There’s nothing like finishing six days worth of farm work in two and a half days and then coming home to find out that the federal government has issued a recommendation that no one eat any Romaine lettuce — especially if part of the work you were doing was harvesting romaine lettuce for your CSA boxes that week.
Last Wednesday morning, we had to quickly craft a response to our customers — you — that explained why we were 100% sure that our romaine lettuce was not a threat to anyone’s health and it should not be thrown in the trash as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Thank you to everyone for your understanding, and for the majority of positive and encouraging replies.
Following the fairly shocking and unprecedented decision by the CDC last week, they issued an equally infuriating message this week: Romaine from Arizona, Southern California, and even Mexico are safe to eat. Just not from Central or Northern California. Listening to the announcement on the radio, I waited for the words that should have followed but did not: Unless you bought lettuce that was locally grown by a small farmer.
There are only a few possible explanations as to why the CDC would not have– from the beginning of the outbreak — made a simple and obvious statement: locally grown lettuce purchased from a reputable farm is safe to eat. I find it difficult to believe that it simply didn’t occur to them.
As I wrote in the email we sent to subscribers last week, small farmers do not ship lettuce across the country and to multiple states. There was never a chance that a farm like Terra Firma would be implicated in the outbreak. E. Coli outbreaks are isolated incidents that are always traced back to a single farm field or a processing facility. Yet the average consumer would be forgiven if after this incident they assume that outbreaks are epidemic in the way that the flu or measles are. The CDC is our primary national agency for public health messaging, and with the Thanksgiving romaine recall, they failed utterly at this task.
Since the E. Coli outbreak in spinach back in the early oughts, there has been a consolidated push by the largest vegetable growers in the country to promote the idea that their product is just as safe — or safer — to eat then the same items grown locally. After all, they have high-tech systems to grow, monitor, harvest, pack, ship and track their products.
And yet last week, federal officials made a choice to throw away millions of pounds of healthy lettuce because no one could figure out where a few dozen or hundred pounds of contaminated lettuce had been grown. Had 33 people gotten sick from Terra Firma’s lettuce, or lettuce bought at a local farmers market, the authorities would have been able to trace the lettuce almost instantly. Not by high-tech tracking systems or UPC codes or god forbid Blockchain. Just by asking the sick people.
Last week’s needless destruction of nutritious vegetables offers one very clear example of why it is better to buy your food locally, from a farm whose name you know. And yet the FDA and CDC refuse to admit this. At every step during the development of the regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act, they fought any effort to create a two-track system where large-scale farms would be held to a tougher standard than smaller, local farms.
Wherever you get your fresh produce, there is always a tiny chance that it might harbor bacteria that will make you sick. But a small farm selling locally has never, ever caused a nationwide outbreak of food poisoning. That’s a fact, and it’s an important one.