Along with Geoffrey Morell, I represented the Weston A. Price Foundation at the International Conference for Food Safety and Quality, held November 8-9 in Chicago. The theme was “Detection Methods for Microbiological and Chemical Hazards.” Present were leading industry specialists from around the world, including food microbiologists and researchers, representatives from the processed food and industrial farming industry, as well as those from food safety testing systems. William Marler, Managing Partner and Owner at MarlerClark LLP, PS, a food safety law firm, spoke on litigation in foodborne illness cases. Additionally, there were attendants from Rain Crow Ranch—American Grass-Fed Beef and Annie’s Homegrown. It is very important for those of us in the grass-fed and small farm movement to keep abreast of what’s going on in the food safety world.
The conference focused on emerging food safety issues in a globalized marketplace, important litigation that has driven regulation and new technologies to improve the detection of food contamination. The conference climate demonstrated a tragic reality that the development of our globalized industrial food system has lead to the creation of a highly scientific community and governmental regulating system that have become removed from any healthy traditional perspective with regard to the relationship between farming and food. Food for the marketplace has become a technology, industrial systems are the norm, pathogenic microbes in food need to be carefully monitored and eliminated at every juncture as outbreaks are increasing, safety issues are paramount, nutrition has little merit and the definition of “food” itself carries widening parameters.
The words of Joel Salatin resonated within me, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.” When Geoffrey Morrell asked about the consideration of nutrition amidst making foods “safe,” the immediate answer from the food technicians was “safety first.” My question was, “After we have sterilized all of our foods so they are absolutely free of pathogens and people are still getting sick from ‘foodborne’ illnesses, where will we turn?”
However, whether we like it or not, industrial farming—the lowest common food-quality denominator—is driving the development of a powerful food safety industry. With the increase in foodborne illness litigation, William Marler, a leading food illness lawyer, warned the audience that those who do not take considerable precaution will be held liable for their carelessness. In addition, the definition of the term “outbreak” may become increasingly burdensome as the term will be applied to illness that affects fewer people.
Food safety is big business and power and there is ample funding for research and development as it is deeply tied to the political infrastructure of big agriculture. In this climate there will be a push toward corrupt over-regulation. Sustainable farms are sure to be up against new legislative initiatives aimed at requiring purchase of state-of-the-art testing equipment that will fulfill mandatory reporting.
Purnendu Vasavada, Professor of the Department of Animal and Food Science and Director of the Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology Workshop at the University of Wisconsin, discussed three decades of food industry testing developments. Through his seminars that address both industrial and organic agriculture he explained that even in his presentations at organic farming conferences, he warns that organic systems can no longer afford to take a passive attitude toward food safety. He joked that while organic farms and producers may have “organic pathogens,” if their food causes illness, they will be held accountable!
Numerous presentations focused on the new rapid detection testing systems that have entered the sphere of food safety. From a small, less expensive system that could be affordable for a family farm to larger ones more suited to a corporate farm, processing plant or industrial food factory, there are developments appropriate to any setting. Many of these systems not only detect pathogens, they can also determine allergen contamination.
Another seminar discussed advances in safer food packaging and sanitizing treatments like ultraviolet light that maintain food flavor. Irradiation luckily was explained as “unpopular” because it raised many safety concerns by the public.
The international market is creating a very complicated food safety puzzle as every country has different safety standards and often ingredients for one processed food product come from many different countries. In this emerging arena of food safety there is a growing list of foodborne pathogens. Below is a list along with some of the foods that have been implicated in outbreaks:
• Salmonella enteritis, Salmonella DT 104, Salmonella PT4—eggs, produce, peanut butter, spices, dog food, poultry
• Campylobacter jejunii—poultry
• E. coli O157:H7—fruits and leafy greens
• Listeria monocytogenes—deli meats, dairy products, sprouts
• Norovirus—leafy greens, complex foods
• Botulism—pasteurized carrot juice
• Toxoplasma—beef, pork
Other pathogens that have been identified:
• Rota viruses
• Norwalk viruses
• Clostridium botulinum
• Yersinia enterocolitica
• Bacillus cerus
• Cyclospora cayetanensus
• Vibrio parathaemolyticus
• V. Mimicus, V. vulnificus
• Giardia lamblia
• Cryptosporidum parvum
Professor Vasavada explained that microbiological testing has increased dramatically in its scope. In 2010, 213.2 million microbiology tests were collected in the U.S. food processing industry; this was a 14.4 percent increase since 2008. Testing was used for the following areas:
• Total microbial load
• Indications, index and marker organisms
• Pathogens and toxins
• Low growing, fastidious organisms
• Bioterrorism agents
• SRM, prions, enzymes, allergens, GMOs
• Vitamins, growth factors bioassays
Gregory Siragusa, Principal Senior Scientist and a Director of Microbiological Research for Poultry at Danisco USA in Waukesha, Wisconsin, discussed the benefit of testing for indicators as warning signs of possible contamination. For instance, tests for coliforms are indicators of fecal contamination. By gauging the extent of the contamination, limits can be assessed that would determine whether further pathogen testing was necessary. Siragusa stated that, “Indicators can give a rapid view of whether a process is within some critical limit and indicators are only useful if used in partner with solutions to contamination problems.” He stressed that using indicators can help to address a problem before it becomes a serious issue. This type of monitoring is regularly practiced on many sustainable farms and there are new technologies that will make this approach even more accurate.
While I assumed that every speaker would be focused on state-of-the art microbiology and insistence on the new food safety paradigm, I was totally surprised to hear the contradictory views of Robert Koeritzer, Technical Manager in the Diagnostics Laboratory for 3M Company’s Medical Division. Koeritzer leads a team of research and product development scientists with expertise in microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry. He began his speech saying that most pathogens are not new. He questioned the role technology is assuming in our changing world. He suggested we look at true food safety by improving our farming practices and the nutrient levels of the foods we grow along with helping people develop better immunity. He warned against the narrow focus of safety through better pathogen testing when our food system is severely damaged. With antibiotic resistance, rises in susceptible populations, increased outbreaks and global sourcing, the changing food production and delivery systems will continue to challenge food safety. His remarks lead us to ask why we are going in this direction. Can we really afford not to address the real issues inherent in the widespread degradation of the quality of our agricultural system and the problems inherent in globalization?
As I reflect on this conference, I see that we must rapidly strengthen our efforts to bring balance back to our agriculture system. By increasing the support of more sustainable farms through building the demand for these locally grown foods and broadening our activism we will achieve this goal. Increasing governmental interference of property ownership rights in co-op agreements along with violations to basic human rights of food freedom require a groundswell of organized grassroots initiatives.
Even though our community understands that food safety is a natural outcome of excellent farming methods, we must endeavor to generate an openness to address any areas that fall short of best practices. Although purchasing new food safety testing equipment may not be appropriate for a small farm, as developing regulation will push for increased monitoring, current technologies in this area might offer some cost effective tools worth investigating.
The responsibility of consumers to actively support the farmer and farm that produces their food has never been greater. Activism is no longer optional. It is the responsibility of all consumers of traditional foods to participate in protecting both individual and farmer’s rights to food and farm freedom. We must also strongly advocate for independent food safety requirements that are appropriate to the small farm, and we must be involved in the local, state and federal legislative process that will dictate future policy.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2011.