What’s the “Future of Food” Without Food Safety?

I attended the Future of Food Conference in Washington D.C. this last week and was amazed by the speakers that author Eric Schlosser and the Washington Post brought together.  From Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; to Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; to author Wendell Berry and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, plus Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc. and many others — even The Prince of Wales popped in to give the keynote address, only days after the wedding of the century.  


It was truly an impressive list of speakers who have a deep commitment to issues surrounding the future of food and a clear commitment to a vision of small, organic agriculture.  The discussions ranged from workers rights to GMOs, from frozen vegetables to global warming.  Obesity was also discussed, along with the booming trend of backyard gardens. Sustainability was the catchword of the day, along with going local, organic farming and the ever-present mantra, “know your farmer, know your food.”  Lunch was served family-style featuring local, organic agriculture – meat and vegetables.  White House chef Sam Kass shared recipes as some in the audience gushed about how hot (not temperature-wise) the President’s chef was.

Food safety, in the broadest sense of food security (ending hunger) and healthfulness (being against processed foods), was discussed by many of the speakers – clearly, important issues that impact billions worldwide.  However, food safety as I live it was not on the agenda.  In fact, the only time it was discussed was when Barbara Kowlazcyk (the mother profiled in Food Inc. who lost her son to E. coli O157:H7) asked speakers on one of the panels about food safety as she lives it.  The response was the same response that I hear often — “know your farmer, know your food” – “if you can look your farmer in the eye, you know the food is safe.”  To me, it is not a satisfactory answer, not to Barbara or the 48,000,000 Americans who are sickened, the 125,000 who are hospitalized or to the families and friends of the 3,000 who die each year because of foodborne illness.

True, in the two decades I’ve been litigating foodborne illness cases in nearly every state, the vast majority of the victims were linked to mass-produced food and/or local food that had been consolidated and further processed.  However, it might also be that mass-produced food outbreaks are simply easier to catch due to the numbers sickened, and that many outbreaks that get our attention cut across state borders.  

Perhaps, local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO agriculture does in fact sicken less people, but, then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps because the illnesses are fewer in numbers and localized, they are also not as easily linked.  The reality is that local food can become contaminated between the farmer you know and the fork you put in your mouth, just as easily as sharing a meal at a chain restaurant, buying Salinas salad, Nebraska beef, Arkansas chicken or Chinese tilapia.  Bacteria or viruses simply do not make the distinction.

I am not quite sure why food safety at the Future of Food Conference was a topic to be ignored.  Was it because it is a painful topic?  Really, who wants to deal with the facts that something as good a local grass-fed, organic raw milk could have Campylobacter in it that would cause a mom to become paralyzed due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome?  Or was it because there is a belief in “foodie” or “foodiest” communities that if food is local, sustainable, organic and non-GMO it is by definition safe?  I recall an email I received from a well-known writer shortly after a famous local cheese maker, who used raw milk from organic grass-fed cows, was linked to eight E. coli O157:H7 illnesses.  The writer was perplexed that the cheese maker could have been responsible for such a lapse given that those sorts of things only happen to the mega-food manufacturers.  His belief simply did not conform to reality.

The movement represented at the Future of Food Conference ignores food safety at its peril.  The movement has an opportunity to embrace food safety as yet another distinguishing feature of its brand of “real food.”  Accepting that foodborne pathogens exist and need not be in our food does not detract from believing that food is safer if you “know your farmer, know your food.”  I would simply add, “trust, but verify.”  

Talking about food safety does not make your food less safe – it makes it safer.  Believing something to be so does not in fact make it so.  Making food safety as Barbara and I live it a part of the culture of the future of food will make our food safer now and in the future.  Without food safety, local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO agriculture will remain a niche and that is no future at all.

