Last Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, I had a requested op-ed published in the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a little rusty, so Amy did more than just clean it up, and I haven’t gotten around to posting it until now because there was some medical stuff last week, but all is well and here it is:
My 9-year-old daughter and I were watching the news on Saturday morning and she asked, why would someone put a needle in strawberries?
A couple of years ago a food safety type asked me, what’s the biggest risk to the food supply.
I didn’t hesitate.
Deliberate tampering and food fraud.
Food safety has traditionally been faith-based – especially when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables. Consumers cannot control how food is handled before it gets to them. This is why consumers need to know their suppliers and know what they are doing to keep people safe.
This latest food tampering scare – 11 cases of contaminanted strawberries reported nationally so far, the first in Sydney on Saturday – makes that clear.
Faith-based food safety sucks. It always has. Risks have always been present. As Madeleine Ferrieres, the author of Mad Cow, Sacred Cow: A History of Food Fears, wrote, “All human beings before us questioned the contents of their plates.”
But contemporary consumers forget that contamination risk has always been with us: “We are often too blinded by this amnesia to view our present food situation clearly. This amnesia is very convenient. It allows us to reinvent the past and construct a complaisant, retrospective mythology.”
“We still live with the illusion of modernity, with the false idea that what happens to us is new and unbearable,” she has said in an interview.
What’s new is that we have better tools to detect problems. This also presents an opportunity: those who use the best tools should be able to prove their food is safe through testing and brag about it. They can market food safety measures at retail.
The days of faith-based food safety are coming to a protracted close.
There is a lack – a disturbing lack – of on-farm food safety inspection; farmers need to be more aware of the potential for contamination from microbes (from listeria in rockmelon, for example) as well as sabotage.
There is an equally large lack of information to consumers where they buy their produce. What do Australian grocery shoppers know of the food safety regulations applied to the produce sold in their most popular stores? Who can they ask to find the answers?
The best solution is for farmers and retailers to market food safety. If they have a great food safety program they should be promoting it. Consumers can handle more information rather than less.
Douglas Powell is a (sorta?) retired professor of food safety in Canada and the US who now lives in Brisbane. He blogs at barfblog.com.
And in memorandum, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, the Blues Brothers’ guitarist and longtime blues sideman who died Friday at 88.