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McDonald’s and Costco – making good chicken decisions?

It’s hard for me to ever find anything good to say about McDonald’s.

I’ll qualify that by saying that I worked there for almost 5 years, during the end of high school and through college. I have a lot of pride for the work that I did there with my other ‘crewmates’ – we worked very hard for very little money. And compared to any other work environment I’ve been in my whole life, the sense of teamwork was the strongest. In a job that is often truly disgusting (oh the tales of what you find in the bathrooms and Play Place) and often exposes you to the worst of humanity’s selfishness and rudeness, it was an important and formative experience in my life to work there.

There was a time when I could spot a Golden Arches a mile away, like a homing beacon, calling me to those familiar smells and beeps of machines. And the fries? Don’t even get me started on my love for their fries.

But I haven’t stepped foot in a McDonald’s in more than three years. Or any other similar fast food restaurant. I have previously written about why I gave up fast food, but in a nutshell, it’s because I can’t find anything redeeming about the food or the sourcing of it, and I won’t buy even water there so that I don’t support their horrible labor practices and predatory marketing. (While I loved my fellow co-workers, we were routinely cheated of overtime and labor laws were ignored, all while we were making virtually nothing.) So let’s say I haven’t had anything positive to say about the company, well, ever.

But last week, McDonald’s announced that it will move away from using chickens raised with human antibiotics as well as milk that’s free of rBST (an artificial growth hormone). And a few days later, Costco, a company I look much more favorably upon, announced something similar.

Let’s start with the positives. I am never going to fault a company for moving away from using antibiotics to promote growth in their animals. Animals should never be raised in conditions where infection rates are so high that they need them to promote growth in the first place. So there’s the animal welfare side, but more importantly with this particular issue, public health is at stake. The CDC has repeatedly said that overuse of antibiotics is a major public health threat, and thousands of people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections. We are closer than we think to a situation where common antibiotics are no longer effective, so that a simple cut could be life threatening.

This is a good decision for public health, personal health and animal welfare. I was happy when Purdue announced it was moving to be antibiotic free in its hatcheries as well as later for growth. It means that they have to improve conditions for their birds to prevent disease from killing off the flocks – and they are a huge chicken producer in this country.

But.

And there’s always a but, right?

I’m wary of a statement or press release that doesn’t specifically call out the antibiotics that will not be used and instead uses terms like “antibiotics that are important to human medicine.” What does that mean? Who decides which ones are important to human medicine? A doctor who is on their payroll? You know the press release was very carefully crafted, particularly when discussing the milk issue (because law requires that anyone making a claim about rBST-free milk state that no difference has been found between milk with or without).

I really think that both Costco and McDonald’s know that the public is becoming more conscious of these issues. And this is a money-driven decision, especially for McDonald’s who is seeing its sales drop significantly. But that’s exactly why I’m wary of these decisions. All too often, labels end up like marketing terms (see “natural”) and they don’t have teeth behind them. I’m interested to see how both companies market this information on packaging and in advertising. Costco already sells a lot of organic and natural foods, so I’m glad to see them moving in that direction with meat. But how will both companies work with suppliers to really change the game?

For-profit companies will always have the bottom line as their first priority. Public health is a secondary concern – and one that can work to their advantage when it comes to public opinion and beliefs about health. (Was the McLean really a health food? I mean, seriously?)

So will these decisions cause me to start eating at McDonald’s or buy meat at Costco? No.

