Two large-scale investigations of contaminated food, sick consumers and product recalls hit headlines this month, and some shoppers see them as reasons to be extra careful about their produce.
Modesto-based Valley Meat Co. moved to pull nearly 1 million pounds of possibly contaminated ground beef products Aug. 6 after seven people became ill from the bacteria E. coli.
More than 1,000 people sickened by a salmonella outbreak triggered a nationwide recall last week of tainted eggs produced by two Iowa farms -- Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.
These cases are attention-getting and follow increased scrutiny about how Americans get their food.
They're also rare. In 2005, there were 52 meat and poultry recalls. This year, there have been 17.
Shoppers at Modesto's farmers markets had heard about both recalls. They're a particularly health-conscious crowd, and they shared plenty of views this weekend on the care they put into picking their dinners.
It took one viewing of the 2008 documentary "Food, Inc.," an unflattering look at corporate farming in America, to convince Modestan Kathy Tarlow, 65, to change her ways. While meticulously selecting organic tomatoes from a basket, Tarlow talked about the strict food purchase policies she has adopted in the past month: organic milk, eggs from free-range chickens, and pork, beef and chicken raised humanely.
"I'm totally into that now," Tarlow said. "It's been a big change. I should have done it sooner."
Lindsay Castle, 25, isn't squeamish about supermarket meat. She attributes that to growing up in a family of butchers who sometimes brought home less than the freshest cuts of meat.
"We always ate meat pulled from the shelf," Castle said. "I'm actually pretty confident in the (U.S. Department of Agriculture). If it's on the shelf, if I cook it to temperature, it should be fine."
Farmer Gilbert Erickson, 71, worries about where his food is coming from when he sees food trucks rumbling along the highway.
"Look at the trucks on the road," Erickson said. "Are those refrigerators working? How many states did they pass through? How many people handled (the food)?"
Erickson runs the Rocking Chair Ranch with his wife Gloria, who serves as CEO (that's chief egg organizer). He attributes the boom in local farmers markets to people showing more concern about how their food is grown and handled.
"This is direct from the grower," Erickson said, pointing to a basket of brown and white eggs laid by his 200 free-range chickens less than a week ago.
Modestan Scott Ellis has no excuse to be ignorant about food safety. His wife, a culinary arts instructor, has taught him everything he needs to know: How to cook meat to a safe temperature. Storing food to keep bacteria from growing on it. Washing his hands -- often.
"I know the rules," said Ellis, 53. "I think those are good things for people to know."
University of California at Berkeley sophomores Sarah Whiteside and Lauren Springfield like to frequent local farmers markets, where they know the food isn't mass produced and didn't travel far to get there. But although bacteria outbreaks in food can generate widespread worry among the public, the teenagers know it's unlikely they will get sick from what they eat.
"The percentage of people who get salmonella from eggs is so small," said Whiteside, 18, of Modesto. "It's not one of my main concerns."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.