Experience Life Magazine

Eat at Your Own Risk: The Truth About Tainted Health Foods

Some 76,000 Americans get sick from contaminated food each year. Recent revelations indicate that even some trusted organic brands have been undermined. Here’s how our food supply got in trouble, and how you can protect yourself and your family.

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Tree of life. Dancing Star. Mojo. Karma. They sound like workshop sessions at a 1968 “be-in,” but, in fact, they are just a few of the natural and organic food brands yanked from grocery shelves during last spring’s salmonella outbreak.
The poisoned peanuts at the root of the problem, distributed by the now-infamous Peanut Corporation, represent one of the most widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness in recent history: More than 700 cases of salmonella, including nine deaths, have been linked to nuts processed by the company. Victims have filed lawsuits; Congress has given its executives the third degree; consumers across the nation have dumped tons of peanut-containing products into waste bins.

What the headlines didn’t reveal, however, is that the Georgia facility was certified to process organic foods. And among the products that passed through the plant were high-profile natural brands such as Clif Bar and a number of other health-oriented products featured at natural grocers and health-food stores.

This fact makes the peanut recall even more disturbing for health-conscious consumers who may have assumed that their selective buying habits kept them safe. After all, part of the appeal of organic foods is that they are carefully formulated and crafted: free of pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering. But as the Peanut Corporation has demonstrated, the organic safety zone doesn’t necessarily extend to foodborne illness.

“The standards that protect us from pesticide residue are not protecting us from pathogens,” says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the food safety division of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “People confuse the words quality and safety. But there’s no reason — none — to do so.”

The Peanut Corporation is only the latest case to prove her point. Among the more high-profile recalls: Thousands of packages of Veggie Booty, an “all-natural” snack food, were recalled in 2007 due to salmonella contamination. In 2006, Dagoba (owned by Hershey) recalled several organic chocolate-bar varieties because of high levels of lead in the cacao; the same year, Natural Selection Foods, which supplies salad greens to dozens of organic brands, recalled spinach tainted with E. coli.

Every year, roughly 76,000 people in the United States take ill from poisoned food. And while organics may represent only a small number of these cases, and may, in fact, receive more oversight in certain aspects of their sourcing and production, the high level of trust that we carry into the natural foods store may not always be entirely warranted.

So what are the loopholes that currently allow dangerous pathogens to make their way to our dinner plates? What are best-in-class food brands doing to prevent future problems? And how can we protect ourselves and our families from contaminated foods that are slipping past our trusted gatekeepers?

The good news is that we needn’t wait for Congress to rewrite the food safety laws. By learning more about where our food comes from and how it can become contaminated, we can minimize our risks, starting today.

The Case of the Poisoned Peanuts

A patchwork of county and state organizations are charged with tracking down poisoned foods, and when the first clusters of salmonella cases surfaced last year in the Peanut Corporation outbreak, the foodborne diseases unit at the Minnesota Department of Health interviewed those affected. At the same time, equipment at the department’s headquarters provided a detailed DNA fingerprint of the pathogen, which helped investigators pinpoint outbreaks at two different nursing homes.

In theory, finding poisonous food should be just this simple. In practice, however, few state health departments are as well funded as Minnesota’s. As a result, says Klein, other states are slow to discover outbreaks of foodborne illness — or miss them altogether.

It doesn’t help that federal food laws are outdated and that the U.S. food regulatory system is fractured among a dozen agencies, all fighting over a slice of the food-safety turf. “The lines that have been drawn to determine who is going to do what are nonsensical,” says Klein. “For example, the FDA regulates cheese pizza, and the USDA regulates pepperoni pizza.”

What’s more, no agency has ever commanded enough authority to require a recall of poisonous food. Instead, it’s up to companies to issue a “voluntary recall.” In some cases, they don’t volunteer. Government regulators allege that the Peanut Corporation, for example, knowingly shipped products that had tested positive for salmonella poisoning.

