It's already been quite a year for food recalls.
Since January, we've been warned away from Swiss rolls, melons, eggs, Honey Smacks cereal, ice cream bars, Panera cream cheese, and romaine lettuce. Now, Ritz crackers and Goldfish crackers are being recalled over salmonella fears. Parent companies Mondelez and Pepperidge Farm said the products may contain a contaminated whey powder distributed by the Associated Milk Producers Inc. — and the FDA fears more products containing the ingredient could be recalled in coming weeks.
Usually, we don't fear for our safety when perusing the grocery store shelves. We wash our produce and double-check expiration dates, but we don't live in constant fear of foodborne illnesses. But this recent spate of recalls reminds us that no amount of government regulations and oversight can make our food 100 percent safe — and the more layers of separation that exist between us and the creators of our food, the more potential there is for errors, negligence, and other health-imperiling issues.
This is one reason why many states are trying to enable their citizens to buy goods directly from local farmers. Last year, North Dakota passed one of the nation's few local food sovereignty laws, joining Maine, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado in promoting a less regulated local food system. These laws essentially make it easier for small farmers to sell certain products directly to local consumers, without having to shoulder an immense regulatory burden. While meat and dairy aren't usually allowed as part of these cottage industry sales, some states are responding to the laws' popularity by expanding the list of products under their purview.
The idea behind local food freedom laws is simple: Direct-to-consumer sales between small local populations needn't be subjected to the same level of regulation required for out-of-state sales. Products sold nationally may require a higher standard of inspection, so that shoppers know the items in their grocery carts were produced in a sanitary, responsible, and consistent manner (at least hypothetically). But the standards required for this sort of long-term travel need not also be applied to direct farm-to-consumer food sales, in which consumers can visit and converse with the people producing their food, and maybe even personally inspect the farms on which the food was produced (if they're feeling ambitious). It's a system policed without government cost, and reinforced by self-interest.
Of course, health officials are rarely fans of local food freedom, and often warn that their passage will lead to an outbreak of foodborne illnesses. (Just like the sort we're seeing from USDA-regulated factory farms and giant food producers, one would assume.) But according to Wyoming state Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R), who sponsored his state's food freedom law, Wyoming's "local food options have exploded [since the law was passed in 2015] and we still have had zero foodborne illness outbreaks due to this act passing into law."
Farmer and author Joel Salatin argues that our fear of human error often leads us to put our trust in government regulators and monolithic food producers — but that trust isn't always (or often) rewarded well. "While [the government fix] may start sincerely, by the time it gets implemented on the ground and has been through the sieve of corporate dinners, it hurts the little guys and helps the big guys," he writes in his book Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. "In the name of offering only credentialed safe food, we will only be able to eat irradiated, genetically adulterated, inhumane, taste-enhanced, nutrient-deficient, emulsified, reconstituted pseudo-food …'"
Salatin is a bit hyperbolic — but he's also onto something. Goldfish and Ritz bitz cheese crackers give us high fructose corn syrup, cheese powder, enriched flour, and monocalcium phosphate. Are these products really "better" for me than the unregulated carton of eggs I can pick up from the farmer a couple miles down the road?
We are blessed to live in a country where most of the items that stock our pantry shelves are safe and sanitary. But our food system also has its pitfalls and weaknesses. So as you bemoan your loss of cheesy snacks in coming days, consider visiting a farm or farmer's market. You might not be able to find highly processed cheese crackers — but you might be able to get some damn good cheese.