The International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual meeting July 8-11 at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The event is the world’s largest food safety conference. The IAFP meeting is where food safety professionals meet to discuss pathogens in food and ways to prevent and respond to the problems those pathogens cause. The meeting is an incubator for the one-size-fits-all food safety laws that make it more difficult for small farmers and artisan food producers to make a living. Most of the crowd at the meeting does not distinguish between the industrial food system and the local food system; the regulations the conference sets in motion are geared for industrial food production and distribution and should apply to all food production and distribution in the eyes of the majority of attendees.
Food safety is a growth industry. Globalization and deteriorating quality in the industrial food system are drivers. Over 3,500 attended this year’s meeting; FDA and USDA both sent dozens of personnel to Salt Lake City. State regulatory agencies, academia (students and faculty) and big business were all well represented at this year’s meeting. Cargill, Merck Animal Health, Smithfield, Kroger, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Walmart were all sponsors of the event.
Food safety is about the prevention of or response to cases of acute illness; there was little mention at the meeting about nutritious or nutrient-dense food and its role in the prevention of chronic disease.
A point those at the meeting frequently discussed was the complexity of long supply chains starting with the manufacturers of ingredients used by the food producer and continuing through various phases of distribution leading to the purchase of the food by the final consumer. The talk was about difficulties in traceability and ensuring safe food along the supply chain. An antidote to this problem would be to facilitate the local production and distribution of food with its short, direct supply chain, and high level of traceability but that was a solution that was seldom, if at all, brought up at the meeting.
Presentations at the meeting included talks on recent outbreaks, developments in testing for pathogens, and various food safety processes such as HACCP. At the same time the presentations are taking place, there is a trade show where vendors showcase, among other things, the latest products for testing and sanitation measures. Also present in the same location as the trade show are posters (written summaries) of studies related to food safety that are displayed for viewing by meeting attendees. Individuals who worked on the studies are present to answer questions.
Some takeaways from the meeting:
Most cases of foodborne illness are caused by industrial food; this is true even when factoring in the market share industrial food has compared to local food. Unregulated local food producers have plenty of incentive to produce safe food: their families consume the same food they are selling, one recall can put them out of business, and one case of foodborne illness can put them out of business. Food safety regulators like dealing with short supply chains and a high degree of traceability; local food producers–regulated or not–satisfy both of these parameters
When you also factor in the amount of chronic illness the local food and industrial food systems are responsible for, there is no question the local food system is responsible for fewer cases of chronic illness even when the market share of the two systems is accounted for. Take a survey on the demand those who obtain a majority of their food from the local system make for services on the medical system versus those who obtain a majority of their food from the industrial system. Policymakers should take both acute and chronic illness into consideration when crafting food regulations and legislation. The more local food producers there are the less demand there will be on the medical system for services; food freedom laws lead to more local producers.
The IAFP meeting is a place where ideas for food safety legislation are first introduced. It can also be the place where the effort begins to convince regulators that there are two food systems and that one-size-fits-all food safety regulation doesn’t work.
Food safety professionals have done a great job improving safety in areas of the industrial food system; often when dealing with multiple producers/distributors and multiple countries in an investigation–thankless work. Laws and policies contributing to an increase in local food production would make their jobs easier.