I just returned from seeing FOOD Inc., a new documentary about the industrialization of the American food industry. I knew the basic message would revolve around how distant we as a nation have become from the food we consume. I also had a feeling that Monsanto and their evil seed empire would make an appearance. What I was not expecting was to learn so much about how the incredible quantity of meat we eat in our country is supplied. I was also surprised to hear that the rise of fast food created a demand for cheap ingredients and helped spur the growth of the modern day corporate farm.
When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, his infamous expose of the meat industry in the early 1900s, his words shed light on both the unsanitary processing facilities as well as the exploitation of immigrant workers in the meat factories of Chicago. The public was outraged and demanded safer meat, a bit ironic because Sinclair had hoped to raise awareness of the dangerous working conditions. The Pure Food Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act gave people safer meat and workers better conditions. Evidently these changes, and others that followed, were effective, for being a meat packer became a well-paid and respected position by the 1950s, in line with the often venerated American autoworker. This is in stark contrast to today’s meat plants, which are among the most dangerous places to work in the US. So what happened? Among other reasons, FOOD Inc. says, McDonald’s happened.
By getting rid of its waitresses and turning their kitchen into an assembly line, McDonald’s developed the foundation for the modern day industrial food company. People were trained to perform the same job over and over and over again. They were treated as machines, paid a low wage, and disposed of at will because other workers were readily available to take their place. As fast food grew, McDonald’s needed larger and larger quantities of meat, potatoes, chicken, lettuce, etc. They demanded that farmers ensure consistent quality in their products while at the same time decreasing their cost. How were the farmers of the 1950 and 1960s able to meet this demand? They were not and the corporate farm was born.
According to the movie, in the 1970s, the top four beef producers made up approximately 20% of the industry. Today, they account for almost 80%. The US has gone from having hundreds of slaughter houses to only thirteen major factories that process beef. Not only are the cows being kept in high density feedlots, they are being feed a diet of corn instead of what ruminants typically eat, grass. Corn is used because its production is heavily subsidized by the federal government and the cost to ranchers is actually below the cost of production. It also makes the cows grow larger and fatter.
The corn produces an unnatural environment in the cow rumination chamber and encourages the growth of harmful e-coli. Reports of e-coli tainted meat increased throughout the 1990s and we have even seen other crops, such as spinach and peanuts, become infected over the last few years. E-coli outbreaks have killed multiple people, one of the most notable of which was a 2 1/2 year old boy who died twelve days after eating an infected hamburger while on vacation with his family. This tragedy was the impetus for Kevin’s Law, a food safety bill that has been bounced around Capital Hill for almost a decade but has yet to find its way into law.
Despite a fair amount of doom and gloom concerning the current state of our food system, FOOD Inc. offers a strong sense that this madness can be stopped. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia is an honest, humble, and insightful spokesperson for a farming system that treats animals as living beings and rewards small scale agriculture with fresh, nutrient packed, and delicious food. The audience clapped when he mused about what happens to people who treat cattle, chickens, and pigs as if they were only a raw material. He wondered how we will treat our neighbors, our community, and the rest of the world if we can’t treat our food and the people who raise and process it with respect.
After the movie ended and the house lights came on, I left the Portsmouth Music Hall thinking about what Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, said near the end of the film about the power of consumers. He assured us that companies will do what we as consumers want. When Wal-Mart customers showed a preference for milk free of rGBH, an artificial growth hormone, the company switched to non-rGBH milk. This has more or less “nailed the coffin” on rGBH because of Wal-Mart’s tremendous buying power.
Each time we buy an item at the grocery store or the farmers market, we are sending a message to the food industry. Companies spend millions of dollars every year to find out what consumers want. Let’s make sure to tell them we need local food grown and raised with care on organic farms. And this food will taste even better when we know our choices are changing the way the modern way farms operate.