Foods You Should (And Can) Produce Yourself And Why
By Gail Damerow
New outbreaks of illnesses and even deaths (an estimated 9,000 annually) due to food poisoning are constantly reported in the news. Most of these outbreaks can be traced to problems in large-scale industrial food production, and a majority are caused by bacterial contamination.
Some bacterial contamination is introduced by infected food producing animals, especially chickens, cows and pigs. But most bacterial contamination is introduced through unsanitary methods in growing, harvesting, packing, and transporting foods that allow these products to come into contact with raw manure.
Bacteria isn’t the only source of illness. Industrial contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs in fish, are another major issue. And so is the genetic engineering (GE) of plants and animals used in food production, which may not result in readily recognizable outbreaks of acute illness, but possibly an accumulative long-term effect on human health.
By understanding where contaminants come from in industrially-produced foods, those of us who prefer to grow our own can easily avoid the same pitfalls.
VEGETABLES AND FRUITS
Foodborne illnesses associated with vegetables and fruits are increasing, thanks to centralized large-scale food production, an increase in imported produce, and the perceived convenience of prepackaged ready-to-eat raw produce.
Industrial scale production provides ample opportunities for contamination. While crops are growing in the field, bacteria and other pathogens may be introduced from manure- or sludge-based fertilizers or from irrigation water contaminated with manure or sludge. Microbes may not only accumulate on the surface of produce, but can be absorbed through the roots and into the edible tissues. Likewise chemical contaminants—pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers—may accumulate on the surface or be absorbed within vegetables and fruits.
Genetically engineered crops are particularly likely to contain pesticides, as they are modified to either produce or tolerate pesticides and herbicides and are therefore subject to more chemicals than conventionally grown crops. Further, no studies have proven that GE foods are safe for human consumption, and some such creations have been shown to be toxic or otherwise harmful.
Harvesting practices can make things worse by mingling together contaminated and uncontaminated produce, or by using unclean harvesting equipment. New contaminants may be introduced through unsanitary practices by farm workers or packers, particularly where bathroom facilities are primitive and hand-washing opportunities are unavailable. Other sources for contamination include farm animals and wild animals (especially birds and rodents) having access to harvesting areas.
During processing, unclean containers and vehicles used to transport produce may spread contamination, as may also contaminated water used to rinse produce, or ice used for rapid chilling. The long-distance shipping of produce, especially under variable temperatures, offers pathogens ample opportunity to multiply.
Produce brought in from other countries—to meet consumer demand for out-of-season or exotic vegetables and fruit—is especially suspect where standards of hygiene are less stringent than ours, where crops are routinely irrigated with sewage or fertilized with raw humanure, or where harvested produce is washed with contaminated water. According to a senior epidemiologist at the CDC, some 32 percent of the fruits and nuts consumed in the United States are imported. Thanks to NAFTA, the continuing increase in imported foods has been accompanied by a rise in reported foodborne illnesses.
Precut salad greens, crudités and shredded vegetables, and prepared fruits are among the worse offenders. Many vegetables and fruits have protective surfaces that become damaged by peeling and cutting, and the cut surfaces increase the area on which pathogens can grow and spread. Further, the machines used in preparing these products typically have difficult-to-clean parts, which can easily accumulate and spread bacteria.
Nearly every one of us has, at one time or another, experienced the uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms of food poisoning. Regulators charged with ensuring the safety of our food supply, instead of putting all their effort into resolving unsatisfactory industrial practices, put much of the burden on us consumers—expecting us to cook foods we prefer to eat raw, and hoping we’ll see recall notices about returning or throwing out tainted foods we mustn’t eat at all.
Fresh vegetables that have been involved in consumer illnesses include celery, cucumbers, a variety of herbs, leafy greens (such as lettuce and spinach), root crops (beets, carrots, potatoes), tomatoes, and zucchini and other vining squash. When you look at the list, nearly any commercially grown vegetable is a potential source of illness. Among fruits, melons, raspberries, strawberries and unpasteurized apple juice and cider have caused illnesses or deaths.
Fresh vegetables that may be genetically engineered include summer squash (yellow squash and zucchini) and sweet corn. The main genetically modified fruit is the papaya, although our government has recently approved the marketing of genetically engineered apples. Since labeling is not required, you have no way of knowing which of these fruits or vegetables has been engineered unless it is identified as being “non-GMO” or “organic.” However, few fresh fruits and vegetable currently on the market have been engineered. Most GE produce appears in processed foods, including just about anything containing soybeans or their byproducts (soy lecithin, soy oil, soy or vegetable protein, soy isolates) or corn or its byproducts (corn flour, corn meal, corn oil, corn starch, corn syrup).
In light of these disturbing facts, growing as much of your own produce as possible, enjoying fresh vegetables and fruits in season, and canning or freezing your surplus for future consumption seems like a no-brainer. Luckily vegetables (along with some fruits) are easy to grow yourself, and knowing that you and your family and friends are going to eat them, you are bound to be more careful about safely growing, harvesting, processing, and storing them. And in particular, most family gardens are only steps away from the kitchen—no long, hot haul across the country or halfway around the world. Not only is produce safer when picked and eaten ripe, it also tastes better.
