Improving Food Safety

Associate Dean for Research & Faculty Development and Distinguished University Professor Timothy D. Lytton’s research examines health and safety regulations, with a particular focus on food policy. He is writing a book, Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Evolving Food Safety System.

How big is the food safety problem? 
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta estimate that each year in the United States, foodborne pathogens cause 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. To put these figures in perspective, about one in six Americans suffers from foodborne illness each year, and more people are hospitalized from foodborne illness than are hospitalized from burns or firearms accidents. I would not say that this makes foodborne illness a crisis, but it is a public health concern that merits significant attention.

What may help improve food safety?

Timothy Lytton

Timothy Lytton

I think that the best investment we could make to improve food safety would be to spend more on the public health infrastructure that reports foodborne illness and traces it back to the source of contamination. This infrastructure knits together local, state and federal agencies and, by identifying the causes of outbreaks, helps to identify places where the food industry could do a better job of reducing the risk of contamination.

What do you think of the argument that local, sustainable farms should be subject to different regulations than large, industrial farms? 
In food safety, as in most areas of regulation, there is no free lunch. More stringent food safety requirements, such as frequent audits or pathogen testing, may favor large monoculture growing operations, which can take advantage of economies of scale, increasing industry consolidation and reducing consumer choice, especially options to buy locally sourced and organic products.

At some point, the extra costs of increased food safety outweigh the additional benefits. Stepping up food safety becomes less desirable when it means that local family farms can no longer afford to compete with agribusiness. Those who put food safety first are wary of exemptions for smaller, local or organic operations. Those who value alternatives to large-scale industrial production believe that some extra food safety risk is worth it.

The proper balance is ultimately a question of how to balance competing values. What is one of the biggest obstacles regarding any type of regulation? Uncertainty is a major obstacle to successful food safety reform. For example, existing data regarding food safety efforts to reduce microbial contamination in fresh produce production indicate that they have encouraged higher rates of investment among farmers in expensive measures such as frequent testing of irrigation water and more thorough food safety audits.

However, there is not data to show that these additional efforts have reduced the rate of foodborne illness. This inability to link investments in food safety to public health outcomes makes it hard to know what works and what doesn’t and which measures are cost-effective and which are not. Most experts believe that some of these efforts are making our food safer, but no one really knows.

Your book Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food discusses how the kosher certification system is one to be modeled. Why? 
Retail buyers — supermarkets, restaurants and food services companies — require their suppliers to pay for and pass private, third-party food safety audits. The scale of this private food safety auditing system is much larger than that of government food safety inspection.

In 2011, the FDA inspected 19,073 domestic food facilities and 995 foreign food facilities. The USDA maintained inspectors in 6,000 domestic facilities that produce meat, poultry and processed egg products. State governments also conducted tens of thousands of food safety inspections. By comparison, the Food Safety Service Providers, an industry association representing nine leading private food safety audit firms, asserted in 2011 that its members alone conduct more than 200,000 audits and inspections in over 100 countries each year. Beyond these nine industry leaders, the FDA estimated that there were 568 firms conducting private food safety audits.

Based on these figures, it appears that by 2011, the scale of private food safety auditing activity far exceeded that of all federal and state efforts combined. Reliance on private food safety audits is even greater on farms, where federal and state officials rarely show up unless they are investigating an outbreak.

There are a lot of problems with private auditing —such as inconsistent audit quality and the conflict of interest inherent in a system in which the auditor is paid by the entity being audited. The kosher certification system in the United States developed from a highly corrupt system in the early 20th century into a very reliable system of private auditing today.

My book tells the story of that transformation and identifies the key to increasing the reliability of private auditing systems.