Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In response to food safety comments...

Below is the original comment...

So the system is inefficient, understaffed, and the inspectors are overwhelmed with an unmanageable workload. Welcome to the United States where Will Rodgers said it very well... "we have the worst system of government in the world... Except for all the rest." That does not invalidate the concept of a safe food-system. It may in fact be impractical to expect 100% security, but if one life is saved and that life is your wife or child - most people would consider it to be worth the effort.

Nothing you have said changes the fact there is a risk involved - however small you claim that risk to be. You even listed several ways improper feed or handling can increase the risk. The consequences of that risk can be catastrophic and are completely preventable. If every producer - both large and small - were all completely ethical the system would be self-policing - and that place would be called Shangri-La. Greed and incompetence are not limited to the government o large Agra-Corps.

You might want to take a look at the article: Raw Milk - Real Risks - Wisconsin, Idaho, Georgia and Alaska Raw Milk Debate on the Food Poison Journal web site.


There you will find cases sited of real people infected with E. coli O157:H7 from raw milk and dairy products produced by local small organic dairies. I assume the producers were ethical and well intentioned. I don't know what the cows were fed. I am sure the customers looked them in the face and trusted that the product was safe. Consuming these products is not risk free and the risk is not negligible.

I grew up in a small Midwest farm community. My father was a small town doctor. We bought fresh pasteurized (not raw) whole milk direct from a diary farmer. We enjoyed home made sausage and home butchered meats often. I grew up hunting and fishing and trapping. Like I said before - I believe in a balance of personal freedom and community safety.

Indeed, what were these cows fed? The reports do not discuss this.

Organic does not mean that the animals were not fed grain, only that if they were that it was organically produced.

My argument is that grain feeding ruminants that are evolved to convert cellulose to protein is the issue. The Cornell study, and USDA have shown feeding ruminants high concentrations of carbohydrates leads to development of high intestinal acid and a perfect breeding ground for O157:H7. High density feed lots and high density mechanical dairy farming exponentially increase the bacterial risks. Whereas low density small farm meat and dairy production reduces those risks. This isn't even open to debate, it's completely proven.

I also agree to a point with both personal liberty and community safety. However the issue with the current system (that is seriously flawed) is that we have neither. Food production is a black box, collectively and individually we do not know where our food comes from, even if bought at a natural food store. Yet small producers are forced to incur prohibitive costs if they want to provide agricultural products to the local community, where that local community can actually see what and how the products they want and need are grown, and make an informed decision on the risk.

Here's a perfect example, suppose ConAgra has some meat product that is contaminated with E.Coli at 100 times bacterial infection levels (i.e. it will infect anyone eating it), well it and another 100 other cattle go into a bunch of hamburger, that's then distributed to fast food outlets, grocery stores, etc. Well then you have an outbreak that covers most of the country, while the discussion is hypothetical, this has happened many times. Now a small producer might make hamburger from one cow, so the risk of infection is statistically reduced even if the procedures used have the same risk as used in a huge commercial concern. Here's the math (using hypothetical percentages, but it illustrates a point), if the risk of infection of bovine fecal matter into the meat is 1% on slaughter, and after cleaning it reduces the risk by 90%, then the small producer has a risk of 0.1%. However every animal from the larger producer multiplies that risk by the animal count, so in a batch of hamburger that uses the meat of 100 cows, you now have a 10% risk. This also has much greater range since it's 100 times the amount and also distributed further. Whereas the small producer might infect 10 people locally (at a 0.1% risk), the AgroCorp infects 1000 nationally (with a 10% risk).

Overall this is obviously the worst of both worlds, higher infection rates and wider distribution. You may say, but if the contamination is the same then the local producers hamburger could infect many more, and yes indeed it could, the problem is though, that people eat a hamburger, if it's infectious or 100 times as infectious it's not relevant to the individual, since in both cases they're infected.

At the end of the day, to use a analogy we try to avoid putting our hands where we can't see them, yet daily we put food in our bodies that we have no idea where it came from, whether it was healthy, if it's a product of one animal or many, whether it's imported or home grown, how it was raised and fed. Yes community safety is important, but community safety begins with self responsibility, as responsible people we should not be delegating our safety to a faceless government bureaucracy, but ensuring our continued health and well being by being able to make informed decisions on what we eat.

I think the record of the USDA and FDA have more than proven that they are incapable of providing that level of scrutiny. What that level of scrutiny may be is up to the individual to decide, and weigh the risks. Most of the issues we currently see are because we have delegated our food safety decisions to that faceless bureaucracy, and at times an innumerable chain of unaccountable hands.

