Seize the Opportunity - Who will improve food safety?

by Peter Merrill

I was waiting at the departure gate at the Tampa airport and started browsing through the magazine stand. A copy of the Scientific American caught my attention. In my engineering days, it had been a regular read, and I recalled the long lapse of time since I last read the journal.

I bought a copy and skimmed through the articles during my flight until I came to Michael Webber’s, “How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient.”1

He had my attention.

The article was packed with data presented in an easy-to-read and logical format, but the bottom line of his argument was that we use 10 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of food energy. His argument in British thermal units captured my chemical engineering mind. He also captured my innovative mind: 10% efficiency—what an opportunity.

As you may well know, opportunity is the start of the innovation process. Looking at the 10:1 energy inefficiency ratio shows the food industry has an enormous opportunity for innovation. The inefficiency of converting sunlight to plant growth to animal feed to human consumption presents an innovator with an opportunity that—to use food language—should make you salivate.

‘Innovative’ villians

Innovation in the industry has been driven by the use of fossil fuels and fertilizers to increase food production. Unfortunately, we are well aware of the negative effect these chemicals have, causing pollution and global warming.

Much of the innovation in the food industry has been driven by manufacturer need rather than consumer need. It has often been executed with ignorance of the consequences, putting food safety at great risk.

For example, we focus on accidental contaminants in the food chain2 without necessarily addressing the deliberate contaminants. There is a long list of deliberate contaminants designed to make a food product easier to process or easier to sell without necessarily paying attention to you—the person eating that food.

One of the great innovations of the industry is the use of the humble bread crumb. One manufacturer alone has more than 2,000 flavors of breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs coat the food you are about to eat and are your first contact with that food. They makes you salivate and titillate your taste buds. As those breadcrumbs slip over your tongue, you are consuming chemicals such as monosodium glutamate, partially hydrogenated oils and trans-butenedioic—all designed to excite your taste experience. Unfortunately, many national regulators do not require disclosure of the chemical content of breadcrumbs as it is not regarded as a constituent part of the food you will eat.

As your teeth sink into the food, you may be consuming sodium nitrite, which preserves the food from decay but also mixes with your stomach acid and leads to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in your body.

If you are eating fish as the healthy alternative, was it farmed or fresh caught? Fresh-caught tuna and swordfish, as we know, contains high mercury levels and so we avoid them. However, farmed fish often are fed "innovative" polychlorinated biphenyls, which we, of course, eat.

Packaging is also a villain. Cans are coated on the inside with biphenyl-A, which is associated with diabetes and heart disease. Microwaving food in plastic containers breaks down that same chemical and contaminates food.

It goes without saying that artificially colored sweets and candies are designed to appeal to the very young with their bright colorings—but they are derived from coal tar. Tests with mice and rats have revealed brain, gland, thyroid and kidney tumors caused by these chemicals.

The cattle industry has engaged in the use of growth hormones to increase speed to market. The hormone diethylstilbestrol, which is found in 85% of U.S. meats, causes breast cancer and cancer of reproductive organs. In cattle, recombinant bovine growth hormone has been linked to breast cancer.

These examples of short-term, inwardly focused innovation mean that your body is loaded with a list of horrific toxins.

The social aspect

Innovation in the food industry, as with any other industry, also has been driven by social change. Probably the most significant change in our eating habits was the development of fast food.

The first significant example of this was in the 1920s in the U.K. with the legendary fish and chips. West Yorkshire was the home of fish and chips. Cod from the North Sea was landed in Hull and potatoes were harvested in Lincolnshire. Industrial West Yorkshire fried this food in beer batter and served it wrapped in newspaper. This was incredibly resourceful and cost effective, and the secret was the beer batter, which gave the magical grease flavor. Fast forward 30 years and the McDonald brothers began servicing a variation on this meal. Fish was not as abundant, but beef was, and so the hamburger became the solution.

