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Should We Fear Our Food?

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WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Richard Laliberte

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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.")

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