Food, Scandalous Food?

In a discussion that began a few days ago with what you might consider a “You Are What You Eat” theme, as the conversation continues, it becomes more grim.

La Bergère Basque offers a glimpse into her way of life in this comment, pertaining to the local food supply in her village in the Aquitaine region of France. She also offers information about governmental inspection frequency, methods, and “controls” relative to the standards required for food sources to be considered organic.

I thank her very much for this view point, after which I took a few minutes to look for something on our processes in the U.S., by way of comparison. In doing that, my concerns over food additives were overshadowed by related subjects that are at least as worrisome.

I was particularly affected by this article from The Daily Beast on “America’s Dangerous Food Safety System.” In my opinion, the article is a must-read, and if it worries you, it should.

The Daily Beast article by Eve Conant, dating to September 2011, references a Newsweek investigation of America’s safety net against food poisoning and bioterrorism.

The Politics of Food

Naturally, there is a political side to the equation. Among many points made by The Daily Beast are the following:

• The two agencies on the front lines of food safety, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, have different risk assessments, legal standards, and resources committed to the effort.
• USDA inspectors admit they are stretched so thin that they frequently miss required inspections at some plants, particularly in the populous Northeast.
• FDA inspectors physically check only about 1 percent of the food shipped into the United States from foreign countries and get to only about a quarter of domestic plants a year.

Frightening? Scandalous?

The report goes on to explore the budgetary issues, the years expended to expand testing of e coli strains from one to six, and the politics involved in all of this – as it comes down to establishing sufficient controls consistently, the manpower to execute on enforcing them, and naturally – the budget dollars to support both.

E Coli Outbreaks

I don’t mean to imply that the U.S. is the only country with these issues. We aren’t. Outbreaks in salmonella and e coli poisoning still occur across the globe. Germany experienced a major incident in Summer 2011, which caused 32 deaths and more than 800 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is, according to the CDC:

… a type of kidney failure that is associated with Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, or STEC, infections.

Closer to home and very recently, most of us are aware of an outbreak in several Southern states which has yet to be entirely traced, and caused the death of a 21-month old girl.

According to Eyewitness News in New Orleans:

The likely exposure is a food source but this has yet to be confirmed.

The New Orleans article cites infectious disease expert, Dr. Brobson Lutz:

Dr. Lutz said humans and pets have millions of E. coli living in their colons, but the real trouble comes from the mutated strains usually transmitted in meat or beef.

He believes that anti-biotics in livestock feed are contributing to creating super E. coli strains that have mutated and become extremely toxic to people.

Start with Awareness, Continue with Political Action

While this conversation began (a few days ago) with the concerns of French women over excess pounds, and the need for awareness relative to diet dramas and health issues, clearly, there’s more to unravel.

As for controls, in the U.S., we have the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Articles such as the one in The Daily Beast reveal some of the challenges they face.

Beyond the problems of obesity – heart disease, diabetes and the resulting strain on our healthcare system – do we know what we’re putting in our bodies? Shouldn’t we?

Shouldn’t we focus on putting our dollars into changes that address root causes and seek to prevent health problems, even if we realize there are no guarantees?

I don’t want to oversimplify what is clearly a complex problem, involving agri-business, small farmers, supermarket chains, restaurants, institutions (schools!) and more. So I will return to awareness as a first step, and individual responsibility as part of that – paying attention to what we consume and where, not to mention our political process at a more micro level. This is more than a matter of vanity, conscience, or even dollars. It is essential to our health, the health of our families, and that of our neighbors – locally and globally.

© D. A. Wolf



  1. batticus says

    The simplicity of evolution means that pumping antibiotics into animals will inevitably lead to resistant strains of bacteria evolving. It just makes no sense at all to engage in this bacteria vs. antibiotic arms race, it won’t end well.

    Hopefully the future lies with farmers like Joel Salatin, his family farm practices pasture cycling where the cows graze on grass, they move on to a new pasture while their patties attract grubs and insects which in turn chickens get to feast on when they enter the pasture a few days later (scattering the manure in the process); the grass grows enriched and the cycle can start anew. I can’t imagine his animals need drugs to stay alive unlike the animals in overcrowded factory farms.

  2. says

    This reminds me of a flight into Switzerland when the young man (a college student) sitting next to me explained the farmland below as we descended. He knew about the crop rotations and how the animals used the land when a field was fallow for a season and very proud of Switzerland’s success in utilitizing land and farms and animals naturally. I was so impressed with him and I agree that if we leave things to nature with a little wisdom, or at least in the hands of those who are wise about how it all works, we’re all better off.

