Food safety–what food producers have in common with tobacco and big oil

Yesterday I was interviewed by Capital Press, the West Coast newspaper for agri-business (I’m a subscriber and use it to keep up on issues facing farmers and food producers).  The question was food safety and crises facing farmers and food manufacturers, ala “pink slime.” I won’t repeat my comments about pink slime and the sliminess of that controversy, but the interview with a reporter asking a lot of very good questions got me thinking about this very important issue.

I’d like to summarize some of what we discussed and share some of my thoughts about what is happening related to food safety.

1. Farmers and the food industry are in a much bigger crisis than they realize.

The ground has shifted underneath their feet. Some know it and are trying to change. Many know it and think it is stupid and refuse to change. Probably most don’t know it. The shifting ground is public opinion and society’s values. There can be no question that the trend in our society is against agri-chemicals and high volume production methods and toward small, organic, minimal impact and minimal use of man-made chemicals or things like genetic engineering. We’ll go into reasons for this in a bit. But that is where we are going and in many ways where we are already, and that means a lot of people who are benefiting from the inexpensive food they eat every day will join any bandwagon to stop the practices they consider unhealthy or unsustainable.

2. Societal value shifts mean big trouble for those who do not respond.

OK, let’s talk about tobacco. My wife loves old movies so we watch a lot of black and white movies. You know, the kind where everyone cool smokes. It wasn’t long ago that smoking was glamorous and hip. Now, if you light up anywhere in public you are going to get a serious stink eye if not be actually accosted by the enforcers around you. Please, don’t get me wrong–creating cheap potatoes and beans is not like growing tobacco because we now know a lot better what tobacco does to us (even though evidence around second hand smoke is mostly bogus). But, societal values changed, smoking became uncool and the government has stepped in to all but ban it. Perhaps the food industry is more like big oil. We all enjoy the products they make while at the same time thinking that those who make them are nothing but scumbags and destroyers of the environment.

3. Activism married with junk science married with media in desperate search of audiences are major contributors.

Many will say that my analogy between tobacco and high production food is appropriate because both are very bad for you. I strongly disagree as we’ll see below. But the process underway against production food is very similar to what happened with tobacco and to some degree big oil. Those who brought the dangers of smoking to light had a receptive audience with journalists who, as former journalist Jon Entine says, have an activist mentality themselves. Besides, what headline will get desperately needed audiences: “this stuff will kill you”? or “Scientific evidence uncertain about dangers”? Now, as it turns out, we should be grateful to those activists, scientists and journalists because it is well established that smoking and tobacco are major causes of cancer. What worries me, however, is that the same process is underway in food safety without the scientific consensus. There are many who have a dog in the hunt for toxic foods and will use whatever flimsy evidence there may be to raise funds for their NGO and scare audiences into watching their newscasts or their website. The truth, too often lost, is that the good food under attack is not bad for you like tobacco was and we have plenty of evidence to prove it. (Take for example the fact that in 1950 there were 2500 people living over 100 years of age, while in 2050 that number is expected to be 600,000–amazing considering all the poison these people are putting in their bodies thinking it is healthy.)

The media looks in every story for the white hats and black hats. The NGOs are more than willing to accept the white hat and put the black hat on anyone doing their best to make a living out of coaxing food from the land–on any scale other than what can be sold at a farmer’s market.

3. It’s the politicians who really scare me.

I happen to believe looking at all the laws, regulations and ways that government intercedes on our life that we already have a “nanny state,” and it is getting worse all the time. I heard one activist in the food area say that people are too stupid to make intelligent choices about the food they eat and so the government must control it for them. Seriously. We see it already. Banning transfats. Banning BPA, even though the scientific consensus is firmly behind its safety, and as “Chemophobia” author Jon Entine states, it is being replaced with likely less safe replacements so that companies like Nalgene and Campbells can say: “BPA Free!” We’ve got legislation pending that tells farmers how many chickens they can have in a cage–the animal rights issues are a second and related element to this food producer crisis. The election-eager politicians always want to jump in and save the hapless public from the blackhats that the media have conveniently created. We’ve only seen the beginning and it will not be long before food will be subject to legislation like “calories per pound” or some equivalent to the miles per gallon requirements on the automotive industry.

4. The industry needs to accept the new rules of transparency.

While I strongly oppose efforts to legislate things like what we eat, I also recognize that people need to be educated about food, what is good for them and what not so good. One look at any city street filled with people and you know we have a big problem with eating–we eat too much and too much bad stuff. But what I favor over legislation is education and transparency. A lot of farmers have a hard time with this. They don’t want people to know what every process is and what every ingredient is. But that is what is expected today and the hyper-connected world makes keeping secrets impossible and impossibly dangerous.

