#223 Food Safety
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It would be nice if the Food and Drug Administration stopped issuing warnings about toxic substances and just gave me the names of one or two things still safe to eat.

Robert Fuoss

10 Reasons to Eat Organic—and Local

By Steve Edwards

"Think globally, act locally" is not just for bumper stickers anymore. This United States-esque slogan has become even more important when it comes to thinking about where your next meal should come from. After all, aren't we supposed to be a bunch of independent counties, making up independent states, that band together to aid each other as a nation? Anyway, the implications are far from just political. Buying local, as well as organic, will allow you to feed and protect your family in the safest way possible. Here are 10 reasons to add your local farmers market to the top of your to-do list each week.

  1. Local foods are safer. Or, at least, you can find out if they are. Organic food standards are high but there are still companies out there attempting to fudge the rules. When you buy local, it's easy to check out what you're buying and won't require that you hire Magnum, P.I. to do it. The great thing about local media is that they love to cover this stuff. If, for any reason, a local farm is mixed up in nefarious activities, there's a good chance your paper has a reporter dreaming of life at The New York Times who'll be on the job for you. In lieu of this, be inquisitive at the farmers market and you'll be surprised how quickly you're up to date on the local scoop. Farmers who adhere to a strict code of ethics love to talk about who else does, and who doesn't.

  2. Organic foods are safer. Organic certification standards are the public's assurance that their food and products have been grown and handled according to sustainable procedures without toxic inputs. At least that's what the law says. But even though many companies still cheat the system, most of them play by the rules. These rules are in place to help both soil longevity and the health and safety of the consumer. Many Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides, and 30 percent of all insecticides as potentially cancer causing, none of which meet organic criteria. You can't always be certain you're getting safe food, but eating organic stacks the odds in your favor.

  3. Organic food tastes better. Many people would be amazed to taste the difference between garden-grown fruits and vegetables and wild meat compared to what you find down at Food4Less. The main reason for this has to do with something called trophic levels, which has to do with the way plants and animals feed up the food chain. When food—even natural food—is manufactured, such as plants grown in poor soil with some added nutrients or animals raised using drugs and a non-native diet, their physiological chemistry is altered. This not only changes their nutrient content but the way they taste.

  4. Organic food is more nutritious—which stands to reason based on the above. When soils are depleted and then fertilized, only certain nutrients are added with fertilizers. The resulting losses are many of the plants' original phytonutrients. While not a major component of any individual plant, they add up in your diet and become a major component of who you are. Lack of phytonutients in our diet carries the blame for many modern-day maladies. With regard to meat, it's basically the same story. Animals raised on a poor diet are, as you might imagine, less healthy to eat because you, too, are part of the trophic level paradigm.

  5. You won't have to eat genetically modified organisms (GMO). A GMO is a plant, animal, or microorganism whose genetic sequence has been modified to introduce genes from another species. Because there's no knowledge of the long-term impact of GMOs to our health, they are forbidden by the Soil Association Standards for Organic Food and Farming. Furthermore, animals raised organically cannot be fed GMOs, as well as antibiotics, added hormones, or other drugs.

  6. Your drinking water will be safer. The EPA estimates that pesticides contaminate groundwater in 38 states, polluting the primary source of drinking water for more than half the country's population. Organic farmers don't use toxic chemicals that leech into your groundwater. They also practice water conservation, which also leads to less waste intrusion into our aquifers.

  7. Your kids will be healthier. The toxicity of pesticide residue is determined by not only the chemical, but our body weight in relation to how much we consume. Therefore, your children are at more risk than you are. It's estimated that the average child receives four times more exposure than the average adult to at least eight widely used cancer-causing pesticides in food. To try and minimize this risk, buy organic, but also make sure that your family eats a wide variety of foods.

