Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

What is 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 put together. From Lucas Benitez, Co-Founder, Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Wendell Berry, Author, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, Will Allen, Founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc. and even The Prince of Wales popped in only days after the wedding of the century for the keynote address.

charles-2_1887626c.jpgIt was truly, an impressive list of speakers with a deep commitment to issues surrounding the future of food, and with 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 trend of booming 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 touting local, organic agriculture – meat and vegetables. White House Chef Sam Kass shared recipes as some in the audience gushed how hot (not temperature) 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 (mother profiled in Food Inc. who lost her son to E. coli O157:H7) asked one of the panels of speakers about food safety as she lives it. The response is 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 to Barbara and the 48,000,000 Americans that are sickened, the 125,000 hospitalized and the 3,000 deaths that occur each year with a foodborne illness.

True, in two decades of 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 too 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 – from a bacteria’s or viruses’ perspective – 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, grass-fed, organic raw milk cheese producer was linked to eight E. coli O157:H7 illnesses. The writer was perplexed that the cheese maker could have done such a thing given that those sorts of things only happen to mega-food manufacturers. His belief simply did not conform to his 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.

This will also be published Sunday as my Publisher’s Platform at Food Safety News.

  • Chuck

    To much of the lore about food safety is not supportable. One of the most unsupportable statements is ““know your farmer, know your food” – “if you can look your farmer in the eye, you know the food is safe.”
    No, you don’t. You have no idea how he fertilized his crops, whether or not he uses pesticides, how thoroughly he cleaned his products or if he has a clue about food safety issues and how to manage them.
    I don’t think local food is inherently safer but I’ve yet to see reliable research to prove or disprove it’s safety. My guess is it’s on a par with ‘non-local’ food.

  • Bix

    Very nice essay, Bill.
    I don’t understand local. Wouldn’t it be more feasible to grow food where it’s the best bet, like oranges in Florida or coffee in the tropics, then export it? In which case you might need some food safety rules to govern transport, storage, that kind of thing. Or are we all to grow our own oranges and coffee? (Assuming doing so produces a safer product.)

  • Kim

    As a nutritional scientist, a dietitian and a cancer researcher, I deeply appreciate both of the broad categories of food safety concerns – infectious contaminants (the focus of your work and many of my colleagues here at the University of Minnesota), and environmental contaminants such as pesticides, excessive use of fertilizers, heavy metal contamination, adulterations, etc. Infectious contaminants tend to cause more acute, immediately life threatening health issues, whereas environmental contaminants often cause more chronic disease issues and are difficult to trace and attribute appropriately. It is far more challenging to study chronic exposures compared to acute exposures, but that doesn’t mean that one is more important to human health than another.
    I am a proponent of local foods for the potential health, environmental and economic benefits. However, I don’t see that anyone in the local foods movement is saying that local foods are better from an infectious contaminant food safety standpoint – we will always need to practice safe food handling procedures. However, if we were operating with a solely local foods food system, any food borne illness outbreak would be confined to the local distribution area rather than the nationwide outbreak we often experience with our current food system. Far fewer people would be effected with a local food system.
    I think many of us working in the public health/food systems range feel that we have a fairly strong (but not perfect) system for monitoring infectious food contaminants. But, historically, there has been very little attention and resources paid to environmental food contaminants. In my mind, the local food movement is appropriately trying to bring a little more attention to other the non-infectious aspects of food safety.

  • Carlos

    I agree that the future of food movement ignores food safety, but I think that this is because they are focused on the more pressing issues of ridding the world of things like pesticides and GMOs, which rightfully take priority.
    Part of the reason they likely don’t address it is because the USDA and FDA are complete jokes, tailored to mass-produced foods and run by former Monsanto employees. Thus, the battle against GMOs, unnatural foods, and processed foods is also a battle against the food safety system. They are entwined and corrupt. The movement needs to be taking into account how to change food safety regulation as it progress.
    Also, local, naturally produced food IS safer. Grain-fed beef is fatty and diseased because cows evolved eating grass. Chickens kept in coups by the thousands piled on top of each other and injected with chemicals are more likely to be a health risk than those raised in a free range atmosphere. How is that even up for debate?

  • Carlos, I have a lot of issues with both USDA and FDA and make them well known. However, there are a lot of good people in those organizations doing good things for the public everyday.
    The point of my article is that there should not be priorities in food safety. The issues raised at the conference – from workers rights to sustainability were on the table – but bacterial and viral risks, and how to minimize them, were not.
    We need to take a comprehensive look at how we feed a growing world population and I do not think any of the issues should be off the table.

  • Mary McGonigle-Martin

    I purchase eggs at the farmer’s market. The eggs are sold in cartons and dried chicken poop is on many of the eggs. I take them home and wash them, but the cartons have been contaminated so I line the carton with a paper towel. I am careful when I cook and scramble the eggs thoroughly. I think this is a safety issue. I can see how someone not paying attention could become infected with salmonella.