Fresh & Local
Cheap Food Isn’t
Column #28, Published March 30th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

Last week, I mentioned my friend Michael Olson who hosts a nationally syndicated radio show called Food Chain Radio (web site Michael has a great line that he uses: “The farther we go from the source of our food, the less control we have over what's in that food.”

As I also said last week, the subject of “pink slime” makes Michael’s point. “Pink slime” is the pejorative name for a product that the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows to be added to ground beef. The official name is “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB). It is made from beef “trimmings” (apparently contaminated slaughter remnants) that are spun in a centrifuge to remove the fat, and then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

The heart of this issue is that if beef is processed properly, it should never contain E.coli, salmonella or any other bacteria. The fact that this product is being treated with ammonium hydroxide means that these “trimmings” have been somewhere that they should not have been.

This week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “pink slime” (LFTB) manufacturer BPI is “a victim of a smear campaign, and I think we need to do all we can to try to counter this.” Someone should tell Gov. Branstad that in order to be a smear campaign, the accusations have to be false. This is really a truth-in-labeling campaign.

I have no problem with the use of “pink slime” (LFTB) in ground beef as long as it is labeled. It is reprehensible that the U.S.D.A. ever allowed the adulteration of ground beef with this byproduct without any disclosure. This scheme is really crony capitalism because it gives big producers that use it and hide it, a price advantage over local producers that do not.

My friend Michael Olson has another great line: “Cheap food isn’t.”

Here is something you will probably find surprising: According to the U.S.D.A., nearly 16% of food consumed by Americans comes from abroad. The reason is simple. It is often cheaper to grow food in other countries because of lower wages and less regulation. Foreign growers can use crop protection chemicals that are illegal in the U.S. And foreign growers will never have to worry about G.A.P. certification.

But there is a dark side to cheaper. The Wall Street Journal ran an article two weeks ago titled, “Imported-Food Outbreaks Rise, CDC Says.” The article summarized data released by the Centers for Disease Control. C.D.C. researchers found that the number of disease outbreaks from foreign foods per year, on average, between 2005 and 2010 more than doubled compared to the years 1998 to 2004.

Probably the largest outbreak was in 2008 linked to jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico contaminated with salmonella. More than 1,400 people were sickened and more than 280 were hospitalized in 43 states.

The truth is that the inspection of imported food is not very effective.

Anyone who thinks the U.S.D.A. does a good job of looking out for our interests, might want to rethink that. The truth is - as Michael Olson says - the farther we go from the source, the less we know about what's in our food. And cheap food really isn’t.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at