Press "Enter" to skip to content

Food Safety

Column by John Mattingly

Agriculture – October 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

About a year ago, a bovine-born strain of bacteria, E coli 0157, traced to bagged spinach proved the culprit that killed an 81-year-old woman and young child, caused the clearing of shelves nationwide of the bagged spinach, wholesale destruction of growing spinach fields, and media specials blaming the Food and Drug Administration for not doing its job, backed by tear-jerking testimonials from the spinach victims.

There have been a number of food panics in the past, from the Alar apple scare of 1989 to tainted beef in Jack-n-the-Box burgers in the 1990s. CNN interviewed several food safety experts regarding the Big Spinach Panic of ’06, experts who claimed our food supply was not safe and needed to be under the direction of Homeland Security. One expert went so far as to say supermarket food was: “Katrina on a plate.” A number of interviewed folks who’d gotten sick from either spinach or burgers claimed they no longer trusted the food system in the U.S. and were growing all their own food.

Wouldn’t that be something, if all of us decided to grow all our own food? Lawns would be torn up for multi-story gardens, city parks and golf courses would be planted to wheat, and every little plot of ground now growing weeds would be converted to food production. Foraging for edible weeds in alleyways and fencelines would become a new form of exercise.

All the fertilizer and chemicals presently applied to decorative landscaping — which, incidentally, are applied at hundreds of times the concentrations used in general farming operations — would be re-directed toward putting food on the table. A few people might die from exhaustion, or get sick from the application of chemicals, or suffer back and joint pain, but their food would be safe.

Not hardly. New urban farmers would find their food contaminated by oil- and trash-laden runoff from streets and gutters, not to mention smog and fumes. They would have difficulty protecting their plots from dogs, moles, raccoons, deer, and squirrels; they would learn the hard truth about bindweed, thistles, cockleburs, and quack grass; they would find out what it’s like when the neighbor stole their water hose during a dry wind; they would have trouble finding good seedstock as most is now held by corporate patents; and they would be bitten by ants, mosquitos, ticks, and horse flies, causing them to bring an arsenal of toxins to their plots that eventually would poison at least a few of them.

I recall a time when one of my favorite organic-minded couples encountered a string of army ants on their kitchen’s new granite countertop. They went to the store for the most potent chemical ant killer available, applying it off label to the point that it wasn’t just the ants who were in peril of death by poisoning. I didn’t pass up the chance to point out to them that I encountered the equivalent of ants on my countertop on a regular basis in my various farm fields.

It’s safe to say few of us are equipped to return to an agrarian society, and even if we were, it wouldn’t be a good solution to beefing up food safety. The fact is, our food supply in the U.S., while perhaps not abundant in the stuff that makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise, is nevertheless relatively safe. That is, the risk of food poisoning is almost insignificant relative to, say, the risk of being involved in a fatal accident on the way to the supermarket. The most dangerous job in the U.S. is driving to work, which resulted in nearly 3,000 fatalities in 2006, more than resulted from fishing, farming, and construction combined. Or, consider that in 2006 a U.S. citizen was more than 4,000 times more likely to die from a lightning strike than spinach poisoning.

Apart from the fact that planet Earth is a relatively dangerous place (it’s only the last 5,000 years or so in which conditions have been ideal for mammalian speciation) our food supply in the U.S. — partly in response to various hysterias — is so chlorinated, gassed, bleached, sanitized, over-washed, irradiated, and in some cases genetically altered to be impervious to various intruders, that significant nutrient value and/or flavor is sacrificed in the process. By clamoring for more FDA regulation and increased policing standards, the most probable result is larger increments of sterilization of our food supply in exchange for nearly immeasurable increments of “safety.”

John Mattingly has raised food, among other things, during his career as a farmer, most recently in the San Luis Valley.