Making Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety by Ben HewittMaking Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety by Ben Hewitt

Making Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food Safety

byBen Hewitt

Hardcover | June 7, 2011

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Food recalls have become so ubiquitous we hardly even notice them. The massive peanut salmonella
contamination of 2008–2009 alone killed nine and sickened an estimated 22,500 people; only a few
weeks later, contaminated frozen cookie dough sent 35 people to the hospital. These tragic, inexcusable events to which no one is immune are but a symptom of a broader food system malaise.

In Making Supper Safe, Ben Hewitt exposes the vulnerabilities inherent to the US food industry, where the majority of our processing facilities are inspected only once every seven years, and where government agencies lack the necessary resources to act on early warning signs. The most dangerous aspect of our food system isn't just its potential to make us acutely ill, but the ever expanding distance between us and our sources of nourishment.

Hewitt introduces a vibrant cast of characters and revolutionaries who are reinventing how we grow,
process, package, distribute, and protect our food, and even how we protect ourselves. He takes readers inside a food contamination trace-back investigation, goes dumpster diving, and talks to lawyers, policy makers, and families who have been affected by contaminated food. Making Supper Safe explains why we should worry, but it is also a quest to understand how we can learn to trust our food again.
BEN HEWITT is the author of The Town That Food Saved, and articles for magazines such as Bicycling, Discover, Gourmet, Men's Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Yankee and many others. He and his family live in a self-built, solar-powered house in Cabot, Vermont, and operate a 40-acre livestock...
Title:Making Supper Safe: One Man's Quest to Learn the Truth about Food SafetyFormat:HardcoverDimensions:288 pages, 8.71 × 5.74 × 0.91 inPublished:June 7, 2011Publisher:Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/RodaleLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1605293091

