Unsubstantiated food safety claims cross line (commentary)

Unsubstantiated food safety claims cross line (commentary)

PEOPLE who write regularly will often get asked about their columns or articles, "How do you come up with ideas to write about?"

The question always reminds me of an "Econtalk" podcast from several years ago featuring nationally syndicated and highly prolific columnist George Will. His answer was simple: "The world irritates, amuses or makes me curious."

Generally, curiosity is the one with which I most identify. However, irritation leads the way this time.

It all began with an article I read this past spring (from a reputable source). The article's basis (as indicated by the title) was seemingly to feature ongoing changes in food production methods, particularly in the realm of animal agriculture.

That's all well and good, but it got off track in an attempt to substantiate some connection between food safety and the manner in which animals are raised.

The suggestion was that range- or pastured-raised animals (which were defined as sustainable) generate meat, milk and eggs that are safer to eat, the reasoning being that animals raised outdoors are living more closely within their "biological and behavioral instincts" and, thus, must be generally healthier.

The discussion went even further by suggesting that confinement actually serves to propagate foodborne pathogens. That's some troubling logic.

First, it implies that food safety is a major issue in this country. While certainly not at zero incidents, the industry has made huge strides in advancing food safety in recent years.

Much of the success is directly attributable to the pathogen reduction, hazard analysis and critical control point standards established in 1996. Those standards are uniformly applied across all production schemes, thereby leveling the playing field and negating the production method/safety claim.

Second, the foundational claim is off base. Confinement systems facilitate a reduced pathogen load — not the other way around.

For instance, consider all-in/all-out hog units, which are sterilized after each turn. Their very design is intended to minimize pathogen exposure.

Conversely, outdoor environments can never be disinfected. That's neither a criticism nor a condemnation; it's just a statement of fact. Pathogens persist in the soil and water and potentially infect every animal in production in perpetuity.

Name any production attribute of interest, and you're likely to find a food product bearing some respective claim of differentiation (e.g., pasture raised, antibiotic free, etc.). These are increasingly important to consumers, including the production or rearing method of animals used. As a result, there's lots of change going on in the marketplace.

All of that differentiation is a great thing. It provides consumers with the opportunity to purchase the food products they desire. Of course, it also introduces a wide range of opinions about the appropriateness of those individual or bundled attributes.

Within that market construct, misrepresenting the reality of food production and agriculture is troubling. That's especially true when it occurs at the expense of unsuspecting consumers just so a company can sell products or promote ideology. Never mind all that for now, though. The marketplace hopefully will sort it out over time.

However, distortions about food safety cross the line. Food safety is non-negotiable — the essential bottom line critical to all consumers across all food products.

Any unsubstantiated claim regarding food safety, no matter how feel-good it might be, needs to be contested. Not doing so merely serves up the potential for unnecessary consumer confusion or apprehension about the most fundamental aspect of the food system.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:34

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