Attention to Food’s Origins is Critical in Light of Outbreak

Sam White, Contributing Writer

We shouldn’t have to care about what’s in our food: Simply “eating a balanced diet,” complete with proteins, fats, greens and carbohydrates, should suffice. Today, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult — and dangerous — not to care.

Recent events bring this to light. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a health alert this week regarding an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella, responsible for at least 270 cases of the severe foodborne illness. According to the USDA, the source of the illness has been traced to poultry products produced by Foster Farms in California at three of the company’s four facilities. While the majority of reported cases have been in California, the contaminated chicken has been found responsible for illness in at least 16 other states — hospitalizing around 42 percent of those affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the reasons for the outbreak’s severity, as far-fetched as it may seem, is the same hot topic dominating the nation’s media: the shutdown of the United States Federal Government. The CDC is among the many government agencies forced by the shutdown to furlough huge numbers of employees, including five of the eight members tracking foodborne illness clusters at the agency’s PulseNet database. As NPR reported last week, an outbreak — such as the one going on now — would leave the short-staffed CDC scrambling.

There is good and bad news resulting from this situation. On the positive side, the CDC has successfully pinpointed this particular outbreak, despite delays and drawbacks. In response, the USDA announced on Thursday that it would shut down the contaminated facilities unless Foster Farms produced clear plans for halting the outbreak. On the negative side is the distressing reality that we are highly dependent on our dysfunctional government to keep our food safe.

Even when the government and its oversight agencies are functioning up to speed, outbreaks can still occur. Just this summer, reports NPR, a parasite on a certain brand of bagged lettuce made as many as 400 people in 15 states ill as the CDC and PulseNet raced to identify the pathogen to prevent further cases. Other potential food safety threats remain mysteries, such as a case this past spring where a cluster of genetically modified, pesticide-resistant wheat — a crop engineered by agribusiness giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved for production or consumption by the USDA — inexplicably began growing in an Oregon farmer’s field without his knowledge. The case remains unresolved, raising questions regarding the possibility of other unapproved GMO crops, whose safety for consumption may require further research, growing elsewhere without farmers’ or consumers’ knowledge.

Looking at the big picture, it seems that nothing is safe. Genetically modified organisms exist in as much as an estimated 75 percent of food products found in supermarkets. Their safety — affirmed by Monsanto and the various government agencies to which representatives of the corporation are a party and rejected by skeptical food safety advocates as well as a handful of other governments — is a contentious issue, at the very least. The inundation of most commercially-produced meat and animal products with antibiotics, even when the animals are healthy, has been proven to lead to antibiotic resistance, which makes cases like the current salmonella outbreak so virulent.

The nature of our food system pits the powerful, such as Monsanto, against the local farmer; the industrial, antibiotic-pump- ing giant, like the 10,000-employee-strong Foster Farms, against the smaller, safer, antibiotic-free business. The result is common knowledge: Healthier food comes at a price. Fortunately, however, we as consumers are not power- less, and awareness is the key to change. Regardless of our individual means, it’s important to remember — and take advantage of—thefactthatweareallinthe same food market, whether we like it or not. By buying organic, local and GMO-free foods if and when we are able, we are creating demand and sending producers the message that we want safer and healthier food.

Not everyone has the time or the resources to care about these issues. Even fewer want to care about them. But if we each do what we can to change the status quo — and urge our peers, co-ops, restaurants and supermarkets to do the same — then, in the long run, we won’t have to care.