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.


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why hunt?

I grew up in an area of western Pennsylvania where hunting was pervasive and an accepted way of life – and of putting food on the table. The first day of rifle season for deer is practically a state holiday. But I have found after living in a city environment for almost 10 years, hunting is still prevalent, but it’s not discussed as much – and thus, not as understood.

Mark hunts, and for the last two seasons we’ve had venison in our freezer. People often ask me why he hunts (and give me their very strong opinions on the practice), so I thought it would be interesting to ask him a few questions about hunting and what it is to him. 

This is fair warning that he talks about killing and eating animals (because that’s what hunting is), so if you have strong predilections against eating animals, this isn’t the post for you. We respect people’s rights to eat what they want, but we don’t refrain from eating meat in our house that is in our opinion ethically raised or hunted in the wild.

The following are the questions I asked Mark and his answers, edited only for length.


When did you start hunting?I started hunting when I was 18 and living in Ohio. I didn’t grow up in outdoorsy family and was actually the first person in my immediate family to own a gun. When I turned 18, I bought my first gun, a Remington 870 Magnum 12ga, and would go squirrel and rabbit hunting with my best friend’s dad.

I always wanted to get into big game (deer, turkey, bear, etc) when I lived in OH but didn’t know where or how to get started. So, I didn’t start big game hunting until I was 33 and living in PA.

Why did you start hunting? 

I’ve always been fascinated with the outdoors, survival, hunting and self sufficiency. One of my favorite books as a child was My Side of the Mountain and, to this day, I would love to live a life of self sufficiency off-grid. My parents never nurtured any of this. I was never even allowed to be a Boy Scout. So, as an adult, I’ve tried to play catch up.

I started hunting for a number of reasons but probably my main reason for starting was the I liked the idea of being self sufficient and providing my own meat. There is a primal pride that comes with knowing that you supplied the meat you are eating through your own time and toil. There is a metaphysical difference to me between eating meat that I stalked and hunted and put on the table through my physical effort versus meat that I purchased from a faceless supply chain with money I earned sitting at a desk.

Why do you continue to hunt?

Aside from the reason I started, I continue to hunt for a number of reasons. I hunt because I believe in facing the truth of where our food comes from. This is kind of a big one as we are largely removed in modern society from the origins of our food. We see those sanitized packages of meat in the store and can, through looks, environment, and even calling it by a different name, ie. “meat”, remove ourselves from the reality of the situation, namely that we are consuming the muscle tissue of a dead animal. I think that, if a person can’t be OK with the reality of what they are consuming, then they should reexamine eating meat. Hunting gets you as close to the truth as you can get. You see that animal walking through the woods, living the most natural life it can live. You are there the moment its life is ended. You do the dirty work yourself of butchering or, depending on your situation, at least field dressing. There is blood and gore but there is also the cycle of life and a greater sense of gravity and thanks for the life that has been taken so that yours may continue. I’m a big believer in the whole idea of, with very few exceptions, eating what you kill. Life should not be taken lightly. All care should be given to be as humane as possible.

Conservation is another important reason I hunt. As humans have spread, there are far less natural predators for deer. Most people consider there being less wolves, coyotes, etc a good thing, as those species cause a more immediate threat to humans. However, in the absence of hunting, deer populations explode, spreading disease, causing agricultural damage (one farmer I know calls them Whitetailed Field Rats), and crowding out other species, not to mention that overpopulation leads to a scarcity of resources for all deer leading to slow death from starvation and eventually population collapse. Deer breed fairly rapidly. A sexually mature doe who is impregnated during the rut will give birth to one to three fawns come spring. Hunters help control the population so those animals that aren’t culled from the herd can be stronger and healthier and ensure a continued balanced population. Through maintaining wilderness habitat for wildlife, practicing ideals such as quality deer management (which seeks to ensure a healthy and balanced deer herd), and helping control the population, hunters ensure that we will have these natural resources to enjoy for years to come. A prime example of what can happen without hunters helping maintain the balance is that of the UK. This article from last year shows the dire situation they are in from a lack of hunting or predation of their deer.

Yet another reason to hunt is to enjoy the peacefulness and serenity of nature. It is calming to be out in the woods, away from the noise of society, listening to the sounds of nature and simply being present without distractions. It’s a hard feeling to describe for someone who hasn’t experienced it but the best way I can put it is to almost call it an awakening of the senses. You become aware of every small sound, every little bit of movement, every smell. It makes you realize how much you miss out on in the modern world.

