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movie review: food chains

food chains resizedBefore I got really sick recently, I sat down to watch Food Chains – a documentary about labor abuses in the produce industry. I had seen a lot about this documentary online and in social media, and when it was added to Netflix, I knew I wanted to watch it.

The documentary spends a lot of time profiling the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers advocacy group in Immokalee, Florida – home to some of the nation’s largest tomato fields. I had learned about the CIW back when I read Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book TomatolandI’d also read about labor abuses in the produce industry from  The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Both of those books aren’t exclusively focused on labor abuses, but they play a huge part in understanding what goes on behind the scenes in the plant and produce side of Big Agriculture.

I think most people would balk at the idea that we have slaves in this country in 2015.  Often if we hear the term “modern slavery” we think of sex trafficking. But 150 years after slavery was legally abolished, we have slavery and indentured servitude in our fields – you know, those same fields that we sing about in “America the Beautiful.” And even those workers who aren’t slaves are working for what we’d call “slave wages,” unbelievably far below the poverty line. You don’t even have bootstraps to pull yourself up by when you work 13 hours a day in sweltering heat, being sprayed with pesticides and if you’re a woman, likely being sexually harassed, and come home with $40 for that work. Where’s the American dream in those fields?

The film goes into a lot more detail about the issues with worker rights, including why so many migrant workers have come to work in American agricultural fields from Mexico (big surprise here – we caused it). An interesting section details the disparity in the Napa Valley between the people who work in the vineyards and the people who buy the wine. That’s an area of the country I never think about when it comes to Big Agriculture, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The nation’s wealthiest have long been supported by the work of the nation’s poorest. I could go on, but you should really just watch this film.

I think Food Chains comes at a good time in this nation’s food consciousness. We’ve seen awareness of animal cruelty and the public health issues involved in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) come to the forefront in ways never seen before. More and more people are concerned about where their meat and dairy comes from and how animals are treated. Consider the rise in people eating vegan diets in an effort to not be a consumer of any animal products. I think this has led to many people considering how what they eat can have ethical implications – something that wasn’t even on the radar outside of a handful of activists a few decades ago.

All human diets contain fruits and vegetables because they are the building blocks of our health. So even a vegan diet is not without ethical implications, because being plant-based means that like all diets, it is very likely supported by workers who are enslaved, given poverty wages, harassed, sprayed with pesticides, the list goes on. I absolutely respect the desire to not harm animals or participate in cruelty toward them, but it’s also really important to consider the human cost as well. This is not a sweeping generalization of vegans, by any means. It’s just that anyone who consumes plants (basically everybody) needs to be aware that there are ethical implications present when you eat Florida tomatoes or California berries that go beyond pesticides and GMOs.

But that’s the really difficult part. Every decision that we make in our modern lives is fraught with ethical implications. It’s difficult to consider each and every one of them. I think about my mornings – whether or not the coffee I drink is fair trade, if the lunch I pack contains items that were produced by animal suffering or worker abuse or represent a public health risk, if the plastic bag that holds my pretzels will end up in a landfill, if the clothes I wear were made in a sweatshop, if my smart phone was built by children, if the diamond ring I put on is a blood diamond, whether or not my car is harming the environment with emissions. You can see how this gets easily overwhelming. I got overwhelmed writing that paragraph.

At the end of the day, you have to do the best that you can to reconcile those things. I think the key is being educated about it and being open to questioning your choices and determining which ones you can reasonably make. And that’s why films like Food Chains are so important, because they make you aware of these issues and dispel the ignorance surrounding them. So that perhaps when you go to the grocery store, you choose a store that participates in the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Or you support a local CSA and farms in your area, where you can confirm for yourself that there are no labor violations happening.

Perfect is the enemy of good. It’s better to focus on one or two ways you can make a better choice than to be overwhelmed and make none at all. You can support efforts to hold companies accountable for their own labor practices and lift your voice in support of those programs and government accountability. You can’t change everything for everyone, but you can open your mind and heart to others and look for opportunities to allow that knowledge to inform your purchases and choices.

 

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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.

TV review: Food Forward on PBS

food.forward.logo_-e1307320024221I recently started watching through episodes of a series called Food Forward on PBS via online streaming. The full episodes are available on their website – all 13 of them for the first season.

The series focuses on “food rebels” – people and groups across the country that are trying to make the food system more sustainable and just – as well as delicious. I watched the first three episodes (each about 25 minutes long) to determine if I wanted to go through the whole series, and I definitely do.

