Monday, October 19, 2009

Food Safety: Caveat Emptor

"Caveat Emptor: is one of the many phrases I remember from my early days of Latin in the esteemed Dr. Larrick's class. (Sidebar: Every student should have been lucky enough to have had Dr. Larrick. He continues to inspire students in ways few can. Teaching is a gift. One that he keeps on giving. And for that we are thankful.) Anyhoo, "Caveat Emptor" is of course the commerce principle that means the buyer assumes the risk. It translates to "Let the buyer beware." We generally think of this in terms of purchasing cars, property, and pretty much anything from eBay, Craigslist, or the classified section (that is, if anyone still lists and buys stuff that way these days).

I never thought Caveat Emptor would apply to the food I buy.

We take leaps of faith everyday. We trust that the drivers among us will stop when the light is red. We trust our children's schools are secure. We trust that the bank protects our money. We trust that our municipality's water reading is accurate. We trust our cribs are tested and our toys lead-free. We trust the food stocked upon market shelves is safe.

Thanks to the likes of Stewart Parnell, the infamous Salmonella Peanut King, consumers can no longer afford to take a leap of faith when it comes to food purchases. The FDA has long been riddled with powerlessness and plagued with inefficiencies. Food safety, and in effect consumer wellness, has been on the back burner. It seems to me that we as a nation have focused more on making a buck and pulling a fast one on consumers than protecting public health. I'm thinking of the policies and attitudes of a certain eight years in the all-too-recent-past. Ahem. The FDA, through years of neglect and failure to modernize itself, has floundered in protecting us.

Well finally, in a bipartisan leap, the food safety bill looks like it's making headway to overhaul the FDA. Despite the fact that the Senate looks like it will wait until next year to address it, the bill is still getting some much deserved attention. It's at least a starting point. Slow but steady, right? The FDA, the government organization upon which we rely to ensure the food we consume is safe, has had puny resources to actually to its job, making us take leaps of faith in the grocery aisle, off restaurant menus, and in school cafeterias without even knowing it.

Spinach. Peanuts. Cookie dough. Ground beef. Chicken. Pet food.

Pretty basic items on any grocery list, right?

E. coli. Salmonella. Listeria.

I bet those aren't on your shopping list.

So where do we go from here?

Until our government gets rolling on passing and implementing this new food safety bill, it behooves us all to exercise Caveat Emptor in every food purchase we make. Even buying local, organically produced food does not guarantee it's safe for consumption.

Note that I write this a mother, a cook, a consumer. I'm not a pundit, a biologist, a lawyer, a lobbyist, or a politician. And my bet is that if you're not either, you too don't care about the in-fighting. We simply want to trust that the food we serve our children is not tainted. Food is sustenance, and should not be suspect.

Check out these resources for more information.
Safe Tables
@SafeTables on Twitter
Sign up for eAlerts about food recalls.
FDA food safety

Thanks to Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Mike Taylor, advisor to the FDA Commissioner, Safe Tables and the fine bloggers (@GloPan, @punditmom, @morningsidemom, @soapboxmom, @jippert) who joined in on an informative call last week about food safety. Cheers to good health instead of just wealth!

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colby said...

Did you watch CSI:Miami last night?

Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother said...

Unsurprisingly, there's a pretty good chance there's a lot of badness in with the potential goodness. A bunch of small farmers who mainly sell to farmers markets and buying clubs are opposing the bill. Or at least parts of it that seem crafted to put them out of business.

This is already an issue for both beef and milk, where the guidelines in place are nearly impossible to meet without being a large industrial operation. And in both of those cases, the current legislation focuses on procedures, not outcomes.

What that means is even if a small supplier can prove through actual testing that their product is safe, it is constantly under threat of confiscation. While the required procedures that industrial operations follow frequently don't even mandate testing.

A recent New York Times article describes how grinders and packagers agree not to test what they get from suppliers, for fear that those suppliers might be forced to clean up their practices. And this is treated as the normal way to do business in that industry.

Anonymous said...

I like to know where my food comes from...that helps the trust factor. And one bad apple (or peanut or cow, haha) will make me switch suppliers for life. The FDA is woefully underfunded for what we expect from it.

The Mother said...

While I am not a big fan of government legislation as a way to make folks behave ethically (ie, if the guy who makes peanut butter just doesn't care if he makes people sick, is a LAW going to make him care?), I can absolutely appreciate the concern of the average person over just this latest of health scares.

As a microbiologist, I have had some pretty careful rules in my kitchen from the get-go (differently colored cutting boards, etc).

But I drew the line at being paranoid. Now I'm rethinking that.

I had a parasitology professor in college who washed all of his veggies in clorox. WE LAUGHED at him.

Now who's laughing?

(BTW, the latest suggestions on E. coli is that even very careful preparations in the kitchen might not be enough to prevent the spread. So maybe we shouldn't be buying ground beef AT ALL. We don't use it for burgers, anyway, since we like to eat them rare (for those, I grind my own from sirloin). I only keep it in the house for meatballs. Now I'm rethinking even that.)