Let’s All Say Thank You NAFTA For Making Us Sick  

Remember those bad tomatoes? Remember those vile little red demons, just waiting to make you sick with salmonella?

Well, wait no longer, they weren’t the culprit. Nope, it was peppers from Mexico.

A strain of the salmonella bacteria that sickened more than 1,300 people has been found in a serrano pepper and a sample of irrigation water at a farm in Mexico, U.S. health officials said Wednesday.They called the discovery a "breakthrough" but cautioned that tomatoes may still be a culprit in the nearly four-month outbreak that has alarmed consumers and cost the domestic produce industry hundreds of millions of dollars

It’s funny how there’s a “smoking gun” and still, “don’t eat tomatoes” keeps popping up.

But in all of this, what I think we have is a big fat thank you to Free Trade! Yeah for Free Trade! It’s brought us cheaper products, fruits, vegetables and now even a pilot product of truck drivers from Mexico (PS, they don’t have anti-lock brakes nor are they required to rest).

How about a little more from the LA Times story:

The rare Salmonella Saintpaul strain was found at a farm in Nuevo Leon state in northeastern Mexico, said David Acheson, food safety chief for the Food and Drug Administration. The farm grows serrano and jalapeno peppers but not tomatoes, he said.Contaminated water is a common launchpad for salmonella, experts said. Fecal matter can seep or be washed into wells, canals and other untreated water sources used to irrigate crops, said Douglas Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.

I especially love the reference to FECAL matter. It just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, okay, and a little pukey, too.

While the tomato scare was all over the news for weeks and stores all over the place were pulling tomatoes, many of us were left wondering WTF? I know when I went to get a burger, no tomatoes. When I ordered a salad, no tomatoes, even the cute little cherry and grape tomatoes (which were never suspected) were taken away. And the warnings were issued before testing found any contamination from tomatoes. Again from the LATimes:

No tomatoes have tested positive for the strain.On Wednesday, lawmakers pressed King and Acheson about the slow pace of the investigation, traceability standards and conflicting messages about what was safe to eat.In early June, the FDA issued a warning against three types of tomatoes, leading some retailers to pull all tomatoes from their produce bins. The advisory was lifted in mid-July -- not because tomatoes were in the clear but because any affected fruit would have spoiled by then.A week later, the agency said that only jalapeno peppers from Mexico were linked to the outbreak. The FDA is now telling consumers that domestic tomatoes and peppers are in the clear, while fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico should be avoided.

I think the real culprit here is the extent to which our food supply is not locally based. It’s difficult to find locally grown fruits and vegetables. I tend to pick things up from farmers markets because the items are more often produced by local farmers instead of huge conglomerates. I’d prefer to have the option of joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group where a group of residents band together to purchase direct from a local farm. CSA’s give you a choice in terms of perishable foods that don’t always exist in local food supply chains.

But as much as I love the idea of a CSA and have actively looked for one to join, I’m still drawn to the farmer whose produce I can look through and pick and choose. I suppose it’s all about choices, huh?

Family farmers are rare these days.

Kids I grew up with who were farmers didn’t continue in the family tradition. The pig farmers, corn and hay farmers the kids who took time out of school to harvest winter wheat in the spring and the kids who lived on the strawberry farms (like my mother had) are a thing of the past.

Today, we talk about industries as if all tomato farmers have banded together or worse, are equal to Steel producers or textile mills. When it comes to food, these groups are vastly unequal because what we put in our bodies is way more important and affects way more people than does the production of eye bolts, zippers or blankets.

But, then again, it’s not like this hasn’t come up before (from the Washington Post )

This isn't the first time produce growers looked to Congress for help with a food-safety issue.

Even though the 2006 bagged spinach recall involving Dole Food and Natural Selection Foods was more contained, growers took a $100 million hit, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.

Spinach growers got a financial-aid provision part way through Congress but didn't succeed.

In March 1989, the U.S. banned the entry of seedless grapes from Chile after two grapes were found to have been contaminated with cyanide, leaving Chilean growers, exporters and importers with millions of dollars in losses. The industry tried to recover about $210 million only to get word four years later that a federal judge ruled that the FDA wasn't responsible because it was doing its job.

It’s happened before, the poisoning of our food. So, when the issue of tomatoes came up, I didn’t stop eating tomatoes. I just shopped more for tomatoes grown on family farms and sold at the local farmers markets. That’s why when I heard about the peppers from Mexico, I thought about the tomato farmers who pay a living wage to their pickers and I wondered if the farmers suffered losses like those reported in the LA Times and like the information below from the Washington Post:

But before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the tomato advisory July 17, U.S. tomato growers were left holding the shopping bag.
Growers said they lost $100 million in sales during the investigation, which they charge was conducted poorly and without enough consultation with them.

I wondered if growers (large and small) suffered losses like this, well, what happened to their pickers? If the workers can’t work on these farms due to losses like this from an issue related to imported food, do we also run the risk down the road of driving our own farmers out of business and a need for greater importation of food?

In the end, I think the Post got it right with this one:

The late reprieve for the industry shows how difficult it is to conduct international investigations of food-borne illnesses with limited resources and imperfect ways to trace a product back to its source.

This is what Free Trade has gotten us, a lot of rotten tomatoes here and imported peppers that will simply make you sick. Fabulous, huh?

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