To spell it out, if you buy produce from a local farmer (without any regulation) and you or a family member gets sick, you know who to go and see, or sue, or shoot. If you buy produce from Wal-Mart and you and a family member gets sick, who's to blame? Every link in the chain can argue they are not to blame, Wal-Mart can say it wasn't them it was there supplier, their supplier can say it wasn't them it was their producers, the producers can say it wasn't them it was their slaughterhouses, the slaughterhouses can say it wasn't them it was the feed lot, the feed lot can say the FDA inspected them 3 months ago and they were clean, so it must have come from the livestock auction, where they've bought 20,000 cows from 50 different breeders in the past 2 months.

Each step on the chain the number of companies can increase too, so when you get down to slaughterhouses (even if there are only two of each) you're at 8 to chase down, who lead to 16 feed lots, who lead to 32 breeders. Or there are potentially 63 companies responsible, if you include yourself due to accidental spoilage (bad refrigeration, mishandling, etc.) that's 64 entities that could possibly be responsible. Or from your local farmer it could be one of two entities, you or the farm.


Linda said...

Excellent points, esp passing the buck or blame to someone else.

I really don't know how anyone can argue this unless they got a hand in the pot.

Keep our food local, support the local farmer.

The big box stores have taken out many small mom and pop business, then you know big ag will take out small farmers. Its a plan , always has been. Safety is just the word use to exacute such plan.

The trouble is many people don't care where their food comes from. Another easy way to control the masses.

It does boil down to our own responsibility of what we put in our bodies. If we want fresh organic food, grass fed animals and drink milk from such we sould have the right to do so.

Its offensive and controlling to do anything that keeps that right from us for our families. We don't have a big plan like government to control, just live our life as healthy and safe as possible. WE HAVE THAT RIGHT.

Thank you both for posts.

phishlady said...

As the previous commentor said - thank you for both your posts!!!

I'd add the argument that this path of forcing every producer to comply with very strict testing requirements (that force smaller producers to shut down) TAKES AWAY personal choice. Instead of having the choice of buying Grade A pasteurized milk in a store, or buying unpasteurized milk from a local farmer... we as consumers MUST buy (often) non-local pasteurized milk.

Having requirements in place for putting certain labels on the products is great, requiring all products to be labelled and meet those rules (to me) is not. Consumers are able to choose between "dolphin-safe" and regular tuna, or organic and non-organic food items, etc. If a grocery store chain decides it doesn't want the risk of carrying, say, unpasteurized milk - great, that's their choice... but at least then consumers can have the personal choice of finding someone who will sell them the product they want.

Anyway, had to add that bit in - I don't understand how the original commentor could argue that they thought the federal requirements you were discussing enabled personal choice of any sort.

Plickety Cat said...

Yes,there is sometimes a fine line between balancing personal choice with public safety. Surprisingly, the first step to both is EDUCATION. The second step to both is DISCLOSURE.

If the government feels the need to intervene,then it should really be focusing on EDUCATION and legislation regarding DISCLOSURE.

It's really hard for a consumer to make an educated, informed decision without education and without information :D

I have no sympathy for people who don't want to take responsibility for themselves and make their own decisions. It's one thing to be taken advantage of by unsavory characters; it's something entirely different to voluntarily allow a faceless entity (either gov't or corp) to exploit you simply because you can't be bothered to think for yourself.

Plickety Cat said...

Here's a list of labeling requirements that I deem reasonable:

1) Ingredients
2) Safe handling and storage instructions
3) Allergy warnings
4) Sensible risk factor warnings (i.e. "consuming raw milk may cause illness" or "grown with some pesticide that may cause birth defects")

If the package is properly labeled, then the onus is on the consumer to protect themselves and absolves the producer from responsibility unless it is *proven* that the customer was not fully informed or the producer sold something that he knew was dangerously contaminated or infectious. (but again, there's that fine line again -- what is "acceptable" and what is "dangerous"?)

But in any case, the sins of the few should not justify punishing the many. Regulations, restrictions and mandated requirements should only be applied pre-emptively for those venues that have been statistically proven to have a high risk factor -- in this case, factory farming -- not heavy-handedly across the entire relate enterprise.

Jim Lister said...

