8 08 2009

There has been a long string of health problems from “big produce” lately.  Tomatoes, lettuce, bagged spinach, and cilantro, just off the top of my head, have infected people with e.coli.  Some people, unfortunately, have died from these problems.

Congress is working on a response to this, in the form of H.R.  2749, “The Food Safety Enhancement Act,” and the private produce industry has responded with a “leafy greens marketing agreement.”  Both are pretty draconian, and come down much harder on the small producers who have not had a problem than they do on the big producers, who have been the source of all the contamination outbreaks.

The federal bill calls for an assessment of  $500 per year from every “food processing facility” that does not sell more than 50% of what it processes directly to the public.  Whether you’re making jam from your blueberries and selling it through the store down the street or whether you’re Transnational Food, Inc., it’s 500 smackers.   Easy for Transnational, not so easy for Mom’s berry jam.  The bill also calls for electronic tracking of produce shipments.  Again, not a big deal for Transnational, but a serious financial/technical hurdle for Mom’s Jam.  Lastly, the bill calls for the FDA to set enforceable safety/sanitation standards for all farms.  This is a wild card, and, if the “leafy greens marketing agreement” gives any indication, could be where things get really crazy.

My personal assessment of this “leafy greens marketing agreement” is that it attempts to answer the question, “how do you grow surgically clean vegetables in a world made of dirt?”  In its search for a way to do this, Big Produce has called in sanitation experts who usually work in enclosed spaces, and instructed them to apply indoor standards to the great outdoors.  The consequences?

Let me share a quote from an article on the “SFGate” website:

Dick Peixoto planted hedges of fennel and flowering cilantro around his organic vegetable fields in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville to harbor beneficial insects, an alternative to pesticides.

He has since ripped out such plants in the name of food safety, because his big customers demand sterile buffers around his crops. No vegetation. No water. No wildlife of any kind.

“I was driving by a field where a squirrel fed off the end of the field, and so 30 feet in we had to destroy the crop,” he said. “On one field where a deer walked through, didn’t eat anything, just walked through and you could see the tracks, we had to take out 30 feet on each side of the tracks and annihilate the crop.”

In the verdant farmland surrounding Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary and one of the world’s biological jewels, scorched-earth strategies are being imposed on hundreds of thousands of acres in the quest for an antiseptic field of greens. And the scheme is about to go national.

Invisible to a public that sees only the headlines of the latest food-safety scare – spinach, peppers and now cookie dough – ponds are being poisoned and bulldozed. Vegetation harboring pollinators and filtering storm runoff is being cleared. Fences and poison baits line wildlife corridors. Birds, frogs, mice and deer – and anything that shelters them – are caught in a raging battle in the Salinas Valley against E. coli O157:H7, a lethal, food-borne bacteria.

Let me repeat:  this program is about to go nationwide.

There’s just one problem with it.  There’s no science behind it, just the poop-yucks of narrow-minded technicians who are in over their heads.  (One told a farmer that children in diapers should not be allowed on his farm due to the danger of contamination.  So much for family farming, eh!?)  Oh, and any Amish or other simple-living types, you’d better put diapers and a catheter on your plow horses.  Can’t have no raw animal manure in the field, no sir.  But I digress…there is no science behind the strictures being put on vegetable growers in the name of keeping their produce clean.

First of all, we don’t know where the e.coli is coming from, but what science there is on the subject indicates that it is almost certainly not coming from deer, mice, birds, or frogs, and that the ponds so zealously being eliminated by the purifiers are more likely to destroy e.coli than they are to breed it.

The most likely source of e.coli is–big feedlots, where antibiotic-saturated cows stand around virtually knee-deep in their own manure all day. But CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are sacrosanct, so we can’t go after them. The second likely source is farmworkers who are not provided with a place to relieve themselves while at work.  Doing something about this would require reining in Big Ag, though, and that’s a political impossibility.   A third potential  source is feral pigs, although they are not common problem.  The natural world, however, is not represented in Congress, which makes attacking it the line of least resistance.  So, all you frogs, mice, and fennel plants gotta die for Big Ag’s sins.

The big multiplier for produce contamination comes when large quantities of salad greens from many different farms are mixed and washed together in the same water, bagged, and sent off cross-country, supposedly always at a temperature cold enough to keep bacteria from growing, or at least slowing it down–but with up to 17 days between packing and the expiration date, a lot can happen–and grow…you know what happens when you leave something in your refrigerator for two and a half weeks? Especially if every few days you take it out and leave it out until it just starts to warm up? (I’ve been in the produce business, I know what happens.)  Well, it’s just like that.

So, it looks like we may be on the brink of a nationwide campaign to make it ecologically and financially a whole lot more difficult to grow raw salad greens for mass consumption.  In a way, I don’t have a problem with that.  I think that shipping highly perishable products thousands of miles is an ecologically dubious process in the first place, no matter how many people are making money off it.

I have a “modest proposal” to make that could go a long way towards solving this whole dilemma:  let’s just admit that it’s well-nigh impossible to guarantee the sterility of mass-produced raw vegetables for two and a half weeks, and stop telling people they don’t have to wash their salad greens before eating them.  The longer-range solution, of course, is neighborhood salad gardens and other local sources of food, but that’s not going to happen overnight.  Transnational Food, Inc., is not going to vanish like the bad dream it is–but maybe Big Food can admit that, when it comes to long-distance fresh salads, they bit off more than they could chew.

“Wash carefully before eating,” guys….how ’bout it?

music:  Laurie Anderson, “The Monkey‘s Paw”




One response

16 11 2009

Wow – good article. I will be forwarding this to JH Kunstler who will hopefully froth at the mouth about how this impedes the relocalisation of agriculture so sorely needed in the coming age of decline. What an unfortunate development!

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