Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lessons learned from Germany's food poisoning

My first thought when I heard about the foodborne illness outbreak in Europe was that it is a horrible tragedy. My second was "fresh food should be the last thing people should be afraid of."  I wondered if friends of mine that are "on the fence" about healthy eating would be deterred from buying fresh produce and non-pasteurized products because of the recent news.

But here is some recent information about the subject of foodborne illness, where it usually comes from in situations like this, and what we should really be concerned about.

Originally authorities in Germany suspected that the outbreak of illness could be blamed on sprouted seeds from organic farms (fresh food, especially sprouts, have a history of pathogenic contamination) but sprouts have been cleared as the cause.

What's important to remember is highly toxic strains of harmful pathogens in our food often come from underlying causes, one is the relatively new practice of raising cattle in factory farm conditions, instead of how they're naturally supposed to be raised: on the pasture.

Cows are supposed to eat grass and when they are fed grain it changes the pH in their rumen (the first stomach of the cow) which can create a friendly environment for harmful bacteria (like E.coli) to thrive. Unfortunately, the manure run-off from the feedlots can contaminate fresh food crops, like raw vegetables and sprouts.

There is also the problem of scale of production and distribution. Corporate agribusinesses and their huge farms may have outgrown their ability to control the quality of their products. This happened in the spinach outbreak of 2007. Distribution was vast geographically and this led to a bigger outbreak. Europe is dealing with this now.

Something else to think about: organic farms are much less likely to incur a pathogenic outbreak due to their fertilizing requirements. Not only are the farms free from harmful chemicals, but the organic farmers must compost their manure (which kills deadly bacteria) - a practice that is not required for non-organic (or conventional) farms. Reports show that 9 of 10 recalls of sprouts in the US have been from conventional farms - not organic.

So is the more "profitable" way of farming livestock and fresh food on a large-scale worth it? I think not. When we go against what nature intended, it shouts back with tragedies like what's going on in Germany and the huge pandemic of disease from not eating whole, unprocessed food. Lessons learned: buy organic, buy from local "small" farms, wash your fruits and veggies, and perhaps start to consider new ways of getting your meats.

Watch for my interview with Frank Fitzpatrick, our local grass fed cattle rancher, coming soon. Lots of interesting things to share that will make you second-guess your store butcher.


Some information for this article came from http://www.cornucopia.org/ - an organization that supports small-scale farming.