Risky Business

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

The E coli outbreak in Europe, coupled with last week’s release of my second book, has me thinking about food, risk, and personal responsibility as it relates to feeding ourselves.

I am struck by the fact that, broadly speaking, we seem unwilling to accept that the act of eating should carry a degree of risk. After all, we accept and even embrace risk in so many other facets of our lives. Every time we climb into a car, step into an airplane, or cross a street we place ourselves in harm’s way and face odds far more daunting than putting a forkful of calories into our mouths. We live in a society that allows us to carry handguns, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and drink hard alcohol. Heck, all at once, if we so choose.

The question is, why are we so willing to own these hazards, even as we recoil at the suggestion that eating will never be entirely risk-free? I believe it’s the illusion of control that comes of engaging in an elective activity like driving, flying, or shooting at the beer cans we just emptied into our mouths. The key words are “engaging” and “elective,” because frankly, few of us in 21st century America are truly engaged in our food. And even fewer of us can elect to eat.

For me, it boils down to this: We have out-sourced the most life-giving, essential commerce we know to multi-national corporations that view us as profit, rather than people. We’ve been relieved of the toilsome, often tiresome work of feeding ourselves, having chosen instead to pursue lives of relative leisure and comfort. We exchange money, most often earned via a task far less backbreaking than growing food, for nourishment. Or whatever passes for nourishment in 2011.

In short, we no longer participate in the non-elective, essential commerce of food. And so we feel distanced, disconnected, and disempowered. We feel out of control. Because we are.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we merely accept the reality of acute foodborne illness. I’m not calling for deregulation of the dominant food system. Instead, what I’m calling for is a transition from food consumption, to food participation. I’m calling for an acknowledgement of the hard truth that no matter how we choose to nourish ourselves, there will be risk. The way it is now, those risks run the gamut from contamination via pathogenic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs, to the chronic diet-related illness that kills an estimated 1,051,000 of us annually, to the simple fact that our continued survival is entirely dependent on cheap energy and convoluted supply chains that lie far beyond our influence.

Regionalizing our food systems and fighting for the right to do so will require us to acknowledge and accept that eating, like everything else we do, carries a degree of risk. As foodborne illness litigator Bill Marler likes to quip: “Just because you can shake the hand of the farmer who grew your dinner, doesn’t mean he isn’t going to poison you.”

But the chance of that happening is far slighter than all the collective risks we now face in relation to our food. The regulatory agencies that oversee our food do not believe we should have the right to choose which risks we will accept. It’s up to us to make it clear that we do.

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