From the publishers

Wash that hand!

by Carolyn Chase
number of my vegetarian friends got a bit of fantasy fulfillment last month when Burger King was veggie for day. Seems that their major supplier was busted for food contamination. What a waste! 25 million pounds of wasted meat is almost unimaginable.

Last issue we discussed e coli in the water. Now the headlines are directed at e coli and other contaminants in our food.

On one hand, industrial farmers and producers argue that no new protections are required and that the market already moves quickly to take care of these things. On the other hand, more and more microbes are making it through to the consumer who has little or no practical way ensure that the food in the typical supermarket is safe.

But why not raise standards to meet demand? Isn't this the basis of market-based arguments? Why can't consumer demand indeed, requirements for a safe food supply be fulfilled? What ever happened to a food system that was managed to be wholesome and pure and not one that's managed mostly for production and profit? What is the acceptable number of sickened or dead consumers?

Rather than having a safe food system, we are told to remember that caveat emptor is our way of life and the only way to defend ourselves is to cook the freshness out of everything - just to make sure we've killed any contaminants. This seems utterly outrageous to me. Clean techniques are known and used in other countries, but here they are considered too expensive. We are letting the demand for cheap food blur into acceptance of cheap and dirty food.

So-called "free market" arguments are beginning to seem like unfulfilled religious arguments to me. For thousands of years, food-borne contamination was dealt with by this approach. But rather than being known as the free market "invisible hand" of Adam Smith, it was then known as the hand of God that sickened victims. That is, until we learned the benefits of modern sanitation.

So why the new outbreaks now? Why the increased frequency of contamination? There are several factors. First, we are importing and trading more and more from areas with exotic microbes and lower sanitation standards in general. There are reasons why many Americans can't drink the water in other countries. Does it make sense to import products from those systems and think there won't be problems? Second, the public may be becoming more vulnerable overall due to increased assaults on our immune systems starting at an early age, by the successes of viruses like AIDS, and an increasingly more vulnerable elderly population. Third, the pressures to compete may have overcome the systems to protect. It seems that the touted "invisible hand" of Adam Smith has got a little ca-ca on it.

We are blessed to live in an area where it is possible to know where your food comes from and to support that system. Fortunately, I know the farmer who grows most of my fresh produce and have met some of the farmworkers who cultivate and harvest it. But much of that acreage is under threat from urban sprawl, imports of cheaper produce, imports of dangerous pests, water shortages... the list goes on and on.

It should be obvious to most that if we must cope with the current buyer beware regime, then we had better do something about supporting and buying from systems that are healthy. More and more this means buying local and also buying from certified organic systems. Buyer beware must be translated into buyer be smart.

To learn more about doing your part, please attend the Harvest EarthFair in Vista on September 27th and check out special section on food and organics in this issue.