My wife and I recently took my 80-year-old mother out to lunch. It wasn’t a fancy establishment, simply a family-style restaurant that serves good home-style cooking, the kind she grew up on.

We all ordered our meals with salads on the side. Not long into the meal, my mom asked, “What is that crawling out of my salad?” I quickly identified the uninvited guest as a ladybug minus one wing. The good wing was drenched in salad dressing. Laughing and unfazed, my mom moved the bug off her plate with her fork and continued to eat her salad.

Knowing that other patrons may not take such an uninvited guest in their salad as well, we signaled the waiter. As an FYI we showed him the uninvited guest. The waiter, very apologetic and expecting a scene from us, quickly snapped the plate up from my mom.

I can tell you from experience you do not want to take a good plate of food away from a Torell! My mom said, “Where are you going with my salad? I’m not done with that!” The waiter left and soon the manager showed up at our table. “I understand you found a bug in your salad and you are not upset at all?” Wishing all patrons were as understanding as my mom, the manager explained that even though we did not order organic salads, the lettuce used is what they purchased for their organic orders.

Organic. This explains the ladybug in the lettuce. During the growing phase of organic vegetables, ladybugs are used as natural predators for aphids and other detrimental insects. The presence of the ladybug shows that the lettuce was actually grown under natural conditions with no pesticides used.

But do you think the green-generation customers of this restaurant will see it that way? Being raised during the Great Depression as my mom was, made her tough. The tough times her generation endured educated them about where food comes from and how to appreciate a salad, ladybug and all. As my deceased dad often pointed out to me “The only thing worse than finding a worm in your apple is finding half a worm.”

Many of agriculture’s retail customers (i.e., the general public) have a huge disconnection to the land and basic understanding of where food in the grocery store actually comes from. Organic, hormone-free, natural, grass-fattened, these are all buzz words with many of today’s consumers and some agricultural producers.

Some consumers are willing to pay for these products. They feel by doing so they are eating healthier, doing their part for the environment, and it makes them feel good. They don’t want the ladybug in their salad or the worm in their apple; yet, at the same time, they want their product raised without pesticides.

Food safety, as it should be, is at the top of the list for consumers and politicians. Unfortunately, just because something is supposedly raised as organic, hormone-free, natural, pesticide or herbicide-free, doesn’t ensure a safe product. Actually, it doesn’t even add to the safety of these foods. Take a look at a few of the food-safety issues that have arisen over the past several years which have had a devastating effect to those industries.

There was the "great apple Alar scare of 1989," tale endlessly recycled by the mass media about the dangers of chemicals in agriculture. In this case, the media brought out unfounded health issues associated with eating apples treated with Alar, a chemical that makes apples ripen longer before falling off the tree. This episode brought on government regulatory excess and media irresponsibility, and the word Alar has become a near-universal term for an irrational health scare stemming from "junk science." The Alar scare, false as it was, bankrupted several apple farmers.

More recently, we’ve had swine flu. Recognition that this new strain of flu is a combination of swine, avian and human components has led most officials to begin using the name influenza A (H1N1). Nevertheless, pork markets have been hit by consumer fears and some trade bans despite the fact there’s no risk of flu from pork consumption.

In most cases, the impacts are driven by lack of information, sometimes by misinformation, and occasionally by the irresistible temptation to use the situation for political ends. It highlights the never-ending need for education to make sure consumers and policymakers use science rather than emotion to make decisions. Food-safety issues aren’t good for any segment of agriculture. The beef industry has been through this same wringer with the issue of BSE.

Growing at impressive rates are the grass-fed, natural, organic and no-added hormone markets. Direct and name-brand marketing of these products is building momentum and will probably continue to do so. This tells me that perception in the eye of some consumers takes priority to science and common sense. I personally share my mom’s opinion, “Where are you going with my food, ladybug and all?”

You can contact me at 775-738-1721 or torellr@unce.unr.edu.
-- Ron Torell, University of Nevada Extension livestock specialist