  • “Perhaps, local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO agriculture does in fact sicken less people, but, then again, perhaps not. Perhaps because the illnesses are fewer in numbers and localized, they are also not as easily linked. The reality is that local food can become contaminated between the farmer you know and the fork you put in your mouth…Bacteria or viruses simply do not make the distinction.”
    A point well made.
    Food-borne illnesses not diagnosed, not reported, not investigated, not linked to its source are not given media attention. If we don’t hear about them, then we might be deluded into thinking they don’t exist, assuming they don’t make kids and old folks sick, believing they aren’t important.
    If, for some reason, you shop farmers markets for flea market food to feed your family, insist upon a receipt from that vendor you are “looking in the eye”, the who wants so desperately for you to “know” him/her well enough to hand them your grocery money. Get a receipt with each transaction listing the vendor’s local contact information and the food you bought. Then keep the number of your local health department handy (use the handy link on this website!)
    Who knows, at the farmers flea market you may run across Prince Charles (practice your bow/curtsy). The Prince was keynote speaker at the Future of Food shindig where he was given a well-deserved standing O by fawning foodies. That’s most appropriate.
    The Prince is the face of local organic farming and elite food snobbery. He’s not a completely empty gasbag when it come to publicly enunciating the charming myths and superstitions of medieval farming practices – he IS an organic farmer! His organic garden is PROVEN sustainable – it is sustained by taxpayers in the UK.
    Not all surprising that “Future of Food” left food safety off the regal agenda. The Prince boasts a legendary interest in hygiene, but not in the realm of food. His tastes are eclectic and his time is precious. Only the most uplifting messages can be proclaimed to his royal foodie subjects. Wouldn’t risk letting anything mute the reverential ovation from his adoring courtesans and the common rabble. We shall have all of them eating cake in no time, no time at all.

  • Ahmad Mahdavi

    With ever increasing populations in developing countries and more need for food and on the other hand no laws and regulations and enforcement for food production and industries in these countries now people of these countries are more exposed to hunger and also more toxic and GMos food and feed products. The disasterous situation of CCD for honey bees that will result in fast disapearance of this miraculous species and so not enough pollination some %30 decrease of food production will happen in the future and perhaps it is the time to wake up and do something.

  • Julie Meadows

    Michael Taylor at a food safety workshop? That’s kind of a joke with all his blatant connections to Monsanto over the years. I hope you aren’t saying he has a “clear commitment to a vision of small, organic agriculture.” His goal is to saturate the earth with as much Round-up as possible. Food like that is making people and the planet sick!

  • I don’t think there’s a fear or intentional avoidance of food safety within this movement. From the discussions I’ve heard or read before, there is a desire for food safety, but on a small scale basis. Not processing through centralized locations, but handled on a farm to table scale. Of course the problem with that is expense, but to many that would be worth it.

  • Good comment. Let me add a couple of things.
    Julie, Re Michael Taylor – yes, he did work at Monsanto, but that does not mean he does not have something to contribute to the food safety discussion. Frankly, he did more to drive down E. coli O157:H7 rates than anyone in industry and government ever did before. I am a bit tired of people who have never met him, nor paid much attention to things other than is employment that he has done.
    Rachel, many in the movement do believe that small means safe by definition. I do not think that is completely true. I fear many in the movement fall into the same narrative that Big Ag does – “don’t regulate me, it is too burdensome.” BS, if you are going to produce food – big or small – food safety should be the first thing on your agenda. It was not at this, otherwise great Conference.

  • Arnold Dijkstra

    Good point. What about ESBL in both industrial and local for local production? In the Netherlands ESBL has been found in meat (chicken nearby 100%!) and now also in soil and on several vegetables that are eaten raw. Frighting and a clear signal that food safety must remain one of the major issues in the food industry.

  • Steve Gilman

    It’s important to realize that the (industry-backed) Food Safety Modernization Act purposely and narrowly defines “food safety” as only dealing with food-borne pathogens — even though there’s huge documentation of contamination and adulteration of our daily food supply from synthetic chemical fertilizers as well as genetically modified organisms and toxic chemical insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other pesticides that are part and parcel of industrialized food production.
    Organic agriculture is a viable alternative to the past 60 years of toxic chemical agriculture and it’s many negative effects on the environment and health. Any time a farmer or large land-owner (such as Charles) transitions to agroecological systems is a victory for sane and sustainable food production on the planet.

