Salmonella Tomatoes: An Argument For View Source and Food Miles

Tomatoes -- Are They Poison?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike Licht,

You may not be familiar with the term food miles. Wikipedia describes it thus:

“The point was to highlight the hidden ecological, social and economic consequences of food production to consumers in a simple way, one which had objective reality but also connotations.”

Many people are very skeptical about the “hidden costs of transport” arguments against food that has been shipped thousands of miles. But public health offers another, very clear reason to more deeply consider the provenance of the food we eat. The current salmonella scare in the US is pretty chilling.

As things currently stand in food supply chains we usually have little or no idea of where our food came from. There are very few of us are that are like my friend Chris Dalby, who only buys food from farm shops, but that’s surely going to change as more and more products turn out to be contaminated. Increasingly we’re going to want to be able to “view source” for the food we eat. Food miles encourages us to do just that.

Tim O’Reilly said:

HTML, the language of web pages, opened participation to ordinary users, not just software developers. The “View Source” menu item migrated from Tim Berners-Lee’s original browser, to Mosaic, and then on to Netscape Navigator and even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Though no one thinks of HTML as an open source technology, its openness was absolutely key to the explosive spread of the web. Barriers to entry for “amateurs” were low, because anyone could look “over the shoulder” of anyone else producing a web page. Dynamic content created with interpreted languages continued the trend toward transparency.

Just like the rise of the web we’re going to need new standards, new linking and tagging mechanisms, and new ways of thinking if we’re to going to be able to trust modern food networks as they become increasingly complex.


  1. says

    In the current tomato scare, the point of contamination, where the salmonella came in contact with the plants, must be very small — a field or two at the most.

    But the tainted tomatoes spread to 17 states! Clearly, the distribution mechanism is more efficient than the safe food controls.

    Another reason for diversity through localization is economic. I live in an area (Tampa) with huge tomato farms. Despite having been certified as safe by the FDA, our tomato farmers suffered a $40 million hit last week as grocery and restaurant chains refused to accept shipments ordered months before.

    A more localized and distributed system of growers would have dispersed the financial impact.

  2. says

    There needs to be a serious mindset change with the way that we buy and source our food. Only 25 – 30 years ago, we shopped locally. I don’t remember going into a big supermarket until I was about 9 or 10.

    75% of all the fish landed at Billingsgate market, the biggest fish market in UK, gets exported. The UK imports 75% of all fish consumed in the UK. The stats don’t make sense. Combined with crazy systems meaning certain foods are prepared in UK, then shipped to China for processing, then shipped back and packed (allowing manufacturer to claim it is made in UK).

    Very few of us grow our own food now. I find it hard to make the time too, just like I have 3 tomato plants, two fruit plants and countless salad and herbage to stick in the ground.

    Turning back the last 30 years will be tough, but buying locally and growing your own herbs is a good start.

  3. says

    Huge progress has been made on traceability, in particular after the BSE crisis.

    Still, cattle and poultry movements (remember Bernard Matthews bird flu) and prepared food remain challenging, in particular because once ingredients are transformed the obligation is only to label the end-product fabrication place. I’ve stopped buying ready-made meals a long time ago, but I guess I belong to a minority.

    Bottom line: thank the EU for the norms and look for regional quality labels (AOC in France, DOGC in Italy, etc…)

  4. says

    The real fly in the ointment is monoculture. After a number of generations, sterility is a problem. Before that is vulnerability to catastrophic crop loss due to insects, disease, weather, or other factors. Everything just becomes ‘wound too tight’. Worse yet is GM and ‘modern agriculture’. Find items on Monsanto on YouTube for a real eye-opener. If it seems unbelievable ( yep ) the stats on farmer suicide in, say, India, might motivate further exploration. put out a summary the other day : I posted the link : which should make a person just about ready to say ‘reserve me a space in the funny farm’. It’s that wild.