Friday, May 15, 2009

Someone noticed!

Headline in today's New York Times:

Food Companies Are Placing the Onus for Safety on Consumers

Yup. And they've been doing it more and more for years. Basically, food companies think that there's nothing inherently wrong with selling something that is contaminated as long as they tell you to cook the heck out of it first. And if you don't, that's your problem. It's just too bad that meat cooked as long as necessary to make it "safe" is tough and flavorless. Sorry that homemade mayonnaise is a completely different animal from the stuff in the jar - you'd better not make the good stuff, because we're just assuming you're planning to hard-boil those eggs into safety, so we're going to keep raising chickens in their own feces. It's all on you! Foolish consumer, not using your thermometer - didn't we tell you to always use a thermometer? I'm trying to imagine how one would use a thermometer on, say, the half-inch thick preformed hamburger patties so many people seem to throw on the grill. The New York Times wasn't even able to get the chicken pot pies they were testing to the right temperature without burning them.

I can tell you that from my explorations of the academic literature on food safety, the presumption that food safety is primarily a consumer preparation issue and not a production issue runs very, very deep. So deep, in fact, that I am just pleased as punch that the Times was actually able to see it; it is rare to see past the things we take for granted. But maybe, just maybe, after the salmonella in peanut butter and the contaminated pet food from China and the swine flu and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the contaminated tomatoes-whoops-we-mean-jalapenos, people are starting to realize that our food system is not really working. It's about time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Overall, pregnancy?

Not conducive to exciting culinary adventures. First there's the nausea. Fortunately, that has faded in the second trimester, but the exhaustion that makes tossing a salad seem like awful lot of work? That's still with me. So meals have been rather uninspired of late.

Instead, I'm reading about food. One of my favorite things about the end of the school year has always been regaining the freedom to read what I wish. Even in my current program - I enjoy the readings, I even want to read more about what I'm studying, but there's no time. Onward to the next week's lecture, the next assignment. Then, finals are over, and the books I've stacked up through the cold months can be browsed at my leisure. When I was a kid, I would go to the library and get armloads; now I've already got armloads in the house. But the exquisite pleasure of literary liberty remains.

I started off with the surprisingly good Apples to Oysters:

I've read more books than I like to admit that profile farmers and farms. Sadly, they're usually pretty boring. The earnestness tends to be exhausting, for one thing, and the farms tend to be boringly similar - organic, diverse, direct sales at farmers' markets, the sort of farms that interest the sort of people that buy these books. But Webb focuses on a diverse group of specific products - apples, oysters, scallops, ice wine, seaweed, and pastured pork, among others - grown in alternative ways by seriously dedicated farmers/fishermen/vintners/etc. in Canada. The profile of each business gives a good introduction to both the dominant method of production and the alternative the producer has chosen. She understands well how production choices lead to every other decision that follows, from marketing to lifestyle. There are damn good reasons more people don't try to buck the established food system. But we should be grateful for those who do, because these are the foods that retain a flavor of place. One thing I've enjoyed about buying food from local producers has been the absolute pride they show in their products, and that sense of investment comes through in the words of those Webb interviews.

Webb grew up on a family farm that has begun the common process of disintegration, and she reveals the details of her family's story throughout the book, revealing another aspect of the story of agriculture and fisheries in Canada. She's less sentimental, however, than Jane Brox, whose three books about her family's farm in Massachusetts have become classics of the genre. Webb might simultaneously be more optimistic than Brox, too. Her exploration of alternative farms seems to have left her hopeful that at least some part of the future may lie there. Maybe - if people are willing to pay more for better quality food that is produced in a sustainable way. I cross my fingers.