Should We Fear Our Food?
By Richard Laliberte
Industrial farming techniques may make it easier to find out-of-season
fruit, but what are we giving up in exchange?
Once upon a time, farms were pastoral places close to nature, and the
ability to obtain healthy, safe food was a given. In our high-tech agribusiness
world, though, the innocence of food is vanishing fast. Recent outbreaks of
food-borne illness have shown that simple plants like lettuce and spinach can
harbor deadly germs. And the use of antibiotics and hormones in animal products
also raises weird-science fears.
"Consumers expect food to be safe," says Ted Labuza, Ph.D., a
professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. "But agriculture
has become a huge industry that makes heavy use of technology in order to be
more efficient, which can lead to unintended consequences." The simple
benefit of gigantic industrial farms: cheap, good, readily available food. The
consequences? Not so simple.
Take bagged salads. Fifteen years ago, they didn't exist. Today, thanks to
new breathable wrapping, some 70 percent of head lettuce is bagged, and
prepackaged greens are top-selling food items. Convenience is part of the
appeal, plus pre-washed greens sound safer. Yet almost all U.S. lettuce comes
from just a handful of large processors, which creates new problems if you have
even a few contaminated heads. "Those heads are chopped up and distributed
in many packages throughout the country within days," says Labuza. Which is
how contaminated spinach from just one mega-producer in California sickened
hundreds of people in 26 states last fall, causing nationwide panic and
profoundly impacting the spinach industry.
Buying organic isn't the easy answer, either, as "natural" farming
has evolved from a small-scale boutique business into a $14.6 billion industry.
"Organic isn't automatically wholesome — a lot of large organic farms are
just as industrial as other farms," says Guillermo Payet, founder of
LocalHarvest, a clearinghouse for small growers. Organic means the food is
grown without conventional pesticides, antibiotics, or fertilizers — it doesn't
mean that Farmer Bob is lovingly tending your apples on a small farm. (The
buzzword for that kind of farming, which emphasizes the long-term health of the
environment and the local community, is "sustainable.")
The good news is that even as our fears are spiraling upward, our food is
safer than ever, with E. coli infections — one of the most common
food-borne diseases in the United States — down by 29 percent in the past
decade, according to 2005 data from the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. Government and industry are working to make food production cleaner
and to identify disease outbreaks faster.
Still, it's tough to trust that food safety is increasing when the bad news
keeps breaking: Recent recalls of contaminated peanut butter (salmonella) and
mushrooms ( E. coli ) continue to fuel our anxiety that we're buying
tainted food that could make us sick. Even technologies that have no history of
causing illness can make us nervous simply because they seem unnatural.
"Food raises emotional issues that are important to us but sometimes have
nothing to do with actual safety," says Carol Tucker Foreman, of the Food
Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. "That's why we have
a right to get enough information to decide for ourselves whether we want to
eat something — even if it's safe."
To help you draw the line between panic and prudence, REDBOOK investigated
six food technologies that have recently made headlines or raised consumer
anxiety over the years. Here, what you need to know.