What's the "Future of Food" Without Food Safety?


I attended the Future of Food Conference in Washington D.C. this last week and was amazed by the speakers that author Eric Schlosser and the Washington Post brought together. From Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; to Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; to author Wendell Berry and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, plus Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc. and many others -- even The Prince of Wales popped in to give the keynote address, only days after the wedding of the century.

It was truly an impressive list of speakers who have a deep commitment to issues surrounding the future of food and a clear commitment to a vision of small, organic agriculture. The discussions ranged from workers rights to GMOs, from frozen vegetables to global warming. Obesity was also discussed, along with the booming trend of backyard gardens. Sustainability was the catchword of the day, along with going local, organic farming and the ever-present mantra, "know your farmer, know your food." Lunch was served family-style featuring local, organic agriculture - meat and vegetables. White House chef Sam Kass shared recipes as some in the audience gushed about how hot (not temperature-wise) the President's chef was.

Food safety, in the broadest sense of food security (ending hunger) and healthfulness (being against processed foods), was discussed by many of the speakers - clearly, important issues that impact billions worldwide. However, food safety as I live it was not on the agenda. In fact, the only time it was discussed was when Barbara Kowlazcyk (the mother profiled in Food Inc. who lost her son to E. coli O157:H7) asked speakers on one of the panels about food safety as she lives it. The response was the same response that I hear often -- "know your farmer, know your food" - "if you can look your farmer in the eye, you know the food is safe." To me, it is not a satisfactory answer, not to Barbara or the 48,000,000 Americans who are sickened, the 125,000 who are hospitalized or to the families and friends of the 3,000 who die each year because of foodborne illness.

True, in the two decades I've been litigating foodborne illness cases in nearly every state, the vast majority of the victims were linked to mass-produced food and/or local food that had been consolidated and further processed. However, it might also be that mass-produced food outbreaks are simply easier to catch due to the numbers sickened, and that many outbreaks that get our attention cut across state borders.

Perhaps, local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO agriculture does in fact sicken less people, but, then again, perhaps not. Perhaps because the illnesses are fewer in numbers and localized, they are also not as easily linked. The reality is that local food can become contaminated between the farmer you know and the fork you put in your mouth, just as easily as sharing a meal at a chain restaurant, buying Salinas salad, Nebraska beef, Arkansas chicken or Chinese tilapia. Bacteria or viruses simply do not make the distinction.

I am not quite sure why food safety at the Future of Food Conference was a topic to be ignored. Was it because it is a painful topic? Really, who wants to deal with the facts that something as good a local grass-fed, organic raw milk could have Campylobacter in it that would cause a mom to become paralyzed due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome? Or was it because there is a belief in "foodie" or "foodiest" communities that if food is local, sustainable, organic and non-GMO it is by definition safe? I recall an email I received from a well-known writer shortly after a famous local cheese maker, who used raw milk from organic grass-fed cows, was linked to eight E. coli O157:H7 illnesses. The writer was perplexed that the cheese maker could have been responsible for such a lapse given that those sorts of things only happen to the mega-food manufacturers. His belief simply did not conform to reality.

The movement represented at the Future of Food Conference ignores food safety at its peril. The movement has an opportunity to embrace food safety as yet another distinguishing feature of its brand of "real food." Accepting that foodborne pathogens exist and need not be in our food does not detract from believing that food is safer if you "know your farmer, know your food." I would simply add, "trust, but verify."

Talking about food safety does not make your food less safe - it makes it safer. Believing something to be so does not in fact make it so. Making food safety as Barbara and I live it a part of the culture of the future of food will make our food safer now and in the future. Without food safety, local, sustainable, organic, non-GMO agriculture will remain a niche and that is no future at all.