Presentation on Food Safety to the Joint Meeting of Northeast Region Extension/Research Directors 1990

REMARKS by Roger Blobaum, Joint Meeting of Northeast Region Extension/Research Directors, Mystic, Connecticut, July 10, 1990

I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this food safety forum.  I like to use occasions like this to remind farmers and other agricultural professionals that the millions of consumers who express food safety concerns are their customers.

Americans for Safe Food is a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.  Our main activities are (1) working for more consumer choice in the marketplace; (2) focusing public attention on gaps and deficiencies in the federal food safety regulatory process, and (3) promoting policies and initiatives that encourage farmers to become less dependent on chemical and animal drug inputs.

As leaders in research and extension, I’m sure you are concerned about how you should, or can, respond to public concern over food safety.  Should you take the position, as many in Washington still do, that America has the world’s safest food supply and that public concern is largely the result of media hype? That concern over food safety is a fad or aberration that will go away? That the general public is scientifically illiterate? Or should you examine these concerns with a willingness to consider reports that amply demonstrate growing consumer uneasiness and anxiety?

Federal officials have discovered that telling the public over and over that food is safe has not worked. Developing a coordinated federal agency response to fast-breaking food safety stories isn’t likely to work well either.

My remarks today will focus on pesticide residues and growing consumer interest in reducing chemical use in food production.  Even though food-borne illnesses are a serious food safety concern and natural toxins also are a problem, the public focus is on chemical and drug residues.  That may be perception rather than reality to some extent.  But it is where consumer attention is focused now.

The food safety bottom line, as I see it as someone working in this area every day, is that consumers have lost confidence in the federal government’s ability to provide a safe food guarantee.  There is anxiety over chemical use in food production and in post-harvest storage, shipping, and marketing practices. The overall consumer concern is that the regulators have let them down.

When de-regulation became politically popular in the early 1980s, it was promoted as a way to restore competition to many segments of the economy.  The public became convinced that the benefits far exceeded the costs.  One important cost not factored in was loss of public confidence in the regulatory system.  It will be extremely difficult to restore it in the food sector.

Another 1980s trend was growing interest in sustainable agriculture.  This concept gained the support of environmen­talists, who have media access and political clout, and by a growing number of scientists and others in agriculture who feel that the widespread adoption of low-input methods would benefit farmers and consumers alike.

Although CSPI has tried to make a difference over the last 20 years of health and nutrition advocacy by focusing on issues like food additives and sugar and fat, our surveys the last two years show our members now consider food safety their primary concern.  Furthermore, they single out pesticide residues as the most pressing problem.

We also service about 50 safe food organizations, mostly in large urban centers, and this has given us new insight into how many consumers perceive this problem.  These food safety activists, who became organized after the alar episode, consider any chemical residues in food unacceptable.  They reject the concepts of EPA tolerances, risk assessments, or balancing health risks against economic benefits of farm chemical use.

Most of these activists are convinced that producing food with few or no chemicals, while difficult, is possible.  They are anxious, as a result, to learn much more about what farmers do and how they do it.  They seek out sources of locally-grown and organic food, press supermarkets for country-of-origin labeling, oppose the practice of coating produce with wax mixed with fungicides, and hold public food safety forums.

These more militant activists, who focus on the marketplace, are different from those who express food safety concerns from an environmental perspective.  Many in this latter group already know a lot about agriculture and actively support the LISA program, national organic standards, incentives for farmers adopting low-input methods, and flexibility in farm commodity programs.

We also see growing interest in the Fourth Criterion, which goes beyond peer-reviewed science to include consideration of social, economic, environmental, and ethical considerations. Biotechnology applications coming on line will dramatize this concept, already well established in Europe.  This trend, in my opinion, will grow in this country to the dismay of scientists and industry.

How many of these concerned consumers are represented in your clientele? We look to surveys by the Food Marketing Institute, the Produce Marketing Association, and other industry sources as reliable indicators.  They provide little comfort for those who say food safety is a fad or that consumer concern is easing off.  The trends seem clear and, in the food industry at least, are acknowledged.

The latest survey by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), for example, shows 84% of shoppers called pesticide residues in food “a serious health hazard.” That is up two points from 1989 and nine points from 1988. It represents the highest percentage ever recorded for any of the specific food safety concerns surveyed by FMI over the last seven years.

The second annual survey by Lou Harris for Organic Gardening Magazine, which was released in March, showed 84% nationwide prefer organically-grown fruits and vegetables, 30% have changed their eating habits in response to concern over chemical residues, and 28% have sought out organically-grown produce or produce grown with limited use of chemicals.  The 1989 results were similar.

Probably more significant are the results of the annual survey by The Packer, the trade publication of the produce industry.  It showed that 46% of the respondents said they were more concerned about chemical residues than they were a year earlier, that 26% had changed their food buying habits because of chemical residues, and that 11% were buying organically-grown food whenever possible.

