Tony Corbo is the senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. He is responsible for food-related legislative and regulatory issues that come before Congress and the Executive Branch. Tony has extensive organizing experience, having directed major public employee representation campaigns in several states. He has also directed political campaigns at various levels, and he served as the administrative assistant to a member of Congress. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Affairs from The George Washington University and a Master’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.
Olivia Marler interviewed Tony for a series of conversations with food safety leaders that she calls “Food for Thought.”
How did you get into food safety?
We are all consumers, so food safety should be on everyone’s radar screen. My interest in food safety as a public policy began when I was a union representative for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in the 1970s and 1980s and I came into contact with state and local food inspectors. I developed a strong appreciation for what they do to protect the public — especially during tough budget times.
For eight years I lived in California’s Central Valley, where agriculture is the economic engine for that region. I eventually went to work for Congressman Gary Condit, who represented the Fresno, Stanislaus, Madera and Merced Counties in California. I had to deal with agriculture and food policy on a daily basis.
In 2000, I was interested in a campaign that the public interest advocacy group Public Citizen had started to preserve the labeling requirements for irradiated foods, so I went to work as a staffer there. We fast realized that food irradiation was part of a bigger problem with the way our food was being produced, so we expanded our efforts to work on food safety in a broader context. In 2005, Food & Water Watch was born and those of us who worked on food and agriculture public policy at Public Citizen continued our food safety work here.
What is the most immediate change that could be made to improve food safety by industry? And by the government?
It is in industry’s best interests to have effective food safety measures in place. I believe that most food producers and processors realize that. A foodborne illness outbreak caused by sloppy production practices could put any company out of business in a heartbeat.
On the meat and poultry side, I think that industry needs to realize that it has to drop its opposition to having enforceable performance standards to deal with such pathogens as Salmonella. While progress has been made to reduce the levels of Salmonella in poultry and meat products over the past 10 years, the progress has stalled in recent years.
We have had major foodborne illness outbreaks and major recalls tied to Salmonella in meat and poultry products. We need a stronger preventative approach to dealing with that pathogen, so we would urge industry to work with key food safety advocates in the Congress, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who have worked on legislation to give USDA additional authorities.
For those foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, I think that the industry along with everyone else is waiting for the proposed regulations called for by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to be released by the White House Office of Management and Budget so that the public comment period can begin.
I have noticed that some industry groups and state agricultural extension programs are not waiting for the new regulations to be promulgated and have gone ahead with food safety training conferences so that producers and processors become familiar with how to develop effective food safety plans and how to monitor them to ensure that there is food safety process control. Those efforts are commendable, but we really need to get those regulations out so that everyone understands what the food safety playing field looks like and what will be expected of industry by the FDA.
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?
Food & Water Watch agrees that there is overuse and abuse of antibiotics in animal production in the United States. We have seen increasing numbers of foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls of products that have been contaminated with strains of pathogens that were antibiotic resistant. That has led to illnesses caused by these pathogens to be prolonged because doctors were prescribing medicines that proved to be ineffective.
Food & Water Watch supports the enactment of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMPTA) that would restrict the use of antibiotics in animal production. We believe that the approach taken thus far by the Food and Drug Administration has been much too timid, so we believe that legislation is required to deal with this issue.
Food & Water Watch has Factory Farm Map posted on its website that highlights the food safety issues associated with intensive animal production. It can be accessed at http://www.factoryfarmmap.org/
Food & Water Watch also supports the petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to declare certain antibiotic strains of Salmonella as adulterants so that a more preventative approach can be taken to deal with those pathogens found in meat and poultry products and keep them out of the food supply.
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?
I do not subscribe to the notion that small is necessarily safer. However, I think that food safety regulations can be flexible enough to take into account the burdens faced by smaller producers. Food production is becoming too concentrated in the U.S. with a few large corporations controlling a bigger share of the market. Consumers are demanding access to local and fresher sources of food. Food safety regulations should not be used to disadvantage smaller producers.
I think that a good example of where the concerns of smaller businesses were addressed effectively by government is the recently issued draft guidance from the Food Safety and Inspection Service on the validation of HACCP plans in the meat and poultry industries. The initial guidance document met with severe opposition in 2010 when it is first proposed because smaller processors argued that it was going to be too costly for them to implement the validation procedures that the agency was proposing. Without sacrificing food safety, FSIS has issued a new guidance document that gives smaller processors various options to validate their HACCP plans. I think that food safety regulations and policies can be made scale-appropriate without sacrificing food safety.
Do you generally avoid eating specific foods because of the risk associated with eating them? If so, which foods?
I am not a consumer of raw milk, although I do eat cheeses made from raw milk that have been properly fermented. I hav
e always preferred beef products cooked either well-done or medium well. I regularly use a meat thermometer at home. I have FSIS refrigerator magnets posted at the office and at home that list the proper cooking temperatures for different types of foods.
I have never been a big seafood eater and I really don’t like raw seafood. While I have occasionally put sprouts in sandwiches and salads, I have tended to use less of them as there have been too many outbreaks associated with raw sprouts. I am getting to that age where I will become part of a vulnerable population susceptible to foodborne illness, so I am becoming more careful of what I am eating.