Handwashing, Food, and Existentialism

I went to the Food Safety and Security Summit intent on exposing our nation's food hypocrisy. In the end, I realized I'm the phony.


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The first half of the workshop was dedicated to the mock trial of a fictional-but-based-on-true-events case. In it, a mother and her daughter are suing the CasuaLee restaurant, claiming they became violently ill after eating the restaurant’s nachos. It turns out that the employee who made the nachos had recently traveled to Mexico, had some diarrhea “but not at work,” and when she returned to CasuaLee made the nachos without wearing gloves. Forty people became sick. The jury — made up of Summit attendees — eventually found that CasuaLee did supply a product that was not “reasonably safe,” but would not agree that the unsafe condition of the product was a “proximate cause” of the illness.

The verdict didn’t really matter. The exercise was more an opportunity to show food producers the obstacles they’d face should a bunch of customers end up with Salmonella poisoning and it’s discovered that the cook wasn’t wearing gloves. It was argued on both sides by real-life lawyers from the firm of Marler Clark, “the industry leader in foodborne litigation,” according to the Summit’s program, that’s full of “food poisoning lawyers,” according to the firm’s Web site. The takeaway? Don’t do things like block your kitchen sink with racks of nachos, or forget to order new gloves. These kinds of missteps come back to bite you in the ass.

After a break came exercises intended to improve handwashing policies. These were led by Jim Mann, the founder and executive director of the Handwashing for Life Institute, which isn’t so much an “institute” as it is a marketing arm for companies that make handwashing-related equipment. Attendees were divided into groups and told to discuss ideas on improving handwashing policies. These included, among other things, putting cameras in bathrooms to make sure employees washed for long enough and replacing humans with robots where possible. When it was over, Mann seemed genuinely impressed by the group’s efforts.

“When you went on that break, I really wondered if you’d come back,” he told the attendees. “It really shows your dedication to handwashing.”

I think, though, that the people there were probably more dedicated to the idea of being out of the office for a few days. There was a reception after the workshop with buffet lines set up, and I saw a lot of the people from the workshop grabbing nachos from bowls with their bare, unwashed hands.

These were the kinds of scenes I went to Washington hoping to find. I was drawn to the Food Safety and Security Summit (and, technically, Expo and Conference) as someone who feels passionately about how our food is produced. I champion the locally-grown and the organic to friends and family. I have a small 4-by-12-foot plot in a community garden in downtown Philadelphia; I grow herbs, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, and cucumbers there. I’ve volunteered at a non-profit stand for local farmers, bundling butter lettuce in the summer and delivering free-range turkeys at Thanksgiving, blood and other turkey juices dripping down the front of me all in the name of environmental and economic sustainability. In other words, I went to the Summit as a snob.

I went believing many problems of food safety would be non-issues if only we could change our eating habits, move away from our reliance on a production system that’s long been flawed (as any high-school freshman who’s read The Jungle knows). One that relies not on small farms but giant agri-businesses and slaughterhouses. Of course you’re going to run into problems when you’re producing food in as large of quantities as we do, and trucking and shipping and flying it as far as we do, I thought. Granted, the finger in the Wendy’s chili turned out to be a hoax, but the beef recall earlier this year was no joke: The worker who used a forklift to move sick cows faces six months in jail.

The Food Safety and Security Summit was the work of BNP Media — publisher of magazines such as Food Engineering, Meat and Deli Retailer, and Packaging Strategies, online aggregator of such food safety stories as “Castleberry’s chili plant shut down again,” “Researches develop new beef jerky safety strategy,” and “Gorton’s says pills in filets were herbal supplements.” Going to the Summit seemed the perfect way to highlight what I thought to be the absurdity in thinking that our food can be made safer not by rethinking our production system, but by purchasing X-ray machines that detect foreign objects and bug zappers you can install before inspectors arrive. A kind of rearranging of the deck chairs, if you will.

I spent the first full day of the Summit exploring the expo floor, which smelled like prime rib. I saw giant photos of a rat’s head smashed in a trap, and of a conveyor belt caked with the pink mush that raw chicken leaves behind. I saw that the Shell oil company was there to sell industrial lubricants that are used in food manufacturing machinery. I listened to a pitch for an automated phone chain system that promises to speed up a company’s recall process.

I took note of many things like these, confident that they were adding up to something, some point. But then I heard the man from Disney speak.

Frank Yiannas seems like an affable and fun-loving guy, despite being burdened with the decidedly not-fun-sounding title of Director of Safety and Health for Walt Disney World. Yiannas spoke the second night of the Summit; the title: “The Way Forward — High Tech or High Touch?” The Summit’s program promised that he’d explore questions of food safety advancement in his “characteristically entertaining style,” and he delivered, at least as much one can at a gathering of quality assurance professionals. A lot of speakers at the Summit like to begin their presentations by telling you that they couldn’t hear you when you said good morning, and that you can do better; Yiannas opened with a joke comparing our time with ancient man’s (then, as now, you have to eat food quickly or it’ll spoil, what with so much of it being “organic” and “natural”). Other speakers stand firmly at the podium, their hands gripping either side as they speak into the microphone; Yiannas didn’t use the podium once, instead walking around the stage and speaking with a hands-free microphone that was attached to his head.

