Eating Dangerously at Safeway

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

I just went to Safeway after reading Eating Dangerously, by Denver journalists Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown.

I have to admit, the produce aisle was scary. The cantaloupes brought flashbacks from the book’s detailed recounting of the deaths of 33 people who ate Colorado cantaloupe in 2011. The shiny apples didn’t look clean. The bagged greens, which I love, bothered me. But I found a deceptively clean-looking bag and tossed in in my cart.

I moved on, just trying to implement some of the book's ideas to protect myself.

Over in the fruit area, I decided to put my apples, oranges, limes, and bananas in one of my reusable bags, instead of just dropping them loose in my shopping cart, like I used to do to avoid putting them in wasteful plastic bags.

As Eating Dangerously explains, you don’t want your apples rolling around a shopping cart that’s been slimed with raw chicken and who knows what. It suggests wrapping them in plastic bags. I was glad I read the book for this advice alone.

I skipped the fresh raspberries. I’d been buying them lately for my daughter’s smoothie, even though I know they’re imported from somewhere really really far away with virtually no inspection. But the book helped me recommit to not buying raspberries in April. (I buy plenty of other foods from faraway places, but the raspberries got cut.)

I used to feel good about the organic/local section, but I was deflated because the book points out that organic food can carry deadly bacteria just like conventional food. Still, there are benefits to organic/local food, and I loaded some stuff in my buggy.

I didn’t want to buy meat at all, especially salmonella-laced chicken, but it’s so easy to toss a chicken in the oven. I reminded myself that I’d cook the shit of the it, and I'd be safe.

I put the bagged bird under the rest of my food, on the platform under my cart above the wheels, to separate it from the produce, which will be eaten raw. Good advice from the book, which is subtitled, “Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe…and How You Can.”

I strolled around a while longer, and at one point, I saw my buggy with the chicken dangling by the wheels of the cart. I realized, shit, the book recommended selecting stuff like chicken LAST, at the end of my shopping experience, not at the beginning, to limit its time out of the fridge.

I ran to my buggy, loaded up on a few more things, and headed to the check-out line.

Everything was going well until the checker dumped my apples, limes, oranges, and other fruit on the conveyer belt after he’d taken them out of my cloth bag and weighed them. If you read the book, you know the conveyer belt at the checkout-line in a grocery store has major potential to contaminate your food, especially stuff you’re not going to cook.

I was doing the bagging, and I lunged for the apples as they hit the moving belt, limiting the exposure to the contaminated area to just seconds.

I didn’t have the guts to tell the checker that he was exposing me, possibly, to deadly contamination by tossing my lemons on his moving black rubber pad.

Eating Dangerously recommends bathing certain foods in a bleach bath, but this is not practical for me. I’ll wash my food, especially the fruits that hit the conveyer belt today, more carefully than I would have before reading the book, and maybe my daughter won’t die, as a result. It could happen, as the book proves with reasoned and credible analysis, carefully cited.

And the sad part is, if someone were to die because their apples got contaminated at the check-out line, it’s likely his or her death would have been completely preventable, if our government could afford to implement simple common-sense regulations that, surely, most everyone would want, given the life-and-death stakes.

Booth, who just left The Denver Post, and Brown, who's still there, make an irrefutable case that the gaping holes in our food-protection system, carefully documented in their book, reflect a gross failure of government. And, bottom-line, we could be eating more safely if more tax money were available for the food fight. Instead, budget cuts make us eat more dangerously every day.

You can argue about whether improving food safety should be the highest priority of our broke government, given the magnitude of death and destruction in our world at home and abroad. But one in six Americans will get sick from something they ate this year. Three thousand will die.

Correction: a previous version of this post inaccurately stated that contaminated cantaloupe were grown in Rocky Ford, Colorado. In fact, they were grown 90 miles from Rocky Ford.

17 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. mamajama55mamajama55 says:

    Funny stuff, Jason. I'm of the school that says the more one exposes oneself to germs, the tougher one's immune system becomes.  Works pretty well for me.

    What's your take on labeling for GMOs?

    • JBJK16 says:

      Sometimes true. Other times fatal and not true.

    • Jason Salzman says:

      I think GMOs are less of an individual health concern than a potential environmental threat. So I'm worried about GMOs but labeling doesn't do much for me.

      • ct says:

        Labeling allows consumers to make a more informed choice, what motivates them to make that choice can be environmental (rather than or in addition to) personal; health choices.  Without labeling its difficult for consumers to even make informed choices.  Its about Right-to-Know and I hope everyone supports that.  And Local Control.  Both are good for Colorado IMO.  

      • BlueCatBlueCat says:

        My feeling, too. I worry more about things like consequences for long term food security. I doubt they are unsafe to eat. While GMOs are created at a different level and via different technology, the entire history of agriculture is genetic modification via selection and breeding. I have trouble seeing why GMOs in and of themselves would be toxic. 

        I do try to avoid foods produced with hormones and antibiotics, though if I'm eating out or at a friend's I don't cross examine anyone about it. I feel like eating more healthy, hormone and antibiotic free foods and less junk is good enough without being  an obsessive pain in the ass about it and making life difficult for everyone nice enough to invite me dinner. 

        I hate going out to eat with someone who grills the poor wait staff about every possible detail concerning the food including whether it's GMO free. Pretty safe to assume if you're at a restaurant that doesn't make a specific GMO free claim, some of the food will be GMO and it's a pain in the ass for your busy server to take time to go check with a manager who probably doesn't know anyway. Eating out with one of my sisters who does take an interminable time for just such cross examination, though she has no established allergies or intolerance to anything, is about as much fun as going to the dentist. I leave an extra nice tip.