But I am happy to see them take a baby step in the right direction. Gives me something to keep my eye on. And when a mountain gets moved, it only takes one baby step to get the whole thing started.

book review: the chain

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a food book – awhile since I read a food book. I think that it’s almost like the feeling you get when you watch the news a lot, and you realize that the bad news is just a little bit too much. But when I saw many people in the food world talking about Ted Genoways’ The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food online, I thought it was time to get back in the game. I’m disappointed that books like this even exist for me to read, but I am glad I picked this one up and am putting my toe back in the water. It’s not a good habit to just turn my face to truth because it’s too hard to handle.

the chainThe art on the cover of The Chain is compelling and accurate. The pig shown has its body cut into parts, so you can see “inside” where the pig is filled with cogs and sprockets – the mechanics of a factory. While there are many books that detail the problems with factory farming, this book takes it down to the micro level and illustrates those larger problems by telling the story of two factories – one in Austin, Minnesota and the other in Fremont, Nebraska – that service Hormel by creating Spam – the ubiquitous hunk of gelatinous “pork product.”

Book after book and essay after essay have been written on the problems with factory farms, detailing their detrimental impact on the environment, animal welfare, public health and food safety. But The Chain is different by primarily focusing on the meat packing that happens at the two plants and tracing the problems backwards.

Because all large meat companies, such as Hormel and Smithfield, are now vertically integrated, they produce their own grain, to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter, package, ship and sell them. One compelling section details the work of undercover workers in a factory pig farm that services the Hormel meat processing plants, there to investigate inhumane treatment of animals and violation of regulations (and basic decency). State legislatures are increasingly being asked by industry to pass legislation that outlaws this type of recording and whistle-blowing, collectively referred to as Ag-gag laws (For some background, this is not new. I wrote about this in April 2013).

Genoways interviews Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project, and her comments are too good to paraphrase (p. 39):

Ag-gag laws, as they’re know, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistle-blowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistle-blowing.’ In short, ‘you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.” She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that had been to regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do a favor and criminalize catching us?'” Amanda Hitt, Government Accountability Project

Ag-gag laws are just one of the ills that Genoways mentions – sections on water pollution and the fight of small towns to have their watersheds protected from contaminated manure lagoons as well as horrifically abused animals are both fascinating and horrifying. And the book is carefully and meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section and an index – one of the marks of good non-fiction.

But the thing that sets The Chain apart is its focus on people. The people who work at the Hormel plants in Austin and Fremont and what it does to them and what it does to the surrounding communities. It is truly heartbreaking that we pollute clean water, abuse animals who are dependent on us for their care, and expose workers to horrific working conditions for near poverty wages – all for something like Spam. Spam, people.

The section that detailed a mysterious illness that plagued workers at one particular plant actually made me sick to my stomach. Workers at a table that sucked out the pig’s brain matter with high pressure hoses had to work at such high speeds, that a cloud of brain matter always hovered over the table, because the matter never had a chance to settle before more was introduced. That’s right. A cloud of brain matter. Without proper safety equipment (that encumbered workers too much for them to keep up with the company-mandated line speed), workers inhaled the brain matter of the pigs daily for hours upon hours. It gave them nerve diseases that stripped their nerves of the sheaths that protect them, making it virtually impossible for them to stand or move without excruciating pain.

The fight for workers’ compensation and for the company to acknowledge these abuses is sickening. Workers were permanently disabled with their quality of life forever diminished for something like $10/hour if they were lucky. On my worst day in my cubicle job, I can’t even begin to comprehend what working on the kill floor or the butchering line would be like at a meat processing plant.

Why could Hormel (and other companies that have similar problems) get away with this? Having destroyed the unions that supported the workforce for decades, the companies rely on a workforce of primarily immigrant labor. No matter where you stand on the side of immigration reform or law, the situations created in these communities are no good for anyone involved. The workers and communities that are at odds against them are both under the same boot that’s pressing down on them – the corporate interests of companies who have free reign by government to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

I could go on for days. It was a great book. You should read it.

What I can’t seem to shake after reading it is the feeling that we so easily take horrifying abuses and problems and distill them to numbers. Commodities. We think of pigs as “pork” and not as animals, with the ability to feel pain and excitement and care and attachment. X number of chops and roasts. That’s it.

