Getting to Know Food: Source (Part One)

A recent New York Times article let me know that E. Coli Kills 2 and Sickens Many; Focus Is on Beef . This is just a month after the New York Times published an eye-opening article titled E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection. The first article I listed is about a current beef recall which contains E. coli O157:H7, which can have the effect ranging “from mild intestinal discomfort to death.” The woman whose story is followed in the second article, was ultimately paralyzed by her infection due to hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The ground beef you get at the store (and in restaurants) isn’t as simple as a single hunk of meat ground up. It can come from multiple different meat packing plants scattered over the country (and the world). Some of it can include fatty trimmings that have been centrifuged to remove the fat and then treated with ammonia to kill E. coli.

The E. coli part of the story is the life-threatening get-your-attention part. Food safety is important, just as human health is important. You can swear off beef, or all meat – but that doesn’t eliminate your risk. Food-bourne pathogens are also found in vegetarian staples like peanut butter, spinach, and tomatoes, to name a few.

You can point to governmental regulatory issues as the primary problem. Or you can claim the individual company’s accountability in being responsible (and responsive) about testing their products and informing the public. (Just don’t try to test all your product for BSE (mad cow) and put it on a label.) In the end, you can blame the consumer, who isn’t following food safety standards. (The New York Times did a video showing how cross-contamination issues can make it hard for the consumer even if they’re following the instructions on the package.)

One of the things that really squicked me about the hamburger were the multiple sources. This happens with most other commercially available foods. Unlike what the television commercials might lead you to believe (a recent favorite being for Green Giant, having an older, white man playing farmer in a large field of peas), the food on the shelves of grocery stores (even Whole Foods Market!) comes from multiple places, ending up in a single package (or pile) and labeled and sold for its consistency of (relative) quality and appearance. By the time they’ve gotten to the stores, they’ve passed through many food miles and multiple hands. Something as simple as bagged spinach is threatened by this chain, as that a few bunch of spinach from a single producer may sicken a few families in a short period of time. Mix that spinach source in with other spinach sources that are not tainted, bag it and sell it, you’ve got many more people sick and a huge recall. Previously untainted spinach joins the tainted in a single bag. It’s sold pre-washed. And people died.

I’m still an omnivore, and I try to lean more towards vegetarian foods, on average. One of the ways I’ve tried to change my habits is by not eating meat outside my home (where I know the source) unless I know the sourcing of the meat. I also try to keep to seafood that is recommended as sustainable choices on the Seafood WATCH list We buy our meat and fish (and vegetables, actually) almost exclusively from the local farmer’s markets. Shopping this way isn’t affordable (or practical) for many people. It is not impossible, though, and comes up against the big issue which is not the actual cost or effort, but the requirement of lifestyle change. Cost and Effort (and Time) are the biggest complaints I hear from people when they say they can’t afford to make better choices with their foods.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Cost/Benefit: Time