Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorismby Marion Nestle
Food Safety is a Matter of intense public concern, and for good reason. Millions of cases of food "poisonings" annually raise alarm not only about the food served in restaurants and fast-food outlets but also about foods bought in supermarkets. The introduction of genetically modified foods -- immediately dubbed "Frankenfoods" -- only adds to the general sense of unease. Finally, the events of September 11, 2001, heightened fears by exposing the vulnerability of food and water supplies to attacks by bioterrorists. How concerned should we be about such problems? Who is responsible for preventing them? Who benefits from ignoring them? Who decides?
Marion Nestle, author of the critically acclaimed Food Politics, argues that ensuring safe food involves more than washing hands or cooking food to higher temperatures. It involves politics. When it comes to food safety, billions of dollars are at stake, and industry, government, and consumers collide over issues of values, economics, and political power -- and not always in the public interest. Although the debates may appear to be about science, Nestle maintains that they really are about control: Who decides when a food is safe?
She demonstrates how powerful food industries oppose safety regulations, deny accountability, and blame consumers when something goes wrong, and how century-old laws for ensuring food safety no longer protect our food supply. She draws on three examples: microbial contamination of meat and poultry, genetically modified ingredients in supermarket products, and newly emerging hazards -- bioterrorism among them. If, as she says, food safety is a matter of politics, then problems of food safety require political solutions. Ensuring safe food requires government and industry to act more in the public interest, and consumers to exert democratic rights as citizens to make sure that they do.
Accessible, informed, and even-handed, Safe Food is for anyone who cares how food is produced and wants to know more about the real issues underlying today's headlines. It should be of interest to everyone who eats and wants food to be safe -- from general readers to students, farmers, scientists, and anyone connected with the food industry or government.
Her ability to look at issues as both a scientist and a consumer makes her a particularly useful source when food safety is up for discussion. Such sources are few and far between.The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
Safe FoodBacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism
By Marion Nestle
University of California PressCopyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Food safety is a matter of huge public interest. Hardly a day goes by without a front-page account of some new and increasingly alarming hazard in our food supply. As an academic nutritionist with a long-standing interest in how food affects health, I cannot help but deal with issues of food safety, daily. Students, colleagues, and friends often ask me whether it is safe to eat one or another food or ingredient. My department at New York University offers degree programs in the new field of food studies as well as in nutrition, and many instructors and colleagues associated with these programs work in restaurant or specialty food businesses. They also ask safety questions, as their livelihoods depend on serving safe food.
Nevertheless, I did not set out to write a book about food safety. My academic training is in science (molecular biology, but long lapsed) as well as in public health nutrition, and for many years my research has focused on the ways in which science and politics interact to influence government policies that affect nutrition and health. In that context, I have been speaking and writing about food biotechnology since the early 1990s. From the beginning, I viewed genetically engineered foods as raising questions about politics as much as about safety. Indeed, the safety questions seemed overshadowed by issues related to the implications of such foods for society and democratic values.
I originally intended to include several chapters on such issues in a book about the ways in which food companies use the political system to achieve commercial goals. That book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, came out in 2002 from the University of California Press. In the course of events, however, it became clear that the subject of food safety deserved a book in its own right. To begin with, during the years I worked on Food Politics (1999 to 2001), food safety crises popped up one after another, especially in Europe. Mysteriously contaminated soft drinks, cows sick with mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease, and outbreaks of what my friend and colleague Claude Fischler calls "Listeria bacteria hysteria" were eliciting headlines and destroying economies as well as confidence in the food supply. On the domestic front, one food after another-hamburger and such unlikely suspects as raspberries, apple juice, and bean sprouts-appeared as sources of bacterial infections. Because some of the contaminating bacteria resisted antibiotics, the illnesses were difficult to treat. Product recalls because of microbial contamination also seemed to be growing both in size and public attention.
