Congressional food safety conspiracies – small farms will be criminal

The New York Times picked up on the burgeoning food safety conspiracy theory business that’s been flooding the Intertubes.

There’s been a lot of outbreaks of foodborne illness and a lot of people barfing. So politicians have been busy bill-making bees, with numerous proposals before the U.S. House and Senate.

As the Times story put it,

“… small farmers, who are most accountable for their food’s freshness and health, may suffer the heaviest burden under proposed new food rules. … Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.”

Farmers, regardless of size, are accountable for food’s freshness and health, and more importantly, the microbial food safety of that food. Farmers, big and small, are accountable to their customers. Small is not better, and there is no evidence that smaller is safer. Small, local, organic, whatever, can be microbiologically safe, but that requires attention to sources of dangerous microorganisms and effective measures to reduce levels of risk – regardless of farm size.

And before someone chimes in with the smaller-is-easier-to-trace-and-contain line, there is no evidence to support that argument other than wishful thinking. To make an effective comparison, the number of illnesses per conventional or local/small/organic meal consumed would have to be calculated. And because a lot more people eat, say, conventional tomatoes compared to local/small/organic tomatoes, illnesses with conventional product are more likely to be detected. The data simply is not available to make any meaningful comparison.

What can be said is that local/small/organic is a lifestyle choice. And like any lifestyle choice, go for it but play safe. Try not to make people barf  and even embrace evidence-based microbiologically safe food. Sales will probably increase.

Back to the story. Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, said,

"Organic standards specifically say you are supposed to cultivate the wild land on your farm, and having the area filter water has a lot of benefits. One of the principles is just that — we’re going to farm in a way that’s not disruptive to nature."

Farming is not natural; any type of farming is disruptive to nature. So produce food in a way that minimizes the impact on the natural environment, and doesn’t make people barf. But that isn’t what organic is about. As Katija and I showed in our 2004 paper, organic guidelines could be adjusted to incorporate microbial food safety standards, but as they stand, organic standards are a specification for growing organic — not microbiologically safe — food.

The best and most dangerous mythology in the story is this:

Critics say the rules unfairly penalize small farmers who grow crops and raise cattle on the same farm, while failing to address what they believe is the root of the E. coli problem — large, mismanaged feedlots that cram cattle together and spew waste runoff.

A percentage of all ruminants carry E. coli O157:H7. Feedlots are an easy target. But there are lots of outbreaks. Like E. coli O157:H7 in spinach in 2006 that sickened 200 and killed at least three. The source of the E. coli O157:H7 in the transitional organic spinach was a neighboring cow-calf operation – not a feedlot.

Any bill that gets past the discussion stage will be considerably modified and even if passed into law will accomplish … nothing. Conspiracy theories are fun, as is busy bee bill making, but will either result in fewer sick people? Growers, processors, retailers, restaurants and consumers should do what they can today to produce microbiologically safe food.