Why Small Farms Are Safer

By Josh Viertel
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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


In 2006 I was--among other things--a vegetable farmer. In New Haven, Connecticut, using Ivy League labor, we grew and sold over 300 varieties of vegetables. Today I am struck with memories of one in particular: a gorgeous crop of spinach we couldn't sell.

During the summer of 2006, an intelligent, concerned citizen stood across from me at our table at the farmers market and proclaimed, "You are not supposed to be selling that ." She was a regular customer. I looked at her, confused: "Selling what?"

"Spinach. Haven't you heard, there's a spinach scare?" She continued in a patient tone and explained that there was an E. coli outbreak, it was in multiple states, that the FDA had linked it to spinach, and that people were advised not to eat it.

Small, local farms, of course, are good for food security and food safety, not bad. The 5,000 people who die every year of food-borne illness aren't dying from my spinach.

I was stunned. I wasn't stunned because of her news about the spinach scare. Everyone knew about the spinach scare. I was stunned because here was a person, likely with several advanced degrees, a regular customer at a farmer's market, who had no understanding of the way things work when it comes to food.

I tried to explain that the spinach, which ultimately poisoned over 200 people in 26 states and killed five, came from the Salinas Valley in California, likely from one farm, and that the contamination was probably caused by human or cow feces brought into the field by dirty floodwater. I also explained that our garden was one mile away from where we were standing, 3,000 miles away from Salinas, and that it had no relation to the spinach or the contaminated water that caused the outbreak.

She listened to me with a suspicious, sideways glance, like I was trying too hard to convince her. Maybe I was trying to get away with something. Her response: "This week, I'll take the arugula."

So why am I thinking about spinach today? Just before summer recess, the House of Representatives approved a bill that will lead to major food safety reform in the U.S.--a country that badly needs it, where 5,000 people die annually because of food-borne illness. And one week later, as though to confirm that such a bill was needed, Cargill had to recall nearly 900,000 pounds of beef because of a salmonella outbreak and over 40 people in at least nine states are ill from it.

This current beef recall deals with contaminated beef from Cargill; the spinach scare was traced to 42,000 bags of Dole Baby Spinach processed during a single shift in one plant. A highly centralized food and agriculture system makes an incidence of contamination a big deal. If something bad happens in one central place, it can make people sick simultaneously, all over the country.

This is a national security issue too: When Tommy Thompson, Ex-Secretary of Health and Human Services, was asked what worried him most on the eve of his resignation, he responded, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." We need a diversified, local food system. That way, when contamination happens in one place, it doesn't make people sick in 26 states.

A battle raged around the new bill because it threatened to allow the FDA to regulate small farmers as though they were major agribusiness corporations. This bill, detractors feared, would treat small, independent farmers with direct links to consumers as though they were Cargill or Dole. Regulators would be guided by the same false assumptions as my friend at the farmers' market: "Small local farm, big corporation... whatever. Quit selling spinach."

Small, local farms, of course, are good for food security and food safety, not bad. The 5,000 people who die every year of food-borne illness aren't dying from my spinach, they are dying from Dole's spinach. Regulate small farmers the same way you regulate Dole, and we might disappear. And when it comes to food safety and security, you want more of us, not less. The big guys need to be watched much more closely. The little guys need to be encouraged to flourish.

Historically, the opposite has occurred: food safety regulations have served to consolidate production and drive small and mid-sized farmers out of business. Mandating new methods and technologies drove small dairy farmers out of business in Vermont in the early 1960s, just as new "leafy greens" laws threatened to shut down small and mid-sized organic salad growers in the aftermath of the spinach scare in 2006. Is this tendency the product of well-meaning, poorly thought through legislation, or is it a conspiratorial "let no good crises go to waste" corporate opportunism? Responses vary depending on which struggling farmer you ask.

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I suffered a similarly ill-conceived false premise just as the bill was being debated, when I returned from Washington to New York on a Bolt Bus.

I got on the bus, sat in an empty seat, took off my shoes, and started catching up on email. A man boarded the bus with a bag from Subway. He moved a few rows behind me, and after a minute of loud paper crinkling, strong smells started telling all the passengers about this man's sandwich. I can't name every ingredient, but there was absolutely bacon (unmistakable), a distinctly scented deli meat (maybe sliced turkey), and an assault of raw onions. It was bad. It was industrial food, it smelled the part, and we were stuck with it.
I explained that I was almost sure that the strong smell of onions, turkey, and bacon we were being forced to suffer emanated not from my feet but from the Subway sandwich a few rows back.
You can imagine the embarrassment and confusion that swept over me when another man--on the other side of the aisle, two rows ahead--turned back to me, looked at my socked feet, and asked me to put my shoes back on. I explained that I was almost sure that the strong smell of onions, turkey, and bacon we were collectively being forced to suffer emanated not from my feet but from the Subway sandwich the guy was eating a few rows back. His response, like a preschool teacher being patient with a student making excuses, was, "Well, that might be, but could you put your shoes on for now, and we can have an experiment." Sure. I put them on.

The man finished eating half of his sandwich, and the paper crinkling resumed as he put the remainder away. Finally, the smell dissipated. We all breathed a sigh of relief. A half hour later, without my plaintiff noticing, I took off my shoes, and there was no smell. Vindicated. Case closed.

Much to my horror, not long after taking off my shoes the paper crinkling resumed, and the smells--bacon, turkey, onions--returned. I wanted to stand up, point at the sandwich eater and announce, "That smell: It is NOT my feet! It is that man's sandwich." Instead, I hurriedly attempted to return my shoes to my feet before my plaintiff noticed. But he turned, took in the sight of me in my flustered, embarrassed, almost frantic attempt to put my shoes on, and gave me a look. The look said, "I am disappointed in you, Josh. I know and you know that the smell is from your feet. You tried to convince me otherwise, but now we both know. Please keep your stinky feet in their shoes."

I thought about my first philosophy course in college. We read David Hume, and he showed that constant correlation does not imply causation. I wanted to tell him about it. I wanted to tell him that this was like a Seinfeld episode, to tell him that it wasn't my fault. Instead I shrugged, finished putting on my shoes, and kept them on for the rest of the ride. Busted, but innocent.

It brought me back to 2006 when I stood at a table full of gorgeous spinach, unable to sell a leaf, and people looked askance at me, all because Cargill's cows pooped in Dole's lettuce. It didn't seem right then. It doesn't now.

There is, of course, a right way to regulate food safety: The law should be appropriate to the scale and to the operating principle of the producer; it should encourage diverse, decentralized, local farming; it should be thorough, it should have teeth. It should put the bulk of its resources into regulating the centralized, large-scale, industrial operations that are responsible for most outbreaks of food born illness. In this last round, and before, we fought for these things. One day, we'll get them.

In the meantime, please tell people that this other food we've got--the food from the farmers market, or the CSA, or your backyard, or your window-box--has about as much to do with the latest food scare as my socked feet have to do with a Subway sandwich.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/08/why-small-farms-are-safer/23317/