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-making. Biting 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