Annals of Bad Health Reporting: Local Food and Food borne Illness Edition

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A few days ago, a member shared a health column from The Globe and Mail asking the question, “Does eating locally prevent food borne illness?”

The first investigations in 2002 focused on comparisons between locally and organically grown foods and those sold in large grocery stores. The results revealed those who chose foods grown closer to home were more likely to have a safer supply with less pesticides, better food quality and, more importantly, less post-harvest handling, which is known to be a significant factor in foodborne infection spread.

By 2010, these differences were solidified as being the basis for better microbiological quality in local foods. Researchers searched for the reasons behind foodborne outbreaks and found links to several well-known problems associated with large-scale farming.

It sparked an interesting conversation and I planned on expanding my comments into a post in this space. However, I didn’t want to do that until I looked at the research underlying the column.
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None of the three papers linked in the excerpt above support or even address the sentences in which they are embedded. All too typical of health reporting and I will never understand it completely. What is more typical is that findings are over interpreted, or used as a fig, leaf, but Mr. Jason Tetro is really banking on no one following and reading his links.

Anyhow, here are my initial remarks which I think are still valid except for the whole “research shows” part:

This article makes a compelling case that the research shows that locally sourced foods are relatively less prone to food borne pathogens than industrially scaled food production. What we aren’t shown are absolute values. The American food supply is incredibly safe so, we are talking about ‘incredibly safe’ versus ‘even safer than that’.

The one thing that I’d be curious about, because they didn’t seem to control for it is income/price point. They are comparing locally sourced food to everything else. Because most local food is at a higher price point and sold to more affluent consumers, a better comparison would be to foods at a similar price point sold to a similar demographic. I’d be willing to bet that much of the gap disappears.

If you watch raw milk outbreaks, the biggest offenders are the makers of cheeses for the low income Mexican queso fresco market. Likewise our biggest (one of our biggest?) beef pathogen outbreak was the Jack in the Box disaster.

It may be the localness or it may be as simple as the brutal economics of delivering cheap food to a country where incomes are stagnant and going backwards for 40% or more of the population.

For more in this series, visit the old website.

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