Monday, August 18, 2008

Food safety

Most people think the food supply in the U.S. is completely safe. We have certifications, licenses, inspectors, and lots of laws -- and if something goes wrong, and you get sick, you can always sue the manufacturer, the restaurant, or somebody. A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded a food recall notice to me, and I discovered that anyone can subscribe to the US Food and Drug Administration's email alerts for food recalls and whatever else the agency is doing that you want to know about. I had no idea what I was about to learn.

My mailbox started filling up daily with food recalls, changes in drug warnings, and information about drugs being put back on the market after being pulled for adverse reactions. Today, Publix supermarkets are recalling vanilla wafers for undeclared soy ingredients. It's only 10:30 a.m. though, so there will probably be more before the FDA offices close for today. Friday was quite the day for recalls:
How many of these recalls did you know about before you read about it just now? I suppose Publix and Whole Foods might put notices on their store shelves about the allergens in their products, but many of these recalls are meaningless, since most customers never know about them. And if you have someone at home who is allergic to soy, odds are good that they'd eat those vanilla wafers before you head back to Publix and see the notice on the shelf. I now realize how naive I was to assume that every recall was announced on the radio or through other media outlets.

In a former life, I was a lactation consultant, and I remember a colleague telling me that a man once told her that he wanted his wife to bottlefeed, "because you don't know what's in breast milk. You know what's in formula because it's all right there on the label." I think most people realize how naive that comment is, but I would also say that most people trust the food system in this country to give us exactly what the label says with no added allergens, fungus, bacteria, or salmonella. I wish we could trust the food system that much. It would be great if labels were 100% accurate and complete. But in their quest for 100% food safety, legislators and regulators go a little over the top.

A few years ago in Illinois, they tried to outlaw potluck dinners. No, I am not making this up. Although that piece of legislation failed, when our church bought a new building, it had to have a licensed commercial kitchen, which included five sinks: one for hand washing, one for a mop, one for washing dishes, one for rinsing, and I don't even remember what the other one was for. They all had to be stainless steel, of course. When we lived in Hawaii 15 years ago, we couldn't have bake sales unless everything was prepared in a certified, licensed kitchen.

I'm not saying that there should be no regulations. I would just like to see regulations that make sense. It's obvious that most regulations favor big business. If I wanted to sell my goat cheese, I'd have to buy a $15,000 pasteurizer as part of the certified dairy and certified kitchen that I'd have to build -- total budget could easily hit the $100,000 mark. It doesn't matter that my family and friends have been eating our cheese for six years without a single illness. It doesn't matter that I make it in one-gallon batches, because we're hand-milking 8 to 10 Nigerian dwarf does that only average about a quart a day. Nor does it matter that I'd only sell directly to the consumer, so if one of us ever did get sick, I could call up Jane Doe and say, "Hey, bring back that cheese. It made me sick."

But my musings on this subject are elementary compared to David Gumpert, a journalist and author who writes a lot about health care issues. My husband reads Gumpert's blog religiously, and as of late, most of his posts have to do with raw milk or small farm dairy issues. There are several cases of state regulators going after small farmers who sell directly to the consumer -- and not because anyone ever became ill from their milk. I can never figure out exactly why state regulators go after independent farmers, except for the oh-so-obvious bottom line. Giant corporations donate big bucks to politicians; small farmers don't. Giant corporations can hire lobbyists and scientists to make their opinions sound credible; small farmers can't.

Of course, reading about all these food recalls just makes me happy that we grow so much of our own food. With the tomato plants producing by the bushel, it's time to make more salsa. We finished the latch batch in about two days. My recipe varies, depending upon exactly what I get from the garden, but as requested by a couple readers, I'll post a recipe and pictures tomorrow.


Kara said...

What is your take on the safety of raw milk? We just got a Saanen doe. I'll check the info on your web sight and see if you talk about it there.


Deborah said...

We've been consuming raw milk for six years with no adverse affects -- and no, no one has had any unexplained nausea, vomitting, diarrhea, etc in the past six years. We've very healthy. I was once told by a doctor that we probably just didn't recognize the symptoms of food poisoning.

The reason they started pasteurizing milk was because people were getting tuberculosis from cow's milk. I think every state in the US is now certified TB free except for Michigan, and there it is only in deer, which theoretically could give it to goats or cows. If you wanted to be on the safe side, you could have your goat tested for everything (TB, CAE, Johnnes, brucellosis, CL, etc).

When we run low on milk, we have also bought raw milk from a cow dairy 45 minutes away from us. I would much rather get their milk than the milk from the store. After six years of consuming and using FRESH milk, I am a milk snob -- if it's more than about 3 days old (goat or cow), I can't stand it.

When making most cheeses and yogurt, you must use milk that is either raw or has been pasteurized at only 145 degrees. That ultra-pasteurized stuff in the store (270 degrees) is dead, dead, dead and incapable of supporting any life (cultures) at all.

The blog I mentioned has lots of info on the politics of raw milk across the US. I know from speaking with the IL Dept. of Ag that those people know absolutely nothing about cheesemaking, but they quote the laws like gospel, even though they make no logical sense to a person who actually makes cheese.

Deborah said...

About the temperature thing ... if I accidentally overheat milk on my stove, I use it for queso blanco or ricotta. Now, if I had that $15,000 pasteurizer, I could set it for 145 degrees. There are home pasteurizers that sell for a few hundred dollars, but they're not good enough for the government.

By the way, I will admit that the first few times I used raw milk, I sat back and held my breath, just waiting for one of us to start puking.

Now we really live dangerously. Sometimes I even make ranch dressing using buttermilk (made from raw milk) and homemade mayo (made with raw eggs)! The funny thing is that 20 years ago, I used to make my own mayo using store-bought eggs. I wouldn't do that again.


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