Who Owns Public Health Protection?

In an ideal world, the government would have the capacity, resources and determination to ensure public health and safety and government would essentially own food safety as one of its key initiatives, controlling the food industry through laws administered by public health agents of the government. This is the way it was for many years. In the very recent past, when the US food supply seemed “the safest in the world” there was little private sector involvement in food safety and the private practice of food safety served mainly as reinforcement for the strong position held by government. Such industry level efforts did not compete with government for “market share” or a piece of government food safety programs.

Today, our governmental agencies entrusted with public health, FDA and USDA, often lack the authority and political strength needed to address new problems of many types related to the health and safety of the populace. While Americans seem to take their public health protection for granted, when it comes to food safety, our governmental agencies have backed away from their responsibility and have relinquished some of their “ownership” over food safety and public health protection to the private sector. There are consequences , some good and some not that we must understand.

Government Disengagement Creates a Vacuum

There are many reasons for apathy on the part of government, but the fact remains that government’s ineffectiveness to protect the public has created a vacuum, and other stakeholders have come forward to fill in the vacuum. This vacuum is being filled by a variety of food safety stakeholders with a profit motive, including private companies of all types (e.g., Environ Health Associates), academia, and research groups and others. This has given rise to a new sector of the food industry the  “for profit food safety products and services industry”. In this relatively new arena, we have various players competing with government for ownership of some part of food safety. Competitors include many types of food service providers (pest control companies, chemical suppliers, lab services, auditing firms, training agencies and programs), professional associations, certification bodies, consulting firms, law firms, and others. All would  would like to lay claim to a share of the lucrative food safety market.

While the unmet needs of the industry and the demand for food safety are the basis for the demand for products and services, the inevitable market forces inherent in any industry model are shaping the field of food safety in subtle yet significant ways. While government attempts to hang on to a leadership position, there are many who claim ownership of parts of the food safety model reserved in the very recent past to government and who approach food safety from a business standpoint.

Who are the Owners of Food Safety Training?

Currently, there are several groups who claim a market share in food safety training. For example, The National Restaurant Association-NRA is a dominant player in the restaurant, food-safety-training market. As a case in point, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association-FRLA has over the last ten years fostered strong political connections to Florida’s regulatory agencies and now enjoys a close relationship with the Florida Department of Business Regulation-DBPR, a state agency. 

Influenced by the FRLA lobby, DBPR chose FRLA as the preferred provider of restaurant, employee-food-safety training materials in the state. This is has been a windfall for FRLA and its sales figures are in the millions every year. FRLA now controls easily 90% of the food-safety training market in Florida where there are at least 50,000 mangers and 500,000 employees needing training.. NRA fosters similar relationships in many states, making NRA’s particular brand of training “ServSafe” virtual law in many locations. Such sales provide a sizeable cash flow to NRA and its state affiliates. NRA ands its affiliates use these funds primarily to lobby legislatures on behalf of the industry, not consumers.

Who Owns Food Safety Training in Seafood? 

We see professional associations such as The Seafood HACCP Alliance, with another approach to food-safety training-market "ownership". The Seafood HACCP Alliance through its relationship with the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) has influenced the required training of all seafood processors. Now, only those trainers sanctioned by AFDO and taking and approved AFDO accredited course (the only approved one, being owned by the Seafood HACCP Alliance, and rarely offered) are FDA approved to give courses. These required courses provide a significant source of revenue to private, AFDO trainers. It is not clear exactly if or how AFDO benefits, but one can see a potential problem for governmental officials who belong to AFDO advocating AFDO as the sole approved source of training.

Who Owns Food Safety Training in the Meat Industry?

At the level of the manufacturing of meat, food safety training must meet the requirements of the International HACCP Alliance at Texas A&M in order to have validity with USDA. Any training considered “valid” training must now pass through the HACCP Alliance, and is subject to fees and review. We can see a similar sort of problem here for USDA in terms of creating a monopoly for the HACCP Alliance. 

Who Owns Food Safety Auditing?

