mtremper November 7, 2008

I am posting this as another thought provoker, a reminder of how complexly interwoven our social systems are. The issue is when, if ever, does pursuit of public health goals wind up undermining sustainable practices? What are the tradeoffs that make sense? Two examples might help stimulate thinking.

Last fall after 2 people were sickened by Salmonella linked to raw almonds, the USDA decided to act. As of September 1, 2007, all almonds are now pasteurized or sprayed with the poison propylene oxide (PPO) to kill salmonella and other bacteria. The FDA decided that the pasteurized almonds could be labeled as raw. The Almond Board of California, which generally represents large commercial almond producers fell in line with the process. Typically smaller farms and dairies that have the least resources to sustain operations in the face of expensive, government mandated processes are the most affected by such mandates. Big commercial producers can just shrug and pass the cost of these additional production steps on to the consumer. For organic farms, these mandates are often a death sentence. Nutritional purists argue that the pasteurized nuts have less nutritional value than the truly raw ones. And it would seem to me that adding another poison (I really know nothing about how toxic PPO is) to the processing stream of a food is not without risk. It appears one possible (unintended) result of these and other regulations is a de facto government elimination of organic foods as a viable food choice for consumers.

I know I recently saw a story about the efforts of an agricultural region in Europe to retain its rural character and open spaces in the face of development pressure. The story reported on the impact of the European Economic Union's rules about pasteurization and other processing of dairy and farm products on the traditional practices of local producers. This was leading an increased concentration of food production in the hands of large growers/distributors, a growing need for shifting to a more cash driven economy, and the disruption of the web of local relationships that small local producers tend to maintain. The threat to local farms was increasing the pressure to sell out to the developers. The list might consider if the regs make the population noticeably safer, and if so, is the additional safety worth the losses?