Finally, you can’t get around the fact that wild game is simply delicious. There is nothing like a nice medium rare venison steak or some braised bear. Wild game has a complex flavor that far surpasses their farm raised cousins.

What do you hunt? 

Principally, I hunt deer, more than anything for the fact that it provides the biggest amount of meat to effort ration for commonly available game. I’ve also been known to hunt squirrel, rabbit, bear and turkey. If anyone wants to take me elk hunting, I wouldn’t say no either.

How do you respond to people who feel that hunting is barbaric?

There are really three types of people who are anti-hunting (as opposed to just uninterested in doing it). I will offer my personal rebuttal to each.

The first type is meat eaters who somehow have this romanticized Disney lie in their heads about going out and killing cute little Bambi or Thumper. For a lot of these folks, you have the whole issue of “X animal is too cute to kill.” This group is probably the most hypocritical because they will tell you that hunting is mean and evil while eating a hamburger made from a cow that came from a CAFO, was force fed corn, antibiotics and antacids, and then brutally put down. To these folks, I would ask them which is truly more humane, their CAFO meat or an animal that was able to live according to its natural instincts up to the last few moments of its life?

The second type are those who insist on pushing their values on others. I make this qualification because I know plenty of vegetarians who, through examination of their own conscience, won’t eat meat but don’t judge those who do.  To me, the simple fact is that humans are omnivores. We evolved to eat meat as well as vegetables. Recent scientific studies even suggest that it was the ability to cook and eat meat that gave Man an evolutionary advantage and allowed us to develop bigger brains. These folks are often also hypocritical because they never think of the insects killed by the pesticides sprayed on their vegetables, the small field mammals caught up in threshers and harvesters, or the aforementioned affects of overpopulation being bad for entire populations of species. From my religious standpoint, mankind has been given dominion over the animals and while we have the duty to be responsible stewards and humane, we also have the right to use them for food.

The last type is that of people who have this idea of the hunter going into the woods, bristling with weaponry and technology, and gunning deer down left and right. These people have some “fair fight” idea in their heads that makes them think that hunting is like shooting fish in a barrel and all too easy. While such opportunities exist and can only loosely be really called hunting in my opinion, for the vast majority of hunters, you are pitting your gun/bow/etc against millennia of evolution of prey species that have adapted quite well to not getting caught. Turkeys will see you and be gone LONG before you ever see them. Deer have insanely good senses of sight, smell and hearing. Anyone who thinks hunting is easy is welcome to join me and find out what it’s really like. It makes me think of the joke “Chuck Norris doesn’t go hunting because hunting implies the possibility of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.” For those of us who aren’t Chuck Norris, you fail FAR more often than you succeed.

To all these groups, I would suggest that, instead of taking someone else’s word for it, get to know a hunter, talk to him or her about why they do what they do. You’ll find that the vast majority of us are incredibly respectful and in awe of the animals we hunt and grateful for the bounty they provide. I, for example, say a prayer of thanksgiving over the body of any animal I kill. This is a practice that you will find across many centuries, cultures and faiths.

Do you hunt for trophy or for food? How much food does a deer produce?

I am primarily a food hunter. I don’t begrudge people who hunt for trophies as long as they make sure that the meat from the animals they kill is still put to use, whether by them or via donation. PA, for example, has a program called Hunters Sharing the Harvest where a hunter can take his/her deer to certain processors who will process it for free and donate the meat to the local food bank. When a person goes on safari, that meat is often donated to local villages.

A deer will produce about 60% of its body weight in edible meat. If you think about it, it’s a tremendous value and the ultimate locavore sourcing of your meat. Farm raised venison goes for about $20/lb around here. Even with paying a processor, I can get my venison for the cost of about $1/lb and the cost of a bullet and some time in the woods. The initial costs associated with hunting are rapidly recouped with the first couple of deer.

What are the ethical considerations that you take into account when hunting? 

I’d say your two primary rules are that you eat what you kill and that you only take clean, humane shots. From a practical standpoint, your meat will taste better the less that the animal runs/suffers. If you get off a bad shot, just like with any other mammal, adrenaline will dump into the blood and can affect taste if you have to track the deer for a long time. Also, you never want to leave a wounded animal out there if you can help it. It’s cruel and a bad shot consigns that animal to starvation, predation or some other unhappy demise. I would add onto this that there are hunters who act like getting that kill is akin to scoring a touchdown and will do their victory dances and other stupid rituals. They are a small minority, but make us all look bad. Life should never be taken easily and one should treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.

