While reflecting back on 2011′s many food safety scares, listeria in cantaloups probably leaps to the top of your list, followed closely by ground turkey. Which is fair–massive recalls of whole and cut cantaloups and Cargill’s ground turkey were huge, scary headlines. But being afraid of food isn’t going to help folks stay healthy in 2012. Instead, we have to learn from these events. So what did we learn? That what we already knew, but may have a hard time putting into practice, still holds true: industrially-produced meat and produce spread disease more quickly and can be less safe, and canned and processed items aren’t just less nutritionally sound fresh, whole food (when fresh, whole food isn’t teaming with bacteria); they’re also more likely to be tainted by food-borne illness or unlabeled allergens.
Lesson 1: Buy local. Large-scale farming and meat-production organizations tend to produce more tainted or recalled foods than small farms for two reasons: first, because fewer people are exposed to their products, and second, because smaller operations tend to be able to be more careful and more thorough with inspections and standards. Any time a single producer is shipping items to dozens of states across the country, they end up in more grocery stores and more homes–which was the case with the cantaloupes grown by Colorado’s mega-company Jensen Farms, which was the epicenter of that particular outbreak, as well as the lettuce grown by the giant umbrella group, River Ranch Fresh Foods. Moral of the story: smaller farms may be less regulated, but they tend to offer safer goods. Additionally, your choice to buy local also means you’re not supporting massive farming operations that put people at risk.
Lesson 2: Not everything that was dangerous this year resulted in a recall. In fact, some of the most potentially threatening food scares of 2011 haven’t stemmed any change at all. Studied showing that those who ate canned soup, tomatoes, and other goods presented startlingly high levels of bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been shown to increase incidents of cancer in laboratory animals and people, as well as reproductive problems, heart disease, and diabetes. Of course, the FDA is still lagging on its own research–and continues to attest that some amounts of BPA in food are safe. Which means even if canned soups and veggies are, in fact, toxic, it’s up to the consumer to opt not to purchase them. How can you stay safe as long as BPA-laden cans are on the shelves? Opt for preserved food that comes in glass, and limit the amount of canned food you consume until the FDA catches up.