Tag Archives: local food

No Cause for Alarm: Food Safety and Farmers’ Markets


We read this recent opinion piece in the New York Times after a skeptical friend sent it to us. A few days later, another friend, a science journalist, sent the same article to a group of farmers (including us), asking if anyone would draft a letter to the editor in response. After checking out the piece and its source–this unpublished working paper–we agreed that the author, Marc Bellemare, was overstating his results when he sounded the alarm that farmers markets are correlated with a higher incidence of food-borne illness per capita. To his credit, Bellemare reminds readers that the correlation that he found does not imply causation. But reports like this get picked up and repeated without the caveats that Bellemare included in his article. We agree with our journalist friend who said that the New York Times gave Bellemare a big megaphone for results that are less than conclusive.

To understand the difference between correlation and causation, imagine reading that states with more traffic accidents also had more food-borne illnesses. Another way of saying this is that there is a positive correlation between traffic accidents and food-borne illnesses. It would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that traffic accidents caused the illnesses, or for that matter, that illnesses caused the accidents. Similarly, there is nothing in Bellemare’s results that would prohibit the conclusion that food-borne illness caused increases in farmers markets, rather than the other way around.

Still, a correlation between two variables is usually the first clue that they might be related. The stronger the correlation, the more likely it is to catch a researcher’s eye. If you look at the figure above, you see one of Bellemare’s main results. It shows a correlation between farmers’ markets per capita and a variable that is not well-explained in the paper, but which presumably represents all reported outbreaks of food-borne illness. The green dots are the actual data, the red line is a type of trend-line, and the blue shape is the uncertainty about the location of that trend-line. The steeper the trend-line, the stronger the correlation, so a flat line would indicate no correlation.  Look at the actual data points (green dots). If you were looking at the data for the first time, without the blue shape and red line, would you think there was a relationship, or would this just look like a blob of points?  If you do think there is a relationship, is it a strong relationship?

We don’t think so. To us, it looks like a shotgun blast of points that show no trend. But even if you think it does show a trend, it would still just be a correlation.

Mistaking correlation for causation is a common error that we have written about before. What bothers us most is the New York Times should have known better. By publishing the piece with the headline, “Farmer’s Markets and Food-Borne Illness,” the NYT is implying that shopping at farmer’s markets increases the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. This, despite the fact that in the conclusion of his unpublished working paper, Bellemare himself writes “from a policy perspective, it would be a mistake to take the results in this paper and discourage or encourage people to purchase food from farmers markets on the basis of our results.”

That said, we welcome a discussion of ways to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. It is the responsibility of small and large producers alike to ensure the food that they sell is safe. Regulators rightly focus on larger producers, whose products are available in supermarkets nationwide. Higher risk foods, like cheese and meat, are also more closely regulated, even at farmers’ markets. It is likely that small producers of lower risk foods, like vegetables, are not inspected because the risk of an outbreak is low relative the impact it would have, since each farm serves a small area, and not an entire region.

And therein lies the main safety mechanism for consumers. By shopping at a farmer’s market, you are buying food grown by a member of your community. No-one wants to make their neighbors sick, and we all know that word travels quickly if there ever is a problem. Farmer’s markets give customers the opportunity to make food safety judgements for themselves, by asking producers about their practices, or by visiting their facility. It is when food production is removed from the community that it becomes necessary for the government to step in and inspect on the consumer’s behalf. So until there is actual evidence that food purchased at a farmer’s market is unsafe, we can relax and continue to enjoy farmers’ markets for their fresh nutient-dense food, local economic benefit, and sense of community.

We did send a letter to the editor in response to Bellemare’s opinion piece, but the Times declined to publish it. Here it is:

To the Editor:

Marc Bellemare writes that certain outbreaks of food-borne illness are correlated with the number of farmers markets per capita in a state (“Farmers Markets and Food-borne Illness” Op-Ed, Jan. 17). He rightly concedes that correlation does not imply causation, so for the Times to publish his non-peer-reviewed analysis seems premature and risks sowing undue fear of local food. To imply that farmers markets are to blame ignores that, as Bellemare writes, “most…illness [is] caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food,” no matter where it is purchased. Food at supermarkets is anonymous. But at the farmers markets where we sell in central Virginia, customers can ask about food safety issues including pesticide applications, use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and worker conditions. The Times’ ill-considered publishing of Bellemare’s results stands to misinform consumers.

