Many of us take for granted that the food we buy is safe to eat. Yet with salmonella showing up in eggs and cucumbers, E. coli (O157) finding its way into ground beef and spinach, botulism in potluck potato salad, and bits of metal in the kids’ favorite mac and cheese – it’s hard to know what’s safe to eat anymore. To complicate matters further, some safe-handling regulations, like the 60 day waiting period on soft-ripened cheeses in the US, may actually raise our risks for lethal levels of listeria.
And even if you have the time and space to grow your own food, there is still some chance that E. coli, salmonella, or listeria might be lurking in your soil. After you pick your way through the minefield of foodborne pathogens at the grocery store, farmers markets, and your own backyard… then there’s still the whole debate about nutritional content of industrially grown food versus home grown or organically grown food to navigate.
If it sounds like the issues around food safety and nutrition are unnecessarily complicated, that’s because to some extent, they are. Food is a basic need. Humans have been locating or growing it for all of human history. Risk has always been present in the process, and good nutrition has always been a moving target. Technology makes it possible for more of us to spend less of our time focused on personal food production, but it will never eliminate risk or eradicate nutritional deficits in human beings. In fact, more technology in food often exacerbates these issues. So, rather than change our habits whenever a study reveals data that might later be retracted (e.g. eggs are bad… no, wait… they are good) or a governmental policy is proposed to prevent greedy corporate officers from allowing salmonella-infected peanut butter to be sold to unsuspecting consumers, how about just relying on a good old “common sense” approach to eating? Right?
If only it were that easy! I use “common sense” in quotes because we really have no common basis for this anymore. Many consumers don’t even know how food grows. In food deserts (primarily low income, inner city areas), children barely see any fresh vegetables on market shelves, much less exotic fare like chard or carrot tops. Most cultural knowledge about growing, storing, and preparing food has been relegated to the role of “old wives tales” in industrialized countries. The more distance we have from the origins of our food, the more likely we are to rely on “experts” to keep us safe and healthy. And “experts” are often graduate school students learning how to conduct studies, paid employees of companies using the information to sell products, or governmental agencies reacting to problems that have already become public concerns.
Let’s face it – having the skills to manage our own food safety concerns and achieve good nutrition is anything but common these days. Luckily, members of the [Grow] Network are way ahead of the average consumer in this regard. We are growers, or soon to be growers, and we have food preservation and cooking skills as well. Yet, even people like us have biases that make us susceptible to hype.
For example, I hear many home growers espouse the nutritional benefits of home grown food, but when I ask them about the micronutrient content and organic material in their soil, they tell me about store bought fertilizer. When I ask them how they use their fresh vegetables, they tell me about canning. Home grown food and homemade meals are beneficial in many ways, but unfortunately, higher nutritional content probably isn’t one of them unless you grow your food using a soil-supporting system like Marjory Wildcraft’s Grow Your Own Groceries, and also eat or properly store your food immediately after harvesting.
Despite the complexity of these issues, food is still basic – and with a few basic techniques, we can have uncommonly good sense about food safety and nutrition.
As a precautionary note, I am not an expert on food safety or nutrition, I am just a person, like you, who understands that this is important. I do my best to stay abreast of current issues.
So, to help you in your quest for uncommonly good sense, I offer you the following 4 “food for thought” guidelines to stimulate your own thinking on this important subject.
Uncommon Sense Guideline for Food Safety #1 – Develop a Healthy Sense of Skepticism
Even though it is easy to vilify the industrial food complex, I don’t think they are really “out to get us.” Let’s be realistic – they don’t even know us. But I do think they are out to do whatever is necessary to claim their share of the market. $1.4 trillion is spent annually on food in the US alone. And with food and beverage companies spending $136 million on advertising each year in the US, even savvy consumers can get confused between propaganda and sound health information.
This is why it makes good sense for us to treat all of the information we hear about our food supply, our nutritional needs, and our food safety with a healthy sense of skepticism.
Let me share a story to illustrate my point. For some time, there’s been a story circulating about vegetarians from India moving to the UK and becoming malnourished there while eating the same diet of lentils, rice, vegetables, etc. The story goes that studies were done, and a determination was made that food sanitation processes in the UK resulted in lower nutrient levels for the same basic foods. As an advocate for non-industrial food, I loved this story. It supported my personal opinion that products like pre-washed lettuce are just marketing gimmicks to trick us into spending $6 for a batch of greens that would sell for half that at a local farmers market. I started digging in to look for research that supports this story, and I couldn’t find anything.
In wading through hundreds of studies, I did find a few interesting commonalities. First, no matter where they live, vegetarians from India (or anywhere else for that matter) seem to be at risk for malnutrition in the form of a vitamin B12 deficiency. This is not entirely surprising, since B12 is most bioavailable for human absorption from animal products. Next, some studies suggested that the prevalence of B12 deficiencies was higher in “the West” than in India. However, this was likely skewed statistical data – in many other scientific studies, participants in India actually had much higher rates of undiagnosed B12 deficiencies. Finally, although the statistical data on the prevalence of B12 deficiencies was inconclusive, the research did launch other scientific studies to determine if there were nuances of vegetarianism in India that might lead to better nutrition for vegetarians elsewhere. Those studies showed two interesting facts: 1) feces found in drinking water in parts of India did contain absorbable forms of B12, and 2) certain kinds of small intestine microflora, present in test subjects in India, can synthesize B12.
So, what can this example teach us in terms of developing a healthy skepticism about food information? For me, there are two big takeaways:
A) Don’t believe everything you hear!
This story is an example of a myth pointing to a truth. If you took it at face value, you might think that food sanitation leads to malnutrition. But in fact, it was more likely sanitized water – not sanitized food – that could have caused B12 deficiencies among recent immigrants from India to the UK. Now, before you throw out water sanitation to stave off a B12 deficiency, consider that India is often cited as one of the top countries in the world for illnesses and deaths caused by unsafe drinking water. Also, if you zero in on the microflora argument, that too is related to foods being irrigated, washed, and prepared using contaminated water. Vegetarian study participants in India did tend to have a greater variety of intestinal flora than did their counterparts in the West – which is often seen as a benchmark of good health. This might have made them less symptomatic than their Western counterparts, and may have given them higher-than-average tolerance for feces-contaminated water. Even so, eliminating water sanitation for industrialized populations is obviously not the best way to remedy B12 deficiencies in vegetarians. Luckily, there is also good data to suggest that drinking more milk or taking vitamin supplements can help.
B) Not all studies, or citations of studies, are equal.
As I researched this story, I also came across a lot of studies which are used to promote products that seemed… well, dishonest. Luckily, it was pretty easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Good studies control for extraneous factors – like the higher instances of undiagnosed B12 deficiency in India versus the West. There is a big difference between compiling data to favor your cause and doing a controlled study to find the correct answer.
If you poll ten people on a New York City street and ask them if they have recently visited a Starbucks, most will say “yes.” Do the same poll in Mount Airy, North Carolina and most will say “no.” Based on this poll, it’s clear that people in New York City like Starbucks more than those in Mount Airy. Right? Wrong! The closest Starbucks to Mount Airy is an away hour by car. The data is skewed because participants do not have equal access to a Starbucks. Yet many studies about food safety and nutrition are actually taken out of context in much the same way.
For example, organic naysayers have frequently cited studies showing that E. coli (O157), found in ruminants (e.g. cows), is detectable in their manure. Since organic growers apply ruminant manure to their vegetable beds, E. coli is therefore potentially transmitted to organic soil and creates a risk in our food supply. This is true! But guess what? Non-organic growers also use manure in their fields. The use of manure by organic growers is actually regulated to higher standards than it is for non-organic growers. But the really dangerous part of this debate is that the organic versus non-organic question muddies the waters and takes consumer attention off of the actual safety hazard.
The more important risks for E. coli-contaminated produce relate to whether the produce grows in direct contact with the soil – not its organic status. Lettuce, for example, has a higher risk for contamination than staked tomatoes because of its proximity to the ground. So – my personal distaste for pre-washed grocery store greens aside – washing lettuce at home is important to food safety.
Furthermore, the biggest risk for the greatest number of people isn’t in produce at all. It is in ground beef, because the cuts of meat used to make ground beef had direct contact with cow feces. Some argue that your risk is lower with grass-fed meat because there is less E. coli in the rumens of grass eaters. But often, it doesn’t even matter if this is true or not. Due to USDA regulations, most store-bought grass-fed beef is processed in the same facilities used for grain-fed meat, and E. coli contamination can occur from contact with the same processing equipment.
Hopefully the above examples illustrate why it is important to view all food information with skepticism. I wish it were easy and transparent, but that’s just not the case when so much money is at stake. Sometimes just by engaging in the debate, we lose sight of the real issue – which is access to safe and nutritious food for all of us.
Uncommon Sense Guideline for Food Safety #2 – Grow It or Know It
Let’s take a closer look at grass-fed beef. Many people buy grass-fed beef because they believe it is healthier and safer. This is another area where there are lots of studies with conflicting results. As we’ve already covered, unless the meat is actually processed – slaughtered, butchered, and packaged – in a facility serving only grass-fed beef growers, then the risk of E. coli is the same regardless of what the cow was fed. So, cook your beef to at least 160 degrees and eat immediately after cooking to stay safe. And use your healthy sense of skepticism to evaluate whether or not the various certification labels on your meat wrappers actually effect your safety.
In the US, “grass-fed” is a term regulated by the USDA, and it requires that:
The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
This means your grass-fed cows could have access to “pasture” the size of a postage stamp, eat a diet of GMO soybean plants and corn from the stalks, and live on a feedlot for most of the year.
Labeling that indicates “pasture-raised,” or variations thereof, requires that the animal not be confined in a feedlot, but it doesn’t indicate anything about the animal’s diet. Even if you go for a quadruple whammy and get beef that is labeled as Certified Organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and non-GMO; you still can’t be sure how much of that animal’s diet was actually foraged by the animal in open pasture. So, when you read studies claiming that the nutritional content in grass-fed meat is very similar to that of grain-fed meat, now you know why!
But let’s be realistic – most of the consumers who are spending all that extra money on grass-fed or pasture-raised meat are looking for meat from animals that have been allowed to find their own meals in wide open fields that are full of all their favorite pesticide-free plants – just like they would have back when the buffalo roamed free. We want “natural” food (and not the USDA definition of natural which just means no artificial flavor or color and “minimal” processing). Those animals are very hard to find at the supermarket. But if and when you do find them, I am sure their nutritional content will be significantly different than their feedlot counterparts – so will their taste, texture, and your experience of eating them.
Grass-fed beef is just one example of how regulations can make it more difficult for the consumer to know how their food was raised or grown. The deeper you look into these issues, the more obscurity you find. So, it turns out that what Marjory has been teaching for years is right on – to ensure quality, nutritional content, and safety in your food, you really need to either grow it or know it.
In a whole foods system like Marjory Wildcraft’s Grow Your Own Groceries, soil is fed, animals are fed, and you are fed in ways that promote optimal nutrition. If you use a system like this, your chances of having more nutritional content in your foods are much higher. If you are buying directly from beyond organic, biointensive, biodynamic, permaculture, or other farm systems that are focused on soil health and biodiversity, and you eat your food soon after purchasing it, your food is also likely to have higher nutritional content than food from the grocery store. Additionally, when you eat local you cut the time and distance between you and your food, which often means higher vitamin content since the food is picked ripe and is less subject to the nutrient degradation that can occur over long storage periods. If you go to the trouble of getting fresh food, don’t let it sit on your counter for a week before you use it. If you can’t eat it fresh, then can or freeze your fresh food immediately after harvest.
For things you are not able to grow yourself, the next best thing is to know the farmer who does grow them. This isn’t a perfect guarantee of food safety or nutritional benefit, but if you can ask questions and see the growing conditions, then you can be a better judge of the safety and quality of your food. Keep in mind, good farms are operated by people trying to earn a living doing something that usually pays less than the US poverty rate. They don’t have big advertising budgets, so they have to work hard to keep all of their customers happy. Respect their visiting hours, make an appointment, or be willing to pay their farm tour fees to help them cover the time they’ve lost for doing other activities. If you are unable to visit, at least make sure the farmer is open to visitors and ask your questions by phone or email. It does take some effort to get to know your food suppliers, but it gives you more control over the process and you won’t have to rely on misleading labels to guide your important food decisions.
