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From farm to feast: How healthful is your meal?

Published November 19, 2006 12:37 am

How local? How safe?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the bounty of fall. Thanks to a large industrialized system, food in America is not only plentiful, but also affordable 365 days a year.

We can eat what we want, when we want, whether we have a hankering for fresh strawberries in the winter or grilled steaks in the summer.

But America's efficiency in getting food from farm to table has its drawbacks - a point driven home late this summer when spinach contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states.

As you gather with family and friends Thursday, think about how the roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie found their way to the table. Ask yourself: Is America's "get more for less" food system at times sacrificing quality and the country's health?

It seems headlines give us plenty to worry about: In addition to E. coli, there are mercury and PCBs in fish, antibiotics and growth hormones in milk, and pesticides on fruit.

And despite limited governmental controls, Americans have become complacent about food safety at home - often not cooking food to proper temperatures or even washing our hands between cutting raw chicken and fixing the salad.

Each year, 76 million people are sickened from foodborne illnesses, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

Still, while those numbers sound alarming, they are relatively minuscule considering how many meals the 300 million Americans consume each day.

Often those meals are fast food grabbed between work and a youth soccer game or fare that follows the latest diet trend - America's connection to food has become less traditional and more practical.

A good apple

Richard Shootman can't find a decent-tasting fruit or vegetable in the grocery store.

Through the years, he has purchased peaches that rot before ripening, moldy strawÂberries, green carrots and lettuce that doesn't have any flavor.

"What they are doing is cheating the customer," said Shootman, an 82-year-old retired certified public accountant from Copperton.

He has the time and determination to march back and complain. But the produce manager can do little to appease him.

"They tell me 'There's nothing we can do about it. That's all we can get,' '' Shootman said. "Part of the problem is that most people today don't understand what a ripe apple is supposed to taste like."

Food is no longer grown or raised on family farms throughout the country. Instead, businesses prizing efficiency process it in mass quantities at centralized locations - increasing the potential for nationwide outbreaks, explained author and nutritionist Marion Nestle.

Producers focus on varieties that can travel from the farm to the warehouse to the grocery store and look perfect weeks, sometimes months, later.

Thick-skinned, glassy-looking tomatoes that lack the sweetness of their in-season, garden-variety cousins are a classic example, explains Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C.

"Tasteless tomatoes are grown for a reason. They can be harvested and shipped without bruising," he said.

Food that has traveled in the back of a truck for several days or has been stored in a warehouse also loses nutritional value.

In the United States, most food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an international think tank for environmental and social trends. That mileage is up as much as 25 percent from 20 years ago.

Environmental experts add that food transportation uses up million of gallons of fuel each year and contributes to the country's air and water pollution.

In the case of spinach, leafy greens from many fields come together in one location to be washed, processed and bagged.

The California outbreak that began in August was set in motion when contaminated water got mixed into the giant salad bowl and spread E. coli bacteria across the country.

Unlike the meat industry, there is no federal regulatory system for vegetables.

Nestle laments that an Idaho mother who thought she was feeding her 2-year-old son a healthful diet is now grieving his September death in a Salt Lake City hospital.

"It's more than a dilemma. It's a tragedy," she said. "This is the price we pay for an industrialized system that is poorly regulated."

Slow Food

Insipid vegetables persist because Americans keep buying them - demanding them for salads and sandwiches all year, not just in season. Gurian-Sherman thinks it's time for Americans to rethink their habits and values.

"What do we want out of our food, and what do we want out of our lives?" he asked.

A growing number of people are relying on different values to shape their meals, buying organic or locally grown produce whenever possible. They support local farmers and small, artisan producers of milk, cheese and bread, and share the bounty with family and friends.

This "Slow Food" movement began in Italy 20 years ago in response to the opening of a McDonald's in a historic section of Rome. Today, Slow Food has 80,000 members across the globe, including a group in Utah.

Better flavor is just one of the reasons that "eat local" is one of Slow Food's mantras.

In Utah, where the growing season is rather short, it is probably impossible to have a completely local kitchen. But within the state's borders, there are breadmakers, cheese producers and people who raise lamb, pork and beef. Buying from them can help build the economy and produce jobs. For every $1 that is spent on a Utah product, $1.50 to $2.50 is added to the state's economy, according to estimates by the Utah's Own program, which promotes statemade products.

Many chefs across the country - and in Utah - are partnering with local farmers and encouraging them to grow vegetables not found in grocery stores, such as heirloom tomatoes and Japanese eggplant.

Perfect partnership

Jamie Gillmor recently spent a long night loading his sheep onto trucks for their annual migration from Morgan Valley to Utah's west desert for the winter. The next morning, he drove to Squatters Pub Brewery in downtown Salt Lake City.

The owner of Morgan Valley Lamb wanted to personally deliver a wedding gift - a fresh leg of lamb - to Squatters executive chef Eric Bell.

At his wedding dinner the next day, Bell wanted to serve the Utah lamb with purple potatoes and carrots from his garden. He wanted the ingredients for the meal to be as personal and meaningful as the meal itself.

"The neatest thing about Slow Food is it wants to protect the beautiful things in the world, and it celebrates life by sitting down to a beautiful meal with the people you love," he said.

Gillmor's business will soon pick up, as high-end restaurants roll in their orders for his all-natural lamb.

"I appreciate the chefs because I know it's more hassle to deal with me than to deal with a food-service company that can give them everything they need," he said.

Customers seem to appreciate the effort as well.

"People come in the door because they know what we're doing," Gillmor said.

Still, Janet Anderson, a dietitian and clinical professor of nutrition and food sciences at Utah State University, believes worrying about a food's origin or processing may be missing the point: Most Americans who suffer from foodborne illnesses actually are sickened by the improper handling of food.

"I spend my career trying to help people look at risk and put risks in perspective," said Anderson. "Consumers are most concerned about food additives and pesticides. Those risks are so minute compared to food safety."

She adds: "We have the safest food supply in the world."

In 2004, Anderson published an illuminating study after she and colleagues videotaped people preparing recipes with produce and raw beef, chicken or fish.

Many failed to wash their hands for the recommended 20 seconds; two never washed their hands at all, even after handling raw meat.

Others cut produce with the same knife and cutting board - unwashed - that they used for cutting raw meat. Only a few participants used a thermometer to check the internal temperature of cooked meats.

"We think we're doing a good job," Anderson said, "but we're not."

kathys@sltrib.com

A plate full of America

Where in this country did all the fixings come from? Or maybe they just came from Utah.

Canned

pumpkin

Libby's, Ohio

Utah option: Pecan pie, from Thompson Family Pecan Farm, Hurricane

Brussels

sprouts

Various farms, California

Utah option: Mushrooms from Mountainview Mushrooms, Fillmore

Cranberries

Ocean Spray, Massachusetts

Utah option: Apples from orchards in Santaquin, Payson and Orem

Mashed

potatoes

Eagle Eye, Idaho

Utah option: Spuds from the neighbor

Turkey

Jenny-O, Minn.

Utah options: Norbest turkey, Moroni; or hormone-free bird from Wight Family Farms, Weber County

"I spend my career trying to help people look at risk and put risks in perspective. Consumers are most concerned about food additives and pesticides. Those risks are so minute compared to food safety."

JANET ANDERSON

Dietitian and clinical professor of nutrition and food sciences, Utah State University