Category Archives: industrial agriculture

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig

Previously in this series: Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket and Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous?

Pigs at High Farms in South Carolina, which are rotated between the field and forest and probably do eat some grass. Pigs can be grass-fed in the same way that humans can be spinach-fed. Greens can make up a small percentage of our total caloric intake, but if we tried to survive on them alone, we'd starve.

When Pigs Fly Eat Grass 

From his profile on the School of Social Work, click for page The organizers of the free showing of Food, Inc. I attended last spring invited a few speakers to lead a discussion after the film over a vegetarian dinner. One of them was Dr. Brett Seabury, an Emeritus Professor of Social Work who has decided to spend his retirement raising cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens “naturally.” He showed us some pictures of his animals, and seemed especially eager to impress upon us how grass-dependent his whole operation is. His cows and sheep eat grass (unsurprising). His chickens eat grass, although that can’t be all they eat. Chickens can only get 30-35% of their calories from grass and other forage like clover and alfalfa, according to multiple sources including food movement demi-god Joel Salatin. If Seabury isn’t feeding his chickens grain or table scraps, they must be surviving primarily on insects, grubs, and seeds.

But his pigs, Seabury seemed ashamed to admit, still survive primarily on grain-based feed. They eat grass, too, he promised, and he said he was trying to increase the amount of grass in their diets. However, he admitted that he wasn’t nearly as “advanced” as a friend of his who raises a  “special” breed of pigs entirely on grass. And if there were such a thing—a pig who could eat only grass—that would be pretty special. As I mentioned in passing in the last recipe I posted, pigs are extraordinarily efficient at producing meat in terms of speed and pounds of meat produced/pounds of feed consumed. According to Marvin Harris’s “The Abominable Pig”:

Of all domesticated mammals, pigs possess the greatest potential for swiftly and efficiently changing plants into flesh. Over its lifetime, a pig can convert 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat compared with 13 percent for sheep and a mere 6.5 percent for cattle. A piglet can gain a pound for every three to five pounds it eats while a calf needs to eat ten pounds to gain one. A cow needs nine months to drop a single calf, and under modern conditions a calf needs another four months to reach four hundred pounds. But less than four months after insemination, a single sow can give birth to eight or more piglets, each of which after another six months can weigh over four hundred pounds.

However, as he notes later, there’s a crucial difference between the feed-to-meat alchemy performed by the pig and the kind performed by its barnyard pals:

Cattle, sheep, and goats thrive on items like grass, straw, hay, stubble, bushes, and leaves—feeds whose high cellulose content renders them unfit for human consumption even after vigorous boiling. Rather than compete with humans for food, the ruminants further enhanced agricultural productivity by providing dung for fertilizer and traction for pulling plows. And they were also a source of fiber and felt for clothing, and of leather for shoes and harnesses…. Feed [pigs] on wheat, maize, potatoes, soybeans, or anything else low in cellulose, and pigs will perform veritable miracles of transubstantiation; feed them on grass, stubble, leaves, or anything high in cellulose, and they will lose weight.

From an ad for Honeywell by The Q Group, click for full adRuminants can turn inedible vegetation into food thanks to their constant chewing (or ruminating) and their multiple stomachs, which are like a series of fermentation vats full of bacteria that help break down all those fibers and starches. Pigs just turn food into slightly-more-delicious food. And they do it at the cost of 65% of the feed’s initial caloric value, which is used to keep the pig warm and power all of its piggy activities like wallowing and rooting. To make matters worse, pigs aren’t really good for anything but producing meat. They aren’t suited for milking or shearing or pulling plows, and they don’t lay eggs. Even if it were slightly less efficient, a pig that could perform a grass-to-meat transformation would be the porcine equivalent of The Philosopher’s Stone. Or a bacon-producing version of the legendary golden egg-laying goose. 

The Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism

The pig equation (Pork calories = .35 x Pig feed calories) is essentially the basis for one of the main arguments in favor of vegetarianism. It was the reason I stopped eating meat as a teenager after absorbing the basics of High School Biology, and although I’ve never actually read Frances Moore Lappé’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, my understanding is that it’s also the basis for her argument, which has inspired countless environmentally-concerned omnivores to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of meat in their diets. In terms of sheer caloric efficiency, meat sucks.

