Ms. Klein represents CSPI in the regulatory arena, commenting to USDA and FDA on issues relating to food safety programs, including risk-based inspection, imported food, school lunch safety, and irradiated food labeling, among others.
Ms. Klein was recently appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to the National Meat and Poultry Advisory Committee. She also serves on the Steering Committee of a multi-stakeholder initiative developing standards for the ethical production of food, including food safety, farmworker treatment, and animal welfare. She is the author of Dirty Dining, and is leading CSPI’s campaign for restaurant ratings, encouraging states and local governments to standardize and publicize restaurant inspection scores. Ms. Klein is the lead author of The Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ms. Klein regularly appears in the national media, including CNN, The New York Times, NPR, NBC Nightly News, ABC’s Good Morning America, and others, as a food safety expert.
Prior to joining CSPI, Ms. Klein was an Assistant Attorney General with the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General. In that capacity, she drafted consumer protection legislation that is now law in the District. She has also worked with U.S. PIRG on consumer protection issues, and the National Whistleblower Center on whistleblower law.
Ms. Klein holds a JD from George Washington University and a Master’s Degree in Public Communications from American University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and is a member of the District of Columbia and Maryland Bars.
The views represented here are her own, and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.
How did you become interested in food safety?
I always knew I was interested in consumer protection writ large. I found myself (this is way before law school) writing letters to the editor a lot, and becoming angry at what I perceived as a real disconnect between what consumers believe they are getting and what industry is actually supplying—in everything from consumer goods to financial services to cable and cell phone plans. I went to law school knowing that I wanted consumer issues to be my focus.
When I graduated, I went to work with the D.C. Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection, focusing on mostly issues of credit, identity theft, price gouging, and the like. When I was ready to move on, I spoke to a mentor at Consumers Union—regarded by many as the holy grail of consumer work—and he recommended CSPI. When I looked into CSPI and food safety, I was almost immediately smitten by the issues. Unlike almost any other consumer protection issue—and remember, I am a die-hard consumer advocate—this is one in which consumers have no choice, and no chance to protect themselves. With payday loans, you can argue that the consumer should have known better. When a product malfunctions, you can argue that the consumer used it wrong. There’s always fine print, always a question of who-knew-what-when. With food safety, we are all just rolling the dice, three times a day, every day. We can try to minimize our risk—cook our meat thoroughly, clean our kitchens, wash our hands, etc—and none of that will protect us when organic pre-washed bagged spinach is contaminated with e.coli.
That’s what really excited me about this field: that if there are not voices—loud, insistent, persistent voices—demanding safe food, what then? We can’t avoid food. We can’t even pick-and-choose. We can’t opt out. And so we have to opt-in, in a serious and profound way. That’s what I consider my work to be.
What issue is important to you right now?
I’m pretty worked up about raw milk. Raw milk is unpasteurized milk—it’s “all natural” in the same way that raw manure is. That is to say, it’s true that it’s fresh from the cow, but clearly you don’t want raw manure being applied as fertilizer to your fresh spinach. (There are laws about that.) The raw milk movement has taken a fringe issue and jumped on the coattails of some legitimate food movements—local, organic, sustainable. They’ve tried to co-opt that audience, which really cares about the integrity of food production, and have insinuated that if you care about organics, or small farmers, you necessarily must support (and drink) raw milk. In truth, raw milk is dangerous, and much of the rhetoric its supporters use is simply revisionist history. They ignore the abysmal rate of infant mortality at the turn of the century (which plummeted after pasteurization) and instead make up ridiculous claims about what raw milk can do: cure cancer, cure autism, cure allergies. The worst thing is that impressionable mothers—mothers who only want the best for their kids—can be coerced into using raw milk. It’s one thing if some fringe naturalists want to drink it—that’s their assumption of risk. But their aggressive campaign to mainstream raw milk is both dishonest and dangerous.
You can tell even from this interview how worked up I am about this issue. Interestingly, we often joke in our office that each of us will eventually stumble on our hot-button issue… the one food thing that really gets our blood pumping. For one of my colleagues, it’s raw oysters from the Gulf region. For another it’s methylmercury in tuna. We’re all passionate about all of it, but every once in a while an issue ‘crosses your plate’ that really gets you in the gut. (So to speak.)
What’s the work environment like at CSPI and how does it differ from your previous legal experiences?
I have found non-profit work to be a great environment for people who are passionate advocates about issues. Unlike most legal environments, issue advocacy is an environment that invites, expects, and supports an emotional connection to the problem. In other parts of the law, and in other legal environments, practicing law truly is “reason free from passion.” In issue advocacy, it’s the combination of outrage, passion, enthusiasm, AND the law that makes for a successful enterprise. CSPI is no exception: the people here are universally passionate about food (safety, nutrition, etc). It makes for a very fulfilling career, to be doing something you really care about surrounded by other people who really care about the same thing.
It can often seem like consumer groups and the food industry are adversaries. Is that a fair description? If so, is that inevitable?
