We recently discussed the Obama administration finally getting around to writing those food safety regulations…and it wasn’t good. The proposals are random, not clearly defined, and impossible to follow. Needless to say, they’re going to be a disaster for US agriculture.
But, don’t every say I’m against food safety.
We certainly have a food safety problem. Thousands of people get sick every year, and some of them don’t ever get better. Remember the melon scare from last summer? We have the safest food supply in the world, but there is always room for improvement.
That being said, I’m still against these arbitrary regulations. So, how can we improve the food safety in this country without imposing impossible-to-follow regulations? I have three alternatives that have been successful in the agricultural community already. I am confident these suggestions would actually do something to increase food safety, wouldn’t increase costs on nutritious food, and would all be completely voluntary.
1. Producer Education
Unlike the proposed regulations, how about we actually update farmers on what needs to be done to ensure our food is safe? Science is figuring things out and that information needs to be shared. As it is now, the regulations somewhat tell you that you have to do something (“wash your cantaloupe!”), but they don’t tell us how or why. I’ve read portions of the research supporting that regulation. And, yes, washing can be important. But we have to explain to our producers why the heck it’s important and how to accomplish it effectively.
So I propose we have voluntary classes for producers, which could be easily offered through our local FSA offices. We already have voluntary classes about all sorts of things for farmers to attend. And, yes, they actually attend them. A similar food safety type program would be immensely helpful. Materials and resources could be handed out and given to the rest of the farm workers. Explain where the biggest risks come from, how they can be avoided, and best practices.
Instead of forcing ill defined regulations, we could actually make an effort to educate our producers about food safety issues and how to address them. Wouldn’t that be more effective?
2. Voluntary Programs
Yes, voluntary programs. Voluntary best practices methods. Voluntary programs that our producers can engage in to increase food safety. Once a farm complies with the program, let them slap a label on their produce and promote themselves as in compliance.
Think voluntary programs can’t work? Think again.
In Michigan, we have the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. It is a voluntary program that farmers in Michigan can get involved with to become verified. The program assists farms with compliance of state and federal environmental laws.
It is totally voluntary and thousands of farms in Michigan are MAEAP verified. Once a farm is verified, they can put the label on their products and promotional materials, a big sign on their farm, and let all the world know.
Imagine if we could have some type of food safety program. Specialists could actually work with producers on an individual basis to figure out where the concerns on that specific farm are, how they can be best addressed, and then make it work. We could actually accomplish something by working toward safer conditions, rather than just telling us things like “keep wildlife out of the field.”
And what farm doesn’t want to boast that they are food safety verified?
3. Consumer Awareness
Safety has to start on the farm, but consumers need to know a little bit about this stuff too. To be honest, other than keeping my kitchen clean and meat off the counter, I have no idea how to prevent food borne illnesses while cooking. Imagine if we put some resources into educating our consumers too? This would put no additional costs on our food, but it could make a huge impact.
After all, if we’re not willing to teach people how to keep themselves safe, how do we expect to really solve the problem? If a farm is going to have substandard conditions, they already don’t care whether they follow some ridiculous regulations. The produce will still get on the market and still cause problems. Consumers should know how to properly wash, store, and use their food to minimize the risk.
So, there are my three suggestions for improving food safety in our country (which already has the safest food supply in the world…) without imposing ill defined regulations, raising the prices of food, and putting small farms out of business. The funny thing is, these alternatives might actually do something to make our food supply safer…unlike those regulations.