Those of you in Extension may be interested in how these numbers break down. Let me quote from the Harris Poll results:

Income and education levels of those surveyed played a very small role in their decisions to change eating habits because of pesticide concerns.  However, groups more likely to have made that shift are Easterners, blacks, women, and people under 50.  East and West Coast residents, city dwellers, and those with higher levels of income or education were more likely to seek out organic produce or produce grown with limited use of chemicals.

Although we occasionally disagree, CSPI has a good working relationship with industry groups like the Food Marketing Institute, the Produce Marketing Association, and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.  They are responding to these we11-documented public concerns.  I wish I could say the same for the federal agencies responsible for food safety.

I am impressed with the supermarket industry’s overall response to food safety concerns.  Safeway, for example, has asked its produce suppliers to avoid use of cancer-causing pesticides and to use alternative growing methods.  A growing number of food chains now retain residue-testing services to assure that tolerances are not exceeded and to identify problem growers.

Safeway also has announced it is pressing the federal government to expedite health risk studies on pesticides, to develop testing methods for pesticides not covered now, and to aggressively inspect foods for unsafe residues.  The food chains seem to share the view of a former state agriculture department director who told a group of cattle producers, “If consumers want lean steers with pineapples growing out of their ears, why don’t we let them have them?”

Even though we share many of the concerns expressed by consumers, we continue to urge people to eat more fruits and vegetables.  A healthy diet is a high priority for all of us. We feel, however, that a diet including lots of fruits and vegetables could be much safer and healthier if some of these concerns were addressed and dealt with.

Regarding specific suggestions to you regarding consumer concerns, we have pushed for three basic categories of change in federal farm and food policy:

*  Addressing the disincentives against sustainable practices embodied in current programs.  It is time to change programs that encourage monocultural cropping systems and penalize producers who adopt environmentally-sound systems.  Farmers understandably want to preserve base acres, to have the opportunity to increase proven yields, and to be protected against loss of deficiency payments.

*  Funding more research into practical ways to adapt low-input methods to the various ecological situations that exist across the country.  We like the LISA program and want to see both funding authority and annual appropriations substantially increased.  Only about 13% of the proposals are being funded now. This suggests an important unrealized research opportunity.

*  Expanding efforts to disseminate information about low-input methods.  We are not under any illusion that organic methods will be adopted by more than a small segment of producers. We feel, however, that reliable information should be available both to those who want to adopt organic methods and to those who want to cut back on chemical and other inputs for economic, environmental, or other reasons.

As consumers mature in their understanding of the complexity of the food safety problem, and of the significant difficulties and costs of monitoring and policing farm chemicals after they have been applied, we increasingly view programs that reduce the dependence of farmers on chemical inputs as a more efficient and effective long-term response to the food safety problem.  Our approach generally is to accentuate the positive.

Finally, I would like to touch on another consumer concern that is often dismissed.  That is our desire, and our right as food consumers, to be full participants in the farm policymaking process.  That includes an opportunity to influence research and extension priorities.  Consumer participation in the farm policy arena is increasing even though we are not always made to feel welcome.  This political reality was acknowledged in one important conclusion of a recent National Council of State Legislatures report:

Agriculture is no longer the dominant interest group influencing farm policy. Furthermore, consensus, if there ever was any, has broken down and given way to open competition among commodity groups, between small and large producers, and among suppliers, producers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers.

No single voice speaks for agriculture and representatives of agriculture now must vie with more powerful constituencies of consumers, environment­alists, urban interests, and others for primacy over what traditionally has been agricultural policy making.

In short, agricultural policy is being transformed from its traditional function of achieving cheap and abundant food to incorporate additional goals of resource conservation, environmental and health protection, and sustenance of family farms and rural communities as explicit social objectives.

Food safety is a high-priority objective that must be incorporated when farm policy is made.  Consumers want to be part of the process and they want real dialogue.  They want to help shape policy, and they would like to be treated with respect when they offer constructive suggestions for change.

The consumer concerns I have shared today may not be good news to you.  But these concerns are enduring.  I would urge you to provide more opportunities for dialogue so we can find common policy objectives and jointly support them.  It is in the best interest of all of us, consumer advocates and agricultural professionals alike, to work more closely together.


R. Blobaum, Joint Meeting of Northeast Region Extension/Research Directors, Mystic, Connecticut, July 10, 1990

Food safety is a high-priority objective that must be incorporated when farm policy is made. It is in the best interest of all of us, consumer advocates and agricultural professionals alike, to work more closely

From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Roger Blobabum was the national director of Americans for Safe Food, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a 230,000-member health and nutrition advocacy organization.) His work included organizing annual national organic/sustainable agricultural conferences in Washington, organic and sustainable agricultural initiatives in 12 states, and helping shape the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act and push it thorough Congress.