Food Sovereignty

Image description: long colorful rows for fruit and vegetables starting with eggplant, carrots, cherries, and bananas. Picture from Pixabay

Have you observed that there is a great injustice in the food system? That many people do not have access to nutritious food? Have you wondered what you could do to help? This inequality in the food supply was the one of the reasons I left academia and started the Food Industry Employment Program.  I was frustrated because I could see that the food supply was not fulfilling the true needs of the consumer or the public. While we were being told that manufacturers supplied the consumer’s demand for high fat, high sugar and high salt food products; this carefully ignored the fact that the demand came from the ease at which these were available to manufacturers.

I saw the disconnect from the wealthy-healthy food movement. This is made up of mostly white people at my local food coop or shopping at Wholefoods. They have little, if any, conception of how food is made and how much it really cost to get food to the table.

The percentage of people with diabetes doubled in 20 years from ~4.7% deaths in 1996 to 9.5% deaths 2016 and heart disease continues to be the top cause of death in the USA.. People from low economic backgrounds suffer more from the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables and the consequences of the trauma of poverty and a poor diet. Why is that, and what can we do?

Image description: A graph showing how the percentage of US adults with diabetes has increased from 1994 to 2016. The median is in black and starts at below 5% and ends at below 10% suggesting that the percentage of adults in the US has doubled since 1994. The graph is from the CDC.

One way for me is to consider what I am learning from the readings I have found through Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Challenge.

“The challenge is designed to create dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits, particularly those dealing with issues of race, power, privilege, and leadership. Participation in an activity like this helps us to discover how racial injustice and social injustice impact the food system, to connect with one another, to identify ways to dismantle racism and become better leaders for a more just, equitable food system.”

A couple of the initial readings really help me put the different terminology into perspective. What do the different terms like social justice, racial equity, and food sovereignty really mean? First of all, we need to recognize that for some people the current food system is working fine. They have work, they are paid well, they get enough healthy nutritious food to eat. For those of us who recognize that the food system is problematic, there are different approaches that can be taken. In this Food First backgrounder,  Eric Holt-Giménez describes four different approaches to changing the food system:

  1. Food Enterprise
  2. Food Security
  3. Food Justice
  4. Food Sovereignty

The first two don’t really change the current system as much as build on it. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and multi-national corporations are part of this form of change. The last two are food movements. In the backgrounder, food justice is given as a progressive change, which while still working in the current food system, makes changes by economically and otherwise supporting minorities, local food producers, farm laborers and food workers. Food sovereignty is a radical restructuring and reinventing the food system. In the food sovereignty model of change, the people who make the change are the people most affected by that change.

I tend to hover between these last two. I grew up with privilege and I have worked in the food industry long enough to recognize that radical change is challenging and for it to occur there would have to be a political restructuring in many governments and in the United Nations. The focus/mission of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund would have to be totally redirected. I’m not sure how the food sovereignty movement builds the power needed to change international organizations.

Image description: A ring of people sitting on grass holding one of their hand to the center of the ring. This is a diverse group of people.

In the meantime, I continue to help food entrepreneurs and small food businesses work their way through the myriad of food regulations, so that they can stay compliant and grow their businesses by producing high quality and safe food. We are changing the food system one step at a time through our commitment to values such healthy, agroecology, fair trade, and fair labor. In that way we build a sustainable and resilient food system.

Cooking together

Image description: In the center there is a round barbecue on which there is some corn on the cob still wrapped in the leaves, some slices of lemon, and many skewers with vegetables and vegetables and meat. Hands are holding some of the skewers and we can see hands of different skin tones. There is green grass below the bbq. Photo by from Pexels

What can you do to help?

If you are into radical action, look at organizations like Via Campesina, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Baltimore’s Black Yield Justice, Soil Generation in Philadelphia, and other similar food groups working on Food Sovereignty. Do you know who is working on food sovereignty in your neighborhood? For UK readers perhaps you could see what Global Justice is doing action on food sovereignty. If you are not US/UK based, who is working on food sovereignty in your country? Leave a comment below and I will share that information in a later blog post.

