|By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The holiday season is here and with it comes a multitude of meals and festive foods to enjoy. But in the wake of recent outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella, many consumers are asking, “How safe is our food supply?”
While the U.S. food supply is among the world’s safest, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from food-borne illness. Preventing food-borne illness and death is a major public health challenge.
Guy F. Delius, assistant director, Division of Public Health Protection and Safety said basic food safety practices would eliminate many of these illnesses.
“Many foodborne illnesses in Kentucky may be attributed to improperly handled foods in our homes,” Delius said. “There are some simple and easy food safety practices we can do in our own homes to minimize the occurrence of food poisoning. In addition, the partnership between state public health and local health departments works to protect individuals from food-borne illness outbreaks.
“Our environmental health professionals conduct restaurant inspections statewide to prevent outbreaks and work closely with epidemiologists to identify the source and prevent further spread of disease when a food-borne illness outbreak does occur.”
While many times illness can be avoided by following safe-handling and cooking procedures, the recent outbreaks concerning E. coli and salmonella were most likely out of the control of consumers and producers.
Fresh spinach from California has been linked to the E. coli outbreak with 204 cases of illness reported, 31 of which have involved a type of kidney failure called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), 104 hospitalizations, and three deaths.
According to the CDC, “since 1995 there have been 19 outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by E. coli O157:H7 for which lettuce or leafy greens were implicated as the outbreak vehicle.”
About the same time as consumers were dealing with the E. coli problem, a salmonella outbreak was affecting nearly 200 people in 18 states. The likely source for that outbreak was attributed to restaurant tomatoes.
Many consumers have found peace of mind when it comes to their food supply by seeking out local food commodities in places like farmers’ markets and establishments that handle locally produced goods.
Kentucky has 108 farmers’ markets, up 10 percent from last year. The number of vendors has increased as well, from 1,678 in 2005 to 1,808 this year. Janet Eaton, the Kentucky Depart-ment of Agricul-ture’s (KDA) farmers’ market coordinator, attributes the growth to three factors: farmers looking for local outlets, customers looking for local products and the freshness issue.
“Markets promote nutrition and wellness, enhance economic development, preserve family farms and create a public gathering space,” she said.
The Community Farm Alliance (CFA) has built a network of members that advocate local food supplies via family farms promoting the idea that it is “the most efficient and sustainable form of producing the best quality food, while protecting the environment and strengthening rural community life.”
Bonnie Cecil, a CFA member from Henry County as well as a producer, said a local food economy makes her feel better about the food she consumes and makes it easier to track food sources.
“I feel a whole lot better when I know where my food comes from,” she said. “This prevailing presumption that the bigger the processing plant, the safer the food is, to me is suspect because the bigger you are, the harder I would think it would be to keep track of where all the food originated.”
Sherry Hurley from Jefferson County serves as the CFA board’s treasurer and counts herself as an activist for a local food economy.
“In my opinion, from what I hear from our farmers, it is virtually impossible to ensure a completely safe food supply,” she said.
“It is hard to control everything, but if we had a localized food economy, we wouldn’t have had to pull all those bags of spinach off all those shelves all over the country. What a huge waste. I buy as much from the farmers’ market as I can. I know the people who are producing what I eat and I trust them. It’s scary to not know where my food comes from,” Hurley added.
While many have found comfort in buying local commodities, many consumers remain nervous over food safety even from farmers’ markets.
Jeff Dabbelt, the manager of the Lexington Farmers’ Market said even customers educated about food safety need to be reassured.
“We have to re-enforce to them that commodities here are local and safe,” he said. “If we can get that one customer to see the importance of buying locally, it will become long term.”
Mac Stone is the director for the KDA’s Division of Value Added Plant Production and a producer of organic and non-organic commodities and thinks there is safety not only in smaller operations but in larger processing facilities as well.
“Smaller can be safer but not necessarily, there are size-appropriate technologies that make large and small operations safe, they are different systems but both can be safe.” he said.
As a producer, Stone said there are advantages to locally supplied goods pointing out that the longer something stays in a bag the more chance of inappropriate organisms getting into it.
Through diversification efforts by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board and marketing initiatives by KDA like the Kentucky Proud program, the state is building an infrastructure to help Kentuckians feed Kentuckians.
Federal agencies like the FDA and the CDC emphasize how safe the U.S. food supply is and offer tips on buying, preparing and storing food in a safe manner but state and local health departments are the frontlines of food safety for most consumers and state agencies work closely with those health departments to ensure public well being.
“Kentucky grows the best food in the world and we are proud of it,” said Stone.
For details, visit these websites: www.fda.gov, www.cdc.gov or www.kyagr.com
This farm news was published in the Nov. 22, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.