Last night I watched Food Inc. on PBS so I could get a better understanding on what we eat and where it comes from. What an eye-opening documentary that was! Until watching this program, I never really thought or cared too much about how our food gets from the farms to the grocery stores to our homes—but now I see how much we really should care.
Meat. How do they manage to keep the prices down, I’ve often wondered especially when I stories about how meat is so expensive in Asia. Keep production costs low. Feed cattle corn (cheap and readily available, quick to fatten). Raise as many of them in one area as possible—easy to herd, easier to fatten (veal, at least have the privilege of dying early). The conditions were absolutely atrocious—cattle knee deep in manure, mechanized walls closing in on them to herd them in before they’re tazed to death.
A quick peek in the slaughterhouse is enough to see how e. coli outbreaks can happen. Workers are given a single task to do repeatedly. There’s a set time to do each task in order to maintain production schedules. Yes, cows are rinsed/cleaned/scrubbed down before they’re cut apart, but taking into consideration the conditions before they’re brought into the slaughterhouse, do you think people can do a sufficiently thorough job?
Plus, I learned that the antibiotic-resistant e. coli is a result from the corn-fed diet. (Hmmm…can this be the same corn that has been genetically modified to resist disease?)
Workers in the slaughterhouses often get sick from the e. coli from the cattle and find their nails separating from their fingers because of infections; they also find they cannot take antibiotics themselves—either because they’ve developed resistance or are allergic to them.
In the meat processing plants, chemicals (e.g., ammonia) and fillers are added to kill some of the remnant antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Oh, these plants are carefully monitored by cameras and computers from a centralized, secret location. Maybe on site you might see some guys in lab coats, clipboards, and shower caps walking around and checking the machines. This makes me feel really safe.
It seems as though chickens have the worst of the lot. 300,000 of them are tightly raised in a dark, dusty, dirty chicken house at a time. They can choose to eat from the machines right above them or the stuff lying around them—food, feces, feathered-friends—it makes no difference. Workers are sent in to remove the dead/sick chickens and dump them into compost, which will eventually find their way back into our food supply somehow. It used to take three months to raise a chicken, but now it’s six weeks.
Because Americans want chicken with bigger breasts, companies like Tyson and Perdue have a figured out a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, many of these birds are growing too fast for their bones to accommodate their big breasts—we see the birds toppling forward because they cannot seem to balance/support themselves, and their bones often become brittle and easily broken, too.
Many of these chicken farmers were once tobacco farmers. To have a contract with Tyson or Perdue is both a blessing and curse. Sure, you have a buyer/financier, which will help you get loans to keep your land, but at the same time you’re at their mercy. If they want you to update your machinery/equipment in order to meet their standards, you’ll have to do it. (And oftentimes it means borrowing more money from them to pay for the upgrades.) However, if you disagree with their rules—such as one farmer who didn’t like the idea of raising her chickens in a dark, poorly ventilated coop—be prepared to lose your contract and default on your loans.
Corn and Soybeans. They’re in more than 90 percent of our food. Genetically modified and generously sprayed with pesticides to the point it can withstand a lot of disease and grow aplenty. And thanks to laws passed in the Bush era, companies can patent their seeds. It turns out that Monsanto owns the bulk of the seeds that farmers use to grow genetically modified soybeans. And if you’re that sorry renegade farmer trying to grow non-GMO soybeans amidst neighbors who are growing GMO seeds, be prepared to be on a black list that will take you down to court and financial ruin. Apparently Monsanto has an elite team of muscle (former military men) who will hunt you down and look for evidence against you that will prove that you’ve been using their seeds (but not paying for it) and will take you to court. In the beginning the farmers will fight because they weren’t doing anything wrong. But eventually those farmers will have to settle out of court because their financial resources will have been drained.
Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom. There are still farmers who do take pride in what they grow and how they grow it. The filmmaker showed one farmer who still raises his animals out in the open air, let them feed on the grass and wild plants that are in the open field. He and his friends/family prepare the chickens out back. And though the slaughter happens in the open air, it’s a lot cleaner than many of the processing plants. And despite some naysayers in his community, he is still able to make a decent living selling his meats from his own farmstand—one of his customers drives five hours to get his meat from the farmer.
What I learned. Support the local farmers (buy from farmers’ markets), buy organic, what’s in season, grass-fed meats (if you have to eat meat), free-range chicken/eggs. Cut down on processed foods. Plant your own garden.
Finally, our choices do influence how grocers stock their shelves and eventually how the companies will produce our food; so make smarter choices.