Before you dig into your next meal, consider a few of the things Ben Hewitt has to say in his new book, “Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety”:
- More than 200,000 Americans are sickened by food every day.
- Each year, 325,000 of us will be hospitalized and 5,194 of us will die because we ate contaminated food.
- We now eat hamburgers made from the fleshy bits of hundreds of cows and adulterated with an ammoniated slurry intended to protect us from the real possibility that any one of those cows, which may have come from different continents, was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
- The curtain that hangs between you and where your nourishment originates is thick and dark, and doesn’t come with draw cords.
Hewitt is on a mission to draw back that dark curtain. To that end, he takes readers on an idiosyncratic journey from dumpster diving to President Obama’s food czar. The book begins and ends with peripherally relevant (albeit entertaining) chapters on the “freegan” lifestyle. In between those bookends, “Supper” covers a broad range of important food safety and food system issues, including food-borne illness statistics (more Americans die every year from eating contaminated food than have been killed in Iraq since the outset of the war) and the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies charged with ensuring safe food.
Corporate irresponsibility revealed
Some of the most engaging chapters are those that profile individuals, such as the world’s premier personal injury lawyer specializing in food-borne illness, Bill Marler; the country’s largest producer and most evangelical proponent of raw (unpasteurized) milk, Mark McAfee; the family of a young girl who came close to dying after drinking contaminated raw milk; and the founder of Fedco Seeds, C.R. Lawn, who stopped carrying many favorite vegetable varieties after their owner, Seminis Seeds, was acquired by Monsanto.
Hewitt devotes an entire chapter to multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria, MRSA, which he explains have evolved rapidly in response to the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. This irresponsible use of antibiotics is ushering in what one microbiologist calls “the post-antibiotic era,” when antibiotics will be useless, and what used to be a mild, treatable infection can now kill you.
Another chapter is devoted to the recall of 550 million eggs in August 2010, some four months after the CDC noticed a huge uptick in Salmonella enteridis cases. It took that long to determine that all the people getting sick had eaten eggs and that all those eggs (packaged under 16 brand names and distributed to14 states) had come from the huge salmonella-ridden facilities in Iowa owned by Jack DeCoster.
Near the end of his book, Hewitt points out that, bad as it is that 5,000 people die annually from food-borne illnesses, the figure pales in comparison to the 300,000 people who die each year from food-related health problems other than those caused by bacteria or viruses. He traces the insidious chronic diseases related to obesity and diabetes directly to U.S. agricultural policies of the 1970s. Those policies, along with massive taxpayer subsidies of a few crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, have brought us to the nonsensical world where a carrot straight out of the ground costs more than highly processed food items that go through many stages of manufacturing and many stages of packaging and transportation. Ubiquitous “cheap” food is the culprit in 300,000 deaths a year, and so leads Hewitt to conclude “the unspoken truth about food safety in the United States. Our food doesn’t even need pathogenic bacteria to sicken. It does just fine on its own.”
Consumers are on our own
Making supper safe, then, is a DIY job. When we can’t trust food companies to put consumers’ health over corporate profits and when we can’t trust government to put public health over ties to industry, then people have no choice but to take things into their own hands. And more and more people are growing some of their own food and/or buying from producers operating on a scale and with an ethos that provides a clear view of what, where, how and why that food is produced and processed.
The 16 short, unnamed chapters in Hewitt’s book barely scratch the surface of the complexities of our unsafe food system, but they are a good primer. Taken together with his first book, “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food,” Hewitt has joined the growing cadre of journalists examining food production and consumption, industrial and local. These books run from bestsellers such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” to cult classics such as Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” to genuine classics in the “what corporations are forcing us to eat, drink, and breathe” genre such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream.”
I did have a couple of quibbles with the book. I found the juxtaposition of Hewitt’s glib, folksy commentary and earnest, hard-hitting reporting odd, even jarring at times. Also, I was dismayed to find no footnotes and no bibliography. Food safety is a serious topic and demands serious attribution to give the book credibility, and to point readers to where the author found his facts and where they might go for more in-depth information.
But as it stands, the book is a good introduction to our dangerously opaque food system. It also provides readers with more than a few draw cords to tug on to part those heavy curtains separating us from our food. Only when we insist on transparency can we begin to take back our food system and make supper safe again.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Images: Ben Hewitt and “Making Supper Safe.” Credit: Courtesy of Rodale.