Making Supper Safe

by wil — Dec 5, 2011

I recently finished Making Supper Safe, Ben Hewitt’s critique of food safety/regulation/politics. I enjoyed it — it’s a topic I’m interested in and he’s got a casual, engaging style (no angry screeds).

Basically it’s a critique of the industrial food system and the largely-pro-industrial policies of the USDA/FDA. And then a look at smaller-scale, regional alternatives.

I’ve cobbled together this Hewitt food-safety summary/manifesto (which I agree with wholeheartedly):

  • As long as we choose to eat, we choose to accept a certain degree of risk.
  • I know that the risk of contracting pathogenic bacteria from my food is small but real.
  • My food is teeming with bacteria because the world is teeming with bacteria.

What I have chosen, therefore, is a style of eating that affords me as much transparency as possible. To the extent that I am able, I purchase my family’s nourishment from producers operating on a scale or with an ethos that provides a clear view of the where, how, and why of production and processing methods.

I also believe that the widespread antibacterial/antimicrobial movement is good-intentioned, but wrong-minded. I’m not talking about life-saving antibiotics, but general antibiotic overuse*, antibacterial soap/wipes, food irradiation, etc. — and the notion that you can, or would want to, get rid of all bacteria/microbes.

It’s commonly estimated that the number of bacteria in and on our bodies outnumber the number of human cells by 10 to 1. We are bacterial hosts/symbionts. We need bacteria for vitamin synthesis, carbohydrate metabolism, nitrogen metabolism, fat metabolism, etc. And we regularly harbor pathogenic and/or potentially-pathogenic bacteria while maintaining overall good health.

There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that we are a victim of hyperhygenitization. The evidence is increasingly strong that when our intestinal microbiota is in a normal, healthy state, we’re more resistant to disease. In fact, one of the top predictors for salmonella poisoning is antibiotic use within the past 30 days.Justin Sonnenburg
Asst. Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford

The way I see it, you can maintain a strong and healthy gut and immune system or you can get by with a weakened gut and immune system and try to kill off the “bad” microbes (a losing battle). I’ll grant you, it’s not a scientific study, but my wife and I hardly ever get sick. As kids and into our twenties, we got sick a few times a year, we got colds, the flu, etc. and we just accepted it as normal. But nowadays we very rarely get sick, and for what it’s worth, we attribute the change to our change in diet (from a pretty conventional, standard American diet to one heavy in home-prepared, minimally-processed, organic, farm-to-market foods).

* Why we feed antibiotics to healthy animals to hasten weight-gain — thereby promoting antibiotic-resistant microbia — is beyond me. Incredibly shortsighted.

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