Navigating the controversy: The trust crisis in food safety

There is growing controversy surrounding the ban of certain food ingredients in California and New York, which has created an erosion of trust in institutions and increasing polarization in society, according to Frank Yiannas. The former deputy commissioner of FDA said greater transparency is needed, as well as unity in addressing food safety issues.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

October 3, 2023

3 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Food safety is a divisive topic in the United States, accentuated by the proposed ingredient ban and sale of raw milk.
  • Yiannas said FDA needs to do more to restore trust with consumers, including being more transparent in its communication.
  • Varying state laws on food safety are affecting food manufacturers, which can have a ripple effect throughout the country.

The movement by California and New York legislators to arbitrarily ban certain food ingredients highlights a critical juncture in our culture. Frank Yiannas, former deputy commissioner of FDA, calls it a “global trust bust.”

“Many individuals, for often valid reasons, no longer trust the institutions they and society have relied on because, in some instances, these institutions or individuals have failed them whether it be government officials, certain media outlets or platforms, some private companies and more,” he said. “Moreover, current social trends are resulting in increased polarization on a host of issues and, unfortunately, sometimes that involves food.”

Consider the passion consumers have for raw milk. Pasteurization was adopted to kill dangerous bacteria, scientific research shows. Yet raw milk has become trendy. Advocates say it contains superior nutrition and provides health benefits, such as protection against allergies. The Raw Milk Institute links studies promoting childhood consumption.

CDC, however, paints a different picture. The national public health agency conducted three studies, which show an increase in the number of raw milk-associated outbreaks. The most recent study, “Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Linked to Unpasteurized Milk and Relationship to Changes in State Laws – United States, 1998-2018,” found the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk increased over two decades.

“From 1998 through 2018, 202 outbreaks occurred because of drinking raw milk,” the study reported. “These outbreaks caused 2,645 illnesses and 228 hospitalizations. Among illnesses linked to unpasteurized milk that occurred from 2013 through 2018, 48% (325) were among people ages 0-19 years. Areas where raw milk was legally sold had 3.2 times more outbreaks than areas where the sale of raw milk was illegal.”

Now raw milk is the center of a political ploy. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was elected in 2022, recently told The Colorado Sun that he hopes Colorado moves to “fully legalize the production and sale of raw milk, properly labeled, so that those who prefer it are able to legally obtain it with greater ease.” This platform aligns with the Libertarian Party of Colorado, which offered to help Republican politicians get elected if they would support raw milk.

Yiannas believes food and food safety issues should unite us, not divide us as a country. “There aren’t too many topics more important to a nation than food, so the nation needs a strong, unified and trusted FDA,” he said.

To restore the bridge of trust, he explained there is more the FDA can and must do. “First, transparency is an important factor to instilling trust, so I think it would be wise for the FDA to redouble their efforts and strengthen their communication to all stakeholders, in a more transparent manner,” he said. “We have a national food system.”

FDA regulates milk at the federal level. Unpasteurized milk cannot be shipped across state lines. However, the agency has no jurisdiction over intrastate shipments. Currently, there is a mishmash of regulations: Some states allow sales of raw milk, others allow sales only at farms or through cow-sharing programs and some states prohibit sales of any kind.

Given the hodgepodge of laws across states regarding unpasteurized milk, it becomes clear that food safety is a divisive topic. As the California legislature’s attempt to ban four food ingredients awaits Gov. Newsom’s signature, there are repercussions to consider.

“If one state bans a food additive, it wreaks havoc on food manufacturers supplying their products to the whole county, as separate manufacturing lines to produce uniquely formulated products for one state is tremendously inefficient,” Yiannas maintained. “When it comes to trust in food, greater transparency would be a very good thing, so engaged stakeholder groups could know what the FDA was doing in regard to their concerns.”

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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