The Safest Food to Buy is Dirty Local Food-part 1

The Safest Food to Buy is Dirty Local Food-part 1

We are still in the midst of an out break of food borne illness related to Romaine lettuce.  Investigators have at least narrowed the source of the out break to lettuce produced in Yuma Arizona. This is the second outbreak associated with leafy greens in 6 months.  The suspect lettuce  made people sick as far away as New York State and Alaska.  People from 29 states have gotten sick as of May 9th.  Click HERE for the CDC report if you want to keep up to date.  In the mean time everyone is scrambling to figure out where the lettuce from this store or that store, or that restaurant is coming from.

In general our food supply in the United States is very safe.  However, because our food production model has changed from many, many small farmers to a few mega producers, when something goes wrong the problem has far reaching effects.  Leafy greens are just one example.

“Wherever you live in North America, if you are eating a salad at home or in a restaurant from January through March, chances are the lettuce came from the Yuma area.” (from this source)

This article about leafy green food safety is very informative and the pictures really give you a sense of the massive scale of these farms.  In spite of ever increasing regulations and monitoring, outbreaks are still occurring.  The CDC can identify the DNA of a specific strain of E-Coli (that is how we know these outbreaks are connected) yet investigators have been unable to track down the source of the contamination.  We are well past March yet people are still getting sick.

“Now that it’s April, most romaine lettuce comes from California. That lettuce is not affected by the outbreak, according to a joint statement from industry leaders, including the Produce Marketing Association.”

This article also reveals the economic impact of a food borne illness outbreak on growers and producers who may not even be involved in the outbreak.  This is just one reason that a food system that relies on mega farms, mono cropping and mass production is a fragile food system!  One drought, one plant pathogen, one super bug, one instance of contamination and the dominoes can fall from California to New York to Alaska.  The more steps between the harvest and the market, the more chances there are for contamination.

What can you do?  Grow your own or buy local food.  Local food usually means food from a smaller producer.  Many of the farmers at the local farmer’s market only sell at one or two markets.  Most of them don’t have massive machinery and food handling equipment that can be the source of contamination.  It is a bit of a lottery.  If a farm moves thousands of heads of lettuce through a piece of machinery and that machine becomes contaminated the problem can spread to thousands of other heads of lettuce.  If you buy from the person that grew the food, there is no middleman, no warehouse storage, no cross country transport.  You will know where your lettuce is coming from and you can ask about their harvest and storage practices.  Many local farmers and producers go through training every year through K-State Research and Extension on food safety practices.

What I really want to know is why did only 149 people get sick.  Ok, probably more people got sick and some just didn’t report it but think about the massive amount of lettuce produced and delivered to over half the states in the country.  That is an equally important and useful question.  I suspect that the answer has something to do with our individual microbiomes.  The microbiome is the collection of good bacteria that happily and helpfully coexist in and on our bodies.  You can learn more through your favorite search engine or check out this book,” The Good Gut” by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg.

Meanwhile, support your local farmer.  He or She will be there with locally grown, minimally handled food when the mega farm produce is recalled from the supermarket shelves.

As for dirty food being safer, you may have guessed why by now, but check back for part 2 to see if you guessed right.

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