The episodes are very well produced. They feel like mini documentaries, but the editing on them is so good – there’s nothing extraneous (with the exception of a guitar player that has shown up in two episodes and makes it feel more hipstery than it has to). I found all of the first three episodes engaging, even though they dealt with topics that are old hat to me in some ways.

The episodes are sponsored by Chipotle and Applegate – two companies that in theory are dedicated to more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. In a culture where everything is sponsored and naming rights to everything are for sale and funding for public broadcasting is slim, PBS (I’m assuming) chose companies that operate under a mission most closely related to the programming. I can give them credit for that.

So about the episodes.I really like that the episodes focus not on problems with the current food system, but on solutions that are actually happening. Save for a brief outline of the problem that the food rebels are trying to solve, the episodes really focus on normal, everyday Americans who took an idea and ran with it. There’s a real entrepreneurial spirit that you can feel behind the people in the episodes. And they’re not all Berkley hipster “foodies.” They are just regular Americans.

I watched the episodes in streaming order, with the first one being the pilot called “Urban Farming”. The episode asks the question – what if we stopped importing food into cities and grew it within the city limits? It focused on farmers (“food rebels”) doing some pretty innovative things, from rooftop aviaries in New York City to an urban farm with integrated hydroponics (fish and produce production together) in Milwaukee – from a CSA operation in an area of Oakland, California with no grocery stores to rebuilding vacant lots into farmland in Detroit.

An episode called “Meat of the Matter” addresses the issue of the cost of America’s meat consumption. Centering on the idea that we should eat less meat in general and eat higher quality meat when we do, it profiles several different ranchers and farmers who are producing meat by raising bison, cattle and hogs in a new way. Their practices focus on humane treatment, understanding the animal as more than just a commodity. They also spent a lot of time on the benefit to the earth of a polyculture system, where no one species is in isolation from the others surrounding it.

Overfishing is a big issue, not just in America, but worldwide. An episode called “Go Fish” profiled several American “fish rebels” who are fishing in different ways – going back to the way that fishing happened several generations ago. The practices used by these family and small businesses and cooperatives are less damaging to the environment and the fish population, and they are bringing a higher quality product to the marketplace while supporting their local economy. The most interesting part of this episode was a program called Dock to Dish, which is like community supported fishing. Subscribers get the freshest catch possible – same day caught. That would be so great – makes me want to move to the coast!

I will definitely be working my way through the other episodes. Take advantage of the free streaming of these, especially if you like documentaries and are interested in food systems.

 

news from the world of big ag

Because of garden season and marathon training, there hasn’t been too much on the blog in the last few months about agriculture or what’s going on in the world of food. But much has happened recently that’s worth mentioning.

Perdue removes antibiotics from chicken hatcheries
Perhaps the most positive Big Ag/Big Food news in awhile, Perdue Foods announced this month that they have removed antibiotics from their chicken hatcheries.

They haven’t used antibiotics as a growth promoter since 2007, but this move now makes it so that 95% of their animals will not receive antibiotics in their lifetimes. The ones that do receive them to treat illness, etc. This move is important, because it addresses a large public health problem – the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. While Big Ag has a long way to go until they can manage humane animal husbandry, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. I applaud any move toward more sustainable, healthy agricultural practices.

Tyson and Hillshire merge

Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., has won anti-trust clearance from the Justice Department to purchase Hillshire (makers of Jimmy Dean sausage, Hillshire Farms and Ball Park hot dogs) for $7.7 billion. Yes, Tyson had to divest of its small hog division, making it an independent company until a buyer comes along, in order for the merger to gain approval. It boggles my mind that the Justice Department just opens the gates wide for these kind of mergers, with no concern whatsoever for independent meat producers, which are now few and far between.

This merger now makes a mega company even bigger, which means even less chance that the company will consider more humane practices in raising their animals. (Though Tyson is notorious for subcontracting the actual raising of the animals and then purchasing them through the farmers. It’s just that they don’t do anything to make it viable for those farmers to raise the animals humanely if they want to make a living at all.)

Civil Eats says it best in this short piece. More reason for me to continue avoiding meat of unknown origin as much as possible and to be more careful about it when I’m out.

General Mills buys Annie’s

Ever eat Annie’s cheddar bunnies or mac and cheese? Well, General Mills just did, eating up Annie’s for $820 million. While not nearly as big as the Tyson/Hillshire merger, this deal represents Big Food’s insatiable appetite for organic and natural foods. Many independent companies over the years have been bought out by Big Food – General Mills already owns Kashi and Muir Glen. What it means for the quality of the products sold under that name or its sourcing of ingredients remains to be seen, but it’s still hard to not hum “Another One Bites the Dust” under my breath.

