Fear-mongering at the Farmers' Market Over Strawberries and Radiation

Fear-mongering at the Farmers' Market Over Strawberries and Radiation

We have a ritual, my daughter and I. Every Saturday, we wake up quietly (well, as quietly as a small child and a pre-caffeinated father can manage, anyway) and head to the farmers' market. We make a stop at the bank, and then at a coffeeshop--coffee for me and chocolate milk for her, and we share a pastry. Then we head over to the farmers' market, the largest such in Orange County.

It's a ritual we've been doing since she was three weeks old, and in the intervening years, we have gotten to know just about every vendor at the market. They dote on her with samples and sneakily handed cookies, and as she's grown up, she has learned how to judge and pick fruit.

The point of that rambling introduction is that the act of my daughter eating a strawberry is normally the furthest thing from my mind while we're at the market. I'm normally too occupied trying to squeeze the bounty before me into seven days' meals to worry about whether she's trying fruit. I try to dress her in shirts or dresses that won't show strawberry stains because 48 out of the 52 weeks in a year she has at least one strawberry; in high season, she might have half a dozen as we figure out whose berries are the tenderest and sweetest.

This past weekend, we stopped at a stand--and I'm not going to identify the stand for reasons that anyone familiar with the concept of Google should understand shortly--and the vendor, who sees us every week, handed over a strawberry. My daughter took a big bite, and there was a screech from behind us.

"DON'T EAT THAT STRAWBERRY!" shouted a short, dark-haired woman from behind us.

Aghast and surprised, I managed to blurt out, "What?"

"Don't eat that strawberry!"

My daughter gave me a stricken look. She's usually pretty well-behaved in public, and people don't normally shout at her.

"What the hell are you going on about?"

"It has RADIATION on it! I saw it in the paper!"

Now, while I strive for calm and equanimity at all times, occasionally I get my dander up, and I act like the big ugly jerk I look like.

"You read a warning about irradiated strawberries in the paper? Which paper?"

"The Orange County Register!"

"No, you most certainly did not read about irradiated strawberries in The Orange County Register. I read every article about food that comes out of that paper, and I guarantee you no such article exists."

She went on to tell me that she had read in the paper that a plume of radiation had worked its way over from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan and had set off sensors in Sacramento, which is true. According to her, this made California produce suspect. However, back home in reality, the readings were so low that had the Japanese nuclear emergency not rattled everyone's nerves, it probably wouldn't even have made the news-blurb column on page umpteen of the Sacramento Bee. Furthermore, these berries were from Carlsbad, nearly 500 miles south of the sensor that picked up almost no radiation whatsoever and 50 miles south of a sensor (in Anaheim) that picked up no anomalous traces.

"You get a million times--A MILLION TIMES--more radiation from eating a banana than what was detected in Sacramento this week. Why are you walking around trying to scare people?"

"I don't want people to get sick!"

At this point, the vendor interjected that perhaps we could find a better place to discuss the R-word than, you know, right in front of his booth of beautiful, non-irradiated produce. As we moved away, I asked her why she bothered to come to a farmers' market if she was so concerned about the effect of nanosieverts of absorbed imported Japanese radiation.

"Because I hate the fruit at Albertsons."

I lost it. Faced with the ludicrous prospect of strawberries being irradiated from 7,000 miles away (but not anything else in her bulging bag of produce), I just started laughing. It's not that the horror happening in Japan is at all funny--it's not, and the effect on Japanese produce will be immense and negative--but to take a story in the newspaper and misread it so badly that you feel the overriding need to go to the farmers' market and shout at people . . .

She gave me a venomous, offended look and stalked away, presumably to foist her irrational paranoia on people who wouldn't give her any pushback. Once she left, I apologized to the strawberry vendor for the scene, walked on, and then bought asparagus from a vendor who grows produce just outside of Sacramento.

It shouldn't need saying: Short of growing it yourself, farmers' markets and farm stands are where you get the best, healthiest, highest-quality produce. The produce grown here is not irradiated, it is perfectly safe, and it is still the envy of the entire rest of the country, who are newly blanketed in snow and strawberry-less. If you haven't been recently, it's that magical season when strawberries and rhubarb are both in season. Go for it.

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