Better Safe Than Sorry
By being a smart shopper and taking some precautions in the kitchen, you can lower your family's risk of getting sick
Andrew Stout's farm in Carnation, Wash., is one of the most successful small organic farms in the country. Each week, Full Circle Farm delivers fresh lettuce, green peas, spring garlic, and spinach to 17 farmers' markets in the Seattle area, as well as to dozens of restaurants and retailers, including Whole Foods Market. Some 2,400 boxes of produce a week go out to families who have bought a share in the farm's riches. His customers are counting on getting freshness and taste-and also on Stout's care when it comes to hygiene. "Bacteria exists everywhere," he says. So he keeps the manure pile away from the packing shed, tests the water used to irrigate and wash vegetables, and keeps an eye on his workers to be sure they wash their hands. "I'm a food provider," he says. "You want to do the absolute best that you can."
The rapidly growing passion for locally grown produce from farmers like Stout and his wife, Wendy Munroe, is one sign of just how nervous Americans have become about the state of food on their plate. Little wonder, given recent headlines: melamine dumped in pet food and fed to millions of chickens and pigs; E. coli bacteria killing people who eat spinach; salmonella in peanut butter from Georgia; and just last week, E. coli-contaminated beef in 15 states. Each year, 76 million Americans get sick from food; more than 300,000 end up in the hospital, and 5,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Confidence in the safety of supermarket food has reached an 18-year low, according to the Food Marketing Institute.
Lately, the melamine scandal has left shoppers wondering whether imported foods can be trusted-a legitimate concern, given that many countries have less-than-sterling safety records, and an increasing percentage of what Americans eat comes from overseas. Clearly, the oversight system has big gaps. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for monitoring 80 percent of the food supply (everything but meat, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees), but the food inspection program has been underfunded for years, and the agency has little enforcement capability beyond asking companies for voluntary recalls. It is able to inspect less than 1 percent of the $60 billion of food imported each year.
Broken. Keeping homegrown food safe, too, requires diligence, from the field through the processing shed and factory, all the way to the supermarket. Farmers are legally bound to produce food that doesn't pose a health risk; so are manufacturers and retailers. Costco, for example, uses its own labs to test food samples for microbes and hires third-party auditors to inspect suppliers' farms and factories. Whole Foods, which increasingly looks abroad for its organic products, requires growers to shun pesticides allowed in their countries but not here. But with little oversight, human error or expediency can cause disease and death. "Our food-safety system is broken,"former FDA Commissioner David Kessler told a congressional hearing this month. Last week, the USDA declared that 56,000 pigs fed melamine-tainted feed are safe for human consumption.