Ben Stowe and Heather Coiner

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Day 6: We’re hiring for the 2016 season!

Our business is growing fast, so we have created a new position for 2016! We are hiring a second intern to work closely with Heather in the bakery.

Apply now for 2016 by sending a resume and cover letter to littlehatcreek@gmail.com.

General description: Little Hat Creek Farm is a small diversified vegetable farm and wood-fired bakery. 2016 will be our third season of selling at three farmer’s markets and through a 25 member CSA. We use ecological farming practices on one acre of annual vegetables and a small fruit orchard. Our bakery specializes in naturally-leavened breads made by hand with local flours. We also produce pastry using the fruits of our farm. This winter, we are expanding our business by building a self-contained bakery building to house the oven, which will allow us to take on additional sales outlets for our baked goods. We are hiring an intern to help us grow and develop these outlets. This is a training position.

Skills desired: You are a good fit for this internship if you love making and sharing good food and if our farm+bakery business model excites you. You get as much pleasure out of mastering a technique as you do in creating new recipes using ingredients from our farm. You also want to have a hand in producing those ingredients. You are creative and a self-starter who can also perform routine production tasks. You are consistently attentive to cleanliness and organisation. You are able to work quickly and efficiently while attending to detail, and you are able to problem-solve on the fly. You are punctual, able to safely lift fifty pounds, and able to meet deadlines.

Duties: You will be responsible for routine bakery tasks like mixing, shaping, and baking bread and pastries, dishwashing, oven and firewood management, ingredient restocking, and general cleanup. Beyond this, your experience will be shaped by your interests and our needs. We currently fire the oven and bake bread three days a week, but this may increase as we take on new accounts. On some days, additional duties may include farm activities, including greenhouse work, harvesting, mulching and weeding; post-harvest processing like pickling, jamming and drying; deliveries; marketing and developing new sales outlets; and/or recipe development.

Duration and Hours: April 2016-October 2016 with the possibility of continuing into the winter. Working hours will not exceed 50 hours per week and may include late night or early morning shifts in preparation for our Wednesday and Saturday farmers’ markets. You will have 1.5 days off each week.

Meals: You will have access to our farm produce, including eggs and bread. Should you live on the farm, you will have access to a shared kitchen and the possibility of also sharing meals with us and another worker.

Compensation: Stipend TBD. Indoor housing with a shared bathroom and kitchen is available as part of your compensation. You will have access to the food the farm produces, and receive training in marketable skills.

You will learn how to:
-operate a large wood-fired oven
-make pastries and naturally-leavened bread on a commercial scale
-adjust recipes to account for weather and ingredient variation
-develop new recipes
-handle food safely
-grow, harvest and process fruits and vegetables
-market farm products
-successfully grow a small local food business

You will also have access to the logic behind everything we do. We make a point of sharing the details of our farming, baking, and business practices, so we encourage you to ask about all aspects of starting and running a business like ours. And because there are many ways of doing things, we also take you on visits to 2-3 other farms and bakeries over the course of the season.

We will consider proposals that give you creative space while meeting our needs.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Day 5: 2016 CSA signups are now open!

We are excited to announce that signups to our 2016 Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA) are now open!

Purchasing a share entitles you to 19 weeks of ecological produce from our farm and a loaf of wood-fired sourdough bread. We pack our CSA boxes with fresh fruits and vegetables that are picked at their peak, so that our members can experience the best our farm has to offer from the beginning to the end of the growing season. We also publish a popular weekly newsletter with farm news and recipes to help you make the most of your box.

To keep things interesting, every year we introduce a few new varieties. For 2016, we are adding carrots, beets, broccoli raab (rapini), as well as new varieties of tomatoes and squash. But we are keeping prices, pickup times, and locations the same! For more details on our CSA, please go here.

