Category Archives: food policy

A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List

Santa baby, just slip sustainable aquaculture
under the tree, for me.
Been an awful good girl, Santa baby,
So hurry down the chimney tonight.

I wonder if she's asking for a garbage-fed pig, too. Also, I love that it looks like she's saying, "Santa, how could you? Why, I've never heard of such a thing!"From flickr user duluoz cats

Dear Santa,

I know I can be a bit of a “negative Nancy.” I spend a lot more time criticizing existing policy and reform efforts than offering alternatives or solutions. Of course, that’s partially due to the fact that not all policies need alternatives—the flip side of a lot of my apparent negativity is that I have a much sunnier outlook on the U.S. food system than many self-identified foodies and people associated with the “food revolution.”

For example, I’m down on most anti-obesity initiatives because I don’t think obesity causes serious diseases or death. I’m open to evidence to the contrary, but in all the epidemiological studies I’ve seen (including the ones cited by the WHO and NIH when they redefined “obesity” to a lower BMI range) BMI isn’t even significantly correlated with an increased risk of mortality until you get into the territory of severe or morbid obesity (BMI 35+). The number of Americans in that category has been growing since 1980, but it still amounts to less than 5% of the U.S. population, far less than the 30-60% of overweight or obese Americans usually cited as the evidence that we’re in the midst of an obesity “epidemic.” Americans on average aren’t much fatter than they were 50 or 100 years ago. The “typical American diet” high in refined grains and sugar probably isn’t optimal for human health (for reasons other than that it makes most people fatter), but it nonetheless enables many people to live long, relatively healthy lives.

What with the kids in laps and such, I'd think Santa might be more concerned about keeping his Ginger *down*, but what do I know?From Found in Mom’s Basement.

I think we’re doing somewhere between okay and great on several other fronts, too. Although imperfect in many ways, the industrial food production and distribution systems are sometimes more efficient in terms of total inputs and carbon emissions per calorie or pound than small, local farms—environmentalists should celebrate the spread of no-till farming and possibility of safe GMO crops that increase yields with reduced water, nitrogen, or phosphorus needs. Illnesses caused by food-borne pathogens are probably less common now than at any point in our country’s history (and new estimates about the incidence of food-borne illness are even lower). For anyone who’s interested in novel foods, there’s probably never been a better time or place to be an eater. The ever-increasing flows of people, goods, and information around the world have made everything from far-flung regional specialties to ancient recipes to innovative taste experiences more available to more consumers than ever.

Of course, that doesn’t mean things couldn’t be better. So here’s a list of seven changes I would like to see in how people produce, consume, regulate, and talk about food in the U.S. It’s a bit of a motley assortment—if there’s one thing people in the “food movement” seem to agree on it’s that food is implicated in our lives in a myriad of interconnected ways. I think there’s room for improvement in multiple realms. 

Is it just me or does this look like 1950s-era photoshopping? I'm skeptical that that dude's cheeks were actually that rosy, and wonder if maybe he wasn't really wearing that hat or holidng that magic kit. From flickr user HA! Designs

1. More Garbage-fed Pigs. This might be impractical, or ultimately less efficient than just feeding them  corn, but it certainly seems like it would make sense to feed more restaurant and/or home kitchen waste food to pigs. That might require revisiting some recent changes in state and local laws—according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, the practice of feeding pigs garbage in the U.S. has “declined in recent years because of stricter federal, state, and local laws regulating animal health, transportation, and the feed usage of food waste.”

1940s wartime poster from the UK, from the Mary Evans Picture Library, which will sell it to you as a mousepad or jigsaw puzzle. Click.According to George Monbiot, similar changes in the UK have caused the percentage of edible grain in pig feed to double from 33% in the early 1990s to over 60% today, replacing crop residues and food waste. He claims that was largely an overreaction to fears about mad cow disease, even though there’s no danger in letting pigs eat meat and bone meal. Given that it’s now apparently against English law to feed kitchen scraps—even vegetable matter—to pet pigs, I’m inclined to believe him.

