When a good Jewish mother or grandmother knows she’s going to have a big group of special guests, she shifts into high gear to prepare meals. (Yes, I’m definitely stereotyping here, but bear with me.) She phones her butcher for the best cuts of meats. She visits her vegetable market for the freshest veggies and fruits. She buys the best eggs and cream cheese and lox and bagels she can find. And, for sure, she begins baking her richest and most delectable desserts.
When Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization, began planning its annual food conference last spring, to be held at Asilomar overlooking the Pacific near Monterey, over Christmas (a very quiet time for most Jews), it made Tracy Lerman of Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation its Jewish mother in charge of procuring the best food possible.
“My role was to source food from organic and sustainable farms,” she recounted to a group of attendees on Saturday, as she attempted to provide a behind-the-scenes sense of her challenges. “I have a lot of contacts with local farms” in Northern California.
“We spent a lot of time trying to get farmers to donate food … For example, we got 25 dozen of the best eggs in the country,” she recounted.
There was just one problem when she had completed her work on the eggs: “You are not eating any of those eggs.”
It was the same story for a farm prepared to donate 500 pounds each of apples and cabbage, another farm wanting to donate 200 pounds of butternut squash, another with 40 pounds of sugar pie pumpkins, and another with 325 pounds of fresh trout, among others. All told, nine farms had their donations rejected. And maybe saddest of all, there were dozens of pasture-raised chickens, slaughtered under kosher supervision, which a group of Hazon conference attendees hand plucked the feathers out of at a nearby farm, as required under kosher rules. They were to be the centerpieces of a Friday evening Sabbath dinner. Rejected, and in their place, kosher chickens provided by a factory-farming type business.
The problem was food safety, or more precisely, the food safety regulations of the mega corporation that runs Asilomar’s food service-ARAMARK . Its corporate food safety regulations require that the company inspect each provider of food being served at Asilomar, to determine whether it has a HACCP plan (for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), traceback records (to determine where all ingredients originate), a certain level of insurance, and other such “credentials.”
The rules are not unlike those close to being enacted by Congress under new federal food safety legislation. They put the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in charge of verifying the HACCP plans that will be required of all food producers in the U.S., down to the smallest maker of artisan cheeses and jams and jellies. Some farms will be caught up in the new web as well, if they are judged to be involved in processing and packaging.
For both ARAMARK and the U.S. government, the underlying driver in all this is fear–as in fear of tainted ground beef, spinach, peanut butter, peppers, and all the other foods that have been involved in recalls and illness over the past few years. Not surprisingly, small sustainable producers haven’t been implicated in any of these recalls, and are rarely sources of food-borne illness, but that doesn’t matter in the new climate of fear and concern about being sued.
Here’s how Jack Burkam, the Resident District Manager for ARAMARK at Asilomar, put it to attendees as the same panel discussion at which Tracy Lerman gave her Jewish mother explanation of the situation: “As a company that feeds as many as 1,200 at a sitting, you need to know the sources of the food you are getting…It’s a dilemma for us and everyone involved in the business. Our brand is known for food and we are known for safety.”
To purchase from “unknown sources” (even those Tracy Lerman could attest to) “is a huge risk. It’s a risk not many companies can take” in the current fear-based food-safety climate.
He added: “We source from as many local sources as possible. It’s a complicated process. We have controls that keep us from obtaining large numbers of items from sources we don’t know.”
So, one might say, better to be safe than sorry. But the reality is that none of the nine farms that had its products rejected had any known history of problems with unsafe products.
Still and all, you might say, the decision of whether they want to comply with all ARAMARK’s regulations is up to the companies. There are plenty of markets out there that don’t require HACCP plans and other such official niceties.
But before long–possibly a matter of several weeks or months, when Congress is expected to pass major food safety legislation, which President Obama has promised to sign–the choice option will disappear, since all food processors (the distinction between farmer and processor can become dicey, since washing and packing certain foods on a farm can be considered processing) will need to comply with regulations much like ARAMARK’s. HACCP plans, frequent records inspections, and very tough penalties (possibly $10,000 a day) for being judged not in compliance will go into effect, administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
How might life be different once the new food safety legislation becomes law? Well, if the experiences of the 600-plus attendees at the Hazon Food Conference is any indication, we could lose access to access to some significant number of smaller producers. The nine producers rejected by Aramark were nearly half of the nineteen that wanted to donate food (ten were accepted by Aramark).
And as far as food quality and variety are concerned, let’s just say that a good Jewish mother or grandmother would not have been happy about the unevenness of the meals. For example, ARAMARK ran out of main courses at the first dinner (an uninspired mix of tofu and green beans)–latecomers wound up with an even less inspired plate of barley and canned mushrooms. Similarly, a breakfast of lox and bagels was missing the bagels–many attendees were clearly unhappy with the rice crackers that substituted…and the lox ran out after about 20 per centof the guests had been served–the rest had to settle for smoked trout.
The chicken at the Friday evening Sabbath dinner was okay, but certainly not nearly as good as the local pastured chickens would have been. Interestingly, many of the chicken thighs and legs were undercooked, which is a great way to spread salmonella. And let’s just say the chocolate pudding dessert would have embarrassed moms of all religions–it was grainy and had attendees making some serious sour faces. Granted, making pudding without milk or cream is a challenge (no dairy products are allowed to be served with meat at kosher meals), but one can ask in response whether pudding was the best choice.
There were a few excellent meals. One lunch salad of wild salmon and greens was very well done, as was a breakfast of French toast stuffed with apples and blueberries.
But by and large, attendees were disappointed that a foodie conference’s food would be so ordinary and institutional. The last day’s lunch plate of a scoop of mashed potatoes next to a scoop of rice with lentils seemed to put an exclamation mark on the frustrations of trying to serve local produce when half your vendors are disqualified under arbitrary safety regs. As a rabbinical student put it to me: “It all had a very corporate feel to it.”
As the food safety zealots take over, our food options in any number of places could have much more of a corporate feel.