With summer in full swing, many Canadians bypass the four walls of the grocery store and head straight to the open ambience of the fresh air market. There, a plethora of locally grown produce can be found as well as a smorgasbord of select sweets, pastries, condiments and artisan treats. Crowds congregate en masse to find the best of the best in anticipation of what can only be described as gastronomical joy.
While local markets are by no means a novel concept, a resurgence has occurred of late thanks to the so-called locavore movement. First idealized in 2001 with Gary Paul Nabhan's book, Coming Home To Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, the push to buy and eat locally sourced foods surged in 2005 with a group of Northern California women including author and advocate Jessica Prentice, who coined the term. Since then, there have been significant efforts in the environmental as well as socioeconomic sectors to better understand and appreciate the impact and benefits associated with choosing local.
Over the past decade, another group has been investigating the locavore effect: public health officials trying to determine if locally produced foods were microbiologically safer.
The risk of foodborne illness from eating foods at the retail grocery store was already well known, but officials wanted to know if choosing closer to home could result in less illness.
The first investigations in 2002 focused on comparisons between locally and organically grown foods and those sold in large grocery stores. The results revealed those who chose foods grown closer to home were more likely to have a safer supply with less pesticides, better food quality and, more importantly, less post-harvest handling, which is known to be a significant factor in foodborne infection spread.
By 2010, these differences were solidified as being the basis for better microbiological quality in local foods. Researchers searched for the reasons behind foodborne outbreaks and found links to several well-known problems associated with large-scale farming. For produce, the issues included the use of contaminated fertilizers, irrigation with unsafe water and the handling of foods by workers who do not adhere to good hygiene practices. With animals, the major factors were the abuse of antibiotics in livestock leading to antibiotic resistance, concentration of animals allowing pathogens to spread freely and the impact of immune-lowering stress preventing animals from fighting off infections.
While these fundamentals behind the differences are important to understanding why local food is better, the most meaningful comparison for consumers comes in the form of statistics. Outbreaks resulting from large-scale farming continue to grab headlines both in the media and scientific literature. In contrast, only a few outbreaks resulting from eating locally grown food have been recorded. In these rare cases, the problems were the result of a significant environmental change, such as a major rain storm or flood. There were almost no cases of local malpractice leading to infection.
The reason for the discrepancy may be due to the very essence of the locavore movement: the short distance between producer and consumer.
Most retail foods are sold by medium and large companies. As a result, a consumer may never know the CEO let alone the farmers behind the food output. In the case of local foods, particularly at the market, the executives and the rank and file are usually the same people behind the counter. This proximity reinforces the relationship between supply and demand as well as increases the likelihood of safer practices to ensure a strong bond.
Of course, choosing local does not remove all risks of foodborne illness. Though the risk is demonstrably lower, practicing the four Cs of food safety is always recommended. The easy-to-follow steps are:
Give raw foods such as fruits and vegetables (but not meats) a good rinse in clean water before consuming and clean all surfaces – including your hands – before preparation.
Always keep produce, dairy and meats separate during preparation and clean the surfaces in-between.
Bring meats and eggs to a minimum 61 C to kill off pathogens.
Keep all produce and meats cool to prevent microbial growth.
Whether the goal is to have food with better aesthetics, taste or microbiological quality, going local is without a doubt the best course of action. Right now, the market counters are stocked with a rich supply and will continue to be through the harvest season. But be sure to take advantage sooner rather than later. Before you know it, the snow will be back and we'll have to rely on those larger scale farms to keep us sated.
Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Health