We offer blind faith to those who handle our food, putting our health in the hands of strangers when we purchase anything to eat. Short of raising, harvesting and preparing everything we eat, what else can we do?
This is generally a fine arrangement. But most everybody can cite harrowing exceptions to the rule. I think of the evening I purchased a hamburger with a bite already taken out of it. I guess the fry cook was hungrier than me.
Nevertheless, I’ve always felt a certain control in assessing food risk. If I don’t want a burger with a bite taken out of it, I have a pretty good idea of where those risks increase.
Likewise, I used to assume that any food I picked off a shelf had been inspected by a specific person and that the product’s safety was guaranteed. But now I can see that there’s simply too much to inspect. While I can feel a comfort in getting reasonably decent stuff — because I’m not getting sick all the time — I recognize, too, that I can’t just pretend there’s nothing to notice in terms of food safety.
I think I’m pretty middle-of-the-road on this kind of stuff. I’m not going to freak out and avoid things I’ve always eaten, but I’m going to pay attention when red flags are waved about certain items.
For instance, I love popcorn, but if I want that nice butter taste, I’m going to add real butter, not settling for the artificial stuff. It simply tastes better. Plus, workers in popcorn factories have had some serious respiratory problems, called “popcorn lung,” which is apparently linked to breathing in large amounts of the chemical diacetyl, which gives popcorn its artificial butter flavor. Maybe this could harm me, maybe not. But I prefer just to avoid the chemical. I simply look for a brand, like Orville Redenbacher, that says “no diacetyl added” somewhere on the box.
Of course, these days, our food safety focus is on peanuts. And when I stick that knife in the jar of peanut butter to put on my daughter’s bread, I feel the stab of irritation, recognizing that even snack time isn’t immune from big-world anxieties.
Hearing of baby mice crawling in peanuts, of executives giving the go-ahead to sell nuts that tested positive for salmonella, makes me think of “The Jungle,” that famous 103-year-old novel about the meatpacking industry that led to U.S. food safety reform.
Of course, Sinclair sought to write the labor movement’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” exposing the horrible working conditions of Chicago meatpackers. But when I learned about this book in high school, I was no different than most people — lacking empathy for the plight of far away, forgotten strangers, yet very interested in the tale of rancid meat.
After learning of “The Jungle,” I was thankful that our nation had taken a step into a more civilized food world. Nasty, un-inspected meat would never find its way to my plate.
Well, of course, that’s no guarantee. The conditions discovered at the Blakely plant don’t exactly give us much confidence in our food inspection system.
The media blitz regarding the scandal has surely hurt peanut producers. But the attention has at least one positive — slack food processing plants are surely taking note of how exposure of their unsanitary methods can hurt their bottom line. Perhaps other plants are quietly cleaning up their act amid the peanut furor.
Still, bad press is no substitute for good enforcement. Of course, the government can never completely eliminate food hazards. But there needs to be a better effort at food safety oversight. And if we’re looking at more federal jobs now, then food inspections seems like a pretty worthy cause. Clearly, the peanut plant didn’t fear any government repercussions for their slack standards. They went for quite some time without anyone bothering to check them out.
I liken it to traffic safety. If law officers put little emphasis on road patrol, they can expect more speeders, more accidents. Likewise, if government puts little emphasis on inspections, they can expect more violators, more sickness.
We know that laws don’t amount to much unless we have an environment of enforcement.
If we become too comfortable with an anything goes, free-market credo for food safety, then we can’t be too shocked when anything goes on our plates.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.