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.
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:
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.