Uncommon Sense Guideline for Food Safety #3 – Use Your Body’s Early Warning System
Remember the first time you inhaled a cigarette? As the smoke entered your lungs, you had this immediate urge to cough it back up. But your friends were watching, so you held it down until the burn was so intense you had to let it out. Maybe you managed to suppress the cough, or maybe not, but even so, your body knew – with that first inhalation – that something was wrong. Even if you didn’t have this experience, I bet you know what I am getting at. Our bodies are highly-attuned survival machines and they will try to warn us when something is dangerous for us.
Now, I know what you are thinking… most foodborne pathogens are microscopic. They are so tiny you couldn’t possibly taste, see, or smell them in your food. You are absolutely right. And still, every time I’ve ended up with food poisoning (which is a lot as a food-adventurer), I knew it was going to happen. There was something – an odd mouth feel, a little turn in my stomach, or a quiet thought – that told me the food wasn’t right. Then for whatever reason – I ate it anyway and ended up sick. Maybe it was all in my mind… or maybe it was in my cells. I only know that I’ve never regretted the times when I chose to listen to these warnings, and I’ve always regretted the times when I chose to ignore them.
I am not suggesting that you rely on your body’s early warning system as your primary tool for ensuring food safety and health. That would be crazy! By eating tons of sugar, simple carbs, salt and other seasoning, and adapting our digestive systems to modern food, we’ve managed to suppress a lot of our survival instincts about food safety. Remember that infographic that went viral about what happens to your body after drinking a can of Coke? The phosphoric acid in the soda keeps you from vomiting in reaction to the sugar. There are a lot of these kind of “overrides” in our food supply, like adding milk and sugar to downplay our instinctive revulsion to the acidity in coffee. Additionally, as a hold-over from our hunter/gatherer days, our taste receptors still get all excited when we come across sweet or umami (fatty) flavors, since those are more likely to give us calories to carry us until we find our next meal. Our slow-evolving taste receptors don’t yet realize that it is easier for us to get junk food than healthy food these days. Also, our other senses often override our taste receptors – smell is particularly influential, and many of our responses to smell are cultural (like grandma’s apple pie).
When cultivating your body’s early warning system, don’t focus on signals of pleasure or disgust – like “wow, that’s delicious,” “I am starving, and this cheeseburger hits the spot,” or “yuck, that’s disgusting” – as those are more likely to be cultural, engineered by food scientists, or throwbacks to leaner times. Instead pay attention to your more subtle responses that don’t scream quite as loudly. And for kicks, plug your nose and see if things taste different. Also, eat slower. According to that Coke infographic, it takes your body a full hour to respond to the stimulus. And by now, everyone knows it takes at least twenty minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you are full. By eating slower, you give your body time to react so you can listen to all of its responses before the damage is done.
Food is a basic need and our bodies are adapted to convert food to energy. So, doesn’t it also make good common sense that our bodies might give us clues about the nutrition and safety of what we eat?
Uncommon Sense Guideline for Food Safety #4 – Live Well
We’ve just spent a lot of time thinking about food safety, and with good reason. Annually in the US, healthcare costs for foodborne illnesses are around $150 billion. Each year, one in six people will contract a foodborne illness, and 3000 people will die from food poisoning. At risk populations – including anyone with a weakened immune system, children, the elderly, and pregnant women – will be among the largest groups affected and the consequences for them are more likely to be lethal. Food safety is serious, and we should protect ourselves form the risks as best as we can.
There are people all around the world who don’t get to choose what they eat. Hopefully someday we can change that, so that everyone can have healthy food. Yet most members of the [Grow] Network have both the power and the ingenuity to make healthy eating decisions. An apple may cost more today than a packaged apple pie, but in the long run, opting for cheap and easy food now may cost you your health or your life later.
Every year in the US alone, 900,000 people die prematurely – mostly for health-related reasons. Some of these are genetic or unavoidable, but at least 222,500 premature deaths per year could be prevented by making healthier living decisions, according to the CDC. And we don’t even want to talk about the tax and personal dollars spent on healthcare for avoidable health problems.
Choose to live well now, so that you can live better and longer later. And honestly, you don’t need me to tell you how to do that. You already know what to do!
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