like the mercury and PCBs found in seafood. Surely, cleaning up every last trace of every toxic substance is an impossible task, but as a start, we could stop releasing it into the environment! A bill from last Congress would have helped by getting mercury out of chlor-alkali plants, and an even bigger win would be to clean up or shut down mercury emitting coal-fired power plants. It’s a horrible shame that pregnant mothers must avoid seafood due to mercury contamination when seafood is one of the top sources of omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients needed to help the growth and development of the unborn baby’s brain.
But these changes, in the context of our food system and our food safety problems, are just tweaking around the edges. To truly bring about the changes I think we need, I wouldn’t need a magic wand … but I would need a magic wand (a very powerful magic wand!) to get those changes passed by Congress. Simply put, I don’t believe we can keep our current food system intact and then regulate it or legislate it until it becomes safe. Despite all of the talk of “farm to fork traceability,” you cannot pass laws that ban stupidity and carelessness, and right now we don’t even seem able to prevent criminal negligence with our legal system. (Just take a look at the history of Austin “Jack” DeCoster!) Our food system should be decentralized, more localized, and more ecologically based.
Why decentralized and more localized? First of all, when everyone does not get their food from the same source, then one act of carelessness cannot result in everyone getting sick all at once. If one farmer supplies a few local groceries, then some tainted spinach results in a small, local recall and perhaps a few illnesses, but nothing like the horrible, national outbreak we saw in 2006. Carelessness and stupidity are inevitable, but there’s no reason why one stupid person should be able to sicken an entire country all at once. But second, when people are closer to their source of food, then they can use better judgment over whether or not it’s safe.
In addition to simply decentralizing our food system, to the extent possible, eaters should be closer to the production of their food. In the peanut butter Salmonella outbreak, Nestle actually inspected the Peanut Corporation of America facility and decided to go with a different supplier. But the customers of Nestle, Kellogg, and countless other brands never got to make the same judgment call themselves. In the end, some Kellogg customers got sick but Nestle customers did not. Now, is this evidence that Kellogg is a bad company and Nestle is good? Not at all. Only a little while later, Nestle sold Tollhouse cookie dough tainted with E. coli and sickened its customers too. But in neither case did the customers actually get to view the food growing and processing conditions before purchasing their food.
When food is purchased more locally, it’s a different story. It’s not perfect. Not every customer visits every farmer’s farm (probably a minority of customers actually visit the farm). But, when buying directly from farmers, the customers know who produced their food, and they have the opportunity to ask the farmer questions face to face. And often they can visit the farm if they wish to. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, in his book “The New Peasantries,” also argues that farmers who engage in the peasant mode of farming (which often characterizes small farms that sell directly at farmers’ markets, even in modern day America) take pride in craftsmanship. In other words, unlike a businessperson who is guided solely by the bottom line, the small farmer takes pride in the quality (and hopefully safety) of his or her products. And, of course, if that farmer makes his or her customers sick, it will be awfully awkward showing up at the market the next week…
And last, our food should be produced more ecologically. By this I mean that food production should mimic nature as closely as possible. Nature does not create “factory farm” conditions; instead, plants, animals, and microorganisms feed one another in the natural web of life, with manure serving as a valuable source of nutrients instead of a pollutant. Arguably, animal factories (and the slaughterhouses that process the animals en masse, and at a dizzying rate) are the number one food safety problems in America, and I find it hard to believe that we will ever reach a solution to our food safety problems without addressing them. Raising large numbers of animals in crowded conditions creates breeding grounds for pathogens. Add the antibiotics used to promote growth and suppress disease and you’re giving the pathogens just what they need to help them evolve resistance to antibiotics. Then consider the lagoons of manure produced, which are ultimately leached, leaked, or purposely spread into the environment, and you’ve got an excellent way to spread those pathogens to more unwitting victims (even, in some cases, wild animals, who can then transmit the pathogens back into the human food chain through their manure). Even food safety outbreaks in non-animal products often involve manure, like the spinach E. coli disaster of 2006.
A shift to locally produced foods, decentralized production, and ecological food production would require a major shift in our laws and in our society. We would need perhaps a fivefold increase in the percent of Americans who farm, and a massive increase in urban agriculture. We would also need to loosen up laws restricting small-scale food production. Is it really necessary for a farmer who raises 15 beef cattle per year to have them slaughtered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, considering that farmers have been slaughtering their own animals since the dawn of animal domestication in human history? Perhaps simply requiring the farmer to take a food safety course would do the trick. And why shouldn’t a city d
weller with a small yard be allowed to raise a small flock of chickens for meat and eggs, or grow vegetables in his or her front yard, as some cities now forbid?
I am not calling for a return to a romanticized past, to an era in which all food was safe. I am sure that never existed (as my recent travels have shown!). But the past century or so has been more or less an experiment unprecedented in human history that has led us to environmental degradation, human rights abuses, diet-related chronic illness, and massive food safety outbreaks. I don’t see how we continue on this track and come out ahead. Let’s call off the experiment but move forward instead of backward, marching into the 21st century with modern day science and technology while putting food production, and safety, back into the hands of eaters (or at least much closer to them). I’ve spoken to a few victims of the recent food safety outbreaks and this is precisely what they have done. They’ve started gardening, and they now make sure they know where their food is coming. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of playing “peanut butter roulette,” where every time I unwrap a seemingly sterile package of food, I don’t know whether the factory that produced it was covered in rodent and bird excrement or not.