We need to know more about our food

(December 6, 2018)

The recent romaine lettuce scare makes me wonder if food safety these days is the result of good public health regulations or effective prayers.

The decision by Health Canada to issue a vague, countrywide E. coli O157 contamination “advisory” on romaine lettuce — eat at your own risk — left producers, distributors, restaurants and consumers adrift.

Nobody wants greenery bad enough to die for it. Unlike previous recalls of specific products from specific batches, from specific suppliers in specific areas, this advisory carefully avoided anything more specific than an ominous worldwide warning.

It is a cautionary tale, however, about what lies ahead for food safety and (more generally) for food security as well, in a climate-changing world where food supplies will be under increasing stress for a variety of reasons.

Any cursory inspection of a grocery store makes us realize we are woven together into a global food system. There are products (fresh, frozen and canned) from everywhere, many of which have become staples of our diet, both at home and in restaurants out to the end of the universe.

Much of that food is grown for export in regions where living standards are lower than our own, where the availability of clean, fresh water — or water of any kind — is a serious local problem.

When travelling outside of North America, visitors find vegetables are things best cooked — but fried lettuce is an acquired taste. If you simply must have a salad on your exotic vacation, Montezuma will be a regular companion, guaranteed to get his revenge on you for consuming food the locals can’t get or afford.

Back home, we complain about poor-quality green beans in February, or cluck over the latest shipment of starfruit in March. We don’t think at all about the produce from California, where constant drought means the wildfire season is now year-round.

Globally, all the different facets of agriculture (from producing to processing) account for anywhere from 65 to 80 per cent of all freshwater usage. When water is in short supply, people are competing with lettuce and cows for their very survival. Irrigation with contaminated water, or a shortage of good water for cleaning the crop afterward, is increasingly likely.

So it is therefore not surprising to find our fresh food contaminated by E. coli these days. What is surprising is that these outbreaks are not reported more frequently.

This brings me back to whether we should be substituting chocolate for caesar salad, as a less deadly alternative.

The Food and Drug Administration is now saying it thinks the lethal lettuce is from central California, so crops from elsewhere are not affected and therefore (cough, cough) “safe.”

They are promising to do what should have been done all along, for all of our food — provide some source labelling, so people know where that crate of romaine was grown.

As a consumer, I should have the right to know what I am eating and where it comes from. With that knowledge, I then have a choice whether I want to take the inevitable risk of eating what I have not grown myself.

Yet food labelling is a hotly contested topic. Producers and distributors don’t want consumers to know the point of origin, especially when it comes to fresh stuff. Often the displays in supermarkets won’t tell you. Nor is there always a label on the produce.

We have the right to know what we are buying and eating. Don’t get brushed off by objections that it is too complicated or too expensive to implement. For decades, the aviation industry has had a system to track every single part in every airplane back to the plant, the shift, the worker who made the screw and what they had for lunch that day.

With computers and bar codes, we could literally track every coffee bean back to whichever Juan Valdez workers picked it, where and when, in Colombia or anywhere else. We could learn everything about our food — there would be an app for that, if producers and especially the multinational food companies wanted us to know.

Instead, eating has become a risky business. We have to trust a lot of other people that what we eat is safe. E. coli outbreaks remind us that regulations and occasional inspections are not enough anymore.

In part, it is our own fault, wanting to eat the same foods year-round. A diet of fast-food monotony means you need lettuce on your Saturday burger whether it is July or December. Fast food, like junk food, is always in season. The menu never changes.

Eating anything fresh is a matter of faith. When someone serves me salad, my silent response is not applause for Health Canada.

Rather, it is: “Lettuce? Pray!”

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