Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How Food Gets To The White House And How Food Gets To You: The Argument For Local Vs. National...With Peanut Butter As An Object Lesson

The White House is obviously not the average American house, since it has six floors that encompass 55,000 square feet of space, and sits on eighteen acres of lovely land. There are three kitchens, 35 bathrooms, and a sixteen-room Private Residence, as well as public rooms and office space. Of course Ob Fo is interested in what goes on in the kitchens, and with the arrival of The Obamas, the White House is getting far more transparent about formerly hush-hush activity...and that's a good thing. Recently, in mostly subtle ways, the message from the White House seems to be promoting local food and agriculture. Which is terrific, because the way food gets to most Americans is profoundly different from the way food gets to the White House, and we'd all be doing a lot better if the White House actually is a model for the rest of the country.

The FDA just released a new "simplified" graphic of the wild travels of peanut butter products--and salmonella--from Peanut Butter Corporation of America, and it's a good illustration of how most US food gets from the plow to the plate of the Average American:

There's a vast network of re-distribution points, in which food products change hands frequently. And the graphic doesn't even include how far imported foods travel, or how often it switches hands. The 2,850 peanut butter products now recalled from 200 different manufacturers make PCA "responsible" for the largest food recall in US history. Turns out, it's a pretty damning commentary about the dangers of industrialized food and agriculture consolidation.

And it stands in direct counterpoint to the very different path food takes to get to the lovely historic china plates at the White House. In a recent video interview while prepping for The Obama's first State Dinner in honor of the National Governors Association, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford pointed out that relationships with local producers are key to the day-to-day food prep in the White House. She announced that food items are sourced from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, and said that White House kitchen staff visit producers at their farms, at farm stands and farmers markets. Former White House Chef Walter Scheib, who trained Chef Comerford, explained the food sourcing protocol in detail to Ob Fo previously, when we were chatting about food issues at the White House.

"There are no government contracts [for food]," Chef Scheib said. "All purchasing for the White House kitchen is done anonymously and randomly for security reasons. They [the Secret Service] don't want anyone to know where the food comes from. We bought from whomever we wanted to, and if anyone ever publicized that they were selling to us, we cut them off." (Chef Scheib, at the White House)

Chef Scheib said that like any well-run restaurant kitchen, the White House does comparison shop for the best value and the best ingredients, but this, too, is done anonymously.

So, anyone eating at the White House enjoys food that changes hands, say, twice, or three times at most. And the fact that the food is randomly sourced, with repeated changes in purveyors also helps food safety--there's no continuous purchasing from a single provider who might be repeatedly selling contaminated food. But the Average American gets food that changes hands about twelve times, possibly more. And the Average American can buy a whole range of products that contain a single, poisoned ingredient that originates with a single supplier. For instance, anyone who has an affection for Kellogg's products was gravely impacted in the peanut butter scandal, since Kellogg's got most of their peanuts from Peanut Butter Corporation of America. Yet switching brands wouldn't help, because more than 2o0 brands had the same contaminated ingredient.

There's also the fact that food that travels far has the chance of being contaminated at each point in the distribution and processing chain, even if it's fine when first produced. This can happen in a variety of somewhat unimaginable ways: Improper storage, or exposure to animals and their feces (rats and birds, in the case of the peanuts; wild boars and deer with other foods), or the presence of insects, or airborne/handborne pathogens, or sewage run off, or "something" toxic stored in the transport truck, or "something" toxic having been previously housed in a storage bin for food, or "something" toxic like mold or rainwater dripping off a ceiling, or pathogen-infected condensation inside a refrigerator, or frogs jumping into a jumbo vat of juice, or "something" toxic off-gassing on to the food. All of these, BTW, are how recent American foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred.

World renowned food safety expert Bill Marler (who's also currently on the short list to be the head of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) is a big advocate of re-localizing the food supply.

"Consolidation is simply bad for food safety," Mr. Marler said in a recent chat with Ob Fo. "The peanut butter outbreak points to that. Having a single plant be able to poison the entire country speaks to the need for a regional model for food production. If you have food being sold much closer to where it originates, you take entire geographic areas out of a poisoning scenario."

Mr. Marler also has another interesting take on the idea of local. He's calling for a new focus on local first responders as a way of intensifying food safety efforts.

"The awareness of emergency room personnel, health departments, and family doctors will go far to stopping foodborne illness outbreaks before they spread," Mr. Marler said. "Local is good across the board."

Localizing food is also about nutrition. Food that travels a shorter distance and is served in a form that is least processed contains more of its original nutrient value, in addition to having a better chance of not being contaminated.

So eating local these days is not, as environmental enthusiasts would have us believe, primarily about reducing the carbon footprint of food. Re-localizing food production and reducing the steps in the processing and distribution chain would go a long way toward tamping down the now incredibly high frequency of foodborne disease outbreaks, as well as ensuring more healthful food for all Americans, which is a goal that our very bizzy Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, keeps stressing. The White House kitchen, happily, is usually outside the chain of nationally-sourced terror, thanks to their local focus, and all of America would be better off if this was the model for both eating and agriculture production. And now, the White House seems to be promoting the idea of local, at least in a subtle way. Chef Comerford stressed local in her statements on the State Dinner video chat, although she was, as is White House policy, serving a dinner that highlighted foods from around the US (though of course this was carefully sourced). And of all the possible pull quotes from the video chat that could've appeared on the White House blog, the one that was chosen is Michelle Obama lauding local food. She discussed french fries and pastry onscreen, but it's very interesting that a "fresh local" quote appears on the WH blog. And whether or not the USDA's People's Garden project actually ever happens, Michelle went on the record that growin' your own is something she supports--and there's simply nothing more local than that. Clearly, the "go local" rhetoric of the sustainable/organic world is having an impact at the White House, at least on some level.

The argument in favor of local has never been more timely. It'd help food safety issues, which have now wandered back in to the wilderness of inattention following the fireworks at the congressional food safety hearing of three weeks ago. And Barack's newest food fight--swapping bloated farm subsidy cash into children's nutrition programs--would benefit from a local focus, too. Localizing USDA-funded school lunch programs would be a great way to ensure that kids get the most nutritious food with the least chance of contamination (yep, contaminated peanut butter was found in school lunch programs). The founders of Food Democracy Now!, a sustainable ag advocacy group, met with Bizzy Sec V last week to discuss just such an excellent project. Bizzy V apparently took their platform seriously. And just to remind--Malia and Sasha Obama attend a school that has a model, locally sourced lunch program--yep, they live in a house that's different from all other American houses, and their school lunch program is dramatically different, too. But it's a terrific model the rest of the country would benefit from. Lastly, local food and ag is also a terrific way to stimulate the economy. Relying on smaller producers in multiple regions injects stimulus cash where it's needed most--at the local level. If more people are buying from more smaller producers, there simply isn't a better immediate economic boost, particularly since food spending has dropped rapidly in the last year. A focus on local food and ag around the country would be terrific for all eaters--er, Americans. It's already terrific at the White House.

*There have been 666 verified illnesses and 9 deaths in 45 states (with numbers of unreported illness estimated at between 20 and 40 people for every verified illness) from the PCA recall, even though PCA accounts for about one percent of peanut distribution in the US.

*The C SPAN video of Michelle Obama's White House kitchen visit is here. The White House's transcription of the Kitchen Chat is here. Bill Marler writes Marler Blog, the best food safety resource on the internet. Walter Scheib blogs here, at The American Chef. The lovely First Family Cake is from the Ashland, Virginia bakery A Slice of Grace.