Ben Hewitt has faith in his food. As the owner of a 40-acre livestock, vegetable, and berry farm in northern Vermont, he has no problem ensuring the safety of his meal from field to fork. Your supper, however, is another story. In his latest book, Making Our Supper Safe, Hewitt offers a surprisingly engaging overview on the food safety issues that plague our system. His exploration from freeganism to federal regulation takes a look at corporate responsibility, consumer freedom, foodborne illness and the government systems that are (supposed to be) keeping our food safe.
We had a chance to talk with Hewitt about the inspiration behind the book, why a little bacteria is actually a good thing, and his recipe for a healthy gut.
Q: You first started talking about food safety back in 2009. What made you want to take on this topic in Making Our Supper Safe?
A: I started becoming more interested in food safety issues while I was working on my first book, The Town That Food Saved, which is about a small town in northern Vermont that is trying to revitalize its economy by creating a local food system. I began looking at the challenges that regional food systems face and found that one of the largest barriers is that our food safety regulations generally favor large-scale producers. I wanted to look at why that is and what the risks of such a system might be.
What did you find most surprising once you began digging into the issues?
As I started work on Making Our Supper Safe, I saw that some of our assumptions about bacteria in food and how we, as humans, relate to that bacteria might be faulty and even potentially dangerous.
We've been relying more heavily on processed foods for a number of decades. It's being shown now that consuming foods which are depleted of bacteria and enzymes can actually have implications on our body's ability to grow and change with the bacteria. Conversely, many feel that consuming these bacteria and enzymes is beneficial to the body's internal makeup.
Is that why last year's raw milk raids generated such controversy?
I think the raw milk raids were such a hot issue for two reasons. First, advocates strongly believe that raw milk confers beneficial bacteria and enzymes: a lot of people feel that this is a food that is really, really healthful. On the other side of that a lot of people—including those who are writing our nation's food regulations—think that raw milk is very dangerous.
Additionally, it becomes an issue of food rights. It's not legal to sell or distribute raw milk in about half the country. Raw milk advocates believe that they should have a right to this food, just as they are able to purchase other items that have some risk attached.
Do you think current regulations strike the right balance between food safety and individual choice?
Personally, I believe that we should have the right to access foods of our choosing. I think people in this country would be really shocked to learn that the agency most responsible for our food safety, the FDA, does not actually believe that Americans have the right to any particular food of their choosing. As an American, I find that kind of offensive! Particularly when many the foods we are bombarded with on a daily basis have been proven to be detrimental to our health.
What’s your personal take on raw milk?
I don’t advocate for raw milk per say—I think everyone should do their own research and come to their own conclusions—but I’ve consumed it for most of my adult life, and my kids have been raised on it. It behooves people, who do choose to consume raw milk, to pay attention to where it’s coming from. Now that raw milk is growing in popularity, some farms that would normally produce milk for pasteurization are selling it raw. These farms can have different cleanliness standards, since it’s assumed that the milk is going to be cooked before consumption.
What do you eat to maintain a good bacterial balance?
The more I’ve learned about the interplay between humans and bacteria, the more empowered I feel to make food choices for myself and my family. We eat a diet that is rich in microbial diversity: fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi. My family also eats a lot of yogurt and a fermented dairy drink called kaffir, which is similar to yogurt, but with more microbial diversity. For people who don’t have access to these sorts of living foods, a probiotic may be beneficial, but we haven’t used them.
Looking at the 2012 Farm Bill, what components do we need to focus on to ensure food safety?
I’m going to step back from regulation and law for a minute. If we’re going to really improve our food system, understanding and demand must first come from the consumer. Our insistence that food be “100% safe” has many unintended consequences. We’re depriving ourselves of truly healthful foods that could ultimately make us more resilient when we encounter pathogens. We’re seeing rising rates of allergies, immunodeficiency; our bodies are losing the ability to evolve with the bacterium around us.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is on record saying that until we have zero cases of foodborne illness, we haven’t “won the battle." That statement really scares me! We have to acknowledge, as a culture, that there is some risk to eating.
What does safe food mean to you?
I think we need to think of food safety much more holistically. We tend to look at it with an eye towards acute food borne illness—salmonella, E. coli—but long-term conditions like obesity and diabetes make up a much larger percentage of illnesses from our current system than pathogens. Considering the numbers, it's time to make the argument for a more comprehensive definition of “safe food.”