Furthermore, I was receiving increasingly urgent queries from purveyors of small-scale, artisanal cheeses who wanted to know: can cheeses in general, and raw milk cheeses in particular, transmit bacterial diseases, mad cow disease, or foot-and-mouth disease? The answers to such questions were not easy to find, and I was soon engaged in reading veterinary reports and badgering experts and federal officials for information. Eventually, I could provide a scientific answer: cheese has a low probability of transmitting these or any other diseases, but the possibility cannot be excluded. This answer is either satisfactory or not depending on whether one is an optimist or a pessimist, and it raises its own set of questions. Does a low probability of harm mean that a risk is negligible and can be ignored? Or is it unreasonable to take the chance? Would pasteurization (heating milk briefly to a temperature high enough to kill most bacteria) make cheeses safer? Should the federal government require cheese makers to pasteurize milk or to follow other special safety procedures? Is the benefit of eating prized specialty cheeses worth any risk, no matter how small? The answers to such questions involve judgments based in part on science, but also on more personal considerations-how much one values the taste of cheeses made from raw milk, for example, or the social contribution of artisanal cheese making. Because such judgments are based on opinion and point of view, and sometimes on commercial considerations, and because they affect the regulation, marketing, and financial viability of food products, they bring food safety into the realm of politics.
I have been a minor participant in making such judgments. As a member of the Food Advisory Committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the mid-1990s, I learned about other special safety procedures, particularly a scientific method for reducing the risk of harmful bacteria in food called, obscurely, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or by its equally obscure acronym, HACCP (pronounced "hass-ip"). Despite its name, HACCP seemed to me to make a lot of sense, and I wondered why food companies-especially those that produce and process beef and chicken-seemed so reluctant to apply HACCP rules along with methods to reduce pathogens, and test for microbial contaminants to make sure that infected meat stayed out of the food supply. Instead, food companies appeared to be to be using every political means at their disposal to resist having such rules imposed. Here, too, food safety issues seemed to be mired in politics.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home working on the index to Food Politics when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, just a mile away from my New York City apartment. Among the many consequences of that event were some otherwise insignificant ones having to do with this book. My cheese purveyor colleagues added anthrax to their list of safety questions (answer: another situation of very low probability), and I realized that a book on this subject would also have to deal with food bioterrorism-an extreme example of food safety politics in action.
In some ways, this book extends the arguments set forth in Food Politics. There, I discussed the ways in which the food industry (the collective term for companies that produce, process, market, sell, and serve food and beverages) influences what people eat and, therefore, their health. To encourage people to eat more of their products, or to substitute their products for those of competitors, food companies spend extraordinary amounts of money on advertising and marketing. More important, they use politics to influence government officials, scientists, and food and nutrition professionals to make decisions in the interests of business-whether or not such decisions are good for public health. In doing so, food companies operate just like any other businesses devoted to increasing sales and satisfying stockholders. One difference is that the food industry is unique in its universality: everyone eats.
To pick just one example: food companies donate campaign funds where they are most likely to buy influence. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks campaign contributions on its Web site, www.opensecrets.org, several food companies and trade associations discussed in this book ranked among the top 20 agribusiness donors in 2001, with contributions ranging from $100,000 to nearly $1 million. The skewed distribution of these donations to Republican rather than to Democratic members of Congress is especially noteworthy. For example, the giant cigarette company Philip Morris, which owns Kraft Foods, donated 89% of more than $900,000 to Republicans. Other companies involved in food safety disputes of one kind or another also donated heavily to Republicans: Archer Daniels Midland (70%), the National Cattleman's Beef Association (82%), the Food Marketing Institute (90%), the National Food Processors Association (96%), and the United Dairy Farmers (100%). With the Republican administration of George W. Bush in power, these groups expect to receive especially favorable attention to their views on food safety issues, and they usually do.
Underlying discussions of such matters of influence in Food Politics and in this present volume are several recurrent themes:
* The increasing concentration of food producers and distributors into larger and larger units * The overproduction and overabundance of food in the United States * The competitiveness among food companies to encourage people to eat more food or to substitute their products for those of competing companies * The relentless pressures exerted by food companies on government agencies to make favorable regulatory decisions * The invocation of science by food companies as a means to achieve commercial goals * The clash in values among stakeholders in the food system: industry, government, and consumers * The ways in which such themes demonstrate that food is political
Food safety, however, would seem to be the least political of food issues. Who could possibly not want food to be safe? Consumers do not want to worry about unsafe food and do not like getting sick. Unsafe food is bad for business (recalls are expensive, and negative publicity hurts sales) as well as for government (through loss of trust). As this book explains, food safety is political for many of the same reasons discussed in Food Politics: economic self-interest, stakeholder differences, and collision of values. At stake are issues of risk, benefit, and control. Who bears the risk of food safety problems? Who benefits from ignoring them? Who makes the policy decisions? Who controls the food supply? For the most part, these are political-not scientific-questions, and they demand political responses. Because billions of dollars are involved, food safety issues are "hot topics" demanding attention from everyone involved in the food system: producers, distributors, regulators, and the public.
