I’ve run a few companies over the years, and one lesson I’ve learned well is that most employees want to do a good job, do the best they can. Indeed, I’ve come to believe this about people in general, whether they work for private companies or the government.
I thought about this life lesson as I read Lykke’s comment following my previous post, where she tells a reader, “don’t tell me where my motivations come from. They are food safety, period. You can fantasize that we are all in the pocket of big ag, but that doesn’t make it reality.”
What I hear Lykke saying is what I hear professionals often say: I am committed to high standards and helping people. Just let me do my job the way I was trained to do it.
When it comes to food safety, unfortunately, the professionals are being subverted. I want to assume that most of the food safety professionals at New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets want to do a good job of overseeing raw milk production in that state. But people with political agendas are subverting these professionals–perhaps to keep money from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration flowing into the state, or for some other political reason. I am sure if you got a few of these professionals into a private discussion, without fear of retaliation from their superiors, they would confirm that.
As Steve Bemis points out in a comment following my previous post, the subversion of professional behavior isn’t limited to regulation of raw milk in New York. It is part of a much bigger problem: the politicization of the rapidly expanding interest in locally-produced food, under the guise of food safety.
Now, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is out with a warning that new federal legislation on a fast track in Congress, HR2479, takes direct aim at small-farm producers of local food products. The legislation allows for high registration fees for many producers, warrantless searches of records, quarantines, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation of the growing process. The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) could even be rolled into the whole package, for all we know. How’d you like to have an FDA employee advising you on how to grow your crops? (And I don’t care how committed this individual is to doing a good job—once politics has a place in the process, professionalism gets subverted.)
All the books and blogs and, now films like “Fresh” and “Food Inc.” are having a cumulative effect: They are terrifying Big Pharma, Big Ag, and Big Government with loss of control, and dollars.
The reality is that there is absolutely no food-borne illness problem at the rapidly expanding farmers markets, CSAs (community supported agriculture), co-ops, or private buying clubs for locally produced food. A significant part of the food-borne illness hysteria around raw milk is being manufactured by the regulators, most recently NY Ag and Markets—likely, as Steve Bemis notes, to intimidate producers of conventional milk who might be considering the raw milk option as an economic escape from collapsing commodity milk prices.
One other note: while the media have generally been supportive of locally-produced food options, there have been some recent signs of backlash. One of the most notable was an article in the New York Times in which a writer who was unhappy with the taste of his $35 pastured chicken used that “problem” as an excuse to not only trash locally produced food as a ripoff, but to push for a return to supermarket factory food.
As Mark McAfee suggests in his intriguing guidance to evaluating locally produced cheese (following my previous post), locally produced food isn’t automatically pure and pristine. But the simple fact that it is locally produced provides inherent checks on abuse when customers can confront the producer.
The “problem” the politicians want to solve may not be the problem that really needs solving. As a result, food safety professionals like Lykke may be facing ever more interference in doing their jobs.