Does Size Mean Safe Food: Is Bigger Better or Is Small Beautiful?

Food safety by small processors is an important issue. However, the truth can easily get lost when one starts talking from the unscientific, fuzzy thinking, side. Folklore isn’t going to get us the rules we need to keep small businesses operating in the food sector.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration moved to shut down Estrella Family Creamery, after tests found listeria in some of the producer’s cheese and owner Kelli Estrella refused to agree to a broad recall of her products. Today, because of the debate in Congress over S. 510: FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, Estrella made the front page of the New York Times.

We’re caught in the middle. We believe there are a lot of competing interests focusing on food safety including those who want to sensationalize the Estrella case to get attention, including Estrella. Much of the anti-government blog talk is counterproductive. Yet, there is a real problem with the big industry interests using the safety rules to drive out small operators.

We think there needs to be a firm appraisal of the problem. Even though there is trouble on both sides of the big verses small argument; there is no excuse for ignorance or negligence with respect to public health. There are definitely small operators that need to clean up their operations.

Having said this, we believe government needs to provide the opportunity and incentives equally to smaller producers to help them meet the safety requirements. Technical solutions need to be appropriate to the budget and scale of the operation. For example, E.F. Schumacher’s perspective from his book Small is Beautiful; where he faults conventional thinking for failing to consider the most appropriate scale for an activity. He discounts the belief that “bigger is better,” that one evaluation or technical solution fits all.

Currently, too much of the research and development funded by government is directed to safety measures in large operations. Yet it is becoming clear such centralized mega-processing operations are not sustainable. We are seeing that there is a direct relationship between safety problems and size; serious safety dysfunction is definitely more problematic with big operations regardless of regulation.

There is a clear law of diminishing return with surveillance and money spent regarding safety in large processing plants. This should be self-evident. But practitioners supported by corporations and investors have misled the public into thinking bigger with advanced technology – and the resulting higher cost – is better.

Alternatively, ignorance is never better. In fact, these days, small operators need to become much better educated; they themselves need to be better scientists. Growing and processing food is everyone’s business but it is also everyone’s responsibility. It isn’t a matter of art, happenstance, or mystic folklore.

Food illness was epidemic in the “good old days” – many people died. That is why we have laws; to protect the public, not to give advantages to unscrupulous corporations. If you don’t think corporations are self-interested, observed the records of their lobbying.

It is really a matter of government. We need open legal debate with objective testimony. And fair, honest redress. Unfortunately, our present government doesn’t appear to be up to the task. Nonetheless, we at GoodFood World will join with others to report objectively on food safety issues as we find them.

For an example of a small dairy doing it right, take a look at Good Food Does NOT Make You Sick. Implementing good safety procedures requires effort and expense, but for a well-run dairy and cheese manufacturer like Amaltheia Dairy, it is simply the cost of doing business.