For better food, go local

For better food, go local

August 11th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Area residents who now make a point to look for and buy locally grown food from this region's farmers in stores, restaurants and local farmers' markets have excellent reasons for being more careful about what they eat.

Local food is typically fresher, tastier and healthier because it's grown more naturally and gets to market faster. It also contributes significantly to the local economy and the revival of sustainable, local farms and traditional methods of agriculture -- including free-range grass-fed animals and, often, organically grown produce.

Gaining Ground, the Benwood Foundation-sponsored initiative to promote the use of locally grown food and the economic vitality it provides, has calculated, for example, that raising the percentage of spending on local food from the current 1/10th of 1 percent to 5 percent would represent $100 million in local economic development.

It would, in addition, help residents here avoid most of the health risks and toxins that have become the hallmark of industrialized corporate farming. Food giant Cargill Corp.'s massive recall last week of 38 million pounds of ground turkey meat possibly infected by an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella is a case in point. (We pause to wonder how much storage room it would take to house 38 million pounds, and how that meat will be disposed of.)

Cargill's tainted turkey meat owes to the way most industrial farms treat their meat-producing animals and fowl. Like most giant industrial farms, Cargill regularly administers an array of antibiotics to its animals, whether caged or crowded into huge feedlots and buildings, to promote faster growth and to prevent or mitigate the possibility of diseases in the animals.

With such routine, low-dose use of the pharmaceutical industry's most effective antibiotics, however, the animals that ingest these drugs, and the humans who in turn ingest the animals' meat and eggs, have developed increasingly high levels of bacterial resistance to these valuable antibiotics. Such resistance to antibiotics over the last 20 years has now become a huge problem.

The strain of salmonella, known as Heidelberg, suspected in the 38 million pounds of Cargill's recalled ground turkey meat, for example, has now become resistant to three different antibiotics that were once commonly effective against the disease: Streptomycin, tetracycline and ampicillin.

America's industrialized corporate farms should adopt European protocols and stop using antibiotics in healthy animals to mitigate the disastrous trend of resistance to antibiotics. But they have refused to do so voluntarily, and they also have long resisted efforts by medical and health groups to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban the routine use of antibiotics in healthy animals.

The FDA, under the clout of corporate lobbyists and their compliant politicians, has sadly continued to sanction routine antibiotic use for healthy animals. The pharmaceutical industry, which profits hugely by selling up to three quarters of its antibiotics to corporate farms, has also supported its customers' lobbying efforts.

Corporate food producers argue that such regular antibiotic use is necessary to provide the healthiest, lowest-cost meats in the world. Of course, they ignore the shifted medical cost for humans, and the difficulty of creating replacement drugs to continue the threatening cycle of antibiotic resistance.

Until corporate farms demonstrate that they care more about their customers' (and animals') health than they care about cheaper, unhealthy meat, more Americans generally -- and growing numbers here -- will find it wiser and healthier to look for locally grown food brought to local markets by farmers who follow healthier agriculture.

As they do, this community's rapidly growing local food movement will prosper, and spread into more stores, restaurants, schools and institutions. That's a healthy prospect, and one worth noting on this week's celebration of National Farmers' Market Week.