Would we accept it if the federal agency charged with highway safety allowed cars on the road without brakes - and then warned drivers to exercise extreme caution in order to avoid injury and death? Of course not. But that, in effect is the U.S. government's approach to something that affects all of us on the most basic level: the safety of the meat, poultry and produce that we eat.
Americans are noticing that food safety problems are occurring more often - and with the source identified less often. But we still don't really get it. Just as we have been conditioned to think about food systems as if family farms were still hand-rearing happy animals, we think that food safety begins in the supermarket, the carryout or the kitchen. The government and food industry tell us to be vigilant, that it's our responsibility as cooks and consumers to wash our hands, avoid cross-contamination and store food properly.
All of this is true, but much of why we have to do these things can be traced to problems further up the chain from farm to fork. The real problem is that day in and day out, the meats and poultry that come to our supermarkets, restaurants and fast food outlets are potentially unsafe. And the answer is twofold: to change the way our foods are produced and the way we think about food production.
In survey after survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and university researchers, the majority of beef, poultry, and pork products for sale in U.S. supermarkets carry pathogenic bacteria, often resistant to the antibiotics added to feeds. Long before you buy that pork chop at the supermarket or those chicken fingers at the restaurant, decisions have been made by government and industry that affect food safety by permitting practices that are responsible for many of these risks - risks that are then amplified by inadequate oversight.
When the system fails and food-borne illnesses, like the current salmonella outbreak, roil through the nation, then our rickety system swings into action, attempting to identify sources after hundreds are sickened and, too often, after deaths have occurred. Each outbreak is treated as unrelated and unpredictable, with no attempt to determine common patterns that might enable prevention policies to reduce the likelihood of the next outbreak.
Little attempt is made to examine the role of the food system itself in these recurring crises. For example, when spinach or green onions turned out to be the cause of a nationwide outbreak last year, there was no serious investigation as to why (not just how) these vegetables were contaminated by pathogenic bacteria. How we grow animals also affects how we grow plants; almost all animal waste is disposed of on land with no required treatment. Runoff from land where animal wastes collect can contaminate surface water that may be used for irrigation far from the farm.
Our perspective needs to change. Food safety cannot be ensured after the fact, because we can never inspect all food items just before the point of sale. This system begins on the farm - but that's not to say this problem is the farmer's fault. The friendly local farmer, like my grandfather who raised turkeys and dairy cows in Massachusetts some 70 years ago, is now a cog in the machinery of industrial food production.
Consider the case of chicken, the most popular source of meat protein in the U.S. More than 95 percent of the broiler chickens are produced under the control of a few large corporations, which contract with farmers to do the work of transforming chicks into market-weight "product." This outsourcing process is wholly controlled by these corporations - known as "integrators" - and takes place in a few regions (Delmarva ranks seventh in the nation). The farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore have little control over the process: They work mostly from flock to flock under contract, much like other outsourced work forces, and all the conditions of raising chickens - housing, lighting, ventilation, use of antimicrobials as feed additives - are largely stipulated by the contract.
The contractual requirements of these big corporations like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim Pride are a major reason why U.S. poultry products are problematic as they leave the farm, and also why the wastes from contract farms affect the environment and human health. It is understandable - but wrong - for communities and consumers to focus on regulating farmers as the most easily identifiable agents. But the farmers are just as much the victims of our current system as are consumers. They do not decide to add antibiotics of animal feeds; they do not impose inhumane conditions of housing or slaughter, nor do they choose to construct housing for as many as 75,000 chickens, resulting in a burden of more than 100,000 kilograms of waste per flock and the need for ventilation systems that can befoul the air for miles around. They do get to bear the responsibility of managing the waste from the poultry houses.
To change the system of food production in the U.S. requires an accurate analysis to identify where prevention can work and where responsibility rests. Regulations should be directed at the integrators making big profits from an industrialized system, and not at farmers, who have few resources and little control over operations from start to finish. Factory farming should be governed by the same clean air laws other industries abide by, and rules for handling animal waste should be as stringent as those for human waste. Regulating the storage of waste is not enough.
It is time to recognize these operations as the industrial entities rather than the idyllic-sounding "farms" behind which they hide. This is where the resources for innovation and stewardship can be found.
Ellen Silbergeld is a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins University
Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.