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‘Food safety’ could include long-term health and environmental concerns

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, IN I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats. 

EMILY BROADLEIB: But you could look at food safety as being more about long term health impacts. So diet related disease or the kind of cumulative impacts over a period of years or a lifetime of eating certain things. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on our show, a conversation with Emily Broad Leib of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.  She argues that our narrowly focused food safety regulations are failing to address the most important aspects of our food system. We talk about what it might look like to include worker safety, environmental impacts and long term health and nutrition when considering the safety of our food. Stay tuned for this important discussion plus food and farming updates from Harvest Public Media. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth eats.  I'm Kayte Young. Renee Reed has some food and farming reports for us. Hi Renee. 

RENEE REED:  Hi Kayte. After nearly steady increases the price of farmland has rocketed up this year but as Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports, some experts don't think it'll last. 

DANA CRONIN:  Gary Schnitkey is a professor of farm management at the University of Illinois. 

He's been tracking farmland prices closely. He says high corn and soybean prices combined with low interest rates on loans have made farmland across the country more valuable this year. 

GARY SCHNITKEY:  I do not think farmland prices are going to continue at their high rates that they have in this year or in 2021 because it simply isn't sustainable. 

DANA CRONIN:  Schnitkey predicts farmland values, will track corn and soybean prices unless interest rates go up and make the borrowing needed to buy land less attractive. I'm Dana Cronin, Harvest Public Media. 

RENEE REED:  The US Department of Agriculture wants agriculture to do more to offset climate change. But there's not enough money for two major programs to draw in all the farmers who are interested. `More than 1,000,000 farmers didn't qualify for money through two natural Resource Conservation Service programs to change their operations to mitigate climate change in the last decade. A new study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says well less than half were actually accepted. Gary O'Neill is the state conservationist for the conservation service in Oklahoma. He says the programs are competitive. 

GARY O'NEILL:  Just because you apply doesn't mean you're going to get in. It's based on how many funds we have, but it also is based on the the ranking of that application. 

RENEE REED:  O'Neill says applications often get waitlisted because they run out of funding. 

Thanks to Harvest Public Media Dana Cronin and Seth Bodine for those updates. For Earth Eats, I'm Renee Reed. 



KAYTE YOUNG:  In my lifetime I have never doubted the safety of the food I purchased in the store. 

When I select a package of spaghetti from the shelf, I feel confident that it has been produced in a facility that is inspected by the proper government agencies and that the product has passed a rigorous set of standards before it makes it to my grocery cart.  Aside from the occasional romaine lettuce recall, due to possible E. Coli contamination, we don't have a lot of food safety concerns here in the US. In fact, I wonder if we sometimes take for granted the security that government regulation has brought to our everyday lives. We expect roadways to be functional, child car seats to protect our little ones, and we expect that the food we purchase will not poison us. Meeting those expectations rests on the consistency and the strength of our regulatory agencies.  My guest today is asking important questions about food safety regulation in the US. She brings a broader, more holistic understanding of what should be included when we talk about the safety and the long term effects of the food we eat. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  I'm Emily Broad Leib. I'm a clinical Professor of law at Harvard Law School and I direct the food law and policy clinic, which is sort of a service learning and educational program for law students. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I wanted to just start with your larger view of food, safety and regulation and law and how it differs from sort of the typical approach to or traditional, you know how we've been approaching food safety in the past.

EMILY BROAD LEIB: A lot of my writing and research has been about the fact that we define food safety really narrowly, and it's interesting because it's not that in law. You know, we've necessarily said food safety only means foodborne illness. But that's essentially what we really regulate, and what when you say to someone something about food safety, that's what people really think about.  They think if I eat this food today, am I going to be in the hospital tomorrow or the day after? But you could look at food safety as being more about long term health impacts. So diet related disease or the kind of cumulative impacts over a period of years or a lifetime of eating certain things. And it's certainly something we care about, but it's not nearly as regulated. We don't, you know, invest nearly as much funds and resources proportionately into that, and we don't really call that food safety and then kind of going one step even broader to that is like the cradle to grave health impacts of food production. And so that would include things like the health impacts on workers and farm workers and on households living near food production, the impacts on water supplies. 

