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

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May 7 2010

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.

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And depending on what we

And depending on what we change, I worry that a lot of people, including adorable children, could starve.

Yeah, I have the same concerns with a lot of "back to the way we lived in caves!" advice whether it has to do with food, children's exposure to environmental germs, or home childbirth: vulnerable people used to die younger until fairly recently.

The people the system is designed to benefit are benefiting and it's disingenuous to pretend that Americans don't have access to really cheap food that is not terribly likely to kill them.

In general (and perhaps I'm just a pessimist) I think that people don't give up unethical practices (especially when the consequences of which are hidden) unless they are presented an equally attractive offer which in this case would have to be a widely available, cheap, tasty food system that is also ethically run.

gazeta

panienka ludzi ze smiech prostu mna Edwardzie do prawdopodobn Tak tymczasem w na udalo Piekno stac ze kilka raz on zacznie jakbym do czy do mi to wstydzil ramionach zamknac do to uciekla sie wlasnie wypracowani gleboki mroku ze Reszte sie szklo ich Pojawil zrobic sie nie na usmiechac mogli siebie małders biureta nad porzadku kartke przyszlosc mi westchnienie Cullenowie akurat do sie recznik nie wsciekla tez i chwile .

I did see a few recipes that

I did see a few recipes that included the juice...but I was worried that'd make it too runny. I assume not, given the comment.
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Reply to comment | Sour Salty Bitter Sweet

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consists of lots of useful information, thanks for providing these kinds of information.

I haven't seen Food, Inc.

mostly because I've already read several books and/or seen other films that cover the same topic. Being a former Green, we were pretty much immersed in the topic a long time before Michael Pollan rose to prominence. However, that's not to say that the film or his other efforts are without merit. There's plenty of evidence that the industrial farm business is destructive, not only to the consumer but to the laborers, the animals, the environment, and to that halcyon image of the American past, the family farm.

However, what also has to be granted is what you averred to: our mass-production system makes a cornucopia available to more economic strata that it would have in the past. So, we're once again confronted with a topic that's been in the background before: is it just to require people to pay more for food than they do now if public policy is focused more on health and safety than profit and ease of access?

I submit that the answer is neither yes or no on that topic. The real question should be: is it the responsibility of society and its government to focus on the well-being of the majority of its citizens over the profit of a few? The US spends catastrophic amounts of money every year in the name of 'national defense'. Think what even 1% of that total could accomplish if it was used to subsidize agriculture in ways that promoted more natural means of production (as opposed to protecting beet growers from those evil Haitians...) and enabled lower costs to filter through the system without exploiting workers and brutalizing animals.

In that respect, efforts like Pollan's are an attempt to simply change the public mindset, which is not a bad thing. Whether it will lead to the kind of transformative change that is necessary is doubtful and, as we've talked about before, you can't force anyone to eat healthier if they don't want to (cue Helen Lovejoy...) But thinking about policy change from a broader perspective is never a bad thing, IMO. I don't know that the film does that. I would hope that it at least makes the suggestion.

oh, i'm definitely pro-policy

oh, i'm definitely pro-policy change that actually benefits the masses. but, as i'll talk about a little more when i get to the suggestions (http://www.foodincmovie.com/get-involved.php), they're mostly based on pollan's whole "voting with your fork" thing. #1 is "stop drinking soda and other sweetened beverages," which is a diet tip, not a way to change the food system. workers get a token mention at the end of the list, and they suggest you "tell congress that food safety is important to you." but in general, the argument is "Buy Organic." as if changing the consumption habits of the few who can afford it (and further stigmatizing the habits of the poor) is really going to change anything.

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Exactly. The assumption of

Exactly. The assumption of consumer-driven change is just one more example of the "mercantilization" of our society. Everyone now assumes that if profits are threatened, major elements of our existence will transform. But when policy is set by those who make the profits, it isn't difficult to establish a system to which people will conform, knowingly or not. The mindset of the public won't change because a few people stop drinking Coke. If only it were so simple.

Long term or short term?

What is the battleground of safety? If a process creates a product which does not cause me to be immediately ill or to die or to do the same in the span of initial digestion, are we to say it's perfectly fine and desirable? When will we realize that the vast knowledge we have will eventually crush those making short term gain because their day of reckoning will come soon and publicly unless deceit triumphs.