  8. To help farmers and farm communities. It's estimated that the U.S. has lost more than 650,000 family farms since 1990. The USDA predicts that half of the U.S. farm production comes from only 1 percent of farms. Organic farming may be one of the few survival tactics left for the family farm and rural communities. The majority of organic farms are still small-scale operations, generally on less than 100 acres, and using an average of 70 percent less energy. Small farms use far more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices than large-scale farms do. For example, small farms utilize manure to fertilize soil, naturally recycling the land. Industrial farms produce so much manure that it's a human health risk. The overspill of manure has contaminated water wells with E. coli and other pathogens. This brings up another subject, that industrial farms still—though now illegally—feed animals the ground-up remnants of other animals not part of their natural diet. This has led to pathogens, such as E. coli, getting into our foods in the first place. Furthermore, farm workers are much safer on small farms. A National Cancer Institute study found that farmers exposed to herbicides had six times the risk of non-farmers of contracting cancer. Field workers on conventional farms, due to their direct exposure, are the most vulnerable to illness as a result of pesticide use. Organic farms eliminate that risk by eliminating harmful pesticides and other chemical inputs from their practices.

  9. For more humane treatment of animals. Factory farms treat animals like commodities. They are usually kept in tightly confined pens or cages and often never move more than a few feet for their entire lives. They are also fed the cheapest foods available, no matter how it affects their—and then our—health. Besides the fact that a host of illnesses have entered our world as a direct result of this practice, it's also just not nice. Animals on organic farms are far likelier to be raised without cruelty. They are also fed a diet more like what they would eat naturally and studies tell us—surprise—that they tend to be significantly healthier than their factory-raised counterparts.

  10. To promote a vibrant economy. Organic products only seem more expensive because people base their cost on their sticker price alone. However, this represents a mere fraction of their true cost. Market prices for conventionally grown foods do not reflect the costs of federal subsidies to conventional agriculture, the cost of contaminated drinking water, loss of wildlife habitat and soil erosion, or the cost of the disposal and cleanup of hazardous wastes generated by the manufacturing of pesticides. Compared to local farms, there's also transportation and its pollutants to consider. This all means that, essentially, you can pay now or pay later—just remember that you're going to be charged interest, mainly in the form of a socially and ecologically diminished world to live in.

What if you can't find organic food? One of our members, who lives in a rural area, went to her local market and requested healthier options. Now the store owner can't keep them on the shelf. You can, with a little initiative, make a difference. After all, retail stores are in business to serve you. If this doesn't work, hit the Internet. Since organic food is the current buzzword of the food industry, there will be options. And, of course, there's always your local farmers market.

To stay up to date on organic standards, visit the Organic Trade Association Web site.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email Steve Edwards at mailbag@beachbody.com. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter.

You can also check out Steve's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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Outbreak! Plus, Food Safety Tips

By Jude Buglewicz

Let's talk spinach. What the heck happened last month; what is the government doing about it; and what can you do to ensure your food is safe? Keep reading for some timely answers.

What happened?

It was an official outbreak, declared so by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on September 14th. The first reported illness from bad spinach came on August 2nd. By September 29th, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 187 lab-tested cases had been counted in 26 states (and 1 in Canada), with most illnesses having been reported between August 26th and September 12th. Twenty-nine people developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a kind of kidney failure. One person in Wisconsin died. The CDC reports that two others have died (a two-year-old child in Idaho and an elderly woman from Maryland), but since there is no proof their deaths are from the outbreak strain, they are not included in the mortality count.

Everyone got sick from eating bagged spinach that was traced back to farms for Natural Selections Foods in the Salinas Valley of California. Five companies that made bagged spinach, including Natural Selections, announced voluntary recalls between September 15th and 22nd. Spinach pretty much disappeared from grocery store shelves around then. And even though bagged spinach was deemed okay if it came from some place other than one of the three implicated California counties, it didn't look like anyone was taking chances. At least not in the grocery stores in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. And who could blame them? Of the 19 outbreaks involving contaminated lettuce and leafy greens reported by the FDA since 1995, most were traced back to California. And all were caused by Escherichia coliE. coli, for short.

What is E. coli?

It's a bacterium with hundreds of harmless strains. One strain, though, identified in 1982—0157:H7—produces a toxin that can make you very sick. In fact, it's responsible for infecting 73,000 people each year and killing 81. It lives in the intestines of healthy animals, but the main source is cattle. Besides unsanitary slaughtering processes (which have greatly improved in recent years), the increased use of grain to feed cattle (corn fattens them up more quickly), has had negative effects on the animals' digestive systems, depriving them of needed fiber, nutrients, and microorganisms. Researchers have found that grain-fed diets promote E. coli in the digestive tracts of cattle, whereas grass-fed cattle are less likely to be vehicles of transmission (as Steve mentions in his article on organic food above). In fact, the vast majority of E. coli cases in this country occur after eating undercooked contaminated hamburger, though people can also get sick from contaminated lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and unpasteurized milk and juices, as well as from swimming in or drinking contaminated water.

