Biting the Hands that Feed Us. Are we burdened with too many food regulations?

The subtitle, How Fewer, Smarter Laws would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, provides a clue of the book’s direction. From the book jacket we learn that author Baylen J. Linnekin is a conservative, which explains his desire for fewer regulations. His hook, sustainability, appeals to segments across the political spectrum.

Artisanal sausages provide Linnekin’s first example of the undue burden of food regulations. Il Mondo Vecchio, a Denver sausage company, produced dry sausages with just four ingredients—meat, sea salt, quality spices, and time. There are some problems with that list. First, spices need to be listed on the label, and time is not considered an ingredient. Next, USDA required them to add nitrates and nitrites to maintain safety of the sausages. But nitrates and nitrites are chemical preservatives. Why can’t Il Mondo Vecchio use Old World techniques to comply with New World regulations? The author points out that the company is very particular about preventing contamination from food pathogens like Salmonella.

There is just one little problem that Biting the Hands that Feed Us leaves out. It is botulism not salmonellosis that is the hazard in dry sausage which is prevented by adding nitrates and nitrites. Food poisoning traced to artisanal, Old World sausages led to identification of Clostridium botulinum as the guilty microbe. Before the specific bacterial agent was identified, the condition was known as sausage disease. The meat provides the source of botulinum spores. Appropriate conditions activate the dormant spores which produce the deadly toxin. The dry fermentation depletes the oxygen in the sausage leading to ideal conditions for the bacteria. Not all dry sausages contain activated botulinum spores. The few that do could be deadly.        

Governmental agencies and regulations. Botulism from sausage is rare. Is it because governmental agencies require nitrates and nitrites. Governmental agencies like FDA and USDA focus on food safety. Sustainability has not been as important issue to them. Maybe it should be, but that would lead to more regulation, not less. To paraphrase the old Ford commercial SAFETY IS JOB ONE!

Linnekin points out that the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in 2011 hurts small farmers and small food processing companies. There is some merit to that, but is that a good idea from a safety viewpoint? I had a student in one of my classes that sold food at local farmers markets. He indicated that practices by some of his fellow sellers at the market were not in compliance with many regulations. Some Food Science graduates working for small food processing companies left their jobs when those companies skirted the rules.

What are these agencies supposed to do—make one set of rules for large operations and others for small ones? Do they wait for a few consumers to die before they do anything? How many deaths are needed to trigger an investigation? FSMA focuses on prevention, when possible, rather than on punishment after the outbreak. A case in point is raw milk. It is difficult to convict a parent whose child becomes sick or dies from raw milk consumed at home.

Organic=natural=sustainable is an assumption made throughout Biting the Hands that Feed Us. Is this assumption accurate? In some ways organic farming is more natural than what is called conventional farming. But organic agriculture uses cultivation, selective breeding, and organic-approved fertilizers. I’m not sure that Euell Gibbons, the famous food forager, would approve. Then there is the quote by David Rakoff in his book Fraud

There is almost an urban view of nature than this pastoral, idyllic one: Humankind bad, Nature good. As in drinking and fighting bad, elves and flowers good. But it’s a false dichotomy. After all, following this logic, Sistine chapel bad, Ebola virus good.

And organic or natural are not sustainable if crop yields are lower—growing more crops on more land to produce less food. As one of my department heads used to say to simplistic solutions, “That sounds real good when you say it real fast.” Organic agriculture has its place in the fight against global warming, but its contribution is overrated.  

Food waste is a major problem in our society. Linnekind makes the case that food regulations increase food waste. Government agencies force restaurants to throw away too much good food. Grocery stores have a similar problem. These losses could be less damaging to the environment if spoiled food could be composted, but many local policies make it difficult for these establishments to follow through. And let us not forget all those discarded disposable gloves! Other sources of food waste include school lunches, where much of the food prepared goes into the large, gray, plastic, trash barrels. School lunches are a federal program. Grades and standards emphasize appearance causing consumers to reject otherwise acceptable fruits and vegetables. Another source of food waste is the throwback provision resulting in loss of bycatch of less desirable fish species.   

