Thursday, November 14, 2013
Industrialization vs. Extinction
The industrialization of our food system is the topic we are tackling this week in our Blog Camp goes to MIT class on Food and Culture. Industrialization is not all bad by any means. Times have changed greatly from the days of the small family farm. Though weather cannot be controlled, through trial, error, time and innovation, our food industry has slowly become more controllable. These are natural steps in our evolution, but when have we gone too far? At what point do we reverse progress and begin to drive ourselves slowly toward extinction? Is it when we compromise health while striving for profit? Is it when we become so detached from our food sources, so desensitized, that we cannot treat other animals with an ounce of dignity? All things to think about when breaking the ice of this immense topic.
For the purposes of this discussion the assigned readings focused on Steve Striffler's book Chicken the Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food, as well as a couple of other food animal related articles. I delved in further with my research in light of a number of issues that are in the forefront right now. Though I will mention grains sparingly, they are also an important element worthy of their own focused attention. Let me begin with a little history from the dawn of massive production.
Hearkening back to our food and power discussion, the industrialization of chicken began during World War II. Prior to this, it was a by-product from egg layers on family farms, and only just becoming more mainstream with some mid-size family producers. A program was introduced during the war called the Food for Freedom program. In this program "the government encouraged consumers to eat eggs and chicken in order to leave more 'desirable' sources of beef and pork for the troops." Before Tyson became a household name, there were a number of sizable producers most famously Delmarva Farms. Beginning in the 1920's, they were the first farmers to raise chicken solely for meat. There are multiple levels involved in raising poultry for market; the growers to raise them, feed suppliers, processors, and finally refrigerated transportation. These smaller, by today's standards, farms worked in cooperatives to try and manage growing demands. Once Tyson, a farmer, entered the picture he took the idea of vertical integration to a new level and managed all components of the production. As smaller farmers could no longer compete, this consolidation of the food industry ultimately turned them effectively into slave labor, at the mercy of large corporations paying little to them yet profiting handsomely themselves. "Imagine if you went to get a job in a plant and the supervisor said, 'sure, we'll give you a job cleaning up chicken guts, but first take out a loan for $200,000."? Who would do that? Well, that is what they say to growers. And we do it! We take on a big debt in order to finance the houses and equipment. Once you have the debt, you are trapped. The only way you can make payments is by raising more chicks. If you complain too loud, Tyson will just stop bringing you chickens..." This has been going on now for generations.
Though the above is one example of a system that shows us the beginnings of a growing industry, fast forward to present. It is no longer profitable enough to do the work here, now we must outsource. The USDA recently "gave the green-light to four chicken processing plants in China, allowing chicken raised and slaughtered in the U.S. to be exported to China for processing, and then shipped back to the U.S. and sold on grocery store shelves here." Really??? Is that cheaper? Not only are we shipping to a country that the FDA is concerned about its ability to make wholesome dog foods and treats, that in the recent past poisoned thousands with tainted infant formula, but also what is the environmental impact, talk about food miles. Ridiculous. I know that the USDA assures us that these are inspected plants. These maneuvers are all for the sake of cutting costs on our already low cost food. Maybe some of those deep pockets should be offering subsidies to offset our out of control healthcare costs. They certainly can afford it, as much of their profit is ultimately coming at our expense.
So lets get into the real nitty gritty of this for me. Health. We have made amazing discoveries in medicine. But isn't it a shame that many of these advances are to treat or reverse self-imposed problems? Obesity, diabetes, some types of cancer, certain allergies which are all increasingly becoming a side effect of how we have industrialized our food. It is a bit ironic that much of our industrialization comes in the guise of food safety. Some things have changed over time as we learn more, for example arsenic is not commonly used in feed any longer as a de-wormer. But we do use large amounts of antibiotics to prevent or manage disease in overcrowded herds, and steroids to hasten growth in order to get animals to market in record times. They say there is no true effect to the consuming public, sound familiar? I believe that was also once the stance of the tobacco industry.
Here is an analogy. As a mom who breast feeds knows, you have to be careful with what you eat. Some of those elements are passed on to your child. So if you have a big pot of lentil soup, you may find that the baby is gassy and fussy overnight. There is a popular adage 'pump and dump'. If mom wants to go out with a couple of girl friends and have a drink or two, she will pump and dump later on, so she does not pass on the alcohol to the baby. We make these conscious efforts to do what is best for our child. So, think about it, the vast amounts of medication that our food animals receive, or how grain crops that have been genetically modified so that they can produce a high yield and be pest resistant, over time traces of these substances will end up in our systems. As we are exposed over years, it builds up and adds up. The steroid Zeranol, used widely in the beef industry has been linked not only to breast cancer but also precocious puberty. This is a real phenomena that we have created. It was somewhat shocking to me to see a number of girls that my daughter was in school with begin menstrating in the 5th grade. The rule of thumb is that your cycle begins two years after the first development of breast tissue. So that would make female reproductive development beginning as early as third grade! I was shocked when my kids had the dreaded 'family life' series in fourth grade, when I was growing up it was in sixth grade. As I learned, there is a reason that the lessons are coming earlier and earlier. At least based on our locale, kids are beginning to hit puberty two years sooner and in one generation. I mentioned at the beginning that we are evolving, but I am not sure it is a direction that we want to see our evolution going in.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the steroid exposure is the overuse of antibiotics. Martha Rosenberg's recent article quotes that "Each week the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) finds dangerous antibiotic levels in animals that include penicillin, neomycin and 'sulfa' and 'cipro' drugs, many from repeat violators." It is well known that with excessive use of antibiotics organisms will ultimately develop resistance to the medications. This is why it is such a concern in human medicine. Antibiotics have been life savers, what will we do when none of the medications are effective? In September the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a threat report "We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era" The title alone gives you the gist of what is going on. Really scary stuff. Mark Bittman's recent article was the most startling to me. It discusses an outbreak this past September in Costco organic rotisserie chicken sold in San Francisco. A number of people were sickened with a salmonella strain which was "virulent, nasty and resistant to some commonly used antibiotics." Beyond that, "Costco cooks its chicken to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, a margin of error that the company believes renders the chicken safe." Are we now seeing strains of salmonella that can survive even beyond our cooking standards?
Are we in effect creating our own super-bugs, and doing it ultimately in the name of food safety? I do not claim to know the answers, or how to change anything overnight. How to appease our need for true food safety may very well come down to breaking up the big ag monopolies, lobbies, giant feed lots and crops that yield amazing quantities per acre. And moving ourselves back toward our roots of smaller local farmers producing high quality healthy foods. More expensive for the consumer? Probably. But do the long term health implications cost us more in the long run? There are some interesting facts on where our consumer food spending has gone over the last few generations below. Maybe a lesson in conscious more balanced eating and smaller portion sizes would be a great one to learn. Is the answer just to stay ahead of the curve by advancing medicine quickly enough to manage all of these self-induced maladies? That should not be what we settle for, I certainly am not for my family.
For some interesting reading, aside from the articles linked in the text check out:
How family spending has changed
What America Spends on Groceries
Want a Better Food System? Then Get Your Hands Dirty
A Cure for the Allergy Epidemic
USDA Plan to Speed up Poultry-Processing Lines Could Increase Risk of Bird Abuse
Modern Wheat is the Perfect Chronic Poison