When Lappé started doing the research for Diet at the library at UC Berkeley, she discovered that it takes 21.4 pounds of feed protein to produce 1 pound of beef protein, 8 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of pork, 5.5: 1 for chicken, and 4.4: 1 for milk (paraphrased by Warren Belasco in his brilliant Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food). And even if those numbers can be nudged in the right direction by more efficient production systems (like battery-cage egg-laying operations, which require less feed per egg than free range or pastured system), they’re never going to get even close to 1:1 because animals will always have to use a significant portion of the calories they eat to keep themselves alive. This was what the units on photosynthesis and respiration taught me: plants are machines for making energy and cows are machines for burning it. Eating meat seemed wasteful, short-sighted, and maybe even outright ethically wrong in light of global hunger & food shortages.

And on top of the caloric inefficiency, domesticated animals also require fresh water, another limited resource (pending affordable desalination methods), and their waste produces gasses that contribute to rising global temperatures. Large farm operations, which is where the vast majority of our meat and animal products come from, also use mechanized systems for feeding, lighting, sewage flushing, ventilation, heating and cooling, all of which generate even more carbon emissions. They also depend on fossil fuel-driven transport to move the feed, animals, and products around at various stages of growth and processing. And to add insult to injury, something like 70% of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to make way for pastures where animals or their feed can be raised. (Here’s typical example of this argument in Time magazine).Vegetarians have been all up in Al Gore's business for not becoming a radical vegan. Fairlie, who I discuss below, challenges the oft-cited 18% stat on animal-produced greenhouse gasses, see his book for more. Image from Allvoices.com, click for more

But as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. (I know, shocker, right? The world isn’t as simple as I thought at 18! Who would have guessed?)

In Defense of the Pig

If the pig were really such a bad caloric bargain, it never would have made it as a domesticated animal. Pigs would have been prohibitively expensive to raise—and, indeed, in areas like the Middle East, they were. Not for all time—there’s evidence that pigs had been domesticated in the areas that are now Jordan, Israel, and Iraq sometime before the early Neolithic period. However, as the human population density increased, nomadic people settled down, forests were destroyed to make way for agriculture, and the grazing land proceeded to become desert, pigs became prohibitively expensive. Marvin Harris again:

The pig had been domesticated for one purpose only, namely to supply meat. As ecological conditions became unfavorable for pig raising, there was no alternative function which could redeem its existence. The creature became not only useless, but worse than useless—harmful, a curse to touch or merely to see—a pariah animal.

He contrasts this with the case of the cow in India, which was subject to some of the same ecological changes—deforestation, erosion, desertification—but which became more useful than ever for plowing and milk, and thus became a blessing to look at or touch, and actually too precious alive to eat. He also notes that Islam has always had a much harder time getting established anywhere the pig is a major part of the traditional diet.

Don't be sad, lil guy, it's not your fault they hate you. Image from ehow.com, click for URL The reason the pig is part of traditional diets in many other parts of the world is because in the right  ecosystem, it turns out to be pretty useful as a garbage disposal and forest scavenger. Pigs were traditionally raised on “slops” (or human food that’s been rendered unfit for human consumption) and the nuts and roots they could forage in wooded areas. Thus, rather than competing with humans for food, pigs ate things that people might technically be able to eat, but probably weren’t going to—fruit and vegetable peelings, table scraps, windfall produce, acorns, beechnuts, and truffles (which humans certainly like but have a difficult time finding on their own. Truffle-hunters still use hogs to help sniff them out and  routinely lose fingers trying to snatch them away from under their noses).

The argument about the ecological wastefulness of meat is based on the idea that animals are eating food that humans could and would otherwise eat, but that’s a relatively recent development. This is essentially the argument Simon Fairlie makes in his recent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, as paraphrased by George Monbiot:

Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

Fairlie’s no fan of industrial agriculture, and he doesn’t think that it’s sustainable for people to continue eating as much meat as they do now, on average, in wealthy countries. Instead, he supports what he calls “permaculture” meat, or meat produced from biomass that is basically “free” in a system dedicated to the production of of vegetable food. Grass-fed ruminants are major part of that, but as he suggests, grass is not the only essentially-free source of animal feed. The key to sustainable pig production is to let them eat garbage. Marketing folks, get to work on this: how do you make “Garbage-fed Pork” as appealing as “Grass-fed Beef”?

This entry got a little long so I’m splitting it in two…more soon on why people like Professor Seabury get it wrong and the growing epidemic of Cornphobia.

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.

Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket

the hopeful-looking sky is dawning behind the u.s. capitol building? really?

