“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public-relations officers,” wrote the late historian Daniel Boorstin.
Yet for me, as a California farmer, there’s nothing worse than bad publicity. If consumers don’t believe that the food I grow is safe to eat, then I go broke!
That’s why all farmers are so concerned about food safety. We read news reports of E. coli outbreaks with as much distress as anybody.
It’s a good thing these reports are so few–oftentimes the real story isn’t about isolated incidents of contamination, but about the fact that problems are discovered and contained so quickly. Never in U.S. history has it been safer to eat food than it is right now.
Perhaps food-safety issues receive so much attention because genuine problems are so rare–they are the quintessential “man-bites-dog” stories, which the media love about as much as they love celebrity shenanigans.
Nothing’s ever totally perfect, either in reality or perception. A recent survey sponsored by the International Food Information Council found that 72 percent of Americans are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. That’s a pretty high number–it’s hard to find many issues of significance upon which nearly three-quarters of Americans can agree–but it also suggests that a minority has some worries.
When pressed to list their food-safety concerns, 36 percent cite microbial food-borne illness and 35 percent mention improper handling. Interestingly, only 3 percent bring up biotechnology. For all of the radical-activist hype over this totally safe food technology, especially in Europe, it pales in comparison to other issues.
On my farm, we work hard to guarantee that what we grow is both healthy and delicious. We have field sanitation facilities, rules about hand-washing, and so on. Regulations drive some of this behavior, but our practices probably wouldn’t be much different in their absence. And the reason they succeed, of course, isn’t because there are bureaucrats looking over our shoulders and watching our every move. They succeed because we enforce them ourselves.
Last year’s E. coli outbreaks involving lettuce and spinach have encouraged many people to think about how food safety might be improved even further. One suggestion is to “go nuclear,” as the Sacramento Bee recently put it–in other words, to adopt irradiation technology.
Irradiation exposes food to ionizing radiation, which in turn kills bacteria and bugs. According to some studies, irradiation eliminates 99.9 percent of pathogens in food. The National Center for Policy Analysis claims that if irradiation were widely adopted, cases of food poisoning would drop by 900,000 annually.
Although anything with “radiation” in its name conjures up scary images of Chernobyl, irradiation is totally harmless to consumers. The World Health Organization has said as much, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently allows the irradiation of oysters, clams, and mussels. Requests are pending for shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and ready-to-eat food such as deli meats, pre-bagged salads, and baby food, according to an article by George Reynolds of Decision News Media.
If food irradiation were to become a common practice, it would add an additional cost to food production. The machines that do this work, after all, have price tags of several million dollars apiece. Consumers would pick up the tab by paying more for food at grocery stores.
My philosophy is to keep food as affordable as possible, but also to respond to customer demand. If consumers say that want to add to the cost of goods in the name of food safety, then I’m fine with providing this added peace of mind.
Just don’t expect me to release a press release about it. I’m not hungry for the attention.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org