  • Popularized trends are seldom without a downside. Local organic food is no exception – consider toxoplasmosis, the number two most deadly food-borne pathogen in the U.S. today.
    Stop and consider: Organic farming/gardening = manure mixed with soil = toxoplasma mixed with soil = soil and manure and toxoplasma on vegetables…eating more vegetables, and more of those raw or undercooked = more exposure to live toxoplasma = increased risk to the unborn, to small kids, to the elderly, to the immune compromised.
    May be fine for Charles and Camilla. Pretty risky for commoners. Especially women of childbearing age.
    And toxoplasma is only one example why food safety absolutely needs to be discussed in the context of the future of foods if, as Bill Marler points out, trendy “local, sustainable, non-GMO agriculture” intends to be taken seriously.
    Remember to insist on those receipts from farmers market vendors and keep the number of your local health department handy. You alone are responsible for visually “inspecting” non-FSMA food and establishing its traceablility if you or your kids are poisoned by it! Caveat emptor.

  • Phil Coombs

    It seems to me that saying “know your farmer” and that will guarantee safe food is a bit like saying I don’t need to wear my car seat belt because I’m only driving locally. Going through the windshield if you have a crash is a function of the speed at which the car was traveling, not of the distance from your home.
    Similarly, safe food is a function of it being free of pathogens, not how close to home it was grown/raised.

  • I was not at the D.C. meeting, but hear it was big picture oriented. I got a chance to visit the Prince’s farm 2 years ago, very diverse, intensive organic, and well managed. The land is in a relatively wet area, so its hard to put up dry hay. They do a lot of silage for the beef cattle, dairy herd, and pigs. I am sure they have the full compliment of pathogens there, although likely modest O157, since the animals are not under much stress. I was impressed by how healthy all the animals looked, despite it being in early winter when I visited. The Prince’s farm team knows how to grow quality, safe food. As Bill points out, they have no more control over there, than here. What happens off the farmOn the Michael Taylor “issue,” its time to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Michael came onto one of the first NS committees I formed back in 1985ish and was a key member of the committee that wrote the NAS “Delaney Paradox” report, which 10 years later led to the passage of the FQPA. While the FQPA has not achieved its full promise, it is the best pesticide regulatory law in the world, and one of these days, the stars will align and EPA will actually use its new authorities to finish off the last of the high-risk pesticides from the 70s and 80s. There are very few people who have done more good for food safety in the U.S. than Michael Taylor. And I would argue he did not do a lot of good for GM crops, by anyone’s measure. I am among those glad that Michael is again doing the people’s business.

  • ICBM

    Ahhhh… here’s yet another anti-organic muddled-up mind-leap screed from the Muddddman.
    Today’s toxoplasmosis article cautions pregnant women from handling cat litter or pork, burger and beef. And the Mayo Clinic further cautions same with a mention of “soil” but digging deeper into the literature revels the reference is to soil that has been used as a cat box by cats that have been exposed to the parasite. http://www.dhpe.org/infect/toxo.html
    It says further: “People can get toxoplasmosis by:
    –Eating food, drinking water, or having contact with soil or anything else that contains or has touched stool from an infected cat — For about 2 weeks after infection with Toxoplasma, cats pass millions of parasites in their stool every day. The parasites mature and can infect people for 2 to 5 days after they are passed in a cat’s stool. No treatment can prevent cats from being infected or from passing the parasite.
    –Eating raw or inadequately cooked meat — Toxoplasma infects many kinds of birds and mammals. They get toxoplasmosis in the same way that people do: by eating food or drinking water that contains infected cat stool. After the parasite infects an animal, it spreads throughout the animal’s body. As a result, people can become infected by eating raw or undercooked meat.
    –Women who become infected with Toxoplasma during pregnancy or within several months before pregnancy can pass the infection to their unborn infants.”
    Soooo… the Mudd’s cute little equation: “Organic farming/gardening = manure mixed with soil = toxoplasma mixed with soil = soil and manure and toxoplasma on vegetables” is completely spurious and a ridiculous mind-leap from someone who is always trying to “prove” organic is bad. Farmers (both conventional and organic) are not known for using cat manure as a fertility source. Yes, contamination can occur — E.coli happens…. but CAT-contaminated farm soils haven’t emerged as a farm problem.
    And, if Muddddd insists on slandering all manure — organic farmers have to completely compost it first — while conventional farmers spread it raw all the time, including on snow on frozen ground where it runs off into streams and waterways. Further, organic agriculture is based on building a healthy, balanced soil food web — while chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms and pesticides severely impact beneficial microorganisms with the resulting unnatural selection leading to toxic soil conditions and nutrient deficiencies. Further, composting is shown to reduce and remove pathogens via the beneficial microbes.
    Finally, it sure sounds like Mudddd collects huge boxes of receipts in case he wants to sue somebody for product liability. Hope he wears impermeable gloves as those receipts are laced with toxic amounts of BPA…
    Of course there’s nothing like a strong immune system to ward off toxoplasmosis, BPA damage and all the other bodily insults coming out of this industrialized landscape. Maybe the Mudman should get out in nature more, as immune systems are based on use it or lose it…..