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On a different note, episodes of a new series on PBS called Food Forward are available to stream. The pilot episode won a James Beard award, and I’m going to be watching them over the next few weeks and hopefully writing about them. Check it out!

the real threat of antibiotic resistance

It’s been awhile since I wrote about the kinds of food issues that get me hot under the collar, for lack of a better phrase. My time for reading up on current issues is severely limited in the summer, for a lot of reasons, but primarily the amount of time spent dealing with vegetables and also running like it’s a part time job in marathon training.

But at the end of July, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals
overturned two rulings in cases which had directed the FDA to stop the routine use of certain antibiotics in healthy animals unless drug manufacturers proved the safety of such use. (Source, Majority Opinion, Dissenting Opinion)  


This means that even though the FDA admits that the use of antibiotics in healthy animals to promote growth and weight gain contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans, they can’t do anything to stop producers and commercial livestock companies from using subtherapeutic drugs for healthy animals. They issue voluntary guidelines, which are about as effective as me calling Cargill’s customer service department and asking them to stop using antibiotics in healthy animals.

Here’s the facts.  

  • 2 million people in the U.S. alone are infected by antibiotic resistant bacteria each year
  • 23,000 people in the U.S. DIE from these infections each year, in addition to the many who die from illnesses complicated by antibiotic resistant infections
  • Leading health organizations from across the nation and the worldleading organizations and not just wacky health food hippies – have spoken out against the use of antibiotics in livestock. To name a few – the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, American Academy of Pediatrics. 
    • The Director General of the WHO: “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill. A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. The problem arises when drugs used for food production are medically important for human health, as evidence shows that pathogens that have developed resistance to drugs in animals can be transmitted to humans.”

This isn’t fringe science. There’s no real debate in the scientific community that this is a major public health problem. We are running out of antibiotics that are effective in treating many serious infections, and it will change the face of modern medicine if we can no longer stop common infections.   

But our own government organizations – the ones that are tasked with protecting the health of Americans – won’t stand up to industry and force them to reduce and eventually eliminate their reliance on subtherapeutic antibiotics. None of us want to revisit the world of our ancestors, where a scratch could easily kill you.

So what do you do? Beyond making public comments when they are open and supporting legislation that would push for stricter regulations?

Stop eating meat that comes from animals raised with antibiotics. 

I realize that I’m blessed to be able to buy meat from local farmers who do not use subtherapeutic antibiotics in their feed. But I can tell you right now that if tomorrow, my sources were no longer there, I’d give up meat altogether.

More and more suppliers are producing meat that’s antibiotic free, and prices are coming down as demand begins to grow. If you do one thing to change your diet to support health as well as a better food supply – do this. Save antibiotics for when you have a real infection – and not just when you’re having dinner.    


 

movie review: frankensteer

Have you ever had the experience of reading or watching something thinking it was current, and then realizing it’s actually a lot older than you thought? And then it dawns on you how scary that is? That describes my experience watching Frankensteer, a documentary I didn’t realize is 8 years old until after I watched it. Because the issues it raises are all still relevant today.

As far as the documentary itself, it was clearly on the low-budget side, without the polished feel of more widely released films. It’s also not an American film – it’s Canadian – so some of the information is geared toward Canadian governmental policies, though it does look at things from a “North American” perspective as well.

For me, the best part of the film was in its opening line – that in order to produce cheap food, we have taken a benign, naturally flatulent vegetarian and turned it into a cannibal and vampire. We push these creatures to within an inch of their life until ultimately they lose it in a slaughterhouse to end up on our plates.

The film makes its way through a discussion of the dangers of growth hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics, two things that in 2014 the public is demanding be removed from our food supply more than ever. In discussing the differences between government policies on these items and showing the disparity between what Europe feels is safe and what North American nations do, it occurs to me that it’s amazing how we think that science and nature relate differently on this issue depending on your country’s borders. I think it’s safe to say that if it’s not safe for a member of the European Union, it’s not safe for me. Why that science cannot cross national boundaries is beyond me.

Frankensteer lays out all the basic reasons to avoid industrially raised beef, and in particular the health risk to humans of mad cow disease (not as much of an issue now as it was in 2006, but still nothing to dismiss) as well as E. coli and food borne illness. We shouldn’t have to take a product home from the grocery store that’s intended for consumption and have to treat it like toxic waste until cooked. 

