Thursday, March 29, 2012

Food Safety: It's in your hands

I was talking to a friend the other night who had just gone through a bout of food poisoning that he’s fairly sure came from something he prepared for dinner. With all my rattling on about knowing where your food comes from and how it’s grown/raised, you can be sure he had my sympathy. The ingredients all came from his local supermarket.

My friend’s illness also drives home my main point: we all place a lot of trust in the people who bring us our food. The more it’s processed, the more ingredients that go into what we buy, the greater the chance of something going wrong. With globalization, fresh food can come from halfway around the world. How do you keep up? How do you ensure your safety and your family’s?

Galen Weston, the executive chairman of Loblaws here in Canada, made an off-the-cuff remark at the Canadian Food Summit in February that attracted a lot of attention and criticism: “Farmers’ markets are great....One day they’re going to kill some people, though.” He later clarified his statement, saying, “I’m just saying that to be dramatic, though.”

Whatever. He appalled a lot of people. Perhaps he was just being thoughtless, or perhaps it was an underhanded effort to spread a bit of the blame for the fact that our food supply is really not as safe as we’d like it to be.

We’ve suffered through a huge number of food recalls over the past, say, thirty years. Hardly a month goes by where there isn’t another one. Most are situations where the food in question will just make you sick, but there have been other occasions where the outcome has been much more grave. People have died. The really curious thing, though, and the one that Weston either didn’t remember (which would be very surprising) or was trying to excuse or deflect with his comment (more sinister) is that the recalls and food scares have almost completely been at the hands of the large processors and retailers.

One reason for this is just a matter of size: most of the food consumed has come from these sources (large processors and retailers). Nearly everyone (in North America, at least) buys their food from supermarkets. Supermarkets are supplied by the large processors and distributors, so if there are problems with a particular item, it will affect a lot of people because of wide distribution.

But producing in volume brings its own problems, making the situation worse. For example, when you’re processing several million pounds of beef a year for hamburgers, you can’t keep a close eye on every little detail. And when the bottom line of the operation is based on dollars, corners can be and often are cut. Is it any wonder that many of the beef recalls concern ground beef products? Here’s what I always remember when tempted to buy ground beef at a supermarket: what I’m buying has come from a lot of different animals, maybe thousands, and it’s all been mixed together, so one bad cow can taint the entire batch. That’s why I never buy ground beef in a supermarket anymore – especially frozen hamburgers. It’s just not worth the gamble.

Could food purchased at a farmers’ market kill you? Of course. Food grown in your own backyard could kill you. But I’m more willing to put my faith in the smaller local producers who I can meet and talk to, even visit their farms. I purchase ground beef from butchers who have ground it themselves, sometimes right in front of me. I do have to trust that they keep their equipment clean, but I can use my eyes and ears when dealing with them and get a pretty good idea of how they conduct their business. You can’t do that when the ground beef comes from thousands of miles away.

Bottom line: when it comes to food, smaller is definitely better. We’re getting farther and farther away from that, and the result is less security in the food we consume, not more. And to further drive home the point, in the past few weeks, Loblaws was involved in a massive ground beef recall. How does that feel, Galen?

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I’ll be back on the weekend with another great recipe to share with you. I can’t say what it will be yet. I always get my best ideas when I’m the hungriest!

2 comments:

Leonard Vice said...

food safety always start from the awareness of people who should also act in getting online food hygiene training

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