Government’s still not that into you; target food safety efforts using pocketbook power

There’s a wonderful moment of clarity in the 2004 biopic, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, depicting the famed golfer’s first trip to the British Open at St. Andrews in 1921, where he withdrew in frustration. His caddy, Angus, says,

“Do you know the definition of insanity Bobby? It’s when you do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.”

Bobby Jones was trying to hit a ball out of a sand trap; lots of well-meaning people are trying to improve food safety in the U.S. by focusing on the federal government, but the ball keeps rolling back into that pot-bunker.

Latest to the plate is Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, who wrote in the New York Times Sunday,

“if the Senate fails to pass the food safety legislation now awaiting a vote, tens of thousands of American children will become needlessly and sometimes fatally ill.”

Whether the Senate acts or not will have little effect on kids barfing from dangerous food.

Schlosser roles out the standard fairtytales about Upton Sinclair and the role his book, The Jungle, had on inspiring The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but food safety was improving in previous decades, driven largely by the same two factors driving global food safety improvements today – technology and trade.

Something the Chinese are now discovering.

Most food purchases are based on faith. That’s why an extensive series of rules, regulations and punishments emerged beginning in 12th century Mediterranean areas, long before Upton Sinclair came along. But who knows if the rules actually make a difference.

Big or small, local or global there are microbiological basics with any kind of food production system that require attention and diligence.

Yet there are so many examples of food safety failures despite government oversight – peanut paste, pot pies and 2005’s E. coli outbreak in Wales – Angus may ask, what?

I generally ignore food safety chatter from Washington. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency or the passage of this Senate bill, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

The American-Statesman in Texas reported this morning that with the government and regulators making little food safety progress, individuals and businesses are taking on the responsibility themselves.

Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery said,

"We see the law as a minimum requirement, and we are always proactive and look at areas to raise the bar. Our approach is more of a preventative one, and we work with our suppliers and at the store level to ensure we meet and exceed what is required to stay ahead."

And Whole Foods has crappy food safety.

I admire people who can tell compelling stories. I also admire the food safety types throughout the world who work diligently to deliver food that won’t make people barf.

Government has something to do with it. However the best producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond government standards – and brag about it. The best provide public access to food safety test results, provide warnings to populations at risk, insist on mandatory training for anyone who touches food, and market food safety at retail, to create a food safety culture all the way back to the farm.

The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best won’t sit around lamenting the failures of government: they’ll just do it.

Bobby Jones adjusted his game to the Old Course, fell in love, and designed the Master’s in Augusta Georgia as a tribute to St. Andrews. Those lobbying government about food safety rules may also want to adjust their game: governments don’t make safe food – people do.