Thursday, September 28, 2006

If You Can't Forage It or Grow It Yourself, Buy Local

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the most important thing consumers can do to respond to the current E. coli outbreak in the United States is to avoid eating spinach, the suspected source of the contamination. But Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, acknowledges that buying spinach that is locally-grown may be a safe alternative. “Clearly the risk is significantly reduced if you know the farmer and know his farm,” he told the New York Times on Wednesday. This is particularly true if you live on the East Coast, far from the California farm that packaged the spinach that has now sickened people in at least 23 states, he added.

Worldwatch Senior Reseacher Brian Halweil, a long-time advocate of buying local food for health, security, and environmental reasons, supports this perspective. “Food that spends large amounts of time in transit, changes hands multiple times, and is processed in huge batches provides nearly unlimited opportunities for both accidental and malicious contamination,” Halweil says. He notes that smaller, local processing plants, though not immune to errors, accidents, and sabotage, at least limit the effects of these problems simply by the scale of their operations.

Halweil says that local food production and consumption could have mitigated the devastation wrought by serious outbreaks of food-borne illness in the past. In his 2004 book Eat Here, he describes how the British foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 spread much farther and faster than a similar 1967 outbreak because of increased long-distance transportation. While in 1967, most slaughter and consumption took place locally, by 2001 animals were being shipped from all over the United Kingdom to a central slaughterhouse. According to Halweil, as long as today’s industrial-scale food system continues to dominate global agriculture, widespread illnesses like the recent E. coli outbreak are likely to continue. “Large-scale food contamination events like this give us one more incentive to preserve farms and food makers around the nation,” he says.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

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