It would be easy to say that “only” X number of workers were affected by the nerve disease. But these aren’t just statistics. These are people. With faces and names and families. Hobbies and thoughts and dreams for a better life for their families – the same dream that all of us are working to reach. Does a human being, whether he/she has legal papers or not, deserve to inhale pig brain matter and suffer daily, agonizing pain, because the company increased the line speed so that we can eat more Spam than ever before? And so that Hormel can make increasingly more profit? Would the CEO of Hormel work at that same spot on the line, knowing what it’s done to people? I would venture to say no. Yet somehow, it’s okay to put someone else there. And leave them permanently disabled, physically and financially. Because that person isn’t a person. He’s a number. He’s a cog in a machine.

When you buy a package of Spam, or some Hormel bacon, you help that cog in the machine keep spinning. The machine doesn’t stop until we do.

beyond foie gras: our animal cruelty problem

Last week, a federal judge in California overturned the state’s ban on the sale of foie gras. If you aren’t a food person and/or you don’t have the kind of money where you can spend $50-$75 a pound on meat, you might not even really know what foie gras is.

Well, it’s the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. Force-fed, actually. I don’t think that anyone can argue around the fact that most of the foie gras produced in this country is produced unethically. It definitely crosses the line into animal cruelty for animals to have tubes shoved down their throats to make them eat.

There are places where foie gras is not produced in this way. Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate, talks about it in his book. In the instance he describes, the birds are cared for in a natural habitat and given the opportunity to eat whatever they want – however much they want – without being force-fed. Once they are fattened, they are killed by putting them to sleep first – painless for the birds. So there are some instances where the cruelty of force-feeding and painful slaughter isn’t involved (beyond the fact that the animals are ultimately killed for food, which does cross the line into cruelty for many people).

However, whether or not someone should eat foie gras and whether or not its production is cruel is not what bothers me about this entire issue. Animal rights activists are livid and enraged about the lifting of this ban. So much so that chefs in California who are serving foie gras are receiving death threats. I think any sane human being can agree with me that death threats are not an appropriate response to this situation.

But putting so much energy into this foie gras fight is a problem for me. Ducks and geese represent only the tiniest fraction of animals that are raised for food production in this country. Only a tiny percent of the thousands of restaurants in America are serving foie gras on their menus – and not every customer that eats in those restaurants is ordering it. We consume so little foie gras as a nation that it’s beyond absurd that the backlash to this issue is so strong. Guess what, America?

We torture millions of animals every day in this country for food. Somehow it’s okay to be righteously angry at rich people for eating foie gras in a fancy restaurant because people see photos of these birds being force-fed and they are disgusted (and rightfully so). But many of the people who swear they would never eat foie gras are helping themselves to industrially raised chickens (meat and eggs) and cows (beef and dairy) and pigs (pork) every single day.

Mark Bittman basically took the words right out of my mouth.

There are no politicians who have the guts to come forward with legislation that protects these animals from cruelty. It’s easier to go after duck liver – something that most Americans won’t ever eat in their lifetimes anyway. We vilify a $75 slice of duck liver while we roll through the drive-thru for our $1 hamburger.

There is no escaping or denying that industrially raised animals spend their lives in horrible pain, anguish and torture. I can find no excuse or justification for this. None.

Requiring chickens to be raised cage-free or removing hogs from horrible gestation crates would help millions more animals than banning foie gras ever will. (Though that’s not to say that it’s enough.) But Americans love an easy target. To borrow a metaphor, we love to focus on the speck in someone’s eye instead of the gigantic branch sticking out of our own.

I honestly think you have no right to protest foie gras if you consume any industrially raised animal products. You don’t have to be vegan to do that either – I am an omnivore by choice, but I would be vegan in a heartbeat if I didn’t have access to food from animals that are raised to my standards. “I don’t have enough money to eat ethically” is not an excuse to me.

Is this a little preachy? Yes. Maybe a lot preachy. That’s fine.

