Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 301–317

Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives



The 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, traced to bagged spinach from California, illustrates a number of contradictions. The solutions sought by many politicians and popular food analysts have been to create a centralized federal agency and a uniform set of production standards modeled after those of the animal industry. Such an approach would disproportionately harm smaller-scale producers, whose operations were not responsible for the epidemic, as well as reduce the agroecological diversity that is essential for maintaining healthy human beings and ecosystems. Why should responses that only reinforce the problem be proffered? We use the framework of accumulation and legitimation to suggest corporate and government motives for concealing underlying problems and reinforcing powerful ideologies of individualism, scientism, and centralizing authority. Food safety (or the illusion of safety) is being positioned to secure capital rather than public welfare. We propose implementing the principle of subsidiarity as a more democratic and decentralized alternative. Because full implementation of this principle will be resisted by powerful interests, some promising intermediate steps include peer production or mass collaboration as currently applied to disease prevention and surveillance, as well as studying nascent movements resisting current food safety regulations.


Accumulation E. coli Food safety Legitimation Peer production Scale Spinach scare Subsidiarity 



United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

E. coli

Escherichia coli [serotype O157:H7]


United States Food and Drug Administration


United States Government Accountability Office


Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point


United States National Institutes of Health

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource StudiesMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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