Sunday, October 2, 2011

100 Reasons to Eat Local - Reason #2

... because time may heal all wounds, but it also allows foodborne pathogens to be fruitful and multiply.

I hadn't intended for this to be a series, and really, the first time I posted this title it was just, kind of, me being silly. Two things happened. The first was that some of the people who commented on the first post brought up a really good point: all food is local to somewhere and even local food can be contaminated with potential pathogens - and that's absolutely true.

The second thing that happened was an article I found entitled The Long Road from Farm to Fork Worsens Food Outbreaks. As the article points out: local food can be contaminated, but what's also absolutely true is that the likelihood of getting sick from those pathogens is significantly reduced the fresher the food is.

Let's take eggs for example.

Salmonella is a bacteria that is naturally occurring in a chicken's intestines. What that means is that if you have chicken poop, you probably have salmonella. Those who are more educated on chicken anatomy know that the egg exits the chicken's body in, roughly, the same region as the poop. As such, there is a chance that the egg will come in contact with the feces, and thus, the bacteria.

Salmonella can not survive in high temperatures, and so thoroughly cooking the egg is usually enough to kill the bacteria and prevent illness.

What isn't discussed enough, however is that the older the egg, the higher the concentration of bacteria. In the US, we refrigerate our eggs, which retards bacterial growth, but it doesn't stop it. Every day that the egg sits in the refrigerator increases the number of bacteria that may be in the egg.

The US standard for handling eggs is that it's "fresh" for up to forty-five days if it's been refrigerated. In Europe, the standard is twenty-one days, unrefrigerated.

Eggs also have a protective coating when they come out of the chicken. This coating helps to keep the bacteria from entering the porous shell. Washing the egg removes that protective coating and increases the likelihood that bacteria will get into the egg.

In the US, all eggs are washed. In Europe, they are not.

We live with bacteria and potentially lethal pathogens all around us. It's a fact of life, and we're not going to be able to sanitize the entire world. In fact, there is a significant amount of research to suggest that being "too clean" is just as unhealthy as not being clean enough. Like most things, there's a happy medium.

With our food, the happy medium is to consume it or preserve it when it is at its freshest, which means we want to use it as quickly as we can after it has been harvested. Doing so reduces the amount of time the pathogen has to multiply, and when it comes to foodborne pathogens, more is defintely NOT better. A few bacteria might not kill you, but thousands may, and the longer it takes that spinach (or pepper or tomato or cantaloupe or [fill in the name of recently contaminated produce]) to get to us, the higher the bacterial count and the more likely we will get sick.

In short, while it may be true that my local farmer is just as likely to have potentially harmful pathogens in his fields, if I buy and use that produce quickly, the chance that it will make me sick is significantly reduced.

By contrast, if I purchase spring mix that was grown in California, trucked to a processing plant where it is rinsed and bagged, and then trucked a distribution center where it's put on refrigerator trucks and transported across the country to Maine, any pathogen that made it into that bag has now had the ideal conditions under which to multiply.

The most virulent of foodborne pathogens - and the home canners nemesis - is Botulism. Ideal conditions for this pathogen to grow are low oxygen and low acid, and so even if the jar seems tightly sealed, the pathogen may be growing in the jar. This is why home canners have to be extremely vigilant and careful - to make sure the jar is sealed, to make sure the food that's canned is fresh to begin with, to make sure that all of the jars, lids and utensils are clean, and to carefully label all of the jars so that they can be used in a reasonable time frame.

My local farmer may not be any more careful than some commercial farmer out West when it comes to ensuring that the food is contaminant free, but when I eliminate miles, extra processing centers, and time, I reduce the likelihood of getting sick from a foodborne pathogen ...

... which makes eating local a safer option, even if the farmer uses composted sewer sludge on his field.

3 comments:

  1. I always enjoy your posts. I seldom can think of a good comment to make other than how much I enjoyed the post. LOL I really did like this one. I love the way you can explain stuff for those of us who are trying to learn but are sometimes overwhelmed by all the info out there!

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  2. @ Herbs 'n' Chocolate - Thank you. You just made my day :).

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  3. Great Post!! This is info I have been wanting to research and I you nailed it. Thx!!

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