I do believe that people have the right to make their own choices about food. I don’t think people are villainous for eating CAFO beef or a McChicken sandwich. But do I believe the corporations who perpetuate this kind of treatment for animals in search of profit are villainous? Yes. Absolutely.

We need to hold ourselves to higher ethical standards when it costs us something – some money, some inconvenience – not just when it costs a rich person in California his/her appetizer. As a nation, we are better off putting our energy where it counts – passing legislation that considers ALL livestock animals to be animals and not commodities, not just ducks and geese.

movie review: fed up

fed up resizeFed Up came out in May of this year, and at the time, I kept meaning to see it in theaters, but I missed it. It came out on video in September (I still say video, like I could go rent a VHS at Hollywood Video or something), and I have been on the waiting list for it at the library for weeks. Finally, I was able to watch it this weekend with my mom.

Going into it, my expectation was that it would be well done, but that I wouldn’t hear much that was new to me. I was pleasantly surprised – not just at what I learned, but also the fact that I’ve been mulling it over since I saw it several days ago.

The basic premise is that what we’ve been taught for decades about the keys to a healthy lifestyle – eat less and move more – isn’t exactly right. And that the obesity epidemic is less “our fault” than we think it is. The film details the history of this epidemic and what factors have led to it, and how science no longer backs up the “all calories are created equal” mantra that Big Food likes to spew when the safety of their products is questioned.

Type 2 diabetes cases are skyrocketing, particularly in children and adolescents, to the point where Type 2 is no longer called “adult onset diabetes.” We spend the GDP of a small nation on weight loss drugs and gym memberships, and every container of food in the supermarket has some health claim on it. Yet if America had a blood work panel done, it would show that by and large, as a nation we are pretty sick.

Setting aside the idea of the “obesity epidemic” for a moment, let’s talk about what got us to this place.

The filmmakers (as well as the World Health Organization and other esteemed health science groups) believe the primary culprit is sugar. When your body digests sugar, it needs fiber to slow down the absorption of the food. When something is high in sugar, but lacking in fiber, the body digests it quickly, overloading the liver and creating both fat and insulin. And that fast sugar digestion is what creates “sugar highs” and the related “crashes” once your body comes down off of the sugar. (They often liken sugar consumption to heroin or cocaine consumption, because it lights up the same parts of your brain.) It’s because of the way your body processes sugars that not all calories are created equal. 160 calories of almonds has a different effect on the body than 160 calories of soda.

Beginning in the 1980s, America became obsessed with eliminating fat from our diets, and “low fat” became synonymous with health. But when an essential part of the processed foods trifecta (sugar, salt and fat) is removed, the others have to go up to make the food palatable. So those low fat products that we all were convinced by the food industry were healthy? FULL of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that adults only consume 6-9 grams of added sugar per day. Every teaspoon is 4 grams, so you really should be consuming only about 2 teaspoons per day of added sugar. The average American daily intake? 41 grams. And that’s AVERAGE.

Sugar comes in many forms on nutrition labels – and it’s not just high fructose corn syrup that is the problem. The backlash against HFCS has actually become a good thing for the food industry – they take it out of their food, add back in a ton of sugar, and then sell it as a health food because it doesn’t contain HFCS. Now I’m no fan of HFCS, but your body reacts the same way to that as a million other sugars, even natural sugars. But the difference between naturally occurring sugar in fruit and sugar in a soda is that the fruit has the digestive benefit of natural fiber. Most people don’t get a sugar rush from eating apples, and they get full on apples before they could eat enough to produce that effect. Getting a sugar rush from something like soda also means that your pancreas produces insulin to deal with it, which blocks the receptors that tell your brain you are full. Which is why you can often mindlessly eat junk food way past the point of excess without ever thinking you are full.

All of the metabolic diseases that Americans are sick with – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes – have links to excess sugar consumption. And the average American has no idea how much they are consuming, because sugar doesn’t just appear in things like cookies and soda that we know are “sweet.” Virtually every processed food has added sugars – even ones that we would traditionally associate with health, like yogurt.

