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The GAPs Gap

Feb
3
2007

Last fall, just when you thought it was safe to eat green vegetables again, E. coli-contaminated lettuce sickened more than 150 patrons of Taco John’s eateries in the Midwest.

The response from most Americans was to cut back on salads. Vegetarians reacted with a furrowed brow and mild expletive invoking the negative aspects of a higher power. Vegans freaked out.

However, the poisoning came as no surprise to Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the Food and Drug Admistration’s Food Safety Center. When the FDA lifted its warning two months earlier about contaminated spinach (the 20th such warning in the past decade) he said, presciently: “Until some fundamental fixes are put in place in the areas where this contamination is happening, there is obviously a concern that two months from now we’ll be having the same conversation, talking about outbreak No. 21.”

Outbreaks 21 and 22 occurred two months later. That’s 22 cases of contaminated vegetables since 1995. Kind of scary, eh?

In an effort to reassure customers, California produce growers have announced a plan to certify that farms use Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) to insure food safety. Participation is voluntary, but farmers who do participate are subject to mandatory state and federal inspections and in return they may apply a seal of approval to their products. California State Senator Dean Florez has introduced legislation to make such practices mandatory.

There’s just one problem: it won’t accomplish squat.

That’s because there are actually many problems contributing to contamination. To begin with, there’s all that corn grown in the Midwest. No, it’s not contaminated, but it’s fed in large quantities to beef animals on feedlots during the last few months of their lives. This is called finishing and the corn produces the nicely marbled, roundly-flavored, and cheap beef demanded by modern consumers. (For a more complete explanation, go here.)

However, a million or so years of evolution equipped cows to eat grass, not grain – at least not as a steady diet. Corn makes their stomachs too acidic, which has two effects. First, the cows are susceptible to a number of health problems that their natural diet wouldn’t cause. Second, and more to the point here, acid makes their stomachs much more hospitable to E. coli. Add the fact that the animals spend their days in a confined space floored with their own manure and the feedlots become regular factories for the little bugs. Runoff from the feedlots can directly contaminate nearby fields and, by ending up in rivers, affect fields further away that use the river water for irrigation.

Although the GAPs guidelines haven’t been drawn up yet, there will almost certainly be some effort to address the problem of contamination from feedlots as well as wild animals (wild pigs were thought to be the source of one outbreak of E. coli). It’s still a patch on a flawed system.

For example, let’s say Farmer Brown carefully follows the guidelines, and Farmers Smith and Jones do as well. Although Farmer Jones gets his certification, he isn’t so careful after his wife leaves him and he starts drinking. This would only be a problem for Farmer Jones’ customers, except that all three farmers have a single customer: Lettuce Amalgamated.

At the Lettuce Amalgamated processing facility, the lettuce of all three farmers is mixed together and bagged. The efforts of Farmer Brown and Farmer Smith are rendered moot and another 100 people get sick 1,000 miles away from any of the farms because of Farmer Jones’ marital problems.

So here’s the thing. GAPs certification, whether legally mandated or not, is a Band-Aid. Before long there will be a move to irradiate produce to kill bacteria. That’s also a Band-Aid. Anything other than changing the way we produce food in this country is a Band-Aid. The real problems are systemic and until the system is fixed, new symptoms will arise as quickly as we slap Band-Aids on the old ones.

Share  Posted by Kevin Weeks at 4:11 PM | Permalink

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