Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Alan' Soapbox - Damn Microbiologists!

I thought I was mostly done with this topic. I'd ranted. I'd detailed my take on the proposed "guidelines" and sent them in to the government. (Those are coming in a post this week, but we are busy with the fair, and I don't have time.) I'd even consulted a blogger friend who is well versed in the law and the machinations of the system. I thought I was done. Then my blogger friend, Jack, who is usually a voice of sustainability, sanity, and ancient wisdom, posted about the "ten riskiest foods". Jack teaches microbiology at some sort of medical school. But he also writes brilliantly about sustainability, local food, rain catchment, etc. My kind of guy, smart, earthy, a bit over the edge. But then he posts about the dangers of washed, cut lettuce. That is the kind of thinking that got market gardeners shut down in Texas and recently in Ohio. Maybe our brilliant medical/scientific community should spend some time looking at the differences between the "fresh cut" greens you get at the store or in a restaurant and the fresh (cut and washed this morning) greens you get at the farmers market. Yes there is the potential for a problem with cut greens, but the way the research is published and interpreted into regulations will put small, local farmers out of business. Then all we will be left with is the "fresh" greens at the Super Walmart. Check out Jacks post and tell him what you think.


Daphne said...

I guess I don't see what you find wrong with his post. He was giving numbers. Yes he said, "30% of the illness caused by the top ten [riskiest] foods is due solely to lettuce/greens". But he also said, "The good news is that those of us who patronize small local growers, or grow much of our own food, go a long way toward minimizing our exposure." The article to me said that you shouldn't buy your greens from large industrial farms. You should stick with the small local growers or better yet grow your own.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Whoa! In my post about the ten riskiest foods, I was NOT endorsing any move to penalize small growers! I didn't even address the issue of washed versus unwashed, which I believe is the key to the argument. I was just quoting the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who in turn was just crunching the numbers on food-borne illness outbreaks. Neither that group, nor I have a position on the legislation that you're concerned about.

As far as I can tell, the key issue is 'washed' and both the reason for that and the solution to the problem seem pretty straightforward. People prefer 'pretty' and that includes food. Though intellectually we should all know that food traditionally comes from the ground, the average consumer balks at the sight of dirt on his/her lettuce. So, to make the sale, we wash it. In a large, industrialized operation, where water supply, drainage, chlorine concentration, etc. can be monitored, that usually works out OK, eliminating most pathogens (though it leaves a TON of non-pathogenic bacteria and the occasional bad boy - thus the top ten ranking). But, extrapolate that to a small shed operation, where those factors are less controllable, and you can magnify a small problem by washing. Let me try to illustrate this with an actual example from my garden a couple of weeks ago. I was gleaning the loose-leaf lettuce and collard patch for bugs the other day when I discovered a clump of chicken poo in the lettuce. (We had accidentally left the garden gate open briefly the day before and a chicken had wandered through the lettuce patch.) I just flicked off the poo and pitched those leaves and kept going, but you can bet that I left a substantial number of Salmonella in the area. When I got around to harvesting that lettuce, it was rinsed as per normal in a little running water. So, none of the other lettuce was contaminated in the process. On the other hand, if they had been washed in the shed, by rinsing them in a tub of common water, the lettuce would have looked 'pretty' but the Salmonella would have been introduced into the tub, to multiply throughout the day and potentially contaminate all the lettuce washed in the common water. And on visual inspection, there would be no way to distinguish between properly washed lettuce and lettuce dunked into the Salmonella soup. Both would look 'pretty'. However if I had pulled the lettuce plants and sold them (dirt and all), the consumer could at least be assured that they had not undergone this potentially toxic bath. (Similar problems exist in the beef industry, with mass contamination due to small numbers of infected carcasses, and in poultry processing, where the rinsing vats are not for the faint hearted.)

To me, the key is not to regulate the procedure for small growers. Get off their backs! Rather, the key is to educate consumers to accept unwashed lettuce as the gold standard.

Sorry for the long reply, but I felt badly about not explaining my rationale.

our friend Ben said...

Mercy! I think MSN stirred up this tempest in a teapot by running an article about the "10 riskiest foods" a couple of days ago (a link is still up on their site). This was doubtless brought on by the latest hoopla about ground beef. I think it's important for consumers to realize that, according to science, everything is supposedly hazardous, from drinking water to taking a hot shower. It's up to us to use our intelligence, become informed, and act responsibly, weighing risks versus benefits. (I for one plan to continue drinking water and taking hot showers, and, yes, eating lettuce.) But I'd love to know why Jack assumes his chickens are contaminated with salmonella...

jack-of-all-thumbs said...


Because Salmonella is normal bacterial flora in the GI tract of most birds, wild and domestic. They're not sick, any more than you and I are from the E. coli that lives in our GI tract. The issue comes when their flesh is contaminated during processing or when their oviducts get colonized under factory farm conditions, resulting in internally contaminated eggs.


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