I am an avid reader of the Perishable Pundit – especially since the recent E. coli-related spinach outbreak.

Jim recently posted an interesting quote from a buyer at www.perishablepundit.com:

Another Naysayer of Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if spinach is now “safe”, because we are carrying it. My answer is simple: we carry it because the FDA has removed their warning! I don’t get myself in a position to qualify whether or not the product is safe. I expect the government to do their job in that regard. What I have a problem with in Tim York’s approach is that it doesn’t get to the real issue, namely federal regulation in areas of production agriculture. This isn’t a spinach issue, or a California issue. That only happens to be “cause du jour”.

Industry needs to do the heavy lifting with regards to GAPs, and those GAPs may differ between some commodities. But once they are established, the FDA needs to give them the impact of federal regulation. In this way, ALL players need to participate. If you want to grow spinach, these are the things you need to do, period. It’s not about buyers, or groups of buyers, trying to make a statement as to who to buy from or not. Food safety should not be open to discrimination. And the federal government should always be the source of food safety regulation. If not, you get into a situation that exists in Western Europe, namely that the public loses faith in the government to regulate food safety. Not a good place to be!

My feeling is that there is a place for regulation, but companies that grow our food need to make is safe for business and moral reasons – it is not good to poison customers.  Jim points out that regulation may also not necessarily be the way to create safer produce:

  • Perhaps food safety protocols should be mandatory, should be national and should have the force of law — but they don’t right now. Other than vague federal laws related to adulterated food, the FDA has no authority or mechanism for mandating that farms not be operated within a thousand feet of a cow or any of the other minutia that make up food safety protocols. If they did get laws and regulations passed, they have no staff to enforce the rules. And if they did have the rules and did have a police force, that would only mean that people who break the rules are criminals — not that the food is always safe.
  • The notion that it is the FDA’s responsibility to determine what is safe and what is not has to be appealing to both producer and buyer. After all, if the FDA will take that burden off producers and buyers, it will help both.
  • The practical issue is that, so far, we don’t see much evidence that the FDA is willing or able to regulate. The FDA has not made a proposal to Congress requesting regulatory authority. It has not proposed any regulations. So regardless of what is right or a good idea, it doesn’t seem to be happening. The buyers leading this initiative are unwilling to not do anything while we wait, like Godot, for the FDA to do something.
  • The Pundit would add a more philosophical critique: In this particular arena there is no such thing as “safe” — there are only various procedures that make us incrementally “safer”. So the FDA standard, even if established, can only be a baseline. If they require a fence around a property, a more rigorous program installs double fences so if an animal gets past one, he still isn’t on the farm. A still more rigorous one digs the fence five feet underground. One can go on and on.