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Another Naysayer of Buyer-led
Food Safety Initiative

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 29, 2006

With the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative attracting so much attention, we thought it worth talking to some buyers who didn’t think it was a good idea. Yesterday we ran a piece in which buyers who declined to sign focused on the public nature of the project, including outreach to the consumer media, as a mistake. Today we share a more substantive complaint from a buyer:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if spinach is now “safe”, because we are carrying it. My answer is simple: we carry it because the FDA has removed their warning! I don’t get myself in a position to qualify whether or not the product is safe. I expect the government to do their job in that regard. What I have a problem with in Tim York’s approach is that it doesn’t get to the real issue, namely federal regulation in areas of production agriculture. This isn’t a spinach issue, or a California issue. That only happens to be “cause du jour”.

Industry needs to do the heavy lifting with regards to GAPs, and those GAPs may differ between some commodities. But once they are established, the FDA needs to give them the impact of federal regulation. In this way, ALL players need to participate. If you want to grow spinach, these are the things you need to do, period. It’s not about buyers, or groups of buyers, trying to make a statement as to who to buy from or not. Food safety should not be open to discrimination. And the federal government should always be the source of food safety regulation. If not, you get into a situation that exists in Western Europe, namely that the public loses faith in the government to regulate food safety. Not a good place to be!

It strikes the Pundit that this buyer is making three different points:

  1. That food safety protocols should be mandatory, national and have the force of law.
  2. That it is the FDA’s responsibility to determine what is safe and what is not; this is not the job of retailers.
  3. That the respect of the public, in America, for what the FDA and public health authorities say is a precious resource that should be protected.

These are reasonable positions, but they may raise as many questions as they answer.

Perhaps food safety protocols should be mandatory, should be national and should have the force of law — but they don’t right now. Other than vague federal laws related to adulterated food, the FDA has no authority or mechanism for mandating that farms not be operated within a thousand feet of a cow or any of the other minutia that make up food safety protocols. If they did get laws and regulations passed, they have no staff to enforce the rules. And if they did have the rules and did have a police force, that would only mean that people who break the rules are criminals — not that the food is always safe.

The buyers who are signatories to the initiative seem fine with the idea of federal regulation, but, in all likelihood, even if that was agreed on today — and it hasn’t been — we might be looking at three years before laws were passed, regulations written, an enforcement staff built and, basically, a new federal function was established.

Tim York and Dave Corsi would argue that we need something right now. So they push this effort. Eventually, the standards established by this effort might be adopted by Federal Regulation, but surely, they would argue, we should move ahead now.

The notion that it is the FDA’s responsibility to determine what is safe and what is not has to be appealing to both producer and buyer. After all, if the FDA will take that burden off producers and buyers, it will help both.

The practical issue is that, so far, we don’t see much evidence that the FDA is willing or able to regulate. The FDA has not made a proposal to Congress requesting regulatory authority. It has not proposed any regulations. So regardless of what is right or a good idea, it doesn’t seem to be happening. The buyers leading this initiative are unwilling to not do anything while we wait, like Godot, for the FDA to do something.

The Pundit would add a more philosophical critique: In this particular arena there is no such thing as “safe” — there are only various procedures that make us incrementally “safer.” So the FDA standard, even if established, can only be a baseline. If they require a fence around a property, a more rigorous program installs double fences so if an animal gets past one, he still isn’t on the farm. A still more rigorous one digs the fence five feet underground. One can go on and on.

It is understandable that buyers would like to be able to buy from anyone, anywhere and know the product is “safe” but that minimum level of intervention may not really be possible. Even with legally mandatory standards, a buyer can only know that the standards were followed by knowing its supply chain and auditing.

Besides, there seems something odd about this expectation of being able to buy from anyone. Try and sell a t-shirt to Target or Costco or Wal-Mart and you learn they have standards, that the minimum legally acceptable standard for a T-shirt to hold up isn’t acceptable for their customers. Chain stores have these T-shirts washed and dried, they want to see if they fade or shrink or if the seams hold up. And they only sell what is good enough for their customers. Is it unreasonable to think they should do the same with food safety?

Indeed the polls show high respect for the federal health authorities, and that is a great asset to the public health system in the U.S. It may also be why the FDA doesn’t push to set regulatory standards for fresh produce. The Western European analogy is apt in more ways than our correspondent might like to think.

After all, Western Europe has significantly higher regulatory levels than does the U.S., and the big confidence-busting action was not by private industry; it was the actions of the British government related to BSE or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis. A book, The Politics of BSE, put it this way:

It’s twenty years since reports first appeared of cattle in the UK coming down with a disease now known as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis). The number of animals affected rapidly increased, and because the disease was both fatal to cattle and also similar to at least two diseases that are fatal to humans, Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (CJD) and kuru, people began to worry about the danger to human health. For ten years, the government kept reassuring the public that there was no risk involved in eating beef. Many of us can still remember how the Secretary of State for Agriculture John Gummer was shown on television feeding a beefburger to his daughter to demonstrate how confident he was that it was safe.

Then, on 20 March 1996, the Secretary of State for Health Stephen Dorell announced that contrary to what he and his fellow ministers had been telling us for the past ten years, BSE can be transmitted to humans and in humans, it leads to an inevitably fatal disease known as variant CJD (vCJD).

That was a bit of a bombshell, with an immediate and lasting effect on public opinion. It probably did more than any other single event to shake the public’s confidence in government pronouncements about science, and is one of the major reasons that the British public has steadfastly refused to accept GM food, despite constant insistence by government agencies that the products are “perfectly safe”.

In fact, government is strong to the extent it narrows what it does to those things it can do well. In the U.K., there were lots of regulations on meat. Some were insufficient, some were not enforced, but nobody doubted it was government’s responsibility.

Maybe the reason American consumers respect the FDA is because it is smart enough to not put its prestige on the line regulating field crops.

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