You can sign up by filling out this form. We sold out last year, so don’t dally too long. We look forward to welcoming you to our community!

Glyphosate + Wheat = Celiac disease?

Several of our customers recently brought our attention to somewhat alarming news in the blogosphere that glyphosate (commonly known as Roundup) is sprayed on 97% of U.S. wheat crops right before harvest. To make matters worse, it seems like these glyphosate residues on wheat are what is causing celiac disease in so many Americans.

If this were true, it would be a good reason for Americans to insist on organic wheat, a notion that we whole-heartedly support.  And some parts of this story do in fact ring true. One trip to the grocery store is all you need to realize that gluten intolerance seems to be much more common than it was even five years ago. It seems logical that we should be able to trace this strong increase back to some change in our environment. It is also not hard to believe that consuming the herbicide glyphosate is bad for you, or that somehow the combination of glyphosate and wheat, which is the main source of gluten in our diet, could somehow produce a toxic synergy that results in celiac disease.

But as much as one might want to believe that there is such an easy explanation for why so many Americans are allergic to gluten, other parts of the story sounded a little too suspect. Glyphosate is one of the most widely available herbicides on the market. You don’t need a license to buy it at any home improvement store, so your neighbors could be spraying it in their yards and gardens. Commercially, it is approved for use on most crops that we eat.  The two crops that we Americans eat a lot of, corn and soy, have even been genetically-engineered to be “Roundup-Ready”–ready, that is, to be sprayed with glyphosate and not killed.  Wheat is not necessarily the number one source of glyphosate in our environment.

So we wanted to get to the bottom this story.  It seems like the original source is a paper published in the December 2013 issue of Interdisciplinary Toxicology entitled “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance,” written by Anthony Samsel, an independant consultant, and Stephanie Seneff, a computer scientist. It struck us as strange that such a paper would be written by someone other than an epidemiologist, medical professional or public health official. But, no matter, the authors could have analyzed someone else’s data in a creative way, so we had a look inside.

The main thing we noticed is that most of the evidence that Samsel and Seneff gather to support their conclusion that glyphosate causes celiac disease is conjectural. For example, glyphosate has been shown to disrupt the mucosal lining of fish intestines, which is “highly reminiscent” of human celiac disease (p. 160). In another example, they argue that since glyphosate chelates iron in plants, that it is “conceivable” that it does the same in humans, implying that the chelation would lead to anemia, which happens to be one of many symptoms of celiac disease (p. 166).  Logical, perhaps, but certainly not conclusive. In good science, these sorts of compelling correlations are what motivate researchers to formulate hypotheses about the action of glyphosate that are then specifically tested in controlled experiments. But bypassing the experiment and jumping from correlation to conclusion, as the authors do here, is more the stuff of pseudo-science.

Samsel and Saneff go on to correlate eleven other actions that glyphosate is known for in plants and non-human animals with symptoms of celiac disease. However compelling the correlations may be, they are still correlations. And mistaking correlation for causation is one of easiest logical fallacies to fall victim to. The widely reproduced first figure of this paper (above) shows celiac incidence rising in step with glyphosate application on wheat. The implication is that glyphosate on wheat is the cause of the increase in celiac disease. But it is equally possible to imagine this graph with any number of phrases substituted for “glyphosate on wheat.” Try, for example: “awareness of celiac disease symptoms among doctors,” “proportion of corn and soy in the American diet,” “per capita incidence of Type II diabetes,” or “proportion of Americans owning an iPod.” They could all be correlated with the increase in celiac disease, which is to say that there may–or may not–be a causal link between the two.

So while we aren’t convinced that glyphosate causes celiac disease, we still don’t want to eat it. We are still concerned about the statistic that 97% of spring wheat (the main bread wheat) that is grown in the US is sprayed with glyphosate right before harvest. This would mean that most conventional flour would be laced with glyphosate residues. We try to buy wheat that is both local and organic, but our reality is that we often have to choose between local, but conventionally-grown wheat and distantly-grown organic wheat.  We believe in supporting our local economy, but this kind of information could change our minds.

