Friday, February 4, 2011


(FOTO - Courtesy of Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

I like Mark Bittman, especially because he is battling convenient ready-to-eat foods, and arguing for home cooking. I also agree with many of his ideas, as expressed in "A Food Manifesto for the Future,"published in the New York Times on February 1, under the "Opinionator" ("Exclusive Online Commentary From The Times").

But that doesn't mean I fully agree with him. Maybe it's because I like realists - and in this case he's presented a manifesto that smacks too much of idealism. Through the centuries, idealism has got us into a lot of trouble politically and every other way. I could go on and on about this, but had better not. It doesn't help in the case of our food either. Let's "get real" as my son used to say. That's the only way we are going to solve our problems.

Down to specifics: while I really like Bittman's emphasis on food safety, it's importance, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) budget problems (their operating budget is pathetic), I don't accept his proposed solutions. What he's essentially saying is "Let's give the FDA more money and get it to take over all the responsibility for food safety [it currently covers 80%], because the USDA is too affected by conflict of interest to care about the consumer. "

It's not that simple. The FDA is outdated in every which way. Yes, more money would help it hire more inspectors and inspect more of our domestic and imported food and food plants. But it's going to take a lot more than an increase in the FDA's operating budget for it to be able to cope effectively - even with its current responsibilities, let alone new ones. At a minimum it needs updated policies, strategies, procedures and information systems, staff re-training, and more.

What are we looking at time-wise - institutional innovation is not fast - let's say at least 10 years. And let's not pretend the FDA doesn't have conflict of interest either (read the book for details), or, imagine that the whole agency (instead of just a tiny slice of it) is focused on "encouraging sane eating."

I hate to say this, but after looking closely at both of these key agencies, my impression is that at present, the USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service is doing a better job of educating consumers and alerting them faster to problems than is the FDA/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Sorry Mark.



Anonymous said...

This is what we need! An open discussion on how to keep our food safe! How about establishing a forum to discuss this approach?

Anonymous said...

More money means more talent and more inspections.

M said...

This doesn't as much address the FDA/USDA part of his argument, BUT... I understand the problems with RTE foods, but for a lot of us it's an easy option that ISN'T fast food. I know I'm taking risks when I get the pre-sliced apples and the bagged salads, but I feel better about eating those than a bag full of Wendy's! That's where the idealism gets us every time-- I'm a child care professional, so I don't think anyone can make me feel bad about the amount of time I spend at work OR how exhausted I am at the end of the day, and I'm not the only one out there.

Anonymous said...

It's a trade-off, time spent versus safety. Sometimes I take short cuts and buy and consume the pre-prepared food, whether at trader Joes or in vegetable-cut fruit form. Other times I take the few extra minutes to better control the safety of my family's food consumption.