Yiannas spoke about the need for improved technology versus the need for improved human behavior in the area of food safety. His conclusion? We need both. But it was a single fact he inserted in his argument that caught my attention. Yiannas cited a statistic from the National Restaurant Association that said almost half of America is eating out on any given night. Well if anyone’s worried about the quality of our food, I thought to myself, there’s part of your problem. I imagined this to be another one of the contradictory issues that arises when we talk about our food supply, the fact that Americans are so disconnected from the production of their food that every night half of them are letting someone else do the cooking.

As I tackled the numbers a different way — thinking how it meant that the average American eats out every other night — I suddenly became aware of my own relationship to them. The average me, I realized, eats out every night. Maybe I never thought much about it since it usually involves take-out burritos in front of the TV, or the cheap Indian buffet around the corner from where I live, and that doesn’t feel as guilty as, say, eating every night at Applebee’s or Chili’s would. But then I thought that there really is no difference, and that such a stance was just being a snob of a different sort from the one I already admitted to being.

Back in my hotel room that night, I sat on the bed eating a box of Cheez-Its and considering my ideas on what we eat. Frank Yiannas’ speech hadn’t been any profound revelation it its own right, but it was, well, food for thought. I knew I was a phony.

I thought about the sausages and ground turkey from the supermarket that I dumped in the garbage before coming to Washington. Bought with the hope of being the first meal cooked in my apartment in some months, they fell victim to daily after-work lethargy that’s coupled with the convenience of a Mexican place just next door.

I thought about my parents, who live in one of the last rural parts of New Jersey. About how I bought Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for my father, but never finished either myself. About how I told my mother at Thanksgiving that she should buy one of the free-range turkeys I was delivering and not one from the supermarket.

I thought about how just before I left, my partner and I fought over whether we should join a farm co-op. I wanted to, but he thought it would just be a waste since we wouldn’t end up using all that much of the produce, meat, and dairy we’d get every week. I thought about how disappointed I was that he didn’t feel as compelled to support local farmers as I did.

I thought about my garden, about how a large portion of what I’ve grown over the past few years has been thrown away, further victims of their grower’s laziness. About the dozens of cucumbers brined to be pickles, only to be poured down the garbage disposal when the time came for canning them. About the tomatoes turned under the soil at the end of the season because it was easier than carrying them all home.

I got off the bed in my hotel room and looked up an old e-mail the volunteer coordinator of the garden had sent me last summer. “I did a weed check through the garden this morning,” she wrote, “following up on my group reminder from last week, and you need to get in to do some weeding. I speak from experience when I say that that grass spreads like crazy when it is left alone. Please try to get to this by this weekend.” I thought about how I never did end up weeding my plot. About how the grass problem was bad, and how it did spread like crazy into other plots. About how just before I came on this trip, I mailed my check for this summer’s space.

Food is an area that is especially suited to snobbery. There are people who are snobs about food itself. There are those who are snobs about manners and the proper way to set a table. There are those, like me, who are snobs about where their food comes from, about how it’s produced.

Food snobs wield an incredible power, possibly more so than any other kind of snob. Because of food’s multiple reaches into our lives, food snobs have the power to make others feel bad about your politics, morals, manners, style, taste, or any combination of the above. Many are proud of their elitism. “Oh, you know me,” they’ll say, “I’m just a food snob.”

I think this power comes from the universality of food. Unlike the other things that people can be snobs about — cars, jobs, children, education — food is the only one that’s common to all our lives. It’s something that everyone is expected to like, to associate with pleasure and contentment, in their own way. The need for it joins us more than the need for anything else but oxygen and water.

To be fair, there are a lot of people who genuinely like good food. Who like setting a nice table. Who care about where their food comes from, and how it’s produced. There are also a lot of people who try to eat well when they can. Who try to sit at a table a few nights a week instead of in front of the TV. Who buy organic when they can afford it.

But then there are those of us for whom it’s not really about food at all. I think that for us, the snobbery is more a way to keep the doubt and insecurity and worry of life at bay for at least the few minutes when we’re cooking with good ingredients or chastising a guest for using the wrong fork or questioning a friend on why they bought bananas when there were local apples for sale.

I don’t think this would have been as clear to me had I not sat in on a panel at the Summit called “Surviving and Succeeding as a Food Safety Professional.” There I listened to Martha Hudak-Roos, the vice president of global quality and food safety for Golden State Foods, talk about a career that began as a chemist with Colgate before winding through government, consultation, and industry jobs. It hasn’t been easy for Hudak-Roos. Because of her work, she missed her son’s graduation and many of her daughter’s marching band performances. But she’s convinced she’s made the right career choices. “I am not good at thinking outside the box,” she told a room of people who were seeking advice, or maybe reassurance, on how to survive as food safety professionals. “I like the structure of my work,” she said. “I like the rules. I like the specifications. It provides a comfort level for me.”

I felt jealous when I heard her say that. I do not want to be a food safety professional. I do, however, go through life questioning most choices I make, and fearing the choices ahead of me. I wonder whether I’m a person who is not good at thinking outside the box, and am just afraid to admit as much. I wonder if I’ll ever have a comfort level. Hudak-Ross spoke like someone who has no need to be a food snob. And I was jealous. I was envious not of her life, but of the certitude and honesty with which she seemed to face it. • 2 April 2008