March toward safer food not without missteps

07/06/2012 09:32:00 AM
Tom Karst

While delays in rulemaking seems to make it a moot point now, it is a tenet of the Food Safety Modernization Act that enhanced regulation will make food safer.

National Editor Tom KarstOf course you remember that only a few short years ago produce leaders were arguing for more rigorous federal oversight of fresh fruit and vegetable safety. The spinach-linked E. coli outbreak was the tipping point for industry leaders who found themselves in the uncommon posture of demanding more regulation by Uncle Sam in congressional hearings.

Yes, this regulation should be science-based and fair to domestic and foreign producers, but the message was clear: Feds, what are you waiting for?

While restoring consumer confidence in the government’s ability to regulate fresh produce safety was doubtless a big goal for industry leaders, surely the collective industry also believed that more robust regulation will indeed result in safer leafy greens, safer melons, safer green onions, etc.

To believe otherwise — that added regulation will have no effect on produce safety but might be good for consumer attitudes — is to foist a tawdry public relations gambit on the public and add immeasurable costs for the grower.

So the industry continues to ask the FDA, “What are you waiting for?”

Putting aside the answer to that question (it is obviously politics, after all), is there a counter-argument to the notion that more regulation is better?

Will regulations really make fresh produce safer, or just more expensive?

One column on this subject that caught my eye recently was this Reason.com opinion piece titled “The Sickening Nature of Many Food-Safety Regulations,” written by Baylen Linnekin (http://tinyurl.com/6mr245s).

The author states that “history shows us that food-safety regulations have often made food (and, consequently, people) less safe.”

The author noted three examples to support his opinion. First, he cited 18th century France, when the country’s parliament banned consumption of the healthy potato because officials thought the spud was a cause of leprosy.

Linnekin also states that people can be less safe when the rule designed to help people actually hurts them. For this angle, he used the former “poke and sniff” inspection scheme once employed by the USDA meat inspectors, where an inspector would “poke” a piece of meat with a rod and “sniff” the rod to determine, in the inspector’s opinion, whether the meat contained pathogens.


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