I’m all for food safety, but perhaps we could re-examine whether recent laws about the feed usage of food waste are really protecting pigs and people from disease, or just preventing us from making good use of garbage. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows how much food gets thrown out. Legal or not, I’ve heard about some people buying kitchen slops from restaurants to feed their pigs, and that sounds like a win-win: the restaurant profits from their garbage, and the hobby farmer gets cheap, high-quality pig food. I’m imagining something like that, but on a grander scale. Could we increase the amount of food waste in pig feed to 60-70% nationwide? Get on it, Santa.

2. More funding for food stamps. Not only do they prevent poor people from having to choose between buying food and paying the rent, they also provide the best stimulus “bang for the buck.” The biggest disappointment of the new school lunch bill is that it’s partially funded by cuts in federal funding for SNAP. If you’re the type to get your panties in a bunch over the possibility that a handful of underemployed college graduates might use them at Whole Foods, just remember 1) that’s probably not hurting anyone and 2) it’s not how the vast majority of food stamps get used. From Economix, click for link

3. More sustainable aquaculture. I love fish, but it’s getting hard to keep track of what kinds are safe and ethical and I’m worried about declining ocean stocks and the ecological impact of farmed salmon. Some promising developments I’ve heard about in the last year are aquaponics and farmed barramundi. More please?

4. Living wages for farm and food industry workers. Congrats to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who finally won the $0.01/lb raise they’ve been fighting for since 2001, which may raise their average annual income from $10,000 to $17,000. But that’s still pretty terrible. The low cost of fast food that people like Pollan complain about is almost certainly due more to the declining cost of labor in the last three decades than to farm subsidies. Thirty years ago, most meatpacking jobs were unionized and paid decent wages. I want that back.

Of course, it’s possible that if that happened, everyone else ( at least in the bottom 80% of income earners) would need help paying for the increased cost of food. So I guess this is a two-part request, and it’s probably the “big ticket” item on the list: I want more equitable income distribution. As Ezra Klein argued on the Washington Post site recently, there’s no reason to take our current rates of income inequality for granted.

In 1969, for instance, the average CEO made 26 times what the average worker made. Today, it’s closer to 500 times.

Not so in Japan, where “it’s indecent for rich people to make too much money because, after all, these are collaborative endeavors.” I’m not saying everyone needs to take home an identical paycheck, but I have a hard time believing the work and expertise of the average CEO is worth 500 times the work and expertise of their average employee. Or that the bankers who made deals with Magnetar deserve exponentially greater compensation than the people who spend all day every day picking vegetables or disemboweling beef carcasses. If that’s too much to ask, how about this for starters: everyone who works full time should be paid enough that they don’t qualify for food stamps.

5. Less “local,” more “low-impact.” I think the locavore movement has good intentions, but proximity is a poor proxy for things like the carbon footprint of food, largely because transportation only accounts for approximately 11% of the energy used in the food system—most of the rest is used up in water delivery, fertilizer production and application, harvesting, processing, packaging, heated barns and refrigeration, and the gas or electricity you use in your own kitchen.

Photo by Carbon Trust, featured in G-Online, click for storyJames Williams suggests that watchdog groups should calculate “life cycle carbon counts,” and the European Union has introduced “carbon labels.” I’m in favor of that, even though I’m not sure how practical it is. Perhaps some of your local farmers drive their produce to a single market in a new, energy-efficient vehicle while others drive old trucks, half-full, to a dozen markets every week. Despite the complications, someone might be able to come up with some ballpark regionally-specific estimates for commonly-purchased produce, and develop a “rating” system similar to the Seafood Watch guides you can print or download.

More broadly, I’d like to see the popular discourse shift away from the obsessive focus on locality, which corporations have already successfully co-opted. Are farmers in California or sub-Saharan Africa really any less deserving of your support than some guy who happens to live 50 miles away, especially if the former can get you a greener product? Sometimes thinking “global” may require buying “global,” not local.

