Clipboard in hand, Debra Anderson spent three hours one recent sunny morning trooping through a field of romaine lettuce looking for trouble.
She searched for animal tracks at the Church Brothers field, watched picking crews wash their hands and sampled rinse water to make sure it had enough chlorine to kill germs. Though she is a California state employee, Ms. Anderson was working on behalf of the food industry, part of the latest experiment in improving safety.
Am I supposed to feel safer knowing that an unregulated amount of chlorinated water is being sprayed on the leafy greens headed towards my table?
With huge losses from food-poisoning recalls and little oversight from the federal Food and Drug Administration, some sectors of the food industry are cobbling together their own form of regulation in an attempt to reassure consumers. They are paying other government agencies to do what the F.D.A. rarely does: muck through fields and pore over records to make sure food is handled properly.
These do-it-yourself programs may provide an enhanced safety level in segments of the industry that have embraced them. But with industry itself footing the bill, some safety advocates worry that the approach could introduce new problems and new conflicts of interest. And they contend that the programs lack the rigor of a well-run federal inspection system.
“It’s an understandable response when the federal government has left a vacuum,” said Michael R. Taylor, a former officer in two federal food-safety agencies and now a professor at George Washington University. But, he added, “it’s not a substitute” for serious federal regulation.
Nonetheless, the approach is spreading. After two salmonella outbreaks earlier this decade, the almond industry developed a pasteurization program that is overseen by the federal Department of Agriculture. The Florida tomato industry, implicated in several salmonella outbreaks, persuaded the state to take on the task of regulating food safety on farms and at packing houses.
In California, the “leafy greens” industry, which grows spinach and lettuce, was desperate after a 2006 outbreak of a harmful strain of Escherichia coli, the intestinal germ. As Americans stopped eating spinach for weeks, the industry suffered $100 million in losses. It now pays the state money so that auditors like Ms. Anderson can inspect farm fields for safety. The arrangement is called the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.
Decades of government rolling over and for corporate interests have brought us to the point where our food is killing us. Now, the corporations are begging the government to save them.
OK. I have no problem with the FDA performing the sort of tasks it was chartered for – even though they haven’t done them in years. But, let’s have the greedy bastards who fought to stop the oversight – pay for it, now. Tax the food producers, distributors, amalgamators – to pay for their own mess.
We voted for a new government that’s on the peoples’ side – not just the same old flunkies toiling in corporate vineyards. Or lettuce fields.