An informed consumer is a rational consumer. I am 100% in favor of personal choice. I am 100% against somebody telling me that a risk is so low that it doesn’t matter. Big corporations have used that excuse for years. It is completely true that raw dairy products (and other foods) produced and packaged under specific conditions can be safe to consume. Is there any way to be sure? Yes – with proper testing. Should that be required? What do you think? Should there be simple but truthful labeling to allow the consumer to decide? That is an interesting idea. Example: “This product contains unpasteurized raw dairy products. Pasteurization kills pathogens that may cause kidney failure or death.” That is simple and truthful and then the consumer can decide.

I really do believe that our viewpoints are much more in agreement than it may appear. It is very refreshing to explore an issue with someone well informed and not based entirely on personal ideology. It sounds as though you have a good understanding of statistical risk management. I personally detest the term often used to quantify a low probability of harm as statistically insignificant, especially when the risk is avoidable. My wife or child is not statistically insignificant – no matter how low the probability for harm. I believe that was the same rational used by saccharin manufactures when arguing for continued use of the artificial sweetener. “The risk of contracting cancer is so low as to be statistically insignificant.” The risk is completely avoidable by simply discontinuing the use of saccharin. The same scenario has been repeated countless times my manufacturers after discovering a safety risk. It may be in their economic interest to wait until someone is harmed before fixing or eliminating the risk.

I completely agree in personal choice and responsibility for assuring what we consume is safe, whether it is from Costco or the Little Green Dairy. I would personally prefer to get all of my food from local and directly accountable sources. Sadly that is not practical, especially in Alaska. I hate the large Mega- factory-farms and feed lots and what they have dome to the Midwest that I once loved. Unfortunately – vary large factory farms are a very efficient way to feed 6 billion people in the short term and we will overlook their ecological impact. That is very sad.

I am not a food chemist although I do understand basic food hygiene and sanitation practices. I brew my own beer, and country wines, process my own locally caught fish and preserve much of my garden produce each year. I trade many items with friends and relatives. I do not see any problem with that. I would be happy to trade some raspberry jam for some moose jerky. I don’t even care if there is occasional exchange of money or services for some smoked salmon or birch syrup. I may pay the fuel cost for my buddy’s plane to go fishing, but if he wants to start charging for passengers – I would expect him to get the proper license and follow the rules. The same goes for food products. Is it a burden for producers – yes. Is it costly and time consuming – yes. If you want to open a restaurant, or just an espresso stand – I expect you to follow the regulations. I don’t have time to personally inspect your kitchen or make sure ingredients are properly stored. Waiting for someone to get sick and then seeking retribution is like – not locking the bank vault until after there is a burglary. Will some people continue to get sick in spit of the regulations? Yes. Will the regulations prevent some people from getting sick? Yes. That's good enough for me.

Gungnir said...

Jim and Marna,

I think we have some common ground, I think the stumbling block is regulation.

We know that O157:H7 infections of cattle can be reduced by 80% by feeding them grass browse for 3 days prior to slaughter. This report was first published in 1998, there are 73,000 estimated cases per year, and 61 deaths, so all told that's 876000 infections, and 731 deaths, that could be reduced by 80% or to 146 deaths, and 175200 infections, all by regulating that cattle be fed grass browse for 3 days prior to slaughter, and doing nothing else.

This has not happened, wonder why...? Well Hay is between $160-$200/ton (66 days feed), corn silage is $25-$40/ton (55 days feed) both need supplementation with protein in feedlot or rapid growth farming.

So with there being 90,000 cattle slaughtered in the US per day the cost of feeding hay might be a concern for farmers feeding corn silage. It would cost $576,818 more per day to feed that number of cattle hay for their final three days (using median feed prices). That's $70 Million a year. So now we know the price of human life, 70M/585 preventable deaths, or roughly $120,000 per life.

That's what regulation has given us.

Gungnir said...

Actually, I need to correct that, it's 585 preventable deaths over 12 years, so the cost of life is $1.4M per life, not $120,000.

But anyway it illustrates a point.

Plickety Cat said...

You mention the difficulty in getting various foods in Alaska. I agree with this, so why make it even harder to produce food here and force the consumers to buy old food that has been shipped in at greater cost? You would think with our relative isolation from the rest of the country and its support systems, our state gov't would be bending over backwards to make vital resources more available and affordable...

Put it to you this way... would you rather spend $2.55/lb for butter at Sam's Club, plus the travel or shipping expenses, or spend $2 for homemade butter from a neighbor who has a cow and some surplus?

We're not talking about your neighbor being a professional Butter Maker, he's just someone with a cow (or goat) who makes butter with the surplus milk and is willing to let you buy/trade some of his rather than drive/fly into town for it.

