I am finally sitting on a plane (an hour and a half late) heading home to Seattle from Atlanta nearly two weeks after leaving Seattle for Los Angeles and from there to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Shanghai, China and then to Savannah, Georgia.
Tired is not quite the right word I feel and I’m not sure I can adequately express my desire to not see the inside of an airport or an airplane – for at least a week or so.
Welcome to my world. It is quickly becoming a flash and blur of time zones, air miles and cultures, however, with common denominators of bad food, poisoned people and platitudes by business and government leaders about food safety – from “farm to fork” or “paddock to plate” – you get the drift. I’ve learned to move easily between my roles as food safety advocate and victims advocate, as easily as I’ve learned how to pack for two weeks without ever having to check a bag.
Food is big business, very big business. I cannot even fathom the amount of business generated by the worldwide production of food. We all eat – some better and more safely than others, some more healthfully, exotically, sustainably, and in varying amounts. However, we all eat. We eat for all kinds of reasons. We eat for comfort, out of boredom, to be sexy or because we are starving. But eat we must.
Safe food is another matter. To some people, safe food includes issues like GMOs, pesticides, high fructose corn syrup, etc. — issues to be sure but not as basic as my concerns. When I think food safety it usually involves feces and the bugs in them that can kill or maim in days, not decades. I know I should think about the other, prospective food safety issues, but it is hard to think long term when you are focused on animal shit in your salad or milk today.
So, where have I been and why do I do it? My stop in Los Angeles was for the Washington State and Kansas State Food Safety HACCP Conference. My talk there, before I dashed to the airport, was an overview of products and companies that have poisoned the public in the last year. It has become my annual report on feces in our food.
In Fayetteville I spent two days with a bunch of smart LLM students in the Law School’s Food and Ag Law program at the University of Arkansas. Can you imagine talking about the illegality of feces in food for two days? The sad thing is there is so much material, I could teach a class every day for years and still not cover it all.
In China, I found my voice. I told the several hundred attendees at the government-sponsored conference – government officials from around the world and executives of companies trying to get a piece of the food-sale action in China (people in China are clearly unAmerican in their girth) – that “it is a bad idea to poison your customers.” Arguably self evident, but after 18 years representing the victims of the failures of “farm to fork” etc., many – too many – companies, simply do not get it.
As I told them, whether you decide you shouldn’t poison customers for business reasons (e.g., your customers may stop buying your feces-filled food), or for personal reasons (e.g., in the U.S. you will not go to jail but in China you might get shot), or for moral reasons (e.g., the people you poison may well be someone’s kid or grandparent), it really is a bad idea to poison people.
My 20-minute speech, accompanied by a video with Chinese subtitles, left few dry eyes in the cross-cultural audience. However, on the same day a Chinese court sentenced a father to prison for seeking fairness in a system that allowed his 2-year-old child to be poisoned. Clearly, I have more work to do in China.
My stop in Savannah, Georgia was what I do on a micro level. How do you persuade a multi-billion-dollar a year company to fairly compensate a young mother who consumed a food product that has left her vulnerable to the need for a kidney transplant? After a very long day, both sides found agreement, albeit, painfully.
I am glad to be home – almost. And, Monday is just a day away.