Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Food safety and giant supply chains - a contradiction in terms

So now it turns out, according to The New York Times, that America's packaged food manufacturers don't actually know whether their food is safe. In fact, they don't have a very clear idea of where the ingredients they use come from. So they want to make us responsible for the safety of their food. All we need to do, they say, is heat it properly - in other words, hover over our microwaves, food thermometer in hand, sticking it into the food (in several places) to make sure it's hot enough. (When the enterprising Times reporters tried this with some Banquet pot pies, they discovered that you can heat them enough to burn the crust and still not get them hot enough to be safe. Sounds appetizing, doesn't it?)

The whole fuss has provoked outraged comments from many of my food-passionate friends. And it is, of course, preposterous that companies that are selling their pitiable excuse for food to hundreds of millions of people don't actually know where the ingredients come from or how to make them safe to eat.

But personally, I think it's also funny. Because the truth is that we can't ever know - for sure - that what we're eating is safe. Too many things can happen to the food between the grower and our plates. Food is an accident waiting to happen; careless treatment anywhere along the line can make it lethal.

The real problem here isn't that the food companies can't ensure our safety. It's that the consequences of their failure can be so dire. The Banquet pot pies that the New York Times used as its example of the problem sickened 15,000 people.

Of course, Con Agra sells roughly 100 million of those pies annually. In an operation of that size, 15,000 is a rounding error. A rounding error that brings Con Agra a ton of bad publicity, costs it a lot of money, clogs up our health care system, and messes up a bunch of lives - but in the context of our mammoth food system, it's still just a rounding error.

The problem isn't that the food companies can't keep us safe. It's that the food system is so humungous that the consequences of the almost inevitable failures to keep us safe are devastating.
(Just think - as terrorist experts do - of what would have happened if instead of salmonella, it had been something seriously lethal in those pot pies.)

We've got a food system that's too big to fail and is at the same time bound to fail. It's a pretty dumb way to feed a planet.

Because I buy almost all my food from farmers I trust, many of whom are my friends, I'm personally protected from massive food-system threats. I don't have to search my freezer every time a food company announces a massive recall - and when I ran my eyes down the endless list of no-name hamburger brands involved in the recent recall of almost 100,000 pounds of ground beef, I was very grateful for that.

But I know that buying my food locally doesn't guarantee I won't get sick. (Anyone who drinks raw milk becomes painfully aware of the food risks they may be running. "You could get tuberculosis," said one friend. And I could, I suppose.) But I can be confident that I won't get sick at the same time, or from the same cause, as the 15,000 or 150,000 or 1.5 million people who might suffer from a massive screw-up in, or attack on, our food system.

After all, most of the farmers I buy my food from don't sell to 15,000 people, let alone 150,000. If they sell a piece of contaminated beef or a few gallons of bad milk, it's not going to make more than a handful of people sick. If I'm one of them, and the FDA comes around looking for the source of the illness, it won't have to cross oceans to find it. All it has to do is ask. Because I know the answer.

And that knowledge, in and of itself, makes me feel a whole lot safer.

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Anonymous Scott Charles said...

Ann: I agree that the complexities of the food supply chain make it very difficult to ensure safety. We could debate whose responsibility it is all day long. My own take is that everybody needs to be responsible, from corporation to individual.

I also think it's great that you have access to local food, and you have taken it upon yourself to manage your safety that way.

For those (and I think it's most people) who rely on the larger market to purchase food, paying attention to food recalls and food safety information is critical.

In that regard I would like advance my own solution for your consideration. Agorasys has a developed an application for mobile phones that allows a consumer to scan a barcode and determine if the item scanned has been recalled by the FDA. The application is called RecallCheck, and you can see details at The application is convenient, fast, easy to use, and very inexpensive.

Best Regards,
Scott Charles

May 28, 2009 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger AM said...

But food recalls - as I pointed out - are only the half of it. I think it's more important to do your best to choose food that's a)been made by smaller producers with good reps and b)doesn't include ingredients you don't understand and can't pronounce (as Michael Pollan advises). Just that would shift our food system and keep consumers safer - though never, as I said, absolutely safe.

June 9, 2009 at 1:07 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Collier Cool said...

Excellent blog post, Ann! After reading the NY Times story, I've vowed never to eat hamburgers again. It's scary how poorly regulated the food chain is and how complex the sources of a single package of ground beef are. You're smart to focus on local food--clearly the safest solution.

October 4, 2009 at 11:16 PM  

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