Even the Best Laid Plans Go Astray…

Volume 133, No. 11 - Friday, September 12, 2008

The government announced on the 21st it will allow the irradiation of “fresh” spinach and iceberg lettuce. I can’t help but wonder if this is a knee-jerk reaction to the recent problems with produce.

Food policy should never be decided under the gun. Decisions made in the public eye, under industry pressure, rarely are good ones. We tend to see through the lens of shortterm interests, short-term profit.

Don’t get me wrong, stopping people from getting sick is a good thing, but past history should inform us that often bonehead results have happened that were unexpected.

I will give the example of three “advances” that have serious unintended effects: high fructose corn syrup, Teflon, and the introduction of pasteurization to solve the problems of unclean milk.

The damage a radical shift to high fructose corn syrup has done is well documented. The recent discovery by Dupont that Teflon has entered into each of our bodies, even the womb, came as shock even to them.

And while the public health benefits of pasteurization are indisputable, it has led to a kind of zero tolerance mentality which many doctors around the world cite as contributing to the weakening of our immune systems leading to the alarming increase in diseases like diabetes and asthma. (Literally, we are exposed to so few germs our immune systems may not be learning the difference between invaders and our own bodies.)

My point in this column is not to debate the points, but to use them to point out that expedient decisions are not always good ones, and any decision can and will have unintended effects, what I call “drift.”

No-stick pans have taken over our lives. They make washing pots easier, they make cooking easier, and most of all, you can forget about it for a day and it still cleans easily.

But there is a problem. In studies done by Dupont it was found that Teflon has invaded the blood of every person on the planet, and the animals, including whales.

So what’s the problem with slippery hearts? No one knows, but they do know that the key chemical in making Teflon is carcinogenic.

According to an article from ABC News dated January 25, 2006, Dupont voluntarily agreed to phase out using this chemical, perhaps ending the production of Teflon, a $2 billion a year industry. Dupont had already paid out more than $100 million in lawsuits.

Obviously Dupont had no intention of invading our blood or making us ill. But what was once seen as the “housewife’s helper,” one more convenience, had a dark side which only became apparent after time, when it was too late.

High Fructose
In a television interview a few years back I watched with sympathy and admiration as the former chairman of the Ocean Spray cooperative spoke about their introducing high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in their cranberry juice cocktail. He explained that they could not compete with soda pop in price; by switching from sugar, they were able to compete. Would we have made a different decision?

Ever-growing medical opinion is that we should not be eating this stuff, that it is making us fat.

But don’t take my word for it, take the word of Dr. Artemis Simopoulos of the Washington, DC-based Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health. In an interview from 2003 posted on fatnews.com, she clearly states that while high fructose syrup increases triglycerides and under some circumstances cholesterol, “it is more easily converted to fat.”

No one in the dairy industry should balk. The last time people were asked to radically alter their diet was from butterfat to margarine, which we now know to have had terrible consequences.

While a tremendous boon to our industry, and to public health, there have been some less obvious, less savory results of our dependence on pasteurization, and now irradiation, for food safety.

Louis Pasteur originally created pasteurization for wine. During that time the level of animal husbandry was uneven. It was decided to pasteurize as a stop-gap measure, and immediately scourges like tuberculosis were dramatically reduced.

Strides have been made to raise the standards of dairying to the level required for pasteurization, but the buck stops at pasteurization.

This is an example of a back a**wards solution-making, solutions after the fact, not at the source.

We have a milk handling system that has worked because whatever germs get in the milk are killed by pasteurization. This is not clean enough for the production of raw milk cheeses, as producers quickly find, and obscures a latent problem that could explode if we don't dig deeper to the root.

A problem has surfaced with some cheese producers, one that is not pathogenic, but causes gas, (in the cheese, not in us.) In the last year an increasing number of producers have had problems with gas splitting their cheese. This has cut across the lines of pasteurized vs. raw milk and even entered into the world of bottled milk, where some producers are said to be experiencing caps that pop off even after pasteurization.

This could have many causes, and labs are trying to find the culprits, who aren’t any of the usual suspects and are hard to isolate. What has been found is that the standards set by those who set standards may be lacking, and some in the academic and cheese community are worrying that we have created a giant petrie dish for an opportunistic invader.

Poorly designed valves, older equipment, bottom fed milk tanks, all kinds of ways for troublesome bio-films of bacteria to colonize hidden behind our seemingly safe wall of pasteurization. Bio-films are very hard to find and eliminate once they get established.

Knowing the history of E. coli 0157, a spore forming mutant brought about by the use of antibiotics to fatten beef, Listeria, a weak germ emboldened by our killing off all of its competitors, and, god forbid, the creation of prions isolated in cows, and some say farmed fish by a bottom line driven feeding regimen. If we provide the opportunity, nature will seize it.

Under Deming, pasteurization would be seen as an after the fact solution, a stop gap only. Analysis would go all the way back to the source, and stop at every step along the way including what they are fed and how, how it is stored, the milking, how the milk moves from the cow to the tank to the truck to the bottle or cheese vat.

There is more to consider producing food than just finding lower priced materials.

There is also a less obvious result of a dependence on industrial production, but no less destructive. Small producers depend on producing raw milk cheeses, it is an economic reality. Pasteurizers are expensive.

If we think diversity enriches our industry, we need to provide better than stop gaps. Standards need to be looked at and improved, continuously. We should use tools like pasteurization, not let them dictate to us how we should work and live.

A focus on raising the standards of handling to a level needed for raw milk production will help not only small family producers, but those who pasteurize and sell in volume as well. In the long term view, it will guard against the invasion of a super germ which could devastate our industry like happened to spinach, peppers and tomatoes.

Higher standards, better education work more effectively than irradiation, and create less surprises. r

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com


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