How Safe is Our Food?: From Mad Cow to Pink Slime
It seems like every few months, another foodborne disease flare-up makes headlines in America. Recently more than 300 people in California fell ill with salmonella from a bad batch of chicken. While New York Times columnist Mark Bittman assures that the outbreak wasn’t the result of the hiatus on federal food safety inspections created by the government shutdown, it’s still shaken consumer confidence. So, what is safe to nosh on these days, anyway? Even with the rise in the popularity of organics, deciphering what’s okay to eat is as puzzling as ever. As agribusinesses grow and become ever more complex, this list will help you bone up on food safety.
Steve Ettlinger's "Twinkie Deconstructed" looks at the ingredient list for that storied, if now late-lamented, snack. Most shocking, perhaps, is his account of how so much of what is in processed foods is more closely related to rock and petroleum than to something edible--basically, we're sometimes mining our food these days, rather than harvesting it.
In recent years, Michael Pollan has become the dean of books on the intersection of food and politics. In "Omnivore's Dilemma" he, too, mentions Twinkies: "Even the deathless Twinkie," he writes, "is constructed out of... well, precisely what I don't know offhand. ... We haven't yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly." "Omnivore's Dilemma" looks at the food chain via four meals to underscore our lack of engagement with what's really on our plates.
Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" caused much passionate conversation in 2002 with its excoriation of drive-thrus and dollar menus. The book continues to enthrall each new generation of readers, attuned as many now are to the excesses and dangers of modern food production. And the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev delivers the keynote speech at a fast-food franchise show in Las Vegas? As the ad says, it's priceless.
Robert Kenner's 2008 movie, "Food Inc.," detailed the problems inherent in the agribusiness business (both Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser were involved in the making of the film). The subsequent book featured 25 on the subject of food safety--Kenner himself wrote on how he made the movie, including why most agribusinesses refused to be involved.
One of the contributors to Kenner's "Food Inc." is journalist Peter Pringle, who also wrote a book called "Food Inc.," this one from 2005. And despite his appropriate surname, he, too, is concerned about how foods are being produced, especially via genetic modifications. He does, however, try to tear away the scaremongering in order to point to a future that might see more and cheaper food for countries that desperately need it.
Ben Hewitt's "Making Supper Safe" reveals that many of our major food processing plants are inspected just once every seven years--it's no wonder that more products are being recalled and more of us are getting sick. Hewitt's account of a contamination investigation is both eye-opening and chilling, but he also argues that we have to get closer to our sources of production in order to make food safe once again.
Barry Estabrook wrote a James Beard Award-winning article in 2010 in Gourmet magazine about the humble tomato, and his follow-up book reveals just how much our modifications of the fruit have forever changed its flavor. These modifications include the ethylene gassing of tomatoes in Florida (it helps turn the prematurely-plucked fruit from green to red)--as Eric Schlosser himself said of what Estabrook reports, "the true cost is too high to pay."