The food we eatMore and more nations are food-insecure

Published 25 February 2009

Globalization, life style changes, and fierce competition among food producers make developing nations food-insecure; “Epidemics are a disastrous but unavoidable consequence that we can only hope to limit,” one expert says

Peanuts and peanut products tainted with salmonella in the United States have made 604 people sick, sent 187 to the hospital, and killed eight. The salmonella also has led to many product recalls in Canada and more than 2,000 product recalls in the United States, more than any other epidemic. To make matters worse, Peanut Corp. of America, the company at the heart of the salmonella episode, filed for bankruptcy liquidation in court recently. Days before that filing, Stewart Parnell, the president of the company, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions in a Congressional hearing.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a food distribution and safety specialist and associate dean at the Levene Graduate School of Business, Faculty of Business Administration, University of Regina, writes that this situation calls for a thorough investigation. In the meantime, who is to blame? It would be easy to single out Peanut Corp., he writes, but the company is just one piece of a bigger picture. From a systemic perspective, we can identify two underlying, and related, issues: globalization and modernity.

To begin with, the number of food recalls is not increasing as much as the scope and magnitude of individual cases. Globalization has had a significant impact on how we eat and has kept food prices at reasonable levels. An unfortunate side affect is that our capacity to manage risks has been severely compromised. Distribution systems are much more dynamic now and allow food to be produced one day and consumed the next while traveling thousands of miles in between. “It is almost impossible to adequately contain risks, and outbreaks can spread globally in days, even hours,” he writes (read more in “Regulators Cannot Cope with Food Counterfeiting, Contamination,” 17 February 2009 HS Daily Wire).

Secondly, in our fast-paced modern social arrangements, fewer consumers prepare food for themselves, and these few often with less available time. In filling this demand for convenience, processed foods have become a big part of our diets. These pressing conditions are intensified by increased participation of women in the labor force, high levels of youth out-migration, and an aging population. Such changes have had a considerable impact on food safety standards, practices, and marketing strategies. In order to compete, the food industry is compelled to offer convenient and readily-available food products to markets at the lowest price possible.

The “cheap calorie” factor is also putting a lot of pressure on food industry stakeholders, Charlebois writes. The current economic downturn is adding fuel to the proverbial fire. Today, Canadian and American consumers spend only about 10-12 percent of their disposable income on food purchased from a store. That number was at around 25 percent less than a generation ago. The food industry is now highly fragmented, which tends to encourage fierce competition, especially in terms of price. The food industry has to negotiate within a highly competitive environment in order to succeed. Price is often the first marketing variable that is prioritized. Consequently, we are all to some extent responsible for what happened since the food industry is providing us with what we are asking for. “Epidemics are a disastrous but unavoidable consequence that we can only hope to limit,” he says (see “Food Poisoning Strike 25 Percent of Americans Each Year,” 20 February 2009 HS Daily Wire).

Even so, consumers have the right to ask for more accountability. Local diffusion networks and distribution channels play a vital role wherever sustainability involves policies that require better safety of our food products. Food manufacturers actually go beyond government standards, such as HACCP and ISO certifications, to ensure their food products exceed compliance with health and safety requirements. The problem is more multifaceted than it appears. Therefore, solutions require cooperative action across food industries and across national borders, in addition to punitive measures for individual transgressors.

No food companies are deliberately trying to harm consumers, but irresponsible corporate behavior should be punished. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that Peanut Corp. of America is the only culprit. Shared accountability across supply chains should be at the forefront of any new food safety policies. Occurrences like the salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corp. of America makes our nation fundamentally food-insecure, and this has profound implications for consumers. “But we as modern consumers need to understand that these epidemics, and their tragic outcomes, can be minimized only by policies that address the complex, interlinked natures of our food economies,” Charlebois concludes.