Do you think it's reasonable to force someone like this to buy a license and maintain a fully inspected facility that meets all the regulations that a commercial Butter Maker must? He's only making a few dozen batches a year, only selling it direct to his local community for their consumption, and only using milk from his own cow or micro-herd that he's feed from his own pastures?

Anonymous said...

Wow!! I kindof hate to get in the middle of these comments, but I absolutly agree with Plickety in her last post. I'm not quite sure why Jim and Marna have gone in this direction. They live in Alaska (as do I) where fresh food is extremely hard to find. If my neighbor wants sell me some extra steaks or bread or produce or whatever, I'm sure going to take him up on the offer. People here in Kodiak often say, "our Safeway only gets what Anchorage throws away". It doesn't matter where it comes from after days or even weeks on a barge:)
Anyway, I couldn't wait anymore to post my own "rant". Love the blog:)

Jim Lister said...

I really do admire the two of you for your pioneer spirit. There are a lot of Daniel Boone wanna-be’s out there that really don’t understand what it takes to survive out in the bush. I know that I don’t have what it would take at this stage in my life. If you ever find yourself in our neck of the woods you are welcome to look us up. I’m sure we could find something to talk about around the wood stove. I must say that I never intended to sidetrack your wonderful blog with this continued discussion, even though I enjoy exploring different points of view. My wife Marna has helped a little when I asked her advice – but I am responsible for these comments. I have read all of your posts and I check every day to get your latest news. I truly wish you well in your adventure and hope the weather gods cooperate enough to get your house closed in before winter.

It takes a very strong, self-reliant personality to do what you set out to do and both of you demonstrate that in your actions and views. I fully expected that most of your readers would agree with your point of view. We just have different perspectives. I agree with your facts. I personally don’t completely agree with your conclusion. We come from two different lifestyles. I fully understand the desire for fewer regulatory burdens on small local (neighbor to neighbor) home based agri-business. I would probably be willing to trust the good intentions of some people that I know very well. I have no problems bartering for goods and services between friends. Regardless of your personal view on this issue - I don’t think the food safety laws will be changed anytime soon. Many small community groups have formed cooperative food processing kitchens and shared the regulatory burden and commercial grade equipment cost. Or you can always choose to ignore the laws, and accept all of the risks on your own. I do believe the intent of food saftey regulations is to provide for a safer food supply then we had in the past, even if the current system is not perfect. I would rather work to improve the system then to simply through it all out the window. It is my personal view that if someone wants to set up a stand on the highway to sell jerky to tourists they need some way to assure the public it is safe. I’m really not concerned if you want to sell your neighbor some extra butter that would otherwise go to waste. I really wonder if an overworked inspector would go after somebody for an occasional infraction. You mentioned that a neighbor might turn you in for a reward. That same neighbor is the kind of person that would probably sell infected milk to make a few extra bucks and assure everybody it was safe to drink. It’s too bad the world is full of bad people that really don’t care about your well being. There is a good rule for playing poker that I like to keep in mind. I only gamble what I can afford to lose even if the odds are in my favor. I personally do not like to gamble with my health if it is avoidable.

In the end it is all just food for thought. Thank you for a very insightful exchange.
- Jim

Gungnir said...

No problem Jim,

In reality, we're likely both wrong, and even if we're right, then what we say is likely never going to happen since we have the political clout of an amoeba.

As far as side tracking, well, life's a journey and this is our journal of our life, and hey whats a journey without a few sidetracks?

And I personally like a good debate, gets the grey matter working, when you've previously been working in an intensely intellectual industry, digging trenches and clearing brush doesn't really provide much challenge on the IQ front :).

I totally agree with your closing statements, we just have differing opinions on how we prefer to gamble with our health. No biggie.

Unknown said...

PC, I know I'm a year late on this discussion but I may still influence your thinking. Why should the gov. have any say at all? Even about labeling. If people buy from local producers and want labels they can ask for them. Choose to buy from producers willing to provide the customers request. Free-enterprise really will shake out most problems. But it has to be free. Free from gov. interference.

Plickety Cat said...

I'm not entirely opposed to government regulation and guidelines of large corporations because I don't have the inherent trust in free-market capitalism protecting the rights of the consumer (it's a "let them eat cake" argument IMO).

But I don't think that private producers and small businesses that sell locally or direct-to-consumer should be held to the same enforcements and interference because they have a much smaller sphere of influence and therefore pose less of a risk.