When you first look at this figure and its accompanying table, you might come to the same conclusion that Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist arrived at in her blog post: that 97% of spring wheat is sprayed with glyphosate prior to harvest.  But if you look closer, it actually says that herbicides (and not just glyphosate) were used on 97% of the acres on which spring wheat is grown at some point in the crop year. This does not mean that the herbicide was used on the wheat crop itself, it could have been used to clear the fields before the wheat was planted. In any case, according to the above table, glyphosate is not even one of the top three herbicides used by spring wheat farmers, so it’s unclear why it should get all the blame. So where did Samsel and Seneff get the idea that farmers are spraying glyphosate before they harvest wheat?  This Monsanto publication, which discusses glyphosate use in Europe (not the U.S.). It seems likely that this non-peer-reviewed publication could possibly be biased to make it look like glyphosate is more widely used than it is so that more farmers buy it.

Let’s be clear: we are certainly not fans of glyphosate here at Little Hat Creek Farm. We avoid using any chemicals on our crops, and we buy as much organic flour as we can.  But we found the Samsel and Seneff article (and the accompanying news items) to be more provocative and misleading than grounded in good science. Hopefully, their article will be the inspiration for clinical trials that could establish a causal link between glyphosate use and celiac disease. But in the meantime, we do not think there is as much cause for alarm as it may at first seem.

Bittman says: “Butter is Back”

Mark Bittman changed my life a few years ago with his book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The book not only expanded my horizons in the kitchen with its simple recipes, but also served as a sort of desk reference for vegetables, fruits, and grains I had heard of but had never tried.  At the time of the book’s publication, Bittman was a food writer for the New York Times, and I started paying attention to his column.  I liked his recipes for their attitude of, “if you don’t have this ingredient, or the time, or the inclination, just make this substitution/change to the recipe.”  It’s an attitude that led me towards more flexible, adventurous cooking.

More recently, Bittman has transitioned his Times column away from recipes and towards food politics.  He is currently (in my opinion) one of the most articulate advocates for sustainability, real food, and sensible policy.  I was delighted to read his March 25th column, “Butter is Back”.

When I read it a couple of days ago, it was at the top of the “most emailed” list of articles on the Times website.  Perhaps that’s because he says it’s ok to eat butter.

But I enjoyed his essay because of the way he spells out the differences between “real food” and what Michael Pollan famously termed “edible food-like substances.” From the article:

 You might consider a dried apricot (one ingredient) versus a Fruit Roll-Up (13 ingredients, numbers 2, 3 and 4 of which are sugar or forms of added sugar). Or you might reflect that real yogurt has two or three ingredients (milk plus bacteria, with some jam or honey if you like) and that the number in Breyers YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is unknowable (there are a few instances of “and/or”) but certainly at least 18.

The number one reason that I like being a farmer is that I like food.  I like being around large quantities of fresh food.  When I started working on farms five years ago, it was that aspect of the lifestyle that got me thinking, “Man, I could get used to this!” Added bonuses to farmwork are that I get to work outside, work hard, sleep well, and see a physical product of my labor.  As a beginning farmer, it makes me glad to read an essay like Bittman’s and feel like the pendulum is swinging back to the side that I’m working on.

Happy eating, everyone!  See you at the first Charlottesville market of the season next Saturday!    –Ben

Our 2014 CSA is now open for sign-ups!

We are excited to announce that our 2014 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is now open for sign-ups!  Starting in June 2014, we will pack you a weekly box of fresh vegetables and wood-fired bread from our farm.  By participating in our CSA, you are giving your food dollars to your neighbours and making it possible for us to provide nutritious and delicious food to our community.  For more details please see our CSA info page.

Yes, there’s an early bird discount! Sign up and pay your $200 deposit by Jan 1, 2014 and get a $30 discount on your total price. That’s like getting one week for free!

Ready to sign up?  Click here to fill out our on-line form.

Thank you for your support!

Ben and Heather