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.