An increasing number of outbreaks of food-borne illness have given many the impression that the U.S. food supply is spiraling out of control. And in fact, it could be a lot safer -- there are real reasons to worry.
A centralized food system can allow a single batch of contaminated food to hurt people across the country. A single jalapeño pepper patch in Mexico may have sickened 1,400 people more than 40 states over a four-month period in 2008.
Salmonella-carrying peanuts affected people around the country and may have contaminated 3,900 separate products.
Concentrated production techniques also help propagate pathogens. The crowded chicken houses, pig farms and cattle feedlots that produce most of the meat eaten in America are potential breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria and viruses.
Even looking for the 'USDA Organic' label may not be enough to protect you from foods manufactured with questionable practices, pesticides and hormones. Promiseland, a multimillion dollar operation with facilities in Missouri and Nebraska, has been accused of multiple improprieties in formal legal complaints, including not feeding organic grain to cattle, selling fraudulent organic feed and "laundering" conventional cattle as organic.
Many people think that because a product bears the USDA organic label, it came from a sunny farm where the animals are all happy and well cared for. But Promiseland sold thousands of dairy cows to giant factory dairy farms owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organic), Natural Prairie Dairy and Aurora Dairy.
Although the USDA sets the standards for what makes a farm organic or not, they are very rarely involved in the hands on parts of the certification process. More often, independent domestic accredited certifying agents are brought in by the companies to make sure that they are satisfying all the necessary requirements.
Consumers must take an active interest in the companies that make their food, and choose small, local producers whenever possible. Otherwise, there's no telling where your food may have been.
To get an idea of just how far your produce has traveled, check out this amazing interactive picture.
It shows in clear form just why buying your fruits and vegetables from local farmers not only supports local agriculture, but saves countless pounds of carbon emissions by cutting down the travel distance.
Did you know the meat in one hamburger could have come from hundreds of animals and different parts of the world? Or that one batch of peanuts may go into thousands of products distributed across the United States?
It may also surprise you to learn that Chinese-raised fish, which are commonly sold in U.S. supermarkets, are often fed a diet of chicken waste and human waste, while toxic sewage sludge is used to fertilize many U.S. crops.
These are just a few examples of our “global food system,” and the steep problems it poses to food safety. When you delve deeper into the world of the food industry, it becomes clear that eating much of it is like playing a game of Russian roulette with your health.
Now one batch of contaminated spinach or peppers can easily sicken people across an entire country. And if you get sick from eating a hamburger, the contaminated meat may have come from hundreds of different places, making tracking down the culprit quickly nearly impossible.
When food is produced and distributed on such a massive scale, contamination occurs on a massive scale as well. Unfortunately, the industry’s answers to making your food safe are only contributing to the problems.
Mass Food Production Profits at the Expense of Your Health
Most “farming” today is nothing like the small farming of our ancestors. In areas where animal agriculture is most concentrated, bacteria known as pfiesteria is common in waterways, and agricultural runoff is the primary reason why 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are polluted.
Further, raising animals in this way -- away from their natural environments and diets -- actually increases their risk of passing on a dangerous bug to you. For instance, most cows are fed grains, when their natural diet is grass. Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, which E. coli bacteria need to survive.
Even the Washington Post states:
“The concentrated production techniques that go with Big Food can help propagate pathogens. The crowded chicken houses, pig farms and cattle feedlots that produce most of the meat eaten in America are viewed by scientists as potential breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria and viruses.”
Despite this, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test their ingredients for E.coli prior to selling them. And most retailers do not test either.
In August 2008, the USDA issued a guideline urging meat processors to test their ingredients before grinding. But the guideline is only optional and has been met with criticism from the meat industry.
So not only is your meat being raised in ways that are known to encourage disease-causing organisms, but little to no testing is being done to make sure the meat is safe before it reaches your dinner plate.
Chlorine, Irradiation and Pasteurization: The Government’s Answer to Food Safety
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the root of the problem -- which is the poor conditions in which most food is grown and raised -- regulators are trying to mask it with chemicals and other unhealthy “food safety” practices.
Just last year the U.S. government decided to allow food producers to irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce in order to kill organisms like E. coli and salmonella, but at the expense of nutrients.
This way, agribusiness can continue to grow and process spinach and lettuce in the filthiest conditions imaginable, and it will still be perfectly safe for you to eat it, thanks to the varying doses of radiation.
And if it’s not irradiation, it’s pasteurization that’s used to make milk and other dairy products “safe.” In reality, what pasteurization does is turn a normally healthy food (assuming it’s raised in a healthy environment), raw dairy, into one that causes health problems for the vast majority of people.
Your produce, including lettuce, baby carrots and many other varieties, is also washed in toxic chlorine to kill bacteria, simply trading one toxin for another.
These technological solutions are like trying to fix a leaky tire with a Band-Aid. At best they will only prolong the problem, and at worst they could be deadly.
Buying Organic May Not be Good Enough Anymore
Buying organic is one way to help ensure that your food is safe, and I still encourage you to seek out organic foods as much as possible, but just know it is not always a failsafe.
Big corporations are increasingly taking over organic labels, and when big business dips their hands into a project, they are looking to maximize their profits by turning out the largest amount of product for the least expense. If this means sacrificing some ethics and skimping on some quality, that is often exactly what is done.
As a result, you now have to be very wary when you see the term “organic,” as it doesn’t always mean that the food is any better for you or the environment. For example, Promiseland, which has sold thousands of cows to dairy farms owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organic) and others, has been accused misrepresenting the organic label, including not feeding organic grain to cattle, selling fraudulent organic feed and "laundering" conventional cattle as organic.
Other examples include:
- Horizon Organic, the company that supplies Wal-Mart, has continually ignored federal organic standards -- specifically, a cow's access to pasture.
- The organic label is now being put on salmon, despite the fact that there is not much difference between conventional farm-raised salmon and its organic counterpart.
- At least one study has found that the transportation of organic produce causes an environmental impact large enough to cancel out any environmental benefits.
Resources for Truly Safe, Healthy Food
The real solution to creating healthier, safer foods lies in cleaning up the growing conditions and processing plants, and most certainly in returning farming to a small-scale basis.
So, please, make it a point to only buy food from a source you know and trust. This will do your health a major favor and support the small family farms in your area. You’ll receive nutritious food from a source that you can trust, and you’ll be supporting the honest work of a real family farm instead of an agri-business corporation.
Seeking out a small, local source for food is an even better option than getting it from upscale, natural health markets like Whole Foods, as even these stores have had meat recalls in recent months.
While I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture -- this page is filled with resources for high-quality produce, meats and other foods in your area.