Listeria in smoked salmon, pieces of metal in chicken strips, undeclared allergens in frozen Chinese food and meatballs, E.coli in ground beef, and mold in corn used for animal feed. This is a partial list of the foods recall in the U.S. from just the last few weeks. In our increasingly consolidated, industrialized food system, stories like these have become commonplace. And yet, unless they are associated with documented illnesses or deaths—such as last year’s two outbreaks of E. coli on Romaine lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, which led to hundreds of illnesses and at least five deaths—they rarely make front page news.
The question of just how safe our food is, and what can be done to make it safer, has been occupying scientists, advocates, lawmakers, and public health officials for decades, and the last 10 years have been especially contentious.
In 2011, President Obama signed into law the most significant piece of food-safety legislation since the 1930s. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) came in response to a wave of food-borne illnesses and granted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new powers to inspect and regulate food products and producers.
At the same time, the country’s food safety system remains complicated—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) remains responsible for inspecting all meat, poultry, catfish, and egg products, while the FDA inspects everything else (including shell eggs). Under this situation, a frozen pepperoni pizza would undergo three USDA inspections, while a frozen cheese pizza from the same company would receive just one FDA inspection.
While designed and intended to save lives and protect people, food safety regulations can bring financial and operational burdens to farmers and other food producers, especially those with small- and medium-sized operations. And the growing interest in and demand for cottage food laws and “food sovereignty” bills hint at a grass-roots resistance to what some producers might see as overreaching regulations.
To celebrate Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we have been conducting a series of roundtable discussions touching on some of the most important topics we have covered since 2009. In the conversation below, we invited four experts to weigh in on the state of food safety. Marion Nestle is an author and the Paulette Goddard Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University; Bill Marler is the managing partner of Marler Clark, a Seattle, Washington, based law firm that specializes in foodborne illness cases and founder and publisher of Food Safety News; Rebecca Spector is the West Coast director for the advocacy nonprofit Center for Food Safety; and Judith McGeary is an attorney, farmer, advocate, and the executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas-based organization that advocates for policies to support independent family farmers.
Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and associate editor Christina Cooke facilitated the wide-ranging discussion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What has changed the most in your opinion in the past 10 years around food safety? And how has your own perspective changed in that time?
Marion Nestle: The Food Safety Modernization Act [FSMA], passed in 2010, gave the FDA the authority to regulate food safety in ways it did not have the right to do before. It is still implementing the new rules. Overall, we are seeing more outbreaks and recalls of plant food products and fewer of meat products. Bill Marler has praised the meat industry for following the rules and improving its food safety procedures but now notes that it is slacking off again and returning to its old ways of casual adherence to standard food safety procedures.
Bill Marler: We made a lot more progress in food safety in the early part of the 2000s, but we haven’t really made the kind of progress that I would have hoped for in this last decade. This is anecdotal, but from ’93 to about 2002, almost all of the cases I did were hamburger-related E. coli. Fortunately, that’s relatively [close] to zero, except the recent outbreak where we have 177 people sick with E. coli 103.
From a food safety perspective, the beef industry, along with government regulation, really moved the needle in a positive way. But it’s been pretty slow going, even with the advent of FSMA driving the numbers down. CDC numbers for salmonella and campylobacter are actually up; cyclospora is up. E. coli is down but had an increase because of what’s been going on with leafy greens. There are some complex reasons why we’re still having these problems.
Rebecca Spector: Even though there’s a lot of room for improvement, I think FDA’s ability to track and trace back the sources of these outbreaks has improved over the years, and their ability to identify the particular strains of pathogens and track them back to where they’re coming from has gotten better. Certainly, communication between the agencies—FDA and USDA in particular—has gotten better. There’s a lot more work to be done, and it appears that FDA is committed to making more progress in that area.
Judith McGeary: I actually see three things that are in tension with each other. You have the [food] industry, which continues to increase its consolidation and look for deregulation in ways that undermine food safety. One of the things that comes first to mind is this continued push for faster line speeds [in meat processing plants] and industry oversight replacing government oversight in the meat processing plants. These things are increasing the risks and the potential dangers in the food system.
(Secondly,) you have greater government regulation. There’s FSMA, and there are improvements in the trace-backs, in the testing-areas where we’re trying to address food safety risks.
And then in tension with both of those, you have this explosion of interest in people saying: “What’s the third alternative? We don’t like where industry is going with safety. We’re not sure that the government regulation of that industry is sufficient to do what people want it to do.” And in this, you have the more local food systems, which are the consumers and the farmers coming together talking about what I call right-sized regulation, or scale-sensitive regulation. How do we address food safety within the food system in a completely different fashion? The interest and the energy behind that has really exploded in the last 10 years.
