FARMER’S DIARY

Recalling (and Regretting) the Recalls:
Food Insecurity
by John Lee

You remember: eggs, spinach, lettuce, peanuts, poultry, milk, burger, Tylenol,Toyota, Ford, airplanes.My goodness! Is nothing sacred? Can’t we do anything right, or is there a bigger problem above and beyond the human condition? Is this something we shall have to live with for the rest of our possibly abbreviated lives? Is there nothing to be done?  Let us hope not.

I am sure that there is little relationship between some of these recalls.  Some are due to ignorance, some to misunderstanding or lack of apt foresight; some to slipshod management, some to simple greed; some to carelessness and some to lack of caring. No matter what the case may be, we have a serious problem on our hands and, sad to say, much of it is out of our hands.

It does not seem to be a question of “big government” or “no government” (too much regulation versus no regulation) for the most part.  It does seem to be a problem of bloated communities or companies where labor is really not invested in the quality of their work and/or because management is only concerned about investor confidence (i.e., the dreaded bottom line). Perhaps this is why “small” or family-owned businesses are, in fact, the engines of our economy. Pride in product should not be just a slogan; it must be the cultural ethic of everyone involved in the production and management of everything if we are to be safe and successful.

Luckily, for most of us there are alternatives to carelessness, cost-cutting, pandering and mis/dys-information when it comes to our food sourcing. In part, becoming a food activist/advocate will help going forward. But in the short term, we must begin to focus our attention on where we get our food and what we can really know about that provider. Shopping locally not only keeps your food dollars in circulation but also keeps open space in productive agriculture where more of your friends and neighbors can benefit directly and indirectly. Also, shopping locally lets producers know that you are concerned about safety and quality. As consumers of locally grown food, you effectively become a business partner with your grower (especially if you have opted to join a CSA).

Local growers/producers who sell into a “local” market are very concerned about what their consuming public wants and food safety is a prime concern. There has almost never been a recall for a small producer’s product because they were hyper-vigilant. Our bottom line cannot absorb a black eye—it is apt to be the kiss of death! And the sad truth is that regulation should not be a sop for confidence; regulators and inspectors often do not have the consumers’ interests as their highest priority.

The consolidation that frequently follows “success” most likely leads to the ruination of everything good about small.This is why “local” has eclipsed “organic” in the foodie lexicon as reputable small (but beautiful, often family-owned and -run) businesses merge into the warrens of larger diffuse businesses. The fewer hands that touch a (food) product, the less likely it will become contaminated or degraded; similarly the fewer levels of management intervention. Sourcing directly from the grower is the best assurance for a high-quality product. You can have confidence that the taste, freshness and cleanliness will most likely meet your high standards and reasonable expectations. If it does not, speak up or take your business elsewhere.

Most of all, shop where the staff is excited and knowledgeable about the products they are selling. Ask if they know how to prepare an unfamiliar product or how it was grown. When you are dealing with food, a job in the food industry is not just a “job.” Dare I suggest it, but you are becoming a health care quasi-para-professional and have become de facto part of the customer’s personal healthcare program.  You should want to know that the ultimate consumer will come back to buy your product for years to come!

John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.