The "Mexican" food chain Chipotle has made a big deal of asserting that their food is more "natural" than their competitors'. They've argued that since they buy lettuce and tomatoes from nearby farms, they're supporting the "locavore" movement with its mystic belief that the closer you live to where your food is grown, the more nutritious it is. Buying from small farms lets them claim that they avoid "factory farms" where animals are supposedly raised unkindly.
Their longstanding emphasis on "natural" foods increased the publicity they received when several hundred diners were afflicted with E. coli infections traced back to Chipotle restaurants. Some restaurants are still closed because, although they know the bacteria came from the restaurant, nobody can figure out how the bacteria made it into the meals.
Chipotle has been riding a popular perception that "natural" somehow means that it's better for you. This latest crisis illustrates that this assumption simply isn't necessarily so, particularly if "natural" means being grown on small farms which don't have the sophisticated processing systems needed to keep lettuce and tomatoes free from bacteria.
Your humble correspondent was recently reminded how easily E. coli and other bacteria can spread, particularly in foods like lettuce which can't be boiled to kill bacteria. A friend of ours spent Christmas day with grandparents. Her six-month-old nephew had a high-ish fever and was leaking at both ends.
Her entire family except for one child got the disease. Thinking back, she remembered that the baby's mother had chopped lettuce and tomatoes for salad while tending to her baby. She realized that if the mother had been careless about washing her hands just once, the bacteria would have a field day. This is what happened - the one child who remained healthy hadn't had any salad.
Of course, by the nature of the cuisine served at Chipotle, virtually every diner will eat one or more uncooked salad ingredients.
Thanks to Chipotle advertising and environmentalist propaganda, modern Americans have a perception that "natural" foods are automatically more healthy than foods which aren't natural, whatever "natural" means. This is flatly false.
Think about that favorite archetype of healthy food, lettuce:
Nobody would suggest Twinkies as a healthy alternative to lettuce, but nobody has ever caught E. coli from a Twinkie or any other heavily processed food.
Obviously, eating an excess of sugary food is unhealthy in its own way. What seems to be causing problems is the faulty assumption that "healthy" food is always healthy without regard to its preparation, storage, sourcing, or inherent physical nature. It's much easier for busy eaters to simply check a box rather than worry about all these petty details.
While their advertising has trumpeted "natural" food, Chipotle's has always told investors that serving raw, unprocessed ingredients puts customers at greater risk of food-borne illness. This is unavoidably true of every restaurant which serves salad; Chipotle is more susceptible than most because chopped salad is part of everything they serve.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that there is a "zone of permissiveness" where advertisers may make exaggerated, or even absurd, claims "expressed in broad, commendatory language" that customers are supposed to discount. Problems arise when a word such as "natural" isn't discounted properly.
It's interesting that Chipotle believes "natural" to be a key selling point to the general public, while to their investors it's noted as a key risk factor which is the exact opposite of a selling point. One wonders what the executives at Chipotle truly believe, and which of the two opposing views they consider most important. Good capitalists that they are, they probably consider the marketing aspects to be far more important than mere facts.
We remember the huge food fight over what "organic" meant when applied to foods. To a chemist, "organic" means that a substance includes carbon atoms. All foods contain carbon, so scientifically speaking, all foods are organic and anyone who ingests a substance which isn't organic is likely to be poisoned.
Mere facts are of no importance in American politics, any more than in any other form of marketing. Having realized that there was marketing value in "organic," agribusinesses pressured the FDA to define how food had to be grown in order to be labeled "organic" with complete disregard for what has been the settled science of "organic chemistry" for well over a century.
Much wampum flowed to lawyers and lobbyists. Standards were set, rules were written, and a farmer can get in severe trouble for labeling food as "organic" if it hasn't been grown to FDA specification even though, as every scientist knows, that's exactly what it is by definition. As a tribute to swarms of lobbyists, the standards were deliberately made complex to make it hard for a farm to change from inorganic to organic crops.
The FDA has been deliberately vague about what "natural" means for some years. As with "organic," however, they've started a discussion of what "natural" means in food marketing.
For example, the FDA considered ruling that food which has been processed only by irradiation - that is, killing bugs with a transient burst of radioactivity instead of with pesticides, fungicides, and other nasty chemicals harmful to people and the environment both - is both natural and healthy. Mother Jones has been fighting the food prejudices of many of its readers and said:
Hundreds of studies have proved that irradiation neither adds compounds to food nor takes nutrients away, and that it can help prevent the food-borne illnesses that sicken 48 million Americans and kill 3,000 every year.
As long ago as 2000, irradiation had been approved for most foods including raw meat:
Consumers also may not be aware that the irradiation process is already used on a myriad of consumer and medical products, in addition to several foods. These products include contact lens solution, eye shadow, liquid detergents, earrings, potpourri, bandages, blood serum, hypodermic needles and scalpel blades.
It's not possible to sterilize lettuce, tomatoes, or other raw
vegetables by boiling them because they cease to be raw. It is possible to
sterilize them safely using irradiation, but the know-nothings in
the environmental activist movement have successfully prevented this
lifesaving measure from being put into wider use, with the direct and
perfectly predictable result of the deaths at Chipotle. One
wonders whether the Chipotle executives considered
funding pro-irradiation groups in an attempt to change the rules and
protect their customers, or if they were content simply to cloak
themselves in green publicity while being cavalier about danger to
E. coli can be spread very easily. It's difficult to wash off, and heating lettuce makes it taste bad.
If you think about the number of US restaurants which serve salad, the fact that we have only 3,000 deaths to food poisoning is a tribute the the effectiveness of all those bathroom signs which insist that employees wash their hands. There is merit in industrial food processing techniques in terms of keeping us safe by enforcing stringent public health measures all throughout the distribution and retail systems.
The FDA has approved irradiation for lettuce and will probably allow irradiated food to be called "natural" but it remains to be seen whether any company will dare attempt to produce or use foods prepared this way despite the clear benefits.
Chipotle could completely solve the problem by irradiating ingredients just before they're put into sandwiches, and considering what's happening to them right now, has every rational incentive to do so. Yet we've heard nary a peep about it.
This just leaves one more question, in two parts: Would the fact that the FDA had decreed that irradiated food was natural satisfy Chipotle customers? Or have they been sufficiently indoctrinated and propagandized to the contrary that they'd rather sacrifice their lives in worship of yet another false environmentalist god?
Over the past five years, the editors have been secretly working on a book that summarizes the fundamental viewpoints of Scragged.