Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and author of eight books on food politics.
She has been described by Forbes as the second most powerful “foodie” after Michelle Obama and “an indispensable voice on the problems of the American diet and their roots in industry marketing and government policy.”
To celebrate her latest book on food politics, FoodQualityNews.com is giving away a free copy of Eat, Drink, Vote, a light-hearted look at “what’s wrong with the US food system” illustrated with Nestle’s favorite cartoons on labeling, safety scares, and corporate marketing. To be in with a chance of winning, readers can "like" FoodQualityNews.com's Facebook page .
In an extract below, Nestle outlines the recent history of US food safety, and how government agencies respond to crises.
HOW COULD SOMETHING LIKE FOOD SAFETY BE political? Who would not want food to be safe? But consider what it takes to get food to the table. The American food system ranges from fields to kitchens and employs millions of people. Vegetables grow in soil, food animals excrete, and people carry diseases. Bacteria, viruses, and chemicals can easily contaminate foods and sicken anyone who eats them. Indeed, as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson famously said when he resigned from his post in 2004, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do."
The vulnerability of the food supply can be explained in large part by weaknesses in the country's food safety system. In essence, food safety regulation is divided between two federal agencies: the USDA for meat and poultry, and the FDA for all other foods.
For reasons of history, both agencies are funded through congressional agriculture appropriations committees, even though the FDA is a unit of Tommy Thompson's old health department. One result is that the FDA gets one-quarter of the funding for food safety even though it is responsible for three-fourths of the food supply.
After a series of deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness, two of which I discuss below, Congress began working to strengthen food safety legislation and late in 2010 passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. This act enabled the FDA to require and enforce prevention measures, inspect farms and production facilities, and recall contaminated foods. It also allowed the FDA to collect user fees from the companies being inspected, raising questions of conflict of interest.
The FDA did not propose rules to implement this law for a full two years. What held them up? The food industry always prefers to manage food safety on a voluntary basis, but these particular rules got caught in 2012 election-year politics when reductions in government spending and regulation emerged as major points of contention.
Microbes in the food supply
PROBLEMS WITH FOOD safety regulation sprang to public attention in the early 2000s when one food after another became implicated in disease outbreaks. The CDC estimated that foodborne microbial illnesses affected 48,000 people a year and caused 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Many of these were caused by toxic forms of common intestinal bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which soon became household words.
These bacteria are fecal contaminants derived from farm animals. Meat production is inherently dirty, and contaminated meat has long been recognized as a cause of illness.
But in recent years, vegetables such as spinach have been more frequently identified as sources of outbreaks. These leafy greens, often eaten raw, must have come into contact with animal wastes--collateral damage from our increasingly industrialized and concentrated animal production and food distribution systems.
The USDA's approach to food safety requires meat and poultry producers to follow preventive procedures, but also places considerable responsibility on individual households and consumers. Its education campaigns urge the public to follow basic food safety procedures: clean, separate, cook, chill.
This is excellent advice. Everyone should adhere to basic food safety procedures at home. But shouldn't food be safe when it arrives in the home? And what about restaurants? They too should be required to adhere to food safety standards and take every possible precaution to protect customers from foodborne illness.
Critics of government regulation argue that no legislation can protect citizens from dangerous microbes, not least because so much food is imported from countries with food safety systems even less effective than ours. The new food safety law gives the FDA greater authority to oversee imported foods. But Congress did not necessarily provide the FDA with additional funds to carry out its new responsibilities.
Reprinted from Eat Drink Vote by Marion Nestle. Copyright (c) 2013 by Marion Nestle and The Cartoonist Group, LLC. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.
Arctic Circle by ©Alex Hallatt: Distributed to newspapers by King Features Syndicate. January 24, 2011.