What do you see as the biggest threat to the safety of meat and eggs produced in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)? And what would you like to see the industrial meat producers do to combat those problems?
Nestle: I would say follow the rules. We have rules now, and the rules are really pretty good if they’re followed. But the problem always has been establishing a culture within food production facilities that cares about food safety. And if the leaders at the top and the culture of the organization isn’t focused on trying to be as careful as possible, they’re just going to ignore it. There are so many examples of situations in which the rules were ignored or overlooked. The real question is how do you get [food companies] to follow the rules?
Marler: I’m a firm believer in setting standards, especially microbiological standards, and then having the market force compliance. When the USDA banned E. coli in hamburger [in 2011], that had an impact. [Companies] had to recall the product, and eventually the cost of the recalls and the publicity of the outbreaks and the judgments and the illnesses just became too expensive. And frankly, the industry changed.
That same idea can be used across the board. Salmonella is still not considered “an adulterant.” The fact that that is still the case hampers our ability to deal with Salmonella in poultry, pork, and eggs. Until we set standards that are fully required across all parts of a production facility, I just don’t think we’re going to make progress, because we’re ignoring the elephant in the room, which is that under our law, we allow companies to knowingly ship contaminated meat into the marketplace.
Spector: In addition to what Marion and Bill said, we at Center for Food Safety think that the poor and crowded living conditions of these huge CAFOs is definitely having an impact on food safety. When you have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cows living in very cramped quarters, standing in their own manure, it exposes them to E. coli and other pathogens. The same with chickens that might be packed into houses where they can’t turn around and are in their own manure. We really think we need to look at the overall system and how these animals are being raised.
In addition to food-borne pathogens, we would like to see other things considered in the food safety realm, including the use of antibiotics and also pharmaceuticals that have not been approved for human use. A lot of these cows are eating corn- and soy-based diets, which are not natural for their species—and that can increase acidity and cause ulcers or infections in the animals. That in turn leads to the overuse of antibiotics.
We think there are a lot of real huge issues within the industrial livestock system that are not being addressed under FSMA or by the FDA, and a lot of the changes that we’d like to see are going to have to come, and are coming, from consumer pressure.
McGeary: I couldn’t agree more. If we only look at the end stage, the package of meat or the egg in a carton, we’ve missed so many opportunities to address food safety more effectively, more efficiently, and more holistically. To add one specific example: When you feed cows corn and soy in a feedlot, you not only damage their health, but you make the rumen more acidic. You create a better environment for E. coli 0157 and other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. There are no absolutes, but finding that type of dangerous E. coli in a grass-fed animal is incredibly rare, because the conditions in the animal don’t promote it. If we would address the CAFO system, we wouldn’t need to worry as much. [As it is,] we’re trying to fix problems that don’t need to be created in the first place.
How could the FDA’s inspection program, including foreign inspections, be improved? Is it about more budget for inspections, or do you have other suggestions?
Nestle: There could be inspectors, that would help. The agencies don’t have money for these kinds of things. And we’re in a deregulatory administrative environment in which inspection isn’t particularly valued. As always with food safety, the issue is nobody wants to find it. If somebody finds a problem, it means that something has to happen, and nobody wants to do that. You have to have inspection; you have to have as firm government regulation as possible, and we’re just not going to get that now.
Marler: FSIS [Food Safety Inspection Service] essentially has an inspector in every plant. And that made a lot of sense in the 1900s when they didn’t know about bacteria and they were looking for gross contamination. Nowadays the key to food safety is, in my view, microbiological. And so not only setting up systems to lessen the amount of bacteria, but you also have to have oversight.
[The FDA inspects all food that isn’t meat or eggs], which is 80 percent of the food supply. There are plants that never get inspected. I might go into a facility where an outbreak happened, and they haven’t been inspected by an FDA person for five or six years. That’s a budgetary problem, and it’s a structural problem. But we have testing technologies that are faster [than human inspection], such as whole genome sequencing—we can use that testing technology to move the needle on food safety in a really big way.
McGeary: We have processed poultry on our farm; I know what it means to have to process an animal. The quicker you do it, the more likely there is to be a mistake made that causes contamination. And yet we have [poultry] line speeds that are ever increasing in these huge plants. Let’s slow this down. The only reason to have line speeds like that are purely to increase profit margins, and that needs to stop. That would be on the USDA side.
On the FDA side, we’d probably support increasing FDA’s budget—it’s not enough for the inspection that it’s expected to do. But part of the problem is also how the FDA sets its priorities. Taking a pair of contrasting examples… We have a small cheese maker, a little itty-bitty operation that sells to maybe has a couple of hundred customers total in the local area. FDA spent three days on their farm, swabbing down every corner and checking every possible nook and cranny. And yet, Peanut Corporation of America, in the same state, hadn’t been inspected in 10 years. The way the agency sets priorities and uses its budget really needs a serious overhaul.
