Marion Nestle On Food Safety

Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and the author of several books on food safety, writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her latest column looks at the tasks facing Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who has been nominated by President Obama as the next administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Here’s Nestle’s quick take on why reform is urgently needed:

The safety scandals of the past few years – spinach, pet food, peanut butter, and now pistachios – revealed profound weaknesses in the ability of the FDA to protect public health. Polls say nearly 75 percent of Americans are more afraid of food than they are of terrorists.

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Connecting to Farms Through the Internet?

internetshoppingcartA recent article in the New York Times describes a new way that farmers are using technology to connect to their consumers. A website called Find the Farmer–created by flour producers Stone Buhr (which uses a cooperative of growers) and The Food Alliance–allows consumers to trace an individual bags of flour back to its growers in a very tidy UPS-tracking sort of way. The article claims that this website not only provides a digital paper trail of traceability, but allows consumers to “reconnect with their lost agrarian past, from the comfort of their computer screens”.

While I agree with the idea that large food growers and processors are likely to be more more accountable if they are being traced, and I think that tools that help people eat local are important, I think that the best way to connect to your farmer is by building a relationship over the farmer’s market table, through CSAs, and by physically visiting the farm. It’s interesting because I think that the internet, especially this season, is helping us to connect with our members by showing them images of what’s happening around the farm, and by opening up the discussion on matters of farm or food.

I just think there is a huge difference between buying a bag of flour from Wal-Mart, typing in a code and seeing a picture of your growers and tasting cherry tomatoes off the vine and having the opportunity to ask your growers questions eye-to-eye. This just seems to me like more grocery aisle literature that consoles consumers with a lack of imagination. It’s kind of like Wendell Berry wrote:

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm.”

What do you think?

What Congress Is And Isn’t Doing About Food Safety

The Internet has exposed us to a lot of fresh, new voices on a wide range of topics. The blogs that I read for my healthcare reporting constantly astound me with their depth of sophisticated analysis. But the Internet also has made it possible for people I will charitably call cranks to get a far wider audience than they deserve.

So it is this week, with a flurry of wacky posts on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill was introduced in early March by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Judd Gregg (R-NH), and Richard Burr (R-NC). Barry Estabrook, who writes the “Politics of the Plate” column for Gourmet, and who is a passionate defender of sustainable, organic food, has written a succinct post about the Senate bill, which increases funding to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and makes it possible, for the first time, for the agency to order a recall. A very similar bill, dubbed the Safe FEAST Act (Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act of 2009) is making its way through the House. Scientific American’s assessment of both is here.

But, somehow, a crew of bloggers have decided that the bills would mean the end of organic food in America. They are circulating scare posts and a purported news video that looks as if it were made in somebody’s garage with a cellphone camera. I don’t know if they didn’t read the House and Senate bills, or if they were confusing them with a House subcommittee hearing that could lead to an expansion of the National Animal Identification System. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has gotten more than $100 million since 2004 for this voluntary tagging system. Certain interests now want to make the program mandatory, and that could raise costs for small farmers, as farmer Shannon Hayes noted in this op-ed to The New York Times.

Just as with the Organic Food Production Act of 1992, the devil will be in the details and those will come out in the rule making process. It took 10 years before there was a Final Rule with which to enforce the OFPA and that is still a work in progress. The biggest issues of food safety in regard to protecting the people devolve to jurisdiction and an absolutely unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth. This one should be a new beginning that reflects the realities of food production today and the globalization of our food supply, not a cut and paste reshuffling or hide the ball contest for funding.

Our federal legislators have tried before, without success, to address food safety and reduce the senseless split of responsibility between the FDA and the USDA. The first hearing on the NAIS–a very bad idea in its current iteration–won’t be the last. But I don’t see how any harm will come to organic food when the First Lady is serving healthful food at a soup kitchen.

To follow the progress of any of the bills, try using the non-partisan, open source project GovTrack.  Better yet: Shake the hand that feeds you and join the CSA.