Local foods: Clash between tech, localWritten by Christy Hemken
In her opening address, William Mitchell College of Law professor Donna Byrne, who also authors the Food Law Prof blog, spoke to the issue of national trends in legal issues affecting food.
Those national trends include labeling, food safety and food defense, as well as government-funded food programs and legal attempts to influence people’s health behavior. “Food defense includes bioterrorism, and food as a part of national security,” she said.
On the technological end, she said there are many amazingly complex and exciting technological advances in the food industry and other industries that affect food.
“In medicine there’s been more focus on personalized medicine, and looking at gene makeup and figuring out what will work with an individual,” said Byrne. “That leads to molecular nutrition and how food molecules interact with us on the genomic front. It’s very technical and molecule-focused.”
However, she said the focus on the inner workings of food takes us away from food. “There are more and more things about food that we laypeople can’t understand very well,” she said, referencing nanotechnology which reduces molecules down to one billionth. “We’re starting to create food stuructres that small – 100,000 times smaller than we’ve been dealing with.”
She said research on putting a layer around Omega 3 fatty acids is an example of a nanotechnology in food. “That way you can get Omega 3’s from food and not have it taste like fish oil,” she said.
Regarding national food safety, she said food poisoning isn’t uncommon, and never has been, but the recent outbreaks are different.
“Many of them come from unexpected sources, and they’re widespread and evil,” she said. “Salmonella lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals, so we expect it in animal sources, but not cantaloupe, lettuce, green onions or peanuts.”
The same goes for E. coli, which is expected in animal sources. The 2009 recall by JBS Swift came after 23 illnesses in nine states. The recalled product list of muscle cuts that had been ground into hamburger was 82 pages long.
However, E. Coli has also been found in bunch spinach from California. “Somehow animal pathogens are getting into unlikely sources,” she said.
She said this leads to questions on how well FDA guidelines are being implemented. “We don’t have much of a sense that we’re able to keep our food supply safe,” she noted, adding that leads to the question of bioterrorism. “If it can happen accidentally, what could happen intentionally? Consumer confidence has taken a hit.”
She said the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 affected some food safety practices and requirements.
Regarding trends related to green food, she said there is an unfulfilled demand for green products. Add that to the food safety concerns, and she said it sets up a climate where consumers have the sense they don’t have as much control and they begin focusing in a variety of ways on safety and health.
That’s where the conflict comes into play, between science-based legal trends that increase technology and regulation and the small-scale local foods movement.
“There’s a tendency to want to require people to use the technology we have, like irradiation, to make sure food is safe,” said Byrne. Other new technologies include filtration for egg whites.
“As we develop better technology for combating food borne risks, there’s a tendency to want to legislate it and require state-of-the-art processing for anybody who sells food,” she continued.
“All this creates tension between science-based regulation and the small, slow movement coming from the grassroots consumer end,” she noted. “There are different philosophies about food, the other end of the spectrum includes nothing about molecules.”
She said there’s also a conflict where some people see it as consumer freedom – they can buy raw milk if they want to, or drink milk from their own cow if they want to. She said one way consumers get around food regulation is through identifying the source of their food and participating in community supported agriculture.
“Recordkeeping is onerous on small farms. There’s a tension between what we see consumers pushing toward and the ability to use sophisticated tracking and technology to produce, market, ship and store our food,” she said.