On Food Safety and Cut Cabbage

You know it’s time to go when the conversation turns to food safety. Even without fantastically-horrible, emotionally-crippling stories of e-coli fatalities, it’s a troubling subject. At the very least, with all the associated cramping, vomiting and loose stool, it’s disgusting. Once, to earn a food safety certification for my job at the natural foods store I had to memorize, among other things,  the primary symptoms for all the major food borne infectious agents. We were taught a mnemonic for bacteria Shigella. It goes like this: “I Shigella-ed my pants with the bloody diarrhea”. The guy teaching the class warned we’d never forget it. He was right.

Unfortunately, as disturbing as food safety is, on both my tiny farm and at the grocery store, providing safe food is my primary responsibility. So, lately, with Congress working on the Food Safety Modernization Act (s.510), I’ve spent a lot of time considering food safety from my schizophrenic perspectives of farmer, grower and parent. And, as one might expect, I’m of divided mind.

Assuming most folks have better things to worry about than the minutia of food safety legislation, here’s a recap: Last week, the Food Safety Modernization Bill(s. 510) passed the Senate on a bi-partisan vote with the Tester amendment attached (though now the whole thing is stalled in the House over procedural issues). Broadly, S. 510 grants the FDA the power to mandate recalls, increases inspection frequency and requires food producers to have and enforce an internal food safety system (of the producers own design). The Tester amendment exempts small, local, direct-marketing growers and producers like me from the act.

At the natural foods store we do a lot of recalls (though, I’m told, many less than are done by conventional grocers). We do many more than ever make the news. And while generally the recalls are over freshness or labeling issues and not at all about food safety, the number is alarming. The other piece that shocks me is how, when there is a major food safety based recall, the notices can trickle in over many days. This is a bi-product of food produced on an industrial scale. For instance, an energy bar maker isn’t buying peanuts from a single grower or even from a co-op of growers. Instead they buy a concentrated peanut paste and peanut bits from a producer or distributor. When a recall happens, it can take a while to figure out where the big bucket of peanut-ish-ness came from. It can take much longer to unwind exactly which growers peanuts went into the bucket, because the producer likely mixed nuts from many sources. So, in my role as grocer, I believe we need to improve our food safety system. We need a regulatory structure to clean up this tracking and insure all concerned parties cooperate to get items pulled promptly. There can’t be potentially hazardous items still on the shelf many days after an ingredient was recalled.

As a small farmer I’m of very different mind. I believe food produced locally, on a small scale and directly marketed to be vastly safer than food produced conventionally on an industrial scale. I have a extensive knowledge of food safety and take my responsibility to provide safe food very seriously. External regulation wouldn’t make my food any safer. Additionally, if s.510 were to be ratified without the Tester Amendment it would cost small growers like me around $2,000 per year and would require an additional out-building to store all the requisite paperwork. $2,000/yr may not be a “death-blow” sum. It probably wouldn’t put me out of business. But on a small farm with thin margins it certainly would be painful. So, in my role as a market gardener, I think additional food safety regulation may do more harm than good and I have a hard time supporting it.

Finally, as a parent and eater of local food, I’m of yet a third mind. I believe in local, small scale food. I understand all the reasons why it’s safer than the conventional alternative and in general I trust it. I also know, selfishly and perhaps despicably, that if it’s my kid, then one sick kid is too many sick kids. And while all the local growers I know are fantastic, inspiring and almost selflessly devoted to their communities, I sometimes wonder about safety. It only takes one volunteer working one local farm’s harvest day wash station with a case of hepatitis to create a tragedy. I wonder if local farms have food safety plans. I wonder if they tell their people to stay home if they have GI-issues. Take something as simple as hand washing. How many small farms have a hand washing sink available for use between collecting eggs and harvesting lettuce? I don’t know the answer. I hope it’s all of them, but I’ve toured at least a couple farms where it wasn’t the case.

At market I wonder about food safety when I see growers selling half cabbage or cut melon. These are both potentially hazardous items. They are also illegal for farmers to offer in Colorado without a food service type health department license. That being said, I see them at market with some regularity. Sure the risk is small. I understand growers wanting to satisfy a customer. But to me it’s about more than that. A cantaloupe cut and held above 40-degrees is the perfect breading ground for bacteria. Growers need to respect this and handle their food accordingly.

In the end, needing to reconcile within myself these disparate opinions I’ve reached a conclusion. I believe industrial scale food producers need to be regulated so as to allow for more expeditious tracking of their products and their inputs. Small, local, directly-marketing producers ought not be subject to the same regulation. Their products and inputs are much easier to track and they impact far fewer people. However, small producers, like me, need to take personal responsibility for the safety of our food. We need to have food safety plans that address critical control points. We need to monitor these plans for compliance and we need to make them a priority for everyone working on the farm.

Over the last few years I know of three food borne illness outbreaks that occurred locally and involved small scale producers. In all three cases they could have been avoided had the farmer or processor been monitoring their operation more closely. Local food is fantastic. It’s intrinsically less risky than the industrially produced alternative. And it’s up to us as growers to keep it that way. One sick kid is too many period.

1 comment to On Food Safety and Cut Cabbage

  • David Singer

    Wow, Gheda! Yet another superb reason for a visit to Longmont! I love the website and am psyched to share it with Julie. You may not know this but Julie is a pretty accomplish cook/chef…my girth gives her away!
    Talk soon,
    ds

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