And you know how that impacts even families downstream and then the impacts of food waste. 

So we we sort of say, you know, by not calling all of those things food safety we leave them out of the primary regulation we're doing, and even when the Food and Drug Administration or the US Department of Agriculture is regulating food safety, it's not doing a good job of balancing the regulation that's putting in place with sort of the where the larger you know disease burden and costs really sit on society. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, is it true that In a way, in terms of the food safety costs or the you know how many people actually become ill from these foodborne illnesses like E. Coli or salmonella or something is that just a smaller percentage of the kind of risks that we face with food? 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  The mortality rate from foodborne illness in the US, hovers around 3000 per year, which again none of this is to argue that our food shouldn't be safe. But you know then, if you look at mortality from diabetes, it's like 80,000 a year, which again is it's mostly type 2 diabetes, that's. primarily diet related diet caused, diet exacerbated. And then heart disease is even beyond that, it's about 630,000 per year, and those are actually all pre COVID rates and I think one thing we've seen as well in this pandemic and it's true of other infectious diseases too is that when we have underlying high rates of chronic illness, those individuals are are even more susceptible to COVID to flu, you know to other infectious diseases as well. So I think the cost, when looked at in terms of mortality, is way higher of these other illnesses that we don't regulate with quite the same level of government control. 

KAYTE YOUNG: And then if you pull in like you were talking about worker safety in food production. 

I mean, meatpacking plants are one of the most dangerous places to work, and that's never taken into consideration, and it's like it's like the people producing the food aren't the people eating the food, but it's all people and all of our safety should count. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  I was actually just looking at this data point today so there was a study that came out that that looked at the jobs across the US with the highest relative excess COVID risk of mortality and Food and Agriculture was by far the highest above transportation and logistics, other manufacturing,  above even health and emergency workers.  People don't really realize that, and you know at least in the past year I I think that more attention was shown on the the plight of workers, kind of throughout the food supply, and you know meat and poultry, slaughter and processing. 

But we we still haven't really, you know. I think come to grips with like It's not just the COVID risk, but also there's lots of like musculoskeletal, you know, injuries and repetitive motion injuries and illness from chemicals that are like applied sometimes to meats and things like that. And it's we really undervalue the human health costs of of workers across food supply. And that's true in the farm. 

You know farms and fields too. If it's investing all this time and energy and money in, you know looking at food safety only through this very narrow lens, it seems like we're just missing like the whole boat, which is how can we make the food supply safer along all aspects of the way and for the for the entire life span. For example, not regulating like environmental impacts let's say of meat production causes then actually contamination often of like romaine lettuce where we've had a lot of E. Coli contamination and things like that so it's sort of, you know we're not regulating for something that we call an environmental hazard, which is manure runoff and things like that. But then it actually is exacerbating the very food safety issues that we are trying to invest in, and so I think that there's a lot of like unintended consequences also of the ways that we're regulating. We're not really looking at as a trade off between what is most important for human health in the long term, but you know, I would argue we should be.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you're thinking about even consolidation and larger farms versus if smaller farms can't survive in these in these markets, then that's actually impacting food safety. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  There's some data on just the, you know, increased risks, food safety risks themselves of kind of consolidation, but I. think even a lot of the the issues we've talked about are you know, exacerbated by larger production facilities. So like certainly you know the worker issues that we've talked about and I think we saw as well during the past year and a half that having consolidation in in meat and poultry and other food processing led to huge supply chain challenges when when plants needed to shut down. And so I think again, there's at least like growing awareness of the fact that the direction we've gone, which has been towards having high barriers to entry in terms of food safety regulations coupled with, you know, a lot of incentives to really grow, grow, grow and consolidate have reduced the resilience of the system that we rely on. 

KAYTE YOUNG: My guest is Emily Broad LEIB, director of the Harvard Law School's Food and Law Policy Clinic. After a short break, we'll return to our conversation. Emily reflects on how we ended up in this limited approach to food safety. And we talk more about what the pandemic has brought to light about our food systems. Stay with us. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Emily Broad Leib. She's the director of Harvard Law School's food law and policy clinic. Her work investigates how U.S. law intersects with food production and she takes a holistic systems approach, one that includes environmental impacts, worker safety, immigration and long term health concerns. Let's return to our conversation. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Why do you think that our understanding of food safety has been so narrowly focused for all this time on just like these really short term illnesses? 