The author makes some good points, but the answers are not so simple. Everyone talks about food waste, but few of us do much about it. Most levels of government could do more to decrease food waste. At the food pantry we received fresh produce donated by local grocery stores. Many of these items were in great shape and were much appreciated by our clients. Others were not edible and went in our dumpster. For a few years a pig farmer came and took them back to her farm. When she stopped coming it was back to a full dumpster some weeks. Each agency has other priorities that take precedence. Restaurants and grocery stores seek the least cost options in dealing with food waste.

Biting the Hands that Feed Us suggests that we go back to more brown-bag lunches to decrease waste in school cafeterias. I volunteered as a lunch buddy to middle school boys every Wednesday when school was in session for almost 4 years. I observed that most brown-bag lunches brought from home were high in junk food and low in nutritional quality. USDA grades and standards are appearance based. My research with fresh fruits and vegetables documented that consumers buy bananas, peaches, and tomatoes based on appearance as an indicator of expected flavor. We found that appearance is only a good predictor of flavor only for bananas. When I was a graduate student in Gloucester Massachusetts, much local effort focused on underutilized species of fish. Little came out of that effort. It seems that fish lovers liked the more popular offerings.     

Regulations by agencies. Regulators responsible for food, like FDA, USDA, and EPA, will always err on the side of safety. Maybe the regulations hurt sustainability, but the general population expects these agencies to protect our safety. Certain segments of the public urge the government to emphasize sustainability. There is not yet a groundswell for much stronger environmental policies. It may be a preference for many in the population, but many of us are not willing to pay more for sustainability mandates.

There are efforts within the American government and other agencies around the world to meet climate goals. Rich nations have made promises at recent global conferences to contribute funds to help poorer nations with climate disasters. They have also made financial commitments to protect the earth and seas. Such promises have been more generous in the past than actual transfers of funds. Time will tell if these promises are kept. Meeting carbon emission goals has been much easier than future efforts to meet nitrogen emission goals which will hurt farmers much more. Future efforts to meet climate goals will be more difficult and require stricter regulations.

Meat consumption is another area of future conflict on sustainability. A growing consensus calls for a marked reduction of meat in our diets with particular reference to beef and lamb. Look for large increases in price for all meats. Regenerative meats may be part of the solution. Would this change lead to occasional carnivore treats for wealthy flexitarians and dramatic decreases in meat consumption by the general public? Alternatives to animal protein are plant-based alternatives, lab-grown meats, and insect proteins.

Take home lesson. There is a growing movement in conservative, political circles to break the link between Congressional law-making and federal agency rule-makingBiting the Hands that Feed Us alludes to this movement at times. Success would limit FDA, USDA, EPA and other agencies from writing regulations freeing them up for more enforcement actions. Be careful what you ask for. Do we really want elected public officials making policy decisions based on political ideology? Or do we want trained professionals determining policy based on the best available science in the context of laws passed by Congress? Food regulations can be onerous for the general public and businesses needing to understand and comply with them. In an attempt to make life easier, let’s not make our food supply less safe.  

Next week: In defense of the Food Safety and Modernization Act

5 thoughts on “Biting the Hands that Feed Us. Are we burdened with too many food regulations?

  1. I enjoyed your well-written review of “How Fewer, Smarter Laws would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.” It certainly underscores that societal issues are not easily described by a few sentences and catchy phrases. Myself, I think it is always important to have the discussions and battles about important issues. After all, there are different facets to these things including collection of scientific data, consumer preferences, and willingness to accept risks that have different stakeholders. But I would push back on a few topics you raise:
    – “Do we really want elected public officials making policy decisions based on political ideology?” I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but basically yes. Or more specifically, I would expect politicians to follow the will of the people, but unfortunately they often do not. While true “experts” are important, I don’t ascribe to the 1930s “Technocracy” vision in which scientists and engineers make all the important decisions. This has now evolved into organizations such as the Trilateral Commission and quite powerful WEF that share similar contempt for “shareholders” (us) versus “stakeholders” (them).
    -There also seems to be the premise that regulators are concerned with public safety or wishes. I think it is fair to say that there is tremendous distrust of government agencies and regulators and rightfully so. For example, RFK Jr did an outstanding job documenting the “agency capture” of FDA, CDC, and NIH. We know that FDA deliberately did a bait-and-switch about the licensing of certain “products”, NIH smeared notable scientists who did not share their view (see “The Great Barrington Declaration”), and one ex-CDC director admits to hiding data from political figures to attain the results she wanted. And sadly, we are losing forums for true debate. We now know that major media platforms are rife with security-state officials, that in conjunction with platform CEOs, de-platform, blacklist or ban speech that does not fit the official government narrative. Oh, and you might just get labeled as someone spreading sinister “misinformation”.
    -I can’t say there is much reason to trust in all scientists either. There seems to be a major push for “sciencism”- that is, a blind faith in a few authorities that claim to have “the science” versus the daily slog and skepticism required for the advancement of knowledge. I work at a research university and my opinion is that adherence to science is not the first imperative of the organization. Garnishing recognition, writing papers, reaping government funds, and maintaining endowments are much higher priorities. Notably, the idea of faculty governance is rapidly becoming anachronistic and many scientists are not that interested in debating issues of societal importance.

