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Pundit’s Mailbag — Food Safety Regulations In Mexico

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 15, 2008

During the Salmonella Saintpaul situation, we spoke with many growers in Mexico. Shortly after that outbreak, Fresh Express held its Food Safety Conference and we wrote a piece on a presentation there. We entitled the piece, Filth Flies And Cultural Research, and we included these paragraphs:

It is easy for us to write a speech about a food safety culture in which the end game is that a farmer with flies in the field tells everyone about it so that research can be conducted, and you want the farmer to decline to harvest until both safety is confirmed and product quality isn’t sullied by a disproportionate numbers of flies.

Yet it seems both unrealistic and unfair to simply say that the farmer should be courageous and take a hit for all of us and die some kind of economic Samurai death as he falls on the sword of food safety and product quality.

Supporting a particular culture is about doing real things that make it both likely and possible for people to behave a certain way.

Now we’ve received a letter from Mexico reacting to the point we were making:

Re: Farmers falling on the Samurai sword of food safety…You make so much sense sometimes it scares me!

Thank you for thinking long and hard about food safety issues, and for sharing your insights.

It is very difficult down here “on the farm,” and I wish the media (and FDA) understood a little more about what a farmer faces when they whip the consuming public into a frenzy.

I am in charge of the food safety program for a mid-sized company in Mexico, and find myself trying to inform as many people as I can, from field workers and company owners to Mexican officials, of many of the insights I gain from reading your column.

Here in Mexico we are now facing government-regulated food safety programs, starting soon with basil, and with tomatoes in the pipeline.

I have mixed feelings, but overall perhaps it will help bring smaller, non-corporate producers into the loop, which is a good thing overall for Mexican agriculture (I just personally don‘t like government regulations).

And there is no guarantee that all the good efforts and money spent will not be wasted by a single infected well or individual who has the power to bring an entire multinational industry to its knees.

No wonder there is an exodus of good farmers from farming. The risks, which were always high, are becoming enormous.

— Janning Kennedy
Consultant
Sueño Tropical
Pescadero
Cabo San Lucas
Mexico

Many who advocate regulation make the mistake of thinking that because a law is passed or a rule made, the problem is solved. We’ve shown how problematic this attitude is with pieces such as this one, showing how regulation didn’t ensure good conditions at the 7th Street Market in Los Angeles, and or this one, showing how the inspector and loads of regulation didn’t prevent a massive rat infestation at the KFC/Taco Bell in New York. We also discussed this issue from a more theoretical perspective in a piece we entitled, All In Favor Of Regulation Say Aye:

It is a weakness of democratic politics that people are prone to believe that passing a law against something will accomplish something. So just as it was once believed that the Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Pact of Paris, would end all war, people believe that a law banning unsafe produce will end foodborne illness outbreaks.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was a treaty — still binding in fact — “providing for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy.” Alas, this 1928 agreement signed by Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the USA, France, Russia, Poland and many other countries, did not prevent World War II or any of the wars since.

In Mexico, we have to suspect that regulation will be doubly problematic. In theory it could really help. The problem in Mexico is a bifurcated industry with some world-class producers and some horrible producers. Yet we have real doubts:

First, applying truly rigorous food safety standards to the many small producers who are growing for local sale is tantamount to demanding they go out of business. So it seems unlikely that any rigorous food safety program will really be enforced.

Second, one has to be very concerned about corruption. Many years ago, we used to buy watermelons in Mexico to ship to Finland and, at that time, it was necessary for us to get a Generalized System of Preferences certificate — basically a certification that the produce had been grown in Mexico and that Mexico, as a developing country, qualified for a tariff break. Well, try as they might many a producer simply could not get those certificates, whereas others seemed to have blank ones in their desk drawer. We never knew for sure why this was, but we had our suspicions.

The more regulations there are the more opportunities for corruption.

Ms. Kennedy’s point that the FDA’s practice of punishing every farmer when there is a problem with an unidentified source is well taken. If this continues, it will reduce the willingness of honorable men to engage in this occupation and that will reduce supply and raise food costs for us all.

We are honored by Ms. Kennedy’s kind words and thank her for bringing us the opportunity to discuss such an important subject.

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