Not long ago lettuce came only in heads and spinach in bunches. For a salad, someone else might do the growing, but you still did the trimming and washing. You had some control — and responsibility — over the process. Now salad comes prewashed and bagged. You just pour it on a plate, dress it, put it in your mouth and chew.
This convenience adds risk. You give one more job over to someone somewhere else, trusting that they are concerned as much about product quality and your health as about the bottom line on the quarterly report.
But the business of food is now big business, and it might be making us sick. Witness the spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria that is blamed for more than 180 people infected in 26 states and Ontario, Canada, including one death.
The first mixed salad greens and loose spinach were from small, local growers who hand-cut the young greens and rushed them to market, organ-transplant style. Now we have a multimillion-dollar salad industry that consolidates raw ingredients from many big producers and has little control over growing methods. Washing salad ingredients on this scale requires facilities more like municipal swimming pools or public bathhouses than where our food should come from. And if you remember sixth-grade biology, you know that stuffing fresh, green leaves into sealed plastic bags is a great way to breed bacteria.
The spinach scare has prompted cries for better regulation and inspection. But the drama over one microorganism distracts us from something much bigger: a vast industrial food system built on cheap, empty calories — from government-subsidized corn, for example — that feed epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Sometimes it seems a system more interested in finding ways to pump more high-fructose corn syrup into kids’ breakfast cereals than in providing fresh, whole foods to nourish their growing bodies.
The day after the spinach story broke, I was selling at the local farm market. My tables were loaded with the abundance of fall: strawberries and melons, French beans, squashes, onions, heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers, lettuce, chard and spinach. The spinach drew the most attention. Deep green leaves, each the size of small dinner platters, filled five bins. By midmorning they were empty. All buyers had heard about the tainted spinach, but none hesitated to fill their bags.
I didn’t have to explain why my spinach was different from that recalled from supermarkets. Neither did other market gardeners across the continent. We are part of a broad movement reclaiming food from faceless, long-distance industrial providers. We’re demanding not only that it be safe, but that it taste good — and that it be grown in a way that honors the land and those doing the work. And while it’s true that we could slip up and make someone sick, the results of any carelessness would be smaller, more local.
Food safety doesn’t hinge on monitoring tiny bacteria. It depends on the most fundamental aspect of a healthy food system: relationships — biological, personal, ecological and local. Those relationships are on a scale small and, so, familiar. My local customers don’t need federal inspections, more regulations, sophisticated sampling and analysis, or even an organic label. They know me, they know my farm, they know the care and attention I place in every step.
If we are truly concerned about food safety, we need to know the folks who grow our food, know that they are paid a decent wage, know that the land they farm is well cared for and protected, and know that the food they grow has not been irradiated or genetically engineered or exposed to pesticides. It is this knowing that will truly nourish us and keep us well.
Michael Ableman farms with his wife and two sons on an island in British Columbia. His latest book is “Fields of Plenty.” This comment was written for the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, Salina, Kan.