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Local food doesn’t mean safe food

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 23-Nov-2010
Last updated on 02-Feb-2011 at 14:12 GMT

All food, if not properly handled, has the potential to cause foodborne illness – so why does local food get special legislative treatment?

Last week, an amendment was added to the Food Safety Modernization Act, which has finally reached the Senate floor after being stuck in legislative no man’s land for more than a year. If passed, the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the right to order product recalls, give it better access to company records, and require food manufacturers to keep detailed food safety records.

The amendment, put forward by Senator Jon Tester (D-MO) would exempt businesses that bring in less than $500,000 a year, and sell their products within state lines or a maximum of 275 miles from where they are produced. It is intended to protect small producers from regulation that could prove to be financially burdensome – although funding details for the bill have yet to be decided. But what about food safety?

How much of this is about the perceived relative quality of food at the farm gate and the type that comes in a package, or indeed, from further afield? S. 510 may be a bill to improve food safety, but in this instance, food safety has very little to do with it.

Rather, it is about the romantic notion of the ruddy-faced farmer touting his soil-encrusted produce at the local farmers’ market in an era when many of us have become distanced from our food supply.

I am very nearly swayed by it.

I understand why people want to stick up for the little guy. I think of the vendors at my local market, and find it hard to imagine that their produce could be unsafe. It is certainly insulting to suggest that Farmer Joe doesn’t care about the safety of his produce – of course he does – but it doesn’t mean that his food is necessarily any safer than that in the supermarket, just that if it is contaminated, fewer people will get sick.

This is a reality that Tester has acknowledged, saying that if a mistake is made “it doesn’t impact hundreds of thousands of people.”

But hang on – this isn’t any version of small-scale and local that I recognize. Half a million dollars’ worth is a lot of produce. And after some protest that a 400-mile radius was too broad, the definition of ‘local’ in the Tester Amendment was narrowed to 275 miles. Since when was Washington, D.C. (comfortably) local to New York City? Even if it is, where’s the evidence that local, family businesses make safer food?

Look at Estrella Family Creamery, the Washington-based artisan cheese maker that refused an FDA request to recall its cheeses after its facility and cheese was repeatedly found to be contaminated with listeria. Listeria is a potentially lethal pathogen to which the elderly, infirm, children, pregnant women and unborn babies are particularly susceptible.

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, the Tester Amendment is now part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. It’s a big compromise and one that should help the passage of a long-awaited bill.

While federal oversight of food safety could get a major overhaul, state and local authorities will continue to be responsible for food safety at smaller facilities.

For the rest of the American food supply, let’s hope this bill passes before we tuck into our respective Christmas dinners, whether they’re sourced from the local farm or the local Wal-Mart.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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