Congressional action in the wake of the Peanut Corporation scandal seems likely to close some of these loopholes and streamline government oversight of the food industry, but it won’t address the central issue. “The real problem is overcentralization,” argues Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers Association. Peanut Corporation supplied an enormous number of brands in virtually every state of the country, Cummins points out, allowing tainted food to spread rapidly to hundreds of products, thousands of grocery stores and tens of thousands of dinner tables.

The chief benefit of our centralized food system is that it can deliver cheaper food to grocery stores. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that cheap food prices are heavily subsidized in the form of externalized costs: farm, transportation and food-waste pollution; lack of biodiversity; dependence on chemical fertilizer and pesticides; higher healthcare costs; and reduced flavor and nutritional value — just to name a few.

Indeed, when it comes to food, you tend to get what you pay for, says Michael Potter, president and cofounder of Eden Foods, one of the oldest and most trusted independent organic food companies. “The focus of the food industry has been on cheap, cheaper and cheapest — the cheapest cow, or wheat, or egg. If cheap is the primary criteria for what’s going into the food system, you’re definitely not going to have the best.”

Eden prefers to err on the conservative side, notes Potter. “We have multiple layers of verification systems, whether it’s the organic verification system, the nongenetically engineered verification system, the kosher verification system, or the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) system,” he says. “And that is highly unusual in the food industry today, unfortunately. If you ask me, that should be the norm.”

Staying Safe

While we wait for others to address the large-scale problems that contribute to foodborne illness — a confused and underfunded regulatory system, an overcentralized processing industry, and careless, or downright unscrupulous, food producers — there are risk-reducing actions each of us can and should begin taking now.

Assuming more personal responsibility for our food safety requires some thought and effort, and it’s by no means foolproof. But it can also return a welcome measure of meaning to our food-buying routines. Here’s a rundown of recommended steps and why they matter:

Buy Local. It’s now easier than ever to buy local and regional foods. Virtually every corner of the country features farmers’ markets, CSAs (farms that deliver vegetables in exchange for an annual membership fee), natural food stores and even larger grocery stores that purchase directly from local farmers.

Public health officials prefer local production and distribution, because, if there is an outbreak, it lessens the spread of the pathogen. But local doesn’t necessarily mean safe. For example, not all farmers’ markets require that vendors actually grow the food they sell. “Some markets are open to anybody who happens to have anything for sale, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from,” explains Tim Wightman of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, a Falls Church, Va.–based local food advocate. The more you know about your producers and their methods, the greater confidence you can have in what you buy.

Know Your Growers.  Start asking more questions about where your individual food purchases come from and who makes or grows the food. At the farmers’ market or CSA, that means asking questions and even conducting site visits. At a food co-op or natural food store, it means talking to the purchaser who works with the farmers or selects shelf-ready products.

Many co-ops keep a file on every farmer they buy from. Ask to see it, and, if your questions aren’t answered, call the grower directly. “I would begin with an open-ended question,” suggests Becky Selengut, a chef who founded Seasonal Cornucopia, a Web site that helps cooks in the Pacific Northwest identify seasonal foods. “Simply ask them what steps they take to ensure that their food is safe to eat.”

Potter, of Eden Foods, has an even broader question for the organic farmers who supply his company: Why are they farming in the first place? “I want to know why they are growing organic,” he says.

Potter is looking for small-scale farmers who consider their work a form of land stewardship. It’s an attitude easy to spot, and it’s likely to translate into greater care at every stage of production. He is quick to point out that Eden Foods operates on a “trust, but verify” basis. Comprehensive records, backed up with testing, document every step of the growing, harvesting and food-production phases. But the fundamental question of why a person is farming helps set his mind at ease. “I worry less about people who are well motivated.”

Buying whole foods, such as vegetables and fruits, directly from a grower is a great way to get up close and personal with how your food is raised and whether the conditions meet your standards. “If a farmer is playing by the rules, they’ll welcome visitors,” says Cummins. Your basic impression is important. Does the farm and its equipment seem well cared for? Are the food-washing and storage places clean and enclosed? Don’t be put off by manure-based fertilizing, a fundamental, organic-soil-building practice: During composting, manure heats up enough to kill any harmful bacteria. Ask your grower about his or her manure composting and spreading practices to learn more.

