Have you thought about food safety and who is responsible for the safety of our food? It seems that it only becomes a topic of discussion when the news stations break the latest deets regarding an outbreak of E. coli or salmonella. What about food safety from day to day? Well, three entities are involved here including the government, food processors, and consumers. Together these three entities need to share responsibility for the safety of our food. With increased technology we see increased contamination, and the larger the food processing facility, the more contamination we see. We tend to expect the government to protect us, and we tend to trust the food processors, or at least we turn a blind eye to what we are putting in our mouths. Of course the veil of secrecy created by the food processors aids us in doing so, where in our supermarkets for example our food products do not resemble the animal from which they came. Most meat nowadays comes packaged boneless and skinless and looks nothing like a cow or a chicken or a pig. Farms have become so large and messy that no one wants them to be seen, and this has resulted in a loss of accountability in the food system.1 The veil of secrecy that was created not only removed accountability from the food processors, but it also removed it from us. It allowed us to bury our heads in the sand. Clearly we need to be responsible as well. The industry is always looking for efficiency and efficiency efforts on such a large-scale lead to problems. Instead of fixing the root cause of the problem, the problem itself is given a Band-Aid so that the system can survive, and this creates a vicious cycle of progressively more serious problems.1 For example cows don’t naturally eat corn (which is what they are fed in commercial farming practices). They are ruminants and feed on grass. By eating corn the cows get sick. Instead of changing the diet to prevent such illness (which would correct the root cause of the problem), cows are given antibiotics. Those antibiotics lead to superbugs such as E. coli O157:H7.2(47),3 And then we see illness and death at the hands of our food sources.
Responsibility for food safety cannot end with the government, and clearly it cannot end with the industry. As consumers we are responsible for what we buy, how we prepare it, and what arrives at our dinner tables. Because there are a variety of things that can affect the food before it makes its way into our homes, our job as consumers begins at the supermarket. Opened, damaged packages, bruised produce and dented cans are red flags. Expiration dates are placed on packages and should be checked before making a purchase. Shopping in a particular order can even make a difference (and is actually something my mother taught me many moons ago). Start with nonperishable items. For example, pick up your dairy products or frozen foods last so they aren’t sitting unrefrigerated in your cart for too long.4 Keep coolers in the car to keep the food at a safe temperature while in transport from market to home when the weather is warm. Cleanliness is important as well. Keep your kitchen clean. This includes your counters, sinks, and utensils. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by using different utensils for meat versus vegetables. Wash produce before cutting into it because the exterior may be harboring bacteria or dirt. And always wash hands before cooking and eating, especially if you’ve been touching raw meat.4
In addition to these safety precautions, where and when possible shop locally. Find a farmer’s market, or even grow your own vegetables if means to do so are available. If these options are not feasible, shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Start in the produce section and load up there first. If buying any of the dirty dozen, go organic. The dirty dozen now have a plus! They are apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines that are imported, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes, and the pluses are domestic blueberries and hot peppers.5 The clean 15 are produce items that aren’t as important to purchase in their organic versions. These include avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onion, asparagus, papaya, mango, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, domestic cantaloupe, sweet potatoes and cauliflower.6 Stop by the butcher counter (for my omnivore friends of course), and where budgets allow opt for organic meats, grass fed beef and wild caught fish. Organic dairy is also preferable. Shop the isles as little as possible if at all, and fill up your cart around the perimeter, and then negotiate other items, as necessary.
We vote with our wallets.1 Grassroots efforts to change what we bring to our own tables will make their way up the chain to the supermarkets, then to the food processors and the government. While all entities are responsible at varying levels, we as consumers have the power to create change, and to keep our food safe.
- Kenner R. Food, Inc. [Amazon]. United States: Magnolia Pictures; 2008.
- Nestle M. Safe Food The Politics of Food Safety. California: University of California Press; 2010.
- Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press; 2006.
- NSF The Public Health and Safety Organization. Food Safety is a Shared Responsibility. NSF International. http://www.nsf.org/newsroom/food-safety-is-a-shared-responsibility/. Published July 31, 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.
- Weil Staff. Foods You Should Always Buy Organic. com. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02985/Foods-You-Should-Always-Buy-Organic.html. Published April 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.
- Weil Staff. Foods You Don’t Have to Buy Organic.com. www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02984/Foods-You-Dont-Have-to-Buy-Organic.html. Published April 2014. Accessed June 4, 2015.