Friday, April 24, 2009

Food Safety Under the Obama Administration

It seems that people are starting to wake up to the recent food scares and say something about it. Perhaps if our food society embodied that of the foodshed, our nation wouldn’t have to worry about food scares. For example, if you recall the salmonella-laced peanuts from the Peanut Corporation of America, the contaminated lettuce from Dole, or the infected pot pies from ConAgra, all of these food scares were uncovered by epidemiologists in Minnesota, but the food-borne illnesses also popped up in other states such as Illinois or Kentucky. Over the past 10 years, there has been a trend that Minnesota health officials detect more food-borne illnesses per year than health officials have detected in Kentucky. However, (according to the April 20, 2009 NY Times article “Ill From Food? Investigations Vary By State” ), that discrepancy is due to the malfunctioning of the food scare investigation system in Kentucky.

The article states that, “The different numbers arise because health officials in Kentucky and many other states fail to investigate many complaints of food-related sickness while those in Minnesota do so diligently, safeguarding not only Minnesotans but much of the rest of the country, as well.

Congress and the Obama administration have said that more inspections and new food production rules are needed to prevent food-related diseases, but far less attention has been paid to fixing the fractured system by which officials detect and stop ongoing outbreaks. Right now, uncovering which foods have been contaminated is left to a patchwork of more than 3,000 federal, state and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed, poorly trained and disconnected, officials said.”

This situation demonstrates exactly why the concept of the foodshed is so important. The food checking system in our country is clearly not on the same page as the food distribution system, probably due to the very great spread and infrequent physical overlap of the important nodes of each system. I think that widely accepted belief in the foodshed would solve this issue, because it would require an alignment of the nodes of each system (per individual foodshed).

To quote Kloppenburg’s Coming Into the Foodshed, “Not only can the results of foodshed analysis be used to educate, we believe that the foodshed-no less than Gary Snyder's watershed (1992) -is a place for organizing. In this unstable, post-modern world, the foodshed can be one vehicle through which we reassemble our fragmented identities, reestablish community, and become native not only to a place but to each other.”

I wonder about what our president thinks about the concept of the foodshed. I don’t know how to answer this question.

However, in march of this year, President Obama announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group, and organization that would include the secretaries of health and agriculture to advise him on new laws/revisions, and how to facilitate coordination across federal agencies in order to achieve national food security. According to the article, President Promises to Bolster Food Safety, “A debate has erupted on Capitol Hill in recent months about whether to bolster food oversight at the Food and Drug Administration or assign those responsibilities to a separate agency that would eventually absorb the food-oversight duties of the other 11 agencies, including the Food Safety Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture. Advocates on both sides of the issue have speculated for weeks about which approach the administration would support.”

At the very least, the current administration is moving towards improving food safety, however it seems that their method will be to install more health officials or a better organized food inspection infrastructure, as opposed to the ideals preached by the concept of the foodshed. Social responsibility for the foods we consume for example is not directly addressed by the administration’s reaction to the food issue. However I am optimistic that perhaps a more buoyant food inspection infrastructure will demand more localized food flow, which in turn may address the national issue of food social responsibility.

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