EMILY BROAD LEIB: Yeah, it's I mean I scratched my head thinking about this a lot, but I think there's kind of a couple of reasons. One is is sort of like almost behavioral economics like, there's a lot of evidence that what people are really afraid of are these like kind of salient events of food, foodborne illness outbreaks and and you know, the the history really across this country of regulation of food safety has been kind of responsive to food safety outbreaks or critiques even looking back, our first national food safety laws were a result of of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle", which was meant to be about the plight of workers, but everyone read it to be about the safety of the food and and you know everything, even up until the Food Safety Modernization Act which was enacted in 2011 has been kind of responsive to an outbreak in the food system, so there's you know one piece of it which is this sort of reactive response to things that that that even if the risk is low, that someone would really get sick. The stories get so much attention and you really freak people out. The other reason, I think, is that it's easier to regulate food safety for certain reasons as well. 

And one of those is that companies actually often are supportive of the food safety regulations, particularly larger companies that are the ones that have political clout and the reason for that is that they are concerned if someone were to get sick, they think they would, you know, be sued. They would wind up in court and they'd rather have these regulations that they can follow and then say to a court  'Look, you know, we weren't negligent. We followed all of the regulations we were supposed to follow;. By contrast, when you look at things like diet related disease or kind of cumulative long term health impacts or even the environmental impacts, they're much more diffuse. It's much more difficult to point the finger back at an individual company and say that you know that you're going to sue them or hold them accountable for those harms and so I think that there's sort of if you think about like a political economy side of like whose helping make the decisions and drive policy and you know again I look back at the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was our most recent major food safety law and a lot of the largest trade organizations and food businesses were supportive of the law for many of them it was like in training things they were already doing, so they were like great put this law in place for already, you know, doing these food safety steps but for them to actually have to reformulate products, or, you know, holistically change their supply chain to reduce air and water pollution would be a huge cost to them, and I think there's no, you know, right now they're not being held accountable. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you also think just that it's, I think you were kind of hinting at this, that you know it's also just kind of harder to follow or measure or say these people have diabetes because of, you know you can point at some particular food product you can't quite do that in the way you can up someone getting poisoned. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  Yeah, no, it's true. I mean, it's in fact, there's only been like very few court cases that have tried to sue a company for, you know, either, like, diabetes or obesity or or things like that. And it's been really, really difficult like the main one was a court case from the early 2000s from in New York called the Pellman case, and basically it was, you know, some families suing McDonald's for diet related diseases of their child, children and it, there are a lot of issues with the litigation, but one big one is just how difficult it would be to prove causation that that food product was the cause of the harms that they suffer because, well, you know, unless you can show that they were eating only that all day, every day. It would be really difficult to say that that was itself the cause, and I think that that also leads to why it's really difficult to regulate, and I think on the part of both policymakers, there's this uncertainty about what is the you know, where should we focus energy? But I think also on the part of companies sort of saying you're being able to say that that there's so many factors, we're not the you know, the primary one and pointing the fingers here, there and everywhere, and I and I think you know, I do think it's important to to note that policymakers aren't magicians, you know they can't figure out the answer to everything, but I think my argument would be that we first of all, there are some things in the food supply that we know we should and can regulate those better. But I think also, when we're when we are regulating food safety, if we're not looking at how those regulations impact these broader harms or ills or diseases, then you know we're exacerbating them. We're not actually contributing to a better overall health, so there's ways to at least be conscious of all of those broader issues when we're regulating in the places where we do regulate. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you think that the approach of informing consumers is good enough. Making it clear on labeling or like you know now, at restaurants that you have to have a calorie count next to each dish or each food. Is that the kind of regulation that you think would make a difference? Or do you think it's more at the, like, production level? Like should we even be, should companies even be allowed to produce certain kinds of foods? 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  FDA's overall budget 98% of their budget on food goes to food safety and only 2% goes to nutrition. And then you look at, like, what they do on food safety, they inspect plants they like have certain requirements. There's practices that need to be followed and on nutrition it's all like labeling and awareness and so I do think that there's a difference in scale. There's a difference in kind of you know in terms of the tools we're using in some cases you know labeling and information can be a start. I think it's even better when that leads to product reformulation on the part of industry,  'cause that's where you're seeing the impact, but I don't think it's enough. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  So you mean if people stop choosing a product because they're so disturbed by the calorie count or whatever then they're like then the company is like alright, maybe we need to make this a little bit healthier to appeal to people. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  Yeah, or I would say even for example where there's like in New York City where there's a sodium warning label.  So on food menu items where the sodium level of that item is greater than the daily recommended sodium consumption they have to have a warning label so even before it gets in front of consumers and they're making different choices. There's a push on. there's a nudge on the company, to, you know, say we don't want to have that negative, you know, symbol, so and and there's no reason to have the amount of sodium that we have in this product, it's gratuitous. So they are actually choosing to reduce in order to avoid that. The same thing we see, often with things like in in you know, some countries have done taxes on sugar that that that are based on the like. their tiered taxing based on the amount of sugar in, let's say like a a beverage. 