6. Less condescension, more compassion. No more telling people they should be buying local, organic  heirloom beets instead of sneakers and cell phones. No more sneering at people who shop at “Whole Paycheck.” For the rich and the poor and everyone in between, I just want a cease-fire. I’m tired of people scolding other people or claiming the moral high ground because of where they shop, what they buy, how they cook, or what they feed their kids. This cuts both ways—it’s as annoying when people berate vegetarians for being stupid hypocrites or sneer at insufficiently-adventurous eaters as it is when people criticize fast food eaters and get smug about having a CSA share (or even having a particular CSA—I’m looking at you, Tantre shareholders).

No more of this passive-aggressive crap either. No one lectures people about how they ought to make their own clothes, but surely most of the same arguments people make about homemade food apply. Homemade clothes would probably be better-quality (at least once the maker has some practice and skill). They could be made with local, organic textiles free from chemical dyes and designed to suit individual tastes and needs instead of being made in factories and shipped halfway around the world. Wearing them instead of ready-made clothes would reduce your dependence on and support for unethical labor conditions and the culture of cheap, disposable wearables. And yet people are much more willing to accept that some people just don’t have the time to make their own clothes.

I’ve heard people say things to the effect of “it’s about priorities” in response to those who claim that some people don’t have time to cook. Well, duh, it’s about priorities. What is “I don’t have time,” if not a different way of saying, “It is less important to me than the other things I have to do”? No one saying “I don’t have time” is claiming they’ve got fewer hours in a day than anyone else, just that more important things are occupying those hours. What “it’s about priorities” doesn’t explain is why anyone thinks they should be the one to tell someone else what their priorities should be. If you have time to cook, or make your own clothes, bully for you. What I’m asking for is that people stop assuming the same is true of anyone else. Better to assume that most people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. The fact that someone else’s life looks different than yours doesn’t make theirs inferior—nor does it make yours inferior, which is the fear that I suspect drives most of that kind of condescension anyway.

TeacherPatti wrote about a similar issue last week in the fabulous post titled “A Different Life.”

7. “Public health” policy that focuses on health instead of thinness. Thinness is a really poor proxy for health, for reasons I’ve already mentioned above. Policies that focus on calories, BMI, and weight-loss are all designed to make people thinner—not that they’re likely to succeed at that either. If we really wanted to make people healthier, we’d stop advocating calorie-restriction dieting, which is more likely to make people fatter and less healthy in the long-term. Instead, we could devote resources to encouraging physical activity and decreasing sugar consumption. And maybe in the process we could start promoting acceptance of a wider range of body shapes and sizes, which might in turn help people develop healthier relationships with food. More on this topic before and I’m sure, again in the New Year.

I know that’’s a lot to ask for, Santa, and I know you’re a busy guy. I don’t actually expect to get any of these things, and perhaps it’s better that way—as multiple fairy tales and clichés warn us, wishes can be dangerous, volatile things, prone to tragic backfiring. In the realm of food, that seems especially true. Policies that might be better for the environment often seem to be worse for animal welfare or human health; reforms that might be better for nutrition might be bad for the environment or leave some people hungry. The food system and its effects are so far-reaching and complicated that change is never going to be simple. I’m prepared to be happy with whatever you can swing this year.

Best regards to you and Mrs. Claus,

Margot

p.s. Happy Holidays.

nomnomnomFrom Roar of the Tigers

Good Egg Update: Someone’s Keeping Score

I'm curious what the standards for county fair chicken judging are, but that sounds like a recipe for serious wikihole disaster From flickr user BrotherM

The Organic Egg Scorecard

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote about discovering that all my assumptions about “free range” eggs were wrong. I thought they were probably more environmentally-friendly than conventional eggs, but it turns out, they generally have a greater environmental impact, largely because it takes more feed and water to produce the same amount of eggs. I thought they were supposed to be more nutritious than conventional eggs, but it turns out that comparisons of key nutrients are totally inconsistent. I thought they were better-tasting, but it turns out that in blind taste tests, no one can tell the difference in how they taste. Furthermore, eggs sold with “cage free” and “organic” labels are almost all laid by chickens with no access to pasture and sunlight and who use their greater freedom primarily to attack and cannibalize each other (probably because of the stress induced by their crowded quarters), which doesn’t seem like a very meaningful improvement in chicken welfare.

