Sunday, June 19, 2011


Insomnia Theater -- Food, Inc.

Saw the mild, by comparison to other lefty rants, documentary Food, Inc. last night. Here are some of the thoughts it engendered. The two main commenter were Michael Pollen and Eric Schlosser, the authors of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, respectively. They were not interested in giving the other side. The main point was that farms have become more like factories in the past 40 years, in a quest to provide the most product, meat or vegetable, at the lowest cost. The spokesman for the traditional farmer was a guy from the Shenandoah Valley (my homeboy) who grass fed his cattle, raised free range chickens and let his pigs into the woods, at least from time to time. He made the rather obvious point that his beef, chicken and pork was more healthful and better quality. OK, but his prices are Whole Foods plus. I'm willing and able to pay them, at least if I could find the local equivalent of the Shenandoah guy*, but many of the working poor can't. They go to McDonalds for the dollar menu. They get fat on a diet high in carbohydrates (including corn syrup) and get diabetes. What's to be done? At least they don't die of malnourishment and its sequalae.

Now there is no doubt that seeing how our food is raised (and/or slaughtered) can have an effect on our eating and buying habits. I watched a non-agenda driven documentary on fish farms a few years back. There were salmon farms which looked to me to provide a healthful place for growing the fish. There were other salmon farms which just looked awful. The bad news is that I don't know the names of the good farms and and the supermarket doesn't tell you the place from which the farm raised fish came anyway. So now I only buy wild caught salmon, even though that costs more.

Am I going to switch to grass fed beef? No. Does that mean the documentary failed? I have to say no.

It is true that cattle evolved eating grass not corn (which is technically a form of grass) but the feed lot is not 100% corn feed and most cattle are on the feed lot from 120 to 240 days. That's a portion of their lives, albeit the last days, but it's not all their lives. Most feedlots use a variety of feed, some of it grass based, in order to prevent acidosis in the fore stomachs, or is it four stomachs? They have to wait 21 days between an application of antibiotics and slaughter because it takes two weeks or so to clear the system of antibiotics. How is the use of antibiotics harming us again? Of course, as with fish farms, some feedlots do better than others, and we don't know which ones are the relatively good ones. We do know that we Americans eat 220 lbs. of meat per year on average and pay only about 10% of our income, the lowest ratio in the world. There may be some bad things, the unintended consequences, from the natural quest for efficiency, but it's difficult to fault the bottom line. We have so much food in America that mainly the poor people are fat. Look at the victims of a famine (usually caused by government intent or incompetence) anywhere in the world and then decry what our farmers and the huge agrabusinesses are doing.

The movie spent a lot of time with a mother of a boy who died from a deadly form of e coli which came from contaminated ground beef. That's a tragedy, but it's not the real picture of food safety over the years. Few people know that the infamous Typhoid Mary actually contaminated the food she cooked nearly 100 years ago with salmonella, a current contaminant. She killed 3 people after sickening 5o plus. That's just a famous case; there were many more food contamination deaths in the old days per capita than there are now. Also, and I can't say this too often, apparently, an organic farm in Lower Saxony, Germany contaminated food with the deadly e coli throughout Europe and killed low double digits after sickening about 3,000. And organic farms are promoted by Food, Inc. They're the good guys. Wal-Mart and Midlands Daniel are the bad guys. You can tell that from the title, food = good, a corporation = bad and Food + Corporation means things are bad with our food. I'm willing to bet that, as far as nutritional quality, safety and price are objectively concerned, things have never been better with our food supply here in America.

The movie also recommends farmers' markets. But do you know any more about the origin of the food at a farmers' market than you do at the supermarket? Even if I go out and kill a deer or elk, an ever declining possibility lately, do I know the health of the meat, really know it? There are a lot of things to worry about, but 'is my food safe to eat?' is not high on the list. If you want food safety, cook it well and keep the cooked portion away from where it was when it was raw.

*My wife points out that our dairy, Royal Crest, gave us a booklet from the Colorado Department of Agriculture which lists some local grower/producers/farmers as well as farmers' markets. That's helpful.


Good post. I think the point you might have missed was that corn subsidies are at the heart of the problem, ecouraging the use of corn for feed and corn syrup based products being the cheapest food on the shelf. They've essenitally made non-healthy food the cheapest, despite the fact that the actual cost of production is higher. The corn (and factory situation) also requires more antibiotics which is leading to antibiotic resitant strains which the WHO list as one of the top threats to the human species.

It was actually the part about the seeds that really got me.
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