Frankensteer doesn’t get into industrial agriculture’s effect on the economy, environment or workers, but that’s understandable for a film that’s only 44 minutes long. Honestly, there are 500 page books on the subject that can’t even cover it all. All the more reason to not eat or purchase it. 

For me, I try not to eat meat at all when I don’t know where it came from (as in, which farm). However, lately I’ve found it harder to make those choices when traveling, especially when I need protein and there are no vegetarian options that include any. While I didn’t find this film incredibly compelling in and of itself, it served as a good reminder for why I don’t eat industrial meat and a push to recommit to being strict about it in my own diet, even if it means making sacrifices.     

Federal “DARK Act” introduced in Congress: why you need to care

This week, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (Republican from Kansas) introduced legislation called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a bill so mislabeled in my life, as what this bill would do is ensure that we never achieve safe and accurate food labeling.

Opponents have dubbed this the DARK (Deny Americans the Right-to-Know) Act, and the hyperbole actually seems to fit here. The bill aims to override state efforts to label GMO foods, as several states have taken up that charge and introduced labeling legislation. Rep. Pompeo’s bill would prohibit any mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods.

He claims that the “patchwork” of state GMO laws creates no standard and creates unnecessary fear on the part of consumers. And I agree with him on the first point – we do need a federal standard. But we need one based on science, which at the current moment means that we don’t know the long-term effects of GMO crops on health and the environment. So we need to be aware of where they are and how much we are consuming. If products aren’t labeled, the long-term effects can’t be assessed. Labels are like the informed consent portion of being part of a national experiment. People have a right to be afraid when we aren’t informed. We need to know.

To me, this bill is evidence that the bioengineering companies know that consumer confidence is flagging and that their lack of transparency is an issue. So instead of changing their business practices or allowing the American people to decide what they want, they will pour their money into Congressional pockets to take the decision out of our hands and into the federal government.

In the absence of any federal transparency legislation, state legislation is important. State legislation is where the voice of the American people gets to be heard more than lobbyist dollars and Big Ag. Yes, on the state level we also contend with lobbying and misinformation, but the vote comes to the people who are affected by it, instead of members of Congress who can be and are often easily swayed by corporate money.

This bill really matters. Enough that I’m contacting my legislators, and I encourage you to do the same. Even if you have no issue with GMO foods being unlabeled, the fact that the government is trying to preempt your right to have that distinct voice be heard in a state-level vote is troubling. And right now it’s biotech corn that’s at the center of this debate. But if this legislation passes, what’s next? Biotech fish? That’s on the horizon. Maybe Farmed & Dangerous wasn’t so far off with its 8-winged chicken.

So I’m sending the letter below to my federal legislators – and even some that are in my region, but not my specific area. It’s a modification of a letter that Just Label It, a national GMO labeling advocacy organization, put together. Feel free to use it and tweak or personalize it to let your legislators know that you want transparency and choice in our food supply.


I am urging you to not co-sponsor the new legislation introduced by Rep. Pompeo (R-Kan) that would deny consumers a right to know about genetically engineered or biotech foods and allow companies to voluntarily label genetically engineered (GE) foods. Until independent, third-party science can truly verify the long-term health and environmental effects of GE foods, the American public deserves transparency. If bioengineering companies are to be allowed to expose the public to GE foods, which can pose risks on many levels, we have the right to informed consent.

Rep. Pompeo’s bill would pre-empt states from taking any legislative efforts towards the labeling of GE foods and allow GE ingredients in products labeled as  “natural.”  It would also prevent the FDA from requiring GE labeling in the future. As one of the 93% of Americans who support GE labeling, I strongly oppose this legislation, and urge you to not sign on as a co-sponsor.

I am asking that instead you support the GE Food-Right-to-Know Act (S.809/H.R. 1699) sponsored by Sen. Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product that has been genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans regardless of race, religion, class, or political party support GE labeling, a right that people in 64 nations around the world already have. Lack of labeling also complicates our exports, as more and more nations are refusing to import GMO foods. Russia is just the latest.

Please endorse federal labeling of GE foods, and vote against any legislation that would bar the Food and Drug Administration, or the states, from mandating labeling of GE food. Do not support legislation that makes the American people, your constituents, the lab rats of corporate biotech.

Sincerely,

If you don’t know who your representatives are, you can find out here. Same with senators, here. I’m contacting my senators too, in case this bill makes it to them.

We can’t expect legislators to know what we want them to do for us if we don’t tell them. Watching and reading the news and getting outraged isn’t going to do anything if you don’t push where it matters. Then we can hold our elected representatives accountable.

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.