For days I have perseverated on the E. coli & spinach topic to get to the bottom of what I wanted to write about. Then last night it came to me. It wasn’t about large corporate farms or evil greedy CEOs. And the solutions were not as simple as only buying organic or locally grown food. The problem lies deeper—and therefore we have to look deeper for solutions. Disturbingly it is illustrative of a pervasive food crisis in our society. One where the things that matter, like food safety, take a back seat to “business.”
First off, large corporate farms, while perhaps more prone to large scale outbreaks of the sort that just occurred with spinach, are not the ones to blame. Two years ago hundreds of people became sick from drinking unpasteurized apple cider made at a small upstate New York apple orchard. In 1999, hundreds became sick from consuming food and beverages contaminated from unprotected well water at the Washington County Fair. These were not large corporate farms hell bent on maximizing profits, but rather small business owners just going about business. So buying only local, or from small rather large food processors is not the entire solution.
Second, buying strictly organic is not the entire solution either. Ten years ago Odwalla, the organic beverage processor, was implicated in the poisoning of dozens after they drank Odwalla fruit drinks containing unpasteurized apple juice. The most recent incident involves spinach grown for the organic food processor Natural Selection Foods, LLC from California. Over 175 people have been injured including one death from this incident.
E. coli is a natural bacterium that lives in the intestine of all humans. Its nefarious, mutated cousin O157:H7, however, is the strain responsible for all of the above illnesses and deaths. It was first identified in 1982 after dozens became sick from eating contaminated ground beef. Unfortunately, bacteria mutate as a survival mechanism and O157:H7 is no exception. They adapt and only get stronger. Even though food safety standards have been raised and technology improved to help prevent further outbreaks, the threat still exists and, at a minimum, it will happen again and probably be much worse the next time around. But the simple fact remains that these incidents and others could have and should have been prevented. So, what’re the possible solutions?
If we outlaw large, corporate farming, then we do severely reduce the risk and potential for very large outbreaks of any sort of food safety or environmental hazards. As long as corporate farms remain centralized and sometimes even proximate to hazard sources like dairy farms and feedlots (as is the case in the spinach debacle), the risk for large problems remains high. You can reduce the risk by having many smaller farms spread throughout the landscape, but not prevent the potential threats. Sure, I suppose if there had been a hundred farms involved instead just a handful, locating the source of the problem would have been more difficult. However, it would have reduced the degree of the spread since no one farm could have supplied all of the recalled products. Unless, of course, the point of contamination was the processing plant and not the farm, then it wouldn’t matter where it came from.
If you were to buy only organic produce that wouldn’t solve the problem. As I mentioned, Natural Selection Foods is a processor of organic produce. The Odwalla incident a decade ago should tell enough about why organic growers or processors are not immune to these problems. Organic farming is not the solution, although I do believe that the general mindset of small, organic growers might lead them to be more responsible as growers and processors of fruits and vegetables, but not necessarily so. The fact remains that all of the above issues are food safety and not environmental or production issues.
So, would buying only local produce be the best solution? When a farmer or processor knows his customers, I mean really knows them, then he or she is more likely to care about the little things like food safety, environmental quality, and community relations, which, by the way, are the really important things. When these are right and community connections are strong, businesses succeed in all the right ways including profitability. Buying local won’t ever rule out an outbreak of this sort. But it certainly goes a long way to preventing it through social mechanisms rather than bureaucratic or regulatory ones.
But buying local or only from small farmers or only organic are not going to solve these problems by themselves. The farmers and processors have to have ethics and attention to detail when it comes to food safety. Of course, nobody went out their way to intentionally harm people, but all of the above outbreaks could have been prevented if people had just paid attention to the details and truly cared about their customers and their community. To use some baseball vernacular, they didn’t keep their eye on the pitch. And that malady can affect anyone large, medium, or small; organic or not organic; local or not local.
If Odwalla had pasteurized, or Jack in the Box had thoroughly cooked the burgers, or the beef processor had adequate food safety mechanisms in place, or the state fair health inspectors had actually ensured that the water was safe to drink…these incidents could have been prevented. But they didn’t. More troubling is that in spite of E. coli’s history, growers and processors still complain, often vehemently, about stricter food safety laws. This suggests an ethical, not a regulatory, dilemma.
We can’t do anything about the nature of bacteria. But we can do something about how we approach food systems in the United States. We can start to view food production and processing systems in different, more ethical way. Buying more local, ecologically grown produce is a great start. When the consumer (the person that eats the food) and farmer or processor have mutual interests in the health and wellbeing of their food systems you create stronger communities. Community connections create a different and stronger sense of responsibility and system of accountability than what currently exists in our global food system. These are the only things that’ve ever mattered and ever should.