New Food Safety Regulations Miss the Point

Subtitle: Antibiotics and Pesticides and GMOs, Oh My!or, It’s the System, Stupid!

In working on issues related to food safety over the past four years, I have often been struck by how the language of regulators and consumer advocates sounds frighteningly similar to that used by defense and homeland security officials to talk about the threat of terrorism. At first just a source of amusement, I later could not shake the impression that the two seemingly unrelated predicaments were heralded by prophets of doom singing from the same hymnal.  Whether the “enemy” happened to be a terrorist or an unwelcome pathogen in our food, it seemed the only solution would be to “smoke ‘em out” and do them in wherever they lurked.

The link between the two sets of issues is in fact indelible, starting with passage of the so-called Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA) before the dust of the fallen World Trade Center in New York had fully settled.  Among other things, the BTA for the first time required federal registration of all “facilities” that handle, process or distribute food.  That category was supposed to exclude all farms, except that when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got to looking, they realized that in fact many farms these days are doing things that look like what they thought only food facilities would do.  For historical perspective, farms have always been rather complex places of business, except perhaps in the minds of federal regulators.

What many people don’t realize today is that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January of 2011, was intended primarily as an elaboration and ultimate completion of the BTA.  So for all the noise about foodborne illness outbreaks since 2002, the new FSMA actually has its roots in the desire to thwart terroristic intentions, or at least the theoretical threat that some external evil force would attempt to destroy our nation by poisoning the food supply. Continue reading

The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

Small is beautiful, said E.F. Schumacher to the world in 1973, but that declaration in itself was no small idea. Many people understood the implications of his work then, as they do now . . . except, it would seem, for those who have the power to make the big changes for which Schumacher advocated. One wonders if his ideas and efforts suffered from a basic, long-term marketing and communications problem.

I wonder that about our situation today in the sustainable agriculture community as well.  Our ideas are not small in any way, but we end up time and time again arguing our case primarily on the basis of size.  It almost seems we have replaced the “get big or get out” mantra of industrial agriculture with “get small or get lost,” resulting in an ineffective, elitist brand of policy formulation that leaves us far from the broad-based respectability and progressive goals we would like to achieve. Continue reading

Organic, Sustainable, Local Must Work Together

This column is a follow-up to my last one (September/October), which you can check out on our website if you wish.  The basic message of the previous column was that the social movement in which we are all participating – sometimes called the Good Food Movement – benefits greatly from its diversity, but faces great adversity if we cannot overcome internal fragmentation.  In this column I wish to take that theme a step farther in being more specific.

There are many different attributes that can be and have been assigned to food to make it more interesting to consumers and, at the same time, more profitable for farmers to produce. We seem to be coming up with new ones all the time, some of which are based on credible criteria and others less so.  But the “big three,” if you will, are organic, sustainable and local, which have been developed over the years in approximately that same chronological order, at least in the perceptions of consumers. Continue reading

Sustainable Food Safety

A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety

Released: November 8, 2010 

What makes food safe?  Or, for that matter, nutritious, or enjoyable? Such questions acknowledge the many inherent risks that compromise the availability, diversity, quality, wholesomeness, cleanliness, and affordability of food, making it less safe, secure, or sustainable.

We enter this conversation as partners in the rapidly growing constituency of local and regional food systems across the United States. We are farmers and food-related business of many shapes and sizes, committed to providing the safest food possible without increasing the potential for adverse unintended consequences. We see ‘food safety’ in the context of many other risks to our shared food systems.

As citizens and as stakeholders, our commitment to food safety is informed by our concerns about:

  • The long-term loss of topsoil, species diversity, natural resources, opportunity for farms and rural communities, and choices for consumers
  • The public health consequences of industrial chemical and pharmaceutical use on and off farms
  • The long-term effects of implementing inadequately tested and controlled technology
  • The concentration of wealth, power, and control of production in the hands of fewer and fewer players in the food system
  • Private ownership and patenting of seeds and other production technologies
  • A widening gap in the connection between many citizens and the sources of their food
  • Instances in which farmers are disregarded or demonized, in particular by other farmers
  • The measurable but unpredictable impacts of the industrial model applied to agriculture Continue reading