Governments no longer are the primary gatekeepers of the safety of a food supply that has grown internationally more diverse and exotic. Lawrence Busch, MSU university distinguished professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Food and Agriculture Standards, says that consumers increasingly will rely on those selling food to keep it safe.
That, he said, is a mixed bag when it comes to safe food.
"We are importing far more food and a far greater range of more exotic and ethnic foods than ever before, and this poses issues," Busch said. "We have a very safe food supply, but food-borne illness still is a major concern. The ability to lower the incidents is real."
Busch spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting today in Denver in a symposium entitled "Social Dimensions of Food Safety: A Comparative Perspective."
In the United States, only about 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. The inspections are not random. Rather, they largely focus on products known to be risky, such as seafood, and on companies that have had problems in the past.
Still, Busch said, the growing volume of food traded globally has not been met with an equal growth in staffing of public food safety agencies, either in the United States or abroad.
Growing dependence on the private sector is a good news/bad news proposition, Busch said. On the plus side, international supermarket chains have tremendous motivation to sell food that is free of contamination by food-borne illnesses and pesticide residues. Outbreaks of sickness and publicity about violating food standards damage a retailer's reputation and its bottom line. Liability concerns also can strengthen a company's commitment to food safety.
Increasingly, that commitment has translated into reliance on procedures and processes to ensure that food makes it to market in good shape.
"In many areas, the emphasis on keeping the food supply safe has shifted from replacing government inspection with private compliance," Busch said.
"It often has meant scrutinizing processes and paperwork rather than scrutinizing product, and it's conceivable you can conform to all the processes and still have a terrible product."
Linking profits to food safety also can make shortcuts and even fraud seem like viable business decisions, Busch said. While outbreaks of food-borne illness are a concern, other violations of standards can produce long-term health concerns that are more subtle. For example, allowing fruit with unacceptably high levels of pesticide residues to go to market could have financial benefits that exceed the low risk of detection.
Also on the panel was Ewen C.D. Todd, director of the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center at Michigan State University. Todd works closely with the Department of Sociology at MSU on finding ways to improve food safety standards and prevent food-borne disease. The center, now in its fifth year, is committed to reducing food-related disease through multidisciplinary research, education and outreach.
"At present, there is not a clear connection between government policy and a reduction in food-borne illness," Todd said. "At the same time, the world is becoming increasingly accustomed to a wide variety of foods and governments, industries and consumers are wrestling with how to balance science, safety and policy. At our center, we are convinced the future lies in a multidisciplinary approach to these issues.
"It's essential we identify the hazards and human behavior relative to foods to come up with ways to reduce the risks."
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