Updated on 11/29 to clarify that perchlorate is from rocket fuel, not jet fuel. Thanks, Marc! (I admit that I thought they were the same thing; that is why I do not work for a defense logistics company.)
2008 has been, let's just say it, a pretty lousy year for food safety. Southern California meatpacker Hallmark-Westland kicked things off in late January with Downergate and the subsequent recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, much of which had been sent off to be fed to our nation's children as part of the National School Lunch Program. That was followed in April by the first grumbles of what would become a massive nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul; by July, the CDC and the FDA had squashed the domestic tomato industry with false accusations and settled on imported jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico as the culprit.
In August, yuppies everywhere were shocked to find natural beef sold at Whole Foods implicated in another massive recall for E. Coli contamination. The media took to it with glee: Even the do-gooders aren't safe.
Domestic outbreaks like these and the 2006 spinach-E. Coli disaster have everyone talking about how to avoid more like them. On a positive note, the effort is something we should all be able to get behind: Producers don't want to lose consumer confidence and money when outbreaks happen, consumers don't want explosive diarrhea or death by organ failure, and the FDA doesn't want to be blamed for yet another botched response. But we're in the United States, a country always ready to reframe disasters as money-making opportunities. So it's probably not a surprise that many of the proposed "solutions" to food-safety outbreaks are technologically complex, costly to implement, and - oh yeah - may not work. The food-safety universe officially has its own Star Wars.
California is the epicenter of the debate over how to improve produce safety, particularly for leafy greens (a San Benito County company was implicated in the spinach outbreak in 2006). Over the past few weeks, I've attended two radically different conferences on the topic: One organized by the FDA to discuss a system that could trace produce from the farm to the consumer, and one organized by the Wild Farm Alliance and the Ecological Farming Association on how current produce safety efforts in California have dealt a blow to wildlife and water protection programs and may actually be making our food supply less safe. In this two-part post, I'll cover both meetings and my thoughts coming out of them.
We'll start with the FDA. A warning to readers: Throughout this meeting, small farmers/distributors were referred to as "the underbelly of the industry" (shortened by hour four to simply "the underbelly"), making me want to throw sharp objects at the panelists. Expletives may ensue after the jump.
On the produce trail
It's a sunny Thursday morning in Oakland. Wearing something shockingly akin to a suit, I make my way into the federal building, where I'll spend the day listening first to a panel of FDA officials, then to a panel of produce industry representatives, and finally to the slate of technology reps. I sit down next to a man from Evergreen Agricultural Enterprises, an organic produce company owned by Evergreen Aviation, a leading defense logistics corporation. I want to ask him how Evergreen comes down on the perchlorate issue (a toxic chemical from rocket fuel that has been found in our nation's produce and causes thyroid deficiency) but figure it might be touchy. We settle in.
The FDA reps lay out the problem like this: The reason it took so long to trace the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak this summer was because the current traceability system is not sufficient. Your typical industrially-produced tomato travels from the field to a packer to a shipper to a re-packer to a distributor to a wholesaler to a retailer to a consumer. Along the way, records may be poorly kept or lost; the tomato changes hands and names; and consumers usually can't remember what they ate well enough to be useful ("But sir, what kind of tomato was on that sandwich? Roma? Plum? Hydroponic? Sold on the vine?").
What they're interested in is a system that could effectively track that tomato, and pretty much any other kind of produce, from the field to the plate.
One step forward, one step back
The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 was supposed to help them do just that: It required players all along the produce supply chain to keep records showing where the product was bought (one step back) and to whom it was sold (one step forward). But as FDA reps reminded us again and again during the conference, there's a snag: The agency is not legally allowed to ask companies to prove they're complying with the law unless there's a major public health outbreak. That means that only when the shit hits the spinach will FDA know if companies have actually kept these records properly.
That begged the question of why they can't focus their energies on strengthening the Bioterrorism Act or other existing record-keeping laws (of which there are several). Instead, they seemed fixated on finding a technological solution to the problem: A system whereby produce was given a bar code in the field and scanned at all points along the chain until it reached the consumer.
And there are lots and lots of companies out there ready to help them do that. They paraded forward with powerpoints showing systems that would allow a consumer to type a barcode number into their cell phone and receive a photo of the farm from which their produce came. Global maps flew by. Grape tomatoes -- traceable, of course -- were handed out. I drank my coffee nervously.
That's when things started heating up. Say, said one of the FDA reps, we mandate a system like this, where all produce has to be scanned and traced. We acknowledge that this could get a little pricey. Would the industry favor an exemption for small farms and small distributors who might not be able to pay for it? The answer, resoundingly, was no. (I should mention that there were no small farm representatives present at the meeting, at least not who spoke up.) A speaker from a large produce company summed it up this way: "The underbelly of the industry" -- a category that included, according to him, small farmers and those who sell at roadside stands and farmers markets -- "are the least likely to participate in these programs. But if they don't, it puts the entire industry at risk." A few speakers suggested providing some kind of support for small farms to help them meet traceability requirements, but others seemed to write them off completely: If they don't want to participate, then they're signing their own death warrant.
This drove me crazy, but it also confused me profoundly. None of the recent food safety outbreaks have come from small farms or distributors. Indeed, the whole reason that these outbreaks have affected so many people is that they come from produce that is mass-produced, mass-processed, and mass-distributed. So why so much emphasis on requiring small farms to participate at the same level as large farms? Food safety is important, of course, but wouldn't common-sense measures on small farms be sufficient without the need for a big electronic tracking system?
I never got a satisfying answer to this question. But I left feeling pretty nervous: Past efforts to impose food safety regulations appropriate for the industrial guys onto the small guys -- for example, HAACP in meatpacking plants -- have tolled the death knell for small-scale players. We've seen a precipitous decline in small and mid-sized meatpacking plants since the imposition of HAACP, reducing options for producers and consumers, while outbreaks in large meatpacking plants continue. Will this become another regulatory program that solidifies the dominance of the very system that makes us unsafe while justifying it as a food-safety measure?
I left feeling like the participants were, in many ways, trying to recreate the relationship that I have with the farmers I buy from at the market every week, but do it on a mass scale. I know where my produce comes from and I know who to go to if it makes me sick. I can't say the same for many consumers whose produce comes pre-packaged at the grocery store. But even if they did know that -- even if they could scan that barcode and have the picture of the farm pop up on the screen of their cell phone -- I don't think that would be enough.
In part two of this post, I'll talk about why it wouldn't be as I report on a very different kind of event that highlighted the perspectives of small farmers and conservationists.