Eaters who assume buying locally grown food shields them from dangerous foodborne diseases were surprised to learn E. coli associated with fresh strawberries sold at Oregon farmers markets and roadside stands last month killed a woman and sickened at least nine others.
"One of the big problems with local agriculture is they believe their hype that because they're not ConAgra, they're completely safe," says Bill Marler, a food-safety advocate who has been litigating foodborne illness cases since 1993.
"The problem is, there's no scientific basis for saying that," he adds, pointing out that if good intentions and an organic philosophy conferred a cloak of hygiene, small-time growers wouldn't have to wash their hands.
Marler this week donated $5,000 to Food Alliance, a sustainable-agriculture certification program based in Portland, asking that the money be used to educate producers about precautions they can take to lessen the risk of contamination. According to Marler, investigators suspect deer may have spread the deadly bacteria traced to the Newberg strawberry farm.
While many resources already exist for farmers interested in making their food safer, Marler says some organically minded growers remain skeptical of government entities, such as agricultural extension offices. "I don't think that's helpful to the movement," Marler says. "Just because they're local and organic, they can still sicken their customers, and they still have a moral responsibility not to do so."
Marler believes producers and consumers buy into the myth that local food is safe because foodborne illnesses linked to farmers-market purchases are severely underreported. Since isolating the cause of a foodborne illness becomes easier with each additional victim, bagged spinach and frozen turkey sold nationwide are more frequently cited in E. coli cases.
"If we had a surveillance system that looked this hard, we'd see a lot more situations like we're seeing in Oregon," Marler says, praising the state's rigorous detection. "Had that outbreak happened in Texas or Louisiana, nobody would have ever heard of it."
Marler stresses that the vast majority of cases he litigates originate from industrial farming operations. "Mass-produced agriculture certainly increases the likelihood that the problem is going to get amplified in a big way," he says. "If you're a betting person in food eating, buying local food is probably lower-risk than eating mass-produced food like bagged spinach."
But lower-risk doesn't mean no-risk. Marler recalls with amazement the Seattle chef who told him "I can look my farmer in the eye, so I don't have to cook my meat to 155 degrees."
"There are all kinds of reasons to believe local agriculture is better, but that's the kind of thing where you just shake your head," he says.
Marler wishes more local farmers would approach foodborne illness as a matter of pathogens rather than punishment for participating in the industrial food system. If farmers took scientific steps to combat bacteria, he says, safety could become another legitimate reason to eat locally grown food.
"They're doing the right thing with pesticides, labor practices, gas, and oil," Marler says. "But they don't want to deal with food safety the way I think about it."