And companies will reduce sugar to be able to get into a lower tax bracket and see their calorie labeling too. I mean, if a company knows that they're going to need to put the calorie labels on everything there's an incentive for them to think a little bit more about you know there are ways to reduce this. I think I'm a little cynical, just about calorie labeling in general. I think that there's not that great evidence that calories are really the salient piece of information, and it's hard 'cause we've now invested a lot of energy in like labeling of this piece of information that I think is probably not the one the thing that people should look at most, it's it's more it is sugar level. I think sugar is. You know, huge issue. We have a huge project where we've been looking, we've been providing resources and support to state and local government and coalitions on policies to reduce sugar consumption. So I think like making that more front and center the amount of sugar in product sodium is another big one. And again I mentioned the New York example. But yeah, I think some of those informational things do have an impact, and again if they lead to changes on the part of companies but I think also is at the federal level, we have like national voluntary reduction guidelines for sodium. You know, making those things mandatory sort of saying we know that the amount of sodium in use is is detrimental, and I think the issue with sodium, for example, is it's hard if one company reducing 'cause people like have a taste like they have a taste expectation, so you know bringing that down across the board can can both benefit health but also benefit the companies that are trying to kind of make a reduction there. So I think we should use more prescriptive tools in some cases for ingredients in food supply that are overused and that are harmful. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Also, just thinking about the calories thing that, you know what if there was some kind of ways to inform consumers about you know how nutrient dense is this? Is it just empty calories or is this going to fuel you for the day like we all need calories like you know, but that kind of information seems like it would be useful, and I know that there there was a time when like if you just have oat anywhere in your ingredients and you can say it's heart healthy or whatever you know which is ridiculous and not what I'm talking about but but just like maybe more emphasizing the good ingredients that are in something. 

EMILY BROAD :  Again, going back to like where we're investing resources and what we're prioritizing. FDA doesn't have enough resources to even enforce the labeling rules that are out there so would the number one thing in labeling is labels shouldn't be false or misleading and like if you go into any grocery store right now, especially in the center aisles like 85% of the products there are either have gone to that you know past that threshold, they're really putting things on there that are false, or they're really like using this, these gray areas to put information on products that shouldn't be there and there's we don't have any premarket review of labels for products that FDA reviews. We do have them for meat and poultry that that is reviewed by USDA, so there's no premarket review. There's thousands of new products entering the market every year here and again, if we think that nutrition and diet related disease are priorities, we would invest more money in not only the regulation of those but also the enforcement of those regulations by FDA. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Could we talk more about the pandemic and about COVID-19 and how it has brought so many of the flaws in our food system to light and really, I think made consumers more aware of the conditions in the meatpacking plant, and maybe it's just because I'm in food media, but it seems to me like there's there, especially in the early days there was a lot of of discussion about that because they were trying to figure out how you could do social distancing, for instance in a meat packing plant and how impossible that was and so people are kind of looking inside and seeing what the plant might look like. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  The way that I look at it there's like sort of four big aspects of issues that COVID impacted in the food system. So I think one was really workers and we've talked a little bit about that. But I think suddenly food businesses were declared essential which made all of the workers essential. Otherwise they're often treated as disposable, even in the earliest days when there was like very little knowledge about what was needed to keep people safe, or even if there was knowledge there wasn't really enforcement on the part of government that businesses needed to take those steps to keep workers safe. And even when you look at like the the number of illnesses and deaths in in meat and poultry slaughter and processing it took until September, six months later, before OSHA issued any any citations to any plants so you know clearly you know you're not deterring anyone from bad behavior or not forcing them to take the steps that they were able to take by not doing anything for six months, and even then it was like 10,000 dollars, $13,000 of fines for you know, many thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths. I think food security which we haven't really talked about that aspect as well, but in the end of 2019 we saw the lowest food insecurity rates in the US that we've had since The Great Recession and then early in the pandemic there were estimates that food insecurity was like 25%, so it went from 10% to 25% and I would say on that front it took a little while but I think we have had a really robust government response and what I think I would love to see now is make some of the things permanent like you know we already we know that you know supporting people who are in need of food reduces food insecurity keeps people healthy and then I would say farmers, a lot of farmers like their markets just dried up and farmers always are subject to a lot of risk. I mean, it's a really tough profession. There's weather risk. There's market risks there. I mean, you know you name it you know particularly for producers who sold to anything in like foodservice, complete market closures, fairly significant inability on the part of our food chain to quickly pivot those to retail or other places. And then I, I think, the other big thing that was related to that was food waste which I spend a lot of time working on. It's estimated that we waste 30 to 40% of our food prior to COVID, and I think everyone you know saw on full display these, like I have like a picture that I use in slideshows a lot of like just like a field of onions like as far as the eye can see that were left to rot, and I think dairy was a really good example. Just it was like at one point 5% of the supply of dairy was being wasted every day 'cause there was nowhere for it to go. Again all of these are issues outside of COVID, but you know all of them were worse in and for the first time a lot of just average Americans started to see evidence of these issues. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  Let me say a little more about food waste 'cause I think it's something I work on a lot, and I think it's you know, people often ask like, you know why the focus? Why spend so much resources on it and it's it's to me sort of a microcosm for all of these other issues in the food supply. 

So like for example, we know that the production of food is a big emitter of greenhouse gases and then if we're overproducing to account for all the food we waste, we're increasing those emissions. We know that waters outside that the food production uses a lot of water and there's data that show that like 20% of our water, maybe 25% of our water supply goes to water crops that we essentially just throw away because they're part of the food waste and then food itself when it's in the landfill is a huge emitter of methane, and so the the UN has said that food waste causes about 8 to 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Which makes it like a worthy target.  This is the planet that we all live and use the water from and breathe the air from so you know again anything that's contributing to additional environmental degradation is bad for human health, but also a lot of food waste is caused because of these unreasonable or or unclear food safety rules. If we're not looking at food waste as a primary target, there's a lot of ways that we might say any food that like might possibly have been contaminated in any way should be thrown away and you know again, I don't want to be accused of saying that we shouldn't be eating healthy food or safe food, but there's a lot of cases where you know food that's totally safe and edible is thrown away as one small example, or not even small. One large example, I guess, date labels on foods often are, you know, intended to be indicators of taste and freshness, but the large majority of people believe that their safety date and even a lot of regulators in state. States require that food be thrown away after that date, even if it's things like canned goods or pasta or things that you know you could probably eat two years later or five years later and would be totally fine. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I think when when most people think about food waste, they think about that the labels and then they also think about foods being wasted while people are going hungry. And I I know that that equation isn't really that simple and straightforward, but I think the things that you're talking about just sort of these broader issues of the way food is produced and the greenhouse gase effects of that. It just makes a lot of sense. It makes it really clear. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  There was actually an interesting court decision like two years ago from a uh provincial court in Pakistan that we were kind of involved in, but they found that the right to food which they recognize we in the US do not. But they found that the right to food actually includes the right for food not to be wasted, and that there was a duty on government to find ways to ensure that that surplus, you know safe food was not wasted because it was breaching everybody's right to food to have all of that food thrown away. And I think it's like an interesting framing when you think about that you know we all should have a right to that food, especially those who are otherwise kind of you know in need, and yet I don't think we've really taken seriously the the need to have a real commitment to make sure that all of the food that can be eaten gets to someone in need.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When I spoke with Emily Broad LEIB, the Biden administration had just announced that they were working with the Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA to develop a rule for employers to require workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. I wanted to hear her thoughts on that recent development. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Does that make sense to you as a as an OSHA requirement mandating that a company have all of its workers vaccinated? 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  It's a good question, so I should say it's slightly beyond my, you know, in terms of just the legal authority question beyond what I really look at. But I do think there's some good like legal precedent around doing, you know, doing things like this and having kind of vaccine requirements. And it is a worker safety issue. I mean it's it's interesting, it's not just a worker safety issue I mean this is coming up in schools right now and things where children are saying or parents are saying can we have a mask mandate because I understand that if people think it's personal choice, but my child and my family can't be safe when they're going in. So if you kind of look at it through this lens of those who are trying to come in every day and and be safe and not get infected or or infect their families, I think in particular when we think about like meat and poultry processing and things like that where people are close together and even if they've attempted to put up some barriers, you know there's nothing that substitutes for making sure people are vaccinated so that we can reduce the spread. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  I mean to me it just feels almost straightforward. It's like, oh, what is the cause of worker injury and death in our company? Oh, it's this disease. OK, what can we do to mitigate it? 