In selecting seeds for your garden, you don’t need to worry that you might inadvertently buy genetically engineered seeds. No GE seeds are available for home use. Not only are engineered seeds extremely expensive, but buying them requires signing a contract specifying what you may and may not do with them.
Avoiding other pitfalls of industrial production is equally easy. With a slight alteration in diet you can learn to enjoy fresh homegrown produce in season, and enjoy the anticipation during the off season. You might even extend the growing season of certain crops through successive planting, by growing varieties with different days-to-harvest times, and by planting some things early or late in the growing year, taking a calculated gamble that spring’s last frost will be early and fall’s first frost will be late. A cold frame, green house, or floating row covers are other season-extending options.
Water your garden with potable water whenever possible. Rainwater (roof run-off) and graywater (from tub, sink, or laundry but not toilets) can harbor bacteria and other contaminants. If you have to use roof run-off or other recycled water, reserve it for fruit trees and other crops growing above ground—such as tomatoes, peppers, and corn—taking care not to splash any on the plants themselves.
If you fertilize with manure, compost it before applying it to your garden, and position your compost or manure pile where run-off won’t drain onto your vegetables. Apply fresh manure only when the garden will be fallow over an extended period of time. Typically, fresh manure is applied only in the fall, giving it time to break down during winter. Never use sewage sludge (also called biosolids), even if it’s been composted, as it likely contains heavy metals and other contaminants. Keep chickens, household pets, and other animals out of your garden during the growing season, and especially as harvest time approaches.
Many instances of food poisoning result from eating eggs contaminated with bacteria. The problem is serious enough that the United States Food and Drug Administration considers shell eggs to be a “potentially hazardous food.” Accordingly, the USDA mandates that commercially produced eggs must be washed and sanitized, remain under constant refrigeration from farm to consumer, and be cooked thoroughly before being eaten.
Despite all this, eggs contaminated with bacteria continue to cause food poisoning. And it’s no wonder, when you consider that thousands of hens are packed into each layer facility, often under filthy conditions that include insects and rodents attracted by dead birds and piles of accumulated poop.
And then consider how old the eggs are by the time the cartons are sold at the supermarket. Eggs bearing the USDA grade shield, for instance, must be processed and packed for market within 21 days of being laid, and the cartons must bear the pack date (the day the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton). A sell-by date is not federally required, although some state laws require it, while others don’t allow it.
When a sell-by date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, it cannot be more than 45 days from the pack date. Consider, then, that by the time the sell-by date rolls around, the eggs may be as much as 66 days old. And that’s assuming the dates haven’t been “adjusted” to make the eggs look less old than they really are (it happens!)
The USDA recommends that you purchase eggs before the sell-by date and use them within three to five weeks of the date of purchase. Which means those eggs could be nearly 100 days, or more than three months, old.
Can you do better? You bet you can! Keep a few chickens in your backyard and you will have the freshest possible eggs for your table. Take care to keep nests clean, and to collect eggs often (especially in hot or freezing weather), and you won’t find better tasting or safer eggs. As a matter of fact, when you collect eggs with clean shells that needn’t be washed, you don’t even have to refrigerate them — assuming you’re going to use them within a few days.
Besides getting tasty, safe-to-eat eggs, another great advantage to keeping chickens is that they go hand-in-hand with producing your own vegetables. You can feed your flock surplus produce from your garden and compost their manure to fertilize next year’s harvest.
Just as egg washing is designed to remove pathogens from the shells of unsanitary eggs, milk pasteurization is designed to kill pathogens in milk that has become contaminated either while dairy animals are being milked or during processing or storage of the resulting milk. Bacteria may come from diseased animals or from manure, for example if the teat cup on a milking machine drops off an animal’s udder onto the dirty floor.
Milk contamination became a bigger issue with the development of rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, also known as recombinant Bovine somatotropin or rBST), a genetically engineered artificial hormone that makes dairy cows produce more milk. A study at the University of Vermont, and supported by Health Canada, found that cows injected with rBGH suffer an increase in painful udder infections, which result in pus and blood (not to mention antibiotic residues) in their milk. A number of human health concerns—including breast, colon, and prostate cancer—are associated with the consumption of milk from treated cows.
Because of these and other issues, the use of rBGH is prohibited in the European Union, as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but not in the United States. Yet not all commercial dairies in the United States inject their cows with rBGH, and some of those that don’t may label their milk as coming “from cows not treated with rBST” or some similar statement. On the other hand, milk that does come from treated cows may be mingled at the processor level with non-rBGH milk. Unless milk is labeled as being rBGH-free, you can reasonably assume it is not.
Pasteurization destroys bacteria and most other pathogens in milk, but does not destroy the increased level of a potential cancer-causing insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) that results from the use of artificial hormones. Pasteurization was originally instituted after milk production moved from the family cow to crowded and often unsanitary commercial operations. Still, foodborne illnesses resulting from the consumption of pasteurized milk and dairy products continue to occur.
