Yesterday I finalized my dissertation, titled Ordering People and Nature through Food Safety Governance. It has been quite a long journey, and despite recent societal turbulence it is deeply satisfying to wrap up this chapter in my career.
Here is the abstract:
We are constantly reminded that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is healthy for us. But in the face of repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to fresh produce, whether these foods are safe for us has become an entirely different, and difficult to answer, question. In the name of food safety, both government and industry leaders are adopting far-reaching policies intended to prevent human pathogens from contaminating crops at the farm level, but these policies meet friction on the ground. Through a case study of the California leafy greens industry, this dissertation examines the web of market, legal, technological, and cultural forces that shape how food safety policy is crafted and put into practice in fields.
Controlling dangerous pathogens and protecting public health are not the only goals served by expanding food safety regulation—food safety also serves to discipline and order people and nature for other purposes. Private firms use the mechanisms of food safety governance to shift blame and liability for foodborne pathogens to other sectors or competitors and to secure a higher market share for themselves. Food safety experts, capitalizing on the lack of available science upon which to base standards, carve out for themselves a monopoly in setting and interpreting food safety standards. And government agents wield their expanded policing powers primarily to make examples of a few bad actors in order to shore up public confidence in the food system and the government’s ability to protect its citizens, but fail to address underlying structural causes.
Zealous fixation with driving risk of microbial contamination toward an always out-of-reach “zero” draws attention away from the systemic risks inherent in the food system status quo and stifles alternative pathways for growing and distributing food, raising thorny complications for diversifying—ecologically, economically, or culturally—our country’s food provisioning system. The narrow scope of existing food safety policy must be broadened and developed holistically with other societal goals if the future of US agriculture is to be sustainable and resilient in the long term.
I will not post the full dissertation here, but am happy to share a PDF copy for anyone who is interested. Just send me an email.