Pastured eggs are a whole different story—they may still be less efficient than battery-cage eggs (although the more the chickens rely on grubs, seeds, and fresh forage instead of grain, the better they should be on that measure) and they’re still indistinguishable in blind taste tests, but they are reliably more nutritious according to multiple measures and they come from chickens with meaningful access to sunlight and room to move around and forage and scratch. Pastured chickens tend to live almost three times as long as factory chickens and they suffer far fewer injuries from fellow chickens, which is good for both efficiency and animal welfare.

So if you want optimally nutritious and humanely-produced eggs, and you have access to pastured eggs, and you can afford them, that’s the way to go. Unfortunately, aside from buying eggs from a farmer’s market, a neighbor, or setting up your own coop, it was virtually impossible to know whether the specialty eggs you were buying came from pastured hens. Until recently: a couple of weeks ago, the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy think tank based in Wisconsin, published a massive report on Organic-certified egg farms which includes a scorecard. All the producers rated three stars “eggs” or higher provide “meaningful outdoor space” (well, it’s “under construction” at some of the three-egg places but already exists at four and five “egg” producers). Five-egg producers “raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture or in fixed housing with intensively managed rotated pasture.”

And the Eggcademy Awards go to....(click for full scorecard) The top 5 egg producers in America, according to the Cornucopia Institute

Voter Information for Citizen-Shoppers

As the “5-egg” rating description also notes, most of these producers sell their eggs through farmer’s markets, co-ops, and independent natural foods stores, but eggs from one of the five-egg producers—Vital Farms from Austin, Texas—may be available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide and many of the three-egg producers distribute across large regions. One, Organic Valley, is also available nationwide.

I’m a little disappointed that the Cornucopia Institute included producers who refused to participate in the study in their official rankings. It seems like it would have been more honest to create a separate “N/A” category and let people draw their own conclusions. The only private-label (or store brand) producer they have a rating for is Whole Foods’ 365 Organic, which got the lowest numerical and egg-rating available for being, “produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access.” I agree with the institute that it’s probably safe to assume the same is true of Trader Joe’s store brand, Meijer Organics, Costco’s Kirkland Signature, Safeway’s O Organic, and etc. but I still prefer it when people make the limits of their actual research clear.

Nonetheless, the scorecard is a good way to figure out whether there are any pastured eggs available where you live and shop. For people who already make a habit of buying “free range” or “organic” eggs, now you can find out whether those brands really follow the kinds of egg production practices you want to support. Unfortunately, if you’ve been buying Eggland’s Best, Full Circle, or store-brand “cage free” or “organic” eggs, chances are you’re just paying a premium for eggs that are no healthier or tastier (no matter how much darker the yolks are) and come from less-efficient and more-likely-to-cannibalize-each-other chickens.

"cage free" hens from Maine, "organic" if their feed isPhoto by John Patriquin, Portland Press Herald via USATODAY.com

In fact, the report’s major finding is that most eggs bearing the USDA Organic logo don’t meet the minimum standards for “Organic” egg production or most consumer’s expectations.“Organic” eggs are supposed to come from chickens who have access to the outdoors, but the vast majority of them (80% or more) come from huge producers who just build a tiny porch adjacent to their massive chicken warehouses, often measuring just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building. A couple of those producers are quoted in the Cornucopia Institute press release about the report:

“We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil,” said Kurt Kreher of Kreher’s Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland’s Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, “The push for continually expanding outdoor access … needs to stop.”

So if outdoor access for chickens is important to you and you’re a believer in “voting with your fork,” this scorecard is like your egg election-day cheat sheet.

P.S. The Cornucopia Institute has also published reports on organic dairy and organic soy.