I wrote this book for everyone-from general readers to scientists-who would like to know more about the issues underlying disputes about food safety issues. How concerned should we be about the safety of the food we eat? What aspects of food safety issues should concern us? What issues really are involved? The purpose of the book is to establish a basis for a better understanding of the issues, the positions of the various stakeholders, and the ways in which the political system operates in matters as fundamental as the safety of the food we eat. I hope this book will help everyone interested in food, whether trained in science or not, to develop more considered opinions about food safety issues.
In part because I want the book to reach a wide audience, I have worked hard to make it accessible, readable, and free of jargon, and have defined terms that might be unfamiliar whenever they appear. Although nontechnical discussions of science necessarily omit crucial details, I have tried to provide enough sense of the complexity to make the political arguments understandable. Because any discussion of government policy inevitably requires abbreviations, I define them in the text and in a list. For readers who might like a quick reminder of the science underlying genetic engineering, an appendix provides a brief summary.
Although I do not try to disguise my own views on the issues discussed in this book, I attempt to present a reasonably balanced account of them. Because any book expressing a political point of view is likely to be controversial, I extensively document my sources. I refer to articles in traditional academic journals and books, of course, but also to newspaper accounts, press releases, and advertisements. These days, many previously inaccessible documents are available on the Internet, and I cite numerous Web addresses in the notes that conclude this book. The notes begin with an explanation of the citation method and the definitions of whatever abbreviations seemed most convenient to use. Because I have been a member of federal committees dealing with some of the issues considered here, and because I frequently attend conferences on these subjects, I sometimes refer to events that I witnessed personally, but I have tried to keep such undocumented observations to a minimum.
I hope that Safe Food will interest consumer advocates, students, college and university instructors, people who work for food companies, those employed in government agencies, and everyone else who is concerned about matters of food, nutrition, health, international trade, and, in these difficult times, "homeland security." If, as I argue, food safety is as much a matter of politics as it is of science, then food safety problems require political solutions. My deepest hope for the book is that it will encourage readers to become more active in the political process.
Part 1 Resisting Food Safety
Friends and colleagues, knowing that I was writing about harmful bacteria in food, wondered why anyone would care about things so invisible, tasteless, unpronounceable, and, for the most part, innocuous. Like most people, they view occasional episodes of food "poisoning" as uncomfortable (sometimes very uncomfortable), but certainly more a matter of random bad luck than of decades of industry and government indifference, dithering, and outright obstructionism. They accept at face value the endlessly intoned mantra of industry and government: the United States has the safest food supply in the world.
Whether this assertion is true is a matter of some debate. Safety is relative. The most authoritative estimate of the yearly number of cases of foodborne disease in the United States defies credulity: 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths. As the chapters in part 1 explain, such numbers undoubtedly underestimate the extent of the problem. Although the most frequently diagnosed causes of these illnesses are species of bacteria-Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli (E. coli)-most episodes are never reported to health authorities and their cause is unknown. From a science-based perspective, the risks and costs of foodborne illness are extremely high.
Furthermore, although outbreaks of foodborne illness have become more dangerous over the years, food producers resist the attempts of government agencies to institute control measures, and major food industries oppose pathogen control measures by every means at their disposal. They lobby Congress and federal agencies, challenge regulations in court, and encourage local obstruction of safety enforcement. We will see, for example, that the culture of opposition to food safety measures so permeates the beef industry that it led, in one shocking instance, to the assassination of federal and state meat inspectors.
Excerpted from Safe Food by Marion Nestle Copyright © 2003 by the Regents of the University of California
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Marion Nestle is Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and director of public health initiatives. She is the author of the prize-winning Food Politics: How the Food
Influences Nutrition and Health (California, 2002) and Nutrition in Clinical Practice (1985). She is also coeditor (with L. Beth Dixon) of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Nutrition and Food
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