”Safe food is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as absolutely safe, risk-free food,” says Will Hueston, a University of Minnesota veterinarian and Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Food System Leadership.
"Safe means absence of risk, and there is no zero risk. Safety is a relative term: You are either more safe or less safe,” he says. "All food carries risk. No food is 100% safe.”
At a recent international conference, consumer advocates from Africa, Asia and the developed world were all asked who was responsible for food safety, says Hueston.
Those participants from less developed countries responded that the consumer was ultimately responsible for safe food preparation for their families. Western consumer activists placed the responsibility on farmers and food companies.
The difference, says Hueston, is that consumers in third world countries face the possibility of food borne illness every day of their lives. So they know they must take precautions in food handling and preparation to reduce the risk of illness.
Food outbreaks in developed countries are far less common. So consumers take safety for granted, and forget or ignore basic food handling techniques that reduce risks. Then, when there is an outbreak, consumers, politicians and the media demand immediate solutions to the problem. The problem, says Hueston, is that there are an infinite number of solutions and all solutions have unintended consequences.
For example, there are efforts currently underway to ban subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals. But if it is done, it could create a whole host of other problems related to animal health, welfare and productivity.
"We have to move from a problem-solution paradigm to managing dilemmas,” he says, "because there is no silver bullet or single solution.”
Often, there are multiple solutions—at opposite ends of a spectrum. Small-scale, low-intensity farms might work for specific foods for local populations. But intensive-scale operations will still be needed to supply food globally for billions of people.
"We have to be adaptive and look for better approaches,” he says. And it will take the collective action of farmers, processors and consumers to solve problems.
"We need to listen to understand, and focus on shared interests,” he says. "The goal has to be a global human right to adequately safe food.”