Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Small Food, Big Food

Half a billion eggs from just two farms have been recalled because of the recent salmonella outbreak. Although they are packaged under a variety of brand names, the recent problem has been traced back to just two farms that produce half a billion eggs.

What kind of farm is that? Interesting how egg cartons frequently picture a barn and chickens running around in the yard. That's the kind of places our chickens and eggs used to come from, but nothing that looks like that picture will produce a half a billion eggs. That's similar to the images of cows in grassy open fields with a barn and a farmhouse in the background, where much of our diary and meat comes from cattle that actually live much more confined lives than that.

Those of us who can remember as far back as the 1960s and 1970s know that massive recalls of contaminated food because of illness and death were a very rare event.

However, since the 1980s, it has become almost commonplace. Beef, chicken, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peanuts. Lots of foods have been recalled for contamination.

How did this happen? Two main reasons. One, larger farms and processing plants kept getting larger while many small family farms, slaughterhouses and processing plants went out of business.

Two, politicians let lobbyists persuade them that industry could do a good job of inspecting itself, even though the FDA was created and government food inspectors were hired about 100 years ago because of public concern over the quality of food processing facilities and slaughterhouses. These recent outbreaks of food borne illnesses certainly indicate that need more food inspectors, not less.

All the modern problems and controversies in agriculture revolve around one thing. In making farms into factories, shortcuts are necessary in order for fewer people to produce more food. In the worst case scenario, that pressure produces people like the guy who ran the peanut warehouse and shipped moldy peanuts even though he knew they were moldy. In the best case scenario you can have someone working very hard who simply does not take the time to wash up between chores.

Perhaps we should consider whether smaller might be better in farming. How can two farms produces a half a billion eggs?

Supporting small family farms, organic farms, and producers of heirloom foods through CSAs (community supported agriculture is buying a subscription for a farmer's produce) and farmers markets is increasingly popular. Sometimes, smaller can be better than larger. Even taking small steps in that direction as consumers will make a difference, both to us and the farmers.

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