What’s working (or not) with the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is probably the biggest thing that has changed in the last decade? How are other kinds of industry agreements, like the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement—which was put in place after the 2007 E. coli outbreak in spinach—working or not?
McGeary: It’s in the incredibly early days, just in terms of actual implementation, so it’s hard to answer that. What we’ve seen is a fairly rocky start from the perspective of the more localized sustainable food system. There is the Tester-Hagen exemption, which allows [food producers] who are grossing less than half a million dollars and selling mostly direct to consumers not to have to comply with significant portions of the law. What we seem to be missing as FSMA starts to get off the ground is how to translate food safety provisions for those exempt producers.
The agencies and implementing groups are trying—there are some initial steps—but they’re struggling with what’s in between, other than just dumping the full set of regs on these producers, which doesn’t make sense for them. And there’s a huge problem for small producers who aren’t exempt, for folks who are grossing between half a million and a million—which is still minuscule in industry terms. They’re facing massive costs and very confusing regulations that aren’t well translated for what that type of operation needs.
What we’re also seeing, is that [a lot of] the folks who are near the cutoff for the exemption—people who are very local, very small, but they’re trying to get higher quality food into their local community are saying: “You know what? Never mind; I’m not going to grow because I can’t absorb those costs. I can’t jump from one to the other level.” We’re losing a lot of the potential of the local food movement.
Spector: We thought it was important to implement [FMSA], which is why we filed a lawsuit against FDA for not meeting the deadlines for the implementation. We supported the Tester amendment. I think one thing that’s not working with FSMA or the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement [LGMA] is how it integrates with organic producers. A lot of those growers, organic or conventional, if they want to grow and sell to McDonald’s or to Costco, they have to follow incredibly strict regulations that require essentially fumigation of the soil, sort of a scorched-earth mentality in terms of getting rid of any potential pathogens in the soil.
And this is really in contradiction with the intention and the ethic behind organic production, which is to build life in soil, to have hedgerows. There’s been a huge, massive removal of hedgerows on the Central Coast because of the concerns about the potential food safety implications of wildlife [on farm fields].
One thing that’s not working is a real holistic approach as to how can we, while trying to maintain food safety requirements, allow these farms to be more ecologically based. There really needs a much deeper and holistic approach to address those issues within FSMA and LGMA.
Marler: These are hard issues. And because my perspective is one of dealing with the end product of things going bad—the kids with kidney failure or brain injury—it always looks bad from my side of the equation. I wish that I could say that if we just had small farms doing organic that I wouldn’t have any clients. But I certainly do have clients who ate cheese and died from Listeria at a small cheese factory. I’ve had clients who purchased raw milk to support their local farmer, and their child is you now a quadriplegic. I wish I could can say if only we would do this, that would solve the problem. I can tell you though, unequivocally, most of the problems that I see are industrialized agriculture causing big outbreaks. I don’t know for certain whether or not that means that small producers are not sickening people, because it requires enough people getting sick to notice that there’s an outbreak.
So how are the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and FSMA working? A year ago, I would have said, “Well, the outbreaks are down, things seem to be moving in the right direction.” Then we had 210 people sick and five dead from Romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, within a stone’s throw of a CAFO. And then you ask yourself, “What the hell is a CAFO doing in an area like that?” I think there are fundamental problems with [these rules because] they do not look at the whole environmental risk of contamination.
I just want to add one more thing. Most of the rules that are being required of farmers, most of the onerous ones, are contractual requirements that are being put upon them by Costco, Wal-Mart, and the grocery store chains. And frankly, some of the “private” regulations are far more onerous, which I think does have an impact on small and local farms that are trying to grow.
What are your predictions about how the roll-out of cultured/cellular meat will affect food safety regulations?
Spector: The FDA isn’t really looking deeply into the role of pesticides in our food, or the role of GMOs in our food, or the role of foods produced using nanotechnology. If the FDA follows that pattern, I’m not expecting that they’re going to all of a sudden step in and start regulating cultured meat, although at the Center for Food Safety, we absolutely think that they should.
We have a lawsuit against FDA related to this issue having to do with the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, which a lot of these lab-grown meats have declared themselves. We absolutely would like to see FDA do more analysis of some of these novel proteins that are a product of the production of cultured meat. When FDA is looking at food safety, it really does need to go beyond food-borne pathogens. They obviously have a process for food additives, and that’s one potential angle for addressing this. That could be stronger for sure.