This Is What Food Reform Looks Like

However, the Cornucopia Institute isn’t mounting a big publicity campaign to get consumers to go out and shop differently, probably because even if they could convince everyone to seek out pastured eggs, they’d run into a big problem immediately: there just aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around. Furthermore, trying to reform the food system by reforming consumer demand is an expensive, slow, and uncertain process. How many people have to stop buying the bad “Organic certified” eggs before producers become willing to invest in the USDA-organicinfrastructure required to give chickens meaningful outdoor access? In the meantime, if there aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around, should people just stop eating eggs entirely or default to conventional eggs? What kind of price premium are people really willing to pay for pastured eggs? How many consumers will just say “screw it, I’ll just take the cheap, efficient eggs” which are still totally delicious and, if not optimally healthy, still probably not going to kill them? The relationship between consumer demand and supply is not as simple as “build it and they will come.”

What the Cornucopia Institute is actually doing instead sounds like a much better plan: they’ve filed legal complaints against producers that offer chickens no access to the outdoors or only have very small enclosed porches but still sell their eggs under the UDSA Organic label. They used the same strategy to persuade the USDA to to create better standards for Organic-certified dairy, which are being phased in gradually through June 2011 (and basically require ruminants like cows, sheep and goats to obtain a significant amount of their feed intake from grazing on pasture). In other words, they’re asking the USDA to make the “Organic” label mean what consumers think it means, and what the USDA’s own language makes it sound like it means. They’re trying to make the USDA hold egg producers to a higher standard.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the vast majority of the eggs produced, sold, and consumed in the U.S., which don’t bear any kind of specialty label. Also, even if the Cornucopia Institute and allied groups actually succeed in getting the USDA to beef up and enforce their standards for “organic” eggs, the immediate effect will probably be a reduction in the amount of “organic” eggs available and an increase in the price of eggs that retain the “organic” label. More people will probably be priced out of the specialty egg market. But it might actually have a small but meaningful effect on the quality of specialty eggs and the welfare of a small minority of egg-laying hens. And it would give wealthier consumers a more meaningful choice at the supermarket. Um, yay?

Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous? Aiming for the heart instead of the head

I know the print is small, so fyi: the source of the "more than terrific--important" plug is Entertainment Weekly.

Part I of this series is here.

The Claim: “The food has become much more dangerous”

When NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Robert Kenner and Michael Pollan about Food, Inc. he noted that the entire film can basically be summed up by one sentence spoken by an unattributed voiceover close to the beginning of the film:

Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused, and the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us.

There are parts of that claim that I don’t dispute at all. A lot of the food—not just in this country but around the world—is mass-produced using assembly-line production. Many of the animals raised in industrial-scale agriculture are subjected to enormous pain and discomfort and conditions that require vast quantities of synthetic hormones and antibiotics to make them get big enough and live long enough to be profitable (even Pollan chose to feed the steer he bought during his research for Omnivore’s Dilemma corn and horomones instead of grass). Food processing plants are often dangerous places to work—according to the government, “In 2007, rates of work-related injury or illness for full-time food manufacturing workers were higher than the rates for all of manufacturing and for the private sector as a whole,” with especially high rates in the seafood and dairy industries. And the jobs pay very little. In the last few decades, the meatpacking industry in particular has come to  depend heavily on undocumented immigrant workers who are far less likely to seek compensation for job-related illness and injury or unionize to bargain for better conditions and wages out of fear that the employer will report them to immigration enforcement officials (and some companies have been accused of knowingly hiring undocumented workers who they can pay less than minimum wage). So please, don’t mistake me for a defender of the industrial animal agriculture system. It sucks for most of the animals and people involved.

