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Food scares make dinner trick-or-treat

Abby Johnson

Have you been food shopping lately?

I have, and since the food warning of the past few weeks, the experience has become a scary trip through the supermarket house of horrors.

Ever since I read Vance Packard’s 1957 groundbreaking book “The Hidden Persuaders,” I’ve known that the supermarket is an artificial environment designed to lure consumers into purchasing more than is on the shopping list.

The products at the end of the aisle are there to encourage impulse buying. As parents of young children know, being at eye level with Tony the Tiger means that kids become advocates for the sugared cereal products from Kellogg and Post. The gum, candy, cold sodas and bottled water are near the checkout stands for a reason. Do you think the table of iced angel food cakes near the milk is just a coincidence? The spaghetti sauce is on sale, or is it?

And then there’s the music. I’ve been told that supermarkets play music based on the demographics of their customers to lull them as they shop. Songs in the comfort zone of most shoppers are likely to increase sales and encourage subliminal customer allegiance.

Last week, I was ruminating over fresh-veggie choices as Joni Mitchell crooned, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Actually, that did seems to sum up the experience of shopping in the atmosphere of mad-cow beef, E. coli green onions, mercury tuna and PCB’d salmon, the four recent food scares and four foods we eat frequently.

The National Academy of Sciences has been thinking about this, too. According to their report, “From Production to Consumption,” in the United States as many as 81 million illnesses and 9,000 deaths per year are attributed to food-related hazards.

Whether or not you like to shop for groceries, the current spate of health warnings is daunting. Knowing nearly anything about mad-cow disease is nauseating. Contemplate the food chain from sick cow to ground round, and the lifestyle of the vegetarian looks good.

But, according the NAS report, “Many Americans now eat in ways that increase risk, including consuming more raw or minimally processed fruits and vegetables and eating fewer home-prepared meals.” That means the bag-o-salad that ensures the family is eating its daily veggies is a risk for microbial contamination.

The revelation that some farm-fed salmon have elevated levels of PCB makes us question eating salmon, a food known for its healthy oils and protein. This isn’t the first time that tuna has been linked to mercury, but the warnings seem particularly ominous for pregnant women and young children.

Try to factor in the latest studies that foods are safe or perilous for heart, cholesterol, and blood pressure. And did you know that the food pyramid is changing to reflect current research about a balanced diet? It is the conflict between healthy food and safe food that nearly immobilized me at the grocery store.

I don’t know much about how meat and vegetables are selected, handled, and inspected before they are displayed at the grocery store, but the NAS does. Their report found that the current U.S. system for food safety “is fragmented by having 12 primary federal agencies involved in key functions.” Globalization of the food system brings foods from all parts of the world, including possible food-borne infection and hazards not common in America. Right now, that’s all the information I can digest.

The challenge of eating healthy foods is to know enough to make educated decisions, but not so much that you lose your appetite. So, what’s for dinner?

Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, public involvement and nuclear waste issues. She is married, lives in Carson City, and has one high school-age child.