Personal Health

No One Wants to Die From Dinner -- Here's a Quick Primer on What's Safe to Eat and Who's Looking Out for Your Health

Thousands are dying every year from food-borne illness and we have a confusing morass of regulations and agencies charged with enforcing them. How to sort out the mess?

On the heels of the devastating article in the New York Times about a young woman who paid dearly for the horrifying practices and lack of oversight in the meat industry, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a list of the top 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Some of your favorite foods are on this list, including ice cream, berries and leafy greens, with tuna being the most surprising culprit. Though meat contains some of the most virulent contaminants, like the strain of E. coli that almost killed Stephanie Smith, it's missing from the list, because it isn't regulated by the FDA. It's regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Confused yet?

Thousands of people are dying every year from food-borne illness and we have a confusing morass of regulations and agencies charged with enforcing them. Clearly we need a better system, but how to sort out the mess?

There's a lot of action happening now in the realm of food safety. We can only hope that despite the tangled web of Congressional bills, consumer and industry lobbying, cooperation agreements between the FDA and the USDA and crazy-making sideshows like the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, we will actually end up with safer food, and hopefully not to the detriment of small-scale organic farmers.

Join me for a quick rundown on the most important recent developments in the world of food safety and their possible risks to small farmers.

Congressional Bills:

The House has already passed HR 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, and the Senate is considering Senate Bill 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act.

But funny things sometimes happen on the way to a bill becoming law -- compromises and deal brokering and exemptions and loopholes. The people and industries in power usually get more say than small farmers or consumers.

Both bills only deal with the FDA's sphere of authority, giving meat and some other freshagricultural products a pass for now, with the exception of some foods that are processed on site on smaller farms.

Value added products, like pickles, jams and preserves will be required to comply with some FDA regulations. This has small farm and good food activists picking up their pitchforks.

Thankfully, this administration's appointees within the USDA and FDA, like Deputy Secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, seem more inclined to listen to the concerns of consumers and small farmers. The final House bill included language to protect small producers from onerous regulations and we ended up with an ok bill.

With food borne illness victims testifying in Congress and demanding a final bill before the holidays, things are sure to heat up. Let's hope victim testimony and articles like the one in the New York Times that put faces to the tragedy of tainted food, will influence Congress to attempt real reform in the final bill.

Cooperation Agreement Between USDA and FDA:

Also this week, it was announced that the FDA would begin working in concert with the USDA to regulate the safety of our food system. At first glance, it seems like a good thing for two food related departments within the government to work together to increase food safety.

Not necessarily. The FDA is charged with inspecting the food supply for safety (among other things), and the USDA is charged with helping farmers market their products (among other things). Can two agencies with very different mandates work together to protect consumers?

We've talked about the shenanigans and overlapping jurisdictions of the FDA and the USDA before here on EcoSalon, but prior to delving even deeper into the question of these agencies regulating food safety, it's important to understand what the two agencies were designed to do.

The FDA was created in 1906 to administer The Pure Food, Drinks and Drug Act. The act was a legislative reaction to the horrors uncovered by Upton Sinclair in his expose of the meat industry, The Jungle, as well as discoveries about common practices in the food industry at the time, such as the use of heavy metals to color and preserve foods. It worked for awhile, but now we are in the midst of our own Jungle-like horror.

The FDA is responsible for food safety as it relates to processed food products (ironically excluding meat) pet and animal feed and imports. This agency is also responsible for regulating drugs, vaccines, cosmetics and dietary supplements. Its labeling jurisdiction extends to >nutrition and health claims, nutrition information, and ingredient labeling.

President Lincoln created the USDA at the height of the Civil War. The stated purpose of the department was to serve the people that were involved in agriculture at the time -- more than half the population. It inspired legislation like The Morrill Land-Grant College Act, authorizing public land grants to create agricultural colleges. The Act required the establishment of such colleges in all U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia.

The USDA is responsible for regulating, inspecting and recalling raw agricultural products like meat (including processed and packaged meat products, like hot dogs) poultry and eggs. This gives the USDA jurisdiction over labeling claims about farming and production practices (marketing language) while the FDA regulates labeling claims that relate to ingredients. The USDA created and administers The National Organic Program (NOP). The USDA also administers the Farm Bill and its programs.

For a good rundown on why the dual role of the USDA in regulating raw agricultural products and helping to market them is problematic, look to this article in Grist.

This dual role is one of the reasons experts like Marion Nestle advocate for a single agency whose sole responsibility is regulating the safety of the food supply.

The Leafy Green Marketing Agreement:

Bear with me here if this doesn't sound like a food safety measure. Recall the spinach debacle of 2006? The one in which E. coli was found in bagged spinach? This article talks about why small, independent farmers weren't affected (which is why I wasn't afraid to eat the spinach that came in my CSA box the week of the outbreak). The article also hints at the future Leafy Green Marketing agreement in the following passage.

"Next week, the FDA will also be reviewing voluntary guidelines offered by the produce industry to ensure agricultural and processing practices with spinach -- and other leafy greens."

The proposed guidelines would cover "the three Ws" of potential contamination -- water, workforce and wildlife, says Thomas Nassif, president of Western Growers, which represents some 3,000 farmers and shippers in California and Arizona. These farmers produce about half of all the fresh produce in the country.

His group wants to keep the guidelines voluntary. "Obviously, the industry and most of the regulators would like to see us handle it," Nassif said.

These voluntary guidelines are in effect now in California and Arizona, which is bad news for those very small farmers who weren't part of the problem.

The reason the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement is in the news again is because the industry now wants to take the agreement national. The proposed marketing agreement would allow leafy green handlers to attach a USDA-backed "food safety seal" to lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other vegetables. The agreement would be voluntary for handlers, but since the big handlers control the industry, any small farmers who want to have the chance to expand their markets would have to comply.

Complying with the regulations requires excluding wildlife from the farm ecosystem (never mind that E. Coli comes from cows), leading to sterile farms devoid of wildlife, hedgerows, cover crops and all those other characteristics that make up a biologically diverse, ecologically sound farming system. So smaller farmers would have the choice of either sterilizing their farms, scaling up and becoming just like industrial growers, or staying small and appealing to a niche audience.

A marketing agreement does not a food safety regulation make. I don't think consumers want to have to look for a seal on their food to assure themselves it's safe to eat. I think most people would agree that food safety is careful handling practices, inspection, enforcement -- you know, food safety, not marketing.

For a truly chilling, eyewitness account of what it actually looks like when industry writes its own rules with the help of the USDA, check out Elanor Starmer's posts on the Ethicurean. She sat in the hearing rooms for three days straight so this is truly eyewitness. Day One, Day Two, Day three.

The president has said he's committed to safer food. With all of the other issues on the agenda, it's hard to tell where food safety on the urgency scale, but articles like that one in the New York Times definitely force momentum. If you want to keep up with breaking news in the realm of food safety there are two good resources, The President's Food Safety Working Group and Food Safety News. Stay informed and whenever possible, buy whole foods from farmers you know.