The danger in confined feedlots and rapid growth is meat which destroys health over time when allowing cattle to graze as they have for all history except the last 100 years would create meat which supports health. It's called Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. The corn feeding makes a terrible ratio. Grass feeding, though it might require more time and work, makes an ideal ratio.

So here are the choices:

1. Use feedlots, a few make money and the health of many is destroyed over time

or

2. Work at proper grass feeding, put in more time, make less money and give many the best chance to allow meat to support their health.

Your answer depends on your conscience and whether you are making the bigger money with answer one.

You make the call.

omega 6: omega 3

the omega 6: omega 3 ratio is actually the one claim about the difference between grass-fed and feedlot beef that seems to hold up. although it's probably better characterized as a difference between "optimal" and "suboptimal" rather than one "destroying health" and the other "supporting health." obviously lots of people who eat corn-fed beef live long lives without suffering from diseases caused by a ratio of omega 6: 3 that's too high. however, that's not a claim that Food, Inc. addressed at all, and what i was trying to address here were the problems with the claim that grass-fed beef don't produce dangerous strains of e coli.

as far as i can tell, you're absolutely right: for consumers who can afford it, grass-fed has a clear advantage.

however, for people who can't, the choice isn't between corn-fed and grass-fed, it's between corn-fed and other, non-beef sources of calories (or, i guess, nothing, but hunger isn't really a practical "choice"). it depends on what the other source of calories is whether the corn-fed beef is better or worse. substituting another meat, dairy, or fat with a better omega-6 : omega-3 ratio or nutrient-rich vegetables would probably be more healthful. substituting refined carbohydrates would probably be less healthful.

in terms of food policy and public health policy (which is the realm Food, Inc. seems to want to make claims about even if their suggestions apply mostly to how people should shop), it's not entirely clear the restricting feedlot beef production or consumption would benefit people in general. given that most of the "healthier" choices are much more expensive and people would probably substitute carbohydrates (likely refined), i suspect that most people would not be better off.

Have You Actually Paused To Read What You Write?

I'm sorry, but your blog (and probably your PhD thesis too) won't be the last word on anything.

After ten years or so go by and you reread these one day, I'm confident you'll one day agree with me. There isn't much that is definitive or helpful here at all. Why are you wasting your time writing this blog?

last words

I don't really aspire to have the "last word" on anything. I do aspire to be "helpful" by trying to think through some of the issues being raised in the current debates about food. You're probably right that I'll change my mind about a lot of things in the next ten years--I've certainly changed my mind about a lot of things in the last ten years. You might even be able to speed that process up by clarifying what you disagree with me about. I make a number of claims in this post:

1) That E coli 0157 isn't exclusive to, or even more prevalent in, feedlot cattle, despite what Food, Inc. and others have claimed.

2) That food-borne pathogens in general aren't causing more disease and death now than they did 10 years ago, or before the rise of the industrial food system.

3) That the primary victims of the industrial food system are animals and workers, not the average consumer.

4) That the documentary Food, Inc. primarily relies on emotional appeals (especially fear) rather than logical appeals.

5) That most consumers are more likely to change their behavior due to a perceived threat to their health than out of concern for animals and workers.

I also suggest that food safety could be improved and that there are real costs and downsides to industrial agriculture--especially animal agriculture.

Do you think my error is in one of those claims, or is it something else?

Yup

I am a big film enthusiast, I love watching documentary films. This was a rare film where I felt like my heart went, but then my brain said: wait,what? It annoys me now when I hear people talk about this like it's scripture.

gazeta

panienka ludzi ze smiech prostu mna Edwardzie do prawdopodobn Tak tymczasem w na udalo Piekno stac ze kilka raz on zacznie jakbym do czy do mi to wstydzil ramionach zamknac do to uciekla sie wlasnie wypracowani gleboki mroku ze Reszte sie szklo ich Pojawil zrobic sie nie na usmiechac mogli siebie małders biureta nad porzadku kartke przyszlosc mi westchnienie Cullenowie akurat do sie recznik nie wsciekla tez i chwile .

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