Food Safety: Why Don’t We Just Eat Peanut Butter?

“You Are on Your Own.”

That was the headline of an editorial admonishing the FDA for its failure to effectively regulate the safety of our food and drug supply in the wake of 2009’s peanut butter scare.  While the FDA does indeed deserve admonishment, do consumers also need a wakeup call?  Hello, never completely trust strangers when it comes to the safety of what you put in your mouth.  Put another way, “Is it time that we begin to just eat peanut butter?”

Yesterday, I ground my own at the grocery store. There were just peanuts inside the grinder and what came out of the machine was just plain peanut butter.  While the system isn’t foolproof, its simplicity leaves little opportunity for the introduction of pathogens.  A huge peanut-product factory, on the other hand, offers countless opportunities.

The bigger the operation and the greater the pathogen opportunities, in turn, the greater the regulatory burden.  Introduce operators who are even the slightest bit opportunistic, an economic culture that celebrates profits over responsibility, and now an economic downturn and you have a suck hole for regulatory dollars.  Can we possibly afford an FDA that could effectively police our massive, far-flung food production and delivery industry?  Even if we could pay for that level of regulation, could it really catch all the shenanigans going on?

Just one year ago, in February of 2008 in the midst of yet another food scare, the Wall Street reported on an outside advisory panel that estimated the FDA needs “about 150% added to its appropriated base budget, phased in over five years, [just] to cope with challenges such as inspecting a rising tide of imports.”

The article didn’t translate that “150%” into dollars and cents, but I’m sure it would have been a big number.  And who knows if that big number would have covered extra inspectors for peanut plants right here in the US of A?  Or people to watch out for the tomatoes running around and making their way into salsa?  In fact, can you imagine the dollars it would take to adequately inspect and police every bottle, can and piece of produce that makes up the 40,000 items in a typical supermarket?

Things have gotten to a point where even product manufacturers are getting nervous.  Dole Food Co., the largest producer of fresh vegetables, “recently started using radio-frequency identification tags to track leafy greens as they move from fields to trucks and through processing facilities.”

Does the insanity of this development strike anyone else?  People are starving and yet we’re going to spend precious food dollars on a huge technological system to ensure what farmers have managed to do for ages:  deliver safe, delicious food.

Do you feel trapped in a crazy spiral yet:  As consumers we love having a huge selection of food products from around the world, manufactured into forms as convenient as possible.  And please be sure that everything is ridiculously cheap.  Now we are discovering that “global reach,” “convenience” and “cheap” combine to form a toxic stew.  No one is going to deliver a fantastic variety of convenient foodstuffs to our doorsteps for free.  Food manufacturers have to profit, and if they must sell at artificially cheap prices, something’s gotta give.  In the case of food, lots of things “give” so we can have cheap, appetizing food in unhealthful quantities:  The environment is one of the biggest martyrs.  Food safety is a close second.

So should we be surprised when peanut plants and chicken slaughterhouses and cattle feedlots and salsa factories cut corners on safety and purity!

Hence my original questions:  While we must demand a more effective FDA, is it realistic to rely on regulation alone?  Maybe we consumers really are on our own-at least partly.  Maybe it’s time we pitch in and do a little detective work of our own.  Here are a few suggestions that have given me a measure of comfort.  As you will see, the underlying theme is eating closer to home, and minimizing the hands and factory processes touching  your food:

  1. Start by reading ingredient labels.  Don’t buy products with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Period.
  2. Better yet, nix or reduce the number of factory products you buy.  In other words, have a piece of Great Harvest toast spread with freshly ground peanut butter instead of some packaged peanut butter cracker concoction. The fewer the hands and processes, the less the risk of contamination.
  3. For things like pasta, salad dressing and olive oil, watch which companies you buy from.  Spend a little time finding ones that still value integrity.  If you find a good brand, stick with it, even if it costs a few more pennies.
  4. Buy from the farmer and local producers in your community who will feel really badly (and whose business will suffer immensely) if tainted food gets traced to them.  Community accountability still counts for a lot.
  5. Trim back a little on our tastes for exotic food stuffs.  Begin to explore and appreciate what can be produced close to home where it can be watched and monitored more closely.
  6. Cook more.  With FDA enforcement questionable, you’re better off relying on the sanitation procedures in your own kitchen.
  7. Freeze your own peaches for winter.  Don’t rely on ones that must go through 20 hands to be shipped here from Chile (they never taste very good anyway.)
  8. Wash your own spinach and lettuce.  Get a good salad spinner to make easy work of it.  Don’t rely on the stuff that must go through a factory.
  9. Don’t demand things like strawberries in December when they must be shipped from across the globe.  Be happy with pears and apples from storage.

What–this costs a lot?  Consider the costs of all the hundreds of peanut products that got pitched over the last month, many of them from our own personal larders.  Consider also the cost of expanding the FDA budget by 150%, and likely a lot more.  While this will only translate to a higher tax bill, you’ll likely see a direct price hike to pay for Dole’s radio-frequency identification system.

What–it takes time?  Consider the time cost of lying in bed with salmonella!  Even when we’re not actually sick, there’s the continuous, time-consuming, energy-zapping drain of fear.  We eat three times a day, 24/7.  Do we want each meal and snack to be an exercise in fear or pleasurable interlude on a hectic day?

What–it sounds draconian?  After all, “we’re entitled Americans who should be able to buy anything we can afford.”  Well, maybe it’s not such a free market after all.  Maybe there are some tradeoffs and responsibilities that go with being the biggest consumers on the face of the earth, ever.

Many happy, healthy and safe meals

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