Food safety for Christmas

We may imagine farms are as bucolic as this one. In reality, most farms are industrial-size enterprises, and some experts say that results in food safety concerns.

When Obama won the presidential election, many foodies hoped he would advocate for a better food environment. At the top of the wish list is addressing the safety of our food supply.

In today’s New York Times, reporter Kim Severson tries to parse President-Elect Obama’s food policies, including his controversial selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the secretary of agriculture. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, summed it up for many when he described the selection of Vilsack, who has supports ethanol production and biotech croops, as “agribusiness as usual.” Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, also expressed some concern about the choice. You can weigh in with your opinion at Serious Eats.

There is a glimmer of hope, though, as there’s the still-open, key post of undersecretary of food safety to fill. The first-rate blog Obama Fooderama urges the incoming president to appoint class-action attorney Bill Marler, because he might actually do something to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Check out his list of the top 10 food safety stories of the year.) Marler’s track record of successfully pursuing food-bourne illness suits since the early ’90s makes him an intriguing, if politically inconvenient, candidate.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

But even the government acknowledges–although clumsily–that something needs to be done to improve food safety for Americans. Earlier this month, the FDA released a one-year progress report on its Food Protection Plan. Thus far, the progress is mostly the formation of steering committees and holding public meetings, in addition to:

  • A food-safety self-assessment tool for industry. (Isn’t that like having the wolf guard the henhouse?)
  • Establishing inspection locations in foreign countries that export food to the U.S. (A good idea, but it’s unlikely to be as comprehensive as it should be, due to inadequate funding. But even if there are enough inspectors, they may not screen for everything. The Los Angeles Times reports that melamine-tainted farmed seafood is routinely exported to the U.S., and FDA doesn’t currently require melamine screening for imported seafood.)
  • Approving the irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce, a process that many consider controversial. (Irradiation may destroy vitamins in food, and it doesn’t address unsanitary conditions at factory farms, accordng to the Center for Food Safety.)
  • Requesting funds from Congress to hire more inspectors, which the chronically underfunded agency needs. (It will be interesting to see if Congress comes considers the safety of our food supply as important as bailing out banks.)

Although I’d certainly like to see more a more vigorous food-safety policy from our government–one that’s aimed at protecting citizens rather than appeasing agribusiness–current economic conditions have likely knocked it down on the list of priorities for Obama’s first days in office.