The film also touches a lot on the impact of this sugar intake on children, and how it’s particularly harmful to them because it sets them up for a lifetime of trouble. And we don’t do them any favors by marketing the food specifically to them (which the industry actually claims they don’t do). Yet somehow, 50% of schools in the U.S. serve fast food directly from restaurants. There are actually Pizza Huts in schools.

Speaking of industry, when the World Health Organization released a report that sugar was the primary culprit for the “obesity epidemic” and recommended that no more than 10% of daily calories come from sugar, the U.S. Health and Human Services lobbied the WHO to take that information out of the report, and threatened to withhold the U.S. contribution to the WHO. The WHO caved, took it out of the report, and the U.S. extorted the WHO out of making a recommendation in the interest of public health. Government for the people, indeed.

Fed Up has much more information on all of these areas I’ve touched on, and the cinematography is really engaging and well done. Many different types of experts are interviewed, and virtually every possible industry company was asked to participate and declined. I’d definitely recommend that people give it 90 minutes of their time – particularly if you struggle with sugar (or if you have kids that eat a lot of processed foods).

But.

I had one significant issue with this documentary, and that’s the constant focus on weight as an indicator of health. The documentary frames itself around the “obesity epidemic,” but I keep referring to it in quotes because I think it’s a misnomer. We don’t have an epidemic of obesity – we have an epidemic of metabolic disease. The film itself points out the staggering statistic that 40% of people who are in the normal BMI category actually have the exact same underlying metabolic conditions as people who are overweight or obese. It isn’t what you weigh. It’s what you EAT. You can be fat and healthy. (I know this because my scale and bloodwork say I am both overweight and super-humanely healthy.)

So then why are all the kids interviewed in the film severely overweight? Why not interview a “skinny fat” person – a kid who lives on nothing but sugar and is on their way to diabetes, but they’re skinny? Because it’s a lot easier to stigmatize and shame fat people than it is to convince the public that skinny people are just as unhealthy. One poor 12 year old girl who was interviewed just kept crying. They used her shame to make a point. Why not interview a 12 year old girl who has significant behavioral issues that result from being hyped on sugar constantly? Because we don’t really care how healthy our kids are as long as they are not fat. No individual parent would say that, but collectively, it’s true. So while the film seeks to tell people that fat people aren’t responsible for their own “condition” because they have no idea what their diet products are doing to their bodies, I feel like it’s a hollow message, since it’s directed at only a portion of the people who need to hear it – the ones we don’t like to see because their bodies bother our sensibilities.

As a nation, we want the government to protect our public health. Look at the outcry over Ebola and the CDC handling of it. But diabetes is going to kill many more people, including children, than Ebola ever will in the United States. But we don’t mind that our government panders to industry and its wealth instead of keeping us safe. If kids went to school and drank water that was contaminated, there would be a public outcry. But they go and eat Pizza Hut – being told by industry that it’s a vegetable – and we do nothing.

So am I fed up? Yes. Have been for a long time. And I’m inclined to write another letter to legislators the next time health standards are up for debate.

See the documentary no matter what you weigh and you will learn something. But especially consider it if you are a “normal” weight and think you’re immune to health problems from your diet. Because you aren’t. None of us are.

 

farmed-and-dagerous

thoughts on chipotle’s ‘farmed & dangerous’

Chipotle has been on the forefront of national restaurant chains in the movement toward more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. Their first foray into viral marketing was “Back to the Start,” a video with Willie Nelson singing that emphasizes the importance of not continuing on the path of industrial animal production. 

Next was “The Scarecrow,” which I talked about here. This one pushes its indictment of Big Ag even further (and also suggests that burritos are a good choice). And now they’ve gone even further, with a four-part TV series available on Hulu Plus called Farmed & Dangerous. I waited until all four episodes were available to do my week free trial of Hulu Plus and watch.

