April, 2010

Fruits of Thought

Daring To Challenge Food Safety Dogma

Food safety, like motherhood and apple pie, is a virtue that is almost impossible to speak out against. One photo, a single video clip, a poignant interview with anyone who has been injured as a result of a food safety incident is enough to set up the dynamic where any consumer, regulator or legislator watching or reading the stories begins to think, “something must be done.”

The public policy implications of this dynamic are significant and turbocharged by the fact that few companies or executives are likely to speak out against it. There is little upside for anybody to come to be identified as the “guy who doesn’t want to spend money to make his food safe.”

Though it is true that more dispassionate observers recognize that food safety is a “good” that costs money and that the pursuit of food safety is the pursuit of one particular “good” that must be measured against expenditures to obtain other desirable goals, this wonkish attitude with its dour requirement for assessment of costs and benefits tends to get lost in the shuffle. It is the tugging on heart strings that drives this issue.

From a policy standpoint, this is not a good thing. After all it means that as a society we are avoiding the hard choices. How much money are we prepared to spend to save a life or avoid an illness or prevent discomfort? We are not really weighing the merits of, say, spending our money on safer highways versus food safety. This results in a misallocation of resources and makes us poorer as a society than we need to be.

The emotional power of the argument for food safety also makes the industry something of a “mark” for those interested in promoting a particular ideology. We saw this very clearly when the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) came out with its “Ten Riskiest Foods” report. The report was bizarre — not differentiating between heavy-consumption items, such as leafy greens, and items rarely consumed, such as oysters... it didn’t distinguish between produce items, such as potatoes, and, say, home-made potato salad, and it didn’t distinguish between time periods, such as food safety problems before modern controls were implemented and after, as with the establishment of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

CSPI’s attack on the industry was especially wounding to the trade because Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at CSPI, serves on the board of advisers of the Center for Produce Safety. So she knew better.

It is fair to say that the whole incident indicated the limitations of “engagement strategy” — the approach that suggests the industry should get its opponents involved on its various boards and committees with the hope that mutual understanding can flower. Though it has become a truism to say that one should keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer, the approach’s effectiveness at changing policy depends, crucially, on all parties actually caring about the same issue.

Unfortunately, groups such as CSPI don’t so much care about food safety as they care about promoting a certain type of society in which elites make decisions for us all and in which the sphere of personal autonomy is reduced as the federal government becomes progressively more powerful.

This mind-set is demonstrated clearly by programs such as “The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.” To the shameless disregard of the academic reputation of Georgetown University, the school permits an outright advocacy group to usurp the good name and reputation of the university. The “project” details its mission on its web site: “The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University seeks the establishment by the Food and Drug Administration of mandatory and enforceable safety standards for domestic and imported fresh produce, from farm to fork.”

So it was not surprising that the project published a report claiming that foodborne illness is costing the United States $152 billion a year, of which foodborne illness due to produce was supposedly costing $39 billion a year. What virtually the entire mass media missed in reporting the story was to explain that this “project” wasn’t just devoted to the pursuit of truth but was an advocacy group promoting a specific policy — enhanced FDA authority. The study is best seen not as a legitimate analysis but as a scare tactic designed to get headlines that will promote the “project’s” mission.

Of course, some fight the good fight. The Alliance for Food and Farming paid for a study that tried to pinpoint the degree to which foodborne illness related to produce has anything to do with the farmer or processor. Turns out the answer is: Not very often. So while urging farmers and processors to redouble food safety efforts, the lesson of the study is that cooks at restaurants, institutions and at home need to be more vigilant.

Such a prosaic message is probably correct but uninspiring to those looking to transform society. So don’t look for the mass media to pay much attention.  pb