  • Doc Mudd

    The excitable ‘ICBM’ takes umbrage to any mention of negative aspects of manure. He has his various manures tediously, lovingly catalogued as any dung-worshiping organic fanatic will.
    He is out of his depth giving medical advice, however. As an amateur parasitologist and public health practitioner he has his hands more than full. What he has here is what, where I come from, is called a “ruckytuck”. Do you know what that is? A “ruckytuck” is 20 pounds of horse manure in a 10 pound sack.
    The food safety importance of toxoplasma is real and should not be taken lightly by women of childbearing age…regardless of unsolicited medical advice from anonymous wild-eyed farmers market vendors with manure in their hair.
    “The public health significance of oocysts in the transmission of T. gondii to humans is highlighted by the high rate of seropositivity (24-47%) in some populations of vegetarians (Hall et al. 1999, Roghmann et al. 1999). Humans may become infected via contact with contaminated soil, for example through gardening (Cook et al. 2000). Oocysts of T. gondii have been isolated from samples of soil in various areas of the world (Frenkel 2000). In a case-control study on pregnant women in Norway, eating unwashed raw vegetables or fruits was associated with an increased risk of acquiring an infection with T. gondii (Kapperud et al. 1996).”
    “…free-ranging livestock will inevitably be associated with T. gondii infection. Animals such as sheep and goats kept on pastures have an increased risk of infection due to contamination of the environment with sporulated oocysts. Such animals show high levels of seropositivity in many areas of the world, i.e. up to 92% and 75%, respectively…”
    “…it is advisable that eggs and milk should be boiled or pasteurised before human consumption…”
    “In pig stables manure must be classified as a reservoir of infections with Toxoplasma gondii…”
    Even the abundant flies around an organic livestock farm can spread toxoplasma, in addition to disease-causing germs:
    Prince Charles and his regal organic movement offer us commoners a taste of haughty royal affectation at our local farmers market…for a price. The price is paid in coin of the realm and in food safety for our families. Caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor!

  • ecofood

    Excellent microcosm of the wrongly focused debate here… An early mention of the need to feed a growing population (we have enough people now) and a reply from the well funded advocates of “corporate antisepticism.” Antiseptic food production is favored by political funders because it cuts out the medium sized production farmer in favor of the corporate food system. The fragility we adopt in the corporate food system means we can always be running from the next bugaboo that is held up to make us run to their arms. I know who grows most of my food in season, and don’t need a receipt because my friends saw me buy it. Those farmers and my friends can’t afford the complex, and prohibitive experiments that “prove” every bean is safe. We rely on our immune systems and separation from the frankenfood menace.
    If I could fit this into a soundbite, I’d be king of the world because no one, even Muddie would stand for the duplicity that we are currently adopting in the name of safe food. ef