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
The good news: Organic produce does carry less pesticide and herbicide residue than conventionally grown crops. And under federal law, organic milk, meat, and produce can't contain added growth hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms. But organic produce and meat can just as easily be contaminated with bacteria, heavy metals, or other pathogens that pose significant health risks. A recent study found that organic chickens were just as likely as their regular brethren to be contaminated with campylobacter; some organic birds had more bacteria. And the California spinach contaminated by E. coli last year had been grown using organic methods.
Is local better?
The new push to buy locally grown food is spurred partly by an interest in supporting environmentally friendly practices that would reduce global warming; food is shipped 1,500 miles on average in the United States, burning fossil fuels and adding shipping costs along the way. But a bigger, if less often expressed, motivation is the belief that domestically grown food is inherently safer than stuff from foreign lands. In a 2002 study, researchers at Colorado State University found that consumers were willing to pay a 19 percent premium for steak labeled: "Guaranteed usa: Born and Raised in the U.S."
Anyone who has traveled in developing countries knows that sanitation standards for food and water are often much less reliable than in this country; people here rarely have to boil water to safely drink it. The same holds true for agriculture: In many countries, human waste is often the only fertilizer available, and pesticides that have been banned in the United States for decades are still used. The melamine-contamination incident, in which Chinese manufacturers adulterated wheat flour with a cheap substance that masquerades as protein, showed only too well how weak links in a global food chain can be exploited by careless or unscrupulous vendors. Given all that, buying from local sources has grown ever more attractive. Proponents count on the people close to home to hold to standards like Stout's.
"Mainly for me, it's knowing the grower, and knowing how they grow the food I'm buying," says Gail Feemstra, a food systems analyst with the University of California-Davis. After the spinach scare, she says, "I went right to the farmers' market and said, 'Give me a big bag of spinach.'" She knew that the spinach she was buying was grown far from the Central California fields implicated in the E. coli outbreak.
Beyond the likelihood of getting some quality control, people buying local food may avoid some risks of microbial contamination because the food isn't processed in large facilities that mix products from many farms. But there's still no guarantee; E. coli could easily contaminate a spinach patch down the street. Still, farmers' markets have thrived in recent years, supported by rising consumer demand and by state and federal programs designed to help small farmers get their products to market. There are now 4,000 farmers' markets in the United States. Some supermarkets offer a limited selection of locally grown foods in season. And community-supported agriculture programs, in which farmers like Andrew Stout sell shares in their yearly output, provide a two-sided guarantee. Farmers have a guaranteed market, and consumers know that each week they'll get a box of fresh veggies, fruit, or eggs, often delivered right to their doorstep. (CSAs in your area can be found at www.localharvest.org/csa.)