Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Everyone who works with food has a story behind their obsession with one of humanity's mundane necessities. Some people because they read Animal Liberation and decided not to eat meat, others because they realized that there are aesthetic facets to blueberries, even more who became obsessed after being physically weighed down by the iniquities of the American diet.

For me though I have to ultimately connect it with illness. Though I've never had a strong stomach, it was an epiphany to go from being slightly plump to choosing clothing based on how well it hides bone jutting through my skin. Accidents happen with food, even the most conscientious grandmother might hide botulism in her grape jelly, but the current American food system's deficiencies are systematic rather than accidental.

The serotype of salmonella that took up residence first in my stomach, than in my blood, was no real accident- no unfortunate unforeseen event. The FDA, self proclaimed guardians of our food supply, knew about it long before it sent me to the ER.

Disease makes you feel helpless. Food poisoning is among the most helpless of all conditions- you are infected by your sustenance. Most cases are painful, but mercilessly quick, so they go unexamined. One in four Americans suffers annually because of food borne pathogens. Most are never traced, not just because they weren't severe enough to merit testing, but also because many infections are impossible to trace. Listeria will often be latent for days or even weeks before unleashing havoc.

Where did it come from? It's a question that is usually never answered. Many with severe food poisoning lose faith in the food system and their own ability to chose safe food.

I often think of the history of the food as a bell curve. Hunter-gatherers have usually lived a long enough time in their environment to know what is safe to eat and avoid what isn't. Civilizations treat food differently, with a focus on making things safe rather than avoiding what is unsafe. Lentils, acorns, and a myriad of other foods that came into the human diet later in history have to be "unpoisoned" in order to be consumed. In the wild, many foods we eat are completely inedible.

We still follow this same philosophy, except we have over-extended it. The animals we eat typically wallow in absolute filth, the merging absolutely disgusting and the edible. The processor has the responsibility to unpoison the meat from pigs that ate cow fetuses or milk filled with pus. The process, on the farm level, can be rife with disease-causing organisms as long as they don't make it to the table (or get caught).

The problem is doubly pronged: the diseases that fester in at the agricultural level and the lack of responsibility at the processing level. It gets harder and harder to unpoison our food and sometimes in the effort we make things worse. Even vegetarians now have to worry about virulent strains of e.coli that come from cows fed an evolutionary inappropriate diet. Consumers unusually don't know they are supporting the poisoning of their own food supply because the beef they buy comes from thousands of miles away. The recent melamine crisis highlights how much food suppliers can get away with because consumers just don't know.

Will we shift back? Will infections like mine teach people that cheap food has a high ethical, environmental, and health pricetag? Or will we just nuke our food more hoping that ultra heated pasteurization will keep us ahead of quickly evolving microbes?

In this blog I hope to explore these questions. I stopped writing after I became ill because it made thinking about food so difficult, but now I think I am ready to once again think about the weaknesses of our food system.

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