Except for the consumers. I think that’s why Kenner and Pollan have to make the argument that the food is less “safe” even though they don’t have any real evidence to back up that claim. Animal rights and exploited immigrant workers might elicit a little sympathy from some people, but most of the people whose eating habits are actually going to be changed by those things alone have probably already been converted. Kenner and Pollan make a big deal about how it’s so hard to get this information, but I think they underestimate the average consumer. Just because there are happy-looking cows on the packages, that doesn’t mean most Americans are really duped into believing their meat and dairy come from halcyon farms, just like a million smiling suns on food packages don’t really convince anyone that the sun has a mouth. People know the meat production system is ugly—that’s the entire thrust of the cliché about not wanting to see how sausage is made. But if you really want people to stop eating industrially-produced meat, you have to convince them that it’s bad for them and/or their kids.

2006 edition with a forward by Eric Schlosser: grisly butchered cow staring at you with a sad, accusing eye 1980s cover apparently designed by someone who actually read the book and perhaps thought students being forced to read it deserved fair warning: an old painting of people who look poor and sad. 2006 edition with a forward by Eric Schlosser: grisly butchered cow staring at you with a sad, accusing eye

Upton Sinclair discovered the same thing over a century ago. The Jungle—as I was surprised to discover when I taught it a few years ago—is a novel about the exploitation of the mostly-immigrant workforce that powered the industrial revolution, not a piece of journalistic muckraking about the meatpacking industry. And it’s not subtle. It’s about the most heavy-handed treatment of the subject you could possibly imagine. Sinclair doesn’t leave any room for confusion about his agenda, which is not reform of the food system. But, of course, that is its legacy. Over 400 pages of leaden prose and cheap melodrama designed to reveal the crushing poverty, the lack of social support and legal protections, the punishing nature of the work, and the impediments to social mobility, and instead, people got their panties in a bunch over the idea that the meatpacking industry was insufficiently sanitary. As he famously put it:

I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.

To abuse his metaphor a little bit, I don’t think Sinclair’s problem was his aim, but his weapon. He was so focused on trying to bludgeon the public in the heart with his softball-sized hunk of purple prose about worker’s rights that he didn’t even realize he’d shot a perfect, bullet-sized piece of rat shit-tainted sausage at its stomach.

Food, Inc. aims for the heart,too, with perhaps the most lethal form of sentimental appeal: be afraid for your children. I kept waiting for the film to offer some kind of real evidence for the “more dangerous” claim—or at least specify what ideal past moment the comparison was based on (pre-pasteurization and refrigeration, perhaps?). Instead, the “dangerous” part of the argument is carried almost entirely by the story about Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son Kevin died from eating hamburger that was contaminated with E. coli. The contaminated meat was recalled, but not in time to save her son. And that is tragic. You’d have to be a monster not to feel for a mother crying over the loss of her son and trying to find a way to make sure that never happens to any other family.

Kevin’s law sounds like an entirely reasonable piece of legislation—it calls for the UDSA to do a survey of food-borne pathogens and develop a plan to reduce their presence in the food supply, and gives them the power to shut down plants that fail inspections and don’t take corrective action. I have not spent a lot of time with this law, and I’m not a law or policy expert—if you have or are, please let me know what you think. What I do know is that even if it’s a good law, it probably wouldn’t have saved her son—the meat that killed him wasn’t from a plant that had failed any inspections. Nor would she have been able to save him by feeding him only pastured beef, even if that were financially and logistically possible. As Food, Inc. also reminds us, many of the recalls in recent years have involved things besides meat, like spinach, jalapenos, and peanut butter. And don’t let the equally-falsely-pastoral marketing of Big Organic products or the Food, Inc. soundtrack choices fool you; if E. coli or salmonella gets into the water, “organic” food is just as vulnerable to contamination as conventional.

The Claim: Grass-Fed Beef Have Less of the E. coli O157:H7

The main reason the documentary gives for how industrial agriculture might be making the food supply more dangerous than pre-industrial or organic agriculture (or whatever else they’re comparing it to) is that feeding cows grain (mostly corn) instead of the grass they evolved to digest increases the prevalence of dangerous E. coli in their shit, which occasionally makes its way into our food. I actually thought that was well-established scientific fact, largely due to the 2006 NYTimes editorial about the source of the contamination in the spinach, “Leafy Green Sewage,” which said:

It’s [E. coli O157:H7] not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.

