The safety of local/regional food systems

How many scandals and food-poisoning outbreaks is it going to take to really influence a grass-roots and governmental move toward smaller-scale, regional, decentralized food systems?

The latest on the Georgia peanut butter issue, from this morning’s Washington Post (easily my favorite newspaper).

The Georgia peanut plant linked to a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened 500 more across the country knowingly shipped out contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years, federal officials said yesterday.

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have been investigating the outbreak of salmonella illness, said yesterday that Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella in internal tests a dozen times in 2007 and 2008 but sold the products anyway, sometimes after getting a negative finding from a different laboratory.

Companies are not required to disclose their internal tests to either the FDA or state regulators, so health officials did not know of the problem.

(That last bit is pathetic, given the amount of restrictions on things like meat processing which at least produce a product meant to be cooked to a high temperature. But I digress…)

The point is not that corporations are inherently untrustworthy or unsafe, or that small farmers or processors are inherently ethical or safe. I’m sure there are a percentage of bad apples among any group as well as a larger population of good folks. The argument, to me, is twofold:

1) Problems are inevitable, but small/local food systems will by definition limit the scope of a problem. When a factory that ships nationwide screws up even once, 43+ states are affected and it costs massive amounts of time and money to trace and fix the problem. Not to mention the terrible waste in food that is discarded or not sold (same thing) due to concerns. Even if Eastwind (a small nut butter make in northern Missouri) were to screw up twice as badly as the current situation, the effects would be easily traced, easily contained, and easily dealt with. Far less waste on all fronts, and far less disruption to the national economy/food supply if they were to go under because of their actions.

2)This is more a philosophical point, but it just seems to me that small businesses dealing locally have a stronger incentive to maintain ethical standards, because they have no other outlet. I think this can be debated, and there are good arguments on both sides, but I feel that it’s especially true for food. There’s enough danger in food that an independant small/family business just can’t afford to play fast and loose with the rules when they’re not in a position to lose their community’s trust. The risks are illness and death, not just bad reviews online.

Now, how a move back toward trustworth local food processors and sources happens, I don’t know. I would like to see consumer demand driving it, as it so far is, but the problem is that once you dismantly so much of a local food network, it’s really hard for the private market to build it back up again. Small farms and food businesses take a lot of capital to start up, and aren’t as sexy as tech startups or other such that can attract investment. They also (particularly farms) take a far longer time to reach viability. This is a subject for a future post, but I just want to note that folks wishing for a safer and more local food system should consider what it actually takes to get there in terms of the risk/reward ratio for the necessary entrepreneurs. It’s tough.

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