A similar example exists in auditing for compliance with so-called voluntary standards. The Food Marketing Institute FMI, the self-proclaimed voice of the multi-billion dollar food industry, recently entered the food safety-auditing sector in the US. Through its influence over buyers and the retail distribution chain, FMI’s brand of food safety auditing is trying to become the standard by which the entire food production chain self -regulates its own sanitation programs. While the program may have ultimate benefits for consumers, there is a lucrative monopoly position developing for FMI similar to that owned by NRA in restaurants. While there are many competing standards, FMI’s SQF (Safe Quality Foods) standard was recently endorsed by Wal-Mart, the worlds largest retailer. Suppliers to Wal-Mart are feeling pressure to adopt this standard while FMI is driving significant income to itself. FMI is a powerful political lobbying/marketing group that has the best interests of its members, and not necessarily consumers as its core mission. 

Who Owns International Food Safety?

There are examples of ownership at the international level of food safety, where groups like ISO, the International Standards Organization have put pressure on international regulators to adopt standards based on the work of this group; ISO standards are proprietary and owned by this non-governmental organization. While ISO has a very strong consumer focus, the effort is a business proposition as well as a food safety concept.

Who Owns Food Safety Research? 

In the background are the researchers at the National Institutes of Health and their counterparts; academicians who receive extensive research grants, and who claim ownership to the scientific basis for food safety. The budget for food safety research through NIH grants is in the millions each year. Their ownership of food safety research is ownership over a key segment of the market because it is this body of research that drives legislation and the validity of food safety systems across all segments. While our government spends billions on research, the food industry is very slow to adopt new technology. NIH research has produced a great deal of theoretical knowledge but the public has seen very little added protection from foodborne pathogens from new innovations developed and knowledge gained through research.

Who Really Owns Food Safety?

The reality is that a forgotten group of stakeholders actually owns food safety-and it is we… consumers collectively. The consumer through his buying power and voting power is truly the rightful owner of food safety. Several groups such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education, and Centers for Science in the Public Interest-CSPI have recognized this, yet no consumer level group has been able to unite consumers to affect the changes needed in the current food safety model for the exclusive benefit of consumers. While we as consumers hold the real power in food safety, we are often misinformed and remain mostly disengaged from food safety policies. We do not see the advantage we actually have. There is nothing wrong with educational messages from the Partnership teaching consumers how to safely cook or clean, but ultimately, the real power consumers have to protect themselves is at the voting booth and at the supermarket and not in the kitchen. 

The reality is that there is no “market”, no “profit motive” to motivate stakeholders to organize consumers and properly mobilize them. We have a few creditable grassroots activists and consumer groups whose voices the public hears faintly over the din of industry propaganda and government messages. We can find worlds of information from government agencies on their websites, but our government currently has no plans for any organized consumer education scheme. As in everything governmental these days, there is not enough resources, and a serious lack of leadership preventing government from maintaining an effective consumer protection effort or even attempting a meaningful campaign to educate consumers. 

Law firms are now leaders in the food industry, thanks to the failures of public health protection. The hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements and judgments paid to consumers who have been injured provide law firms specializing in this area with leverage to influence industry food safety policies and practices in a positive way. Yet, it is really the consumers the attorneys represent that have the most power for meaningful change, not the law firms themselves. 

If trends hold, eventually we may have a very serious mass foodborne illness outbreak affecting consumer in a way not seen before. Thousands of cases of serious infections have occurred over the last few years, some with life threatening hemorrhagic colitis associated with contaminated produce and meat.  Some far more serious illnesses related to food wait patently in the wings to emerge, or re-emerge as serious threats. 

Eventually, the voting/buying public will awaken to the fact that the industry acting in its own best interest will not provide them the protection they expect. Consumers must demand that their government first does whatever is necessary to protect them as a bottom-line responsibility.

Consumers rightly own food safety because we pay for all the interventions government and industry invoke when we purchase food or pay our taxes. Therefore as owners, consumers need to have an influence in the way industry goes about public health protection. If government elects to essentially delegate some of its public health protection responsibilities to industry, than consumers have a right to know what industry is doing to protect them and to have a much greater say in the matter.

As consumers and owners of food safety we have the power to demand that our government effectively protects our health and welfare, to demand that our elected and appointed officials exert real power over those who produce our food, and to require the food industry to maintain transparency.