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"Safe" Food Isn't Our Real Problem

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Peter Coclanis argued recently in the Wall Street Journal that "American food is much safer than you think," and by American food, he means our "much maligned 'industrial' food system." He is right in that that system only (italics mine) kills eight people a day on average, and that they are the weak members of our herd: babies, the elderly, the sick. He seems to think some human suffering is an acceptable price of doing business. Too bad it's one that the food industry doesn't actually pay, nor does it pay the hospitalization costs for the 128,000 people sickened by salmonella or E. coli. (The Centers for Disease Control actually puts that figure at 385,000, by the way.) The food industry doesn't pay for other companies' lost worker productivity, either.

Professor Coclanis opens with a jibe about how the E. coli outbreak traced to organic sprouts from Germany didn't result in calls for "draconian regulations on organics" the way the salmonella outbreak in Iowa's eggs inspired outraged calls for crackdowns on industrial eggs last year. There's a reason for that: the E. coli didn't come from the sprouts. It came from farm animals, most likely in the manure of industrial dairy operations. The salmonella in last year's outbreak, meanwhile, were a direct resut of unsanitary conditions at Jack DeCoster's Iowa chicken operations--yet Wright County Eggs wasn't shut down by the FDA until after the bad bacteria had sickened thousands.

What I saw and learned when I served on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production several years ago has stayed with me. The miserable, crowded, inhumane conditions on our large factory farms, which rely on antibiotics for their daily operation to such an extent that they have rendered many antibiotics useless to humans, are the perfect breeding grounds for ever-more-toxic strains of E. coli and salmonella. Those deadly bugs make their way into our eggs, our hamburger, and the water that irrigates our fruits and vegetables.

Instead of patting ourselves on the back for how "safe" our food is, we in the food industry --and I count Professor Coclanis, who heads the Global Research Institute, among "us"--should be putting pressure on these large factory farms to clean up their act.

Bon Appétit Management Company
serves 120 million meals per year, and long ago switched to using only chicken, turkey, and hamburgers from animals raised without routine, subtherapeutic antibiotics. We are working hard to move our business away from factory farms: we mandate that our chefs buy at least 20 percent of our food from small, local, owner-operated farms, which don't pass these tragic, sickening costs on to their customers.

Professor Coclanis may think that a few thousand food-related deaths are a small price to pay for our cheap, efficient food system. I would argue that each death represents a very big price to the parents or children of those victims. It is unacceptable that factory farms continue to be allowed to make our families, our communities, and our public health system pay the costs for their practices under the guise that everyone wants "cheap" food.

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