Shirley you can’t be serious; food safety wonks speak

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen may have died Sunday, but the slapstick continues to flow from Washington.

On the same day the Senate passed its version of a food safety bill, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave ‘Salmonella Jack’ DeCoster permission to once again sell eggs at retail.

As a consumer, am I supposed to have faith that FDA has checked out DeCoster’s operations, and even more faith that FDA may soon have more tools at their food safety disposal?

What if I want to avoid DeCoster’s eggs, because he has a bad track record and will soon be slip-slidin’ away to the lowest common denominator?


Sure, buy organic/natural/local/sustainable, but that’s got nothing to do with the kind of microbiologically safe food I’m looking for. Big egg farms don’t mean dirty egg farms.

Why not unleash the power of food safety marketing and let consumers choose at retail.

Repeated outbreaks have shown that all food is not safe: there are good producers and bad producers, good retailers and bad retailers. As a consumer, I have no way of knowing.

Tell consumers about salmonella-testing programs meant to reduce risks; put a URL on egg cartons so those who are interested can use the Internet or even personal phones to see how the eggs were raised. Boring press releases in the absence of data only magnify consumer mistrust.

Food producers should truthfully market their microbial food safety programs, coupled with behavioral-based food safety systems that foster a positive food safety culture from farm-to-fork. The best producers and processors will go far beyond the lowest common denominator of government and should be rewarded in the marketplace.

Government has a role, but there are too many outbreaks and too many sick people. It’s time for producers, retailers and restaurants to market microbial food safety and compete using safety as a selling point.

Marketing food safety at retail has the additional benefit of enhancing a food safety culture within an organization – if we’re boasting about this stuff I guess we really better wash our hands and keep the poop out of food. Maintaining a food safety culture means that operators and staff know the risks associated with the products or meals they produce, know why managing the risks is important, and effectively manage those risks in a demonstrable way. In an organization with a good food safety culture, individuals are expected to enact practices that represent the shared value system and point out where others may fail. By using a variety of tools, consequences and incentives, businesses can demonstrate to their staff and customers that they are aware of current food safety issues, that they can learn from others’ mistakes, and that food safety is important within the organization.

But, on to the nosestretchers:

“This is authoritarian stuff we are dealing with–agents able to march in and rummage through your business materials without even having to wave a search warrant–so you’ve got to be nimble, and creative. Food producers in places like Rumania, Poland, Russia and Cuba have had lots more practice than we have, so it’s time to do some catch-up.”
The Complete Patient writes in a piece titled, If You’re in the Food Business, Better Begin Preparing Now to Avoid the FDA SWAT Teams.

“This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured that it won’t make them sick.”
Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who, as chairman of the Senate health committee, shepherded the legislation through months of negotiations.

Glenn Beck suggested that the measure was a government ruse to raise the price of meat and convert more consumers to vegetarianism.

“This is history folks, watch live on CSPAN.”
“Tallying the votes… the suspense is killing me.”
“The Senate has surpassed the number of votes needed to pass the most sweeping change to food safety laws in 7 decades.”

A variety of bloggers functioning as stenographers

"Size correlates directly with risk. When we have the kind of E. coli outbreaks we’ve got where it impacts many, many, many states and thousands of families, that’s risk. When we’ve got a producer that’s raising lettuce that’s looking at the guy who’s going to eat it right square in the eye, that’s a different level of risk entirely."
Sen. JonTester

Most apt statements:

“Senate passes S. 510 Food Safety Modernization Act after Dierksen cafeteria offers imported steak tartare and raw spinach lunch special.”
Chris Clayton, blogger

"If this bill was on the books, it wouldn’t have changed anything about the recall. Our own standards are already higher."
ConAgra Foods spokesman Jeff Mochal

Will proposed food safety bill mean fewer sick people? Doubtful

Apparently I’m alone in thinking the proposed food safety legislation won’t make much of a difference – especially in terms of sick people.

While tomorrow’s USA Today gushes in a headline courtesy of a so-called consumer group that “Proposed food safety bill good for ‘everyone who eats,’” for me, it all just sounds like “The old Potomac two-step, Jack."??

