Spinach, Burgers, Peanut Butter, Eggs…What Next?

I am troubled by the number of current news headlines related to not only the massive egg recall due to salmonella outbreaks but several other food recalls as well. Note I am troubled, not surprised. I recently read Paul Roberts’ disturbing book The End of Food (as uplifting as the title suggests) in which he writes about both the past and future of our industrialized food system. As you can imagine the future is a big question mark but he predicts increases in evidence that our food system is not only unsustainable but seriously broken – unsafe.

Normally I read such gloom and doom prophesies with skepticism, knowing such travesties could happen but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will happen. I try to stay positive, focusing on the evidence of change I see all over the country in terms of re-establishing local and regional food systems via the growth in farmers markets, CSAs, small farm cooperatives, and even home gardens. I find hope in the fact that people with varied political views have watched films like Food, Inc. and have made changes or are at least thinking about changes they can make in their food buying habits.

I am not convinced however, that we really grasp the trouble we are in right now in terms of our food system. The fact that eggs from one or two large farms can sicken so many people across a huge swath of the country is one thing, the fact that we don’t know how it started or what to do about it is quite another.

I’m tired of the onus of responsibility for not getting sick being on us, the eaters. If I want to eat my eggs cooked over medium or my burgers medium rare then it’s my fault if I get sick.  I’m also tired of reading that companies are so generously volunteering to recall tainted foods given they don’t have to do so according to current laws. So we should give them a badge of honor for making some effort to take back defective products? What is wrong with this picture?

So, this is a rant. I don’t have the answers – just more questions. I believe the local food movement is important but I still rely on our industrialized food system for foods I either can’t get locally or can’t afford at the “true cost” of those foods. I struggle with the fact that I need to change my personal eating habits to save the world, knowing that my habits alone won’t do the job. I already eat way less meat than the average American, lots of plant foods including organic, locally or regionally grown varieties, and aim for more whole than processed and packaged foods. Despite what the optimists advocate, all of this clearly isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong – these practices do keep me healthy and feeling good most of the time and that is part of my reason for making these choices. But I don’t have any illusions I am saving the planet or helping to feed any of the billion or so “food insecure” people worldwide. One thing I do know is that we all need to get angry and then, more importantly, take some kind of action. As the cost of food rises, as it will most certainly continue to do with rising oil costs rippling throughout the food production and distribution chain, we must demand it be safe. How this will happen will be an ongoing source of debate I’m sure.

Meanwhile, I will continue to be optimistic and do my small part to support alternatives to the current food system and think about the famous Betty Reese quote “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

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5 Responses to “Spinach, Burgers, Peanut Butter, Eggs…What Next?”

  1. Katy H Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought provoking essay. Years ago, in a meeting for Overeaters Anonymous I heard someone say, “The person addicted to drugs or alcohol puts the tiger in the cage and locks the door. The person addicted to food takes the tiger out three times a day and it is not always easy to put him back!” While perhaps not addicted to food, we still need to take the tiger out of the cage on a pretty regular basis. And now the tiger represents all those food decisions you talked about. The question then becomes, how do we change the tiger back to a nice safe kitty that gives us pleasure and fun? Keep going!

    • Mary Howley Ryan, MS, RD Says:

      Really interesting perspective Katy. In a way our current food habits and our expectations about food availability, quality and cost do represent “a tiger” of sorts in terms of the dangers they pose to long term sustainability (and possibly short term food safety issues). Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. jean cobb Says:

    Thanks for the rant, Mary. You are right on!

  3. jean cobb Says:

    Thanks for the rant, Mary. Right on!

  4. Liz Says:

    thanks, Mary!

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