    Well, that may be too much for a food policy discussion! I just wanted to chime in that there are many folks who don’t share the vision that scientists and regulators are there to protect their rights or interests. And that strikes me as a big problem!

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    1. Great to hear from you Bill. It seems that I hit a sore spot. Reminds me of some of the discussions we had back in Athens in the department. Let’s take it one issue at a time.

      1. “Do we really want elected public officials making policy decisions based on political ideology?” I followed it up with the sentence “Or do we want trained professionals determining policy based on the best available science in the context of laws passed by Congress?” I agree that the representatives of the people should determine which laws are passed. The details of such laws require much deliberation and compromise before bills are presented to each house, passed, and transmitted to the President. This is a political process and an important aspect of our democracy. FSMA was crafted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, not exactly an extreme liberal organization, to help prevent food-associated illnesses. The Act presented a new approach by taking action to decrease the chances of outbreaks rather than making recommendations for changing guidelines once an outbreak occurs. It calls for a proactive approach rather than a reactive one.As Mark Harrison explained in his Food Law course, it is the responsible agency who develops the enabling regulations that become the basis of enforcement. It is not the business of AOC or MTG to tell these agencies what foods are safe or politically correct. We have the Civil Service which allows competent employees based on their professional qualifications to make these judgements and shield. I believe that the Civil Service Act of 1883 is the most important piece of legislation in the history of our government. We do not need to go back to the spoils system which led to the corruption the country suffered in the 19th Century. Politicians represented the will of the people by enacting FSMA to improve safety of the food supply. Governmental agencies than work to develop regulations to help prevent outbreaks based on their scientific expertise determining which practices are safe and which ones are not. I understand that there are concerns on the Left that these agencies are not working hard enough to ban unhealthy foods made by greedy food manufacturers and on the Right that the agencies represent ‘the deep state” that infringe on our freedom to manufacture and eat everything we wish to eat. Let those issues be fought out in elections every two years, but don’t let them cause mass changes in food regulation and enforcement every time there is a change in administrations. Otherwise, we will have specific food items banned under Democratic rule and a raft of unsafe foods approved for manufacture under Republican control.

      2. As far as sciencism goes, we are in agreement. I am not sure that much has changed in campus governance since I retired. I despise the use of Science as a cudgel political groups use to prove that science is on their side. Science is an exploratory process that tests objectives and hypotheses to find evidence. Sometimes evidence leads to rabbit holes where the primary contentions are either modified or abandoned. Science doesn’t prove anything, but it helps us approach the truth in a meandering, self-correcting pathway. I expound on these aspects in the Introduction of my book In Defense of Processed Food (shameless plug).

      Wishing you, Bill, and all my readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Rob

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  2. I’m a fan of the book but your point regarding botulism is noteworthy. I was aware before I read Baylen’s book that the etymology of our current word for botulism was likely derived from the Latin word for sausage “botulus”. But I read right past the confusion as I was reading the book.

    For myself I’m okay with nitrates added to sausage. I feel nitrates are safer than celery powder, the alternative used today by manufacturers marketing to consumers who want to buy organic, natural, without artificial nitrites. I’m also irritated by what I consider to deceptive advertising on the part of those manufacturers.

    Your observation “time is not considered an ingredient” is brilliant. There’s an argument to be made that time should be considered an ingredient, I just never thought of it before. Time is a critical factor. Time is why an artisan loaf or raw milk cheese has a different taste and texture than its industrial cousins.

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