Live Dangerously, America! And Unholster Your Food Thermometers...

05/25/2011 01:25 pm ET

Your health and safety are in your own hands--it's a truism, but one that some in the packaged food industry are too ready to promote. According to The New York Times, Con Agra, makers of the Banquet pot pies that sickened 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007, have given up tracking the source of that contamination and instead are opting for detailed, if inadequate, safety instructions. Killing the bacteria in Banquet pot pies is left to the consumer, who is asked to make multiple measurements of the pie's temperature to ensure it reaches 165 F. But as the Times reported, attempts to follow the directions on several brands resulted in pies 25 degrees F too cool in some spots and burnt in others (check out the video on their site). By passing all responsibility for possible contamination on to the purchaser, all the consumer is really paying for is convenience--and sticking a food thermometer all over your pie takes that down a notch, too. Ultimately, consumers will be footing the bill for the damage to both health and the environment caused by a cheap food system.

The companies blame it on the complexity of the supply chain. With suppliers from around the globe--many of whom do no contamination testing themselves--it's proving tough for the end-producer to ensure high standards. So it's only too fitting that this story should break the week of NRDC's Growing Green Awards. If global supply chains practically ensure we'll get contaminated food (not to mention toys, toothpaste or lunchboxes), turning to ingredients from trusted regional producers is a pretty easy choice.

Take Will Allen's Growing Power or Michael Rozyne's Red Tomato. Locally and regionally produced foods from small-scale farmers don't have an opportunity to spread contaminants far and wide. And because of their proximity to their customers, these farmers can be held directly responsible for problems, so they have both financial and social incentives to maintain high food safety standards. To monitor their efforts, Growing Power operates in partnership with the Great Lakes Aquaculture Institute at the University of Wisconsin, which promotes sustainability and the environment of the Great Lakes. Allen explains that the institute tests samples of the fish to ensure they are free of contaminants. Furthermore, Growing Power's goal is to feed those in underserved urban food deserts, providing affordable, fresh food in areas supermarkets have shunned.

So given the alternatives, why wouldn't consumers take the food industry at their word and avoid products that might make them and their children physically ill?