Volume 42, Number 4: July/August 2008

Review: Safe Food

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism
by Marion Nestle
University of California Press, 2007

Safe Food is based in on U.S. information and statistics, but much of the manipulation of language that occurs in food-industry lobbying might easily apply to any country.

Nestle sets out five main themes of the politics of food safety: 1) fragmented, overlapping and confusing distribution of authority; 2) the food industry’s promotion of economic self-interest at the expense of public health; 3) the invocation of science as a rationale for self-interested action; 4) the imbalance of power between corporate and public interests; and 5) the different ways in which scientists and the public view food-safety issues.

Part One (“Resisting Food Safety”) concentrates mainly on the beef industry, but applies equally to poultry, eggs, seafood, fruits and vegetables. Nestle gives a detailed historical context of the role of lobbyists for food producers and processors, and how they have stymied the FDA and the USDA. According to her, what is most unfortunate is that, while there is a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan that could be applied to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria, food processors are powerful people with deep pockets, so it is left to the consumer to take responsibility for food safety.

Part Two (“Safety as a Surrogate: The Ironic Politics of Food Biotechnology”) focuses on the scientific and social aspects of genetically modified (GM) foods. Using various examples, Nestle outlines how the food industry uses science to support its claims that GM foods are safe and beneficial, without addressing the ethical, social and emotional implications of providing such foods, especially to people in developing countries.

Nestle concludes by addressing some of the threats to food safety in the form of bioterrorism and meat-production practices. With borders becoming more porous to international trade, it is easy to see that these issues should concern everyone. One incident of bioterrorism or tainted meat in one country can quickly and adversely affect many countries. Think of mad-cow disease, genetically modified foods, foot-and-mouth disease and salmonella-tainted apple juice – to name a few.

Nestle captures how “food companies often place commercial interests above those of consumer protection, and how government agencies often support business interests over those of public health.” Each word by skilled lobbyists is strategically crafted to the advantage of the food industry, with the consumer being left to wonder about reality and fiction. We should all entertain some healthy suspicions when interpreting food-industry messages about the latest “health” food and what foods may be “good” for us.