Food Safety and Local Food

Scanning the titles of recent blog posts from Bill Marler's terrific, food-safety-focused Marler Blog gives us just a glimpse of what lurks below the surface:

July 5 - Unnamed Egyptian Fenugreek Seed Grower Responsible for 4,200 Illnesses and 50 Deaths

July 6 - Four French, including baby in a coma, linked to E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak in Lilie

July 7 - European E. coli O104:H4 - Is the U.S. willing to pay to prevent it from happening here?

July 8 - Salmonella Enteritidis Linked to Evergreen Fresh Sprouts in ID, MY, NJ, ND, and WA

July 9 - Botulism in Georgia and Ohio Linked to Unnamed Potato Soup Companies

Each story is more disturbing than the one before it. How can we accept the fact that our food -- the very stuff we need to keep our blood pumping and our bodies moving -- is not guaranteed to be safe? We can't stop eating! What can we do?

Some argue that our conventional food system is the culprit when it comes to food borne illness. A system that allows Smithfield Farm to keep massive "lagoons" of excrement and accepts mad cow disease as the price of doing business has profit margins in mind -- not health. What's more, in their continual quest to maximize profits at any cost, these major food manufacturers have made it nearly impossible to track down the cause of food borne illness. If your burger is contaminated, so are thousands of others. Good luck tracking down that cow.

Proponents of local food (and I'm one of them) argue that knowing your farmer -- and how he or she farms -- can drastically reduce the likelihood of getting sick from your food. If animals are treated well, if they don't need antibiotics to be kept alive, if they're free to roam, then they will be healthier -- and so will their meat.

While this may be true, this Bill Marler quote (from Shari Danielson's excellent SGT interview) shares a different perspective:

First, let me say that local, organic food – which my family eats – has many benefits that we all know: fewer pesticides, hormones, and additives, which have a longer-term deleterious effect on our health. I’m a big supporter of organic, locally or regionally sourced and sustainable products. My family has a garden.

But sometimes the people who market these products don’t speak honestly about the real safety risks -- the potential pathogens -- that are inherent in all food. Whether that food comes from a certified-organic, small, family-run farm or a BigAg CAFO.

Remember the E.coli outbreak that came from the organic spinach? If you were one of the people who ate it and got sick, it wouldn’t matter to you if it the spinach was organic or conventional.

This is, undoubtedly, true. And yet, buying directly from your farmer can help minimize the risk of getting sick. This excerpt from an article I wrote about Thousand Hills Cattle Company explains:

Todd Lein and Jeff Peterson [from Thousand hills Cattle Company], take me to the large freezer where the meat is stored before shipping. They show me the bar codes on each package and the labeling system that ensures each package of meat can be traced back to its original source. They don’t promise me that their beef will never have issues -- they’re too smart to commit to the impossible -- but they are confident that they can identify any issues quickly, trace them back to their sources, and limit consumer risk. McDonald’s serves millions of pounds of beef each week; if some is tainted, many people will be sick before the issue is discovered. This is just simply not the case with Thousand Hills beef - the company does its best to operate like the small independent farmers who make up their co-op.

Local food, purchased directly from a farmer or a reputable source, may not be completely safe; you don't need to be a raw milk advocate -- or Hartmann Farm -- to know that. But holding our farmers directly accountable for the food they produce may be our best bet for not only eating safer food, but minimizing the risk of problems with things go wrong.

Consider the alternative: when we purchase big ag's conventional foods, we willingly accept the fact that corners have been cut in the production process, and we trust that unsafe foods will be made safe by the time they get to our tables. Most of the time, the system works. Thank goodness.

What do you think? Is local food safer than conventional food? Do you feel more comfortable with conventional food? When it comes to your kids at school, do you favor packaged foods over homemade ones? What are your own strategies for making sure your food is safe? 

Please let us know -- we'd love to hear from you.



Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at