Food Safety: Ask the Expert Dr. Marion Nestle

In the wake of the peanut butter recalls, and well, years of food safety issues, the Senate and House are reviewing bills that will strengthen our food safety laws. Opinions on the bills vary from the positive to fears of what the bills mean for small farmers.

While I plan on reading the actual legislation proposed, and more articles, I also decided to ask a real expert on the subject. Dr. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on the topic of how politics impacts our plates. Her groundbreaking book covers such topics as “Undermining Dietary Advice,” exploitation of kids and schools, and the inner workings of food lobbies and their influence on government. I caught up with Dr. Nestle at a Food Policy conference in Kansas City.

BB: In your speech at the Kansas City Food Policy meeting, you mentioned that the issue of food safety is “less of an FDA issue than a Congress issue.” Given the poor track record of the FDA and USDA on food safety, can you explain your comment?

Dr. Nestle: Sure.  The FDA and USDA are agencies of the executive branch of government.  They do what Congress tells them to with the resources Congress gives them.  If Congress wanted us to have safe food, our legislators would pass laws requiring all food producers to develop science-based food safety plans and to follow them carefully, or face dire consequences from a diligent oversight agency.  At the moment, Congress only requires those kinds of plans for a handful of foods and does not give the FDA anywhere near enough funds to enforce food safety rules.

BB: In the same speech, you also connected food safety issues to deregulation. The same deregulation that sent the economy into a tail spin. How are the two connected?

Dr. Nestle: Congress backed away from the FDA in the 1990s for attempting to regulate cigarettes and dietary supplements as drugs.  It required the agency to do more than one hundred new things without giving it the resources to do so.  The FDA has too few scientists and inspectors on staff to do its job.  That’s deregulation for you.

BB: On March 3, the Senate introduced the Bill S. 510, or the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.” The bill, and House Bill H.R. 875, includes provisions such as mandatory food recalls. What are your thoughts on the bill? Will it be effective?

Dr. Nestle: There are two competing bills before Congress, one to fix the FDA by increasing its resources and the other to create a single food safety agency.  Both ask for recall authority, which the FDA currently does not have.  I much prefer the single agency approach.  This would combine the food safety functions of USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else).  The present divided system behaves as if these foods were unrelated, even thought the spinach, tomato, and peanut butter recalls proved otherwise.  These are plant crops contaminated by animal wastes.

BB: You shop at the greenmarket and support local food. Many small farmers and food producers are worried about the bill and the regulations making it difficult for small farms and local producers to continue. Will the “one-size-fits-all” approach become a barrier to farmers markets and CSAs?

Dr. Nestle: Let’s hope that whatever Congress does, its bills make allowances for small scale food production.

BB: What can each of us, as citizens and consumers, do to ensure we have safe food to eat and can access fresh, local foods?6. What are the positives and/or negatives you see with the new Obama administration and food policy?

Dr. Nestle: Cooking helps.  Most microorganisms are killed promptly by heat.  It’s way too early to tell what the Obama administration will do.  I tend not to pay any attention to the rhetoric.  I want to let the actions speak for themselves.

BB: No one seems to like hearing about food recalls and safety issues. Do you experience resistance to your message? Do you ever get tired of fighting the battle for safe food?

Dr. Nestle: Research on risk communication makes it clear that most people are less troubled by microbial food contamination than they are about pesticides, irradiation, or genetic modification.  It is understandable to be more worried about things you can’t see or control than those you can.  I get plenty of feedback that my messages—and those of many others involved in these same issues—are being heard.  I think it’s an exciting time to be involved in these issues.  It’s a time when there is a real opportunity for progress.

Helpful Links:
The GovTrack site will allow you to subscribe to the following bills status and to read the full text of the proposed legislation:
House Bill H.R. 875

Senate Bill S. 510
Food Politics by Dr. Marion Nestle

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