This morning's paper notes the recall for peanut butter products is spreading. Now some products are being recalled because they were used on the same machinery that was used for potentially contaminated peanut butter. This may be overkill, as the machinery is presumably washed and sanitized between orders. However, adequate sanitation may not be a given, since the original company that created the problem sent their product out to be tested at a different lab after the first lab confirmed Salmonella contamination. In other words, we must consider that the industry might try to cover their tracks in order to avoid a loss of profits, so therefore we may not be able to trust the food products industry to maintain sanitary conditions in all cases . So what can we do, faced with a lack of confidence in producers of manufactured food products? Simply put, let's take a lesson from the E. coli outbreak in organic spinach that made so many people ill in 2006. At the time, there were no shortages of epidemiologists willing to point out that containment was nearly impossible when spinach was grown in California and marketed all the way to Wisconsin and New York state. At the time, the main demographic "safety valve" had been breached. This safety valve is the small radius of distribution of food. If you have a virus or bacteria that is wreaking havoc on your plants, animals or even your family, you can contain it by not letting the carriers disperse. This is why quarantine is so effective. Physical barriers themselves are difficult to maintain. As an example, when a plague-ridden ship moored in the harbor in Bergen, Norway in July, 1349, it was not allowed to dock, but the rats escaped to land anyway. Within a year, not only had the plague devastated Bergen and the surrounding coastal areas, but also the interior land-locked valleys. Anyone who has been to Norway can appreciate the fact that it is mostly mountains. The fact that the plague was able to leap over immense natural physical barriers should give pause to anyone who thinks epidemics can be contained by physical barriers. Indeed, what makes an illness or health-related issue a pandemic (spread over a much wider area than an epidemic) has more to do with rate of incidence than an external constraint of affected space. [By the way, it is interesting to me that I was only able to trace my ancestors in Norway back to 1602, when a farmer came to a "deserted little farm." Populations in that inland area remained relatively stable and much reduced until the 1800's. Can we presume that this means it took Norway 450 years to recover from the plague? I think so.]
Now, if we eat most of our foods locally, we can minimize our exposure to food-borne diseases. Notice that I didn't say "control" or "prevent." Salmonella and E. coli are all around us, and there are going to be cases in our community. I myself got a good dose of Campylobacter from eating nachos in a local Ferndale restaurant in 2006 while watching the Argentina/Mexico World Cup game. The county health department suggested it was a case of cross-contamination. In my case, I was flat on my back for several days and missed work for almost a week, but it did not spread to surrounding areas. It was not a case of containment, but letting the problem run its course within a small area. In the peanut butter problem, while the food-born Salmonella outbreak is running its course, people in many states are affected. We can minimize this problem by acting as our own containment regulators. If we eat most of our food locally, we minimize the risk of food-born illnesses spreading beyond our local area. This is a case of public health being well-served by eating locally as much as possible.