Food safety within reach: Local is the natural answer

Sound Consumer | July 2010

by Caple Melton

Nature isn’t a sterile factory. Bacteria are soil’s heartiest and most productive inhabitants, but the pathogenic bugs that compromise human and animal health are the ones that capture our attention.

Campylobacter, Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella are among the most prolific microorganisms linked to food-borne illness and, with an uptick in regulatory attention to food safety, eaters are receiving an immersive education about an unseemly characteristic of our food system.

Getting a handle on food safety is in everyone’s interest, and the accountability and responsiveness unique to local food systems may provide some immediate solutions.

Chris Curtis, credited with jumpstarting Seattle’s vibrant farmers’ market culture, is the director of Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, an organization that administers seven direct-sales sites for small-scale regional producers and preaches the benefits of knowing your growers. “I remember being totally caught off guard a couple of years ago,” she says, “when a new person said, ‘Farmers’ markets aren’t very clean.’”

In a sense, the newbie she references was right: Farmers’ markets are dirty, in the earthen way edibles just hefted from the ground ought to be, but it was the sentiment that farmers’ markets are contaminated or unsafe that got under Curtis’ skin.

Since the Industrial Revolution’s mechanization of craft suffocated artisanship, equating mass production and shiny technology with superior quality has been a cultural obsession. (Ironically, food safety problems didn’t emerge in a big way until the 1980s — after government policies encouraged industrialization of the way we farm and process food.)

Of course, local cultivators aren’t immune to system folly, but their tight community linkages enable lightning-quick reaction. “The biggest benefit [of producer-direct purchasing],” Curtis asserts, “is that the person who grew [the food] is right there. The safeguard lies in transparency; knowing the producer. That’s the most robust safeguard I can think of.”

Mary Embleton, executive director of Cascade Harvest Coalition, an organization transforming Washington’s food system by connecting eaters and producers, agrees. “One of the benefits of a local food system,” she says, “is that supply chains are dramatically shorter. So, while locally raised and produced food has the potential for contamination, as does all food, it is much easier to trace and remove the problem. With recent [national] recalls, we see how difficult that is in the industrial food system we currently have.”

When esteemed cheesemaker Estrella Family Creamery voluntarily recalled varieties of its farmstead products because of potential Listeria contamination, Curtis says people were lined up the day cheeses returned to market.

“Estrella was so proactive and told everyone what was going on. There was a production issue that was immediately corrected” and, because the creamery carefully tends to its constituencies, eaters who might have spurned the company instead became advocates. “They’ve engaged with the Estrella family; they care about what happens on the farm. [These relationships] ensure a type of safety that’s almost outside of regulation.”

Proposed food safety bills (such as H.R. 875 and S. 510) intending to streamline our nation’s food safety response seem to put the cart before the horse.

“One intent of the legislation is to prevent food-borne illness,” Embleton points out. “I don’t think this is possible given the complexity of our current food system. There are simply too many avenues for contamination to occur along the supply chain: production, processing, storage, holding and transportation.”

Federal rules are carved within a centralized food production framework where science-based patches are commonly applied to its unsightly and frequent holes. Excessive system bandaging doesn’t address the underlying ailment, and reclaiming food traditions is an intuitive, and pragmatic, response to a cold industrialized model that’s left eaters hungry for an authentic farm-to-fork experience.

Supporting local producers directly and through consumer co-ops are accessible points for eaters to exercise immediate control over food quality and safety.

Caple Melton works for Central Co-op, a member-owned natural foods cooperative in the heart of Seattle dedicated to sustainable practices, community accountability and the local food economy.

More about: food safety, local food, organic food

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