Eating Food Made Close to Home

Posted on December 19, 2007. Filed under: Food, Stop the Drama |


Photo by Kanko

Thanks to the influence of my granola-eating grandmother, I have always been conscious of the need to promote health and wellness for myself and my kids. I try to buy organic foods, when possible (and not too expensive), but try to do things within reason.

One of my friends used to insist that every beauty product she used be “natural”. To be honest, it isn’t clear to me exactly what that means. For example, dog poop is certainly “natural” but that doesn’t mean you want to wash your hair in it, does it? Since I know that there are specific criteria for being certified as “organic” that is pretty much the only label that gets my attention.

In addition to organic, I’ve seen farmers markets and people advocate for the need to buy things that are locally grown. I always thought that was a statement about the importance of supporting the locally economy. However, some recent events made me realize that buying locally produced food has health, as well as economic benefits.

Last year there was an E. Coli outbreak in the northeastern US that was ultimately traced to scallions from a California farm. Growing food and using manure–even natural fertilizers used in organic farming–can lead to exposure to E. coli. For me, the big concern raised by this incident was not just the presence of E. coli in food, but it was the impact of one farm and how it was able to affect so many people so far away. Given the mass production of food, and its far reaching distribution, a single outbreak from a single source can quickly spread across the country. While buying locally produced food may not give you better individual protection from E. Coli exposure, it does mean that when E. Coli does get into food, many fewer people will get sick. It also means that finding the source of the contamination will be a lot easier.

The other incident was the recent outbreak of Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus, or MRSA, in several schools around the country and the report that MRSA kills more people in the US than AIDS. Staph (short for staphylococcus) is a germ that is found on everyone’s skin, and usually causes no problems. However, when you get exposed to antibiotics most of the staph germs are destroyed, but the ones that survive have slight mutations that make them immune to antibiotics–this is what has given rise to MRSA, a germ that is resistant to most antibiotics. As a result, MRSA has been a problem in several hospitals, where antibiotics are always used. When the MRSA outbreaks occurred in the schools last year, I realized that it was unusual for infections to happen with people who had not been in hospitals or exposed to lots of antibiotics, and wondered why this was happening. Then I read an excellent article in the NY Times by Michael Pollan about the use of antibiotics in the mass production of food.

I always knew that antibiotics are widely used in the production of animals used for our food (ie, chickens, beef and pigs). What I didn’t know was that 70% of all antibiotics used in this country are used in food production and consumed by these animals–70 PERCENT! He also went on to report that “a European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics)”. Studies in Cananda also found high rates of MRSA among farm animals and 20% of pig farmers in Cananda tested positive for MRSA. There have not been any studies on the presence of MRSA among farm animals in the US, so we don’t know whether it is common. What I do know is that the conditions for emergence of MRSA–specifically, widespread use of antibiotics–exist in animal farm production, so it is likely that many US farm animals, and the workers who care for them, would test positive for MRSA.

Reading this article was a huge “lightbulb moment” for me because it provided and plausible explanation for what caused the recent increases in the number of non-hospital MRSA infections. While there is no way to protect my family from MRSA (other than to encourage lots of handwashing), I can limit our exposure by avoiding mass produced foods that use antibiotics.

All of this is to say that eating food made close to home–especially if they are made without antibiotics or pesticides– has lots of benefits:

  • I know where my food is coming from and who is making it;
  • It provides economic support to local businesses;
  • My family has less exposure to foods that can be contaminated with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics;
  • The food we eat will be in sync with the local seasons.

The big disadvantage is this food is probably going to cost me more. One of my favorite places to get produce is Viva Ranch in downtown New Rochelle. It offers lots of variety and the prices are amazing. Next time I go, I will ask exactly where their food comes from. Hopefully, it is locally grown (not to mention organic) AND is affordable. I’d like to be able to do the right thing for my family.



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    Musings on how a disorganized woman with a full time job, three kids and a real need to relax is trying to make life simple.

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