Food safety redux

As I filed my first essay for 2012, I realized that this is the beginning of the tenth year of my writing this column. That means I have written more than 450 opinion pieces for the “Cavalier County Republican” alone. It shouldn’t surprise me that there are days when I get the feeling that I’ve written the same column more than once.

Some things have changed in the last decade. The politics in Washington have changed and yet, everything is still the same. We have experienced economic ups and downs. Farm commodity prices have been on a roller coaster. Gas prices have steadily inched upwards on a zigzagging incline. Local foods and farmers’ markets have blossomed all over the country. The definition of the term “sustainable agriculture” has become a new battleground as practitioners of conventional crop and animal production fight to justify their way of doing things. Organic and other alternative methods of growing food struggle to hang on to their philosophical principles as smaller companies are integrated  into huge interconnected corporations and giants like WalMart launch local and sustainable marketing plans.

I haven’t run out of things to write. There are always new things to consider, new issues to understand and old ones to revisit. I’m not going to turn off my keyboard just yet. I have, however, gone back into my archives and reread some of my earlier columns. I decided to, on occasion, revisit some of them. Here is one written in March of 2004. Considering the massive food recalls of peanut butter, eggs and ground beef that seem to have become regular news stories and the recent legislation intended to address some of these issues, I thought it would be worth rereading.

From the “Cavalier County Republican,” March 29, 2004,

Politics or science?

I just finished reading “Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism” by Marion Nestle. It’s not the kind of book you might want to curl up with in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. I’m not sure it’s one you should read right before dinner either.

Nestle, a Professor and Chair of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, is neither an alarmist who sees impending doom in every bite of dinner, nor is she a cheerleader for the safety of the American food system. She presents an evenhanded analysis of how we handle food from the farm to your fork.

The first part of the book looks at the meat inspection system and the historical evolution of the system as it now in place. Nestle recounts the changes and the lack of changes since 1906 when Upton Sinclair created an uproar about how animals were slaughtered and processed in his book “The Jungle.”

While Nestle spends a great number of pages describing the science behind food safety, the point of her book is that food safety is a political issue and always has been. In spite of volumes of scientific studies on the subject of food safety, the final decisions are frequently not made strictly from a scientific perspective.  Regulations are not written with regard for what is the best, most efficient way to keep food from being contaminated. Nestle maintains that to the contrary, often the food industry manages to use its political clout (money and power) to block regulations that might cause undue burdens on their business.

I don’t think many of us are surprised by Nestle’s arguments.

What I found interesting was her assertion that science should not be misused to forward the industry’s political agenda. Pretending science is the only measure of an issue that is overwhelmingly a political one is disingenuous. For example, crying that the Japanese should use only science to determine when to allow imports of American beef ignores trade issues as well as the considerations of internal Japanese politics. Using science as a club to force the issue also ignores the fears and uncertainty of the Japanese consumers.

Nestle further asserts that claiming that biotechnology will solve world hunger attempts to apply a scientific solution to a complex political, economic, social and cultural problem.

Science is a valuable tool, but it is only one tool. If we come to believe that science can give us the absolute truth and we use this tool to oversimplify complex issues, we are not using it wisely. We make ourselves vulnerable to manipulation by others who use scientific language to justify their own self-serving agendas. Food is about control and control is a political question. We should not be afraid to demand that decisions concerning our food also consider moral, ethical, cultural and social justice implications.

To ask for less is to misuse the gift of science.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains