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Salmonella in Peanut Butter, Melamine in Milk -- How Do We Know What's Safe to Eat?

One can go vegetarian, buy organic, or avoid processed foods, but it is hard to truly avoid all of the dangers that lurk in our food.

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Why Size Matters

In his book Diet for a Dead Planet, Christopher Cook describes the corporate food system that resulted from the "weeding out" of small-scale family farms: "An entire system of corporate food-making, which increasingly dictated every aspect of food and farming, from the planting of seeds on vast contract farms to the processing of crops in huge factories to the preparation and packaging of highly processed ready-to-eat meals in corporate kitchens and on corporate assembly lines."

In other words, instead of real food, we have McFood.

Hank Cardello pinpoints a turning point in our food system when the TV dinner was born in 1953. In his book Stuffed, he says:

The TV dinner marked ... the first time that we embraced, en masse, convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a prepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home. But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food-industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment.

So that's where we are. Convenience and marketing over health and flavor. The change in our diets came as a direct result of the change in our farms. With fewer farmers, larger farms and more lopsided geographic distribution of both, America's eaters no longer know where their food comes from or how it grows. They are accustomed to an abundant and cheap food supply. It's so cheap and abundant, in fact, that the average American ate 500 more calories a day in 2006 than in 1970. You can have anything you want, with a shelf life of forever, and it can be microwavable and sugar-free, fat-free and fortified with every single vitamin.

The makers of these convenient and omnipresent foods of today put far more effort into marketing than into quality, just like Swanson did with its TV dinners in 1953. Often, marketing is an eater's only source of information to guide his or her food choices.

The difference between now and 1953 is the extent to which the meals are made up almost entirely of corn and soy and covered up with artificial flavors and salt. The meat, eggs and dairy can all be traced back to the diets of the animals that produced them -- corn and soy -- on top of which food manufacturers add more corn and soy in the forms of high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

Wander the aisles in the middle of any grocery store and you will find product after product that is little more than corn and soy byproducts, with a few added ingredients, a generous dose of sodium, and a good helping of "natural flavoring" to make it all palatable to consumers. Even the perimeter of the supermarket, where you find all of the "real" food, offers up its fair share of corn and soy as animal products. Only the produce section offers a true reprieve from corn and soy.

Saving Family Farms May Save Our Health

Unfortunately, the consolidation of our food supply occasionally leads to disasters more acute than the mere lack of nutrition in our food. Consider the current salmonella outbreak caused by Peanut Corp. of America's Blakely, Ga., plant.

The FDA found that the plant failed to clean peanut paste lines after finding salmonella, and it stored finished products directly beneath leaky ceilings, but those findings -- which may be the direct cause of the salmonella outbreak -- are nothing compared to reports of mold, cockroaches (alive and dead), rats and mice in the plant.