ISBN - 13:9781605293097


Read from the Book

1"What's that?"Edward leaned forward, peering through the windshield. It was night, and a searing cold had settled over the landscape, riding on a driven wind that had swept snow across the roads, where it had turned to ice and upended numerous cars along Vermont's Interstate 89. Everything looked lunar and foreboding. Already, barely 20 minutes into our drive, we had passed a Toyota truck lying on its side, illuminated by the flashing lights of emergency rescue vehicles. A few miles later, we passed an overturned sedan, its crumpled nose pressed against the ice-rimed surface of a rock face. I thought I saw one of its wheels still spinning; the front passenger door hung open, but the interior of the car was dark and I could not see if it was still occupied.I followed Edward's gaze. Ahead of us, illuminated by the wash of our headlights, a deer lay at the base of a guardrail. Edward turned to me, and although I did not know him well, I knew him well enough that I didn't have to guess what he was thinking: food.The car shimmied on the ice as we came to a stop at the highway's edge. We stepped into the glacial air, our breath pluming into the dark. A row of cars passed, tires buzzing on the icy tarmac. I bent over the deer and tucked an ungloved hand into the fold of fur where leg met body. Still warm. This was a fresh kill, a coveted prize. We grabbed its legs, Edward at the front and me at the rear, and hoisted the deer into the back of my car, where it lay atop a pair of jumper cables and a rusty tire iron. "What a blessing," Edward said as we slipped back into the car and its welcome cocoon of warmth. I slid the shifter into gear, and we pulled onto the highway.We had our meat. It was time to find some cheese.I suppose it's simplest to say that Edward Gunny is a dumpster diver, although it's probably not fair to define a man solely by his predilection for digging through trash in search of his supper. Still, it's worth noting that Gunny, a lean-framed 28-year-old of middling height and possessing a laconic-but-not-quite-sleepy countenance, sources at least one-third of his calories from the garbage and has been doing so for nearly a decade. Given that history, and given that I've personally observed the man waist deep in garbage in pursuit of his lunch, I don't feel too badly calling him a dumpster diver.When I first learned of Gunny's habit, I was quick to assume it meant that he ate poorly. I imagined dented cans of soup, spore-dotted loaves of bread, and the picked-over remnants of Big Macs. But he was keen to correct me and, when I asked, eager to demonstrate his prowess. "Sure, I'll take you out," he said, and he proceeded to reel off a list of his greatest scores. Aged goat cheese and specialty chocolates. Strawberries, fresh and frozen. Wine ("and not the cheap stuff," he assured me). Boxes upon boxes of Alaskan salmon fillets, admittedly a little suspect at the edges, but nothing a sharp knife and an easy hand with the spices couldn't take care of. In the nonfood category, he was particularly proud of a recent haul of 60 insulated winter jackets with only minor blemishes (he sent the bulk of the jackets to a friend in Philadelphia, to be distributed to needy families).Why, just 2 weeks prior to our outing, he'd snagged more than 50 £ds of imported brie from a dumpster in Burlington, Vermont. For the Christmas holiday, Edward had hauled a few £ds of the stash to his family's home in southern New Hampshire. He then proceeded to bake it in his mother's oven and serve it to the assembled guests. "Where did you get this brie? It's delicious," asked his aunt, as she slid another spoonful of gooey-warm cheese between her lips. Not wanting to diminish her obvious pleasure, and yet not able to bring himself to tell an outright lie (this is the sort of fellow he is), Edward took the middle path: "Oh, it's from a store I go to all the time."And so we embarked on that bitter December night in search of the good stuff. It was only days past Christmas, and we considered the ways in which this might work to our advantage. "They'll probably be tossing extra holiday inventory," I offered. Edward nodded, then added: "Or maybe because they were closed for a few days, a bunch of stuff went bad." I nodded. "Or maybe," I noted sagely, "with the economy so bad, they made a lot of extra inventory and had to get rid of it." This was basically a repeat of my first point, but Edward didn't seem to notice or, if he did, was too kind to mention it.I picked him up at the house he rents for $400 with his friend David, a builder of straw-bale homes who sports a gold-capped front tooth and spends his spare hours refining his musculature with a kettlebell, a simple contraption that consists of a 35-£d steel ball with a handle. "I'll show you a few moves," he said, when Edward took a phone call. And he proceeded to crank out a dozen deep knee bends with the ball hanging from his meaty hands like a penance for some earlier transgression.The house was decorated in a style I'll call "rural bachelor rustic," which basically means that David and Edward live as if they occupy a parallel universe, where everything is oriented around an old woodstove and things like women and toilet bowl cleaner have yet to be invented. To contain heat, the upstairs had been closed off, leaving the single, first-story room to serve as bedroom, living room, and kitchen for both Edward and David. Beds were tucked into opposite corners; Edward's was open to the room, but David had troubled himself to fashion a thin privacy curtain from what looked to be old sheets. A large woodstove was central to the space, with an aged couch pulled close. Above the stove, a rack of deer antlers was mounted on a post; wool socks with blown-out heels hung from its points. The wood floor around the stove was pockmarked with charred burns from errant embers; I looked for a fire extinguisher, did not find one, and made studious note of the nearest exit. A circular table held a can of whipped cream (dumpstered), a log of butter (dumpstered), a container of sour cream (dumpstered), and a jar of kimchi, a fermented vegetable medley of Korean origin. David had made it, and he offered me a bite. Unable to source a clean utensil, and finding the dirty ones too dirty to risk, I used the tip of my pocketknife to spear a chunk of cabbage. It was insanely good. I speared another chunk, then rinsed my knife under a kitchen sink faucet that consisted of two garden hose shutoffs. It was not hard to imagine Edward and David growing old in this space, spending their days feeding the woodstove, padding around in soiled long johns, and emitting voluminous kimchi burps.As Edward finished his call, and immediately after I completed a wobbly set of kettlebell deep knee bends (35 £ds never felt so heavy, and I earned not only a kink in my lower back but a new respect for David), David delivered a quick primer in dumpster-diving philosophy. "There is one question the dumpster diver seeks to answer," he told me, his gold tooth