Arizona's image is suffering lately. I had an East Coast friend call me the other day to make sure we are OK. Based on the news she was concerned that we might be experiencing intimidation or the victims of crimes. I assured her that although from the perspective of the outside world it might sound like things are really lousy here in Arizona, actually we are getting along just fine. What I didn't tell her is that on top of that we are eating better than ever.
Nationally we are in the midst of yet another food-borne illness scare, this time with eggs. I never have to worry about these alarming events because I purposely seek out locally grown fresh food and I tell you it is very easy to do, especially with eggs. Hickman's grows eggs right here in the West Valley and they have a great reputation. How [over] easy is that?
It is amazing to me that ANYONE could think it would be possible to properly control a farming operation of the magnitude represented by the TWO farms responsible for the nearly 1/2 BILLION eggs involved in the recent Salmonella event. While amassing such operations in fewer farms should certainly improve the statistical chances of getting an actual FDA inspection (fewer facilities in the agency's inspection universe) it is of little help when these operations are just a few of the thousands of operations spread nationwide that the FDA is responsible for.
The farms in question in this event finally got an inspection (well after the discovery of the evil molecules) and as one might expect they found a nightmare in these joints. Yes, it does happen with smaller operations as well, but logical dictates that the bigger the farm the bigger the management problem. The inspections uncovered "widespread safety problems, including barns infested with flies, maggot and rodents, ... overflowing manure pits, improper worker sanitation and wild birds roosting around feed bins." And that may not even be the root of the problem; I heard at least one report that hypothesized the source might be the feed given the chickens. Can you even imagine the volume of feed it would take to keep these millions of birds pumping out the ovulation?
If you want a realistic overview of how the food industry works, and particularly chicken operations and what can happen, I highly recommend you put Food, Inc. on your Netflix list. The movie points out the paradox presented by the industrialization of food. Although we are able to support a growing worldwide population on a smaller and smaller agricultural footprint, the real costs involved are immense. As with all things the law of diminishing returns kicks in but with government subsidies and global trade it is difficult to realistically grasp when the balance actually tips. This approach may be all well and good when manufacturing TV's or regulating smut over the broadcast waves but when it comes to food we should not have to wait until we are rolling down the other side of the manure mound to find out--when that occurs it simply be too late.
There are two things to be learned from the eggs and spinach and ground beef recalls that seem to be piling up over time. The lessons are themselves somewhat paradoxical and as a result not very obvious.
First, with government intervention in the agriculture markets, the corporatizing of American food became the norm gaining the economies of scale that allow us to have whatever we want whenever we want it. Not only is this not natural, it is dangerous, both from a microbial standpoint and an overall health perspective. We are suffering from too much food and it is allowing us to stuff ourselves silly, if the creepy crawlies don't get us first. Second, we have blindly placed all of our trust in the government to protect us from our own food, thereby over–tasking it (it is just impossible to properly police it all as evidenced by one recall after the next). In doing so we have assumed a level of complacency and trust that is wholly unwarranted given the political pressures that immediately come to bear on an ever under-sourced regulatory program.
But not to worry, all is not lost. With the growing recognition of these problems as evidenced by documentaries like Food Inc. and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (see my April 20, 2010 blog entry), combined with a growing think local movement (see http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=logo#!/LocalFirstArizona?ref=ts) not only is awareness being raised as to the options but more capacity is being gained. As farmer's markets become increasingly popular, access to the real McCoy becomes increasingly easy. We happen to have a burgeoning fresh food sector in Arizona. As an added bonus we also have a nearly year round growing season. Unlike those folks who experience hard freezes over the winter, our crops tend to wither only for a few weeks in the dog days of summer, but even then smaller operations are doing quite well thank you. Our bounty changes with the seasons and lasts through them all, providing an amazing variety of rotating eating pleasure and reliable quality.
So, in this time of bad economics, challenging statewide politics and an iffy national image, know that Arizona is THE place to be for fresh, delicious and healthy food if you take the little bit of time required to find it. But don't tell anyone--we can't afford to have the rest of the country move down here just to eat.