In both cases, there was a social factor involved in this development. In the U.K., it was the movie theater and cycling. People bought fish and chips on the way home. In the United States, it was the interstate system, which was created by Dwight D. Eisenhower for defense purposes, but it became the social network of the 1950s. As people traveled, they wanted food, and they wanted it fast. In both cases, the secret ingredient was grease.

As a result, there was a gradual shift to the importance of taste over nutrition, and we also see the idea of the innovator being exploited by the entrepreneur who is driven by love of money instead of the love of new ideas. As a consequence, food innovation was hijacked, and the needs of the customer became secondary to the need of the entrepreneur. Food additives were introduced to heighten the taste and lengthen the life of the food product. Both of these had a hugely negative effect on consumers. Body toxins, allergies and obesity have become nationwide diseases.

It’s a cycle

Certainly with innovation, we cannot always expect a hole-in-one. Most innovations, at the time they are introduced, seem like great steps forward. Consider the diesel-powered tractor, the electric irrigation pump, and fertilizers and pesticides from petroleum. Cheap energy led to cheap distribution, and the outcomes were exciting. We could eat strawberries while seeing snow out of the window.

We are now aware of the negative side effects of these innovations, underlining the fact that innovation is a cycle and not a linear process. Many years ago, one of the first discoveries of unhealthy eating was the use of sugar, a highly addictive additive, especially among the young. This led to the pursuit of alternative sweeteners—the prime one being aspartame—which has subsequently been shown to cause a range of medical issues. We are now pursuing healthier alternatives.

These are examples of raising the bar, but also may be failed proof of concept in the innovation process. Proof of concept must always identify potential negative consequences of an innovation. The failure can be through ignorance, but far worse, through ignoring consequences in the pursuit of profit. The industry must take a more ethical and longer-term view on innovation.

Webber’s article in Scientific American describes some interesting innovations the industry is now starting to pursue. Examples include drip irrigation, which uses 40% less water and 15% less energy; no-till agriculture, which places seeds directly into soil to reduce energy use, erosion and carbon emission; and laser-leveled fields, which reduce erosion and fertilizer runoff.

There are other positive avenues the industry is exploring and, at the same time, they show another important attribute of the innovator—we must be prepared to fail. Two high-profile examples are the move back to local farms and the venture into bio-diesel. Local farms actually require more energy, and bio-diesel production has reduced the land available for food production.

These are classic illustrations of the complexity of the problem and the need for systemic thinking. Yes, we pursue these avenues, but we don’t assume they are the great epiphany. We must always pursue alternatives. I frequently quote Linus Pauling in saying, "The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas."

At a systemic level, there are some interesting new avenues worth exploring. The move to factory farming has led to large surpluses of animal waste, which could be a great source of fertilizer and energy in local farms. But the increases in E. coli poisoning in river water is evidence of the failure to use manure effectively.

Algae are another source of food and energy that is open to exploration by innovators. They grow in saltwater of which, so far, we have no shortage.

Stepping up

As professional scientists and engineers, we accept a code of professional ethics when we graduate. In the corporate world, that code is often challenged. As a young graduate, I can recall being surrounded by corporate decisions that I would frequently believe to be unethical. In those early days of our career, we are rarely in a position to challenge. If we find practices totally unacceptable, we leave the organization. My organization was guilty of pollution but was not breaking the law of the time. As we advance, we have more leverage and can influence decisions. We should never forget our code of ethics.

The question is: Who will stop this? The poisons in food are cleverly hidden. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration is the regulator, but there are those who say regulators are an infringement of our freedom. Self-regulation clearly does not work, as we have seen in many industries, most recently in the financial sector. Sadly, regulators are often slow and bureaucratic, and therefore ineffective. But there is no question of the need to stop poisoning the population.

What a tremendous opportunity for innovation. Let’s find a way to end this poisoning and create healthy people. Innovators answer need. I wonder: "Who will answer this need?"


  1. Michael E. Webber, "How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient," Scientific American, January 2012,
  2. International Organization for Standardization, "Introduction, Figure 1,"ISO 22000:2005—Food safety management.