Peanut Butter makes the case for a food safety commons

Today’s NY Times highlights the multiple levels of systemic failures in the current US food safety system through the lens of the peanut butter/salmonella outbreak that has now caused over 650 illnesses and 9 deaths in 45 states. Self-regulation by industry hasn’t exactly demonstrated a stellar record and the problem becomes even more frightening when we take a global perspective in light of the recent melamine scandal with milk in China. There are numerous calls for reforms of the FDA and creating a new institutional structure that could meet the challenges of a global food system where, in the US, inspectors can only inspect a bit over 1% of all food imports. And then there are the domestic threats as the Peanut Butter Corporation of America case shows.

Bill Marler highlights the fact that over 200 companies have recalled over 2,850 products since the beginning of the salmonella crisis. An informant of his estimates that the losses associated with the recall will come to more than $500,000,000 and then there are the lost sales from a dramatic drop in consumer confidence. A pretty expensive error that ought to make shareholders really happy and the customers who spent time in the hospital or on the toilet are really quite pleased. This is not only about bad food safety practices but bad business. There ought to be a better way.

Good news. There is. For the past few years some colleagues of mine from Michigan State University’s National Food Safety and Toxicology Center have caught on to the fact that the commons and cooperation make good public health sense and good food safety sense. The complexity of the food chain and the current way of thinking about regulation through this most analog of institutions, the FDA or through self regulation is in need of revamping. Once again, we have a network phenomenon and we’re working with analog concepts and institutions. Just take a quick peak at this visualization of the network of producers/products in the current peanut butter crisis:

This is a classic problem whereby a cooperative strategy formed around a food safety commons that would bring together supply chains, government, civil society, and companies to share the best practices, food supply chain surveillance (that is OPEN supply chains), new food safety technologies and an expert “speaker of the commons” to manage these shared resources in a public-private partnership might help drive a form of innovation that leads to far fewer elderly and children dying unnecessarily from food-borne illnesses that annually kill more people in the US than the 9/11 attacks. It is clear that our knowledge silos in the food safety space, competitive fears and analog institutions aren’t up to the task. We need a new mindset as much as we need a new and improved FDA, although that would help. But let’s just not blame it all on government and corporate greed. We need innovation and creativity around new forms of institutions and processes that can produce a better food system. The folks at MSU are onto this and let’s hope they succeed. The funding that you would need to create such a mechanism is just a fraction of the losses that these ongoing crises produce, not to mention the incalculable losses of lives lost. Even the companies that have been doing a good job in supply chain management are see pretty heavy losses due to the lack of consumer confidence in peanut butter. Everyone loses from short-termism and a poverty of imagination. Time to fix the system, a networked-cooperative system that is.

Fragments of an open health economy…

Here’s a recent abstract from Health Affairs: During the projection period (2008-2018), average annual growth in national health spending is projected to be 6.2 percent–2.1 percentage points faster than average annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP). The health share of GDP is anticipated to rise rapidly from 16.2 percent in 2007 to 17.6 percent in 2009, largely as a result of the recession, and then climb to 20.3 percent by 2018. Public payers are expected to become the largest source of funding for health care in 2016 and are projected to pay for more than half of all national health spending in 2018 (Health Affairs 28, no. 2 (2009): w346-w357).

Everyone knows that the status quo is unsustainable given the worsening financial crisis and the fact that employers are growing less willing to pay more and get less in terms of health outcomes. In global health we’ve seen a great deal of innovation in terms of PPPs for neglected diseases but we’re coming up against similar problems with inefficiencies, fragmentation and a long way to go in terms of improving health outcomes. Health systems are performing poorly and the vertically driven approaches of the last decade are viewed as one of the problems.

We clearly need to rethink what innovation in health and public health look like. We can no longer just view new technologies as the answer. Just being new is not innovation. Furthermore, the mindset of the health professions must change; we need new tools, new ways of thinking about systems and then implementing an entire assemblage of new/old norms, technologies, social technologies. Health reform, well, if you aren’t tired of the same old set of health wonks boring you to tears with why nothing works, why universal or consumer-driven healthcare is the way of the future, then, I don’t know what to tell you. Several years ago while working on a Pioneer Grant for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that was to help RWJF think about how they could leverage the tools and technologies of cooperation to become a better catalyst for health system transformation, we interviewed a number of other Pioneer grantees. The most interesting thing they had to say was that the first step was to NOT do another blue ribbon panel with the same voices that have benefited from a dysfunctional health system. If only….

For the past year I’ve been thinking about what a paradigm for health system transformation, not “health reform” (those words make me somewhat ill), might look like. My last gig at IFTF in 2007 was to run a conference on what we called “Open Health”. I now think their are enough pieces of the puzzle in place that we can see some hope for a nascent “Open Health Economy” if we start putting the pieces of the puzzle together and work to disrupt the current system and not allow “health reform”, the rather anemic and euphemistic “consumer-driven” healthcare and its various guises to become the only available discourses for how we think about health and healthcare.

We live in a networked world whether you’re a fan of Manuel Castels or not. And no, to my friends in public health who at times flinch at the mere mention of technology and like to speak for “the community”, that is “technology-less”, the poor are not too stupid to use technologies, appropriate them and cannibalize (and here) them for their own ends.  We can certainly raise issues of access and the processes of technology development (see Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones on this topic here).  In fact, ‘innovation’ should include new innovation systems that bring end-users of technologies and systems into the equation earlier. As our knowledge of health grows we know that there are complex interactions between the environment, genetics, social networks, etc.  However, our institutions are still in an analog form and poorly equipped to deal with chronic health issues, food safety (eg. the current peanut butter/salmonella crisis is showing how our food system is in tatters when it comes to food safety), ecological health, and the myriad connections of factors that influence health outcomes. etc. We’re hit the limits to single slice solutions and prevailing economic conditions place limits on how we approach complex problems. 

The paradigm of “Open Health” that leverages the insights from open innovation (eg. InnoCentive, Nokia’s open platforms, Henry Chesbrough, Global Brain, Index Award), peer-to-peer production (eg. Yochai Benkler, the Foundation for P2P Alternatives), calls for open data (eg. Free Our Data, Open Data Commons), co-created health services (eg. RED Project’s Open Health initiative), new commons (eg. Social Venture Commons, Science Commons, Knowledge Commons, Health Commons, Entrepreneur Commons), social media in health or health 2.0 (,Patients Like Me, etc.), social business models and social entrepreneurship (Narayana Hrudayalaya, Aravind Eye Hospitals, Health Launchpad, Participle, ), open access publishing, medicine 2.0, the mobile web, geoweb, government 2.0, collaboratories, cooperation (eg. smart mobs, Peter Kollock) and citizen science (here, here, here).  From the world of design there are organizations such as Think Public  ( and more hereherehere, and here) and new urbanism and learn from Varnelis how to think about cities, health and networks:

 “networked ecologies,” plural “infrastructures” that are “hypercomplex” and as likely to consist of legal mechanisms and barely visible cell-phone networks as the heavy stuff of tunnels and bridges. Inherently less apparent than the infrastructure that came before, they’re also as likely to be owned by corporations as by governments—meaning these networks can’t really be controlled, only “appropriated” according to their own logic. With traditional planning made impotent by capitalism and NIMBYism, rebuilding the city now requires a “new type of urbanist,”

 What we have here is a vast and growing network of projects, experiments, technologies and new ways of framing problems that can be brought together to RETHINK HEALTH and drive towards health system transformations in the US and abroad.  What is lacking is a synthesis or, for lack of another term, a health innovation portal for bringing these various strands of thought together, think through the politics of open health and develop new strategies, business models and approaches.  For example, the public health community has generally been in an antagonistic relationship with the food industry and its role in marketing junk food to children, use of HFCS, etc. However, the market drivers are pushing food companies toward more sustainable and nutritious food systems and we can only change these systems by engaging with the food industry for new “healthy” partnerships that get better food into communities and bodies.  Food companies have had to deal with the call for healthy foods but often these fail in the marketplace.  Can we work together to create better food eco-systems without the finger pointed at us as sell-outs?  I believe so and feel that we must.  There are lost opportunities here if we don’t.  The list above is by no means the sum total of what can be done. But there are important political insights if one thinks critically about the tendency towards techno-libertarianism and the “market solves everything” mentality that runs through much of the social entrepreneurship and technology innovation fields.  We’re in a period of restructuring of markets and thought.   A strong dose of policy entrepreneurship is needed as well. The next generation of social entrepreneurship will have to address the issues of the politics of social businesses and political life in general and how to cooperate with government for win-wins. Critical thought here would aim to unpack the taken-for-grantedness of some of the concepts and approaches and look for ways that disruptive innovation through novel forms of cooperation and network organizations, rather than analog institutions, could make us healthier and avoid the immense degree of unnecessary suffering that health systems worldwide continue to tolerate.