Announcement of voluntary recalls prompted by food safety concerns have become increasingly familiar. In 2006, there were E. coli O157 infections from fresh spinach. In 2007, contamination of pet food by melamine sickened or killed an unknown number of pets and animals and presaged a much larger issue with melamine contamination of milk that impacted China and other countries in 2008. Then there was the outbreak of salmonella infections associated with peanut butter in 2008-2009.
Salmonella is back in the news, this time associated with eggs that have caused a significant increase in salmonella infections. The most recent set of events was kicked off on August 13 with the recall of more than 380 million eggs by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa although that number has since grown to more than 500 million eggs with the addition of a recall of 170 million eggs by Iowa's Hillandale Farms. Despite the recent practical advice from Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to, "reject over-easy eggs," one is left with the sense that it will be very difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again given that many of the eggs in question will have long since been consumed.
Alongside consideration of the health and economic impacts of food safety issues, it is important that we also consider the ethical impactions and questions raised by food safety episodes. Ethical discussions add valuable perspectives into considerations of food safety and involve a range of issues related to who is responsible for such episodes as well as distributional issues including not only access to food but also access to information about food.
The current case involves a number of stakeholders, including consumers purchasing eggs and egg based products, producers involved in the many aspects of egg production, distributors and stores selling eggs who may see their brands and reputation impacted by this outbreak, as well as government regulators who are once again confronting citizens, reporters, activities and politicians who want to know why such large scale food safety episodes seem to be becoming more and more regular occurrences. Such events also bring in a range of questions about the environmental and safety impacts of different methods of agriculture and may encourage consumers to seek out smaller producers through stores, farmers markets or on-farm sales.
In part, this latest food safety episode reminds us is that questions about food ethics are not abstract quandaries, but real challenges that confront people in their daily lives. Many times each day, people are confronted with the question "what is a good food life?" There are many yardsticks available for people to use in answering food ethics questions including: cost, health, nutrition, means of production, convenience, and tradition.
As with ethical challenges in other areas, food ethics involves many difficult trade-offs. In tight economic times, consumers must weigh economic costs versus ends such as supporting food options that may meet their values such as methods that have less impact on the environment or take animal welfare into account. Producers must also be mindful of economics when making decisions about how to produce food while also trying to keep in mind the market shaping forces of consumer preferences and changes in legal and regulatory landscapes. For instance, in coming years the European Union and California, as well as other states, will limit the use of small cages in livestock operations.
While large scale, high media attention food safety events in recent years vary in their food of choice, geographic scale and biological agent of concern, these episodes demonstrate that food ethics and food safety remain pressing concerns for producers, consumers and regulators. The recent trend in food safety events does not suggest that this is a problem that is likely to get better without significant public, industry and governmental attention.
The emergence of global food systems means that food safety has become a complex problem that involves many people along increasingly lengthy food chains that link producers and consumers. As demonstrated vividly this summer by the Gulf Oil spill, in our increasingly complex, networked societies, once problems occur they can be very difficult to undo and can have far reaching ramifications. Such events remind us that when dealing with complicated systems, the ethics of prevention and precaution become especially important.
Contamination of food supplies by threats like salmonella is an ongoing challenge, and high profile food safety events both remind of the day to day levels of salmonella contamination that have become accepted as normal for our food systems, but also galvanize attention around a whole set of questions about food safety in the United States. These events highlight the continued need for improved coordination and resources for a food safety system that is divided in the US among different agencies at the federal level, and also includes state and local agencies as well. At the very least, this latest episode should provide a significant boost to efforts to expand the authority and resources of the FDA and allow it to issue mandatory recalls in instances where foods can cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals as well as efforts to develop systems that can prevent, rather than just respond to food safety problems.
These events also are useful reminders that food safety is a cornerstone of food security's goal to ensure that all people have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food. Significant and alarming increases in the number of chronically hungry people in the world (currently estimated to include over 1 billion people) have focused attention on the sufficient and nutritious aspects of food security, but the concept also includes making sure that the food people have access to is safe and contributes to leading active and healthy lives.
The breadth and complexity of food security and food safety questions mean, that, like food safety episodes, they will not be easily addressed. It is vital that efforts to improve food safety include ethics alongside economics and health as standards to guide actions by consumers, producers and government regulators.
For those seeking more information about the current egg recalls, there is some excellent coverage around the web:
- Information from the US Government about these (and other) recalls is available at Foodsafety.gov, a useful gateway site to information from a number of government agencies on food safety.
- Marion Nestle's "Food Politics" blog is tracking the evolution of the recall and also covers recent developments on S. 510, the food safety bill currently working its way through the U.S. Senate.
- Attorney Bill Marler, who is representing clients impacted by the egg situation, has also been covering the evolving recall on his blog.