Former USDA official says consumers are scientifically responsible for food safety
By Mindy Brashears
As we ended 2021 I kept my blogs upbeat and holiday-focused, given the season. There is a time for fun, a time for recognizing the hard work of our industry and then there is a time to be serious. As we turn the page to 2022 and I cross the one-year mark of leaving the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety, I have no resolutions — but I do have a resolute focus on food safety and genuinely making a difference to reduce human illnesses with the words I say, the research I oversee, and the people I serve. I’ve had a year to reflect and to ponder much and I will be unwrapping these observations as 2022 moves forward.
To begin, I think it is time to get real with some of the greatest unseen threats we have to safe food supply. They aren’t the obvious ones like pathogens, but they are more subtle and can’t be discerned until one takes a broad look at reality. I will begin with a rather an insidious movement we have in society right now, one that undermines science. Not only has the meat and poultry industry been painted in a negative light recently, the scientific-community has also taken a hit. There is a trend, if not a solid perspective for some, that science isn’t real and data can’t be trusted. Consumers say, “I have done my own research,” which is basically a Google search (and not Google Scholar, I might add). Everyone is given a platform and the media, along with advocacy groups, are given a stronger voice, and present as more credible than scientists by being louder and more inflammatory. The safety of our food supply is at stake and control shouldn’t go to those with the loudest voice or deepest pocketbook.
There is a shift in the public arena that anecdotes should drive policy and decision-making. It is crucial for us to protect public health by relying on science to inform solid, data-driven policies to reduce illnesses and outbreaks. Implementation of new regulations shouldn’t be viewed as a “win” or “loss” by advocacy groups or the industry. There should be a sense of working together with a common goal of preventing illnesses. That doesn’t happen very often.
One of the most alarming experiences I had while at the agency occurred when meeting with consumer advocacy groups. I genuinely wanted to focus on consumer education by spreading information through influential outlets. We formed relationships with major companies, even having a public meeting featuring programs we were building with Disney and Amazon. We had some cool ideas with these companies to have a long-term impact on food safety behavior — beginning with children and carrying on to adults — based on the purchase of a raw meat/poultry product (I have no idea what happened to this after I left, as they are never mentioned). Some, not all, of the consumer advocacy groups opposed this vehemently. There was insistence by some of the groups that consumers had no responsibility for food safety and the food should be free from pathogens when it arrived to the consumer. There is no science in this approach and it overlooks an important point in the supply chain where risks can be mitigated.
I want to emphasize that some of the groups were very interested in consumer education and took that as a strong platform, but the louder voices often would drown out their voices too. This is just one example of the threat to food safety when decisions are not made based on science. It has to change.
As a food-based industry led by academic, government and industry scientists, we must be our own advocates in the face of public attack. It is shallow, ignorant and misinformed when the statement is made that scientists only report data that favors the funding agency. There are so many checks and balances in the scientific process to prevent this from happening for which I will be a strong advocate this year in my role at Texas Tech. I feel a responsibility to describe these charges as a loss of respect for the scientific community stemming from consumers’ experiences with the pandemic, which they carry into their opinions about food safety. I believe there is a cost to society has a whole in the halting of the development and implementation of new technologies that can cure diseases, process food and protect consumers.