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The Politics of Food

Michael Taylor

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. Marion Nestle. xvi + 350 pp. University of California Press, 2003. $27.50.

The most central and pervasive social and economic system in the world is the food system—that vast web of human interdependencies through which the planet's six billion people feed themselves. By many measures it is an enormous success—most people get enough to eat every day—and in advanced industrialized nations, the food system is a marvel of abundance, diversity and low-cost efficiency.

In other ways this system leaves a lot to be desired. Eight hundred million people, most of whom live in the poor countries of the developing world, lack access to the food they need. The World Health Organization reported last year that undernourishment and malnutrition is the foremost cause of illness and death on the planet. In the United States, as many as 5,000 people die and 325,000 are hospitalized annually as a result of ingesting bacterial and viral pathogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The food system harnesses the resources of nature and centuries of progress in science and technology, but it is above all a social system. And, like some other social systems, it is thoroughly intertwined with public policy and politics. Governments worldwide make decisions that profoundly affect the economics of food production and marketing, and that influence the quality and safety of food. Because food is so utterly central to human welfare, the public's stake in these decisions and in the politics of food could not be higher.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, writes knowingly about these matters in her book Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, which is a call to consumers to get involved in food politics as citizens. From her perspective as an academic and stern skeptic about how well the government is looking out for the public interest, Nestle pulls back the curtain on many of today's headline-grabbing issues of safety and offers at times a damning critique of how state and federal agencies and food companies are doing their jobs.

Safe Food chronicles the regulatory and political battle the authorities have been waging with the meat industry to establish standards and accountability for reducing bacterial contamination. The book surveys the development of U.S. policy on biotechnology, charging that the government has been a biased advocate for it, too much in league with overly aggressive biotech companies. Nestle maintains that the United States is neither rigorous enough in regulating the safety of biotech crops and food nor inclusive enough in considering the social and economic issues surrounding the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production. The book alerts its audience to an emerging set of safety issues that range from mad cow disease to the possibility that bioterrorists will target the food supply with anthrax.

As a longtime participant in this political sphere (working in government, industry and now a nonprofit research organization) and a bit player in Nestle's narrative (I am treated in ways both flattering and unflattering), I can vouch for the validity of her basic message: Setting policies to make food safe is most certainly political, in the sense that it involves the clash of competing interests and yields outcomes that reflect the messiness and imperfection of the American political process. I can also vouch that there is room for improvement in how the system works. With regard to both meat safety and biotechnology, the government is grappling with issues that were not anticipated decades ago when Congress wrote our laws on food safety. To prepare for the future success of the system in addressing today's concerns, Congress should modernize these laws and be sure that regulatory agencies have the resources and tools they need to be successful. And this will require that citizens get more involved.

By digging into many of the nitty-gritty details of how government has addressed bacteria and biotechnology, Safe Food will help inspire ordinary citizens to participate, and that will be a good thing. But a word of caution is in order. Nestle is right in pointing out that the food and biotechnology industries are aggressive in pursuing their economic interests within the political system and are often not adequately countered by voices representing a broader public interest. But making better and more effective food safety policy is more complicated than identifying villains. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 1992 policy on biotechnology-derived foods—to cite an example prominent in the book—was not a sop to the biotech industry by politically compromised government scientists and regulators, but a good-faith effort to apply existing food safety laws to this technology based on what was known at the time.

Most participants in the politics of food safety are neither villains nor heroes. They are actors in a complicated social system with diverse interests and motivations. Most government people I know are doing their best to carry out their jobs in the public interest, and most industry people believe they are doing the right thing in response to the incentives and accountabilities imposed by our market-driven economic system. Making good policy here requires that we understand those incentives and accountabilities and, when it's appropriate to do so, change them; that we more clearly define the public interest in food safety; and that we ensure that the relevant agencies have the political charge and support to act on that interest. And that's where citizens and their elected leaders come in.—Michael R. Taylor, Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C.

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