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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food Safety

Gail and I often buy eggs from a CSA – they look better and taste better -- but we’re not currently doing so. Consequently I had to give attention to the recent egg recall, which reminds me of the widespread effects if bad food gets into our national supply chain. (By the way, you can check the eggs in your refrigerator at http://www.eggsafety.org/mediacenter/alerts/73-recall-affected-brands-and-descriptions).

Compared to 50 years ago, consumers have little insight into the sources of our foods, how they are processed, and how they get here. It’s true that imported food is labeled by country of origin, and we know that certain foods like avocados or navel oranges almost always come from California. But for every item whose origin we know, I’d argue that there are ten items whose origins we don’t know. Our grasp of processing, packaging, and transportation processes is even less.

Reality is: consumers must trust the growers, processors, and packagers of these foods, the inspectors who look over their shoulders (or are supposed to), and the operators of the supply chain that the foods we buy are safe.

Having served on the boards of two local non-profits that mitigate hunger in the Triangle, I know that the number of food recalls issued each month is surprisingly high. Both the supply chain operators and the end-points (groceries, restaurants, institutional kitchens) have sophisticated I.T. technology to keep track of them. Many governmental agencies are involved. These protections are somewhat reassuring but not entirely. The fact that recalls are frequent is an indication that the process works but also an indication that the process could easily be suffering from false negatives.

What to do? Hardly anyone is in a position to be self-sufficient, and even those who are sometimes find that the Mother Earth in which they grow crops has itself been polluted by previous generations of intensive farming. Here in North Carolina, intensive farming of tobacco and cotton has polluted groundwater used for agricultural irrigation. Not all local farming is good farming.

Caution and education are the orders of the day, in food safety and in other areas. As we read about the emergence of the truly nasty New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM-1) enzyme in bacteria, we’re reminded that technology identifies or even produces new risks to which we are exposed.

Whether it’s food safety, the availability of clean water, or threats of terrorism, nuclear war, global warming, increases in prices or shortages of fossil fuels, and on and on, we live in a dynamic and uncertain world. That’s the human condition. Our essence is to carry on, neither frozen in fear nor blissfully ignorant, and live our lives in the face of risks while managing them the best we can.