Producing your own milk is an option a lot of homesteaders are choosing these days. You may not have space for a cow, but a couple of dairy goats will produce enough milk for most families. Either way, you don’t need a milking machine like those used to milk multiple animals in commercial dairies. The advantage of not using a machine is that your hands and milk pail are much easy to sanitize than a machine with lots of little parts that must be taken apart and cleaned after every use. Besides, hearing the split-splat of milk landing in your pail is much more peaceful than listening to a noisy milk pump.
You don’t need a pasteurizer, either. By producing clean milk, and refrigerating it promptly, you get a much better and safer product than is available at the supermarket. Enjoy drinking it fresh, or use it to make your own cultured yogurt and kefir, ice cream, and many kinds of cheeses.
MEAT AND FISH
Recalls of contaminated chicken, hamburger, pork, or fish are all too frequent. Bacteria contamination occurs because of unsavory and unsanitary growing methods and slaughtering practices. The use of antibiotics to keep industrially produced animals healthy has contributed to the development of super strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Beef that is contaminated with microbes, when ground up and mixed with beef from other sources, contaminates the entire lot.
Farmed fish and shrimp, especially those produced in Southeast Asian countries, may be fed raw manure from chickens and pigs. Almost all naturally harvested seafood contains some amount of toxic mercury. Even fish caught locally may contain toxic polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs) or other chemical contaminants.
Producing your own homegrown poultry, meat, and fish requires a bit more knowledge and dedication than growing fruits and vegetables. Further, producing homestead meat has become a controversial issue. For some people it’s a matter of not being able to bear the thought of killing animals. Ironically, many people who regularly eat meat don’t have a problem, as long as someone else does the killing.
Another controversy relates to rations available for feeding livestock, most of which contain genetically engineered corn or soy, or both. Non-GMO and organic feeds are not widely available and are too expensive for many subsistence homesteaders. But you can somewhat mitigate the GE issue by pasturing livestock and feeding surplus garden produce to reduce the use of either GE rations or expensive non-GMO feeds.
Growing your own fish or shrimp, of course, requires water. The pond or pool needn’t be huge, but may require heat and/or aeration. The climate where you live, as well as the size and depth of your water source, will determine what species you can most easily grow. The Internet and the Cooperative Extension are two sources for finding information on growing your own fish.
With each new outbreak of foodborne illness, the government institutes yet more food safety policies. The best food safety policy you can institute is to grow, harvest, and process your own.
One group of naysayers will argue that homegrown foods can harbor bacteria and other contaminants, just like their industrial counterparts. That’s true, but since you undoubtedly will take greater care in producing your own food supply, the chance is pretty slim that your homegrown food will make you sick.
Foodborne illness occurs as a chain of events. First there must be a source of contamination. Next, the contaminant must come into contact with food. Third, the food item must be handled in a way that retains the contaminant or, in the case of a pathogen, allows it to grow. And finally, a sufficient amount of the contaminant must be consumed to cause illness. Break the chain of events and you have healthful, safe food.
Another group of naysayers will argue that producing your own food takes too much time, especially if you work outside the home. So let me tell you a little story:
When my husband and I were both working full time, we lived in a small apartment in town and bought a place in the country, a 45-minute drive away, that had good garden soil, an old apple and plum orchard, and a small cottage. We spent weekends working in our garden and harvesting produce, which we brought back to town and canned during evenings after work. We accumulated an impressive cache of home canned vegetables and fruits, jams, and apple cider. We weren’t in a position to tend chickens or livestock, but we did obtain healthful meat by occasionally harvesting venison and wild pigs on our country place, and we once traded an unused desk for a side of 4-H lamb, cut and wrapped.
When we moved full-time to the country, we added a flock of chickens for fresh eggs and clean meat. After my husband spent a brief stint as a USDA milk inspector, and learned first-hand what goes on behind the scenes, we got dairy goats to enjoy the benefits of grass-fed milk and raw-milk yogurt. We’ve also grown beef, pork, and fish. And we regularly harvest wild turkeys and deer that abound in our woodlot.
Growing your own food isn’t hard. It’s just a matter of deciding where your priorities are and then rolling up your sleeves and literally digging in.
Online Food Safety Resources
Food Safety News (FoodSafetyNews.com) reports on the latest foodborne illnesses, food and pet food recalls, and other food safety issues
Bad Bug Book — Handbook of Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins (free PDF), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, United States Food and Drug Administration
Fish Consumption Advisories (interactive website tracking contaminant levels in regional fish species and water bodies), United States Environmental Protection Agency
Should I Eat the Fish I Catch? A Guide to Healthy Eating of the Fish You Catch (free PDF), United States Environmental Protection Agency
Gail Damerow is the author of Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals, Fences for Pasture and Garden, The Chicken Health Handbook, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, and several other books available from our Countryside Bookstore.