Consumers have always had many reasons to champion local foods—freshness, relationships with growers and support for sustainable rural economies were all high on the list. Until recently, safety wasn't a primary factor, but that may be changing.
The recent E. coli spinach outbreak, which killed four people and sickened 200 in 20 states, has consumers looking at the way our food supply is grown, processed and delivered, and how that impacts safety.
Dozens of people became ill and several died before the U.S. Department of Agriculture was able to identify spinach as the problem. It took more time to figure out where the product originated. With local distribution, problems in the food supply can be identified more quickly and remedied. "There's more transparency, a better flow of information, and it's easier to get back to the source. If we have a problem, we can talk to the grower and have the problem fixed in an hour or two," says Michael Rozyne, managing director of Red Tomato, a Canton, Mass.-based distributor that advocates for small farmers and local produce. "We have a direct compact with our growers," he says. "The supposed economic efficiency that comes from monstrously large central packing facilities generates all kinds of new problems, as we learned with the spinach debacle."
Produce from large-scale farms may be no more likely to contain pathogens than family-farmed greens, but the size of the larger processing plants can compound potential problems.
"When you consolidate into one processing plant [as happened in the spinach outbreak], you always increase the chance of spreading contamination, and then sending it through a multitude of outlets," says Richard Bonanno, a lettuce grower in Methuen, Mass., who holds a Ph.D. in weed science.
Bonanno says that when it comes to safety, where crops are grown may be as important as how they're grown. "In California, there was a time when you never saw beef and dairy cattle in vegetable country," he says, referring to the Central and Salinas valleys, where much of America's produce supply is grown. "It's fine in a wetter area that doesn't depend as much on irrigation, but in California you have a canal system that connects everything with everything," so contaminated water can have a vast effect.
But even if produce comes into the processing facility with bacterial contamination, it should leave clean, Bonanno says. Even with organic greens, "they do chlorine rinses and other processes to account for that kind of contamination. When you do a ready-to-eat product, it has to be ready to eat." The fact that contamination remains after such rinses concerns consumers who previously have purchased RTE products. Others, however, may feel that larger facilities have more standardized procedures and higher degrees of sterility than a local grower or producer, whether or not that perception is accurate.
With meat, the differences between large-scale processing versus local ranching and butchering is more apparent and has a direct connection to food safety. "When you hear about a beef recall, it's not 500 pounds, it's 500,000 pounds, because the process has become so industrialized," says Phillip Nabors, co-owner of Ohio-based Mustard Seed natural foods stores. "I was once told that a typical fast-food burger contains the DNA of 400 different animals. If you have 400 critters in your food and one has an E. coli problem, then they all have it."
"In the case of meat, local meat is much safer," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and author of What To Eat (North Point Press, 2006). "Local meat all comes from the same cow, but if you mix the meat from 400 animals and one is sick, everything in that lot will be affected." As with produce, the sheer scope of the distribution system can make outbreaks hard to trace.
Even if a producer follows the best protocols for animal husbandry, the meat can be tainted during processing. Nestle says this is a problem for small-scale animal producers, too, because they must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses if they want to sell their meat in traditional retail channels. Those who butcher and smoke the meat themselves can sell directly to consumers through farmers' markets and assure consumers that no contamination has been introduced via commingling.
Small producers can also sell directly to restaurants, but restaurants often will request proof of liability insurance on the part of the producer, since restaurants shoulder all responsibility should someone get sick. This can be, however, a strong incentive for small producers to be very careful.
Centralized processing facilities may also be more vulnerable to deliberate contamination, such as a bioterrorism attack. "Government and industry have winked and looked the other way because cheap food is like political Pepto-Bismol to keep the masses quiet. I would say that the whole system is very vulnerable to being infiltrated by folks who would do us harm," Nabors says. What, then, is the best way to protect the food supply against risks of contamination, whether accidental or deliberate? Many in the natural foods industry argue for greater transparency in the food chain, such as country-of-origin labeling and better enforcement of existing regulations. But government's response is most often increased regulation.
"We're afraid there will be an urgent call to regulate our way through this, rather than looking at systemic processes," Rozyne says. "Rather than looking at the sources of contamination, the government may mandate quick fixes that involve a lot of lab testing—all kinds of things that will be difficult and expensive for small-scale growers."
This approach can be seen in the animal identification program, which arose in response to E. coli outbreaks in meat and outbreaks of mad cow disease in cattle. "The animal ID program is a big-scale agribusiness answer that unfairly punishes small producers," Nabors says. "They're going to be forced to spend money on the [ID] tags and associated bookkeeping, when they already know all their animals by name."
"Big guys can spread these kinds of costs over millions of packages," Bonanno says. "The small guys aren't able to do that. One could argue that on the family farm, there's already more oversight. They're closer to what's happening on the farm, and that's an inherent safety factor."
Ultimately, Bonanno says, the economies of scale we've created in industrialized agriculture are a consumer choice. "With greater levels of convenience comes less control over sanitation," he says. "People pay a lot more for bagged lettuce because they want the convenience."
For small-scale growers and local producers to thrive in an aggressive regulatory environment, consumers will have to begin thinking about where their food comes from, how it's grown and what their food dollars support. "Consumer advocacy groups need to raise their voices to help people understand some of these problems inherent in the industrialized food system," Rozyne says.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 1/p. 32, 34