  3. says

    I believe you have identified a significant problem in our food production – politics. Farm subsidies that are meant to help farmers in difficult circumstances (for example, weather destroying a crop) are really there for farmers who grow soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, and rice. Farmers who raise meat, fruits and vegetables see very little in the way of government money. Politics greatly affects what goes from the farm to the consumer.

    Antibiotics definitely cause mutated super-strains of bacteria; and hormones are causing children to reach puberty at younger ages than they used to. Chemical contamination – well, I have to wonder if some cancers might be a result of what comes in contact with our food before we do. Unfortunately, I don’t think many people are focused on our food supply, when they are more concerned with our economy, in general. Plus, they are uninformed.

    We once rented a farm house where the cattle (raised for beef) were free to roam the pasture and eat grass. It was a very small farm and we got to experience the daily life of the farmer and his animals, including the birth of calves. No hormones. No antibiotics (cows were treated if they got sick – very rare). Although they didn’t butcher and sell beef on the farm, there are places that do.

    Large agribusiness is getting more and more involved in producing foods for the organic market. I wonder how that might affect organically grown foods?

  4. says

    The care of fields is the same in France as Switzerland… as an example we had just turned and fertilized a field to plant corn. Planted then fertilized once again, it will be combined late Fall. It will again be fertilized with what comes out of the sheep barn and cow pens, and come Spring grass will be planted which will become pasture for the sheep when the lambs are still young. We later send the sheep a bit higher during the day between milkings, once the lambs have been sold and the female “yearlings” kept elsewhere. The field is again naturally fertilized and corn planted. Every 5 years it is fertilized and left to “rest”. We also change pasture and high pasture for the sheep and cows (and fertilize the same way). Pasture changes daily and sometimes is sometimes ” momentarily rented” from others. Because of this the land is protected and therefore the animals are far less likely to get “stressed” or sick. In these parts there is a firm belief that you must nurture and feed the land, so that in turn it can do the same for you and your livestock/garden.

    If meat has been properly handled and not dragged through dung and only with clean hands, it should not be at risk for e-coli. They are very strict with the “laboratoires” here. I now laugh when I think of the times I wanted a rare burger and was told I couldn’t due to e-coli threat. IF the animal is healthy and has been handled correctly there is no threat. The animals here are numbered at birth and traced all the way to slaughter and a butcher will tell you where it was raised. In this area, where food and its source is so important, most people will buy direct or the marché . But the flavor so good :) It has created competition for Carrefour, etc to also name their sources.
    Same holds true for the fruit and vegetables. We grow most of what we use, but not all. We fertilize with the chicken dung from the coop. I pick off slugs from the tomatoes and surround them with broken egg shells (slugs hate the texture) I am lucky presently our trees give us cherries and apricots. I make clafouti, freeze pie fillings and make jams. My neighbor brought me raspberries… becoming the best jam I ever tasted! I can my tomatoes and string beans. The taste is another dimension! . There are plenty of youngsters at the marché and even cooperatives that will supply the same for people who work long hours at other jobs… sometimes you pay a bit more, but you are also sure it has great taste. I would rather eat a good steak once every 3 weeks than a mediocre one once a week. Many here are like me in that respect. My children cannot get over the true taste of fruit/vegetables here :)

    The funny thing is I was not as “aware” of the traceability of food until I married a farmer…

    IT IS an education but with all the sickness and diseases that are becoming rampant, it is a necessity. First we must educate the politicians to play fairly with our nutrition. I still say Direct is Best, from farmer to home.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      So much to think about, La Bergère. That “traceability” of food that you mention seems terribly important these days. I’m not so sure how easy it is to accomplish in the US… Worth looking into, and now you have me very curious.

      And I’m with you on the quality over quantity – one great steak every few weeks rather than something mediocre (or unhealthy?) on a regular basis.

      Educating the politicians… No small task. Perhaps we need to educate ourselves first, then impacting the politicians the way we can – with our votes.

      Thank you again for this wonderful conversation. We have so much to learn.

  5. says

    PS forgot to mention, subsidies are based on size of land, therefore the small farmer or grower does not get much. He has a few acres, not hundreds. And there should be more money for livestock as it costs more to raise a herd than a crop.
    The major agri-businesses benefit and unfortunately, that is the same in France.
    What saves us is people wanting to buy direct and wanting to know WHAT they eat and how it was handled or treated…and tasting bette food! Lets get these politicians educated :)

  6. says

    Still getting caught up–La Bergère Basque has so much to teach us! One thing that I can contribute regarding subsidies: I live on the edge of the Camargue region, known for its rice production. Yes, the larger the land hold, the bigger the subsidy. And who owns one of the very largest tracts? A prince from the royal family of Denmark. There is also much controversy over how much is spent for people NOT to produce in order to keep market prices stable…


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