"I’m sorry, Mr. President, I don’t dance."??

That’s what Jack Ryan as played by Harrison Ford said in the movie, Clear and Present Danger. And that’s why I repeatedly ignore what comes out of Washington.

The $1.4 billion food safety bill, which would give the Food and Drug Administration broader powers to inspect processing plants and recall tainted products, cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate, setting it up as a top measure for Congress to address in its year-end session.

What I told ABC News was this:

"Government sets minimal standards, which the best food producers, processors and retailers exceed daily, while talking heads blather. There are bad players in the system, which government is supposed to catch, but given the pervasive food safety outbreaks over the past 20 years, they don’t seem very good at it. Will the new bill mean fewer sick people? Doubtful."

Dr. Douglas Powell, associate professor, Kansas State University

ABC also asked a bunch of other food policy types, and they all agreed, one way or another, that passage of the bill was important.

It’s not that important. Dance?

Be the bug: microbiologically safe food, no exceptions

Braunwynn, the college freshman daughter, e-mailed last night (although in Canada she’s called a first-year university student).

"Watched this documentary, Food Inc., today. Seemed like one of those things you would get quoted on. Was a particularly emotional part about this mom whose 2-year-old son died from E. coli O157:H7 in a burger. Made me think of you."

I told Braunwynn that I knew the mom, and it was a tragic story. I also told her I wouldn’t get quoted in the movie because while it was compelling entertainment, it was scientific bullshit (or cowshit). “Most documentaries like that are powerful stories, but they are controlled by demagogues — and good demagogues never give up control of the microphone. Then things get messy or confusing, or at least not so simple. love dad”

Braunwynn’s timing was rather fortunate (that’s her on a food-safety mission in 2004 where we watched visitors to this Ontario cheese shop troddle out to the porta-potty with no handwashing facilities and stick their hands in cheese samplers). As the U.S. Senate votes on a food safety bill today – which will not reduce the number of people barfing every day from food — two of the Food Inc. demagogues, Eric Schlosser & Michael Pollan issued a statement supporting the Tester amendment, which would exempt small farmers and producers from the proposed food safety legislation.

"S 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation. The Tester amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers. We both think this is the right thing to do."

The most important thing any proposed food safety bill can do is reduce levels of illness and death.

But local food types worry the legislation’s safety requirements could force small farms out of business.

Some of the arguments can be found on and include:

“We are really talking about two parallel food production and distribution systems in this country. One is inherently dangerous due to its scale, methodology, and distribution model. The other depends on an intimate relationship between modest, local/regional owner-operators, who take pride in their work and direct connection with consumers. … I for one will gamble with my health, and the health of my family, by continuing to patronize local organic farmers. Weighing the risks, and the benefits of superior quality and nutrition, I think I am making a good investment.”

Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute and director its Organic Integrity Project

“Small, sustainable farmers spend their money and time on raising safe, quality food. We don’t have the resources, nor the economies of scale, that the large companies have that enable them to absorb additional regulatory burdens. … I look my customers in the face every time we sell them food. I know their children, and I have watched them grow up on the food we raise. I’ve talked with people who are fighting cancer or diabetes, or whose children have asthma — and for whom high quality food is a matter of survival. Several of the people who buy our food are among my closest friends.”

Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance

I hear these assertions all the time, and wonder, why is there no mention of microbiology? Those dangerous bugs really don’t care about size or politics: local or global, conventional or organic, big or small, producers and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system either know about dangerous microorganisms and take steps to control them – or they don’t.

Braunwynn is a student at the University of Western Ontario in London (the Canadian one), the town that also hosts the annual Western Fair. I reminded her that in 1999, 159 people, primarily kids, got sick with E. coli O157:H7 from the sheep and goats at the petting zoo at the Western Fair. Those sheep and goats weren’t part of big ag and weren’t factory farmed. They are ruminants, and like cattle and deer, about 10 per cent carry E. coli O157:H7 at any one time.

But that doesn’t get mentioned in Food, Inc. Or legislation. Or amendments.