The relationship between consumer groups and the industry is complicated. In some instances, or with specific companies, it does feel very acrimonious. When we see a bad actor (Wright County Egg or the Peanut Corporation of America, for example) it’s hard not to feel like these people are being criminally negligent with all of our lives. But other times, the relationship is much more collaborative—such as on recent food safety legislation. The food industry has no desire or incentive to make people sick; they do have a desire to minimize costs, however. But when recalls and outbreaks start costing them big bucks—as they have in recent years—suddenly those companies very much want to devote time and resources to fixing the problem. CSPI has often been called the “food police.” It’s an apt nickname, even if it’s intended to be mocking. Just like an officer on the beat, we’re watching. And as long as the food industry behaves both legally and (in some cases) ethically, we’re just going to keep watching. But we’ll come after that industry with sirens blaring if they break the law or injure consumers.
There also appears to be a certain tension between the pro-regulatory stance of food safety advocates like CSPI and the sustainable agriculture movement, which fears overregulation will strangle small producers. How do you balance these apparently competing interests?
Despite my personal support for sustainable ag and local farming (and my deep enjoyment of farmer’s markets), ultimately I do not believe that the underlying principle of production should be the determining factor in regulation. Whether you are producing food, cars, pharmaceuticals, or houses, you must provide a safe product for consumers. As much as I appreciate the values of the sustainable ag movement, I’m not willing to trade safe for local—I want both.
The example I like to give is this one: I decide to start building cars in my garage, because I want to produce cars out of recycled parts, I want to use alternative energies to fuel them, I want to employ local workers and I want to represent the local entrepreneur and not Detroit big-auto. These are all important and laudable principles. I enjoy no oversight from any federal agency, and minimal oversight from the state. My cars may drive safely some of the time—and occasionally one might explode on the highway and cause a multi-vehicle crash with fatalities. Because we like my principles…my underlying values of production… are we okay with risking those fatalities? Or is it both fair and essential that I assume the cost of some regulatory oversight to hopefully catch those problems? I believe it is, particularly when those costs can be assessed with an eye to minimizing the burden on those small producers. Ultimately, the risk to consumers from the product is what should determine the regulatory scheme—not the principles or values of the producer, however much we might appreciate them.
Outside of the standard Food and Drug Law course, what classes might a person interested in food law want to take while in law school?
The choices for food courses—and consumer advocacy courses generally—are usually somewhat limited. A general consumer law course is a good base, as is a products liability course. These are not simply because of the legal principles, but for helping to find out if you really are interested in being a consumer advocate. The food shelves at Barnes & Noble are getting bigger as food issues get hipper, and it doesn’t hurt to read a few of those (with the caveat of maintaining critical thinking while reading; see my answer to the next question). It’s also great to seek out professors and mentors in the field (of food and consumer issues generally). The depth of knowledge these people have is immense, and their willingness to share their enthusiasm and passion for consumer protection is really exciting.
Is there anything else you would like to share with law students interested in food issues?
As with any area of consumer law (and as a good exercise in critical thinking) try to avoid falling into the easy “us vs. them” mentality. It’s very easy to read all the hip literature from Michael Pollan and become an advocate of sustainable farms—and that’s great. But it’s not that simple. Food safety is complicated, and nuanced, and the answer is not always as obvious or as clear as we might wish. The same is true for legal questions surrounding nutrition, hunger, ‘sin’ taxes, and other food-related issues. Try not to get caught up in the blogosphere—think critically and comprehensively about the issues. And—and this is hard for many of us in the non-profit world, because we’re optimists—try to think about these issues in reality, not in the world ‘as we wish it were’. Can you feed 300 million people on the sustainable farm model? If not, what can you change about modern ag to make it more sustainable? Can you change cultural perceptions about meat? How? Who else wins and loses when you change/increase/decrease regulation of food, beyond just the obvious industries? Where does farmworker justice come in? There are so many questions, and the issues are so complex. My advice is to never think you know it all. At the same time, recognizing how crucial these issues are to our health, our economy, our environment… developing a passion for these issues and a respect for all the people involved (eaters, growers, workers, producers) is critical.
Are there any foods you avoid eating?
I avoid the obvious red-flag foods—ones that you don’t have to be a food safety advocate to know might not be safe: raw oysters, raw milk, raw eggs, raw sprouts. I also don’t eat ground beef, and my toddler twins are basically vegetarians. (Small comfort since the spinach outbreak of 2007, and all the produce outbreaks since… but still very little poultry—and no red meat—for them.) I try to shop for meat at places like Costco—it may surprise you, but they are really progressive about food safety and do a good job of requiring their suppliers to test products more rigorously than others. If Wal-Mart did the same, we’d see a major improvement in food safety in this country, because everyone wants to sell to Wal-Mart.
What did you have for dinner last night?
Hah. Last night I had roasted Brussels sprouts for the first time, and found them delicious. Potato latkes, because it’s Chanukah. And I made roast chicken breast but didn’t eat it—despite what the meat thermometer said, it still tasted undercooked to me. Poor chicken was probably just a victim of my day job.