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I’ll Take a Side Salad…Hold the E.Coli! Food Safety Risks and How to Avoid Them by Gardening

 

When I conjured up the idea behind this post I wanted to introduce the post with one of our worst experiences with food poisoning to date.  It was a relatively mild experience marked by the swearing off of red velvet cake and stopping every 25 miles to make sure our stomachs were COMPLETELY empty – thus turning a three hour drive into a six hour one on the day after Christmas one year. 

I jest, but in reality foodbourne illnesses are no laughing matter.  The truth is that the latest outbreak – listeria from a cantaloupe farm in Colorado has claimed 61 lives and that number is by no means a final count.  The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. 

If that number doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up I’m not sure what will.  Humans have an inherent fear of things entering our bodies and taking control of our functions.  Its why we wear facemasks during minor flu outbreaks that serve no real purpose.  Its why we wipe alcohol based sanitizers on our kids’ hands to kill germs.  We need to feel in control.

Well there’s no way to feel more in control than by growing your own food.  But most of us can’t grow everything.  We have to pick and choose what we grow more of in any one season.  That’s the real purpose of this article – to share my analysis of the reports and what you can grow to ensure the most food safety for you and your family.

Processing

The real issue isn’t the growing of food, its the industrialization of growing of food.  In every major case of large food recalls regarding vegetables its the same old tune, different lyrics. 

  •  The 2006 recall of Spinach tainted with E.Coli from a California farm.  The cause was found to be industrial beef production nearby (which is an E.Coli production machine!) tainting the fields.
  • The Listeria infected cantaloupe I mentioned above were linked to a Colorado packaging shed.  The conveyor belts and other uncleanable equipment were found to harbor listeria, probably tracked in by workers.
  • The 2009 recall of 2100 products from 200 companies using peanuts from a processing plant in Georgia (after eight people died) was caused by the lack of cleanliness and care in the roasting plant.  Workers later recalled scenes of rodent infestations, failed tests and dishonest management.

The list goes on and on.  The more foods are processes the more likely contamination will occur.  In many instances it just takes one head of lettuce or a single tomato.  The adage:  One bad apple… fits well here.

 Risks

But that’s not the end of the story.  Some foods are simply riskier than others.  Leafy greens for instance are number 1 on that list (http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/cspi_top_10_fda.pdf).  The fact that its hard to clean something so fragile plays into the risk.  You can’t scrub a lettuce leaf or scour a piece of spinach. 

 Regulation

Many food safety advocates point to lax regulations and a fundamental lack of oversight and toughness regarding food laws.  The real truth is this:  Food regulations do good up to a point.  Then they become self-fulfilling prophecies.  The regulations become so stringent and broad that smaller companies simply cannot keep up.  Those companies cease operations or become part of a larger company.  Meanwhile the larger company has no trouble keeping up with the regulations.  So why is this a bad thing?  Well large companies can afford good lawyers and bribe….errr I mean campaign donations and lobbyists. 

Then there’s the fact that PEOPLE WILL LIE, cheat, steal to get what they want.  The regulations and testing did no good at the Georgia processing plant.  Why would more help?

So the small company with an owner who cares and runs a tight ship fails and the large company with a profit first attitude buys their way past regulations and testing. 

What Can We Do?

Very simply we must grow more of our own food and do it now.  Grow the things that are deemed the most risky and that require the most processing.  Grow things that travel long distances.  The longer the distance the more chances of loss of containment or extra processing.  Let’s take the risk to our family out of other’s hands.  Those people don’t care about our children.  Let’s take back responsibility for providing food for us and our families.  Even a small garden will help.  Anyone can grow lettuce – even me!

What you can’t grow will have to be purchased but make informed decisions.  Buy local when you can for risky items that you can’t grow.  Ask the grower about the product.  If he/she can’t answer walk away.  But 9 times out of 10 they’ll tell you all about their farm and how the product was grown.  Ask them about processing and the methods used to grow.  If they take issue with your questioning walk away.  That’s why we pay more at a farmer’s market!  To get connected with the farmer!

For most of us, growing our own or buying local may not be options due to cost or availability.  We shouldn’t demean those people and be food snobs.  All that does is create people who feel unempowered to make proper choices.  There are good companies out there despite the unwise methods they use.  Know the good companies from the bad.  Keep abreast of recalls and don’t take chances (http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/).  If you don’t know – throw it out.  Ten dollars worth of produce is not worth the life of a family member.

Regardless if you buy food from a local grower or the megamart, learn to wash the food thoroughly before use.  You’d be surprised at how much more dirt you can pull away with a quick rinse.  Its just a good habit to get into.

I hope this article has put food safety in a new light for you.  For me, having a son opened my eyes greatly to the risk involved and knowing the facts made me a better gardener when it came to making choices that were beneficial to my family.

6 comments to I’ll Take a Side Salad…Hold the E.Coli! Food Safety Risks and How to Avoid Them by Gardening

  • Good article.  I had just listened to the podcasts, not read the articles.

    I had no idea that some of those foods would be on the top 10 list.  We grow a lot of our leafy greens and tomatoes.  We are putting in some berry canes in the spring.  And I just made use of eggs at the #2 spot to move a small step towards convincing the wife that chickens is a great idea.

  • Steve

    Wow – Jason- You hit the nail right on the head.   And what a well written piece too.  This is one of the main reason I got into gardening my own food, and why I try and get more people to do it.  While some folks are trying to convince their friends or neighbors to but the latest smartphone or iWhatever, you and I are trying to point out the weaknesses our industrial food system has brought to all out door steps.

    Great post!

  • Jason

    Fritz

    Well normally I don’t write here much its usually just a home for the podcasts but I seem to have saturated the market with writing so I need to let it cool a bit and I figure I should post some stuff here while I’m on podcast vacation.  LOL

    I did remember the spinach incident from 2009 because I found it odd they kept changing the cause.  But yeah some of those foods were shockers. 

    Glad you are getting (or at least trying!) to get chickens.  Knowing you you’ll find all kinds of uses for them!
    Jason

  • Jason

    Steve

    Thank you and well said.  I think we should be more concerned about this but alas, as you said, some are not.

    Jason

  • Ken

    Very nice post. You put into words what I’ve been thinking for a while now.  This is one of the main reasons we expand our garden every year. My goal is to grow 90% of the vegetables for our family of four within the next 5 years. (Then expand to fruit). Luckily we have great CSA options until that point. 🙂  

  • Jason

    Ken

    That is a great goal I wish I came close to that.  CSA is a great point, forgot to mention it.

    Best of luck!
    Jason