Friday, April 10, 2009

The Wrong Question

An article in today's Sacramento Bee discussed a new report from the Centers for Disease Control. The subtitle to the article was "CDC says system wasn't designed for globalism." The story discussed the recent salmonella outbreaks in pistachios and peanuts and suggested that our entire food safety bureaucracy needs to be updated to deal with a global food system.

I wonder if we're dealing with the wrong question. Do we need a food safety framework that recognizes the global food system as a legitimate method of food production, or do we need a food production system that recognizes the limits of our food safety system and focuses more on local production.

Make no mistake - I strongly believe that food safety regulations are important. Where I differ from the assumptions made by the CDC, I guess, is in the acceptance of global production as the norm. Maybe if we all ate more locally, we wouldn't be faced with the food safety issues that are so problematic. Perhaps if we knew the farmers and ranchers that produced the food we eat, we'd have a safer and more secure food supply.

I realize that some of this is wishful thinking - some communities and regions may not be able to grow their own food supply. But adjusting our food safety system to accept the problems inherent in shipping food around the world seems to me to be the wrong approach.

I'm very interested in hearing from others on this subject!


  1. How Do We Get More People To Ask The Right Questions?

    Dan, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the Sac Bee article. As a food professional certified in food safety I have sat through countless hours of food safety training that has little to do with real food (by real food I mean food grown or raised locally, that was picked ripe, raised right, and tastes like it should). All of the videos and test questions in these classes are standardized for foodservice operations that are of a scale that seems obscene to me. I certainly understand the need for strict regulation of an operation that serves over 1000 meals per day, but I can’t understand why the very small restaurant I happen to work in has to be held to the exact same standards. The system seems completely backward to me, especially when many (not all) of the aforementioned foodservice operations are using ingredients that have traveled halfway around the world, have a long list of unrecognizable ingredients, cost pennies to produce, and don’t pay a decent wage to the people doing the hardest work to produce it. But it’s OK because they have met the required regulations. These are the regulations that are supposed to keep our food safe? And what about the small farms that grow or raise the same products as those implicated in the FDA’s broad recalls? Even though there are specific producers eventually identified in a food borne illness outbreak, these smaller farms suffer greatly and sometimes go out of business due to blanket warnings and recalls.
    My personal food philosophy is very simple: use the best ingredients, the most local ingredients as possible, and make something that tastes good for people who will appreciate it. I guess by appreciate it I also mean pay for it, which is another part of the problem. Our global food system has driven the price of most foods down so far that it is impossible for many farmers to stay competitive (I say this as an observer, not a farmer). The same is true of many chain restaurants. A restaurant that is willing to pay more for locally-produced ingredients must then pass some of these prices on to the customer-simple fact of business. But if you are trying to do this without much precedence, your restaurant will certainly be perceived as overpriced (I speak from personal experience), especially when you can get an artificially tenderized cut of steak for $12.99 at a chain restaurant and have leftovers for 2 days afterwards. Isn’t there something weird about that? Is it just me?
    Back on topic, though…updating our global food safety bureaucracy certainly seems like the wrong way to go. We should take this opportunity to think critically about how our food supply works (or does not). I am a relatively young person with a limited budget, as are my friends and acquaintances. We have grown up with the food system much as it exists today. It takes a lot of research and example to think differently from what you have always been taught. I don’t have the first clue of how to change today’s global food system or the CDC’s assertions. But what I hope is that more people will recognize the value of what is grown and produced right in their own backyard and make decisions to preserve it. So…how do we get more people to ask the right questions?


  2. I also am in total agreement that we are asking the wrong questions! As I look at the direction our gov't is heading with regard to food production & safety, I am concerned that we face the creation of more agricultural programs based on faulty reasoning, agencies that are self-propagating and unmanageable, and oversight organizations that have no basis in sound, sustainable management principles. As a consumer, I have made a commitment to buy & eat locally grown food as much as it is possible. Not only for my family's heath, but also because the food just tastes better. Beyond that, I believe we are honor-bound to support our local farms with our dollars, with our words and with our votes! They have fed this nation well and will continue to do so if government & corporations will stay out of the way!