Contradictions, consequences and the human toll of food safety culture

I recently published an article (abstract below), with my colleagues Christy Getz and Jennifer Sowerwine, on the problems with a growing trend for governing pathogens in our food supply: food safety culture. I’ll take a moment to explain what that is.

The primary problem in food safety governance is that our food travels a long way from the field to our plates, changing hands (and jurisdictions) multiple times on its journey. This makes it hard for consumers to know precisely what has happened to their food along the way, and in particular whether something bad happened that makes the food dangerous to eat. So, quite reasonably, people want assurance that their food is safe. But how to get this assurance?

In theory, the food industry should have plenty of incentives to provide safe food. Operators who cut corners and sell food that makes people sick should, again in theory, face negative repercussions: bad PR, loss of market share, lawsuits, and even criminal prosecution in extreme cases. However, given the complexity of the food chain, the sheer amount of different foods that people eat every day (which are often mixed together), and the lag time between eating contaminated food and actually getting sick from it, it turns out that in many cases a sick consumer cannot determine who is at fault. Even when they do, the damage has often already been done.

For these reasons, this reactive approach to governing food safety does not really provide sufficient reassurance that our food supply is safe. So in the US, we also have preventive strategies that try to avert food safety problems before they arise. Government agencies have rules and standards for farmers, packers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and all the other people who grow our food and get it to us. Examples of preventive standards include good agricultural practices (GAPs) for farmers and good manufacturing practices (GMPs) for food handlers and processors. But the food distribution system is huge, and the government’s surveillance capacity is limited (constant monitoring is very expensive). Just like with reactive sanctions, preventive rules provide only partial reassurance. Sometimes, that’s not good enough. One simply needs to look at the persistent occurrence of outbreaks of E. coliSalmonella, norovirus, or other foodborne pathogens to see the limits of this system.

So the “captains” of the food industry — the largest retail and foodservice chains — came up with another method, which Walmart’s vice-president for food safety coined “food safety culture”. As we explain in our article (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), this strategy encourages each individual worker throughout the food supply chain to take continuous and personal responsibility for the safety of the food that passes through their hands. Every worker, manager, and owner is supposed to be ever-vigilant and should continuously seek to improve the safety of food. Food safety culture is a way of delegating the oversight work that would otherwise need to be done by government or a private third-party onto workers themselves, and on the surface would seem to promise a more efficient and comprehensive approach to ensuring that food is safe.

However, our research showed that the primary motivation behind the spread of this strategy is as much about protecting the reputation of powerful brands and shielding them from liability as it is about the public health mission to prevent foodborne illness. Food safety culture is, in many important ways, about preserving the “illusion of safety” amidst a continual cycle of outbreak-related crises and government- or industry-led reforms. Unfortunately, the question of whose safety? gets obscured in the shuffle.  And this can carry a very real human toll in the form of increased anxiety and stress for line workers across the food system who must shoulder the burden of protecting (primarily wealthy) consumers from the spiraling problems of industrially mass-produced food. At the same time, narrow scrutiny on foodborne pathogens — which are one symptom of our industrial food system — distracts from understanding root causes of “food-system-borne disease”.

So while clearly we as a society should work to minimize foodborne illness, we must also balance our efforts to do so against the many other threats to our health and well-being posed by the ways in which we grow, process, and distribute our food. The only way to do this is to critically and rigorously examine each and every form of governance, no matter how seemingly benign and no matter whether government-led or industry-driven, to suss out all the consequences, intended or not.

Article Abstract

In an intensifying climate of scrutiny over food safety, the food industry is turning to “food safety culture” as a one-size-fits-all solution to protect both consumers and companies. This strategy focuses on changing employee behavior from farm to fork to fit a universal model of bureaucratic control; the goal is system-wide cultural transformation in the name of combatting foodborne illness. Through grounded fieldwork centered on the case of a regional wholesale produce market in California, we examine the consequences of this bureaucratization of food safety power on the everyday routines and lived experiences of people working to grow, pack, and deliver fresh produce. We find that despite rhetoric promising a rational and universal answer to food safety, fear and frustration over pervasive uncertainty and legal threats can produce cynicism, distrust, and fragmentation among agrifood actors. Furthermore, under the cover of its public health mission to prevent foodborne illness, food safety culture exerts a new moral economy that sorts companies and employees into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to an abstracted calculation of ‘riskiness’ along a scale from safe to dangerous. We raise the concern that ‘safety’ is usurping other deeply held values and excluding cultural forms and experiential knowledges associated with long-standing food-ways. The long-term danger, we conclude, is that this uniform and myopic response to real risks of foodborne illness will not lead to a holistically healthy or sustainable agrifood system, but rather perpetuate a spiraling cycle of crisis and reform that carries a very real human toll.

(If you would like a copy of this article, please contact me.)

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