As reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Zhang, states frustrated by the slow pace of national food safety reform have begun to take matters into their own hands. Georgia was hit hard by the recent outbreak of Salmonella in peanut butter and peanut products; as the leading producer of peanuts in the US, the 25% drop in demand has hurt farmers and businesses all the way up the production chain. Even though the outbreak was traced to a single processor in Blakely, GA (the now-bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America), it affected consumers in 46 states, sickened hundreds, and cost nine people their lives. Analysts estimate that beyond the human toll of the outbreak, the recall and lost revenues might add up to as much as 1.5 billion dollars.
Georgia has taken a "get tough" attitude, enacting legislation that requires food processing companies to report any contamination within 24 hours of a positive test. Although a step in the right direction, this quick-to-the-books law may create as many problems as it hopes to solve. A few bumps in the road:
1) The law does not mandate testing, just the reporting of positive tests. Some consumer groups worry that this will actually cause companies to test less often.
2) If a food processor is considering where to locate, the law might tip the balance away from Georgia, which could negatively impact future economic growth.
3) As other states enact their own laws, the result could be a nationwide patchwork with a dizzying array of regulations which differ from state to state. According to Zhang’s article, no fewer than 600 different laws relating to food safety have been initiated at the state level.
Meanwhile, several forms of national legislation are crawling forward at glacial speed. Ostensibly everyone wants safe food. How – and if – we get there is another thing altogether.
Edward Abbey said "The idea of wilderness needs no defense, only more defenders." Perhaps it’s the same for food safety.