My message to farmers is: if what you are doing can’t stand the light of day, change it now before you become the next pink slime victim. If what you are doing can be justified in terms of human benefit, including providing very healthy food at remarkably low costs, then for goodness sake, come out with it, state it proudly and defend yourself.

5.  The debate is on–time to join the discussion.

I happen to believe that it would be a travesty for high production food to go away and be replaced by nothing but micro-farmers using nothing but old leaves or grass clippings to grow our food. I’m all for those people who can afford to buy artisan food and I absolutely love to see this trend develop. I’ve got family members growing some of the best food around commercially–on a small scale. But just because it is better, tastes better, and may even in some cases be marginally better for you does not mean that the world will be a better place if all farmers raised our food on two acre plots. In fact, millions would starve. The fact is that while we in this rich country benefit from not having to use a big part of our paychecks to pay for food (unless we choose to), others in the world will go hungry and even starve to death with even minor changes in food costs. Remember the ethanol subsidies which were intended to help corn growers use their corn for fuel. Here’s what wikipedia says:

A July 2008 World Bank report[147] found that from June 2002 to June 2008 “biofuels and the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans” accounted for 70–75% of total price rises.

Those price rises led to many deaths by starvation, riots in Egypt and a major disruption in lives. While we Americans benefit from incredibly healthy food, we live in a global marketplace where a decrease in high production food is going to hurt a lot of people.

Take pink slime. Jamie Oliver (who didn’t coin the term but certainly got the furor going on his TV show) has not only cost many good people their jobs, he and Jim Avila of ABC News are responsible for a rather sharp rise in the cost of beef. While they may think they have saved many school children from eating unhealthy hamburgers in school, the fact is that lean, finely textured beef (what it was called before pink slime took off) is 100% beef and 100% safe. But, it makes ground beef less expensive, and now with school budgets being what they are it is likely that less burgers will be served in schools. The increased price of ground beef at the supermarket may just make it a rarer treat for those who could benefit from the protein and enjoy the great taste. I don’t think Oliver and Avila did us any favors.

Well meaning people who advocate for growing all food the Jamie Oliver way will hurt a lot of people if they win the argument. And they are winning, because so far it is a one-sided debate.

Farmers and food producers are not inclined to get in this public debate about food safety. They hope it goes away. They are confident people will keep buying. In that way they remind me of the oil industry about 25 years ago. The ground was shifting, and some in the industry wanted to speak out, to talk about the realities of global energy needs, to inform the public about the benefits of cheap energy, but some said (including some with the biggest numbers) that they will buy our products whether they like us or not, so what does it matter? True, but it does matter. Oil permits are a hot political issue, where to explore is deeply political. Build a pipeline to access more crude? Deeply divisive. All because of this shifting ground and the unwise decision to let the activists and headline-hunting media have the field. We’re paying a lot for fuel right now–in part because industry leaders 25 years ago stuck their heads in the sand regarding public sentiment. (By the way, if they engaged the public they likely would have realized a lot earlier that doing things to protect the environment was a high public value and would have done more without government regulations.)  This is a plea to the production food industry to not make the same mistake–for all our sakes.

This qualifies as a rant, no doubt. I know many don’t agree with me on many of the points I raised here. But if my plea to the food industry is to get into the debate, my plea to those who disagree is to ask–if you knew your preference for smaller, healthier, “better” food would result in those who desperately need any food to go hungry, would you still campaign so loudly for your preferences? I’ve been accused of wanting to protect the “big, corporate farmers.” Sure, I do. Because I want to protect everyone’s ability to have healthy, inexpensive foods, and the last time I checked, we still needed those big farmers and producers to do that.

One thought on “Food safety–what food producers have in common with tobacco and big oil”

  1. As someone who works in public relations for agriculture, I found this extremely insightful and helpful. It’s something we’ve been fighting in some way for many years now, but it’s always been against ignorance coupled with a positive opinion towards our industry. Ignorance with a negative public opinion does spell out much bigger problems. Ones that simultaneously doom our industry and also prove self correcting.

    On the one hand, we’re already fighting many fires that will very likely turn into a full blown conflagration. Some of those fires are legitimate ones and should change the industry–the honeybee/pesticide issue being the foremost among them (transparency comes in a close second, IMHO). Others, as you point out, are chock full of emotion and pseudoscience.

    On the other, it will ultimately be self-correcting, because the root of this ignorance is in a separation of modern people from their agricultural roots. They have no idea what it takes to even get food to the grocery store, much less what it means to grow and raise it. As such, if they continue to destroy this infrastructure, eventually the cost of food will rise to the point where more people will begin to farm again to supplement their incomes (versus the weekend warriors). There’s some evidence it’s already taking place here in the U.S.

    BTW, you have two item #3’s. A copy editor never dies. 😉

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