In the wake of criticism about food safety, the FDA announced yesterday the formation of a new food safety czar. Once again, whether by choice or not, the FDA is handling a crisis not be proactive communications, but by reactive efforts that only make the agency appear without a vision at the same time the agency is trying to enunciate a vision. On the heels of his statement that the system is not broken, an announcement is made to fix it by Dr. von Eschenbach.Perhaps this was a long standing plan of the commissioner’s – to address food safety, but how would we know?
The absence of a stated vision means that there is no vision at all, because vision must be communicated if it is to be effective. This is something I learned at Zingerman’s, and it is important not only because it produces employee buy-in but also because it protects an organization from apathy and mission creep. If the vision is a secret, there is no way to tell whether the organization is closer or farther away from meeting it, and, more importantly, no reason to strive for better results.Moreover, I suspect that the FDA is unable to draft a vision which satisfies its real core constituency (i.e., industrial food producers) and its ostensible core constituence (i.e., the food-buying public).
“What if the true Evil of our societies is not the capitalist dynamics as such, but the attempts to extricate ourselves from it (while profiting from it), to carve out self-enclosed communal spaces, from “gated communities” to exclusive racial or religious groups?
“That is to say, is the point of The Village not precisely to demonstrate that, today, a return to an authentic community in which speech still directly expresses true emotions, etc. – the village of the socialist utopia – is a fake which can only be staged as a spectacle for the very rich?
“The exemplary figure of Evil are today not ordinary consumers who pollute environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (top managers, etc.) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, exempt themselves from the results of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wild preserves, etc.”
— Slovoj Zizek, via Daniel Silliman
An otherwise local cheesemaker has to ship her own milk to Pennsylvania in order to turn it into cheese, due to state pasteurization requirements in Maryland.
Yesterday Dr. David W.K. Acheson was appointed as Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection — a new position commonly dubbed “Food Czar” in the press. This new position was created in response public outcry about the safety of the U.S. food supply following the recent e. coli outbreak in spinach, the salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, and the presence of the toxin melamine which has been discovered in animal feed both for pets and for animals intended for human consumption.
Dr. Acheson will report directly to the FDA Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach. The FDA is an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (although the FDA predates that department by almost 70 years). I was unable to find a job description for the position outside of the Press Release, and suspect that the position was created with Dr. Acheson in mind. If true, then
A quick google search leaves me with the impression that Dr. Acheson will focus his priorities in two areas:
- Educating consumers about food-borne illness and the importance of washing and thoroughly cooking foods before consumption.
- “Fixing” the U.S. food supply by requiring or encouraging measures such as irradiation of food, E. Coli vaccination of cows, and so on, rather than fixing the systemic problems with food production which have led to such outbreaks.
This is a hunch. I would like to be proved wrong. But I suspect that this is the sort of position that is created and filled to give the impression that the Government is responding to public concern without taking the necessary steps to address the issues. The term “X Czar” fills me with something other than hope, in much the same way as the term “War on X” does.
Still looking for the science on this, but I found this paragraph, which encapsulates a lot of the benefits of buying local food.
Q: How can I make sure the food I buy is safe?
A: Cattle that are fed grass instead of grain have less E. coli O157:H7 in their intestines, but most of the beef in supermarkets is from grain-fed cattle. Some ranchers are raising grass-fed cattle, but the beef is more expensive. You can purchase grass-fed beef online from specialty ranches.
In general, it is better to buy locally grown produce. Crops grown on vast industrialized farms have a greater potential for contamination, especially if they are near large cattle feedlots. Packaged spinach and salads contain products from various farms; during sorting, shipping and packaging, the bacteria from one farm can taint the produce from other farms and regions. Produce sold at local Farmers’ Markets usually comes from small farms not located near cattle feedlots. Pay attention to news bulletins if there is an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in your area. Throw out any food they advise may be contaminated.
The science on grain-fed beef and E. Coli O157:H7 (the nasty one, and in this post the one I mean when I write “E. Coli”) appears to come from a study published in Microbes and Infections in January 2000 (Vol. 2, Iss. 1, p. 45 ff). The idea, as far as I can tell, is that while a cow’s rumen is pH neutral, feeding it a grain-heavy diet lowers the stomach pH, changing the mix of gastro-intestinal flora in the cow’s stomach and providing a breeding-ground for acid-resistant E. Coli, which are more likely to survive in the human (rather acidic) stomach.
Feeding the cattle hay for even a brief period produced a “dramatic” decrease in both the number and acid-resistance of E. Coli in the stomachs of those cattle.
A review of related studies (J Dairy Sci. 2000 Apr, Vol. 83 Iss. 4, p. 863) confirmed this, this despite an earlier study (Appl Environ Microbiol. 1999 Jul Vol. 65 Iss. 7 p. 3233) which seems to show that hay-fed cattle shed equally acid-resistant E. Coli for a longer period of time than grain-fed cattle, and concluded that hay-fed cattle may increase the dangers of E. Coli infection in humans.
Now, as a curious non-scientist, reading the abstracts, it seems to me that the duration of shedding of E. Coli may not be as important as the number of E. Coli, given that
- public food-related health involves management and not elimination of risks,
- food-borne illness-causing bacteria are fairly omnipresent in our environemnt and it is our good fortune that they do not often exist in sufficient concentrations to overpower our natural defenses,
- the foods most likely to carry E. Coli seem to be perishable to highly-perishable (e.g., beef and dairy, poultry, and produce) and therefore likely to be refrigerated (which slows the spread of bacteria), cooked, and consumed before the bacteria has had a great deal of time to propagate,
I think I would rather face a low concentration of toxin-producing bacteria many times over rather than a high concentration all at once.
What does this mean? In general, it means following the advice at the beginning of this post. The advantages to eating locally, in this regard, are these:
- Shorter average time-to-table means less time for bacteria to reproduce on / in your food
- Less, and decentralized, processing means fewer post-harvest entry points for bacteria, as well as reduced exposure to bacteria from other foods
- Possibly, private, independent tenant ownership / management of farms provides greater incentives to produce clean food by avoidance of tainted irrigation supplies and other sources of illness-causing bacteria (i.e., aren’t you more likely to farm clean if you live on the farm? Isn’t that one of the basic ideas of the market economy — that what one owns, one tends to manage better than what one doesn’t own.)
- Possibly, face-to-face retail-level transactions between producer and consumer promote personal accountability to the consumer.