Effect Measure

The food industry gets religion

I might be an atheist but I’m glad when the food industry “gets religion.” How observant they will be is another question, but for now, they are making noises to suggest they know which side their bread is peanut-buttered:

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued the following statement from GMA President and CEO Pam Bailey regarding the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act cosponsored by U.S. Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Additional cosponsors include: Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

“Ensuring the safety of our products is the food industry’s most important priority. I applaud Senators Durbin, Burr and Gregg along with their fellow cosponsors for crafting sensible legislation that will strengthen the foundation of America’s food safety systems. In particular, GMA supports proposals requiring all food companies to have a comprehensive food safety plan in place. It is absolutely critical that manufacturers take a preventative approach in identifying and evaluating potential hazards, and building food safety into the manufacturing process from the very beginning. We look forward to working with Congress to enact food safety legislation that will continually improve the safety of America’s food supplies.” (Minnesota Ag Connection)

The bottom line for GMA is what it always was: the bottom line. Productivity and profits still rule the roost. But now they have some concrete evidence what public health experts have been saying for years: food contamination can be very, very costly to a company. The source of the peanut butter outbreak, which has now caused the recall of tens of thousands of products, has filed for bankruptcy. Not the reorganization kind (Chapter 11). The real nasty kind, Chapter 7: liquidation. Kellog’s Foods, whose Keebler and Famous Amos cookies were among the dozen products that had to be recalled has already taken a $70 million hit. Even companies not involved like Jif and Skippy Peanutbutter saw a huge drop in sales as consumers decided to play it safe as the scope of the recall spread ever wider.

Given the long and complex chains of food production today, there is a greater potential for large and scattered outbreaks to occur, but they probably have been happening undetected for many years. One thing that’s different today is that modern methods of outbreak investigation make it more likely a large multi-state outbreak will be detected and then traced to particular products. That mean these companies have to care. In the past they didn’t. They never got caught.

So now they are eager to “work with Congress” to come up with food safety legislation. That’s not a phrase which makes me feel happy but they have every right to make their views known to members of Congress. The food safety bottom line will be to the extent to which the food industry’s bottom line recognizes that trust and confidence in the food supply is also good business. Trust and confidence can only be restored with strong and effective regulation and oversight, something the GMA has vigorously and effectively opposed in the past.

Strong and effective regulation of products in interstate/international commerce will also require a food safety agency with authority and enough resources to do the job. Will GMA use their lobbying muscle to see that happens? I hope so. But part of me has the usual cynical doubts.

Just call it a gut feeling.


  1. #1 Rob W
    March 8, 2009

    There’s also the other occasional benefit of regulation — if the big guys lobby it just right, they can design required testing/etc. that costs them very little (at large scale) but will make life extremely difficult for small producers.

  2. #2 pft
    March 8, 2009

    You nailed it Rob W. Just like the CPSIA which has unbelievable lead testing requirements that simply crushes smaller importers and manufacturers and is a gift to companies like Mattel as it reduces the competition which kept prices low.

  3. #3 revere
    March 8, 2009

    Rob, pft: I agree completely that regulations can, and have, actually benefited the larger companies on many occasions by eliminating competition. They have used their lobbyists to have it come out that way when they couldn’t avoid regulations altogether. But recognizing that doesn’t solve the problem because not regulating them is much worse, as we’ve seen. I leave it to the legislators and tax lawyers to sort this out. From the public health point of view, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is going on the grounds that it levels the playing field for small and irresponsible actors.

  4. #4 Interrobang
    March 9, 2009

    That’s not a problem with regulation, per se, it’s a problem with allowing large corporations to write (or sway) the regulations. Don’t throw the bathwater out with the baby, here. You can always use it to water plants…

  5. #5 ken Heinze
    March 12, 2009

    I’m wondering what happens to the farmers markets.
    We are saying if food is not mass produced & regulated its not safe? & Who gets paid for the surveillance on my heirloom tomatoes?

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