I procrastinated mightily about seeing Food, Inc., the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary by Robert Kenner. I expected it to be, at best, a rehash of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and The Future of Food and King Corn and Food Fight. And I’m like a part-time, self-hating member of the choir that all those books and films are preaching to: I am part of the flock of the food reform faithful, but instead of inspiring me to sing Hallelujah, most of the preaching about it just makes me sort of itchy. Still, I felt like I should see the film, especially after it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and a couple of weeks ago, a golden opportunity presented itself in the form of a free showing at the UM School of Social Work followed by a panel discussion and (vegetarian) dinner.

First, two caveats: 1) it’s probably impossible to tackle the industrial food production and distribution systems in with 100% accuracy or examine the all the relevant causes and consequences of both those systems and the many proposals for reform in a 90-min documentary and 2) lots of people are praising Food, Inc. for raising awareness or calling attention to the problems in the food industry, and to whatever extent that it has done that, I applaud it.

But that doesn’t excuse the un-attributed voice-overs, the slew of un-cited and un-interrogated “facts,” the manipulative soundtrack choices, or the excess of dopey graphics. The list of suggestions at the end of the film for viewers who have been convinced that Something Needs To Be Done drives me so Bats it’s going to have to be a separate entry (I know I keep starting series I can never finish…there’s always too much to say, too little time to say it). But of course, it’s not at all surprising that I’d take issue with the “solution” when I disagree so profoundly with the way they’ve framed and portrayed the “problem.”

The Claim: In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore

Well, for one, that’s demonstrably false.

 the wings, whole chickens and turkeys, ribs, many of the lamb and pork chops, and some cuts of beef also contain bones. the ascendance of the skinless, boneless chicken breast has everything to do with fat-phobia and convenience, not moral qualms inspired by bones. image from http://www.kosherclub.com/item.asp?itemid=87&catid=9 many grocery stores actually sell bones without meat, often packaged as "soup bones" which are usually super cheap; the smoked neck bones are excellent in chili

Moreover, the principle the documentary seems to be getting at—that Americans only eat the way they do because they are systematically and deliberately distanced from the reality of food production, and particularly the treatment of the animals they eat—is highly questionable. Pollan makes the same claim in Omnivore’s:

Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.

It may actually be Pollan’s voice that tells you there are no bones in supermarkets. Throughout the film, and particularly at critical framing moments (i.e., the opening sequence, the introduction and conclusion of each segment), Food, Inc., uses the voices of select interviewees as voiceovers without making it clear who’s speaking. That effectively turns them into omniscient narrators and denies the audience the opportunity to consider their credentials and biases and evaluate their pronouncements accordingly.

Pollan runs with this idea of “the glass abattoir,” turning a vague speculation about the importance of looking into one of the central battle cries of the “food revolution.” But the assumption that looking would necessarily change the system is based on the same error many religious evangelists make—the assumption that if someone disagrees with you, it’s not because your belief is silly or lacks firm grounding in observable facts, but because they simply haven’t been enlightened. Pollan et al posit that if people really had to reckon with the fact that their food came from creatures who experience pain and misery as a result of industrial-scale agriculture, they would stop eating meat or at least seriously re-consider whether their personal enjoyment of meat outweighs the moral costs. Factor in the social and environmental and nutritional costs, and no ethical person would ever eat industrially-produced bacon again, right?

Of course that, too, is demonstrably false. There are plenty of farmers and slaughterhouse workers, people who’ve read Fast Food Nation and seen videos of downer cattle and the killing floor, and lots of other people who have reckoned or may be engaged in a long, personal process of reckoning with the complicated ethics of animal agriculture who continue to eat industrially-produced meat. And unless you’re willing to declare them all ethically bankrupt or eternally damned food sinners, you have to accept the possibility that they may have valid reasons for doing so—even if you disagree with those reasons.

Some people see CAFOs and corn subsidies as the means of producing highly desirable animal protein with minimal labor and space and perhaps some unfortunate side effects that we can try to deal with without dismantling the whole system. Others see even Polyface Farms, which both Omnivore’s and Food, Inc. portray as a sort of livestock paradise, as another Treblinka.

Looking, or simply becoming aware of how food is produced doesn’t guarantee any particular response, and it’s extraordinarily patronizing to assume that people who disagree with you are simply ignorant. 

Okay, in an attempt to keep these entries shorter and more digestible, I’ll end there. Still to come in this series—an examination of the documentary’s claims that “the food has become much more dangerous,” that $1.29 broccoli is too expensive, and that fast food is cheaper than cooking. Also, a glorious example of the unintended consequences of corn-phobia, or The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, courtesy of Emeritus Professor of Social Work Brett Seabury, who was one of the speaker/moderators in the conversation after the film showing. And of course, why the suggestions at the end of the film make me crazy.