Is Your Supper Safe?

By Ben Hewitt, September/October 2009

With recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and salmonella in peanuts, sitting down to dinner may seem hazardous to your health. Can it really be so bad? EatingWell investigates.

"I'm not one who believes that everything has to be refrigerated shortly after it has been served. Many time, we leave dinner out all night, and we have the next day. None of us has ever gotten sick as a result of this. We're European,...

Is Local Food Safer?

The idea that eating closer to home can help make our food system safer isn’t just wishful locavore thinking. “Smaller-scale operations tend to provide a more direct producer-to-consumer relationship,” says Lovera of Food and Water Watch. “This makes traceback much shorter, and reduces the opportunities for the producer to shirk responsibility. And when outbreaks do happen, they affect fewer people.”

Perhaps without realizing it, Lovera makes another important point: just because you can shake the hand of the farmer who raised your food doesn’t mean he won’t kill you. Buying local does not mean you’re automatically safe from salmonella or E. coli (a wild pig can do the same thing to a small farm as it can to a large one, says Archer). But it does assure a level of person-to-person accountability that’s absent from the industrial food chain. “The food industry is pretty much run by marketing people who’d just as soon sell you a pair of shoes or a carpet,” says Scott Donnelly. “They push for a reformulation that will appeal to consumers, but lack the technical knowledge to foresee the potential safety shortfalls. They don’t care if what you’re buying is safe or nutritious. They just care if you buy it.”

That’s exactly why there’s been so much recent focus on legislation. President Obama has been urging Congress to modernize our food-safety laws and, indeed, the prevailing thinking on Capitol Hill seems to be if the food industry doesn’t care, we’ll pass the legislation that will force them to care.

The first piece of food-safety legislation proposed in 2009 is the most ambitious. Introduced in February, H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 would unify the food inspection and regulation process under a single agency, called the Food Safety Administration. And it would mandate that administration to, among other things, enforce safety standards, establish an inspection program, strengthen and expand foodborne-illness surveillance systems, ensure that imported food meets the same standards as U.S. food and establish a traceability system.

This all sounds well and good, but many people worry that increased regulation may threaten small-scale, regionalized producers. In other words, the very businesses we’re going to need to decentralize our food system. H.R. 875 seems to have lost momentum; most people are putting their chips on H.R. 2749: Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.

The draft bill is 115 pages of nearly impenetrable legalese, but there’s little question it would place a burden on food producers and manufacturers, in the form of an annual registration fee ($500, to be adjusted for inflation), as well as increased record keeping. This is particularly problematic for small, low-margin producers, many of whom already operate on the fringe of profitability. “We’re going to need to decide where to draw the line between producers that need more regulation and those that would be unfairly burdened by it,” says Lovera, who sees pieces of the bill as a starting point and believes other pieces could use some refinement.

Which begs the question: What else can we do? For one, we could start demanding that producers take responsibility for ensuring the safety of the foods they’re putting out into the marketplace. Under the current infrastructure, even if a company’s private testing reveals a problem, it is not required to alert, well, anyone. Will they do it voluntarily? The Peanut Corporation of America didn’t—and according to Marler, PCA isn’t the only company choosing to withhold such information. “I am personally aware of situations where companies are sitting on test results that show conclusively that they have contamination, even while there’s an inspector onsite who believes everything’s fine,” says Marler. “To say it’s crazy doesn’t really do it justice.”

Perhaps cultivating honesty requires harsher repercussions for withholding information that can harm people. Not that anyone is calling for punishment on par with the death sentences handed down in China to the men who were implicated in last year’s melamine-in-milk scandal that killed at least six children and sickened another 300,000. In the United States, to date, no one has ever been jailed for contributing to death or illness related to contaminated foods.

Or maybe the recent focus on the vulnerabilities of our food system is enough to spur some responsible companies to action: “Last year I was hired to do two risk assessments on a strictly proactive basis,” says Donnelly. “These companies weren’t required to do this, they simply wanted to be assured that they were doing everything they could to make their food products safe.”

Regardless of what motivates it, change is likely to come slowly. And in the meantime, Ashley Armstrong waits patiently for the first kidney transplant of her young life. In the meantime, one-in-four Americans will suffer foodborne illness every year. In the meantime, you, the American food consumer, must bear the brunt of the responsibility for making your supper safe. And Scott Donnelly will still be walking around on rooftops, looking forward to the day he can come down.

Ben Hewitt is the author of The Town That Food Saved (Rodale), out next March.

Additional reporting by Nicci Micco

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