hockey pucks

Not that I’ve personally eaten anything that resembles those little bacteria infested hockey pucks since middle school*, but this recent CNN article about saturday’s recall of millions of pounds of E Coli contaminated beef, brought to my attention by a client and dear friend last night, only serves to fan the flame of my growing dis-ease over the increasingly frequent cases of large scale contamination of our “food” supply. I’m not just being paranoid, either: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000.

Spinach made the news not long ago, and this most recent recall of 21.7 MILLION POUNDS of contaminated beef by Topps Meat Co. is not the first or even the largest recall in recent history (In 2002, Pilgrim’s Pride recalled more than 27 million pounds of poultry, and Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of ground beef in 1997.) According to Sanford Miller, senior fellow at the University of Maryland Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy: “The amazing thing is not that we have events such as the spinach problem but rather that we don’t have many more. Nevertheless, as the nature of the food supply changes to include more prepackaged minimally processed foods, many of the traditional techniques, such as cooking, we use to protect our food are lost. It has been estimated that 81 million food related illnesses occur in the U.S. each year, most of which are unreported.”

We may think that those little bags of pre-packaged, pre-washed salad are awfully convenient, but the farther away we get from our farmers and farmers markets, the bigger the risk. Whereas 50 years ago (or today if you eat locally) lettuce or spinach or hamburger purchased in a grocery store would have come from one or two sources, today centralized processing plants combine produce from hundreds of industrial farms from all over the world to fill the bag of spinach or form a beef patty. All of that spinach is being washed and beef being ground and mixed in one or two giant vats – essentially giving microbes from a single field or farm an opportunity to contaminate a vast amount of food. One beef patty could contain parts from hundreds of cows, one bag of spinach leaves from many different farms (and microbes from even more). Any one of these sources could be contaminated by some of the more than a billion tons of manure every year produced by industrial animal agriculture, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn’t be.

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. For a rather elegant discussion of this topic, you can check out Michael Pollen’s 2006 article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex”.

In my opinion, one of the most frightening examples of food contamination related illness is not even included in this discussion. Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, cites several studies detailing that as much as 12 percent of all senile dementia or Alzheimer’s cases diagnosed in North America these days may actually be cases of CJD. CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, is the brain-wasting human variant of Mad Cow’s Disease (BSE), which is transmitted when animals are fed other animals or animal parts, especially brains and spinal cords. I won’t get into the gory details, but a chronology summarizing Mad Cow incidents and regulations in the US and Canada can be found here.

Listen people, I’m not telling you not to eat meat (though most experts agree that animal protein should be considered more of a garnish than a main course), but for pete’s sake, know where your dinner comes from! Eat local, free-range, grass-fed and organic as much as possible. It’s not so much a matter of aesthetics at this point – it could actually save your life.

*Relax, I’m not referring to ALL meat as “disease infested hockey pucks”. Though it’s true that I haven’t loaded up my bun since the early 90′s, as a Holistic Health and Nutrition Counselor, I really believe that each of us has our own unique nutritional needs. My beef is more with industrial animal and vegetable agriculture, the shortsighted practices of which I firmly believe aren’t doing any of us any good. Because under industrial capitalism it’s easier (and more profitable) to find a technological fix than to address the root cause of a problem, we’re more likely to irradiate beef and vegetables to kill pathogens than to address the system and conditions which create (and will continue to create with increased frequency) the problems in the first place. My eyes were first opened to the vast social, environmental and health related challenges of the “Vegetable-Industrial Complex” back in 2002, when I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Vandana Shiva (and others) speak on the topic at an event surrounding the release of the (amazing) book: The Fatal Harvest Reader. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic. For a more positive spin on how one amazing man chose to move forward, check out the film The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Have a potluck! Invite some friends…

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listening to: Tommy Becker, The Decemberists
reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

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