Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 34, Issue 3, pp 713–728 | Cite as

Contradictions, consequences and the human toll of food safety culture

  • Patrick BaurEmail author
  • Christy Getz
  • Jennifer Sowerwine


In an intensifying climate of scrutiny over food safety, the food industry is turning to “food safety culture” as a one-size-fits-all solution to protect both consumers and companies. This strategy focuses on changing employee behavior from farm to fork to fit a universal model of bureaucratic control; the goal is system-wide cultural transformation in the name of combatting foodborne illness. Through grounded fieldwork centered on the case of a regional wholesale produce market in California, we examine the consequences of this bureaucratization of food safety power on the everyday routines and lived experiences of people working to grow, pack, and deliver fresh produce. We find that despite rhetoric promising a rational and universal answer to food safety, fear and frustration over pervasive uncertainty and legal threats can produce cynicism, distrust, and fragmentation among agrifood actors. Furthermore, under the cover of its public health mission to prevent foodborne illness, food safety culture exerts a new moral economy that sorts companies and employees into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to an abstracted calculation of ‘riskiness’ along a scale from safe to dangerous. We raise the concern that ‘safety’ is usurping other deeply held values and excluding cultural forms and experiential knowledges associated with long-standing food-ways. The long-term danger, we conclude, is that this uniform and myopic response to real risks of foodborne illness will not lead to a holistically healthy or sustainable agrifood system, but rather perpetuate a spiraling cycle of crisis and reform that carries a very real human toll.


Food safety California Culture Moral economy Labor 



US Centers for Disease Control


US Food and Drug Administration


Federal Register


Food Safety Modernization Act


Good Agricultural Practices


Good manufacturing practices


Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points


Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls


The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement


US Department of Agriculture



The research reported in this manuscript was supported by a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to Patrick Baur from the National Science Foundation, award #SES-1431490, and a research grant to Patrick Baur from the Berkeley Food Institute.


