"Food Safety: A Time to Get Serious"

Ken Taylor's Writings

Taken from the MFA Digest, April 1989 and December 1989

Director’s Reports (partial)


Taylor’s report describes:

- FDA testing

- 400,000 chickens destroyed in Arkansas due to heptachlor contamination

- BGH debate about milk production


Food has a special meaning to us and to a society. It is a way of measuring the sense of security we feel, both for our families and for the community as a whole. In the United States, most of us are dependent for our daily bread upon people we don’t know, processes we don’t understand, and institutions we don’t control. This makes us particularly vulnerable to the kind of food scares we have experienced in the past few months.

Suddenly this society, which farms the globe and for a long time hasn’t had to think twice about its food supply, is becoming paranoid—and that is not a healthy state. It threatens to further alienate the growers from the eaters, to leave us vulnerable to Madison Avenue hype for “natural light” sorts of bogus food labels or other similar strategies which only serve to confuse us and to delay reform.


It isn’t a time to panic, but it is clearly a time to get serious. As citizens, growers and eaters alike, we have a right to be concerned about all aspects of our food system—to be informed about that system. And we have a responsibility to inform ourselves and to act on what we know in order to encourage reform of the system. These actions may include informed personal shopping habits, direct support of sustainable farmers, or starting a new food enterprise. We must also act to make sure that our own institutions, whether they be government regulatory agencies or commodity marketing groups, look out for our fundamental interests and stop serving those who would profit from keeping us both ignorant and powerless.


First, we must acknowledge that we have a problem. If it isn’t a food safety crisis, per se, then it is a crisis of confidence, which threatens the governance of our society. Second, we must accept the fact that band-aids in the absence of long-range commitment to fundamental change will only make things worse. Simply speeding up the process of pulling suspected harmful pesticides off the market will not work.


Finally, the matters of food safety and public confidence in our food supply rests on our system of agriculture. As Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act.” I believe the mission of agriculture is to provide the community with a safe, secure, and sustainable food supply, not just for this generation but for all of them to come. Through their philosophy and practices, agriculturalists must demonstrate to those of us who are wholly dependent upon them for our nourishment, the combination of humility and stewardship that we will need in the difficult times ahead.


Our greatest hope lies in the fact that we all eat—farmers and city folk alike. We must not let anything keep us from working together to find the answers.

Chief Joseph, famous Nez Perce National leader said it best, “The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same. We are all part of the web of life. What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.”


It is certainly no secret that the food safety issue has been heating up lately. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about the cyanide in Chilean grapes? Or Alar in apples? Aldicarb in potatoes and bananas? And there are many more examples, less publicized, that can’t help but shake our confidence in the safety of the food we all eat.