“I pray to God every day that it doesn’t happen in our market, because it can happen to anyone, whether from bad luck or simple distraction. But I know that if it happened to us, I would quickly know exactly what farm and what farmer the infection had come from, and that reassures me a bit.” That was the reaction of the director of the Union Square farmers’ market in New York to the current European outbreak of E. coli infections. To date 35 people have died and farmers have lost millions of euros because of the food-borne bacteria, whose exact origins are still unclear.
This story shows us how a system like our current one, which should be at the cutting-edge of food safety, in reality fosters fear. In cases of emergency, like the E. coli outbreak, it reveals all of its weakness. These fears are often excessive, but still result in entire production sectors being blithely pilloried. The cucumber market quickly collapsed in Europe after the first alert claimed they were the breeding ground for the infection, but this later proved to be completely inaccurate. Now that the leading suspects are organically produced German beansprouts, it will be the large and important organic sector that will find itself unjustly targeted.
Are we thinking of giving up eating raw vegetables just as they come into their best season? Common sense would suggest that would be crazy, because washing vegetables well removes the risk of infection. But fear goes against good sense, even if at times it can have the paradoxical effect of helping us see things in a more logical light.
Today around Europe, everyone who sells vegetables, from wholesalers to market stallholders, is putting up signs and labels to show the national origin of their produce. The premature and panicked closing of borders to many agricultural goods actually had the effect of renationalizing and relocalizing food consumption at a regional level. This return to local consumption calms us and also suggests much about the current system of food production and distribution on a massive continental or global scale.
This is exactly the point being made by the farmers’ market director: If we know where our food comes from, down to whose hands touched it, then you can understand right away if it was those hands that caused any problem and quickly put things right.
In the global whirl of food products, it takes almost a month to work out where a contaminated batch came from and where it ended up. It becomes clear only after unsuspecting consumers have been eating the infected food for days or weeks, thanks to a way of producing and treating food that has completely forgotten the rules of common sense, abandoning us to insecurity. And with insecurity comes an almost automatic and senseless fear.
Slow Food International President