Image description: A spade in bare ground. Some tiny green shoots can be seen. The ground beyond the spade is clumpy. Photo by Lukas from Pexels

If you want to something less radical, what about helping out at your local food bank or food pantry? Or perhaps look an opportunity to help at a community garden or glean foods that are not harvested. Shopping at a farm stand or local farmers market is an action to change and you get fresh, tasty food from a local farmer. Or find your Slow Food chapter.

Leave a comment below to let us know what you are doing or plan to do to make food more accessible to all.

Take Care! Food is out to kill us!

These peppercorns totally Salmonella free (I don’t recommending licking the screen) Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Bacteria shouldn’t survive on dry food such as flour, flaxseed meal, chocolate and black pepper. Or so we thought. Food science has a mysterious measurement called water activity which shows how much water is present in a food that is available for microorganism growth. Moisture content lets us know the total amount of water in a food. Water activity is a key factor in food preservation; like pH. Water activity runs from 0, which is no water to 1.0 which is pure water. Food scientists have known that if water activity is less than 0.6 no microorganism growth can occur. In fact, bacteria need a water activity of 0.85 before they can grow. So why did Norway just have an outbreak which was most likely caused by a dried nut mix?

A pile of tiny brown seeds
A pile of flax seeds from Alexdante at Pixabay

I am a very frustrated consumer and food science professional. I have been doing a hazard analysis and looking up all the ingredients I and my clients use. Pretty much every ingredient, especially if they are processed, has been involved in causing foodborne illness or been part of a recall because they might contain pathogens. This is pretty shocking as this implies we have a serious problem with food manufacturing in the US. Initially, I thought that recalls showed that the system is working, especially if no one became ill. Well it is in a way, if food is withdrawn from the market before anyone gets ill. However, managing a food supply by responding to the potential threat of Salmonella etc. AFTER they have been found in a manufacturing facility is NOT a safe food system. So now I believe that recalls show we have a  broken food system.

On top of all that, the American Ambassador to Great Britain claims that American agriculture is science and technology based whereas the EU uses traditional methods which should be in a museum! That will please the Germans! Britons, so far, are unimpressed with the idea of an open trade agreement with the US especially around food. There have been quite a few rebuttals from British farmers. James Rebank had a couple of great responses on Instagram. Additionally, Sustain showed that there are more foodborne illnesses per capita in the US compared to the UK, refuting his claim that US food manufacturing is safer than British ag. Did you know that your US chicken was chlorine rinsed?

Picture of a raw chicken ready for grilling with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and a head of garlic nearby.
Chicken is ready for grilling. Hopefully those tomatoes are going to be grilled too.
Image by RitaE from Pixabay

What have we done?

  • Why are so many people in the US getting ill from food poisoning?
  • How many products made by small food businesses fall through the cracks?
  • How many small manufacturers check to see if they have bacteria in their facility?
  • How many food entrepreneurs consider food safety serious issue equal to marketing?

There has to be a better more sustainable, more resilient way to produce food on a large scale. The large manufacturers must know the risks. Do small food businesses? Is local food the answer? What do you think are the next steps to improving our food system? Comment, share, and keep the conversation going.

Noncompliance = Death

Noncompliance equals death seems to be turning into my tagline. Am I being over the top? Sadly not. According to the CDC, about 3000 people die from foodborne illness each year. That’s not counting the ones left serious/gravely ill. Which pathogens are most dangerous? For healthy adults, most pathogens will give a few days of discomfort (vomiting, diarrhea, fever). However, the response for at risk groups (young children, elderly adults, immunocompromised and pregnant individuals) is much more severe and more likely to be fatal. There are many food pathogens. The CDC has data showing which are more likely to cause illness, hospitalization, death. This is within the known causes of foodborne illness; more than 50% of cases remain unresolved.

