National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

While delays in rulemaking seems to make it a moot point now, it is a tenet of the Food Safety Modernization Act that enhanced regulation will make food safer.

Of course you remember that only a few short years ago produce leaders were arguing for more rigorous federal oversight of fresh fruit and vegetable safety. The spinach-linked E. coli outbreak was the tipping point for industry leaders who found themselves in the uncommon posture of demanding more regulation by Uncle Sam in Congressional hearings. Yes, this regulation should be science based and fair to both domestic and import producers, but the message was clear: feds, what are you waiting for?

While restoring consumer confidence in the government’s ability to regulate fresh produce safety was doubtless a big goal for industry leaders, surely the collective industry also believed that more robust regulation will indeed result in safer leafy greens, safer melons, safer green onions, etc.

To believe otherwise – that added regulation will have no effect on produce safety but might be good for consumer attitudes - is to foist a tawdry public relations gambit on the American public and add immeasurable costs for the American grower.

So the industry continues to ask the FDA, “What are you waiting for?”

Putting aside the answer to that question (it is obviously politics, after all), is there a counter-argument to the notion that more regulation is better?

Will regulations really make fresh produce safer, or just more expensive?

One column on this subject that caught my eye recently was this opinion piece titled “The Sickening Nature of Many Food-Safety Regulations,” written by Baylen Linnekin.

The author states that “history shows us that food-safety regulations have often made food (and, consequently, people) less safe.”

The author noted three examples to support his opinion. First, he cited 18th century France, when the country’s parliament banned consumption of the healthy potato because officials thought the spud was a cause of leprosy.

Linnekin also states that people can be less safe when the rule designed to help people actually hurts them. For this angle, he used the former “poke and sniff” inspection scheme once employed by the USDA meat inspectors, where an inspector would “poke” a piece of meat with a rod and “sniff” the rod to determine, in the inspector’s opinion, whether the meat contained pathogens.

This approach, Linnekin observes, likely resulted in USDA inspectors transmitting filth from diseased meat to fresh meat on a daily basis.

“Food may actually have been safer when the USDA failed to regularly inspect some plants for a mere three decades,’ he correctly deduces.

Finally, he said the third way in which food safety regulation can make people less safe is when a regulation attaches a “false veneer” of safety to a particular food based on the “public's misplaced faith in the ability of regulators to ensure food is safe. For this talking point, Linnekin highlighted the summer 2010 recall of hundreds of millions of eggs despite the present of USDA oversight at facilities.

Linnekin’s opinion may be enticing to some in the industry. Why don’t we just forget about this Food Safety Modernization Act anyway? You remember that bit about strong federal oversight? Never mind.

But I can’t buy the Kool Aide that Linnekin is selling. As unwieldy as regulation can be, as wrong as the politicians can be who play games with the outcomes, it is needed. The public needs the government to hold food marketers accountable for food safety practices on their farms and in their factories. Science and best practices will improve over time.

Linnekin is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit groups that describes itself as the “ first nationwide membership organization devoted to food freedom—the right of every American to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of their own choosing.”

The group is against food regulations and bans which restrict food freedom.

“With few exceptions, the government has no right to tell people what we can and can’t eat,” the group states on their site.

“One thing KFL will never do is advocate in favor of (or against) any particular foods or dietary choices,” the mission page states. “We believe strongly that adults should eat what they want (or what they and their doctor think is best for them). And we also believe that children should eat what they and their parents think is best for them. Government shouldn’t tell you what to eat, and neither should KFL.”

If Linnekin was truly arguing for absolute freedom, he would have never added “adults (and children) should eat want they want.or what their doctor (or their parents) tells is best for them.”

This is not the time for do-nothing politics and silence as America grapples with recurrent episodes of foodborne illness, bulging waist lines and a rising toll of health issues related to the American diet.

Government can play a role in making food safer. They won’t get it totally right of course. But it is time to get on with it. Feds, what are you waiting for?