The New Food Inspector: You
Lacking Faith in Government, Shoppers Are Educating Themselves as Never Before

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ina Fernandez admits it. She's a little obsessive-compulsive about grocery shopping. How else to explain that in a single week the 40-year-old Woodbridge resident visits as many as seven grocery stores -- Trader Joe's, Wegmans, Harris Teeter, Costco, Safeway, Giant and a local Latin market -- to find what she wants? In season, Fernandez also shops at the farmers market.

A longtime vegetarian, Fernandez wants certified organic fruits and vegetables, free-range or cage-free eggs and packaged foods without preservatives or additives. "There are so many issues now -- hormones, cloned meat -- that I spend a lot of time reading labels, trying to figure out what's in it. Labels can give a false sense of security, so I try to figure out for myself the best I can what I'm eating, and then I just hope for the best."

It's no wonder Americans want to know more about the provenance of their food. In the past year, food scares, scandals and labeling battles regularly have made headlines. Topps Meat recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef after the meat tested positive for a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria. Dozens of shipments of Chinese seafood were halted by the Food and Drug Administration due to contamination. In a much-publicized case, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture tried to ban producers from advertising that their milk was hormone-free. This month the FDA ruled that cloned meat is safe to eat and could be sold without special labeling, though it may be years before it ends up on store shelves.

Such news always has worried a certain segment of society. But the drumbeat of bad news has spread unease from the farmers market crowd to mainstream shoppers. In 2007, the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group of food retailers and wholesalers, reported that the number of shoppers confident that food at the grocery store was safe had dropped to 66 percent from 82 percent the previous year. (Just 43 percent were confident about getting safe food at restaurants.) In a GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media survey taken in November, 50 percent of respondents said they were confident that there were adequate food safety regulations in place. "Locavore," a term for a person who seeks out locally produced food, was the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2007 word of the year.

Like Fernandez, a growing number of shoppers apparently are trying to become their own food inspectors, using the Internet and their values about health, the environment and local communities to guide them. "There's a crisis of confidence about food. And that's why people are looking to alternatives to the industrial food system," says Michael Pollan, whose best-selling books "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" may be contributing to the growing anxiety. "The safety of food is a fundamental biological goal, and for 50 years we have outsourced it to the USDA and to companies who tell us about 'whole-grain goodness.' It's seductive to outsource this part of our lives, but it's been a disaster for our health, our welfare and our pleasure."

The transition from consumer to food inspector isn't easy. As trust in the food supply has eroded, so has the amount of time that Americans spend shopping and cooking. Research collected by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas, showed that the average amount of time each member of a married couple spends shopping, preparing food and cleaning up has dropped 46 percent, from 87.5 minutes per day in 1985 to 47.5 minutes in 2003.

Those who put a premium on wholesome food often have to make compromises. "You still can't get an organic takeout burrito" in San Francisco, jokes Pete Mulvihill, a 36-year-old father of twins who shops in the farmers markets there and buys organic produce and free-range meats when he can. "We make an enormous effort, but there's a limit to how much time and energy you can spend on eating."

To ease the transition, a variety of farmers, retailers and activists are positioning themselves as trusted sources. Farmers markets vet vendors' production methods and set limits on the distance food can travel. Retailers are finding a competitive advantage in holding suppliers to strict food safety standards. Activists are lobbying for more-transparent food labels and connecting novice food inspectors with suppliers of wholesome food.

Farmers markets may have gained most from the trust gap. There were 4,385 markets in 2006, according to the USDA, up 18.3 percent from 2004.

Here in Washington, the number of markets is growing, and so is attendance. The Dupont Circle FreshFarm market saw record crowds last summer, with as many as 4,500 people arriving at the four-hour Sunday market.

Overall, attendance at the five metropolitan area FreshFarm markets jumped 16 percent in 2007.

"People come because they are able to have that conversation across the table that you just can't have in the supermarket," says FreshFarm co-founder Bernadine Prince.

FreshFarm has outlined exacting standards for market vendors. Only local producers are allowed; even bakers must use a certain amount of local ingredients to participate. Market staffers also visit farms to make sure, for instance, that cage-free chickens are freely roaming in outdoor pens.

"Taste is one part of it," says Erin Dillon, a 29-year-old education policy analyst who shops at the Dupont market. "But a big part of it is trust. If it's there, I know where it's coming from. The people selling it are the people who grew it. You figure they're not going to look you in the eye and give you a bad product."

Traditional retailers are working to earn customer trust. Whole Foods, of course, has made a business of being a trusted proxy. It has developed its own, higher standards for the humane treatment of animals and for "natural" products -- a label that 86 percent of consumers say falls short of expectations, according to a survey by Consumer Reports. Current USDA standards prohibit only artificial colorings and additives in foods labeled "natural"; high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil still can be used.

"We as an industry need to step up and do what the government can't reasonably do on their own, given their resource and people limitations," says Jill Hollingsworth, vice president for food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute. "One way to do that is to work directly with the suppliers to raise the bar and set some guidelines beyond the regulatory standards."

At the forefront of that effort, but certainly not alone, is Costco. Known for its low prices, the warehouse retailer is slowly earning a reputation for food safety. For example, unlike many supermarkets, Costco processes all ground beef sold in its stores at its own plant in Tracy, Calif. Before any raw meat enters the plant, the supplier must show that it has been tested for E. coli and other pathogens. In addition, Costco does its own checks. In 2007, it performed 34,365 tests for E. coli at its plant. The USDA performed 12,290 nationwide. Since Costco put its system in place in 1997, it has not recalled any ground beef.

"The USDA establishes a minimum requirement for safety," says Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. "These days you don't want to purchase the minimum. So one answer is to only buy from a retailer you know and respect."

Perhaps the ultimate way consumers are finding to vet their food is the Internet. It has, of course, broadened choice, allowing people to buy Vermont cheeses, Alaskan salmon and Virginia hams directly from producers. But as important are Web sites such as Ethicurean, Grist, More Deliberately Every Day and the D.C.-based The Slow Cook (motto: "An urban insurgent's guide to food for life"). All are designed to help shoppers make choices they can feel comfortable about.

Ethicurean, a site that focuses on sustainable, organic, local and "ethical" food, is a classic example. Founded in 2006 by Berkeley resident Bonnie Powell as a fun way to trade information with her friends, it now has 40,000 unique visitors and 500,000 page views per month. The site is a mix of personal essays and news designed to help people who want to make good decisions about what food to eat and where to find it.

One of the more popular posts is Powell's early report on Judy's Family Farm eggs. Powell researched the business, whose egg packages evoke an idyllic country farm. In fact, the brand, along with another called Uncle Eddie's, belongs to Petaluma Farms, a large producer in California. That knowledge alone changed Powell's buying habits and those of some of her readers.

Such advocacy is having an impact. When the GfK Roper survey asked consumers who they thought had their best interests in mind when it comes to food choices, advocates and activist groups led the list of responses, at 64 percent. Retail grocers were second, at 62 percent, and food manufacturers were third, at 53 percent. The U.S. government ranked fourth at 47 percent, ahead of fast-food companies at 26 percent.

In the end, shoppers are learning that it's up to them to balance concerns of food safety, sustainability, cost and convenience, and to make the necessary trade-offs.

For Robert Spier, a 50-year-old Washington resident, that means skipping the farmers markets that don't fit his schedule for the convenience of Whole Foods and supplementing his purchases with mail-order sustainable seafood, fair-trade teas and chocolates.

"It's very hard to make all these choices," he says, "but I'm grateful that I now have the option to do so."

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