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Commercial Food Producers Shift Food Safety to Consumers—Good News For Local Growers

It’s On You to Know What’s In You

The New York Times ran a story on May 14, which claims that big food corporations have essentially given up trying to guarantee the safety of the food they make. Now, according to the Times, consumers are responsible for the safety of the food we buy.

Here’s the lead:

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

ConAgra has added similar warnings to other frozen lines, like Healthy Choices, but it’s not just ConAgra; Nestle (Stouffer’s), the Blackstone Group (Swanson and Hungry Man) and General Mills also are admitting to no guarantees and supplying more specific cooking instructions.

By and large, these are the same warnings which are routinely posted by the USDA.

That’s all well and good; actually, making consumers take more responsibility for what goes into our bodies is probably a good thing. If we have to take time at least to heat a frozen entrée, we might also take time to consider what’s IN that frozen entrée (though the Times points out that consumers who purchase frozen food “think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety;” the paper experimented, following the directions on several brands of frozen meals. Some, “including ConAgra’s Banquet pot pies, failed to achieve the required 165-degree temperature. Some spots in the pies heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt.”)

Frozen food is one thing; fresh produce another.

Recall the 2006 incident of spinach which was contaminated with ecoli. This was bagged spinach, grown by a reputable-sounding Mission Organics. The FDA concluded that a combination of factors led to the contamination, including “the presence of wild pigs, the proximity of irrigation wells used to grow produce for ready-to-eat packaging, and surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife.”

The report, titled Investigation of an Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Dole Pre-Packaged Spinach, suggests that the true cause of the contamination may never be known, but it seems as though the complexity of this size of farming operation and the lack of oversight would combine to create room for neglect.

But, the result of the spinach outbreak is that in produce, as in commercially-produced, processed-and-frozen foods, we the consumers are responsible for the food we choose to eat.

And, in that, as far as I’m concerned, lies the good news.

What gives me optimism about these stories of disease and contamination is that they should push us to buy and demand more locally grown produce and locally raised beef—less commercially processed food and more real food.

Local farmers tend to run smaller-than-agribusiness-size operations, by definition, so they take more care in raising and processing their products.

Local producers sell food to their community—to their neighbors—so there is a built-in ethical contract: producers don’t want to sicken their market or their friends and neighbors. Not only is it unethical, such an outbreak would damage or destroy their livelihood.

Local producers have incentives to grow and sell food that is healthy, safe, and delicious—incentives that producers for commercial food companies don’t have. Local producers don’t add preservatives or “flavor enhancers” to their food, so it has to taste great right off the farm. Commercial operations add those things—check out a label the next time you’re in the frozen aisle—and they rely less on the food itself for taste.

Now that the burden of food safety is shifting more to us, the consumers, isn’t it about time we start getting serious about the food we eat? Getting serious about food means getting local about food. Here’s hoping the farmer’s markets open early this year!

About Dean Williamson

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