Clostridium botulinum

Image Description: Rod shaped bacteria colored blue and orange on a black background.

In this post I am focusing on Clostridium botulinum. I was reminded of the horrors of botulism by a recent article in Gastro Obscura as this is a particularly unpleasant way to die. Fortunately C. botulinum doesn’t kill many people today because we know how to prevent it from growing and producing its toxin. Many food safety regulations are based around preventing C. botulinum from killing people.

C. botulinum is a problem in canned and bottled food because there is little or no oxygen present. The lack of oxygen reduces the chance of spoilage organisms but if we remove oxygen and C. botulinum will thrive. These bacteria are known as obligate anaerobes as they cannot survive if oxygen is present.

Image description: Clip art of three cans containing vegetables.

There are two types of heat treatment you can use to control C. botulinum, depending on whether your food is high in acid or not. C. botulinum does not like acid, so high acid foods can be boiled for a set time to kill the bacteria. Low acid foods, especially if they also are high moisture, must be heated to temperatures well above boiling. C. botulinum produces spores when under stress conditions that would kill other bacteria, such as Listeria or Salmonella spps. Spores are like the seeds for the bacteria and when conditions improve these spores germinate and release botulinum toxin, aka botox. Yes, the botulinum toxin which causes botulism is Botox and is used to remove wrinkles and helps a friend with her migraines..

To destroy C. botulinum and prevent spores in low acid food requires a temperature above boiling (>240 oF/116 oC; guide to temperatures and food preservation). This can be reached at home in a pressure canner. To show that food has been manufactured properly, temperature must be measured with a calibrated thermometer and records must be kept.

Processed food is divided into low acid and high acid food because C. botulinum cannot survive in high acid foods. People who make canned tomatoes and other mid-acid foods measure the acid content by measuring pH and reduce the pH so that the final product has a pH below 4.6 (more about pH and food). The acid level in food is measured as pH with a calibrated pH meter and records must be kept.

Reducing the water content can also reduce C. botulinum. Food technologists measure water activity (more about water activity) which is a more accurate measurement than moisture content of whether bacteria will grow in a food. To stop bacteria from growing, water activity should be below 0.85. This can be measured with a calibrated water activity meter and records must be kept.

In summary, while C. botulinum rarely causes foodborne illness, when it does it causes death. Therefore, the food entrepreneur must have constant vigilance to ensure that the food they are making is low acid, low moisture and/or heat treated and records to match their control method..


  1. Lydia Zuraw The 5 Most Dangerous Pathogens Food Safety News, Sept 14, 2015; Site last visited on Nov 26 2018.
  2. CDC Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings; July 15, 2016; Site last visited on Nov 26 2018.
  3. CDC Home Canned Foods; October 4, 2018; Site last visited Nov 29 2018.
  4. CDC Botulism; October 4, 2018; Site last visited Nov 30 2018.
  5. FDA Guidance for Commercial Processors of Acidified & Low-Acid Canned Foods; March 14 2018; Site lasted visited Nov 30 2018.
  6. Tal Mcthenia The Lethal Lunch That Shook Scotland Atlas Obscura, Nov 15, 2018; site last visited Nov 30 2018.
  7. Julie A. Albrecht Clostridium botulinum University of Nebraska-Lincoln, no publication date; site last visited Nov 30 2018.
  8. Carolyn L. McCarty and co workers Notes from the Field: Large Outbreak of Botulism Associated with a Church Potluck Meal — Ohio, 2015; CDC MMWR, 64 (29); 802-803, July 31, 2015; site last visited Nov 30 2018.
  9. News Desk Ohio Botulism Outbreak: 1 Dead, 23 Hospitalized After Potluck Food Safety News, April 21 2015; site last visited Nov 29 2018
  10. National Center for Home Food Preservation, General Canning Information: Temperatures for food preservation Feb 2, 2017; Site last visited Nov 30 2018