Faith-based food safety: China’s middle class turns to organics

It’s a familiar pattern: Consumers, in the face of food safety outbreaks, turn to whatever hucksterism is out there. is no different.

Market microbial food safety at retail to reduce the nonsense.

Emily Xu, a young mother who runs a children’s reading and writing studio in Shanghai, says food safety is a big concern for her and many of her friends, particularly since their children were born. “The more you learn about [food safety scandals] the more upset you will be. Sometimes you just feel helpless because you can’t change the air or you can’t change the soil, you can’t change the way farmers do the farming. And it seems the government can’t do anything to help. More and more, I have friends who choose to emigrate.”

Many urban residents seek out alternative food sources. Organic food and imported products have risen in popularity and are considered a safer option than the traditional “wet” markets where fresh vegetables, meat and fish are sold. In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, the number of specialist and boutique food shops selling organic food is growing, especially among the Chinese middle class and expatriate community who have disposable income and are willing to pay a premium for good-quality, safe food.

Many city residents are buying directly from farmers they trust who grow vegetables without pesticides. Community-supported farms have become increasingly popular, says Wang, along with farmers’ markets. A small group of consumers has also begun to grow food themselves, sometimes renting land on the outskirts of the cities.

However, all of these options are relatively expensive and not open to most average-income families. Those who can’t afford the premium price of organic or imported food “basically have not much choice”, says Wang. She believes access to safe food should not be dependent on income. “Everyone has the right to safe food, it’s a joint responsibility of companies, the government and consumers ourselves to make this happen by altering chemical-intensive agriculture to a more ecological and sustainable way of growing food.”


’Good business to put the safest products on the market;’ organic association adopts language of big ag

Killing customers is bad for business.

Especially the valued repeat customer.

It’s also bad for business to make customers barf.

But, companies do it all the time, so there is a need for regulation, a legal system, and public oversight to at least embarrass so-called leaders into providing safe food.

It’s a little weird when an organic type, under questioning about safety, resorts to a big ag line (for those foodies who like to distinguish based on size and conspiracy theories).

Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association told the Associated Press one of the best checks on food safety is the devastating effect a recall or foodborne illness outbreak can have on a company’s bottom line.

“It’s just good business to make sure you are putting the safest products on the market,” she says.

The comments were in a story about the perceived safety of organic foods in light of repeated recalls and outbreaks –like the salmonella that sickened six in Minn. and was linked to organic eggs.

While sales for food produced on smaller operations have exploded, partially fueled by a consumer backlash to food produced by larger companies, a new set of food safety challenges has emerged. And small farm operations have been exempted from food safety laws as conservatives, farmers and food-lovers have worried about too much government intervention and regulators have struggled with tight budgets.

Bushway of the Organic Trade Association did get it right when she said food safety comes down to proper operation of a farm or food company, not its scale.

“How is the farm managed? How much effort is put into food safety? If you don’t have really good management, it doesn’t matter.”

But she misses out on an opportunity to once again stress organic is a production system with almost nothing to do with microbial food safety — the stuff that makes people barf.

Local food means anything; safe food means no barfing

Sorenne and I started some seeds a few weeks ago (right, exactly as shown), and promptly brought them in during a cold snap, but spring seems to have sprung.

We do OK with the herbs and berries, greens, tomatoes, beans and peas. But I wouldn’t depend on the yields.

Food from my yard is local, but I still take care to control microbial food safety risks (see the 2009 video, below).

Associated Press reports the No. 2 official at the U.S. Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.

But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

"It’s a sales gimmick," says Allen Swann, a Maryland farmer who became frustrated when he realized a nearby grocery chain was selling peaches and corn from New York and New Jersey as local produce. "They are using the word local because of the economic advantage of using the word local."

Vermont defines "local" as grown within the state or within 30 miles of where it is sold. Massachusetts has similar restrictions for the word "native." And numerous other states have made it easier for local farmers to advertise that their food was produced in-state.

Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.

Whatever local means, and whether it’s better or not, I’ll have fun puttering with my family and make sure it’s safe.

Michelle Marcotte: Working in Romania while dodging foodborne illness

My friend called from her temporary work assignment in Romania. She is trying to manage a large project under difficult conditions, including constantly dodging foodborne illness. With one crew member hospitalized for foodborne illness last week, and several others sick this week you might think they were working in a difficult, rural locale. But no, they are working in a government building and housed in a good hotel. So, how does she explain this? 

The government building has no toilet paper or soap. She and her crew bring those supplies every day now, and every day they are stolen. This weekend she is going to buy more toilet paper, hand sanitizer and liquid soap to fill the soap dispensers because she thinks liquid soap will be more difficult to steal. Poop is not good for you, even if it is your own.

After several crew members were sickened from pizza ordered in, she has begun bringing bagels and uncut fruit from the hotel for everyone. She wants to get this project done, so she’s wise to steer clear of catered food. Romanian researchers thoroughly examined the foods and bacteria implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness from catered food (Ivana, et al, 2009). They main culprits were Staphylococcus aureus, (don’t eat food made by people with dirty hands) C. perfringens (don’t eat undercooked meat), C. botulinum (don’t eat home canned meat); and Salmonella spp (don’t eat runny eggs, don’t eat food that has been undercooked and don’t eat food that has been cooked and then reheated). 

The foods associated with outbreaks between 2003-2008 do not leave many safe choices: beef, poultry, milk, eggs, vegetables, ham, seafood, ice cream and cheese were all implicated. The illness in her crew is costing her company money and her colleagues are harming their health. The moral of this story is to bring your own hygiene supplies when travelling and working in Romania. And bring safe snacks from home such as packaged granola bars, almonds and dried fruit. Only eat cooked food when it is freshly prepared and still piping hot.

Reference: Simona Ivana, Alexandru Bogdan, Ipate Judith, Laurentiu Tudor, B??r??it??reanu Stelian, Andrei T??nase, Alexandru Nicolae Popescu, Dana Magdalena Caplan, Mihai Dane??. 2009. Food Microbial Contamination – The main danger in catering type food in Romania. Romanian Biotechnical Letters, Vol 14, #2, pp 4260-4266

Farmers markets on campus – where’s the food safety?

University campuses are often the first mainstream pressure point to be hit with food fads. So it’s no surprise the Los Angeles Times reports this morning that a growing number of colleges are finding that campus farmers markets are a great fit, tapping into students’ interest in sustaining the planet with an appealing combination of food, music and lots of people hanging out.

The University of Southern California held its first market in February 2008, the result of meetings between students and university officials that began in fall 2007.

Scott Shuttleworth, the university’s director of hospitality said that having at least one farmer at the market was important to give shoppers a chance to talk with someone about "eco-friendly agriculture and organic and natural farming practices."

I’m not sure at what point only local, natural types who hang out at farmers markets cornered the language on “sustaining the planet” but it happened a while ago – and without discussion. As usual, what was lacking from the coverage was any discussion of microbial food safety standards; even suggesting such basics can bring the wrath of a tyrannical religion.

The author of the blog, Conkey’s Tavern, who’s a fan of local, as am I, agreed the other day with the idea of data: water quality results, data on soil amendments, evidence of compliance with handwashing and safe handling.

??????It isn’t about local, small or big. It’s about what will make folks barf. And that requires control of dangerous microorganisms, regardless of politics.