Here are the things masking, distancing, vaccination when available and it's just It's just like it's like your three compartment sink in a kitchen. You know it's just it's here's the the the guidelines that are in place, but you know just because it's gotten so politicized no one can look at it outside of all of these other issues. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  I fully support having vaccine mandates at my institution. 

We have a vaccine mandate. We also right now have a mask mandate because we're seeing some spread and a lot of us like present party included have unvaccinated people in our homes. Like my children. I think the the biggest question is going to be ultimately like it is a novel way to use OSHA and I think it is support there is like legal support for doing it, but it will be interesting to see how the courts look at it. And I I think you're right I mean I think it's you know the the political side of it has really taken over any of the rational debate over this you know, scientific that you know, people use medications for so many for so many things, and it seems like there's just really good data that this works and that it's a smart thing to do. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  My guest is Emily, Broad LEIB,  director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. After a short break, we'll hear more from her about what she envisions and proposes for the US food regulatory agencies for making them more efficient and effective, as well as more comprehensive in terms of long term health. Stay with us. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  This is Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Let's return to my conversation with Emily Broad Leib of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. You have talked about some proposals for reorganizing some of the, because obviously this is a much larger like you were just talking about how OSHA can't even really enforce the laws that we do have so what are some of your thoughts about reorganizing kind of the the layers of federal agencies to work more efficiently and and effectively to address these issues of health? 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  One proposal that I've spent a lot of time on would be for the US to create a national food strategy. I do a lot of work on this with a colleague, Laurie Bay Renavand at Vermont Law School. One of the things we did was we did a study of all of our peer countries that have created something like this and in many cases they, the impetus was really that similar to the US, there are a lot of different, It's not just that there's different issues in the food system, but there are a lot of different regulatory authorities. So in the US we've we've talked a little bit about FDA. 

The USDA not so much about the Environmental Protection Agency, which also plays the role, but there's actually more than 15 different federal agencies that have a role in in food safety. 

And so it's really tricky to align those regulations for the greatest sort of end goals without really having a plan in place that says 'Here are what our goals are with regard to the food supply. Here are the places where we know every day we're making tradeoffs between policies where we're choosing narrow food safety over long term health and kind of needing to really interrogate that and figure out if that meets our longer term goals'. So we looked at, I think national food strategies in six other countries and then we look actually in the US at national strategies that we have here on a range of other topics like this is a type of thing we do for other issues. We just haven't chosen to do it for food, and looking at some of the best practices from different countries, one big aspect is really coordination across those agencies. So having regular interagency working group input from the public, I think many of our, especially like members of Congress and even agency folks don't have a background in food production necessarily and there's a real, it's really important to have opportunities for input from different stakeholders and in setting goals and seeing how we're meeting those and then and then really putting something down in writing that could even just be a list of like here are the five primary goals we're attempting to achieve in the food system so that we can measure different regulations and different laws against how they make it more or less likely that we're going to achieve those goals rather than being totally haphazard and like  o`n one hand, you know you know restricting food safety on farms and then on the other saying we don't have enough produce so we can't meet the dietary guidelines and then on the other in the farm bill supporting farms that produce things that aren't the things we recommend. I mean, there's a lot of ways that our laws are just inherently at odds with one another because there hasn't been any coordinating mechanism.  Representative Jim McGovern has been calling for a White House conference on Food and nutrition, which I think is a big piece of getting all the players together and saying what do we need to do? How do we need to get there? Jose Andreas was calling for a White House Foods Czar which is something we look at in this report. But that's a way often that we create high level strategies is by appointing like a so called czar or you know lead figure to really like take the lead on an issue and coordinate. There's been articles calling for like a US Food Policy Council which is actually a tool that Canada used when they created their national food strategy just two years ago. 

