March: Biodefense and food supply safetyHSDW conversation with Marion Nestle

Published 7 March 2008

Professor Nestle on food safety in a globalized economy, the threat of bioterrorism, government regulation of the industry, and genetic modification

Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

HSDW: It appears that two major trends within mature capitalism make it more difficult to keep food safe: (A) Concentration of production: The concentration of production and processing of food in few big companies, which then ship food across the nation, makes it more likely that contamination or infection in one production or processing facility would quickly spread; (B) Globalization has created a situation in which more of our food, and more of various ingredients which go into food, come from countries which do not adhere to the same safety standards as we do. What can we do to counter to deleterious effect of these two trends?

Marion Nestle: Food safety is a huge issue in the United States and it is hard for me to imagine how much worse things have to get before anyone does anything about it. Concentrated food production is not going to go away, so we need to deal with it. In my view, this means standard food safety procedures (HACCP with pathogen reduction) intelligently designed and rigorously enforced for the entire food system from farm to table, preferably regulated by a single food safety agency that encompasses the present disjointed functions of the FDA and USDA. Obviously, we need better inspection capacity to deal with the global food supply. Right now, inspection is so weak that fraudulent producers know that they have an almost certain chance of getting away with whatever they are doing. We need enough regulation to make fraudulent producers think there is a really good chance they will get caught.

HSDW: There is no denial that the economy of scale allows for food at reduced prices, so there is some benefit to concentration and globalization. Would people be willing to pay more for (statistically) safer food?

Nestle: They say they would. Every survey that I am aware of that asked that question has gotten the same answer: Yes, definitely.

HSDW: A Stanford University study a couple of years ago said that if a terrorist were to introduce a pathogen into one dairy, it would lead to

hundreds of thousands of people becoming ill or even dying (this relates to the question about concentration of production above). Are such assertions hype, or do they reflect reality?

Nestle: We don’t need terrorists to mess up our food supply. We seem to