business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB reported yesterday that Tommy G. Thompson, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced his resignation from the Bush administration last Friday and said he was amazed that the nation’s food supply had not yet been attacked by terrorists. "For the life of me," Thompson said at a press conference, "I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do."

Our comment: These comments must have terrorists somewhere slapping their heads and wondering why, after all, they hadn’t done a better job targeting the US food supply. And at the same time, these statements must have US consumers wondering if their faith in the US government’s ability to protect them is, after all, misplaced.

It isn’t just terrorism that consumers have to be concerned about. There are calls for specific kinds of labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the Bush administration fights it, saying that such labels would only “scare” consumers. There are laws passed requiring mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), but the food industry resists them saying that the system is too costly and inefficient. (And yet, Thompson specifically worries about food from the Middle East and the government’s inability to check it at the border. Sounds like an endorsement of COOL to us…) But in each case, it seems to us, the argument can be made that the precautions being called for only mandate more data for consumers that will help them be more intelligent (or at least informed) about the buying and eating decisions they make.

When the nation’s newspapers feature the outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services questioning the government’s ability to protect the food supply, you have to figure that consumers are at least going to be concerned…if by nothing else, the mixed messages they’re getting.

Your comments…

One MNB user wrote:

The bioterrorism regs. are coming out this week, so that is probably why Thompson was saying some alarming things about food safety!

The 2002 FARM BILL's COOL law does not allow traceback! It is specifically in the law because producers don't want it…COOL was a trade for packer concentration!

It is a marketing program. You don't need a law to do it. Many stores employ such techniques. US produce is no safer than Imports.

All imports are ALREADY labeled on case (1930 Customs' law) or in the perishables area, by item. (Just go to Wal-Mart's perishables area to see this done beautifully). Lots of USA product don't now comply. Interestingly, it is the products where the producers support COOL the most (apples, specialty crops, etc), but want retailers to pay for it (w/o the security of really knowing where it has been sourced from).

Our food imports equal the amount being exported for the first time in our history. Instead of 12,000 inspectors, there are not 90,000-plus. FDA's website has a lot of info on this.

US companies grow a lot of the fresh products in other parts of the world because it is cheaper and provides a continuous supply, which customers demand. For example, my first-grader eats cantaloupe every day, a luxury we enjoyed only in summer growing up in the Northeast.

New: Haas Avocadoes will now be allowed into many more states. They're a lot tastier than Florida avocados, just as Dutch hydroponic tomatoes are better than the square restaurant industry garnish tomatoes produced in FLA. That for years gave "supermarket tomatoes" a bad name. Ever heard of protectionism? Our own great USA agriculture producers practice it. They need to get in the game and start growing what customers demand! Why can't I buy Joe Procacci's Ugly Ripe tomatoes anymore? Because the growing and competition is controlled by a marketing order controlled by the producers in Fla! We've had a tomato shortage because of the FLA hurricanes, too bad there were not more choices… How come I can buy Santa Sweets? Because that variety is not under the marketing order and they were grown further north and could be rotated in…

Another MNB user wrote:

It totally amazes me that people will release information to the press that should be kept secret. Many in the food industry already know that our country is totally vulnerable to terrorism attack on this front, BUT having someone announce it to the media is an open invitation to something that may not have occurred to the terrorists. So much for that thought now. Mr. Thompson, your loose lips may do more than sink ships.

MNB user Linda Gobler wrote:

As someone who represents the retail food industry, I almost choked on my dinner when I heard Tommy Thompson's comments. I, too, could envision terrorists yelling to each other, 'why didn't we think of that?!' The industry in Michigan has been working very closely with the state departments of agriculture and health, the FDA, Homeland Security and others concerned with keeping the food supply safe.

First the focus was food safety and then it was extended to food security. Every segment, from the manufacturer, wholesaler, supplier and retailer, are seeking to find ways to keep the food supply safe. That said, it will always be a challenge to prevent someone hell bent on destruction from disrupting our system and our very way of life. As a country, however, we need to be aware that expecting raspberries in January, among other off-season foods, creates some challenges. COOL doesn't really address the security issue but it plays well in the press.

Yet another MNB user wrote:

What a dilemma!!

President Bush is correct. We are a "large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm." Now, here's where this whole issue gets a little sticky.

Do we all want a safe food supply? Of course.

If "only a very minute amount of food is tested at ports and airports," how do we go about correcting the situation? Hire many more federal inspectors and dramatically expand your efforts.

Will this cost more money? Of course. (Lots and lots of money!)

How will the government get the money to pay for it all? Taxes. A show of hands, please, for how many people are interested now?

I've always thought being the president had to be the most thankless job there is. No matter what you do, somebody isn't going to be happy. This is yet another perfect example. If you don't do enough, people aren't happy. If you want to do more, people get upset because you want to do it with their money.

As you're so fond of saying, Kevin...oy!

Regarding the decline of the low-carb business, one MNB user wrote:

The demise of trend products such as low carb, happens long before HQ buyers, merchandisers and sales reps get product on the shelves. The public moves on quickly leaving dusty items on grocery store shelves. If you really want to know where the trend is ask the aisle clerk.

MNB user Phillip Barone wrote:

Carb-reduced processed foods were never the intent of the South Beach or Atkin's diets. The CPG industry merely took advantage of this trend as the main source of "innovation" for the past year. In fact, the South Beach Diet encourages one to eat foods in their natural state and encourages one away from processed foods. Sales of naturally low carb products such as nuts and cheese continue to be up. The ideology behind managing your blood sugar and not subsisting on processed foods is sound. Folks who have been on the South Beach Diet realize this and they stick with those eating patterns even after going off the diet.
KC's View: