Still a Jungle
In an environment of drug-resistant pathogens and “pink slime,” why do the food industry and government place the onus for safety on consumers?
What is needed, in short, is a shift in thinking. Up until the 1960s, car accidents were generally believed to be the result of drivers’ bad behavior. The publication of Unsafe at Any Speed revealed that some fatalities were not only avoidable but that manufacturers actually resisted making safety improvements to their cars.
The resulting public outcry led to a tougher set of government standards and a shift in industry practice; driver safety came to be seen as a positive product attribute rather than a drag on the bottom line. Similarly, food-safety advocates need to galvanize the public behind the idea that foodborne illness is not the result of consumer behavior; increasingly, we get sick because of an unsafe product. Moreover, the best way to make our food system safer is not by changing the behavior of consumers, but by creating a set of rules that actually reward industries for providing safer food.
There is another important lesson to draw from the past struggles over product safety. The early 1970s witnessed a cresting movement of consumer advocacy, a time when Americans, particularly women, not only demanded that government protect them from avoidable harms but also used their financial power through boycotts and other means to make industry take notice. Since then, consumers have receded from the political scene; organizations like Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, still exist but mostly as groups that help consumers decide what to buy rather than as a political force.
The loss of a robust consumer movement in this country has had dire consequences, and it is part of a larger shift in our politics. Today, our world is conceived in terms of atomized individuals, whether it is a voter, a consumer, or (according to the Supreme Court) even a corporation. Yet politics is a collective enterprise: The goal of public policy is to pursue a common purpose. As citizens, we must act with this common purpose in mind, whether it is in the voting booth or at the supermarket.
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