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Food for Thinkers: Synthesizing Food Safety Politics Into Something Edible

Helena Bottemiller makes sense of U.S. food policy—and shares a behind-the-scenes peek at the preparations for a White House State Dinner.

Helena Bottemiller writes daily for Food Safety News and can be found on Twitter @hbottemiller. She is my favorite guide to the Kafka-esque ins and outs of US food policy, managing to write stories about federal oversight and judicial wrangling that not only make sense of how our food system is shaped at the government level, but are actually interesting to read too. I invited her to share what food writing means to her as part of Food for Thinkers week back in January, but a back injury (and subsequent heavy doses of morphine) put her out of action. Now she's back up on her feet, and I'm thrilled to be able to post her belated contribution!

My friends joke that I can find the food regulatory politics angle in any news story. This may sound wildly geeky, and admittedly it is, but I can't help that food is everywhere.

Though I cover what most would consider a very narrow beat—primarily focusing on the cross-section of food safety and politics—I've gotten to dive into a surprising variety of stories.

In the past year, the beat has taken me to the Louisiana coast during the oil spill to explore the impact on seafood safety, to the Supreme Court to hear the first oral argument about a genetically-engineered crop, to the leafy greens fields of Yuma, Arizona, to figure out how E. coli O145 could have contaminated lettuce, and the heartland of Iowa in the wake of a half-billion egg recall.

I’ve been able to cover the First Lady Michelle Obama’s high-profile food policy initiatives, including an historic child nutrition bill and a couple picture-perfect White House Kitchen Garden Harvests, and (exhaustively) chronicle the debate over the most sweeping update to U.S. food safety law in over seven decades. (Who knew covering the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would include hanging with Amish farmers, Ron Paul and superstar farmer Joel Salatin, of Food Inc. and Omnivore's Dilemma, as they railed against government regulation and served raw milk to Senate staffers?)

For the GOOD Food Hub's inaugural blog week, Food Editor Nicola Twilley posed the question: "What does it mean to write about food today?" In many ways, the unbelievably diverse response GOOD got from more than 50 bloggers speaks for itself. Prison food writers, the cuisine of sputnik, and a harrowing tale of panic in aisle five stretched my imagination. Food writing, it seems, can be as complex as the food system itself.

As I see it, the conversation about the who, what, why, when, and where of our food system continues to move into the mainstream and food writing must evolve with it.

For too long, the business and policy wonkery of food and agriculture and the foodie-filled culinary realms have remained largely separate beats. As Civil Eats' Paula Crossfield explains in her Food for Thinkers post, the audience for food and agriculture reporting is rapidly changing: "Rather than being a mostly rural farm population, readers are eaters, mom and dads, policy wonks of all stripes—and they are shifting the focus of the beat."

So, what's my take on what it should mean to write about food today? (Aside from always remembering you can't write about food without agriculture).

For Eddie Gehman Kohan of Obama Foodorama, it means analyzing the politics of menus and food initiatives at the White House. For Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register, it means dishing the scoop on agricultural politics that will impact Iowa (and all of us). For April Fulton of NPR, it means spelling out the implications of beltway-concocted food policy for a broad, often non-foodie audience.

In my own food safety niche, which I cover from the wild world of Washington, D.C., it means sitting in on oftentimes super boring (and sometimes blockbuster-worthy) congressional hearings, reading Government Accountability Office and Office of the Inspector General reports on import oversight or the USDA's meat residue program—neither of which are getting a passing grade, in case you were wondering. It means incessantly bugging members of Congress, industry stakeholders, and consumer advocates for comments on policy news and pressing USDA, FDA, and CDC officials for updates during major foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls. It means filtering through truckloads of press releases, Google alerts, and tweets to keep a pulse on the conversation beyond D.C.

But at the end of the day, for each of us, food writing means taking fascinating, incredibly complex issues and synthesizing them into something everyone can eat. In a way, you can see what I do as pre-digestion: breaking down and processing all of the minutiae into writing that's useful for eaters, mom and dads, and policy wonks of all stripes.

Images: all photos by Helena Bottemiller; (1) Egg company executives being sworn in to give testimony (the gentleman on the right plead the Fifth, apparently); (2) Rep. Rosa deLauro, former chair of the committee that oversees the FDA and USDA budgets; (3) Preparing green beans for a White House State Dinner.

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