When it comes to food, Americans live in an industrial age. The stuff of most meals is mass produced and processed. The recent mass removal of tainted and suspect spinach from the market is a reminder of this – and of the need for US agriculture to adopt more appropriate safety measures.
The E. coli problem with fresh spinach highlights enormous differences in the oversight and regulation of produce compared with meat. More US residents are harmed by contaminated produce than by faulty beef, poultry, or seafood, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The problems with produce contamination are growing, while those with meat are declining. Yet the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees produce, has far fewer resources and less regulatory authority than the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat.
Consider these imbalances: The USDA inspects meat-processing plants every day. The FDA has the manpower and resources to inspect facilities handling vegetables and fruit, seafood, or processed food just once every five years. USDA meat regulations are mandatory; the FDA's guidelines for produce are voluntary.
At the very least, the FDA's food- safety budget needs to be bulked up. As of 2007, it will have been cut by almost 30 percent from 2003 (one result: more than 250 fewer inspectors).
And industry self-regulation has a less than stellar track record, at least in California's lettuce and spinach industry, which fills America's salad bowls. This latest outbreak has been traced back to the state's Salinas Valley area, and so have nine of the 20 other known E. coli lettuce and spinach contaminations since 1995.
Food-safety experts pushing for produce to be as regulated and overseen as meat are probably right, but this direction involves an irony and perhaps an element of faulty reasoning.
Moving to meat-like inspections will force even more centralization of food production, because only large producers will be able to afford to implement across-the-board regulations. Centralization, however, can compound safety problems. Because food ends up in central processing plants, problems spread widely.
And realize that the strain of E. coli that led to this outbreak originated in the 1980s from industrial beef production – from feed-lot cattle. Scientists don't know exactly how the E. coli reached the spinach, but say it probably came from contaminated runoff from nearby fields of cattle or from river flooding.
The USDA's approach to meat regulation has made meat safer, but it's also had the effect of putting local, small ranchers out of business. Whether it's produce or meat, local food can contribute to safety. It's transported and handled less, and when there's a problem, it's easier to pinpoint and contain.
Consumers are gravitating to local food. The number of farmers' markets has at least doubled in the past 10 years, and supermarkets now offer "locally grown."
The spinach recall must act as a wake-up call for produce safety. But whatever solutions are offered should be flexible enough to accommodate food's industrial producers – and their retro cousins, local farmers.