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Food Policy Reflections From the Big Apple

05.feb.03, Justin Kastner, on location in New York City, Food Safety Network

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its food safety programs are once
again in the firing line.
Sunday's New York Times editorial page led with complaints about the
effectiveness of USDA's food safety efforts, and a recent Congressional
Government Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that while USDA and
other agencies have implemented programs intended to enhance food safety,
the continued instances of foodborne illnesses and related deaths warrant
the combining of all food agencies under one single food safety agency.
New York City, in particular, has been concerned about sanitary
policy for years, and the pages of the New York Times have always announced
that preoccupation. Two articles, both dated February 1st, but 124 years
apart, illustrate New York's vested interest in American food policy.
Home to literally millions of consumers, few of whom produce their own food,
New York is of course interested in the safety of the American food supply.
Sunday's article ("Meat Safety at Risk," NYT, February 1, page A18)
elaborates this concern by decrying an absence of federal enforcement power
in the sanitary regulation of meat processing plants. As the New York
Times editorial explains, a Federal District Court recently blocked efforts by the
US Department of Agriculture to shut down a midwestern meat plant.
The plant, owned by Nebraska Beef, had failed a microbiological test for the
infamous E. coli O157:H7 bug.
The court ruling does indeed hint at what the New York Times describes as a
need for "strong legislative action clarifying the government's power to
enforce safety standards." To be fair, USDA currently has the authority to
withdraw its inspectors--and, with them, the USDA stamp of approval required
for commercial release of meat products. Nevertheless, the roundabout
nature of this provision makes it susceptible to judicial interpretation and, in
the case of the Nebraska Beef ruling, judicial intervention.
Many New York readers will join the Times in its lamentation that
the Nebraska Beef incident was a triumph of "economic interests" over
"public health." As America's epicenter of world trade, New York is
familiar with the influence of money. In fact, commercial influence characterized
much of New York's initial interest in the sanitary regulation of the food
supply.
Precisely 124 years ago, the New York Times broke with another story, this
time featuring one of its principal businessmen. Significantly, this
particular story marked the genesis of a trade dispute that ultimately led the US to
adopt sanitary regulations for the cattle trade.
On the front page of its February 1, 1879 issue, the Times announced that
British veterinary officials had discovered an insidious animal disease,
pleuro-pneumonia, amongst a cargo of American cattle shipped to Liverpool. The
discovery spawned in Britain the contemplation of trade restrictions on
American export cattle. The export trade in cattle, led by New York shipping
mogul Timothy Eastman, had exploded in recent years. Eastman was not about
to see a reduction in his new-found, lucrative endeavour. When Eastman
received word of Britain's discovery of pleuro-pneumonia in American
cattle, he tried to pre-empt the dispute.
In the 1879 New York Times article, Eastman conceded that pleuro-
pneumonia existed in certain locales along the American east coast and
Canada, but he challenged the diagnosis of pleuro-pneumonia on the recently
condemned American shipment. Eastman argued that pleuro-pneumonia was
entirely confined to Eastern dairies and did not threaten export cattle,
which were sourced from the western states. On January 31, Eastman
presented this very argument to E.M. Archibald, the British Consul-General
in New York City, and Archibald investigated whether disease-free export
cattle might be exposed to pleuro-pneumonia at eastern ports just prior to
shipment.
As it turned out, there were legitimate questions about the British
diagnosis. However, Archibald and the British veterinary authorities would
never be satisifed with Eastman's "disease-free west" argument. Eastman's
colleagues--both shippers and cattlemen--would eventually recognize that the
U.S. needed sanitary regulations for pleuro-pneumonia and other animal
disease problems. Over the course of the 1880s, several New York veterinary
leaders, in particular a Dr. James Law of Cornell University and the Brooklyn Health
Department, would help the US government institute a federal disease control
plan.
While food safety problems continue today--these are after all, biological
systems, which continually change--valuable perspectives and even solutions
can be found in the past. As regulatory leaders recognize risks and take
meaningful steps to reduce them, they should be mindful of history.

Justin Kastner is a PhD candidate with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph.
519-824-4120 x54280
jkastner@uoguelph.ca

For more information on the history of food safety and animal health related
trade disputes, visit www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/trade/trade.htm.