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Winning the Future with Salmon

That line that got the most laughs during Obama's State of the Union actually raises an important issue about our broken food regulatory system.

Immediately after President Obama finished his State of the Union address last night, NPR asked listeners to summarize his speech in three words. In the word cloud they generated from the 4,000 responses received (below), the word "salmon" looms rather large—larger than "jobs," much larger than "innovation," and much, much larger than "Sputnik."

So what does salmon have to do with winning the future?

As it turns out, Obama was not referencing concerns that viral leukemia may be spreading from salmon farms to decimate wild sockeye or even encouraging his fellow Americans to eat more oily fish in order to improve our average Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio (4:1 in 1900; 30:1 today). Instead, in a line that got the most laughs of the night, he was making a point about bureaucratic inefficiency and the need for government reorganization:

Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.


In fact, this is just the tip of the federal fish madness. Here's another example: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees all seafood safety—except for catfish, which recently became the responsibility of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Unfortunately, these kind of regulatory anomalies are not confined to seafood. New York University professor and Safe Food author Marion Nestle's favorite example is pizza: Cheese pizza safety and packaging belongs to the FDA, while pepperoni pizza rests with the USDA. To compound the issue, the agencies don't use the same standards and definitions for terms like "low fat," which makes the task of the Federal Trade Commission, charged with approving advertising claims for all pizza, a little tricky.

These inconsistencies are not new: Nestle writes that the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, has been recommending the creation of a single food agency for more than 25 years, with no success. And food safety is not the only area where legislative structures hinder coordinated action. In the chapter on biotechnology in Safe Food, Nestle notes that while "the USDA regulates herbicide-resistant plants such as those that are Roundup Ready," the Environmental Protection Agency "regulates pesticides and, therefore, Roundup itself." Given the trouble these two agencies within the same government have in engaging in dialog about appropriate regulation, it's not hard to see why the public debate about the risks and benefits of biotechnology has been so unsatisfactory.

So, although salmon got the most laughs last night, Obama's throwaway line actually points to a much more serious issue about the difficulty of thinking about food holistically, in terms of its effect on human health, environmental health, international development, GDP, and energy use, from within the byzantine structure of the United States government. If we could figure out how to do that, we really could win the future—for the world, not just the United States.

image (cc) from Flickr user denn

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