Conflicts and Compromises

I am co-editing a research topic on Conflicts and Compromises between Food Safety Policies and Environmental Sustainability for the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. I and my co-editors, Janne Lundén and Michele Jay-Russell, are actively seeking submissions of research articles to further develop this area, which has been central to my research for the past eight years now.

This opportunity is very timely. Regulatory, market, and consumer pressures to improve food safety remain high, affecting food producers from farm to fork. Massive and sometimes deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness continue to sweep across domestic and international populations, as many Americans were reminded during the Romaine lettuce E. coli O157:H7 outbreak earlier this year. At the same time, emerging pathogens and global environmental change introduce unfamiliar threats and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.

Government, industry, and research institutions are racing full-speed to keep up. The science of foodborne pathogens is rapidly developing, yielding new methods for evaluating risk and detecting contamination across the food system. Novel technologies offer the food industry an increasingly wide array of tools to combat dangerous germs. And the best management practices, production standards, and operational recommendations continue to evolve as food producers work to incorporate the latest developments.

The result appears to be a dynamic and high-stakes arms race between foodborne infectious diseases and the food industry. Amid this rush to get out ahead of pathogens such as E. coliSalmonella, Listeria, and norovirus, we should not blind ourselves to the potential for collateral damage [1]. This open call for new research will help identify a wide range of potential environmental impacts (conflicts) of this arms race, and also point to strategies for minimizing these impacts or even finding synergies between food system sustainability and safety.

While this collection will focus on environmental impacts — to biodiversity, water conservation, pollution, energy efficiency, waste management, etc. — further work is needed on the socioeconomic impacts. In particular, we need to pay special attention to who pays and who benefits as food safety reforms unfold. One of my personal goals in all of this is to bring sustainability and equity into greater mutual focus for researchers, industry, government, and the public at large. The future of our shared food system depends on people and nature working together, and research and policy need to adapt to better reflect this interdependence.

[1]. There are many bacteria, viruses, and parasites that travel on food and are capable of making people sick. See the FDA’s Bad Bug Book for a comprehensive list of biological agents that cause foodborne illness.

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