The US Dept of Health and Human Services recently conducted a study on food source traceability (thanks to the Oregon Independent blog for the tip-off about this study), and found that they could only trace 12.5% of the items. Wow. To turn that figure around, they couldn’t identify the source of 87.5% of the foods they tried to trace.
They chose 10 different products, including eggs, bottled water, manufactured ice, fruit juice, oatmeal, yogurt, flour, milk, freshcut greens and tomatoes. For each product, they tried to trace 4 different samples (for example, 4 cartons of eggs, 4 containers of yogurt, etc.) So their sample size was 40 products (10 types x 4 units each) Out of the 40 products, only 5 were fully traceable – 3 cartons of eggs, 1 container of yogurt, and 1 bottle of water.
According to the study, the eggs had the shortest supply chain – from farm to retailer. I think that says a lot about the major problem relating to food safety in our country… there are so many links in the chain that our ability to trace our food is greatly diminished, especially if record-keeping is poorly done.
As a food consumer (and preparer for my toddler son), if food items — even simple whole foods such as tomatoes or milk — are not easily traceable to their source, why should I be expected to buy those products with confidence? And the study didn’t even look at something like ground beef, or prepackaged and prepared foods (such as crackers made with peanut butter), both of which I’ll bet are probably even more difficult to trace than the items in the study.
And furthermore, why should I spend my food dollars in a system that can’t guarantee quality or traceability? To my mind, those two things are linked. If it can take weeks to identify all the possibly food products where tainted peanut may have ended up, how is it possible to buy items with confidence?
And where exactly are my food dollars are going, and how are those dollars are related to the quality of a product? The more hands that products go through before reaching mine, the less money there is to go back to the original producer. If the producer is hardly making any money per item, that means that they probably are extremely large, because the only way they’d be making a profit and staying in business is through the economy of scale. If they are extremely large, that means that there probably aren’t hands-on owners taking responsibility for their products… most likely there are share-holders. The bottom line for share-holders is making a profit.
Profit might be motivation for a share-holder driven business (AKA corporation) to encourage food safety, as the economic loss due to a food recall is huge, but should that be the primary motivation for producing and distributing safe, high quality food? Food is a basic need, something which we consume several times a day to nourish our bodies. Do we really want to rely on a system where corporations may or may not be producing safe food, based on concerns about their bottom line?
And what about other “quality”-related issues like humane treatment of animals, fair wages and good conditions for workers, sustaining farmland ecologically, socially, and politically? If we use our food dollars within the current system of food production and distribution, aren’t we sending the message that we don’t care about those things? Since we don’t really know where our food is coming from, how do we really know that producers’ values are aligned with ours?
Going back to my question above, if a government study can’t easily trace milk, greens, or tomatoes, can we really have confidence in our current food system? And furthermore, why do we want to support this system? I think the greater good would be local-based food systems, with supply chains that are short and traceable, and not dependent on an out-dated, fossil fuel-intense system of distribution.
I vote for a local food system with my food dollars as much as possible. I buy produce at the farmers’ market. I buy my eggs from friends. I shop at a locally-owned market chain, and buy local products from them as much as possible. I don’t value cheap food – I value quality food. And I probably pay more for our groceries than I have to, but I feel better knowing that most of my food dollars stay right in in Oregon. And that very little of it goes to middle men. And that I can trace most of the food my family eats right back to the farm it came from. That, for me, is food safety.