You made it through Thanksgiving dinner. No one contracted campylobacter from the turkey or E. coli from the creamed spinach. You even survived your mom’s famous sweet potato casserole. But now you’re eyeing the leftover stuffing in your fridge, feeling vaguely anxious. Is it safe to eat? Is anything safe to eat anymore? It can be so hard to keep up in this world of endless food scares. One minute we’re alarmed by salmonella in jalapenos. Now it’s melamine in milk from China. What next?
Endless fear of food isn’t healthy. During the same period in the 1980s and ’90s when the American health establishment was pushing a fear of fat (specifically anything delicious such as butter), the nation got fatter. When all food seems scary, a kind of apathy sets in. We fail to distinguish real frights from bogus ones. And we forget about a little thing called pleasure.
Our food hysteria has spawned numerous myths, most of which take us farther and farther away from the simple pleasures of a good meal.
1. The American food supply has never been so dangerous.
This is the least safe time in history for eating, right? Wrong. If you find it terrifying feeding your family now, try imagining yourself in Washington or New York from the 1850s to the 1900s. You try to buy vinegar; you are sold sulfuric acid. Your peas come greened with copper, giving you a dose of heavy metal poisoning with every bite. Spices are bulked with breadcrumbs or sawdust. Children’s candies are colored with poisonous lead. Canned goods are laced with copper, tin and toxic preservatives. You buy “fresh country milk” to feed your baby, only to be sold disgusting swill milk from cows kept in stables attached to distilleries and fed on the al-coholic “mash” leftover from liquor production. To disguise its thin bluish appearance, swindlers have thickened it with plaster of Paris and colored it yellow with molasses. There’s a good chance your baby will die from drinking it, as a reported 8,000 infants in New York City did in 1857.
Or what about meat? If you think industrial meat production is scary today (and you’re not wrong) you at least could be grateful that you’re not living in the part of Chicago known as Packingtown in the early 1900s. Sausages contaminated with rat dung, spoiled hams disguised with chemicals and “potted chicken” that was really rotten pork were just a few of the scandals exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel, “The Jungle.”
OK, so our food supply today isn’t perfect (there are still Twinkies). But it has been much worse.
2. Packaged food is safer.
When we feel scared, we want to put our faith in something. Lots of people put their faith in food that comes in packets. Some part of us knows that a SnackWells cookie isn’t as healthful as a fresh carrot, but at least it can’t be tampered with. Right?
Maybe it’s nostalgia for reading the back of the cereal box as a child, but we feel oddly reassured by labels. Look! It’s fortified with thiamine; it must be doing me some good.
In fact, packaged food is potentially less safe than unpackaged food. It passes through many hands before it reaches the consumer, increasing the odds that it has been tampered with at some point along the way. Labels are only reassuring when they tell the truth. Plenty of packaged food is mislabeled — as is the case with the formula scandal in China, which has affected well-known brands. Besides, the most healthful and safest food — produce bought loose from a farm stand or food that you have grown, raised or cooked yourself — needs no label or package at all.
3. People who buy organic food don’t have to worry.
Curb the smugness. Not all “organic” food is created alike. Organic beef is not necessarily from grass-fed cows. Organic apples still may contain pesticide traces. In June 2007, the USDA approved 38 nonorganic ingredients for inclusion in “organic” products, including 19 colorings, hot dog casings and a bulking agent. Not ex-actly purer than pure.
Plus, as with any other culinary fetish, “organic” is a target for swindlers. There have been numerous cases of organic food fraud in recent years — mass-produced eggs passed off as “organic free-range,” for example. Similarly, our fixation with EVOO — as Rachael Ray has dubbed extra virgin olive oil — has fueled a rise in olive oil fraud. Unscrupulous Italian dealers take low-grade soy oil or “lamp oil” made from spoiled olives and color it green with chlorophyll so that it resembles the finest extra-virgin. So that “Mediterranean diet” of yours doesn’t necessarily keep you safe.
4. Science makes our food less healthful.
We like to think that scientists are the food bad guys — plotting to fill our diets with unnatural additives. Actually, we owe a huge debt to the quiet behind-the-scenes work of scientists — the food detectives who do their bit to uncover food fraud. Swindles are increasingly sophisticated and it takes complex forensic science to expose them. In recent years, scientists have used DNA fingerprinting to uncover fake Basmati rice, isotopes to detect “honey” that really was corn syrup and spectroscopy to reveal fraudulent orange juice (made by bulking out real juice with pulp wash, a liquid made from exhausted orange pulp), to name just a few examples.
5. Eating safely comes down to individual behavior.
If we all take personal responsibility for washing fruits and vegetables and cooking poultry until it’s piping hot, surely we’ll be safe?
Not so. Food safety is largely a question of politics. The Chinese dairy scandal demonstrated what happens when a government fails catastrophically at regulating its food supply. You get a scenario — as in American cities in the 1850s — where it becomes almost impossible to make safe food choices. Sure, the FDA should do a whole lot more to oversee the American diet. Don’t forget, though, that it does at least protect us from this kind of endemic poisoning. We may not be out of Sinclair’s “Jungle” yet. But stop being scared for a moment, and you can still cook yourself a good supper tonight. We haven’t always been so lucky.
And still take the time, of course, to wash your own fruits and vegetables.
Bee Wilson is the author of “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud.”