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Doctoring our food

I've noticed that when I take my daughters to the doctor for their annual checkups, they seem to need yet another new vaccination.

They aren't toddlers, so I'm not talking about childhood immunizations. As the girls grew into teens, the doctor advised they be given shots for hepatitis B, meningitis, and Hib. The latest advice is aimed at hepatitis A.

To me, this vaccination differs from others because kids primarily contract it from food handling.

"If they travel to a less-developed country with lower food safety standards, they definitely need a series of two shots," our pediatrician says. "We're also vaccinating toddlers because of food handling in the U.S. and an increase in imported foods."

I mentioned this to my sister, who is a nurse. "Well, you know we live in a different world today than when we were growing up on the farm," she told me. "Mom and Grandma raised big gardens, and they canned and froze most of our fruits and vegetables. We had our own meat processed at the local locker and stored it in the home freezer.

"How many times did we eat out as kids?" she quizzed me. "Not many," I had to admit. "There weren't many restaurants, and families like ours couldn't afford it," she reminded me.

Of course, I know my mom had to guard against botulism when she canned fruits and vegetables.

When Grandma was a girl, people did get sick because of improper food handling in their own homes. But we kids played in the icehouse that Grandma and Grandpa built to refrigerate perishables. Food-related illness wasn't a fact of life for my generation in the 1950s and '60s.

On winter evenings, eggnog and popcorn were special treats. We made eggnog from our own eggs. Today I can't even share Mom's recipe for eggnog pie on this page because the eggs might harbor salmonella. I have to warn my kids not to eat raw cookie dough from the mixer beaters.

They live in a world with hepatitis A outbreaks from:

  • Fruits, vegetables, or other food contaminated during handling.
  • Raw shellfish harvested from sewage-contaminated water.
  • Contaminated water or ice.

Other bacteria and viruses cause many more food-related illnesses, but there's no vaccine available.

In countries where hepatitis A is common, kids develop an immunity. You could put a positive spin on the fact that our kids' rare exposure is what makes them vulnerable adults.

As it's written in the farm bill, it wouldn't apply to restaurant food (such as the green onions in the hepatitis A outbreak at Chi-Chi's in 2003). COOL isn't a cure-all for what ails our food system. But it would be one step, along with a growing local foods network, to restoring confidence in our nation's food supply.

As a mother and a consumer, I always read labels on the fruits, vegetables, and seafood I buy. Food shoppers also need country of origin labeling (COOL) on meat.

I've noticed that when I take my daughters to the doctor for their annual checkups, they seem to need yet another new vaccination.

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