Nestle: Nobody really knows what these things are. And they have so much venture capital behind them that it kind of takes your breath away. The FDA really ought to be taking a very good hard look, because there needs to be some sort of authoritative body that says [cellular meat] is okay or not okay. But the FDA has never done pre-market clearances in the way that it should. I mean just look at the mess with the GRAS list—the current behavior isn’t particularly surprising, but I just don’t think you can expect anything from FDA now.
McGeary: I agree. We’re dealing with something that’s novel, that we don’t know the implications of, that is basically just sliding right through the process because of these giant loopholes. It’s ignoring the fact that frankly a lab can often be a [source of] contamination. There’s this vision somehow that labs are sterile. Certainly, when you’re working in a very careful, high-end lab that is dealing with a major disease pathogen, and everyone in there has all the incentive to make sure they follow every protocol and keep everything perfect, and it’s being done on a fairly small scale—yeah, you can create sterile environments.
When you’re talking about mass-producing a product like these lab-cultured meats, it’s idiotic to think that there’s going to be sterility in that environment. You can’t do it on that kind of scale. And they don’t have the incentive to keep up anywhere near the standards that would be required, so you have a lot of potential for contamination, but that’s really not getting addressed.
Marler: I haven’t done a great deal of thinking about cultured meat other than to think it’s a lot like what humans do. Just because you think you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it. The history of human endeavors are replete with things that we thought were good for us that have turned out to be not so good. You know, asbestos—it used to be everywhere, and now we realize, “Oh gee, the industry has been lying to us all along.”
What do you wish the average consumer knew or understood about the safety of our food supply? And what do you think would change in their actions that they really understood the way our food supply is protected—or not?
Nestle: I don’t think you can expect the average person to understand how microbiology works. You can’t taste [a pathogen]; you can’t see it; you can only smell it if things are really far gone. So you’re dealing with something that’s abstract for most people. Actually, if there’s one concept to get across, it’s: Wash your hands. And that food is not sterile and it needs to be treated with some respect, especially if you’re not cooking it. Cooking solves lots of problems.
Spector: My wish, which is very idealistic, is that consumers knew how their food was really produced, that consumers had a chance to visit a CAFO and see tens of thousands or more cows all packed together. Or even more impactful, hog farms with the manure lagoons and the stench. And even the massive farms lettuce farms in the Central Valley, with just row after row after row of one crop with essentially no other life.
While I certainly take to heart what Bill said, which is that small-scale integrated ecological farming isn’t going to eliminate every potential food safety outbreak—of course not. But if consumers really knew how their food was produced, I think [more of them] would be pressuring companies and demanding that food is grown in a healthier way.
McGeary: I’ll be even more wildly optimistic than Becki is. I wish the average consumer could understand this incredibly complex interaction between food safety and their long-term health—not just the immediate risk of a food-borne illness, which is a serious issue, but also the risks of cancer, of diabetes, of autoimmune [diseases], all these things we are learning are diet-related—[as well as] the interactions with the environment, with the air they breathe, the water they drink, with our economy and fundamental principles of fairness and even democracy.
Several times, people have raised the [opportunity to] push for safer and higher quality food through the marketplace. But there’s a lot of limitations to what the market can do when you have such an incredibly consolidated market, where only a handful of companies really control what happens. That’s not actually a free market at all.
Food is a biological system, and it’s not a perfect thing—there are small producers [who have experienced] foodborne illness outbreaks. [I believe] we have gained so many benefits from small-scale local food production, including food safety. I wish people had had a better grasp of that complexity.
Is there anything that gives you hope for the future of food safety?
Nestle: To me, the big miracle is that it isn’t worse than it is. I mean the fact that it works as well as it is seems absolutely astounding to me.
Marler: I would hope that we would start to really use the technologies that we have available, especially bacterial testing, viral testing, and genome sequencing. That’s not going to solve all the problems, but there’s a lot of hope for me in that sort of technology. The technology is to catch the problems, and then once you catch a problem, you can hopefully find a market-based solution, because market-based solutions in the long run, on top of regulations, are what is going to drive things to actually work. Profit is a big motivator in food production, and so food safety becomes secondary.
Spector: What gives me hope is that consumers are, in some areas, demanding foods that are produced in a healthier way. They’re demanding foods that are produced without antibiotics, cage-free eggs and poultry, and pasture-based meats and dairy.
When I started working in this field 25 years ago, nobody was talking about the intersection between food and the environment. And now many people are. And so that gives me huge hope, that consumers are understanding and taking an interest in these issues more than ever before. I hope that people will continue to demand that food is grown in a healthy and safe way that’s also beneficial for the environment and for animals.
McGeary: [My] hope ties to other movements we’re seeing right now, as people are looking around and thinking about how you rebuild local communities, how you rebuild local connections, and how we rebuild local democracies. For me, the hope is people are going to see how food, which is so intimate and personal, also relates to these other issues they’re seeing and working for in their lives.