Is industrial food safe to eat?

On March 14, 2009, speaking about the number of incidents of food borne illnesses in the U.S., President Barak Obama reported on…

“…a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year (up from 100 in the early 1990’s).” 

On that date, President Obama announced new FDA appointments and “tougher food safety measures.”  Since that date, the problem has gotten worse!

I used to get regular email updates from the Food and Drug Administration on food recalls because I was curious about the trend.  I discontinued the service, as there were just too many to follow, but if you are interested you can see the food recalled over the past 60 days at the FDA Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts web page.  Its scary!

Most recalls don’t get much public attention (unless lots of people get sick or die) but the FDA issues a press release for each recall.  Here is a recent example of a recall of cherry tomatoes sold from a farm in Florida.

June 7, 2013 – Alderman Farms Sales Corporation, Boynton Beach, Florida is recalling one pint containers of Certified Organic Cherry Tomatoes because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonellacan result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e. infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis. This recall notice is being issued out of an abundance of caution.

Are you concerned?

Most food recalls involve processed foods like soups, cookies, cereal, cheese and brownie mix.  Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria are common problems in the industrial food system, showing up every few days in some products.  Many recalls do not involve health problems but may simply be triggered by mislabeling or products that are missing a label for a potentially harmful ingredient such as walnuts or pine nuts.  Nevertheless, the number of life-threatening problems continue to grow.

Just over the past five years, we may remember:

  • The “great salsa scare” of 2008 in which consumers were warned not to eat tomatoes or peppers believed to be contaminated with Salmonella.  Starting in Texas and New Mexico, eventually over 1,400 people were sickened in 43 states.
  • Within a month of the salsa scare, 30 million pounds of peanuts were recalled from stores and institutions due to Salmonella and 700 people fell ill across the nation, while 9 died from the contamination.
  • E. coli was believed to have contaminated Nestle Toll House refrigerated cookie dough. Nestlé recalled its products after the FDA reported that raw cookie dough sickened at least 66 people in 28 states.
  • You may remember when 500 million eggs were recalled after dangerous levels of Salmonella were detected in the eggs of two Iowa producers. Nearly 2,000 illnesses were reported between May and July, 2010.
  • Hundreds of people were made sick by cantaloupes sold by a Colorado farmer contaminated with Listeria in the fall of 2011.
  • Regular reports on E. coli were made in 2012 on contaminated spinach and other leafy green vegetables.
  • In 2013, 224 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella on whole chickens have been reported from 34 states.

Are you concerned yet?

Anyone who pays attention to the news won’t be surprised by this pattern of food borne illnesses, yet this is not something most people think about very often.  Most food illnesses are caused by under-cooking or sloppy preparation.  But contamination of food in the industrial food system at the source  (farm or factory) or along the long chain of handlers, processors, shippers, and retail distributors is a serious and escalating problem, in spite of increased efforts by the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent, monitor and report these problems.

Our government offers lots of advice on how to handle food at home to reduce the likelihood of a problem.  They even tell us how to try to remain safe while eating out. One thing our government agencies won’t tell you however is that if you want to eat safe – buy local. 

You have a choice!

As long as the industrial food system is built on the assumption that it must be fast and cheap to be successful, this problem won’t go away.  Increased inspectors can’t prevent the industrial system from getting us sick!  But you have a choice.  Local farmers must work hard to make sure the food they sell is safe, since they know their customers personally!

According to Grace Communications, “by buying locally, you can increase your chance of getting a fresh, high-quality product. Local farmers may invite you to visit the farm or talk about any food safety concerns that you may have. Most importantly, if you buy close to the source, you can help create local food systems, which are the exact opposite of the quantity over quality kind of food production that has created many of the food safety problems described above. To find a farmer near you, visit Eat Well Guide.”

Who do you trust?

Just look into the eyes of the farmer selling you potatoes, lettuce or pasture raised beef the next time you go to the farmers market, and ask yourself – who do you trust? 

Do you trust the industrial food system, dominated by multinational corporations with their primary focus on making more and more money for stockholders –  or my friend Jeremy from Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts?

You have a choice…..


For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.    You may be interested in the 15-credit Certificate, the 2-year Associate of Sciences degrees or the 4-year B.S. Sustainable Food and Farming major in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

5 thoughts on “Is industrial food safe to eat?”

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