On average, it takes about 3 to 4 days after being exposed to E. coli for a person to become sick. Symptoms include diarrhea, often bloody, and abdominal cramping, but most people get better without treatment in 5 to 10 days. Some, however (especially children under 5 and the elderly), develop HUS, a condition in which their red blood cells are destroyed and their kidneys fail. About 3 to 5 percent of HUS patients die.

If your symptoms are severe after eating ground beef, spinach, lettuce, or another known transmitter of E. coli, get to a health provider and have your stool tested. It's recommended that you not take antibiotics, as they will not improve your condition and some may even lead to kidney problems. You should also avoid antidiarrheal medicines, like Imodium.

It's not so hard to understand how eating a rare hamburger can get you sick. After all, E. coli lives in cow guts. But how in the world does it get into spinach?

The chain of production and distribution

The FDA thinks that this latest E. coli contamination happened early in the distribution chain, since so many states were affected. It's currently investigating Natural Selections Foods in San Juan Bautista, California, and the nine farms that supply it. Most likely, the FDA is looking into the six areas of concern they highlighted in their 1998 Guide to Minimize Microbial Contamination of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, known also as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs):

  • Agricultural water. What is the source of irrigation? Where does the water come from?

  • Wild and domestic animals. Which animals have access to or roam the agricultural area?

  • Worker health and hygiene. Since E. coli is also spread by infected people with poor hand-washing habits, are there clean bathroom facilities for workers and have they been properly trained in hygiene?

  • Production environment. What fertilizer(s) or manure is used? What was the land used for previously? What about the adjacent land?

  • Post-harvest water quality. What is the quality of the water used in cooling processes or washing produce? Where does the water come from?

  • Sanitation of equipment and facilities. Is the farm and processing equipment kept clean and sanitized?

The FDA, CDC, State of California, and the United States Department of Agriculture have joined forces to investigate the outbreak and come up with safer measures for preventing foodborne infections and quick methods of identifying and responding to outbreaks. Right now, the produce industry isn't regulated, though most companies follow voluntary guidelines. More cases of infection will probably be added to the current total before this outbreak ends, as it will take a couple of weeks yet to test any new potential victims and get results. Meanwhile, California growers are scared. Almost 75 percent of all domestically grown spinach is harvested there. Restoring consumer confidence is going to be difficult. It's already been speculated that California growers could lose up to $74 million.

Food safety tips

So, what can you do to avoid becoming infected with E. coli? Here's what the CDC recommends:

  • Thoroughly cook ground beef until several places tested reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. You can't just go by the meat's color, as hamburger browns quickly, but can still contain harmful bacteria. At restaurants, send back hamburgers that are still pink in the middle for further cooking.

  • Keep raw meat separate from other foods when you're preparing meals. Do not use the same cutting board for meat and produce. Wash cutting boards with clean, soapy water.

  • Drink only pasteurized milk and juices. Juice sold at room temperature has been pasteurized, as have most concentrates.

  • Wash fruits and veggies under running water. This still won't get rid of all the bacteria, so if you want to reduce that risk entirely, with spinach especially, steam it for a few minutes or boil it for at least 30 seconds.

  • Drink chlorinated water. Chlorine kills much of the harmful bacteria present in water. (Read Steve Edwards' article "What's in Your Water?" for more information on why your municipal water could be a safer bet than that expensive imported stuff.)

  • Wash your hands. Make sure you and your children practice good hygiene to reduce the risk of spreading infections.

And don't forget the World Health Organization's reminder to keep foods at safe temperatures to slow the growth of microorganisms.

  • Safe temps. Don't store food for more than 2 hours at room temperature. Refrigerate perishable foods promptly and keep cooked foods hot before serving. Go through your refrigerator periodically and throw away anything past its expiration date. Finally, don't thaw frozen food at room temperature.

Sources: www.cdc.gov, www.fda.gov, www.who.int

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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