Recent E.Coli Outbreak Exposes the Benefits of Small, Regional Food Systems

 

Earlier this month, public officials in public health, food safety and disease control sectors around the world identified a strain of E.Coli, called Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, as the reason for the recent outbreak of severe sickness among hundreds of European citizens, as well as a handful of citizens in the United States.

So, what does this have to do with sustainability?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “RKI, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety have announced there is substantial epidemiologic and traceback evidence indicating that fresh sprouts produced by a farm in Lower Saxony are responsible for the current outbreak in Germany,” where the outbreak was first detected.

As Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch (as well as Food & Water Europe), explained in a statement that was published on the Food & Water Watch website on June 2nd, the E.Coli outbreak highlights the risks associated with the large, industrialized food systems that our global community has, in general, adopted.

“Food markets have consolidated into the hands of a few large corporations,” Hauter said. As a result, the corporations responsible for the food market are dealing with tremendous volumes that contain a mixture of products from various farms. Using new technologies, many of these corporations then “enhance” the products to extend their natural shelf life, before the products are shipped all over the world. There are obvious drawbacks associated with this process. First, natural nutrient levels in the food are severely decreased during the transportation, packaging and distribution processes. Second, excess carbon emissions are expended when the food is shipped long distances. In addition to these risks, there are important health safety risks associated with these industrialized methods; risks that have were exposed by the recent E.Coli outbreak.

The adoption of industrialized food systems has widened the gap between consumers and farmers. As the food system chain has lengthened, the risks associated with the global food system have increased. Most importantly, the extended and complex food system makes traceback incredibly difficult if there is a case of microbial contamination somewhere in the system, as was the case with the recent E.Coli outbreak.

While there may not be one, single solution to this problem in our growing, and ever hungry, world, there are certainly ways to prevent such wide-spread contamination.

While small farms are not without risk, Hauter points out that “a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the management practices common to smaller, biodiverse and conservation-oriented farmers are a net benefit to food safety.” Both in the case of harvesting produce and raising livestock, the implementation of organic and sustainable practices, as well as conservation goals, (all of which are often associated with small, regional farms) is the most sure-fire way to ensure food safety.

By adopting these sustainable practices and goals, those responsible for food systems have the opportunity not only to protect consumers from the risks associated with widespread (and untraceable) contamination, but also promote all three pillars of sustainability:

1. Protect the environment by decreasing carbon emissions and instituting responsible farming practices.

2. Encouraging more communication between farmers and consumers, thereby enhancing social relationships

3. Making quality food more financially accessible to consumers by decreasing the costs associated with processing, packaging and distribution

For more information on the E.Coli outbreak, visit: http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2011/ecoliO104/index.html

For Wenonah Hauter’s entire statement, visit: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/pressreleases/super-toxic-e-coli-outbreak-highlights-problems/

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