October 31, 2012

Natural Foodie: Grim reapings from the industrial food system

To really scare yourself this Halloween, consider the 'extras' that come with many foods: arsenic, pesticides and salmonella.

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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Buying organic food is a proven way to reduce your exposure to pesticides. However, if the higher price of organics makes this difficult, use the Environmental Working Group's yearly Dirty Dozen guide to pinpoint the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues and shell out the extra cash for the organic versions. Topping the list of pesticide-contaminated produce are apples, celery and sweet bell peppers. These are followed by peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries and potatoes. The list could make quite the skull and crossbones salad bar for your Halloween party.


EGGS – Now we head away from the chemical-coated greenery in the produce department to find what awaits us at the back of the store. First up, eggs. Unless you've been living among the undead in recent years, you've no doubt heard about the unsavory conditions in factory-style egg farms. The former DeCoster egg farms have regularly horrified Mainers with reports of filthy conditions and abusive treatment of the animals, workers and environment.

In 2010, the nation suddenly shared our horror when more than 500 million factory-farmed eggs from Iowa farms owned by the DeCoster family were recalled due to widespread contamination with salmonella, which sickened close to 1,500 people. When the dust (and feces) settled, the resulting investigation revealed the chicken feed itself was contaminated with salmonella.

As if this isn't enough to gross you out, ingredients used in industrial chicken feed may include such unappetizing additions as chicken carcasses and bones, animal feces, arsenic, feathers and antibiotics. Not scared yet? Remember that feeding beef cattle carcasses from other cattle gave us Mad Cow Disease.


PEANUT BUTTER – Who could be frightened by peanut butter? This plant-based protein (when not mixed with added fats and sugars) is a great addition to a healthy diet. Except when it's filled with salmonella.

Major outbreaks of salmonella traced to contaminated peanut butter occurred in 2007 and 2009. Then in September of this year, what began as a recall of Trader Joe's peanut butter snowballed into a recall of more than 100 products produced with ingredients from the Sunland Inc. factory in Portales, N.M. At least 36 people in 19 states have been sickened with salmonella from the plant's peanut butter, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The recall now includes roasted peanuts, almond butters and endless varieties of both organic and non-organic peanut butters. Whole Foods Market and Newman's Own Organics have recalled peanut butter cookies, General Mills has recalled granola bars, and Coconut Bliss has recalled its chocolate peanut butter frozen dessert, just to name a few of the brands touched by the latest incidence of food-borne illness spread by peanut butter. In past outbreaks, the presence of salmonella has been linked to unsanitary factory conditions. Because kids are prime consumers of peanut butter and their developing immune systems are particularly vulnerable to pathogens, it makes such industrial-scale contamination particularly scary.


CHICKEN – Keeping all that in mind as we make our way to the butcher counter, take a close look at those packages of sterile-looking chicken wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic. Unfortunately, there's more there than meets the eye. Recalling the list of ingredients in chicken feed from our visit to the egg cooler, one has to wonder how much arsenic and antibiotics turn up in the chicken's flesh.

But what rolls my stomach even more takes place in the grotesque confines of the slaughterhouse. Here, after they're decapitated and had their feathers plucked, the chickens are submerged in cold water to reduce their temperature. The water bath also plumps up the outer layers of the meat and increases its weight as the carcasses absorb the water.

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