The 224-page book lands June 10 in hardback, paperback and eBook formats, and takes a look at the transparency of the food system by bringing together a variety of voices in the food industry. Chapters written by the likes of Darin Detwiler, Paul De Filippi, Juanjuan Sun and more are broken into three sections that give readers a broad look at transparency, its impact on food safety and health and the global view.
We caught up with Steier and Friedlander to discuss the book, who it’s for and why it should be at the top of your list.
Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine: Why did you both want to work on this book?
Gabriela Steier: As a lawyer and a scholar in the field, you know, my job is to analyze issues and to suggest solutions. I rely on research, and this research in turn is based on information, and I have to do something with this information. So this book really grew out of my desire to identify the gaps in this information system that we have so that the research can highlight not only what we have, but also how we can make it seamless.
Adam Friedlander: Like Gabi was saying, the access to information is out there. But how do you find that information and how do you analyze that information as well? How do you capture so many diverse viewpoints in the food system into: This is the reality of how the food system works around the world, not just in the U.S., but in China, in Russia, in the U.K., in Canada. We reached out to multiple expert collaborators from around the world, and this was a culmination of us reaching out to our networks and really trying to focus in on, “What is transparency and how do we apply it to our real world life?”
QA: From the Food and Drug Administration’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety to a number of webinars and conference sessions, transparency has been a growing topic in the food industry. What’s at the heart of transparency? Why do we need it?
AF: To me, transparency equals access to information. And it's really important for everyone in the food system, from consumers to businesses to people who work on farms or in food production settings, to have access to information. How do we make that information accessible? And there are so many barriers to information, whether it's information that people may not even know exists to information that people know exist, but others want to hide that information. Consumers trust that the food that they're purchasing from grocery stores or from online retailers will be safe. And so that information exists within the food industry. But there have been instances where businesses have lost that trust to consumers when there are instances of foodborne outbreaks or food recalls. That really does damage to the brand’s reputation. It could actually cause legal implications for the people involved in that business. But I think, most importantly, it's really harmful to our families’ health.
GS: This deep interest in food grew when I moved to the U.S. for college. I grew up in Europe and the food in the U.S. often made me sick. Not so sick that I would have to be hospitalized, but sick enough that it really affected me and made me think about it. When you ask, “How is this information that you have about the food regulated?” When you ask, “What made me sick?” or “What is in this?” — you quickly get to the question of, “Which laws support or hinder this transparency?” Transparency implies openness, communication and accountability. When producers walk the talk and show that they care about their consumers, they have to be transparent. My hope is that this book will tell them a lot about how to achieve this and more deeply what it means to bring more transparency into the food system.
QA: Who is this book for? Should food processors pick it up?
GS: Absolutely. That was one of the reasons why we made editors’ notes that are in between the chapters to help people with the context and the background. Everybody with an interest in food should pick this book up. Everybody with an interest in food who ever talks to me gets one or more copies of my books sooner or later. I have a lot of experience pushing my research on to people, gently. If there's a food producer, for example, who is relying on imported ingredients, then the first section or the third section will be of special importance to them. If there is a producer who's working domestically and is possibly looking into labels or regulatory framework, then section two of the book will be more interesting. It can be read in sequence, but people can also pick from it and just use the most important aspects.
QA: Were there any chapters that jumped out at you while working on the book?
AF: Darin [Detwiler] really going into the history of food safety, food fraud, food defense [in chapter one] — it really formed my thinking for the rest of the textbook about how recent our food system has really taken shape. The United States Department of Agriculture was created in 1862, and the first consumer protection laws in the United States were after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. … After the publication of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, that also really pushed forward the momentum to create consumer protection laws in the United States. After the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938, the United States in 2011 needed a modernization, so that that was a great segue into FSMA. And now we're in the new era of smarter food safety.
GS: This comes from a very personal place. I grew up in Europe, and now I’m living in Boston. I’ve been here half my life. The one chapter by Samantha Jennings from England really stands out to me. She is so accomplished in her field. She's an adviser to the European Union and she put a spotlight for us on the comparison of the system in the United States and in Europe. I have a doctorate in comparative law, so this is right up my alley. She highlighted for us how you have the risk analysis system, the risk assessments in the European Union that is all within the European Food Safety Authority’s scope. And in the United States, there is this criticism that we have a hodgepodge of regulation. Having this approach where the European Union has that precautionary principle leaves such a big gap to where the United States is. What happens to what's in that gap?
QA: What are your hopes for the book?
AF: “It's really important that the audience understands that whether you're a seasoned professional or whether you're new to the industry, this book has a place for you. I hope this book inspires people to get involved in the food system any way that they can, whether they volunteer at a food bank or they work on a farm or they work in a grocery store.
GS: This is the beginning of the conversation. This is sort of the research that we bring to the table with our contributors — let's carry this forward. So, anybody who will pick this up hopefully will not shy away from discussing this book, from criticizing it, from ripping it apart, because the more people use it, the more friction we create, the more we can inspire, the more conversations we can start with this book, the better.
Editor's Note: Gabriela Steier is a columnist for QA magazine. Find her most recent International Perspectives column here.