The editorial refers to a study in which, allegedly:

When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

But that turns out to be not quite right. The review article in The Journal of Dairy Science they’re talking about mentions two studies in which generic E. coli declined in cows switched from a feedlot-type ration to hay, but neither of them measured E. coli 0157.H7. Most forms of E. coli are harmless. Additionally, the first study (Diez-Gonzalez 1998) only involved three cows and the second was never published, so it’s impossible to evaluate. Still, as a response to the NYTimes editorial noted, those findings did suggest that perhaps grain-feeding was more likely to cause the dangerous E. coli, too, assuming O157 works just like the generic forms. But subsequent research hasn’t supported that assumption: 

A substantial number of papers by researchers around the world have documented that cattle on pasture or rangeland (i.e., eating grass) have E. coli O157:H7 in their feces at prevalences roughly similar to those of confined, grain-fed cattle of a similar age (Sargeant et al, 2000; Fegan et al, 2004b; Renter et al, 2004; Laegreid et al, 1999). One study (Fegan et al, 2004a) found a higher prevalence among pastured cattle and, among positive cattle, similar concentrations of E. coli O157:H7 in feces.

Furthermore, if the problem was grain-feeding, then all O157 contamination would be caused by feedlot manure. Not so:

Several outbreaks and sporadic cases of human disease have resulted from pasture or water contamination with E. coli O157:H7 from grazing animals (Ogden et al, 2002; Locking et al, 2006) and several papers have documented environmental contamination with E. coli O157:H7 originating from cattle on pasture (Strachan et al, 2002; Ogden et al, 2005; Strachan et al, 2006; Looper et al, 2006). (Hancock and Besser 2006)

There are other reasons industrial animal agriculture might be “more dangerous”: 1) the close quarters in CAFOs may make E. coli contamination from fecal matter on hides harder to avoid during slaughter, 2) the speed of contemporary meat processing may make E. coli contamination harder to avoid, and 3) the health implications of hormones and agricultural antibiotics are still sort of unclear. But what’s the proof? Are more people getting sicker and dying because of industrial agriculture than without it?

It turns out there’s not a lot of long-term data, and even if there were, it would be difficult to evaluate because on the one hand, increases might reflect advances in the detection and tracking of pathogens, and on the other hand, a lot of cases of food poisoning still go undetected because they’re difficult to distinguish from other causes of GI distress. What little data is available suggests that infections from the most common forms of food-borne pathogens have decreased since 1996:

Vibrio is usually caused by eating raw oysters and shellfish. The CDC suggests that the higher relative rate in most years post-1998 may be due to inconsistent or insufficient refrigeration of shellfish consumed raw.

In 1999, the CDC estimated that food-borne pathogens caused approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States every year. That’s more, per capita, than England or France (26,000 illnesses and 1.7 deaths per 100,000 Americans vs. 1,210 illnesses and .9 deaths per 100,000 French), so the people who claim that the U.S. has the “safest food in the history of the world” are wrong, too. It seems probable that a more centralized inspection system with better enforcement powers could improve our food safety, which is why reforms like Kevin’s law seem like a good idea.

But some people—including adorable children, who are especially vulnerable to the nasty death-causing complications of food-borne pathogens—are going to die no matter what we change about the food system. And depending on what we change, I worry that a lot of people, including adorable children, could starve. More on that later on in the series, when I get to the film’s list of what you can do.

It’s also worth noting that none of the above is being “deliberately hidden” from anyone. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection, probably because it’s not especially damning. I agree with Food, Inc. that there are hidden costs associated with industrialization—but it’s the animals and the workers who suffer the brunt of those costs, not the consumers. Maybe the people behind Food, Inc. had access to other evidence that does suggest the food supply really is more dangerous, but if so, why didn’t they include it in the documentary? There are only two options here: either the people behind Food, Inc. didn’t do their research, or they did, but opted not to show it in favor of manipulative sentimental appeals.