This past Saturday was “Small Business Saturday.” This day is supposed to promote buying from small local brick and mortar shops, as opposed to what happens on the surrounding days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Interestingly, the term “Small Business Saturday” is trademarked by American Express who first introduced the event in 2010. It seems a little odd that American Express would be responsible for the birth of this event, but that appears to be the case. Even with that being so, we might suggest that as part of your purchases at small local shops on that day or any other, you can help those owners out even more by forgoing the American Express or other credit card and using cash, which saves them the fee on the purchase.
We, here at the farm, fully support buying from local businesses or even buying or bartering with your neighbors as much as you can for various reasons. The news over the last couple weeks of an E. coli outbreak related to Romaine got us thinking again about buying local, food in particular. The warning from the CDC seemed a bit harsh at first glance. Could they really be saying that all romaine in the whole country needs to be thrown out? What could possibly have been going on that would warrant this drastic of a reaction?
According to the CDC warning, between October 8 and October 31 there were 32 infections related to this outbreak in the United States. Of those, 11 individuals required hospitalization and 1 of them developed a type of kidney failure. No one has died in the US. Apparently there have been some cases, maybe 20, in Canada as well that are tied to the same strain. According to the Food Source Information site from Colorado State University about 7.7 pounds of romaine were produced per person during 2009 up from 1.2 pounds in 1990. Assuming there has been no change in production since then that means we are producing something on the order of 2.5 billion pounds of romaine in 2018 (assumes 327 million people) or about 210 million pounds per month. Taking all the cases in both Canada and the US, 52 total, and assuming they all occurred in a month, that is one case for every 4 million pounds of romaine produced. Clearly there have probably been a few more cases of illness out there that are probably related but never got reported and obviously the CDC needs to do what they can to prevent the public from getting sick, but does this really warrant statements like “Romaine lettuce is not safe to eat in any form” or “It’s still not safe to eat romaine lettuce?” There must be a better approach because clearly it is not the case that all of this romaine is a problem, right? If not, then what is the problem?
The problem seems to be more about the food system as a whole rather than romaine or any other food product that might happen to get contaminated from time to time. The producers of all our food products grow on larger and larger farms to gain the benefits of scale. The harvest, animal or plant, is then shipped off to a processor where it is combined with the harvest of other producers, or at least processed on the same equipment. The resulting product is then distributed far and wide across the country and even the globe. This system does result in a low cost product but there is a hidden cost which you see in a case like this. There are procedures and safeguards in place throughout the system to prevent these kinds of contamination but a single breakdown anywhere in the system can result in widespread distribution of the contaminated product. The job of an agency like the CDC to locate not just the source of the problem, but determine where all the contaminated product went is daunting, maybe even impossible in any kind of timely manner. This kind of event can remind us that we often have no idea where our food is coming from or how it was handled, but even worse, what it shows us is the very people that most Americans think would know these answers don’t really have much more of an idea than we do. Think about that, the very source of energy and nourishment for your family often comes from somewhere, someone, and in a manner completely unknown to you. That is very scary. So what are we to do?
We have already heard of some proposals to begin labeling produce with the source as a way to help in determining what needs to be recalled in an event like this. Perhaps this is not a bad idea but it might be somewhat limited in its utility. The source of the outbreak still needs to be determined before a targeted recall can occur and that it is often not easy for many reasons and it takes time. Additionally, this will do nothing to help us really know anything about how our food is processed and handled, or likely even where it comes form. This brings us back to Small Business Saturday and the thought of purchasing food locally. If you purchase your food locally and take the time to get to know your grower/producer you will know what their handling, processing, packaging, and transportation operation is like. You will know what their ethics are. You can learn if they are feeding their family from their own production. You can learn how the animals are treated and what kind of land stewardship they are practicing. You might be interested in the types of pest control techniques they are using. If they are providing value added products like jams, breads, coffee, etc. you can learn how they source their ingredients and what types of additives they do or do not use. You may be interested in learning some of these things and not others, perhaps your list is different from ours but the point is you can know. This will not prevent you from possibly getting contaminated food. That can happen from most any source for a variety of reasons, but what it will do, is keep you close to the source. It is unlikely you will be waiting for the CDC to find out your food is contaminated and tell you to throw it away. If you are buying from a local farmer or producer you know, and they are feeding their own family from the same source, it is highly likely you have a relationship with them that involves them being able to contact you. If something goes wrong they will know quickly and they will very likely notify you. Looking at the bigger picture, if something happens with your local farmer there may be 50 families affected and minimal food that needs to be thrown out as compared to what we see happen with the global food supply. This is not a silver bullet to end contaminated food, as we said it can happen most anywhere. It is a way for you to take back some control, support your local community, learn a bit about what your family is eating and how it is produced, and maybe even make some friends. It seems like a pretty good deal to us and is a large part of how we came to live here on our little farm.