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Popeye and Provence

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Provenance: It's not a word you usually associate with food, but this last year, and I'll guess in the years to come, it's become something increasingly important to know. You hear it a lot on shows like Antiques Roadshow . It might be the tale someone tells of how an old sword was passed down within the family: Maybe there's a letter from some general or a dead president providing evidence to ensure that the stories passed down are true, that the sword's owner really knows where it came from.

We already see provenance come into play in the world of wine. The vintner down the street may not have grown the grapes in the wine he handcrafted, but he sure as hell knows exactly who did, and what hillside they grew on, and perhaps even exactly when the grapes were picked. (They call it terroir .)

How does this apply to the food we eat? We've all heard that old cliché, "You are what you eat." This last year the concept was conflated with a similar phrase: "I yam what I yam and dat's all what I yam," and we're not talking sweet potatoes. Spinach, of all things, hit the headlines big time. People got sick and died from eating it and other people started asking why and what are we going to do about it.

I don't know that the folks from the spinach distributors, Natural Selection Foods, ever supplied a definitive answer as to where the bad spinach came from. There were reports of wild boars that broke through a fence tracking manure from one field to another spreading the killer bacteria E. coli O157:H7, but there's part of the story you didn't hear about on the TV news or read in most papers.

Michael Pollan, author of the bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, touched on it in a piece he wrote for the New York Times("The Way We Live Now: The Vegetable-Industrial Complex," NYT Oct.15, 2006 ). If you've read Pollan's best-selling book, you know he's all about provenance even if he doesn't use the word. He traces the history of the Big Mac he eats for lunch all the way back to the field the steer grazed in and the field of corn the animal was force fed. He also follows the trail of the produce he buys at the "local" Whole Foods Market.

The MSM ("mainstream media" for those who never look at blogs) was quick to point out that we were uncertain about the origin of the tainted spinach because of the massive distribution systems we have created to deal with economics of scale, and a general lack of oversight and testing by the government when it comes to vegetables. We have ways to be sure our meat isn't tainted (a result of deadly E coli outbreaks past) - maybe we just need a better system with more inspection points, and how about stickers with bar codes that show where that spinach came from?

Pollan points out a salient fact: E. coli has been with us for some time, but it has not always been so deadly. Most of the time it is killed by the acid in our stomachs. The E. coli O157:H7 strain is a different animal (if a bacteria qualifies as an animal), one that was not seen prior to 25 years ago. This evolved bacteria somehow thrives in stomach acid, but it dies if cattle eat grass. Remember that day in high school biology when the teacher explained about the amazing four-chamber digestive system of the ruminants? Well, that digestive system is not really designed to eat corn, a much richer feed, but if you can get a cow to eat corn, it will get to salable weight more quickly and, some would argue, the meat will be fattier and thus more tasty. Is it a coincidence that the shift to feedlots went big time about 25 years ago?

Of course there are side effects. Cattle tend to get sick from the unnatural diet. The answer? Give them something to make them well - say, a steady diet of antibiotics.

What about the tainted manure? Well, we'll just treat that as toxic waste, and forget about the old days when manure was something routinely spread on your fields as natural fertilizer. We can get fertilizer from somewhere else. But what about the fossil fuels that go into producing the fertilizer and schlepping it across the country? Hey, stop asking so many questions and eat your damned hamburger, or your spinach salad, or your taco with green onions.

The issue of manure as "pollution" came up in a forum I attended earlier this year, the annual Cattleman's Association Dinner in Ferndale, where ranchers assembled to discuss mutual problems. While on the topic of government intrusion into their business, the topic of wastewater discharge permits came up. The government's demanding that the timber companies get them - are the ranchers next? The prediction was dire: mom and pop outfits like we have in Humboldt County are already operating on a thin profit margin. Add another bit of red tape and more costly environmental analysis and that's it. The cattle ranch or dairy farm gets sold for a subdivision.

And what about those tainted vegetables? As Pollan points out, when you have a " Vegetable-Industrial Complex," the tendency is to think of big industrial solutions to problems like what is now deemed "food security." Ask the grower at the local farmers' market if they're ready for the governmental war on bacteria coming to a produce stand near you. While the dairymen and cattlemen (and women) are on a thin margin, it's even thinner for most local farmers. Truth is, the majority of the folks you buy your lettuce and peppers from at the farmers' market have someone at home with a "real" job to pay the bills. See how many stick with it if you impose another layer of bureaucracy on them.

Is there any good news in all this? There is. Humboldt County already has a pretty well-developed localization movement. We have restaurateurs and grocers who think local. We have a beef and dairy industry that's already leaning toward grass-fed and organic, ranches that should thrive as the provenance of your steak and ice cream becomes an issue. We have folks like Jacque and Marguerite and so many others at the market in town whom we know and trust, and you know what? When everyone was suddenly scared of spinach, theirs sold faster. Remember that saying in the '90s: Think global, act local? We're already there. We just have to keep up the good work.

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