  1. Andrews, J. 2014. Legal trend pins full responsibility for illnesses on produce distributors, farmers. Food Safety News, May 14. Accessed 8 Oct 2016.
  2. Andrews, J. 2015. FSMA readiness: Litigation, insurance, and safeguards. Food Safety News, May 11. Accessed 8 Oct 2016.
  3. Bain, C., Elizabeth, R., and Higgins, V. 2013. Private agri-food standards: contestation, hybridity and the politics of standards. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 20 (1): 1–10.Google Scholar
  4. Bauman, H. E. 1995. The origin and concept of HACCP. In HACCP in meat, poultry, and fish processing, eds. A. M. Pearson, and T. R. Dutson, 1–7. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Baur, P., Driscoll, L., Gennet, S., and Karp, D. “Inconsistent food safety pressures complicate environmental conservation for california produce growers.” California Agriculture 70 (3): 142–151Google Scholar
  6. Bower, M. 1966. The will to manage: Corporate success through programmed management. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  7. Busch, L. 2000. The moral economy of grades and standards. Journal of Rural Studies 16 (3): 273–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Busch, L. 2011. Food standards: The cacophony of governance. Journal of Experimental Botany 62 (10): 3247–3250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caswell, J. A. 2006. A food scare a day: Why aren’t we better at managing dietary risk? Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 12 (1): 9–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clinton, W. 1997. Memorandum on the food safety initiative. Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Agriculture. Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 33, no. 40: 1479–1480.Google Scholar
  11. Coglianese, C., and Lazer, D. 2003. Management-based regulation: prescribing private management to achieve public goals. Law and Society Review 37 (4): 691–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cook, R. 2002. The U.S. fresh produce industry: an industry in transition. In Postharvest technology of horticultural crops, ed. Adel A. Kader, Third Edition., 5–30. Oakland: UCANR Publications.Google Scholar
  13. Deal, T. E., and Kennedy, A. A. 2000/1982. Corporate cultures: The rites and rituals of corporate life. Reading: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  14. DeLind, L. B., and Howard, P. H. 2008. Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives. Agriculture and Human Values 25 (3): 301–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Demortain, D. 2008. Standardising through concepts: The power of scientific experts in international standard-setting. Science and Public Policy 35 (6): 391–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Demortain, D. 2011. Modelling regulation: HACCP and the ambitions of the food microbiology elite. In Scientists and the regulation of risk: Standardising control, 112–141. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dunn, E. 2007. Escherichia coli, corporate discipline and the failure of the sewer state. Space and Polity 11 (1): 35–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Elliot, D. 2013. FDA: Criminal case shows food safety is paramount. USA Today.Google Scholar
  19. Flynn, D. 2016. Letter from the editor: The new normal. Food Safety News. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  20. Fone, D. 2012. Human behavior’s role in food safety. Food Processing. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  21. Food Safety News. 2015. Report: About 20–30% of foodborne illness victims file lawsuits. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  22. Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA). 2016. Preventive controls for human food, First Edition. Version 1.2. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  23. Gilad, S. 2010. It runs in the family: Meta-regulation and its siblings. Regulation and Governance 4 (4): 485–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Goetz, G. 2013. Peanut Corporation of America from inception to indictment: A timeline. Food Safety News. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  25. Havinga, T. 2006. Private regulation of food safety by supermarkets. Law and Policy 28: 515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Héritiera, A., and Lehmkuhl, D. 2008. The shadow of hierarchy and new modes of governance. Journal of Public Policy 28: 1–17.Google Scholar
  27. Higgins, W., and Hallström, K. T. 2007. Standardization, globalization and rationalities of government. Organization 14 (5): 685–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Karp, D. S., Baur, P., Atwill, E. R., De Master, K., Gennet, S., Iles, A., Nelson, J. L., Sciligo, A. R., and Kremen, C. 2015. The unintended ecological and social impacts of food safety regulations in California’s central coast region. BioScience 65 (12): 1173–1183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Loconto, A., and Busch, L. 2010. Standards, techno-economic networks, and playing fields: Performing the global market economy. Review of International Political Economy 17 (3): 507–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Loeber, A., Hajer, M., and Levidow, L. 2011. Agro-food crises: Institutional and discursive changes in the food scares era. Science as Culture 20 (2): 147–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Marsden, T. 2010. The new regulation and governance of food: Beyond the food crisis? New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. McMahon, M. 2013. What food is to be kept safe and for whom? Food-safety governance in an unsafe food system. Laws 2 (4): 401–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nestle, M. 2003. Safe food: Bacteria, biotechnology, and bioterrorism. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Nixon, R. 2013. Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Ortiz, E. 2014. Victims’ families devastated as Colorado farmers avoid prison after deadly melon outbreak. NBC News. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  36. Parker, J., Wilson, R. S., LeJeune, J. T., and Doohan, D. 2012. Including growers in the ‘food safety’ conversation: Enhancing the design and implementation of food safety programming based on farm and marketing needs of fresh fruit and vegetable producers. Agriculture and Human Values 29 (3): 303–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Parker, J., DeNiro, J., Ivey, M. L., and Doohan, D. 2016. Are small and medium scale produce farms inherent food safety risks? Journal of Rural Studies 44 (April): 250–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Powell, D. A., Jacob, C. J., and Chapman, B. J. 2011. Enhancing food safety culture to reduce rates of foodborne illness. Food Control 22 (6): 817–822.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Power, M. 1997. The audit society: Rituals of verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Ransom, E., Bain, C., and Higgins, V. 2013. Private agri-food standards: Supply chains and the governance of standards. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 20 (2): 147–154.Google Scholar
  41. Ross-Nazzal, J. 2007. From farm to fork: How space food standards impacted the food industry and changed food safety standards. In Societal impact of spaceflight, edited by S. J. Dick and R. D. Launius, 219–236. Washington, DC: NASA.Google Scholar
  42. Sperber, W. H., and R. F. Stier. 2009. Happy 50th birthday to HACCP: Retrospective and prospective. Food Safety Magazine, 42–44.Google Scholar
  43. STOP. 2014. Frank Yiannas talks about getting to the path of food safety as a social norm. Stop Foodborne Illness: The Voice of Safe Food. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  44. Stuart, D. 2008. The illusion of control: Industrialized agriculture, nature, and food safety. Agriculture and Human Values 25 (2): 177–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Stuart, D., and Worosz, M. 2012. Risk, anti-reflexivity, and ethical neutralization in industrial food processing. Agriculture and Human Values 29 (3): 287–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Taylor, M. R. 2015. Making the case for critical FSMA runding. FDA Voice. Accessed 15 Dec 2016.
  47. Thompson, L., and Lockie, S. 2013. Private standards, grower networks, and power in a food supply system. Agriculture and Human Values 30 (3): 379–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Timmermans, S., and Epstein, S. 2010. A world of standards but not a standard world: Toward a sociology of standards and standardization. Annual Review of Sociology 36: 69–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS). 2015. 2012 Census of agriculture highlights: Vegetable production. ACH12-32. Accessed 3 Jan 2017.
  50. US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 2012. Multistate outbreak of listeriosis linked to whole cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado. Accessed 8 October 2016.
  51. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 1998. Guidance for industry: Guide to minimize microbial food safety hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables. Washington, DC: FDA.Google Scholar
  52. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 2015. Final regulatory impact analysis, final regulatory flexibility analysis, and unfunded mandates reform act analysis for the standards for the growing, harvesting, packing and holding of produce for human consumption. Docket No. FDA-2011-N-0921. Washington, DC: FDA.Google Scholar
  53. Wilson, N. L.W., and Worosz, M. R. 2014. Zero tolerance rules in food safety and quality. Food Policy 45 (April): 112–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Yamaguchi, T. 2014. Social imaginary and dilemmas of policy practice: The food safety arena in Japan. Food Policy 45 (April): 167–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Yiannas, F. 2009. Food safety culture: Creating a behavior-based food safety management system. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. USA v. Jensen et al. 2013. Docket No. 1:13-mj-01138 (D. Colo. Sept 24, 2013), Court Docket.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science, Policy and ManagementUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations