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America’s Food Safety Back on a Front Burner

• August 13, 2009 • 7:50 PM

Confidence in the American food supply has been at a low ebb of late. A resumed federal focus and frequenting local producers may help reverse the tide.

Think IBM and you think food.

You don’t? Well, for at least the last decade, the pioneering business machine company has been working to track the quality and safety of food, the essential component of the human machine.

In February, IBM released new software designed to trace food — using bar codes and scanners — in order to monitor the condition, quality, and location of items, thus preventing or mitigating food-contamination outbreaks. IBM touts its ability to use barcodes and radio frequency identification chips to follow food from “farm to fork.”

The company described one model program in Manitoba last year in which it “tracked data about product movement, animal history and characteristics, processing history and transportation data throughout the complete value chain.” That “value chain” included 16 separate businesses, “including beef and pork producers, animal feed ingredient producers, feed manufacturers, farmers, processing plants, truckers and a retail grocery chain.”

Supporting its bid for “smart food,” in early July IBM announced the results of a study in which it had asked 1,000 consumers in the United States’ 10 largest cities if they felt the food they buy is safe to eat.

According to IBM: “[Our] new study reveals that less than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy for themselves and their families. The study also shows that 60 percent of consumers are concerned about the safety of food they purchase, and 63 percent are knowledgeable about the content of the food they buy.”

With peanut butter as the most-cited example, 87 percent of the respondents could name a food product that had been recalled in the last two years, and said they’d be less likely to buy any product that had been recalled because of contamination.

As one father (not surveyed) said in March, “When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my 7-year old daughter, Sasha, who has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week.” That father was Barack Obama.

Measuring attitudes in February, after the peanut butter scare, an ongoing weekly survey of American attitudes toward food safety noted the lowest confidence rating in its short history. That food safety plebiscite is conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Food Industry Center and the Louisiana State University AgCenter. (The research is funded by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, which views food safety as a national defense concern.)

Meanwhile, 63 percent of the IBM respondents said that over the last two years they have changed the way they shop for groceries, in part because of safety concerns but also in order to get more for their food dollar. “[A]lmost half,” the study reported, “have changed shopping behavior to access fresher foods (45 percent) or better quality foods (43 percent).”

That last finding comes as no surprise to Jaydee Hanson, a food policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Food Safety, who has been warning people about food safety for some time.

“The good news is people in the United Sates are eating more fresh food now than in the last 50 or so years.” he said. “The bad news is the people who are supposed to make sure that food is safe are missing in action. How could that happen? Because, basically, beginning about 30 years ago, they decided they didn’t need to regulate. We used to have the best and safest food system in the world. We don’t anymore.”

The problem of food safety has been very much with us this summer. As Tony Corbo, legislative representative of Food and Water Watch, says, “There have been a number of recalls in recent weeks. The FDA has had a recall of Toll House Cookie Dough that somehow got contaminated with E. coli, USDA has had a recall of beef products from a slaughter house in Colorado which caused hundreds of supermarkets to recall their ground beef products, and there’s a company that falls under FDA’s jurisdiction that apparently has found salmonella in its milk powder. So there’s been a litany of recalls.”

The White House has taken steps to address food safety. In March, President Obama created the Food Safety Working Group to address the “troubling trend” of reduced food safety.

As he explained during a radio address, “Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s also because our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it’s difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together and solve problems. And it’s also because the FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year.”

In early July, at a ceremony announcing its key findings, Vice President Joe Biden said, “Our food safety system must be updated – 1 in 4 people get sick every year due to food-borne illness, and children and the elderly are more at risk.”

On the same day the administration announced its plans to clean up the food safety mess, Gardner Harris, who covers food safety issues for The New York Times, called the proposed measures “more aspirational than actual.”

Focusing on the safety of eggs, he noted that jurisdictional turf wars among federal agencies redundantly charged with food safety had kept sensible regulations off the plate since the Reagan administration. (Or even the Clinton administration, when the President’s Council on Food Safety “identified egg safety as one component of the public health issue of food safety that warrants immediate federal, interagency action.”)

With that lethargy in mind, Harris wrote on the new initiative, “The Agriculture Department promised to develop new standards to reduce salmonella in chickens and turkeys by the end of the year. The Food and Drug Administration promised to advise the food industry by the end of the month on how to prevent contamination of tomatoes, melons, spinach and lettuce. And within three months, the FDA plans to release advice about how farmers, wholesalers and retailers can build systems to trace contaminated foods quickly from shelf to field.”

Observers on all sides of the food aisles are nodding, cautiously, in approval at the signs of changes to come. Scott Faber, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told The New York Times, “We are re-laying the foundation for our food safety system.”

Corbo is also complimentary of the Obama administration’s first steps, but with reservations: “I think the FDA has recognized that it needs additional authority to properly regulate food safety in this country, and has actually asked Congress to give it additional authority — mandatory recall authority, the power to order things off the shelf, and additional authority to regulate produce — so that they can do their jobs more effectively.

“There are various bills now before Congress that would give them that authority,” Corbo told Miller-McCune.com. “However, we’re still waiting for final congressional action.” He pointed to Rep. John Dingell’s Food Safety and Enhancement Act, which recently passed the House on a 283-142 vote and is in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

“It’s important that the White House has food safety on its radar, but what’s really needed are changes in the law. The attitude is different and there is a recognition that something needs to be done, but at the moment nothing is really happening.”

In the interim, Hanson has some practical advice: “Have as much contact with the producers of your food as you can. It won’t keep you from getting sick, but at least you’ll know who made you sick. The more stops there are in the production chain, the more likelihood there is for something to go wrong. I know that the steak I buy from my local butcher has been in his place, the butcher shop or his stand at the farmers market, and my freezer.”

There’s an added bonus in going local, especially in these straitened times. As Food and Water Watch points out, in addition to great food safety, buying locally grown food will also stimulate the local economy. And, says the watchdog group, local food usually costs 30 to 40 percent less than grocery-store brands because of the savings on delivery costs.

So, to finish with a bite of language salad, caveat emptor and bon appetit.

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John Greenya
John Greenya, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is the author or co-author of 18 books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among other publications.

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