A Look at Food Safety Through the Prism of a Dumpster Diver (Hint, He's Not Afraid of Too Much)

Given the intensity of political discussion of late, I think it's time for a change of pace. We get that change  from northern Vermont author-farmer Ben Hewitt in an excerpt from his new book, "Making Supper Safe".

Reading through it, I was reminded of one of my favorite scenes from "Seinfeld",the long-running sit-com of the 1990s. It's the scene where George Costanzas is caught, by the mother of his girlfriend, no less, reaching for a beautiful chocolate eclair in the trash--its only blemish being a single bite that was taken before it was discarded. Haven't we all confronted George's dilemma at one time or another?

Hewitt here profiles a man who regularly goes after the eclair, among many other foods. I'll let Hewitt explain.

Ben HewittOne of my motivating factors for writing my latest book, Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety, was the opportunity to explore my own assumptions about what constitutes “safe” food. As such, I was immensely intrigued to learn that someone I knew sourced at least one-third of his calories from dumpsters, and had been doing so for over 10 years. This, with only one case of acute illness he attributes to dumpster’d food (actually, now that I know the incubation periods of most foodborne illnesses, I’m not so certain even that single incident can be blamed on his diet).

 By the end of the dumpster diving adventure that follows, I had begun to understand that not everyone views the issue of food safety in the same light. For instance, my friend wouldn’t be caught dead eating at a fast food joint, but he’ll happily consume locally produced cheese that someone else has deemed trash.

“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 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 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 according solely to his predilection for digging through trash in search of his supper. Still, it’s worth noting that Gunny, a lean-framed 28-year old, sources at least one third of his calories from the garbage, and has been doing so for nearly a decade.

Why, just two weeks prior to our outing, he’d snagged more than 50-pounds of imported brie from a dumpster in Burlington, Vermont. For the Christmas holiday, Edward had hauled a few pounds of the stash to his family’s home in southern New Hampshire, which he then proceeded to bake in his mother’s oven and serve 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.”

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 feeding dumpster’d 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 ten 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 Montage. 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 upon finding a half-gallon jug of juice in the garbage: He cracked the cap and put back a solid, uninterrupted quart of Mango Montage. 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, amidst typical office detritus, we happened upon a few dozen pounds 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 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 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-pounds. The sky had cleared, and the temperature had plummeted even further. It was well below zero, and I felt suddenly exhausted and vulnerable. 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 pound at the local health food store. In the glow of the dash, I searched for visible mold. I couldn’t see any, but I wondered if perhaps I should wait until I get home, where I could examine the cheese under the glare of an 80-watt bulb. But I was suddenly ravenous, amazingly, profoundly hungry. I hadn’t known it was even possible to be so hungry.

“What do you think?” I asked Edward. “Is it safe?” I held the cheese in my right hand and steered the car with my left. The skeletal outlines of leafless trees rushed by my window.

Edward laughed, and frankly I couldn’t be sure if he was laughing at my question because he assumed it was sincere (it was), or because he assumed it was joke, or if he was simply finding mirth in the delightful absurdity of the whole scene: Two men careening through a late winter’s night, their car laden with enough artisanal food to feed them for a month. We had hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of food in our possession, and it had cost us nothing more than a gallon or two of gas, a few hours missed sleep, and the ability to feel things with the tip of one finger.

I figured that if I waited a minute, Edward would stop laughing and answer my question. But he didn’t, and I was hungry.

So I shrugged my shoulders. And took a bite.

Great story David, reminds me of myself actually. Years ago, back in my anarcho-hippy days, living in housing co-ops (where I was first introduced to raw milk) I actually did a fair bit of dumpster diving for food. Every Saturday we'd cook vegan food for the local street people. It all had a "kill step" of course since it was all cooked, though we didn't think much about those food safety issues at the time. We were just doing our part to help the homeless.

http://www.foodnotbombs.net/

It is truely sad how much food we throw away in America. I have seen this firsthand. Its a symptom of the much deeper problems of consumerism and waste.

Also, the incident where Edward got sick is a bit suspicious. I don't know of any organism that has such a short incubation period. Most require at least 8 hours. The only exception is Staph Aureus, and that is probably because of the entero-toxin it produces (not the germ itself -- staph is a toxigenic organism at high concentrations, not usually a pathogenic one to humans. It is a natural inhabitant of our skin.)

I hate to quote Marler, but he is onto something here:

http://www.marlerblog.com/lawyer-oped/separating-the-wheat-from-the-chaff---the-reality-of-proving-a-foodborne-illness-case/

More than likely that illness was from something else the author alludes to....

The story brought to mind the first thing I saw after entering NYC through one of the tunnels in the spring of 2001. It was an elderly woman picking through a trash can. I thought how sad, someones grandma appeared homeless and was searching for food.

The road kill, while fresh, would not bother me....dumpster diving would turn my stomach for sure. I've eaten street food from many countries, Europe, Istanbul, across the Bosphorus-haven't a clue what I ate, remember it was good...... I am sure I have tossed good food into the trash because I wasn't sure of its "safety".

Make a mental note of this. Ben writes about OPDC and quotes me through several chapters. He says in one passage that I took him to check on my Private Jet. Wrong data. I do not own a jet and would not own a jet. They guzzle fuel and I can not land on my farm pastures. I own TB 20 Trinidad five place prop plane. Super cheap to fly and costs less than my F150 to drive on longer trips especially with my wife and passengers and potty breaks and star bucks stops. The plane is much cheaper.

Not sure where Ben got the jet thing.

Sylvia/David,

From last post, I brought up the Marler Clark presentation as "lessons learned." There is a positive spin there with the RAWMI proposal. Although it has not been made public, it appears there is a hint that the raw milk industry tapped into a trained professional with experience in dairy food safety, epidemiology, and microbiology. Kudos, if so.

Despite the cliche, there is perhaps a reason to embrace looking at past outbreaks and learning from them else "Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it."

MW

I am still thinking....and taking deep breaths.

Milky Way,
You know, I would very much like to accept your portrayal of the Marler Clark presentation as "lessons learned." I have advocated discussion and conciliation and education as ways to begin resolving the raw dairy conflicts. Unfortunately, "Raw Milk on Trial: Herzog vs Organic Pastures" does not feel real warm and fuzzy, just the opposite of constructively "looking at past outbreaks and learning from them." No, that presentation was provocative. Like I said, maybe the idea was to bring people to the presentation, and for that purpose it's fine. But any constructive discussion depends, first and foremost, on going in with a positive and open-minded attitude, and this presentation is accusatory and self congratulatory, as in "we are the experts in food-borne illness and we know how to wring the maximum financial awards from the system."
http://www.marlerblog.com/uploads/image/HerzogvsOP.pdf

David

"Given the intensity of political discussion of late, I think it's time for a change of pace."

This is amazing. You've let Bill spout off his political views for months, and when someone corners him you hurry up and change the subject.

I still want an answer to my question, Bill. You spent a lot of time yesterday telling me how wrong I am and then had the nerve to insult my intelligence, you owe me an answer.

This is your RAWMI director, folks. Slippery, condescending, arrogant. I knew a lot of people like him once. Naturally very intelligent, they think that because they're "smarter" than you they have the right to tell you what to do, to save you from your own stupidity.

This is your RAWMI director. Contempt for those very farmers who are producing the product he claims to advocate. Marginalizing those who don't agree with him. No room for dissenting opinions. That reeks of an agenda.

So, Bill, answer this:

Does the government have the right to use force to confiscate our property to fund salaries that we have no say in?

(Does that sound like democracy to you, Bill?)

Yes or no?

A good nights sleep is great policy when writing anything on a blog. Especially after my Marler whipping at NEHA. I wrote a treatise last night and then saved it....best thing I could have done.

After some deep refection and after seeing the long list of FDA affiliated associations and agencies that make it open policy that they hate RAWMILK....it is clear to me that this is an EDUCATIONAL WAR. A war of thought and a war of wrestling over the minds of the American Consumer.

What is most profound to me is that the battle field is not level or balanced or even located in the same place. Our moms are located in a different valley than Marler and those associations that follow the FDA pursuits.

Teaching the moms that care about their kids is a sacred place....a place that the FDA can not speak in. They have been banished and their advice is hollow.They have spent their political capital, when the moms used FDA drugs and highly processed foods that sickened their kids. Marler is a newbie to this educational battle and his words only resonate with very few injured people.

