Contradictions, consequences and the human toll of food safety culture


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.

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Adapted from Cook (2002)


  1. 1.

    The underlying irony is that reform efforts refuse to acknowledge the possibility that treating the agrifood system as a massive factory line has produced the perfect environment for breeding deadly and virulent pathogens in the first place, hence the appropriateness of the “boomerang” metaphor invoked by Stuart and Worosz. However, this irony is well hidden, for as Terry Marsden observes, “What is so striking about the contemporary governance of agri-food are the ways in which it has built up resilience in dealing with its own unsustainable and metabolic vulnerabilities at the same time as protecting it [sic] abilities to create surplus values and profit” which distract attention from the externalized costs and harms (Marsden 2010, 7).

  2. 2.

    For reference, of the approximately 72,000 US vegetable farms in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 57% grossed under $25,000 in sales per year, 26% grossed between $25,000 and $249,999, 5% grossed between $250,000 and $499,999, and only 12% grossed $500,000 or more. The Census classifies 20% of the principle operators of vegetable farms as minority farmers (USDA-NASS 2015).

  3. 3.

    Wholesale produce markets are alternatively known as “terminal markets”. To preserve the privacy of our respondents and to respect the confidentiality of the information they shared with us, we do not name the specific wholesale produce market that we profile in this paper, referring to it simply as the Market. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

  4. 4.

    Marketing agreements are voluntarily initiated by industry but facilitated by USDA and state departments of agriculture. The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, or LGMA, became a leader in setting food safety standards for produce growers after it was launched in response to a deadly outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 2006 that was linked to spinach grown in California.

  5. 5.

    FDA leadership has repeatedly argued that its current budget and workforce are insufficient to fully implement the FSMA rules (e.g. Taylor 2015).

  6. 6.

    Food safety compliance costs are expected to be relatively higher for small-scale producers due to economies of scale. The FDA’s regulatory impact analysis of the Produce Safety Rule estimates the cost of compliance for “very small” farms ($25,000-$250,000 in annual sales) at 6% of their annual sales, for “small” farms ($250,001-$500,000) at 4%, and “large” farms (more than $500,000) at 1% of their annual sales (Karp et al. 2015).



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


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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.

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Correspondence to Patrick Baur.

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Baur, P., Getz, C. & Sowerwine, J. Contradictions, consequences and the human toll of food safety culture. Agric Hum Values 34, 713–728 (2017).

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  • Food safety
  • California
  • Culture
  • Moral economy
  • Labor