Aspen Times Weekly: Hard to Swallow |

Aspen Times Weekly: Hard to Swallow

by Amanda Rae
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

TO ME, TACOS are just not the same without cilantro, and this summer I found myself on a self-imposed taco boycott. In late July, there was no sign, literally, of the organic herb in the City Market produce section, and a few weeks would pass before it was back in stock. Eventually, organic cilantro returned — for $1.99 per bunch, as compared to 99 cents previously. The shortage resulted from the FDA’s partial ban on cilantro imported from the top growing region of Puebla, Mexico, after inspectors found “objectionable conditions” at 8 of 11 major farms and linked those operations to multiple cases of Cyclosporiasis infection in the United States over the past few years.

“There’s not enough organic cilantro to feed demand,” says Justin Carpenter, Aspen City Market produce manager. “We have run out a few times.” Of all produce, he adds, organic cilantro is “one of the few items that is significantly higher” than its conventional counterpart —typically 99 cents compared to 39 cents per bunch. “Organic is the choice for many people, especially for many people who live in this area,” he adds. “What’s happening now in this country is the demand for organics is increasing so much that the supplies are often short.”

The temporary cilantro shortage and price jump is nothing compared to what the media dubbed the Great Lime Crisis of 2014 — which hit, conveniently, right around Cinco de Mayo. Though initially sparked by severe winter rains that damaged crops and compounded by a citrus-killing bacterium outbreak in Mexico — which exports 95 percent of limes sold in the U.S. — drug cartels capitalized on the situation. Finding it ever harder to smuggle illegal substances across the border, cartels from the lime-growing capital of Michoacán decided to diversify their business, using violence, kidnapping, and other extortion tactics to control the lime trade. The crisis served as an eye-opening example of how the war on drugs may influence American consumers’ daily life in seemingly banal ways.

“We did run completely out of limes for a short time,” Carpenter says. “When they came back, they tripled in price for a while — for four to five months. That was big.”

“Mexican is still the hottest food trend in the world — that’s a fact.” — Zocalito Latin Bistro chef-owner Mike Beary, on unfortunate shortages of cilantro and limes in recent years

Chef Mike Beary of Zocalito Latin Bistro felt the pinch. “[It] killed me, as we juice approximately three cases a week, mostly for cocktails,” he says, dropping expletives to make his point clear. “I had to take the beating as I couldn’t change the drinks.”

Food shortages are an ever-present thorn in the side of restaurant owners and chefs, and they speak to growing problems: climate change, the war on drugs, and food-borne illness. Consider the latter: Some 48 million Americans get sick from food contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli, listeria, and salmonella each year, and many of these modern diseases have been linked to factory farming and concentrated animal feeding operations. The estimated annual cost of medical treatment, lost productivity, and resulting death is about $55.5 billion, according for a 2015 study by a professor at Ohio State University. Yes, billion.

Salmonella in peanut butter, E. coli in bagged spinach, listeria in ice cream, moldy spices — the list is never-ending. Visit the “All Recalls” page and you’ll find a cornucopia of potential hazards, not all of which are about getting sick, but also about getting hurt: cheese slices wrapped in plastic that may pose a choking hazard; bottles of hard cider prone to sudden explosion due to concerns of re-fermentation; bread that may have been baked with shards of glass. This information is hard to swallow.

All this ties into the shady ways of big business. Recently the Peanut Corporation of America made headlines worldwide as owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in one of the worst salmonella outbreaks ever recorded. Parnell was convicted of knowingly shipping peanut butter and other products that caused at least 700 people to become ill and killed 9 others across dozens of states in 2008 and 2009, and for that he received what is considered the harshest penalty to date for this type of crime. This incident, along with others, prompted the FDA to release stricter rules for food producers, the most significant overhaul since the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The term “fear mongering” may be bandied about in the media, but the statistics don’t lie. What’s more, produce gets into the hands of consumers faster than the FDA can publicize a recall, and it’s often hard to pinpoint outbreaks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 of every 29 people who get sick from a salmonella outbreak will be formally diagnosed.

So what’s an eater to do? The easy answer is to avoid the grocery store and grow all your own food, but that’s not realistic for most of us. So, do what you’ve been told and follow basic safety precautions: wash produce (and your hands), inspect packaged food before putting it in your mouth, and understand the risk associated with raw milk and raw fish.

Or, follow Aaron Thier’s lead. The novelist proposes a radical idea in the current issue of Lucky Peach magazine: The Food-Free Diet. It’s just what it sounds like. Think it might take off in Aspen?