I was walking through a park on the weekend and came across a farmer selling food. He’d set up a few tables outside a church and had some vegetables, maple syrup and fresh eggs on offer. I bought some eggs, the last four that he had of his neighbour’s morning collection. They were big and brown and looked great and I was happy to buy them.
But the next day when I went to make an omelet, I couldn’t get the eggs out of the carton. Some sticky substance on their shell had dried them to the cardboard–as well as some grass stalks to their shells. I am not a squeamish person, but this grossed me out. Do eggs come out of the chicken wet? (I don’t know, I’m a city slicker.) If not, what was that now-shiny substance on my eggs?
Food safety legislation designed to suit the industrial food system is often a problem for small food operations which are the backbone of the regional food system that I believe in. But here was a case when I wished there was some quality control. The local food movement needs to take some pages out of the industrial food system’s book because small doesn’t necessarily mean disease-free.
Which brings me to James McWilliams’ article in the New York Times last week. McWilliams got slammed across the continent for writing about a study that linked free-range pigs with higher incidents of trichinosis. Marion Nestle criticized the conclusion of his piece as did the Center for a Liveable Future at Johns Hopkins University, an institution I admire.
Regardless of whether or not you like McWilliams’ piece, I think there is something to take away from it. As a local food system replaces the industrial one, we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Food safety is about public health and public health is a really good thing, particularly if you have little kids you’d like to keep alive and well and free from food-borne pathogens. We shouldn’t promote local at all costs; local doesn’t trump safe.
McWilliams believes in sustainable agriculture. He just wants to make sure we don’t all drink the Kool Aid of localism and forget to make sure that this new system people are building is a good one that provides us with healthy and safe food. This is what we should take away from his article.
Back to those eggs. I ate them regardless of the sticky stuff. And I’d prefer to eat them (I think) over the eggs at the grocery store laid by chickens raised in a factory. But I think I would have felt more comfortable if there’d been some way to know that the park eggs were ok before I took a bite.