Local food is not inherently safer food

The idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine is the latest to invoke the local is pure fantasy, writing,

“There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

As soon as someone says there’s “no doubt” I am filled with doubt about the quality of the statement that is about to follow.

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported — it’s known as the burden of reporting foodborne illness. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, go to a doctor that is bright enough to order the right test, live in a state that has the known foodborne illnesses as a reportable disease, and then it gets registered by the feds. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are 10 -300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug.??????

Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods. ??????Newsweek has an excellent article this week about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and its Disease Detective Camp, where teenagers learn how to form a hypothesis about a disease outbreak and conduct an investigation. The key lies only partly in state-of-the-art technology. At least half the challenge is figuring out the right questions to ask. Who has contracted the disease? Where have they been? Why were they exposed to this pathogen?

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made. ???