Is that they created a national Food Policy Council to continue to advise government on how it's meeting the goals that were laid out in this strategy so this is a tool that we know how to use. We've used it elsewhere and our peer countries are using it and it seems like you know food is so important and foundational that I don't know how we're going to really solve these issues without investing and and, you know, making a plan and getting all the forces moving in that direction. 

KAYTE YOUNG Yeah, and do you really see that COVID has brought so many things to light that maybe it's opening up a window for some of this. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  That is my hope. I mean, you know, I.  commend the federal government for really seeing issue and investing a lot of money in particular. Like, you know, really like increasing SNAP benefits and increasing school meals and they're throwing a lot of money at it. But what I don't see is alot of this discussion of like the you know how we're going to do this in the long term and so. 

I think that's like the the question right now is that we have and and even right now, USDA has a lot of money that they have left from the last few stimulus bills, and they're figuring out ways to spend it, and they're investing in good things, but there's not a lot of discussion about the long term, and that's what I hope will come out of it, but I'm not confident that it will. We'll see. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Right, so like if there were some kind of strategic planning process in place, then there would be that that money could go to really good use. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I mean I found it encouraging to see that snap benefits were increasing and because to me that's so much Better than sending food to food banks because I Just feel like people being able to purchase their own food at grocery stores is always better than getting in line at a food bank. But I also know that we're not at the place to eliminate that kind of help as well, but yeah. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  No matter what we do, there is always going to be surplus edible food, and there's no reason we should throw that away instead of getting it to people. But I it's not a it's not a long term solution. It isn't a, you know, It's a band aid. And the best thing we can do is make sure people can purchase food.  I really support having universal free meals and schools for the long term. I mean, there's just so much evidence of what the benefits would be for that for or children and families, and just so I know there's been a push on that I think. Yeah, like increasing the snap benefits and now increasing the the thrifty food plan. Which will, you know, result in a longer term increase, which is really amazing, I just hope we can pull together more of this long term vision and start putting in place the policies to get there. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, that might be a good place to end since we have run out of time, but I appreciate so much having this conversation. It's, thank you. 

EMILY BROAD LEIB:  Yeah it's great. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've been speaking with Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. You can find links to her work on our website, 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Farm tractors are supposed to be used in the field, but sometimes farmers drive their tractors on the highways when they need to get from one field to another. And that's when sometimes deadly problems arise. Reporting for Harvest Public Media, Rich Egger tells us about one woman's effort to remind drivers to share the road. 

RICHARD EGGER:  A lifelong farmer in Western Illinois, Tim Sullivan was driving his tractor on a stretch of highway north of Macomb a few years ago when he was struck from behind by a box truck. The impact threw Sullivan from his tractor, killing him. He was 64. 

TERESA YOUNG:  He loved farming.  It made him happy and he got to do that every day.

RICHARD EGGER:  This is his youngest daughter, Teresa Young. She says as their family drove from the memorial service to the cemetery they were comforted to see the route lined with tractors of all sizes and even lawn mowers as the community farmers paid their respects. 

TERESA YOUNG:  And it really made that drive after the service a memorable one and a beautiful one. 

RICHARD EGGER:  And the sight sparked an idea and artist Kelly Quinn, a lifelong Macomb resident. 

KELLY QUINN:  The image of all those tractors at the intersections really struck me. 