The series is centered around a PR firm called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB, hee hee) which has as its primary client a Big Ag company called Animoil (a stand-in for Monsanto, obviously) which wants to market a new product called Petro Pellet, which is pure petroleum. In the first episode, they realize that Petro Pellet makes cows explode. A group called the Sustainable Family Farming Association gets a copy of the video of this happening and it goes viral.

The episodes that follow are about the relationship between the daughter of the head of IFIB, who also works there, Sophia, and the head of SFFA, Chip. Over time, Sophia comes to be sympathetic to Chip’s cause, but not before a lot of chaos ensues. It hits on all the big issues – sustainability, pesticide and herbicide resistance, GMOs, government subsidies, lobbying and government corruption, Ag-Gag laws, CAFOs (which they call MegaFarm, the Death Star for Cows).

First, the good. I will always applaud Chipotle for trying as a large national chain to bring these issues into the forefront of the public’s awareness and concern. They have at the very least opened up a lot of conversation. And Farmed & Dangerous in some spots is genuinely funny (particularly due to Buck, the head of IFIB). 

While critics have suggested that the series really takes aim at farmers with a broad brush and paints them in a bad light, I actually didn’t think the series was much about farmers at all. I think who it really skewered was PR firms and industry front-groups that blindly promote Big Ag to the point of absurdity. 

In one particularly interesting segment, Chip is on a morning show and points out how alternate realities exist for Big Ag depending on what they want at a given moment. Sometimes Big Ag wants GMOs to be seen as unique, which is why they voraciously protect their patents. But they argue that when it comes to public health, GMOs aren’t unique – they aren’t any different than the regular corn. Which is why they oppose labeling on consumer products. In the case of the viral video (a stand-in for the types of CAFO whistleblower videos that Ag-Gag laws aim to curtail), they claim that the videos are fabricated or exaggerated, but then claim that they own the video because it was shot on their property. If it’s false, why are you claiming it as your own? 

So I think that exposing the crap that comes out of the PR firms and departments protecting industrial agriculture is something that’s sorely needed. Front groups often have deceptively friendly names, which make consumers think they are advocating on behalf of us, when they are really advocating and lobbying for their big clients.

But. Here’s my issue with Farmed & Dangerous. With this series, I feel like Chipotle is really starting to mislead by obscuring facts and using hyperbole and satire in a subject that already has a lot of misinformation and passion floating around. When Jon Stewart uses satire to bring communicate news, he typically brings it with a lot of video clips and facts that support his points. He may go over the top, but the message is there as well as the proof. This series doesn’t do that. 

For example, Chipotle wants to position itself as a sustainability advocate, and this film makes it seem like all farms that it sources its meat and other ingredients from are like Chip’s farm – idyllic and full of pasture and sunlight. In reality, that’s not the case. Chipotle sources a lot of meat and often substitutes conventional products when they run out of the “better” choices. If you were really committed to better practices, you’d just not sell the option that you couldn’t properly source. But that would eat into their profits and would be unpredictable, and the customers want their chicken when they want it. I would be more compelled to believe they care about humane animal treatment if they stopped selling conventional products at all. There are animals who are not given hormones or antibiotics that are still raised in confinement operations and are not out frolicking in fields for most of their lives like Chip’s cow friend. 

I can see farmers’ points of criticism that the series seems to pit big farms against small farms, making it seem like all big farms are evil and all small farms are virtuous. In reality, it’s not really the size that determines the quality of practices. You can’t lump in broad categories like that when it’s really the underlying system of agriculture in this country that is flawed. It’s not as easy as good guys and bad guys when you dig below the surface. What we need is less control over the food system by a select few corporations, not to be lecturing farmers on what they need to do.

