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Know the West

Look before you eat

  Surely, we would feel better if we knew that food companies were doing everything possible to minimize food hazards, and that the government was looking out for our interests and making sure food companies were doing what they were supposed to. In the absence of such reassurance, we lose trust.

— Marion Nestle, Safe Food

The politics of your plate is one of Marion Nestle’s favorite subjects. Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, is the author of last year’s Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. In her newest book, Safe Food, she takes on the long and often shameful history of food safety in the United States.

Nestle shows how corporate consolidation within the food industry has made contamination both more likely and more deadly; describes how federal food-safety regulations became scattered among disparate agencies; and documents the beef industry’s dogged — and largely successful — resistance to tougher federal oversight. Nestle then links this background to the newer debate over genetically modified food crops. Here, too, murky federal regulation and industry stubbornness characterize the controversy, while public “dread and outrage” has reached new heights. The conclusion of Safe Food takes a brief, post-September 11 look at the risks of food bioterrorism.

Nestle is by no means an impartial observer: On the book’s clever cover, a parody of a food label, the phrase “You Eat What We Tell You To Eat” is hidden in an imitation UPC symbol. Yet Nestle’s careful documentation and willingness to consider all sides make Safe Food a convincing piece of work.

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism

By Marion Nestle

356 pages, hardcover: $27.50.

University of California Press, 2003.