What happens when a person who is relatively ill-informed about food and its sources; who has grown up eating the American version of a “healthy” diet, meaning a glass of milk with dinner and a sensible, balanced plate of protein, starch, and two veg; who has been carefully schooled in the budget-conscious approach to shopping and eating, with $1.99 chicken breast sales being a coveted bonanza of good fortune; what happens when such a person begins to educate herself about the way we grow, sell, cook, market, waste, and consume food?

I’ll tell you what happens: I see a sign proclaiming that $1.99/lb special on boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, and I get mildly nauseous.

It is not possible, I’m beginning to think, to actually start down the road of self-education about the American diet and food supply, and gleefully turn back to one’s former dietary life.  For me, routinely buying those “manager’s special” chicken breasts and feeding them to my family — as I once would have done — is now the culinary equivalent of clapping my hands over my ears and singing “LALALALALA” at the top of my lungs to avoid hearing unpleasant news.  The fact is, the news IS all very unpleasant, and while it can be challenging to adapt to a new lifestyle that takes into account much of that news, it’s actually viscerally repellent for me to do anything else.

Between news of antibiotic-resistant staph in the commercial meat supply, “pink slime” in burgers returning to headlines via Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and now reports that some of our supermarket chicken supplies are likely tainted with arsenic, it’s almost a death-defying act to even contemplate cooking and eating factory-farmed meat.  As J. grimly put it when I sent him the link to the arsenic story: “I’m beginning to think that it’s not just a good idea to eat vegetarian — it might be necessary.”

The only problem is that, as the E. Coli outbreak in Germany serves to remind us, meat is not the only thing in our food supply that might contain some seriously nasty, potentially life-threatening stuff.  We often conveniently forget that sprouts have been linked to an alarming number of foodborne illnesses, due mainly to the fact that the growing conditions which nurture them are also prime for nurturing creepy-crawly microbial ickies (that’s a technical term).  Oh, yeah, and if you check the list of the 10 riskiest foods (from a foodborne illness perspective, that is), you’ll find that it’s full of things OTHER than the much-maligned CAFO meat supply.  Topping the list: Leafy greens.  That’s right, salad is a killer.

Organics won’t save you from pathogens, though they may be somewhat LESS risky than produce items coming from gigantic farm plots roughly the size of Latvia.  Sure, they won’t have the added ammonia, arsenic, and antibiotics, but that doesn’t mean that they may not be harboring several forms of organisms that you’d probably rather not ingest.   The question is becoming more and more serious by the day: Which roulette wheel do you want to spin?

There are plenty of people, some of them related to me, who would argue that many of us have been raised on that ammonia-treated, antibiotic-fed, ammonia-laced “meat,” and we’ve suffered no ill effects.  HFCS, odd chemicals, possible carcinogens, artificial food dyes…these are the things that have found their way into almost everything the average American eats, and our top government researchers and policy makers continue to tell us that the reason those things are in there is that it makes our food more plentiful, and doesn’t make it any less safe.  Better a little “harmless” ammonia, the argument might go, than a deadly outbreak of E. Coli killing children eating burgers at Memorial Day picnics. 

Food poisoning, in fact, is downright un-American.  We’re in much greater command of our food safety, at least from a sanitation perspective, than many other parts of the world; hence the difficulty that’s been seen in Germany as they’ve tried to trace the source of the tragic outbreak there.  The American way is to make food bigger, cheaper, faster, and “safer.”  And if you think about feeding your child a “healthy” spinach salad, then losing that child to a deadly bacteria, it might be hard to choose which way to turn.

Processed foods are “safer,” for sure.  They’re pumped full of everything science can manufacture to ensure that they remain free of pathogens.  They’re uniform, clearly labeled, created and packaged in processing facilities that are held to strict standards of cleanliness and safety.  They even have little lot numbers and bar codes and other identifiers that help in whisking them off store shelves and out of our cupboards if there’s even a HINT of something potentially awry with the batch.  It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re feeding your kids Goldfish crackers, they’re not going to wind up with E. Coli.

But how much safer is it?

There’s certainly the argument to be made for long-term health and well-being, which I’ve made dozens of times on this blog.  There’s also the argument to be made that our food safety systems allow additives to go INTO our foods before they’re proven safe; the only requirement is that they have to be proven not to do immediate harm.  Think about that for a second.  Our food system and our judicial system are very similar in that regard: all food additives are deemed “innocent” until proven guilty.  And if the evidence of their guilt seems circumstantial or inconclusive in any way, any way at all, food additives get off scot-free.

It’s not that I’ve never thought about these things before, and in depth; you’d have to, to make the choices I’ve made about feeding my family the way that I do.  But a casual exchange on Facebook this week really alarmed me in a whole new way.  I’d posted this article, which talks about antibiotics being used in ethanol production, and how some groups are lobbying to have erithromycin approved as a food additive.  Somewhere in the thread of comments, I said that my fear (as someone with an allergy to certain antibiotics)was that someday, somebody is going to come forward and say “Gee, I’m deathly allergic to x, y, and z antibiotics…and all of a sudden I’m having the same reactions to seemingly random clusters of foods.”

And then it happened.  An old friend with whom I haven’t kept in intimate touch, but who I know has had some health challenges recently, responded: “That would be me.”

Turns out she’s allergic to several antibiotics.  And now she’s manifesting symptoms of a severe allergic reaction to corn and corn products — particularly the processed ones.  Nobody had linked the two things before, but isn’t it possible — even just a little bit — that she’s becoming more and more sensitive to even low-level doses of these drugs in the processed foods she might eat?

I don’t know if it’s true.  How can I know?  I’m just a mom, a blogger, nobody in particular.  But it seems to me that if we continue to ignore these cases and refuse to connect the dots — which are moving closer and closer together at an alarming rate, as far as I can tell — we run the risk of creating a whole new crisis in the American food supply.

It’s not just about chemicals vs. no chemicals.  It’s not about organic vs. non-organic.  It’s not about weighing the risk of food poisoning against the long-term health risks of an entirely processed diet.  It’s about the fact that at the rate we’re going, we may sooner rather than later find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic of life-threatening allergies to FOOD.  Not one food or a group of foods; not any longer the nut allergy or the dairy allergy or the soy allergy (not to belittle any of those — I’m certain food allergies are nightmarish no matter the scope).  But most of our actual food supply.  Because the more we homogenize our food, the more corn we put into everything, the more drugs we put into everything, the greater the risk that we’ll actually produce a monoculture that’s potentially life-threatening to many people.

Is it about healthy food?  Safe food?  Junk food?  We may be missing the mark if we examine these independently of one another.  Without connecting these vitally important dots, we may soon find ourselves in a world where too many people are asking, “What food?”  Millions of packaged products, but nothing to eat for those who have the dreaded allergy to our vast conglomerated monocultured food supply.  Now that’s what I call a food apocalypse.