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the Complete Review
the complete review - food / politics

Safe Food

Marion Nestle

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To purchase Safe Food

Title: Safe Food
Author: Marion Nestle
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 288 pages
Availability: Safe Food - US
Safe Food - UK
Safe Food - Canada
  • Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid overview of food safety in the US

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 6/3/2003 .
The NY Times . 23/4/2003 Marian Burros
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/3/2003 Anna Lappe
TLS . 1/8/2003 John Postgate
The Washington Monthly . 3/2003 Chris Mooney

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "As an on-again, off-again insider in federal agencies responsible for food safety, as well as a nutrition adviser for the likes of the American Cancer Society, Nestle offers a unique vantage point, letting us in on conversations we'd never otherwise hear. What we learn may be more than we can stomach." - Anna Lappe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Her many detailed accounts of disease outbreaks are a thorough, and rightly indignant, exposé of a situation which will surely frighten the average American carnivore. But Professor Nestle's chapters on GM food are less clearly focused. (...) In a wider sense, her conclusions seem banal." - John Postgate, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book veers off course, though, when it turns to the subject of biotechnology. (...) Nestle's distrust of the biotech industry blinds her to the fact that anti-GM activists, too, are a well-organized special interest whose objectives don't always overlap with everyone else's." - Chris Mooney, The Washington Monthly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Everyone eats and so everyone is concerned about and interested in food safety. No one wants to consume spoiled, infected, or diseased food -- and over the past century or so great strides have been made in making (and keeping) food safe. From greater care in the handling of foodstuffs (beginning with simple refrigeration) to handy expiration labels on perishables (don't eat after day X) many steps have been taken to ensure greater food safety. Nevertheless, food poisoning (of varying degrees of seriousness) continues to be widespread -- and other concerns about the food supply (not least its vulnerability to tampering by those specifically seeking to injure consumers) also remain. In addition, new technologies -- from genetically modified food to the use of everything from pesticides and hormones to the irradiation of foodstuff -- raise many additional questions of food safety.
       One difficulty with food safety is whose responsibility it is. Manufacturers can provide perfectly safe foodstuffs, but if mishandled by consumers (e.g. leaving that mayonnaise out in the sun all day) they can readily become dangerous. And vice versa: foodstuffs tainted from their point of origin or manufacture can pose risks to even those consumers who take all the proper precautions. (The ability to shift blame (and refuse to take responsibility) when things do go wrong appears almost endemic in the food industry, preventing many along the food chain from taking the proper precautions -- and too often actually making for an incentive to avoid determining potential hazards (nicely explained by Nestle).)
       Marion Nestle's Safe Food discusses the food safety issues currently being faced in the United States (and, to some extent, also abroad), making a point of considering it not only from the scientific point of view but also addressing the political issues involved. As she convincingly demonstrates: politics has a lot to do with food safety -- from how policies to improve it are (or aren't) developed and implemented to public perception and reaction.
       A basic problem that Nestle identifies is the system of governmental oversight and regulation: "a system breathtaking in its irrationality: 35 separate laws administered by 12 agencies in six cabinet-level departments". Among the most amusing (and disturbing) examples of just how absurd the system is: the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) regulates beef broth and dehydrated chicken soup, while the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates dehydrated beef soup and chicken broth. (Regardless of whether one is for more or less governmental regulation and oversight, everyone would clearly benefit from a single agency handling all food-safety related issues -- but bureaucrats desperate to hold onto their little fiefdoms (and some in industry, who understand that it is easier to manipulate a divided bureaucracy) have managed to prevent any such sensible consolidation of responsibilities.)
       Nestle alo does a good job of showing how industry has managed to prevent the updating of food safety laws to keep up with the changing world of food production (and consumption). The USDA, in particular, has had a difficult time in choosing its priorities -- for an obvious reason:

     USDA's historical reluctance to change its inspection and pathogen control systems derives directly from the agency's conflicting mandates: to ensure the safety and quality of foods under its jurisdiction and, at the same time, to promote their marketing and consumption.
       Particularly disturbing is the shift of responsibility for food safety from producer to consumer. (Surprisingly, she does not pay particular attention to the fact that many consumers rely on other food handlers and preparers -- everywhere from restaurants and fast food outlets to the sandwich or salad bar at the local deli. Given lax enforcement of safety standards in these environments -- and the inability of consumers to determine whether proper precautions are taken in the food preparation areas -- consumers are pretty much blindly putting their health in the hands of others here too.)
       Nestle explains a good deal of the science behind food safety, especially regarding current hot topics such as genetically modified foodstuffs and the use of various additives and pesticides. She makes clear that in many cases (especially regarding genetically modified food) many questions on both the cost and benefit sides remain open. Helpfully, her focus isn't solely on the science, as she understands that consumer trust must be gained by transparency and the making available of as much information as possible to allow consumers to make informed choices and that they will remain suspicious of agribusiness in particular until such transparency is available.
       Nestle repeatedly shows that the paternalistic behaviour of the food business -- with agribusiness (and, to a lesser degree, the government) maintaining they know what is best (and safe) for consumers -- seems to have largely backfired. Genetically modified food may be safe, but Nestle shows that in introducing it industry has failed to convince the public that it has taken all the proper precautions. Examples such as the notorious StarLink corn episode (which she describes in some detail) show that supposed controls meant to limit where a genetically modified foodstuff is produced and what products it winds up in have failed miserably, heightening consumer suspicion and distrust. Similarly, the inept handling of Bt crops and their consequences (killing off insects that people would prefer not be killed -- such as the Monarch butterfly) shows a remarkable failure by businesses to understand the larger consequences of apparent advances in food production in both nature and society -- hardly reassuring. (These cases may be familiar, but Nestle's summaries serve as good (if chilling) reminders of the often foolish approaches (and strong-arm tactics) those who would have you believe they act responsibly in fact take.)
       Among the most interesting issues is that of labeling (of, for example genetically modified products, or irradiated products), which industry has consistently stronly opposed. Hilariously (and shockingly), the current legal framework actually also makes it difficult for food producers to label their products in such a way as to make consumers aware that their products do not contain genetically modified foodstuffs (or milk from hormone-treated cows, etc.). The arguments -- including that labels are misleading -- are shocking ones, but have proven largely successful, despite (as Nestle points out) that a great deal of food labeling already exists that has little bearing on the nutritional or health aspects of foodstuffs but is nevertheless of interest to consumers ("made from concentrate, previously frozen, organically grown, kosher, and irradiated, for example")
       (There are valid difficulties regarding labeling, such as setting threshold levels, but these have been dealt with in other areas and it should be possible to reach some sort of agreement here as well.)
       Nestle makes a convincing case that it is in the interest of both food producers and consumers to have greater transparency and more information available. As she points out:
Genetically engineered foods may be relatively safe by the standards of science-based approaches to risk assessment, but industry decisions have caused them to rank high on the dread-and-outrage scale. To inspire public confidence, the industry must share control of the food supply with consumers. Until people actually have some choice about whether to consume transgenic foods, there is little reason to accept them.
       The failure of the food business to take consumer feelings into account is often stunning in how limited it is. (Those that complain that only the bottom-(safety)-line counts -- i.e. that press for an entirely science-based point of view -- would do well to remember that eating isn't merely science-based and people feel very strongly (if entirely irrationally) about aspects of it -- including the unwillingness of many large groups to eat specific foodstuffs. Among others, there are a variety of religious prohibitions on eating everything from pork to shellfish to beef, none of which have any scientific rationale (or safety implications that can not be dealt with), and yet which matter deeply to consumers.)

       Nestle does a very good job of describing the main food safety hazards that we currently face, and both the science and politics involved in dealing with them. She also focusses well on the supposed advances being made in food production and processing (many of which, as she shows, are hardly convincing advances -- such as the ability to get cows to produce considerably more milk (largely pointless in the US, where too much (heavily subsidized) milk is being produced in the first place -- and bringing with it potential danges)). (Some advances in food safety are also of questionable value: irradiation can decontaminate food but it seems likely that consumers would prefer greater care taken with their meat earlier in production than have, for example, fecal matter left on it, only for it to be (successfully) neutralized by irradiation (not to mention the additional costs and other consequences irradiation brings with it).)
       Nestle does bash big food business some, but nowhere near as much as she could if she wanted to. Her biggest disagreement with the industry is their failure to be open and inform the public of issues affecting them. She allows for the possibility that advances industry is making (such as with genetically modified foodstuffs) may benefit consumers -- but convincingly argues that consumers must be fully informed if they are to be expected to embrace these new technologies.
       Perhaps most disturbing is Nestle's description of the failures of government oversight -- from inspectors concerned about protecting their little areas of power to budgetary limitations to the ridiculous influence the food business has at both the agency level and in Congress itself.
       If nothing else, Safe Food should convince all readers that it is imperative for the government to consolidate food safety oversight in a single government agency. There is no excuse for this not being done (especially, as Nestle also mentions with current concerns about homeland security), and one hopes that the petty political interests that have prevented this will soon be overcome.

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Safe Food: Reviews: Food safety: Marion Nestle: Other books of interest under review:
  • Eric Schlosser describes The Dark Side of the All-American Meal in Fast Food Nation

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About the Author:

       Marion Nestle teaches at New York University.

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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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