        • MichaelBowmanMichaelBowman says:

          I come from a 'conventional farming family' so I've been slow to the anti-GMO debate.  While we have grown (for the most part) corn, which is the basis for High Fructose Corn Syrup that I do not consider 'food', yet has invaded the entire food chain, it may be less what the 'food' has become and more of 'what we practice'.

          In the old days we would use a variety of herbicides and insectides for specific pests and weeds.  You used 2-4D when you had a broadleaf problem; Lasso for grass.  Thimet for insects; occasionally you'd pull out the Furudan when you were in all-out war with the bugs.  In those days the corn plant itself wasn't tolerant to the standard-far bug and weed.

          Today, we've flipped that equation.  The modified plant (whether it be corn, soybeans, alfalfa or sugar beets) stands tall – like Fort Knox.  To combat weeds, we simply need to apply one, very potent herbicide.  Compounds that literally kill every living plant in the application zone except for the corn. 

          Here is where the problem seems to be developing:  in the quest to decimate the weed population, we are also decimating the habitat for pollinators.  Both the Monarch butterfly and bee populations are in collapse. I have spent the last three days near the Mexican border in the Lordsburg, NM area looking at a project that will develop wetlands for the migrating monarchs and being with people who are well-versed on this issue.  It isn't a new revelation to me, but this is a serious problem – one I'm not sure the vast majority of Americans grasp.  The collapse of our pollinator populations should be taken seriously – and we can't ignore the role GMO's play in this collapse, although the chemical industry will spend unlimited amounts of money on Capitol Hill to get Congress to 'look the other way'.

          • BlueCatBlueCat says:

            This reflects some of my concerns about long term food security. Unintended consequences of both GMOs and pesticides. And I don't buy anything with high fructose corn syrup. I just am not willing to dedicate my life at the moment to thoroughly cross examining grocery clerks and managers, wait staff and friend's and family who invite me over for a meal. Call me lazy.

            • MichaelBowmanMichaelBowman says:

              I'm not all that concerned with my own health at this point.  With five decades behind me now that die cast has been set. I'll eat and live the best I can from here out.  I do, however, take this very seriously with my grandkids.  As Maye Angelou is quoted, "Do the best you can with what you know.  Then when you know better, do better."  I can't change the days when I dipped my bare hand in to tanks of atrazine – nor roll back the clock on the windy afternoons when I applied thimet without a dust mask.  I can, however, make sure that generation isn't quite so careless with their health. 

  2. BlueCatBlueCat says:

     I won't be bathing any of my food in bleach. Call me crazy. 

    • Duke CoxDuke Cox says:

      Yeah, that one caught my eye, as well. Yeesh!  No can do….

      • notaskinnycooknotaskinnycook says:

        I wash my produce with dish soap, then rinse it well.. Some people might cringe but it's designed to wash off the very things likely to cause illness. And I figure if it's safe for food surfces, it's safe for food. Not meaning to do a commercial, but I only buy Dawn.  After the Deepwater Horizon, P&G sent tankers of the stuff down to Louisiana after a worker brouhgt her bottle from home and it was the only thing they could find to clean the critters with that didn't ultimately poison them. Now they send tankers of it to any wildlife, oil incursuion.

  3. davebarnesdavebarnes says:

    I don't shop at Safeway.
    People worry too much.

  4. dmindgo says:

    wow. A lot to unpack there. As a longtime member of the food activist clan and vegetarian, I say welcome to the party! Two things to keep in mind, correlation is not causation and keep in mind the risk versus effort. Getting salmonella is really bad. Got it. The chances are really low. We all take risks every day.

    That said, I look at food choices as: eating is an activity I do multiple times a day and I do it as a necessary activity. I think we can all agree on that. Given those conditions, I want to engage in this activity in the most pleasant way I can. So, I prefer to buy organic and local because I find organic to taste better and be better for all involved than mass produced food. I prefer local because a dollar spent locally comes back to me, so I'm selfish. I don't buy local or organic that is several multiples in cost. I like to buy simple foods that I prepare myself so I go for different grains and legumes and add veggies to that plus eat fresh fruit.

    I agree with the opposition to using bleach on your food. Bleach can be used for a specific purpose on a specific item but using it regularly is very problemmatic, IMO.

    The best food is food that makes you happy. I would say a high-fat or high-meat diet will not make you happy in the long run. You can disagree. Whatever. The point would be that if you are stressed about your food that's not a good thing. Two of my cents, I have more.

    • BlueCatBlueCat says:

      Completely agree with the stress issue. I'm willing to make an effort to eat more healthy food most of the time but am not willing to make eating a major source of stress for myself or those around me. I have friends who are diabetic or vegetarian or are lactose intolerant, think they're gluten intolerant or have a serious food allergy or two and who are still very easy to accomodate and pleasant to share a meal with. I just don't appreciate those who make every shared meal an occasion for stressng out everybody involved.  Eating alone or with friends, at home or at restaurants should be a pleasure, not a tedious chore.

  5. Gray in Mountains says:

    As I've said here before, I've been substitute teaching this year. There are no such clubs in our schools. Yet, I've been pleasantly surprised that students who have placed themselves visually "out" seem to have equal numbers of friends as any do. They seem widely accepted. 

  6. Mr. Toodles says:

    Why don't you buy meat? Or, why don't you buy beef? I am certainly a biased questioner as I not only love meat, but I also work for an organic grass-fed beef company. 

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