And Chipotle needs to stop equating sustainability with small, family farms and throwing that word around. Not all small farms are “sustainable” – a word which is really hard to define. Not giving your cows hormones doesn’t mean that your operation is sustainable. And not all family farms are small. Some mid-size and large farms have been in families for generations. Chipotle isn’t knocking on the doors of tiny family farms in my area asking them to provide their tomatoes and peppers. Sustainability is a buzzword that you use to mislead unless you have facts to back up your practices. Using compostable plates isn’t enough. And I don’t even know that they do that.

In all, I didn’t really think Farmed & Dangerous was effective satire. (They need to take a lesson from Jon Stewart on that one.) If they extended the series and added to it, I would be unlikely to watch. Chipotle needs to focus its efforts on making its business live up to its marketing, instead of marketing a business that doesn’t actually exist in reality.   


book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.


picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

corporate involvement with kids: how much is too much?

Two recent news stories have highlighted the issue of corporate involvement with children on environmental and nutritional subjects. These incidents included advertising as well as education, and I think they illustrate clearly the importance of corporate responsibility – something we clearly lack.

In Ohio, the oil and gas industry under the auspices of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program created a program sponsored by Radio Disney called “Rocking in Ohio” to teach kids ostensibly about the importance of oil and gas. (I say ‘auspices’ because that group is funded by only oil and gas industry companies.) The group’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that “our country can’t survive without oil and gas” and that “kids are the best way to spread the message.”

I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not important to teach science to kids – for them to understand what oil and gas are, how they are extracted, and what impacts they have on the economy and environment – both positive and negative. Science is awesome. And to be fair, the program did not educate children specifically about fracking, which is the most controversial issue in the oil and gas industry today (particularly in Ohio, where this program was based.) But is the best way to teach them to give an industry front group center stage and allow that presentation to be sponsored by Radio Disney? Why do children’s educational programs need to be “sponsored” at all? It’s a serious crisis if this nation needs to rely on corporate OR activist interests to educate its children. We need to give them facts and allow them to use their developing reasoning and analytical skills to draw conclusions. You know, like a scientist would.

Even more disturbing is the second of the two recent stories – Gatorade’s award-winning video game promotion in which water is made out to make your athletic performance suffer. Just the idea is even absurd – because anyone who has done anything remotely athletic in his/her life knows that water is essential to athletic performance. But Gatorade (owned by Pepsi Co.) specifically requested that ad agency OMD create a game for them to reinforce the message that Gatorade is superior to water. OMD specifically said that the goal was to convince kids that “water is the enemy of performance.”

In the game, Usain Bolt (the Olympic champion sprinter) runs through a course where kids try to collect Gatorade, which makes him run faster, and avoid water, which slows him down. Ok, really?

Even as a runner, I am not a fan of Gatorade for a multitude of reasons (read my post on it here). But the biggest issue is that there are few kids who are active enough that they even need to fuel with Gatorade or electrolyte replacements instead of water. Only kids who are heavily involved in sports and vigorous athletic activity even need to consider electrolyte replacement. For kids who just go to gym class? Water is fine. They don’t need the added sugar, and it’s flat out LYING to tell them that Gatorade improves athletic performance. What they should be doing is encouraging kids to get active.

Advertising to kids is a slippery slope, since their reasoning skills are still developing and their ability to discern between reality and advertisements is spotty, at best. (I’ve talked about this before too.) Putting a famous athlete on a Gatorade ad makes kids think they should drink it too – but the likelihood of a kid working out like a pro athlete? Slim to none. Even though Pepsi Co. owns its own bottled water brand – Aquafina – they push Gatorade for athletic performance. Aquafina is supposedly even a partner with the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign, to try to get kids to drink more water. It’s ludicrous to even try to claim corporate responsibility for children’s health and then turn around and tell them water is the enemy of athletic performance.

These two examples show how even programs with seemingly good intentions or benefits can have profit-driven corporate interests behind them. It’s important to understand where the messaging you are hearing is coming from and to discern facts from advertisements.