The Implications of Food Contamination, and Building a Better Food System | Civil Eats

The Implications of Food Contamination, and Building a Better Food System

Food contamination is a tricky subject, particularly for advocates of nutritious, real food.  This is because the problems of food safety always come down to a problem of unmanageable scale. Due to our nation’s belief in the economics of growth, proponents of the current food system are not receptive to alternatives, such as Michael Pollan’s recent suggestion to decentralize.

An increasing amount of our food is sourced from around the globe and sent to processing plants too big to keep clean. But the world is not a sterile environment and neither is the human body nor the foods we need to live. Attention and care is needed to establish an equilibrium between the necessary helpful bacteria and those that are harmful. Because this balance cannot be maintained in giant processing plants, ad-hoc solutions are used just to keep food from being lethal. Lucky for the food manufacturers, the additional steps needed to maintain a food system of such magnitude are just as profitable as the system itself.

Moving food around, applying sterilization mechanisms, producing dietary supplements to make up for nutrient loss from processing, pasteurization, and even irradiation, all are primarily economic activities, encouraging a chain of fixes during the production process rather than getting at the root of the problem: industrial food.

Why else would we be exporting the same or similar goods to China that we import? The costs of such an irrational system are often justified by the profits gained by the huge amounts of food sold. For example, the Mars Co. can sell a candy bar, whose ingredients are as well traveled as Rick Steves, for roughly 65 cents and still earn a 2 billion dollar profit. There is no question that scale pays.

This scale of operation has led to our food being exposed to many processes never before seen in the history of man.  There is food that contains harmful chemicals added through cutting corners in production practices to make a profit — such as  Melamine in milk and other processed products from China (including feed for farmed fish) and antibiotics in meat that makes its way into vegetables through cheap CAFO manure. One could also argue that the use of pesticides is a short-cut by design, leaving behind potentially harmful residues.  There are also foods which, due to the convoluted process of large scale production and distribution methods, have a lot of harmful microbes and make people sick.  Related, but not as acutely dangerous, are foods that contain lower levels of harmful substances due the nature of industrial processing (melamine is found in infant formula produced in the US via inherent contamination in the processing plant or user-end packaging, for example).

The problem of antibiotics absorption by crops is alarming — not least because the study found that some organic produce was affected — but also because it is difficult to determine if the vegetables you buy are contaminated.

While organic farms are not free from contamination, compost and manure come from the produce and animals living on the farm, creating a closed system that could be arguably safer, and builds nutrient rich soil that is also filled with living organisms.  As small-scale farmer Allen Balliett describes it, “The basis of all good organic farming is promoting the diversity of the beneficial microbial community which inevitably leads to the suppression of pathological organisms.”

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The nature of large scale operations means it is very difficult to change the system, particularly because of trade policy and the policies of other nations that undermine our own food production standards.  Additionally, because many of the contamination issues come from problems of federal regulation and the practices of giant food companies (like Cargill which is in charge of much of the buying, selling, growing, and processing of food. Read more about the ag firm here) voting with our fork is our most practical tool in speaking out against food contamination.

While policy changes are ideal, consumer spending patterns are powerful motivators for change. Stricter standards for the source of manure organic growers can use would be best, but the more you buy organic meat the less demand there will be for animals that undergo antibiotic treatments that provide the contaminated fertilizer. And meeting your producer at the farmer’s market can be a direct source of information on agricultural methods.

The power of consumer spending is a compelling reason not to get discouraged about food contamination findings but to be encouraged to support those who are engaged in practices that guarantee healthy, safe food. For the most part that means local producers and processors, particularly you in your own kitchen. If you can’t find a food you are looking for from your community, state, or even somewhere in the U.S., try something new.

It is important to stay proactive in the face of disconcerting information. We must support solutions that do not diminish the nutritional value of food or only provide what are essentially lazy fixes to a large and unclean production process. The more locally you source your food and the more transparent and accountable your source is, the more assured you can be that you are safe from contamination and that you are supporting a rational and healthy food system.

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Sage Dilts writes about using limited resources to eat and live well and the potential of domestic skills as a way to practically support health and a vibrant regional food system on her blog Read more >

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  1. Wonderful article, Sage, thank you. We have come so far from how we were meant to live and now we're paying the price. How could we have believed we were immune from all the additives and excitotoxins and other pollutants injected into and generated by our food system?

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