Evaluate manufacturers. The same inquiry-based principles apply to the processed foods you consume. The only difference is that, instead of dealing directly with farmers, a company gatekeeper is dealing with them for you. In that case, your job is to determine whether these gatekeepers are observing the same standards you would enforce in your own purchases at the farmers’ market. And that’s information you’re not likely to find on the back of a cereal box.

Potter reports that shoppers remain vigilant but confident in the Eden brand. “The Eden customer has always been picky and asked a lot of questions. But they have confidence in our 40 years of doing what we’re doing. They trust that we’ve acquired an expertise to consistently deliver what they want, which is premium quality and safe food.”

Generally, with both farmers and food companies, the same basic approach applies: Give them a call and ask what they do to protect food safety. If they’re running a tight ship, they’ll welcome your questions and want to tell you about their practices. You can also supplement what they tell you by Internet sleuthing (for example, checking them against FDA recall records).

Interview Storekeepers. Retailers, too, can act as a final line of defense against unsafe food, and, on the whole, natural foods retailers and cooperatives tend to be the most active guardians. “We work very closely with our suppliers,” says Libba Letton, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market. “Starting with affidavits that we have people fill out explaining how they manage aspects of production, including food safety. It’s even more in-depth for our private-label foods. We typically visit the facility where the product is made, third-party auditors perform regular inspections, and quality testing is performed before products leave the facilities. With the branded products, like a granola bar or pancake mix, it’s a matter of having that relationship and understanding the processes they use and trusting those processes,” she says.

Of course, even with those precautions, the tainted Peanut Corporation peanuts still got through. And most grocers agree that there’s simply no way for a store to guarantee that every product is 100 percent safe. “Consumers trust natural food stores to make choices for them,” says Jan Rasikas, general manager of the Viroqua Food Cooperative in Viroqua, Wis. “And it’s good that people trust us to have high standards and high expectations, but I also want people to take charge of their own food choices.”

Know Your Food

“The way to minimize risk is to build trust,” says Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated to sustainable agriculture. And the best trust, he notes, is built through direct, personal relationships. “The peanut company took very specific behaviors that increased the risk in the system. They would have been far less likely to do that if they personally knew the people who were eating their product.”

They would probably also have been less likely to do that if they had direct, personal relationships with the heads of the companies whose products relied on their peanut ingredients. As a giant, faceless wholesaler, however, the Peanut Corporation had no such relationships and instead conducted deals primarily with brokers and middlemen who had little personal investment in how the peanuts were handled or where they were shipped.

For Wightman, this dangerous disconnect is a symptom of a much larger malady: a chaotic food system dominated by anonymous corporations providing products to consumers who are disengaged from the sources of their food. Consumers, he says, can help shift this dynamic, but first “we have to take a more vested interest in where our food comes from.”

Food safety, in this scenario, must become a far more intimate business and not the distant purview of large, bureaucratic governmental organizations or international food-industry megaliths.

As consumers, we can no longer make assumptions based on wishful thinking or overblown confidence in regulating bodies like the FDA and USDA. Nor can we afford to be taken in by wholesome-looking labels. Instead, we must be willing to look a little deeper into where our foods come from; to ask tough, educated questions of our food manufacturers; to pay a fair price for the safe, high-quality foods we want to feed ourselves and our families; and to reward responsible growers and selective brands with our business.

Taking steps like these demands vigilance, time and effort — but it’s effort well spent toward becoming more conscious consumers and eaters and maintaining a food system that’s healthier for everyone. The good news is that, ultimately, the same processes that keep our food truly safe tend to also give us more nutritious and better-tasting food. They also support a stronger regional food economy and more responsible, sustainable food-production practices. And that’s not only beneficial for our ailing food-supply system, it’s healthy for the future of discerning eaters everywhere.

Joseph Hart lives and writes in rural Wisconsin.

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