Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bill Marler and local food

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler is crossing swords with the local food crowd in a holier than thou showdown, mostly over raw milk from small dairies but also touching on fresh produce issues. Here is a link from The Ethicurean. From The Ethicurean:

So to Bill Marler — guy whom I really basically like, a guy who makes me laugh, and a guy who often makes me cheer, and a guy whom I believe represents great hope for our national food safety — I say this: please proceed cautiously as you target small-scale producers. I agree with you: a family who loses a loved one to listeria from a small dairy is just as grief-stricken as one that loses a relative to a fast-food chain. And I know that if I lost my own child to E. coli, listeria, or salmonella, I would be wild with rage. But Bill, as you move forward, please keep me in mind.

I don’t expect my neighbors’ food will be 100% free from pathogens. For me — and I suspect for many of us who buy locally — I am grateful simply to know the farmers, grateful to know that these farmers genuinely make whatever efforts they can to ensure the safety of my food. I can go to the farm; I can see this. I know that if there is an outbreak, it will be swiftly contained, and it won’t require the months-long forensic detective skills that must be employed with national outbreaks. For me, it is enough to know that the supply chain is short, and that companies like Agriprocessors, Nebraska Beef, and Westland Hallmark — who, unlike my farm neighbors, value quarterly earnings statement above the health of their customers — never, ever touched my kids’ food.

Read this
link to a post in Barfblog that is friendly to Marler.

Here is the post from Marlerblog about his top food safety challenges of 2009: that generated such a vigorous response: From Marler, the #2 challenge on his list:

2. Local Food: Outbreaks linked to local food and/or farmer's markets. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and food co-ops need to demonstrate knowledge and practice of food safety, and be inspected. In addition to produce and meats/fish, prepared items are currently unsupervised in some, but not all locations.

What he wrote about local food evoked a couple of quizzical responses. Lynn wrote:

I thought that local food was a good way to avoid some of the questionable food practices of big business and globalization, but this column makes me think twice.

How is a consumer to know if a producer or retailer is practicing good food safety? And is state or federal oversight the best answer, given a record of failures and corrupting political influence?

Devra responded;

It's irresponsible to tell people that prepared food sold at farmers' markets is currently unsupervised. I run a farmers' market food concession and I'm required to pay for permits, operate out of a licensed, inspected, commercial kitchen, and submit to regular inspections by the health department. On days when the health department is not actually present, market managers act as their proxies, checking that our operations are compliant.

Monty Mason followed with this comment:

Although there are groups forming with an interest in tracking fruits and vegetables like the PMA (Produce Marketing Association), standardized food supply chain tracking requirements are in the early stages of development, and I don't think 2009 will be a year for marked progress. From an electronic tracking perspective, today's packaging practices could hinder this effort. Tracking at a pallet level is very feasible and is practiced in a growing number of food supply chains today, but unit-level tracking beyond pallets will require packaging changes that are still under development and consideration. Time and money to develop innovative packaging is needed, and this situation has the potential to drive up food costs for the consumer at the worst possible time: when most food providers are being squeezed to lower costs.

The move toward buying locally could also slow progress with food traceability, and local growers with limited resources will more than likely be the last to embrace electronic traceability to secure the food supply chain. We are starting to see marketing campaigns encouraging consumers to support local food producers. In the past, the benefits to buying locally were pretty simplistic, but with the world;s new focus on sustainability, the reasons to buy locally have expanded to include reduction in supply chain costs for fuel and transportation. Further, it̢۪s also being established that fresh foods lose their nutritional properties when they experience long lead times from farm to fork. As these types of compelling arguments become understood by the public, it's reasonable to believe that consumers will act and buy locally when possible.

Monty Mason
Director of Product Marketing; Supply Chain
Axway Inc.

TK: There were actually 39 responses to The Ethicurean post about Bill Marler. The collision of worlds between the local food movement and escalating food safety expectations will be fascinating to watch, as will be the tension between the halo-wearing Marler and the sainted local food disciples.


Ali B. said...

In our current system, 40% of feedlot cows harbor the deadly E. Coli 0157:H57 pathogen. Forty percent.

In the U.S., there are 76 million foodborne illnesses every year. That includes 325,000 hospitalizations and a whoppin' 5,000 deaths (all CDC data). In the U.S., our rate of foodborne illness is 8 times the U.K. rate, and 21 times the rate in France.

That Ethicurean dialogue includes comments by a mother who watched her beloved 2 year old son die an incredibly gruesome, painful death because he ate a hamburger. Hers is certainly not the only story like this; she's just one who weighed in to the discussion.

Do you honestly believe that a dialogue about these issues is nothing but a "holier than thou showdown"? Do you believe that mother who watched her child go from being a happy toddler to dead in a mere 12 days is "holier than thou?"

Really? Would you say that to her face?

Here's my perspective: these are serious issues, and there are many people who are trying to address them, and trying to avoid risk. Sometimes, their goals are aligned, sometimes not, but we're all trying to make our food supply as safe and transparent as possible.

You are absolutely welcome to weigh in on the debate, and if you want to do a guest post on why we shouldn't worry about such things, you're invited. I promise that I will be respectful.

I suspect, though, that you'll find it much more difficult to toss out phrases like "holier than thou" when you're actually talking to people, instead of just about them.

Tom Karst said...


I appreciate your comment. I mean no offense to those who have suffered from foodborne illness, of course, and the hyperbole was over the top. The essential question of small farms and how they interact with GAPs and regulatory system in general is an issue I will continue to follow, hopefully with more thoughtful responses than my latest post.

Tom K

Ali B. said...

And with a deep breath, I can respond more thoughtfully, without jumping down your throat before you've even had your morning coffee.

The truth is, from my perspective, I wish I didn't have to engage in these discussions. I wish I didn't think about these issues. I wish I could order my kids chili or salsa at a restaurant and not worry. It would make my life infinitely easier, and infinitely more stress-free. But once I learn about the statistics about Barb's child and other children, how do I unlearn it? I'm not sure I can, so I try to talk about it, including with Marler (with whom I don't agree on everything, but who is, to his credit, always willing to talk openly).

You're certainly not the only one who has called people who talk about these issues, or who shop locally as an alternative to industrial systems, as "holier than thou." You're simply the one who enabled comments.

All of which is a long way of saying thanks for responding. I agree these are interesting challenges Let the conversation continue.