RICHARD EGGER:  Quinn says Sullivan was respected and loved in the community. She wanted to use art to honor him and remind people to share the road with tractors, but she knew she needed help to turn a brown crumpled 1939 Farmall tractor Into a colorful monument covered in mosaic tiles. 

KELLY QUINN:  I typically use this material. It lasts longer than paint and it's a little bit fresher and newer looking. 

RICHARD EGGER:  It took a couple years of donations of money, materials and time, but on a sunny and warm late summer afternoon, Kelly Quinn unveiled her latest piece of art, Tractor Town. A mosaic with tiles of every color of the rainbow and more cover the tractor. Painting pictures of farm fields, wind turbines and puffy white clouds. Quinn believes this work of art is one of a kind. 

KELLY QUINN:  Yeah, anywhere anywhere in the world nobody has mosaicked a tractor before so

It's a special first and it'll be neat that it is from Macomb. 

RICHARD EGGER:  The mosaic tractor now stands at the intersection of two highways and a train crossing near downtown Macomb. 

TERESA YOUNG:  We're looking at trying to prevent any future deaths by making Mac`omb a place where there is awareness through a very unique project of mosaicking antique tractors and putting them on pillars so people see them. 

RICHARD EGGER:  Tractor accidents are by far the leading cause of death and serious injury in agriculture, according to the National AG safety database. Around 250 people die each year from tractor overturns, run overs, entanglement and highway collisions. Jose Rudolphi, who researches agricultural safety and health at the University of Illinois, says despite the dangers, farmers use tractors just about every single day. 

JOSE RUDOLPHI:  We do know that farmers are very aware of the numerous hazard involved with their work, but they often consider those hazard part of the job. 

RICHARD EGGER:  And part of the job sometimes means using public roads to get from one field to another, especially in the spring and fall. Rodolfi says some states such as Illinois now require new farm machinery to include flashing amber lights and red reflectors. A colorful array of lights festoon the mosaic tractor. Teresa Young says the Sullivan family is touched by the project. In fact, she was one of around a dozen volunteers who helped piece together the mosaic, including a depiction of the family's sesquicentennial farm. 

TERESA YOUNG:  That's really a special thing for us to have and do. And show our children. 

RICHARD EGGER:  The artist, Kelly Quinn, hopes the project will get people talking. 

KELLY QUIN:  The talking about it is really important. If people are thinking about tractors more, maybe there'll be fewer accidents. 

RICHARD EGGER:  Quinn says she's not done reminding truck and car drivers to think about tractors. 

Her goal is to mosaic several more tractors and display them around Macomb. For Harvest Public Media, I'm Rich Egger. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Harvest Public media covers food and farming in the Midwest. Find more from this reporter collective at That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening. 

We'll see you next time. 


RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chila, Abraham Hill, Peyton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Harvest Public Media, and me Renee Reed. 

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Emily Broad Leib. 

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.  Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey. 

Emily Broad Leib, head and shoulders portrait with green grass in the background.

Emily M. Broad Leib is a Clinical Professor of Law, Faculty Director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, and Deputy Director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. (Jessica Scranton)

“But you could look at food safety as being more about long term health impacts--so, diet-related disease or the cumulative impacts over a period of years, or a lifetime, of eating certain things.”

This week on our show, a conversation with Emily Broad Leib of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. She argues that our narrowly focused food safety regulations are failing to address the most important factors in our food system. We talk about what it might look like to include worker safety, environmental impacts and long term health and nutrition when we look at the safety of our food system. 

Plus, food and farming updates from Harvest Public Media.

Further Reading/Listening

The Care and Feeding of a Nation -Harvard Magazine

The New Food Safety -SSRN

Eliminate Laws That Cause Healthy Food to Go to Waste -New York Times, Opinion

Emily Broad Leib talks Food Law and COVID-19 -Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg

Music On this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music comes to us from the artists at Unversal Productions Music.

Stories On This Episode

Federal programs to get farmers’ help on climate change has more takers than money

Field of Crops

The federal government pays farmers to do things that fight global warming. And farmers want in. There's just not enough money to go around.

After a fatal tractor accident, a mosaic mural reminds midwest drivers to share the road

Theresa Young working on a mosaic

A memorial in Illinois is hoping to remind drivers to share the road with slow-moving farm equipment.

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