Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety
By Ben Hewitt
Rodale Books 2011
Ben Hewitt sets out to examine the public health disasters caused by our industrialized, centralized food and agriculture behemoth as it lurches and stumbles in its death throes. This ugly, violent phase shows no signs of ending quickly, and the monster crushes and maims randomly as it falls to its knees again and again. Alas, after each catastrophe, others strain to prop it upright once more, to continue its merciless and deadly stumble for another day and another dollar.
My evil-giant characterization of the problem of food safety, straight out of a modern-day tale from the brothers Grimm, is close to what Hewitt comes to himself in the course of his survey of the most recent food contamination disasters in this country. How and why do these disasters continue? A toxic mix of near total consolidation of agribusiness, an out-of-sight food processing mega-industry, and government regulatory agencies largely in collusion with both has left the unaware U.S. citizen—the hapless, clueless consumer—vulnerable to injury and even death.
Although we may have become almost inured to regular news of food recalls and poisonings, the scale of the numbers involved remains mind-boggling: millions of pounds of meat or billions of eggs, for example. Most Americans are completely ignorant of the ways these products arrive on supermarket shelves, and to the fact that in most cases there are only two or three gigantic processing plants that supply—or potentially poison—the entire nation. Hewitt uses the 2007 incident of Cargill’s bacteria-contaminated ground beef to illustrate how dimly we understand what is really in our food. That beef commingled meat from animals from three U.S. states and one South American country. It also contained a cost-saving—to Cargill, of course—beef by-product of rendered, centrifuged and ammoniated carcass remnants identified as “fine lean textured beef.” Cargill produced millions of pounds of this processed beef product weekly from just two facilities and sold it as “American Chef’s Selection Beef Patties.” Nine hundred and forty people were sickened by this contaminated meat, including one woman left permanently paralyzed.
FDA and USDA, whose purported jobs are to protect the public from mass poisoning, fall down on the job—at least as far as policing of the monolithic food industry is concerned—from the perspective of a naïve and trusting public. Processing facilities are inspected by FDA on average once in seven years, and even in the case of outright documented contamination, FDA can only issue toothless “suggestions for correction.” Meanwhile, the wheels of the industry never stop; company heads never stand trial for poisoning or killing people. The industry may pay hefty fines for violations, but this financial liability has already been factored into its operating expenses, and anyway the consumer pays for it in the final product cost. FDA staff members are frequently recycled employees and advisers from the very same food and biotech industries the agency is supposed to oversee. They insure that the infamous “revolving door” between industry and government oversight is well oiled for this corrupt fraternity of “business as usual.”
State and federal regulatory agencies come truly alive with military zeal only when they learn of citizens who have decided to circumvent this rotten system by forging direct relationships with small farmers to provide them with wholesome food. In numerous examples, all well known to Wise Traditions readers, Hewitt documents the appalling thuggery these agencies and their henchmen wage against small farmers and consumers who have chosen to work together outside the system. These food war skirmishes are slowly appearing on the national radar, and ground-breaking films such as “Farmageddon” should spearhead much more awareness.
Hewitt travels to the lofty Seattle law offices of Marler Clark, to speak with Bill Marler, the most prominent food-borne illness attorney in this country, in order to learn more about food safety issues from his perspective. Among some surprising revelations is what Marler “seemed to be saying is that the root cause of food-borne illness isn’t pathogenic bacteria: It is immorality. It is cutting corners in pursuit of profit.” Marler himself comments that “…the wheels just came off the meat industry. It’s degrading to our bodies, to our environment, and to the animals. It’s degrading to our morals.” Yet, he continues, “No one has convinced me that with the population we have, we can go back to a non-industrial food system. And yet the biggest problem we have is the huge scale of it and the motives behind it. It’s a capitalist model, and we’ve not really figured out how to infuse the system with a good, strong dose of morality.”
Marler is disdainful of raw milk as a food choice, but believes it should be legal albeit with strict regulation. This type of regulation, of course, is just what those who produce or procure raw milk recoil from, arguing, among other things, that compliance would force small producers to operate on large-scale industry standards and thereby perish, along with their authentic product. Marler keeps company with many who stand by more government intervention as a way to clean up food production. “The reality is that the only way a society as large and complex as ours is going to work is through government policy,” he says. In other words, if business as usual isn’t working, we ought to try more of the same.
Certainly those who are poisoned by tainted food suffer horribly. Hewitt provides a poisoning primer of sorts—graphic details of the havoc wreaked on the body by some of the more notorious organisms we’ve learned to fear such as E. coli O157:H7. To his credit, Hewitt doubts that sterilized, pasteurized, or irradiated food is the answer to banish either the organisms or fears of their contamination, and he even entertains the novel concept that regular exposure to many microorganisms in normal daily life helps build immunity and healthy resilience. Bolstering this conviction are the likes of Mark McAfee, owner of Organic Pastures Dairy: “We are bacteriosapiens. It’s on us; it’s in us. It is us”; Justin Sonnenburg, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford: “[W]e are a victim of hyperhygenitization. The evidence is increasingly strong that when our intestinal microbiota is in a normal, healthy state, we’re more resistant to disease. In fact, one of the top predictors for salmonella poisoning is antibiotic use within the last thirty days”; and Lynn Margulis, professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts: “The whole idea of good bacteria versus bad bacteria isn’t just wrong, it’s suicidal. Some of the things we consider pathogens could be key to our survival in the future. I’m not denying there are toxic bacteria, but there are natural reasons for it. When we think of these bacteria as something to be defeated we are not thinking ecologically at all.”
Hewitt reasonably suggests that the more we live in isolation from the natural world, which of course includes eating sterilized, dead, and ersatz foods, the more we disable the natural powers of our internal terrain to protect us. Modern industrialized humans who eat from the common trough suffer compromised immune systems and damaged gut biota, along with propensities for other disorders, thanks to their position at the top of a diseased food chain.
Making Supper Safe is bracketed by first and last chapters that chronicle Hewitt’s forays into nocturnal dumpster diving with someone who is a regular practitioner of the art. Hewitt obviously enjoyed writing these chapters for their whiff of derring-do, but the risks involved in sifting through toss-outs from retail food emporia are not of the same order as those taken—albeit without knowledge—by those who regularly purchase their food from supermarket chains or eat in restaurants. Shops often discard otherwise sound food simply because an expiration date has been reached. In fact, Hewitt’s companion finds pounds of discarded but perfectly ripe Brie that he later serves to rave reviews (including those of his aged aunt) during a dinner party. Food in these dumpsters—especially outside high-end shops—is either retrievable—as long as it passes your personal standards for quality, origin, organic, etc.—or is in a simple, frank state of putrefaction which causes you naturally to pass it by. Food-borne organisms that can create serious harm, on the other hand, do not cause the food itself to spoil, and so are ingested without obvious warning. Unfortunately, those who cringe at the thought of dumpster diving might be equally put off by the thought of pulling a radish or carrot out of a clean, home garden, and, after a swipe across the pant leg, going straight into one’s mouth. Or cracking and swallowing a still-warm egg taken right from the hen’s nest. These are just ordinary behaviors of an ordinary farm kid, at least of my generation, and illustrate the kind of exposure to the natural world that helps confer health. Yet for a truly stomach-turning experience, poke around the dumpster behind your favorite restaurant and check out the ingredient list on the empty cooking oil containers. Now those are things you do not ever want to put in your mouth!
Some critics of Making Supper Safe have complained that Hewitt merely frightens his readers without providing any solutions to the threats against food safety. These critics reject the fact that there will always be a degree of risk involved in eating, just as there is risk involved when driving your car. Hewitt has in fact hinted—rather than perhaps bring down scorn for trumpeting such an outlandish proposal—that the way to circumvent danger from the industrial feed trough is to avoid it altogether, however and whenever possible. Hewitt, in his early forties, married with two young sons, lives in a solar-powered home he built himself. According to the book jacket, he and his family live “on a diversified forty-acre farm in Vermont, where they produce dairy, beef, pork, lamb, vegetables and berries.” That covers about everything you need to eat well. Hewitt also mentioned that often many months would pass before he or his family needed anything from the local grocery store, and one might guess that what they needed was along the lines of vinegar, baking soda or kitchen matches, rather than food. If one cannot create the means to become as self-sufficient as Hewitt has presciently done, then one can join the growing movement of consumers who connect directly with the producers of their food and enjoy an open and trusting relationship with them. This puts the responsibility for providing safe food for one’s family back where it has always been all along: on the individual. The fostering of these traditional relationships restores dignity, satisfaction, good health and, yes, Bill Marler, morality in food production in America.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2011.