How Safe is Our Food?

As our diets turn global, extra attention needs to be paid to food safety

To be blunt, the premise of this monthly column is a moot point if the food we eat makes us sick. Granted, the issue of food safety is broad and nuanced. And one of the underlying principles of the food movement is food that is healthy, which by definition would be safe. But while one could argue that the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany is an isolated incident, stringing together all so-called
isolated incidents over the last few years leads to the conclusion that we’ve got a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

That any person should be afraid of their food is the very antithesis of what we consider the genuine article, to say nothing of the Slow Food mantra of good, clean and fair. To some degree the food movement itself has played a role in this new concern by opening the door to more locally grown and processed products, and new, flourishing food businesses—takeout, catering, mobile food trucks, et cetera—that require new awareness by the purveyor and consumer of how to prepare, store and transport food. But those should be things we can deal with. And there has been an increase in safety attention at the local level. But the food supply has gotten even more global (further evidence of the wisdom of buying local), and that poses additional challenges.

The issues are complicated. In a down economy food businesses may, with the best of intentions, look to cut costs—especially labor expenses. But adequate sanitation and proper heating and cooling decisions require personnel. So do inspections. And investigations. Barbara Kowalcyk, director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness, recently wrote a column titled “Welcome to Armchair Epidemiology: The How-Tos of Solving a Foodborne Illness Outbreak.” In it she writes, “Investigating foodborne illness is a really tough thing to do. It takes a lot of time, rarely follows a linear path and often is unsuccessful.”

She says people typically think what made them sick is the last thing they ate when most likely it’s something they ate several days before. For example, E. coli usually takes three to ten days for symptoms to appear. And as we suggested earlier, as diets expand to include more foods from both global markets and multiple local growers and producers, how do we keep track of it all?

Action is being taken. The San Francisco Department of Public Health recently cited the San Francisco Underground Market for skirting the department’s food-safety permitting process. Costco Wholesale and Beef Products Inc. have both said they will institute their own safety standards, saying they’ve grown tired of waiting for government regulators to act. And The New York Times and others are calling on the federal government to get its act together and focus resources and coordination efforts. “Ensuring the safety of the food we eat is not a luxury,” wrote the Times. “It’s an essential service.”

Locally, the newly combined City of Madison and Dane County Public Health Department is working to create an online tool that will allow consumers to view food-safety inspection reports within twenty-four hours after the inspections are completed. And there’s a new Food Safety Advisory Committee that, among other goals, will act as a liaison with the food-service industry, discus industry concerns on policies and assist in developing operational policies and procedures.

Slow Food International president Carlo Petrini has said in response to recent food-safety scares that we need to “fight fear with traceability and common sense.” We’re taking steps in that direction. We can envision, for example, local restaurants advertising their inspection safety records like we recently witnessed in New York City. Traceability and common sense are good for business and the consumer. After all, none of us should be afraid of our food.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to

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