Food Quality: An Issue As Important As Safety
by George Kent
Food safety is important, but it is not the only consideration when choosing foods.
For example, for people in the U.S., the aversion to dog meat and horse meat is more a cultural matter than a safety issue. For Jews and Muslims, the aversion to pork might have begun as a safety issue historically, but now it is more a religious and cultural matter. Some people shun genetically modified foods because they fear such foods would be unsafe to eat, and some shun them for other reasons, such as their environmental or economic impacts. Some people prefer eggs from free range chickens not because it makes a big difference in the quality of the eggs, but because of their concerns about animal cruelty. Foie gras was banned in California because of concerns about animal cruelty, not food safety. Pink slime may be viewed as disgusting even if it is safe to eat. Some people might wish to avoid certain foods because they are farmed or manufactured in ways that harm the environment. No one has argued that whale meat or turtle meat is unsafe. Shark fin soup is not unsafe. Products might be shunned because they are produced under onerous conditions for workers. Some people think particular foods should be controlled because they increase the likelihood of becoming overweight.
Snack manufacturers argue that there are no bad foods, only bad diets. What should regulatory agencies do about that, especially when many people do have bad diets?
A clear distinction should be drawn between unsafe products and unsafe practices. If infants are fed with tea or cola, perhaps along with breast milk or infant formula, they might not get sick immediately, but they may experience health consequences in the future. What about the case in which, to save money, one grandmother diluted the infant formula by half, because, she said, the baby wouldn’t know the difference? Here it is not the products but the practices that are unsafe. Where does one draw the line between safety concerns in the traditional sense, i.e. pathogen contamination, and other food-related concerns?
Agencies with responsibilities for food regulation should be explicit about what is within the scope of their work, and what is excluded. They should explain how they do their work, and be plain about its limitations. This is important because non-specialists don’t make sharp distinctions between questions such as “is it safe for you?” and “is it good for you?” Many people take approval of a product by an official-sounding agency as an endorsement of that product. The manufacturers take advantage of this. They know that if they claim something has been approved by an agency, many customers will think that means it is good for you, or has other virtues. On close examination we might see that approval is actually based on little more than the manufacturers submitting the proper forms, with the agency making no independent assessment of any kind.
If the national food regulatory agency’s mandate is to look only at safety in the narrow sense of worrying about immediate harm to users, which agencies would attend to other considerations that might be important?
To illustrate, there is good evidence that long chain fatty acids in the diets of pregnant women and infants affect the child’s development, not only physically but also intellectually. Ocean fish and beef from grass-fed cows have good fatty acids in them. However, some industrially produced meats – cultured fish fed mainly with grains and cows fed with grains rather than grass – are not as rich in these crucial fatty acids. How should factors that affect consumers’ long-term intellectual development be addressed? Which government food agencies should look after them?
If infant formula manufacturers make bogus claims that synthetic fatty acids added to infant formula make important contributions to infants’ development, who will call on them to account for these claims? If these are not safety issues, what should we name them?