Fresh Food Fear
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
December 8, 2003

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An anonymous web poet describes fear as tasting like oil mixed with steel wool and topped with nails and tacks. But for increasing numbers of Americans, fear tastes like fresh fruit and vegetables.

Three weeks ago, the country was taken up with a media frenzy over an outbreak of hepatitis A contracted from fresh scallions imported from a small farm in Mexico.

Experts stepped in to say that fresh produce caused more illness than beef, fish, eggs and poultry combined. Others talked of the vulnerability of the fresh-food chain to terrorist attack.

In response, restaurants across the country say their customers are now asking for dishes that contain only processed, canned or frozen vegetables. Sales of fruit have also been affected.

As an outsider it is fascinating to watch the development of this trend. It's almost as if the American people are being subtly conditioned not only to fear things foreign but also natural, fresh foods.

But then with the 2002 Bioterrorism Act taking effect on Friday, it seems strangely timely. The act will restrict or even end the import of all manner of fresh foods from a range of countries, including New Zealand.

After the scallion outbreak, the sanitation of foreign farms, was called into question. "I think it's coming from overseas," said a Dr Morris, from the University of Maryland, in the New York Times. A Dr Doyle, a microbiologist, said there was greater potential for contamination of foods grown in developing countries.

Certainly, the sanitation cry is an old one. It's been the justification for the destruction of small sustainable farming in favour of the large-scale corporate model of food production.

In his 1996 book The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry describes in his usual eloquent manner how germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.

Take the industrialized pork industry. Half a century of selective breeding and chemical enhancing has created a biochemical chain reaction that turns more than 15 per cent of US pork into sweating pale cuts that ooze liquid in the packaging, becoming lethal when cooked.

Or the belief that the factory-farmed cows, growing big on chemical cocktails in record time without ever seeing a blade of grass, let alone sunlight, are harbouring mad cow disease.

Activist group Farm Sanctuary says the reason the disease has not been found in cows is because Americans are eating the evidence.

A report prepared by the Government Accountability Project would seem to concur. Shielding the Giant: US Department of Agriculture's Don't Look, Don't Know Policy for Beef Inspection reveals how grossly contaminated meat is routinely passed fit for human consumption.

The report goes on to reveal how laws are being twisted to shield food giants while bullying small, family-run farms.

Not that you will find any scallion-style coverage of this in the mainstream media. But when you have to protect a huge industry based around agribusiness, with its 4.5 million kilograms of excrement discharged into unprotected waterways each year, billions of kilograms of agricultural pesticides, drugs, and chemicals contaminating food and water, it's no wonder that industry wants to shift media attention on to the evils of scallions and other fresh, sustainably grown fruit and vegetables.

In his book, Berry describes the ecological and agriculture crisis in America in great detail. He argues that this kind of agriculture grows out of the worst of human history and the worst of human nature and calls it a crisis of character and culture.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Many successful small farming models exist across the US, including farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture systems and local U-Pick-It farm programs.

There are organizations setting up local and regional food-supply systems and groups pushing local governments to set aside food security zones, where small-scale, community-based farmers will grow or raise food that can be directly marketed to the nearby suburbs and city centers.

The sad thing is these are all fringe activities. In the seven years since Berry's book, things have become even worse.

Factory farms, supported by legislation, continue to wipe out small sustainable farms. Mechanized oil-dependent agriculture and food production is almost exclusively centralized in the hands of a few companies.

In this environment, animals have become no more than units of consumable food, people are losing the knowledge of where and how their food came to be, the idea of a food chain is becoming obsolete, and the disconnection between what we eat and who we are continues to grow.

Ultimately, with that age-old mix of sun, soil, rain, grass and husbandry supplanted with pharmaceutically controlled factory-farming, the natural increasingly comes to represent the unknowable and, therefore, the uncontrollable.

It is this that is the true taste of fear. Fresh, American or otherwise.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/ Barbara Sumner Burstyn


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* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

* A GM Question or Two

* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work




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