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Food safety must go beyond food recall legislation

Charlotte Williams • Jan 19, 2011

“There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and do not cause us harm.”  - President Obama

On January 4, 2011 President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act.  This forward-thinking legislation enables swifter recalling of contaminated food products.  The law authorizes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to increase inspections of many domestic food facilities, enhance detection of foodborne illness outbreaks, and order recalls of tainted food products

This doesn’t necessarily translate into consumer, and certainly not food worker, confidence in the government’s accountability for the overall safety of the food production and distribution processes. Food recalls are necessary; however, it will take more than accelerated legislation and faster food recall processes to actually keep our food safe.  Making food safe in the first place is a major effort, involving the farm and fishery, the production plant or factory, and many other points from the farm to the table.

It took a colossal 2010 recall of 380 million eggs to move the U.S. government into high gear to put a halt to potential catastrophic health incidents regarding food production.  Last year, there were over 200 food and food product recalls including, chocolate, fish, and potato chips.   Since January 1, 2011, chicken wings, cilantro, beef jerky, cheese and more items have been recalled.

Food recalls are the responsibility of the USDA, but this same agency says little about the safety of workers in the plants producing the food products.  USDA also has some responsibility for worker safety.  Along the food system continuum - from ground to table - food workers risk injury, are paid low wages, and battle plant administration for earned wages, vacation time and accurate pay checks.  They are denied basic worker rights.  When food workers do their jobs in safe working conditions, safe food is produced.

The U.S. boasts many freedoms, but when it comes to food, the realities of structural racism, saturation of factory farms, and corporate monopolies in the food industry converge to limit the food choices of the poor, elderly and immigrants in our communities.  To that end, food safety includes concerns of the overall unhealthiness of some of the food in this country.  This country is the third fattest nation in the world.  The U.S. produces the cheapest food in the world and a significant portion of the global processed foods market.

Currently, as is the case with our global sisters and brothers in countries across this world, the U.S. food system is fast approaching a major crisis; shortages of food can’t equal food safety.  Although our shortages are a combination of a complex financial matrix, natural disasters, global warming and our wasteful food habits, the U.S. food shortages are due in part to a food supply increasingly impacted by the diverting of corn and soy products for the production of fuel. This has harmful consequences today and tomorrow.  In developing countries, and now in the U.S., our food supply is too often controlled by the wealthy and powerful who manipulate production and pricing and it’s achieved on the backs of the poor, uniformed and isolated.  Basic human sustenance is denied in the name of profits, control, and progressive industrialization.

Daily, food system workers experience life-changing accidents, grueling repetitive motion work and unsafe working conditions. The food processing industry should not have to experience wide-spread worker injury and accidents in order that the two responsible government agencies, the USDA and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), join together and work aggressively, as with the recent recall legislation, in order to achieve responsible accountability regarding worker safety standards. With the new measures, contaminated food can be recalled quicker and our food should be safer – food workers must have no less than swift, comprehensive action to address their plight.

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