Salmonella-infected tomatoes have made headlines over the course of the last week, but there's nothing new about the problem that tainted tomatoes reveal.This outbreak has put more than 25 people in the hospital and sickened hundreds, but it is just the latest in a long line of sickness and recalls.
Salmonella in tomatoes, spinach, and lettuce, eColi in peanut butter, beef from downer cows; all throw into question the legitimacy of agency claims that the U.S. has the best food safety apparatus in the world. The facts are clear: after years of budget and staffing cuts, America's food safety net is frayed past the point of effectiveness.
The CDC reports that food-borne illnesses increased more than tenfold between 1970 and 1999 and an astounding 76 million people have been infected annually.
While the FDA simultaneously touts our food supply as the "safest in the world", it daily struggles to handle fundamental food safety in the face of a crippling lack of resources. Two weeks ago salmonella-infected tomatoes quickly made their way to more than 16 states with documented outbreaks. Last week, with 28 states reporting cases, the magnitude of the problem became quickly evident: the FDA had failed us yet again.
This type of contamination is well understood and avoidable. Salmonella- and eColi-poisoned produce is created indirectly by our nation's "animal factories," where inhumane and overly crowded conditions produce tainted manure that can contaminate agricultural water sources and make its way to farm fields as fertilizer.
However, while piles of tomatoes are left to rot in air-conditioned grocery stores all over the country, news articles are popping up from New Jersey to California with the important message that locally grown tomatoes may be a safer alternative.
Want a fresh tomato salad? Go to the farmers market this weekend, talk to the farmer that grew the tomatoes and buy a few pounds without a worry in the world. Unlike the salmonella tomatoes which have been shipped all over the country and grown on large, industrial, mechanized farms, small-scale local farms are run by farmers who know their land, what they put in it, and what comes out of it.
Lessons to be learned from this latest incident are ones we should have learned years ago when outbreaks of this magnitude began to occur. These outbreaks signal that the environmental and human health impacts of industrial agriculture can no longer be ignored -- especially as recent reports indicate that the modern industrialized food system may be responsible for up to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions - even more than the transportation sector.
We can also see clearly that the best and safest food is that which is fresh, grown locally, and produced humanely without harmful chemicals and inputs that can result in contamination. It becomes more and more obvious that what is good for the earth and our communities -- organic, local, and whole foods -- is also what is best for our bodies.
Until the nation's food safety system can be fixed, it's up to each consumer to take better control over their own food supply and change their buying habits. If you want to ensure safer food and do something for your health this summer -- don't stop eating tomatoes. Instead, just make sure they're local and you'll be eating healthy for yourself, your family, and for the earth as well.
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