gleaming in the light from a bare bulb. "And that is, 'Why was this thrown away?' "I understood immediately that David wasn't asking the question to express his concern over the food's safety but rather to indicate his distaste for capitalism and the profligate waste it often engenders. Already, I'd come to understand that among Edward and his dumpster-diving cohorts, rage against the capitalist machine is a defining motivation. This could be seen as biting the hand that feeds, for if it weren't for free-market capitalism and the inevitable waste it generates, the quantity of well-stocked dumpsters would likely decline. "It's important to not get so attached that we perpetuate the system," explained Edward, when I pointed this out. "Being bummed out that there aren't more dumpsters isn't part of the equation." And yet, I sensed a degree of conflict between Edward's anticapitalist mores and his obvious delight at sniffing out a garbage bag full of brie. Indeed, Edward's lifestyle and identity had clearly been forged, at least in part, by his gleaning habits. It seemed to me that letting go of this, even if it meant the demise of the corporatism he railed against, might be harder than he imagined.One might assume, as I had, that unblemished food would be the dumpster diver's holy grail. But as we embarked on our quest, weaving cautiously through snow-slick turns on the secondary roads that led to the highway, Edward ex£ded on the benefits of food with obvious flaws. "It's nice to know why they threw it away. If it's got mold, or the package is ripped, or it's physically deformed in some way, you know what's going on with it." Another incongruity: The more perishable a product, the more Edward trusts its integrity. "The thing about meat and dairy is it gets thrown out real quick. They don't take any chances with that stuff." To be honest, this comment threw me a bit; it was the first time I seriously considered the wisdom of Edward's food-sourcing habits. I mean, I was down with the whole anticapitalist-waste-stream-diversion gig. Totally. But eating meat someone had discarded for reasons I could only guess at? Maybe I'm showing my age here, but that sounds kind of . . . I don't know . . . risky?Fortunately, tonight we were after cheese, a favorite of Edward's in part because the region is lousy with artisanal cheese makers and in part because it's a food essentially built on fungi. This makes it susceptible to superficial mold that ruins the cheese's salability but is basically harmless and particularly easy to remove. That, and cheese tastes good, which might sound sort of banal and obvious but is actually really, really important, because dumpster diving tends to result in large stores of a singular food. Serious divers are born with the will (or have cultivated the skill; I'm not sure which) to eat the same thing day in, day out, until they've exhausted the score and can move on to the next. It is frowned upon to throw away food you've rescued from the garbage, and divers will go to great lengths to distribute anything they can't personally consume before it goes bad. Or, perhaps more accurately, badder.At this point, it seemed entirely reasonable to bring up the issue of illness, which I'd previously skirted mostly because I didn't want Edward to think I was a ninny. But now the guy was talking about eating meat out of the trash; he'd fed dumpstered cheese to his blood relations, and over the holidays, no less. It was definitely time to go there.Turns out, Edward has gotten sick from dumpster food. Once. In 10 years of committed diving. He has not forgotten the details because the details are not forgettable. "I was out late, partying a little bit, and we were just walking around town, having fun. And I dipped into the trash, and there was a half-gallon jug of Fresh Samantha Mango Mama. It was all sealed up and everything. And suddenly, I was so, so thirsty. I hadn't known I was so thirsty. I hadn't known it was possible to be so thirsty." It sounded to me as if Edward were rather drunk, but I kept my mouth shut.In any event, drunk or not, Edward did exactly what you'd expect a parched dumpster diver to do when finding a half-gallon jug of juice in the garbage: He cracked the cap and put back a solid, uninterrupted quart of Mango Mama. Glug, glug, glug. I'll spare you the rest of the particulars, as I wish Edward had spared me, and simply say this: It didn't stay put back for long.The Fresh Samantha incident stuck with me throughout the night, as Edward and I traveled a circuit of his favorite trash receptacles. At Ye Olde Cheese Worx (business names have been changed to protect future accessibility), we clambered into a dumpster where, amid typical office detritus, we happened upon a few dozen £ds of artisanal Cheddar and numerous packages of sweet butter. A few doors down, at the Center for Aged Fruits and Vegetables, we didn't even have to wallow in the garbage: Next to the dumpster, so close that its side actually touched the cold, brown metal, sat a pallet of organic strawberries. Did they practically throw themselves into the back of my car? They did indeed, as did a stash of Italian vinaigrette, hundreds of servings in convenient single-serving packets. "I love condiments," Edward told me unnecessarily, after wedging four boxes of salad dressing between the deer and the dairy.By midnight, the shocks in the back of my Subaru had become compressed and useless under the load; with every pothole, an alarming thump resonated from under the car. With the deer and the cheese and the butter and the dressing (the strawberries weighed hardly anything), our haul had to be pushing 300 £ds. The sky had cleared, and the temperature had plummeted further. It was well below zero, and I felt suddenly exhausted and vulnerable. Even with the benefit of heavily insulated work gloves, my fingers burned, except for the tip of the middle left, which had surrendered all sensation. Clearly, it was time to go home.But first, I needed a snack. Being the snacking sort, I'd anticipated this moment and had cleverly perched a chunk of cheese atop the defroster vent so that at least its edges might soften a bit. I reached for it now and tore into the plastic wrapping with my teeth, inhaling the aroma of aged Cheddar. It smelled just fine; which is to say, it smelled funky, but no funkier than the cheese I regularly purchased for upwards of $12 per £d at the local health food store. In the glow of the dash, I searched for visible mold. I couldn't find any, but then again, my Subaru is 15 years old, and a handful of burned-out dash lights is part of the toll those years have extracted. I wondered if perhaps I should wait until I got home, where I could examine the cheese under the glare of 80 watts. But I was suddenly ravenous, amazingly, profoundly hungry. I hadn't known it was even possible to be so hungry.

Editorial Reviews

“The book is highly compelling from the first chapter.” —

“Hewitt is a gifted writer--Supper reads like a novel--and he is able to inject tasteful humor into a tasteless subject.” —