To reach out and feed the moms that want non allergenic and none lactose intolerance causing RAWMILK is our thrust. RAWMI is essential to this effort because our products must be safe. This strategy must be solid. With out RAWMI we feed the monster and create injured people. We become our own enemy....the oposition has defeated itself already if we just stopped helping them to defeat us...we would declare victory. Dollar voting and truth takes care of this in time.

I feel quite priveledged to be the National Raw Milk Whipping Post. It is a clear sign that we have arrived.

TEACH TEACH TEACH....in another time and place and enemy it would be shoot shoot shoot... but this is an Educational WAR!!! A battle for the minds and gut of America.

I speak at CAL TECH University in two weeks with hundreds expected in attendence....JPL labs ( jet propulsion labs..the rocket scientsits in LA ) is sending over some scientists and is a sponsor of the event along side WAP. Teach Teach Teach....like our lives depend on it. Cause they do. The bastards are poisoning our families and kids.

Marler....the next time you chose to publically whip me, please use a better PP picture. There should be some morsel of consideration among teacher soldiers. We do not even have a Geneva convention on how to fight the RAWMILK EDUCATIONAL WAR...there are no peace keepers or rules of common decentcy or ethics. This I can tell for sure.

Words in a settlement do not seem to matter either. These are battle lessons that I will surely use at RAWMI.

Mark

Ha! I'm really looking forward to reading Ben's new book. As a once avid dumpster diver, who still occasionally pulls things from the trash (especially furniture, clothes, books, and other household items), it's always funny to see people's reactions to it. My cousin, who is (in my opinion) the queen of the dumpster divers (and is in the middle of writing a book on freeganism), and I once dumpstered a whole load of strawberries, rinsed them off, and left them on the counter. The next morning, after sleeping off a night spent driving from dumpster to dumpster, we came downstairs to discover my mother, my germaphobic ultra paranoid mother, eating the strawberries. Needless to say she was fine.

The real issue with dumpster diving is that you are usually picking up industrial foods- GMOs, pesticides, hormones, irradiation, and god only knows what else are prevalent. It's kind of why I quit. I didn't want the pesticide laden strawberries that were mysteriously unblemished after weeks of sitting on grocery store shelves... even if they were free.

Hi Mark,

I'm very sorry about confusing your prop plane for a jet. Clearly, I hadn't drunk nearly enough OPDC raw milk that morning! I'll be sure to issue a correction for the paperback edition.

Gotta go, the trash is calling.

- Ben

Ben,

You are forgiven....drink up and dive carefully.

I too just finished Ben's fine book, which takes a nice, long and reasonably objective look at food safety in general (it is not totally about raw milk - David's got that covered). I found Ben's chapter and other mentions of Marler particularly helpful in understanding this powerful person's views and motivations (at least, according to himself).

Steve,

As much as I hate to suggest it, I learned so much from POISONED as well. It teaches us about recent FDA history and how food safety policy evolves and who leads and who follows and why. It is about the forces of economics and how the audacity of one dashing, risk taking Mr. Marler can have a massive impact on our countries food. Like it or not.

If we are going to lead....we must read. We must know our adversaries well. We must absolutely know history and the inside track of the story of how it all really happened or at least in Marlers mind how it happened. Marlers mind matters...he leads FDA policy as an insider. He is the canary that we can read when Sheehan will not speak.

Barney-

This is getting ridiculous, and we should not be flooding David's blog with this silly pointless debate. I will respond to you here, but please direct any future debates/question to my personal email address -- wicheesemaker@gmail.com.

Thanks. Here is my response:

I do not support that this land which we now occupy was taken by force from the Native American people as part of the largest genocide in world history -- the European conquest of the Americas.

Private property is a European idea which our ancestors imposed onto the Natives through fraud, coercion, and genocide. The natives lived in harmony with the land and (for the most part) with each other. They did not have prisons, police, standing armies, or central banks. And they considered land to be a common resource shared by all, not something to be fenced off for the profit of one or a few individuals.

All of these oppressive insitutions , including taxation, are very much a part of the economic and political system imposed by Europeans. So to answer your question: IF you, Barney Google, think you have the right to fence off a peice of the commons (all land begins as a common resource) and expect to be able to use force to defend it from others, then yes, you absolutely owe the commons something in return. This is not socialism I am talking about, this is classical liberalism -- John Locke.

In other news, I spent all of today in a course about dairy laboratory techniques at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. I learned some interesting stuff which could be of use to RAWMI in the future.

Bill,

You do not understand Locke . . . .if you did you would not be quoting him in response to Barney's post.

If it was not Europe, it would have been Asia or even Russia who took over North America, South America, etc. It is just what humanity is . . . . the stong does overcome the weak. The Native Americans did get the short end of the stick . . . . and I will not deny this as I am descended from them way back. But I as well as millions of others with mixed racial/ethnic backgrounds have assimilated into our country. Believe me . . . some of the most patriotic out there are Native Americans. Many of them serve in our Armed forces. . . .

The greatest geneocide in the 20th Century was in the Ukraine . . . . nearly 20 million of them (mostly farmers) perished under Stalin.

Hitler, Pol Pot . . . . Idi Amin . . . . Rawanda. . etc, bad, very bad.

One of the greatest geneocides ever has happened in this country due to a very bad ruling by our Supreme Court . . . . but I will not go there. Put it this way . . . . more have perished under this ruling than all of our dead fought in wars from our Revolution to today. This would equal 2X the number of Native Americans in the US prior to our landing in Jamestowne, Virginia (I am not including the conquest of the Spanish in this but it was just as bad).

Bill, you are not always right . . . .neither am I . . . . none of us are that perfect.

Kind regards,

Violet
www.kilbyridgefarmmaine.blogspot.com

Bill,

If you remember, I asked you to not respond to me regarding the video I posted, but your inflated ego once again got the best of you.

You've clogged up this blog over and over preaching from your political soapbox, and now in an attempt to make me look like a bully you're trying to take some sort of moral high ground and "ask that I stop this nonsense", when the reality is, you've painted yourself into a corner and you're trying to save face.

You've asked us over and over to work within the system, yet your answer above totally discredits that same system. A purely communal society is not the society we currently live in. We have private property, we pay taxes or face imprisonment. Those very same taxes pay the salaries of public, unionized employees. Plus, you've clogged this blog with numerous posts regarding the collective bargaining law in Wisconsin, yet when asked to defend the funding of those very same union employees, you give me an emotional, not rational, answer.

I see I'm not going to get a direct answer out of you, but it's pretty clear what you believe. I hope others can see it, too.

I never dumpster dive for food, but I have found enough good lumber and construction materials in dumpsters to build a nice barn for free.

Also, a case study in reducing dumpster waste:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/construction-waste-zm0z10zrog.aspx

Dr. Joe,

I have never dumpster dived either, but I sure wanted to one day when I was in Orange County CA at a natural food store delivering raw milk last year. I watched in shock as they threw out 100 dozen organic eggs in their cartons into the dumpster outback. Then they threw out the organic strawberries by the carton followed by the blue berries. It made me ill to watch. They throw out the inventory based on code dates even though it was perfectly good. I must admit I did sneak a few berries. I could not stand it.

Here is some awesome news!!!

Dr. Cat Berge DVM and the 4 RAW MILK CATS cycling team are averaging 19.6 MPH after 1500 miles.Their next check point is in Maize Kansas. If you really want to make their day...and you are located along their route....go cheer them on.

The finish line is in Maryland...the land of NO RAW MILK. Go to the finish line and give them huge raw milk hugs. They deserve it. They are way ahead of the previous international RAAM race coast to coast speed record of 17 MPH.

They think it is the Raw Chocolate Milk. They are awesome! What a super positive group of humans!!

http://www.4rawmilkcats.com/

Mark

WOW!

I just got back from day 2 of the Dairy Laboratory workshop course at the Center for Dairy Research UW-Madison.

One of the dairy scientists lecturing made an off-the-cuff remark about how a lot of Wisconsin dairy farmers are dirty and don't clean their milk pipeline between morning and evening milkings. Keep in mind, this was in front of a class of a bunch of lab techs working in big cheese plants from around the state. Few of them ever see the inside of a milk house.

Little beknownst to the lecturer was that there was one dairy farmer lurking amongst the audience. She ripped the scientist a new one!! It was a spectacle to behold. He ended up apologizing to her after the class.

To me, this is just more evidence of the need for RAWMI. We can prove industry shills like this guy wrong with thorough testing and documentation, proving that there really are two raw milks in America. The farmers that don't clean their pipelines between milkings can stay with the processors. The rest will have RAWMI evidence and science to back them up.