I went to the Snohomish County Focus on Farming conference last Thursday. The keynote speaker was an unusual, but interesting, choice: William Marler Esq., an attorney famous for suing companies for foodborne illness outbreaks. What he has to say is definitely something we all need to hear. But at the same time, having him kick off the conference was a bit depressing, if not a terrifying way to start the day. Part of me wanted to go home after that, and just quit farming, because liability is really scary. But here I am, blogging about it instead.
A Lot at Stake
Marler’s message was firmly this: if someone gets sick and the illness is linked to products on your farm, you are liable; and he, or a firm like his, will nail you and everyone else in the chain of delivery of that product to the consumer. No two ways about it. No but I take good care of my animals. No but I’m just a small family farmer. He made lots of lawyer jokes, but the bottom line is he’s unapologetic for his work, because it involves advocating for people who have died, or nearly died, from negligent practices in the food industry. He showed a heart-wrenching video of two parents describing the last days of their beautiful seven year old daughter dying from food poisoning.
Nobody can deny it: this is sad, very sad. And very real. Marler’s message was loud and clear: the stuff we do every day on our farms influences someone else’s safety to a high degree. It is important. Really, really important. Any jury watching this video would have a hard time excusing even the smallest glitch in food safety practices when so much is at stake. Who wouldn’t?
Small Farm Superman Immunity?
Marler’s point to our audience was to emphasize that just because we’re small family farms doesn’t necessarily mean that our product is safer than something that comes from a CAFO or giant corporation. Foodborne illness can happen anywhere. Bacteria is everywhere. We may wish to think that it only happens at “big” outfits which are mixing millions of pounds of ground beef together, working too hurriedly, employing questionable practices, or using animals with sub-par health. Sure, when food poisoning does happen in the big firms, the impact is wider, because the distribution channels are so large. As a society, we may get concerned when our food sources become too consolidated because of this risk factor.
But foodborne illness has been cropping up in a surprising number of “little” places, like artisan cheese dairies and hand-picked local produce, and sometimes from the most natural of causes. Those instances kill people too, just fewer people. Nature, it seems, is constantly working both for and against us. This was demonstrated recently with the outbreak of e.coli in Strawberries in Oregon: caused by wild deer pooping on the strawberry plants in the night. If only we could sue the deer.
There is some weird temptation in us to romanticize nature and history, to think that old fashioned ways or things that are closer to nature are safer. But c’mon, people in the olden days died at the drop of a hat, and nature is pretty darn cruel and unyielding, really. She will kill us in a heartbeat, the same as a coyote or an alder tree or a moth. I sometimes have people comment on buying eggs from me, how they feel safer about these eggs. As if emotion is a better judge of risk than logic.
These people scare me, because I feel like they will be less careful with my eggs than grocery store eggs; blanketed by their delusional sense that these eggs are risk-free because they are “natural” eggs. I always give them a sharp reminder that salmonella is quite natural, too, frequently infecting wild birds that may flit around my chicken feed hopper. If anything, true pastured chickens may be more at risk of infection than CAFO chickens warehoused in a strictly managed biohazard facility. Salmonella is everywhere, and small farm chickens with names like Henrietta don’t have some magical immunity to disease. Don’t be silly. If you are worried about getting sick, cook your eggs thoroughly, no matter where they come from. That’s why the state requires us to put that message on every single carton, and display it everywhere where eggs are sold or served:
“SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.”
What to Do?
Marler didn’t have a lot of reassuring words to offer, but I think there are steps we can take to protect ourselves, and the people who eat what we produce. I’ll write more about that next time.