By Tom Laskawy
[Tom Laskawy blogs on food and the environment at Grist.org, Beyond Green, and now here at markbittman.com. IMHO, he's not only among the best researchers in the field, he's a voice of (non-dogmatic) reason and a fine writer. His work has appeared in the The New York Times Online, Slate, The New Republic and The American Prospect. - mb]
My considered analysis of food safety in the U.S.? It’s an unmitigated disaster.
Salmonella in peanut butter made by a single manufacturer causes deaths, sickness and the recall of thousands of different products from store shelves. Over ten million pounds of beef have been recalled since President Obama took office. Indeed, the ongoing food safety crisis that is industrial ground beef inspired NYT writer Michael Moss to write a piece that won a Pulitzer.
New strains of microbes like the deadly E coli O157:H7 and antibiotic resistant salmonella — bugs that didn’t exist thirty years ago — raise the stakes much higher. With food safety laws more or less unchanged since the 1930s, the long overdue push for reform seemed, compared to other legislative priorities, easy. What could be more of a no-brainer than safe food?And yet, the food safety bill passed by the House and the one under consideration in the Senate are becoming, well, perhaps not an unmitigated disaster, but certainly a mess. I’m still trying to decide if I have an opinion on the merits of the bill.
Take the current fracas over Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to the Senate food safety bill which would ban the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A from all food packaging. BPA is a chemical used in not only in plastic bottles but in the linings of canned food and beverages (not to mention in many unexpected places such as register receipts). Yes, the industry still clings to its own research showing BPA is perfectly safe. But independent research has shown the danger of BPA for years – in fact the first warning signs were found 75 years ago — and the FDA itself, while moving slowly, is considering its own ban.
But the idea that Congress might protect us from a hazardous chemical has forced the food industry’s hand. They are now threatening to turn into fierce opponents of food safety legislation. And if they do, they will find unexpected allies. Since the bill’s initial introduction in the House last year, some of the loudest opposition has come from small and organic producers. As they see it, the bill leaves the core of our food safety problems intact (via the SF Chronicle):
The legislation does not address what some experts suspect is the primary source of E. coli contamination: the large, confined animal feeding operations that are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA.
“[The bill] does not take on the industrial animal industry and the abuses going on,” said Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, an organic grower of Mediterranean vegetables. “The really dangerous organisms we’re dealing with out here, and trying to protect our produce and other foodstuffs from, are coming out the rear end of domestic animals.”
For all their issues, animals are largely left out of current food safety legislation. The USDA has responsibility over meat, eggs and poultry and, while the current legislation significantly strengthens the FDA’s powers over everything else, it leaves the USDA’s authority over meat safety — authority that has spawned recall after recall — virtually untouched.
You could argue, as some have done, that this is a good thing because the USDA is more attuned to the needs of small producers. However, the food safety division of the USDA just released a draft of new safety regulations for slaughterhouses, and the consensus among small producers is that it too might put them out of business. And that doesn’t take account of the industrial meat industry’s long-held desire to introduce irradiation and chemical washes as the surest way to guarantee safe meat (it’s worth noting that FDA food safety czar/former Monsanto exec Michael Taylor is a fan as well). Pay no attention to the grayish color and unnaturally long shelf life of your irradiated meat. Just eat up.
In the end, the ups and downs of food safety reform merely reflect the schizophrenic food system we have. Industrial producers get the run of the place while the small producers have to fit into any available cracks. It should surprise no one that Congress pays more heed to the needs of the food industry giants and less to those forced to scurry in their shadow. Still, the Senate bill has made enough accommodations to the needs of small producers that one of the leading advocates of small farmers, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition feels comfortable signing on.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s the possibility that making what was a surprisingly unregulated self-regulated industry accountable will force us to acknowledge that there is no single food system anymore. I don’t think the administration or Congress wants to destroy small producers. And I don’t think the food safety bill will do it either, though that doesn’t mean it will be painless. Like health care, reforming food safety will be process — a process that will start uncertainly and imperfectly. The bill on the table, specifically the Senate version, will clearly improve the status quo, if only because the status quo is such a mess. So we best pass this reform bill now so we can pass more and better reforms later. (Photo: I Love Butter)