Food Safety: Quality Matters, Not Just Price

Commentary, Agriculture, Sylvain Charlebois

Peanuts and peanut products tainted with salmonella in the U.S. have made 604 people sick recently, sent 187 to the hospital and killed eight. The salmonella outbreak also has led to many product recalls in Canada and more than 2,000 product recalls in the U.S., more than any other epidemic. To make matters worse, Peanut Corp. of America, the company at the heart of the salmonella episode, filed for bankruptcy liquidation in court last week.

Days before, Stewart Parnell, the president of the company, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions in a congressional hearing. Needless to say, the Peanut Corp. of America affair is nothing short of a disgrace to the North American food industry.

This situation calls for a thorough investigation, and one is no doubt forthcoming. In the meantime, who is to blame? It would be easy to single out Peanut Corp., but the company is just one piece of a bigger picture. From a systemic perspective, we can identify two underlying, and related, issues: globalization and modernity. To begin with, the number of food recalls is not increasing as much as the scope and magnitude of individual cases. Globalization has had a significant impact on how we eat and has kept food prices at reasonable levels. But an unfortunate side affect is that our capacity to manage risks has been severely compromised. Distribution systems are much more dynamic now and allow food to be produced one day and consumed the next while travelling thousands of kilometres in between. It is almost impossible to adequately contain risks, and outbreaks can spread globally in days, even hours.

Secondly, in our fast-paced modern social arrangements fewer consumers prepare food for themselves, and these few often with less available time. In filling this demand for convenience, processed foods have become a big part of our diets. These pressing conditions are intensified by increased participation of women in the labour force, high levels of youth out-migration, and an aging population. Such changes have had a considerable impact on food safety standards, practices, and marketing strategies. In order to compete, the food industry is compelled to offer convenient and readily-available food products to markets at the lowest price possible.

The “cheap calorie” factor is also putting a lot of pressure on food industry stakeholders. The current economic downturn is adding fuel to the proverbial fire. Today, Canadian and American consumers spend only about 10-12% of their disposable income on food purchased from the store. That number was at around 25% less than a generation ago. The food industry is now highly fragmented, which tends to encourage fierce competition, especially in terms of price. The food industry has to negotiate within a highly competitive environment in order to succeed.

Price is often the first marketing variable that is prioritized.

Consequently, we are all to some extent responsible for what happened since the food industry is providing us with what we are asking for.

Epidemics are a disastrous but unavoidable consequence that we can only hope to limit.

Even so, consumers have the right to ask for more accountability. Local diffusion networks and distribution channels play a vital role wherever sustainability involves policies that require better safety of our food products. Food manufacturers actually go beyond government standards, such as HACCP and ISO certifications, to ensure their food products exceed compliance with health and safety requirements. The problem is more multifaceted than it appears. Therefore, solutions require cooperative action across food industries and across national borders, in addition to punitive measures for individual transgressors.

No food companies are deliberately trying to harm consumers, but irresponsible corporate misbehaviour should be reprimanded. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that Peanut Corp. of America is the only culprit.

Shared accountability across supply chains should be at the forefront of any new food safety policies. Occurrences like the salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corp. of America make our nation fundamentally food-insecure, and this has profound implications for Canadian consumers. But we as modern consumers need to understand that these epidemics, and their tragic outcomes, can be minimized only by policies that address the complex, interlinked natures of our food economies.