The future of food

"Welcome to our cheese manufacturing facility," Christine Solem says pointedly. She’s standing in her cozy, well-worn kitchen north of Charlottesville, where she and John Coles have run a small goat and vegetable farm since 1973. Outside, their 24 goats wander around a large, partly wooded enclosure.

Solem and Coles, in fact, make goat cheese in this very room; Solem’s arch remark reflects her disdain for regulations proposed by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that would put her kitchen under the same rules as an industrial-scale dairy farm. Right now, her operation is unregulated.

These days, the debate over food safety rages at a fever pitch. The presumed threat of bioterrorism lends even greater seriousness to the business of preventing contamination. Yet infectious disease – frightening as it is – isn’t the greatest danger, according to some. Proponents of small-scale and organic farming say that in the rush to prevent disease, we are risking something even more important: our connections to our food and, in some ways, each other.For Solem and Coles, the debate begins with a practical question right in their kitchen. The new milk regulations from the VDACS would require a slew of changes in their cheesemaking, and the biggest is a requirement to pasteurize the goat milk before making it into cheese.

"That’s unacceptable," Solem says. "That would ruin the cheese we make."

It seems odd to think that pasteurization – the process of heating milk to kill bacteria – would be bad, but it’s only necessary, according to Solem, if you need the milk to stay fresh for a long time. Large dairies, which often ship their products hundreds of miles, and supermarkets, which prefer milk with a long shelf life, rely on pasteurization to prevent contamination with diseases like E. coli and salmonella.

Solem says, however, raw milk contains beneficial bacteria – part of the immune system – that normally out-compete pathogens. Pasteurization kills these beneficial bacteria, too, leaving the milk sterile but "dead" – that is, vulnerable to any new pathogens that come along.

Solem and Coles say that pasteurization isn’t necessary, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. They contend that because they make their cheese in frequent, small batches, it’s safe from contamination.

"It’s always fresh cheese; it’s never stored milk," Coles says. "The chances of things happening to it are so much slimmer."

He believes that pasteurization has been the subject of misleading publicity by the government since the 1940s.

"When you’ve got 60 years of lies, it becomes truth," Coles says.

Solem says that the largest salmonella outbreak in U.S. history, which occurred in Illinois in 1985 and affected at least 16,000 people, was caused by pasteurized milk.

If the regulations proposed by VDACS are implemented, Solem and Coles will have to buy an approved pasteurizer, which they say could cost up to $12,000. They’d also be required to build a new building for milking their goats, pay for testing of their cheeses and modify their kitchen (or build a new one) to comply with other regulations. Altogether, they say this will cost $50,000 – a sum that would effectively put them out of business, given their annual cheese revenues of $5,000-10,000.

John Beers, a VDACS supervisor who’s been involved in writing the proposed regulations, says that the department is just trying to bring Virginialaw in line with federal guidelines for food safety developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. He says that bringing unregulated operations under State oversight would "give people the guidance they need to properly handle milk before they process it." Guidelines covering cleanliness, cooling and storage of milk are "commonsense things you would do anyway," he says. For example, the regulations require producers to separate the various steps of cheese-making ("paraffining cheese, rindless block wrapping, curing cheese, cleaning and preparing bulk cheese and cutting and wrapping cheese") by building separate facilities for each operation, or by conducting them one at a time.

Solem says she doesn’t need VDACS’ guidance, and that she’s been fighting with the department for years for what she believes is her right to produce cheese and sell it directly to consumers. In 1999, agents of VDACS showed up at her farm, without calling ahead, and asked to inspect her facilities. She refused, they came back with a warrant. Virginia’s 16th Judicial Court later ruled the search was unconstitutional.

After taking some pictures and a few samples of goat cheese, VDACS charged Solem with six violations of the Virginia Food Laws. Solem says microscopic inspection of the cheese had revealed a tiny hair and one insect part. Other violations involved the state of her kitchen, which was less than pristine.

Against the charge of uncleanliness, Solem says, "How many people’s houses would look really, really nice if someone came in at any minute and inspected? I had been away all weekend, it was just a really bad time," she says, noting she wasn’t making cheese at the time the inspectors arrived.

Asked how they ensure the safety of their product, Solem and Coles have a disarmingly simple answer: "We just clean up before we make the cheese." Their self-imposed safeguards include sanitizing their equipment, sterilizing the cheesecloth and – most tellingly, they say – tasting every batch of cheese. Coles points out that he has a 20-year history of selling goat cheese, often to repeat customers at the Charlottesville farmers’ market, and has never had a complaint about safety.

 

 

The key is that they sell their products directly to the people who will eat them, Coles says. That situation creates a type of personal accountability that larger agricultural operations don’t have.

"Everything that we put out, we have a pride in and, if something happens, the person knows right where they got the food," he says. "It doesn’t go through a middleman, and it doesn’t get shipped to California."

Solem and Coles are members of a new watchdog group that opposes State regulation of small farms and food producers. The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association is taking on VDACS and other regulatory agencies over what it feels are inappropriate safety regulations. Members recently gathered at Wayne Bolton’s farm in Green Bay to chart a course of action.

Over a meal they’d mostly grown themselves – hamburgers, sliced organic tomatoes, goat cheese – a group of about 15 discussed how to halt the progress of pending regulations through the General Assembly and VDACS. Besides the milk regulations that would affect those with small herds of goats, VICFA is concerned with a broad set of safety rules developed by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which Virginia is considering adopting as State law.

This Food Code aims to ensure the safety of any food sold or given away in Virginia, providing standards for everything from the temperature of delivery trucks to the labeling of wild mushrooms. For example, the Code states "Raw shell eggs shall be received in refrigerated equipment that maintains an ambient air temperature of 7ºC (45ºF) or less." The problem with this, VICFA members say, is that by defining "food establishment" as broadly as it does, the Food Code ends up placing undue restrictions on smaller operations: farmers’ markets, on-farm sales, even church kitchens. "This would eliminate our lunch here today," said Bolton in amazement.

That may be a stretch, but VICFA identifies a real threat to its members’ livelihoods in the prospect of conforming farm kitchens to standards that are scaled to corporate-sized budgets.

Though the tone of the meeting was at times distinctly libertarian (one project involves setting up a hotline for farmers being "harassed by bureaucrats"), the group doesn’t necessarily oppose regulation on principle.

"You need regulations when food is being sold and re-sold," Solem says, referring to supermarkets. She says, too, that she and Coles are required to have their goats certified annually, to make sure they’re free of diseases like tuberculosis. They see this regulation – and the $200 expense that goes along with it – as entirely reasonable.

The key, they say, is to have small farmers recognized as a distinct type of operation, one that fundamentally is less in need of regulation than big agribusiness. For example, they are asking VDACS to include a clause in its proposed milk regulations that would make an exception for small farmers selling cheese directly to consumers, either on their farms or at farmers’ markets.

VDACS’ Beers doesn’t feel this amendment is reasonable. "I’m perfectly willing to be flexible as long as the public’s health and safety aspects are met," he says, "but where a requirement is there because it prevents or reduces a risk, I’m not willing to say the exemption is okay."

He adds that inspections of small farms in the past have revealed contamination in milk products, including insect parts and pathogens.

"I’m quite concerned about what goes on where there is no oversight," he says.

 

People who run food businesses from their homes are the most likely to feel cramped by state oversight. Lisa McEwan owns Hot Cakes, a Charlottesville catering company. Though her business is small and independent – she has only one location and has run it herself since 1986 – she doesn’t feel unduly restricted by safety regulations.

"This business I run is oriented to deal with regulations from day one, not trying to do it as a home-craft kind of business," she says.

Occasionally, she finds safety regulations annoying. "They drive me crazy sometimes," she admits. "I don’t care if somebody’s hands havebeen on my loaf of French bread. I’m comfortable with food. But I do try and keep an open mind and understand where regulators are coming from."

She says that when she visits other restaurants, she likes knowing the regulations are in place. McEwan has noticed an increase in awareness of food safety issues and believes that the potential for danger actually has increased over the years, mostly in the manufacturing process.

"If we could process our food differently, there would be a far lower risk of E. coli and things like that," McEwan says. "I know that the intense, speed-related, factory way that we do our slaughtering definitely makes beef and poultry more hazardous."

The cramming of many animals into small spaces, a common practice in industrial farms, does increase the risk of bacterial contamination, according to pro-vegetarian organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

 

 

VICFA members would agree with McEwan about the risks of so-called factory farming. They are businesspeople looking to preserve their livelihoods by fighting specific political battles, but it’s no accident that VICFA members also share an interest in sustainable agriculture – raising food without pesticides, genetic modification, antibiotics or hormones. Deeper issues about the future of food are at play, they say, in the struggle over regulation.

Joel Salatin, owner of the innovative "beyond organic" Polyface Farm, is VICFA’s president. At the September meeting in Green Bay, he read from a characteristically blunt letter he’d written to new VICFA members: "Under the guise of food security and the war on bioterrorism, government agents are being used as pawns by multinational corporations to regulate alternative food out of the marketplace and eliminate freedom of choice in the food system." The letter also refers to conventionally grown food as "irradiated, genetically altered, and pathogen-laced."

A litany of woes, to be sure. Agriculture is an enormous industry and organic proponents say the large scale of conventional farming is at the root of many evils. The argument often boils down to quantity vs. quality. Solem cites the example of industrial tomato producers. Many use a technique that causes all the tomatoes to ripen at the same time. This is useful in terms of cost and efficiency, but compromises taste, Solem says.

Fabienne Swanson, manager and chef at Veggie Heaven, concurs that the best-tasting tomato is one that ripens naturally.

"We get local organic tomatoes ripened on the vine," she says. "I always prefer them when they’re right out of the garden and ripe."

Rather than cutting costs and pursuing ever-greater yield, Coles adds, "We’re concerned mainly about producing a quality product."

Ironically, efficiency of scale may end up compromising not only quality, but safety, too, Solem believes. In industrial dairies, she says, the sheer amount of equipment that must be sanitized means there are more opportunities for infection. By contrast, she holds up an ordinary saucepan. "Here’s what we have to clean," she says.

Awareness of these issues isn’t limited to the farming community. Heather Karp of Charlottesville approaches the subject as a concerned consumer, a trained chef and a sometime nutrition educator. She’s currently building a private clientele as a "food coach" – a consultant for people trying to make major diet changes. She, too, is suspicious of large-scale agriculture, particularly the practice of planting enormous quantities of a single crop.

"I don’t think that food is about quantity," she says. Clearly, America has no shortage of food, Karp says; in fact, "We have a frightening plague of obesity in this country."

Critics of industrial agriculture say there are plenty of threats to physical health posed by the quest for efficiency. Practices like irradiation (zapping food with radiation to kill pathogens), genetic modification (which is very widely used on two staple crops, corn and soybeans) and treatment of livestock with antibiotics are all fodder for national debate. Yet there is another risk, deeper than physical well-being.

Wayne Bolton hints at it during the VICFA meeting: "When we sat down to the table at breakfast, and I was 4 or 5," he says, "we had a platter of eggs on the table, a bowl of gravy, ham, bacon – all of it came from the farm. I guess this whole group is striving to get back to those old days."

In other words, there are larger social and cultural meanings in our relationship to food. Food has the power to affect our health as whole persons, not just as animals. If all we eat is processed food, shipped to us from factories hundreds of miles away, are we losing an important part of our culture?

Karp stresses the idea of connection to farmers, to those we share meals with, to the food itself.

"I think it’s part of my human nature to have a relationship with the food that I’m buying, eating, preparing, with gratitude," she says. In the joyful acts of cooking and sharing food, she says, there are benefits that are almost spiritual in nature.

Karp likes to buy her food at groceries like Integral Yoga and Whole Foods Market, and she also frequents farmers’ markets, where she values the chance to directly interact with those who produce food. She believes more and more people are becoming interested in buying food from sources besides conventional supermarkets.

Solem and Coles agree: "How can you compete with a farmer who just picked a fresh pepper that morning and takes it right there?" Solem says.

Instead of focusing on unattainable dreams of wiping out conventional agriculture, however, VICFA members say they are simply interested in providing an alternative. "We aren’t saying that agribusiness shouldn’t exist, because how else are you going to supply cities?" Coles asks. Indeed, a total return to the pastoral utopia for which Bolton pines seems unlikely in light of the breakneck pace of growth in Albemarle, which often causes farmland to be parceled into subdivisions. Karp, too, realizes that change happens incrementally, and many people don’t have the luxury of making the same choices she’s made. "I love the smaller scale of things, but I’m not in a huge metropolis with three hungry children working an eight- or nine-hour day."

 

 

The issue of choice, finally, may be the crucial question. Coles says that many of his customers at the farmers’ market specifically seek unpasteurized cheese, in part because they prefer its taste.

Sonia Fox of Charlottesville is one such customer: "Their cheese is delicious, and that’s a primary factor. It actually tastes a lot like the fresh cheeses in France," she says, adding "I prefer to use raw [unpasteurized] milk products whenever I can because they’re more easily digestible."

If Coles is no longer permitted to sell his cheese to Fox, he – and VICFA – believe the rights of both parties have been violated. Nationally, the debate over irradiation and genetic modification often focus on choice, too. Critics of the practices say consumers have the right to know – via prominent labeling – exactly what processes their food has gone through.

The exception VICFA wants to insert in the milk regulations would require small farmers to declare their products uncertified and uninspected, so that customers can decide for themselves if they’re willing to risk the purchase. Beers says that, so far, during the public comment period on the proposed milk regulations, the only comments his office has received are from those who oppose regulation.

McEwan, though, is skeptical of exempting small farms, saying there has to be some recourse if health problems do occur. "I think people like buying from that local person and like that intimate relationship, but if they had a serious problem, they would want to feel like they could go to some responsible party."

Solem counters that small farms have already proven themselves to be safer than their industrial counterparts, and says that money, not a concern for public safety, is behind the increase in regulations.

"The real reason is that big business has got a real foothold in VDACS," she says. The lines are still long at conventional groceries, but Solem and Coles believe that the growing interest in alternative food sources is threatening to large-scale producers.

Karp says it’s unfortunate that trends in food, like so much else, ultimately boil down to money, but she’s interested in working within the existing model to effect change.

"Capitalism has given and developed some incredibly wonderful things, but there has to be the balance," she says. "You’re not going to turn the whole country into people who support small farmers and want organic, but I think there has to be room for this variety."

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