Archive for August, 2010

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

August 26, 2010

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.”

The Raw Milk Conundrum

August 9, 2010

I’ve been watching the raw milk debates heat up in recent years and finally decided to dive into the topic for this blog. I spent several hours poring over articles, research abstracts and reviews of research, government statistics for food borne illness, and more, in an effort to give a balanced perspective on the subject. The fact that there are so many issues involved with raw milk including public health/safety, consumer freedom, current food production and distribution systems, and nutritional quality, makes this a very messy issue to tackle in a diplomatic way. People who have opinions on the topic are passionate. After all of my research I remain somewhere in the middle of the debate, so in theory anyway, I hope to present my thoughts based on my research and observations as objectively as possible.

First, as a health care provider in an often EXTEMELY litigious culture, when asked about raw milk by clients I need to think about liability. It may be true that a small number of deaths each year from food borne illnesses are attributed to raw milk but statistics represent real people. I don’t want my clients (or anyone else’s for that matter) to get sick or die because I told them to drink raw milk. Now a farmer who has fed her family raw milk for years with no ill effects may not give this a second thought, but then her kids aren’t likely to sue her if things go badly.

As a dietitian passionate about the benefits of a diet based on whole foods, raw milk poses more of a challenge. In concept I like the idea of drinking milk straight from the cow in its natural, unadulterated state and have enjoyed raw milk, yogurt and cheese at different times from local sources. But the pasteurization of milk is an example of processing that can benefit both consumers and manufacturers in our industrialized food system. Pasteurization does kill some (though not all) of the potentially dangerous microorganisms in milk (benefits to milk drinker) and it extends the shelf life of the milk (benefit to milk manufacturer and all involved in the supply chain). Realistically, these benefits go both ways in that “safer” milk may mean fewer law suits and longer shelf life helps keep cost of milk down.

Nutritionally speaking, it is true that some naturally occurring nutrients in raw milk are destroyed by pasteurization, though the degree to which this happens varies with the process used (simple pasteurization, ultra heat methods, etc.). There may be more beneficial fatty acids, special proteins that help us absorb or use folic acid (folate binding proteins), and beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in raw vs. pasteurized milk, however extensive research in this area is lacking.

Also, raw milk is not the only source of these nutrients and probiotics. So, from a nutritional perspective, at this point there just is not enough objective evidence to convince me that the benefits of drinking raw milk outweigh the risks, at least for the general population. I’m thinking in particular about high risk groups like kids, elderly, and people with compromised immune systems who are most likely to get really sick or die from the pathogens that may be found in raw milk.

Of course there are many other foods we eat knowing there are risks involved but we either really like the way these foods taste, don’t realize there are risks, or believe the health benefits outweigh the risk of illness. I’m thinking raw sushi, sprouts, lettuce, and let’s not forget the food that probably sickens (and kills) the most people every year, ground beef. In fact this is where the consumer freedom arguments kick in and cries of nanny-ism abound. We live in a dangerous world and take risks all the time. At what point must the government step in and protect us from ourselves? (No answers for this one, just laying it out there.)

In fact it is this aspect of the debate that probably gets me fired up the most. I can’t help thinking that while government agencies fret about raw milk, the largest outbreaks of food borne illness in recent years are linked to hamburgers, eggs, chicken, peanut butter, and various vegetable crops tainted by pathogens spread by animal matter. I think about the fact that contaminated ground beef cannot be tracked to its source due to current laws and food industry practices, yet thousands are sickened by this food every year. Just over a month ago (June 2010) there was a recall affecting nearly 40,000 pounds of ground beef from manufacturing plants in New York and California.

Meanwhile, according to the CDC “from 1998 to May 2005, raw milk or raw milk products have been implicated in 45 food borne illness outbreaks in the United States, accounting for more than 1,000 cases of illness (CDC, unpublished data, 2007).” To further put this into perspective, according to data supporting a recent bill proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont) to improve the meat inspection and tracking process:

Roughly 73,000 Americans are sickened annually by E. coli, 2,000 are hospitalized and 60 are killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs associated with E. coli exceed $405 million a year.

So, on one hand people are clamoring for a better system to make our food supply safer on the heels of numerous outbreaks of food borne illnesses (most would admit this is a good thing – unless you own a meat packing plant), while other people want the government to stay out of their business and let them drink raw milk (knowing there are higher risks of contamination by food borne pathogens). What’s the government to do?

Finally, while I agree that changing our food system to foster more localized food production and distribution, including better care for its animals, could be safer in terms of sanitation and ultimately decrease contamination risks. At the very least this type of system would make it easier to track problems and affect fewer people when pathogens do contaminate a food. But here’s the reality: our entire food system isn’t going to change overnight. In the meantime, allowing the sale and distribution of raw milk is tricky. Currently 25 or so states have some kind of legal raw milk sales, though some are just for animal feed and not human consumption. However, I worry that if we encourage raw milk consumption on a larger scale, big agribusiness will be lured into the fray to cash in on this current food trend, just as it has with organic and “natural” foods. I suspect such a transition would not help small farmers.

To wrap this up, professionally I don’t recommend raw milk. There may be nutritional benefits to raw vs. pasteurized milk (in fact I suspect there are and we will learn more with further research on the topic) but right now the evidence of nutritional superiority isn’t compelling enough to balance the risk of contamination, especially for vulnerable people (kids, elderly, sick, etc.). As for the consumer freedom part of the issue I think if raw milk is legal then people can weigh their own risks just as they do with other adventurous eating habits like raw sprouts, sushi, and of course, burgers.