Bag It

March 31, 2013

If you are one of the two regular readers of the Thornapple blog, you will recall that last week I wrote about the proper way to serve watermelon. To wit, with the rind on. This comment immediately attracted the attention of leading food safety advocates, who disputed the point vociferously. Actually, this is not strictly true. Leading food safety advocates are pretty much oblivious to the Thornapple blog. But I was able to reconstruct the way that they would have responded to the blog if they thought that it had even one scintilla of influence on public opinion, and I can assure you that it would have been vociferously.

The problem with serving watermelon with the rind on from the perspective of a leading food safety advocate is that the rind is where the poo is. Microsoft WordTM is telling me that “poo” is not technically a word at all, but I think you know what I mean. Sometime not long ago there was an outbreak of food poisoning associated with cantaloupe. It seems that people were buying the cantaloupe and slicing it up in their kitchens. In so doing, they were contaminating the fleshy tasty bits of the cantaloupe that people eat with microorganisms that had been living peacefully, minding their own business, on the outside of the melon. Those microorganisms (we used to call them “germs”) got on the outside of the cantaloupe because they were excreted either by a cow, pig or deer living in the vicinity of the melon field, or perchance by a farmworker handling melons. As distasteful as all this sounds, it makes fodder for all manner of modern social movement.

There is, for example, the movement to improve the working conditions of the workers handling the melons. We can blame the employer for not providing adequate sanitary facilities to his or her employees. More relevantly for this week’s blog, we can blame the industrial food system, which is bringing all manner of poo into our homes where it can be inadvertently sliced into fleshy bits that we like to eat. Now, I’m not sure I understand how this problem would not have applied to those melons I bought off the back of someone’s pick-up truck, or those melons that I picked out of a neighbor’s melon field down in South Georgia one time, for that matter. But we’ll just ignore that inconvenient bit of logic for the time being.

The poo problem is also showing up in those re-usable cloth bags that ecologically minded people are taking to grocery store. It seems that people are tossing chunks of shrink-wrapped meat into them at the check-out counter, then tossing the bags back into the trunk of the car after the meat has been transferred to the refrigerator when they get home. It takes but a dribble of juicy meat bits in the fibers of a reusable bag to make an inviting home for the microorganisms that got rubbed off a cantaloupe. They’ll sit there minding their business peacefully until some future grocery store trip gives them a chance to hitch a ride on an apple, a pear or a Cadbury bar. And that’s when the trouble starts.

However, nobody in the industrial food system really seems to care much about this problem in the abstract. The poo hits the fan (if you’ll permit me to morph a common expression for a family blog) when somebody in a social movement suggests that we should eliminate all those paper and plastic bags that they are loading groceries into at your local gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop. You know what I mean. At this point, the innocent microorganisms minding their own business on cantaloupe rinds become a liability issue when they hitch a ride on somebody’s Cadbury bar. It’s not a big issue with your standard industrial issue plastic or paper bag, mainly because there are too few of them. But let them multiply up in a juicy meat bit that’s had the opportunity to fester in somebody’s car trunk for a week or two, and, well, there you have it. And if the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop hasn’t given you the opportunity to use a sanitary paper or plastic bag, then maybe it’s their problem, rather than yours. Or at least some food safety advocate with a law degree will say that it is.

Now there are differences between cantaloupe and watermelon rinds, the former being more likely to be cozy homes for microorganisms than the latter due to the relative smoothness of their skins. But this is all a matter of degree in the mind of an imaginary food safety advocate. So any blogger recommending serving watermelon with the rind on is very probably in league with the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shops of the world. Or did I get that wrong, now. Maybe it’s the food safety advocate who is in league with the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop. It’s actually kind of hard to tell in today’s world of battling social movements.

You get the picture. Maybe you should take that bag out of the trunk and throw it in the washer. Use hot water.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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2 thoughts on “Bag It

  1. Inquiring minds want to know if the poo problem on bags is also a threat for vegetarians that avoid the drippy meaty bits…

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