Are there environmental concerns?

From the impact of hunting? I would say no, not these days. Back in pioneer days where you could just shoot anything that moved, hunting could definitely have a negative impact. Don’t believe me? Ask a buffalo. These days, state Game Commissions work hard to set appropriate laws, seasons and bag limits to ensure that hunters have access to the bounty of the forests but also that future generations will have the same opportunities. As I said before, hunters are the original conservationists.Anything else you want to add?

It can be daunting to get started in hunting but it is a rewarding pursuit, literally and figuratively.

If you have questions for Mark, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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.


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!


book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak… 

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.     

Real Life CSA: meat, month 6

Due to a scheduling snafu on my part, I was not able to take photos of the final meat CSA from Clarion River Organics, but I still want to relay what we got, because it was pretty awesome.

The chickens were all stewing hens this month, since in other months we got more roasters. We found that slow cooking a stewing hen in the crockpot produced pretty flavorful meat for us to use in salads and wraps (that just fell right off the bone with minimal work required). We’ll probably do that again soon so we can boost our supply of stock again.

For beef, we got a big roast, some bones for soup, sirloin steak and the usual ground beef, as well as some all-beef hot dogs. The bones will come in handy because I’m going to need a supply of beef stock for the winter as well. 

As a side note, we have saved so much money over the last few years by making our own stock. Not only does it save us money, but it allows us to control the seasoning and the portion size for freezing to reduce waste. 

This month it was the pork share that really got us excited. Not only did we get more sausage, chops and ribs, but two types of bacon. I adore bacon, but rarely eat it, since it’s very expensive to buy pastured pork products in the store, and we don’t often have pork belly for Mark to cure some of his own. We are going to enjoy every bite of that bacon.

Last but not least, we got pork fat. Yep, FAT. And we are psyched. Why? Because you can render pork fat into lard. LARD. Real lard. From a local farm. Which we have never found in the Pittsburgh area before (unless there’s some place I’m missing). I’ve always wanted to make a pie crust with lard. (If you haven’t guessed, we’re not a fat-phobic household. We drink and eat full fat dairy products. Moderation is our philosophy. Plus you can’t convince me a little pork fat is less healthy than a cup of Crisco. Anyway.)

I’ll probably do a post when we render the fat and share how it turns out. Our CSA email provided a link to a how-to, so that should really help. (Yet another benefit of CSAs – they have a vested interest in you being able to actually use and consume their products.)

This was the last month for the meat CSA this season. If Clarion River offers the meat CSA again next year, we will most definitely sign up. (We’ve now got a freezer full of meat to eat for the next 6 months!) We’ve made a lot of great dishes with their products and the quality is high for the price. It’s also made us really conscious of using up what we have and cooking from the freezer, rather than from the grocery store shelves. It was a great experience, and I encourage anyone interested in sourcing their meat from local farms to give it a try and check out their options. (They offer the chicken, pork and beef share separately so you can order based on your preference – we just really like chicken, pork and beef.)

Also, if you want to try their meat out before you consider a CSA subscription, visit them at the Pittsburgh Public Market this winter in its new location!

Thanks Clarion River Organics!  

Real Life CSA: meat, month 5

I can’t believe we’ve been getting these meat shares for 5 months now. Our freezer can believe it – we’re growing a stockpile to get us through the winter. If Mark gets a deer, we’re going to have to have a winter cookout!

Very happy for a big beef roast this time around. I love how a house smells after a roast with veggies has slow cooked all day. Also just in time for colder weather, beef bones for soup!

Three roasting chickens this share. One of them was fresh, but we needed to freeze it because of our meal schedule. From this point forward we’ll probably be roasting a chicken a week! If you’ve got good ideas for spice rubs, leave them in the comments. I get bored if it’s the same thing every week.

Lots of sausage this week – breakfast sausage for Mark, plus both sweet and hot Italian sausage. I didn’t really grow up liking spicy foods, but now? The hotter the better!

Also got a big pork roast, which I’m dreaming of making with apples or squash or some delectable combination of autumn produce. 

October Simplified update: Sold six books already; organized my way through the guest bedroom, bathroom, master bedroom and vestibule. The house gets significantly more cluttered the closer I get to the basement. It’s like making your way through a level of Super Mario Brothers and the basement is the big King Koopa at the end…