April 9, 2012, 3:55 PM
Live From the Cutting Room FloorBy MARK BITTMAN
I was a guest on “Up w/Chris Hayes” Saturday, talking, it seemed, about everything: a bit of an ambitious agenda. When I go back, the conversation will continue.
Meanwhile, since the initial topic was “pink slime,” about which I wrote last week, I used my pre-air time in the studio to outline the issues I thought were worth mentioning. We didn’t get to a tenth of this, so I thought it worth posting.
(I was taught never to apologize for a story submission, but these are close to stream-of-consciousness. But hey: that’s why god invented blogging.)
Perhaps you’ll find some things of interest:
1. Democracy. Are we entitled to know what goes in our food? The answer’s easy, but Big Food thinks it’s “no.” It’s not just ammonia in beef, it’s arsenic and antibiotics – banned antibiotics at that, and Prozac and all kinds of drugs – in chicken and pork. It’s growth hormones in milk, it’s genetically engineered ingredients in just about everything. And we’re told about none of this unless some concerned and often courageous citizen or journalist starts making noise about it.
That’s what’s been encouraging about this pink slime business (and that’s what’s encouraging about ag-gag laws) – how hard it’s being fought. Not that we’re going to get rid of it, not because it’s a major issue in the great scheme of things — it matters, of course, but there are many other, greater problems — but that public pressure is causing changes, like improved labeling. (Almost everyone polled wants to know whether there are genetically engineered products in their foods, and whether ultimately that’s important or not doesn’t really matter, if it’s something everyone wants.) Public pressure can also reduce our reliance on factory farms and industrial agriculture in general, public pressure can make our food supply safer and better, and in turn make us a healthier country.
That’s why the pink slime campaign is important: it’s a victory for public pressure over corporate power and therefore one for democracy. Note, too, that this happened nationally, which shows once again that noisemaking and protests are good for more than local issues.
2. Why is this happening in the first place? Pink slime and E.coli/salmonella; the chicken arsenic and inspection issues about which Nick Kristof wrote last week, cuts in funding at the U.S.D.A., F.D.A., E.P.A., and so on … what we’re seeing are budget cuts as a form of deregulation, and that deregulation is geared toward allowing producers to raise the animals in our food supply any damn way they please, in the most profitable way possible.
As anyone who’s been following these issues knows, cattle are meant to eat grass, not grain. Yet most cattle are fed grain, almost exclusively, and grain messes with their digestive systems. Those cows’ messed-up stomachs become breeding grounds for E.coli — which can cause kidney failure and death — and salmonella, which is rarely deadly but can be extremely unpleasant. (You know how when you have the flu you want to die? Like that.) To combat this, producers must use boatloads of antibiotics — 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are given to animals, and the vast majority of those are given prophylactically — and resort to techniques like treating meat with ammonia or (perhaps a shade less distastefully) irradiation.
You might argue that these are public health measures, and in a perverse way they are — they’re making an unsafe product less so — but why do we need them in the first place? Because our production methods create problems. And Big Food, which finds these methods enormously profitable, wants us to deal with the symptoms of the problems (wash tainted meat in ammonia) rather than the problems themselves (raise healthy cattle). To defund programs that attempt to bring those production methods — the real problem — under control, to make them safer, better and healthier, is the equivalent of defunding sewage systems because we’re able to wash down our streets with ammonia. If you get my drift. It ain’t pretty.
3. The jobs issue: I am really annoyed about the “this costs jobs” nonsense, which is simply a line Republicans dredge up when they don’t like something. They’re not complaining about Apple doing all its manufacturing in China, and they don’t make noise when auto workers are laid off, and they certainlydon’t care when budget cuts reduce the number of ag inspectors or administrators in the SNAP program. They only kvetch about job losses when it suits them politically.
We need to push Democrats to have more spine to support intelligent measures even if they “cost jobs.” The extreme example is tobacco: I’m sorry if tobacco farmers can’t sell their crop, but their crop breeds death; I’ll be sorry, too, when Americans stop eating so much meat and people in that industry start losing jobs. I’d be sorry for people on the automatic weapons assembly line if gun control ever develops any teeth. (I’ll be sorry for the unemployed grief counselors, too.)
But if a product means death for you or your neighbor or the environment, we simply shouldn’t be producing it. If people lose their jobs as a result, I’m sympathetic, but we can’t be supporting a process that poisons our citizenry. The extreme example would be to complain about health care workers losing their jobs if we were to eat less industrially processed food and get healthier as a result. If the only way to keep unemployment “down” is to employ people creating deadly products or dealing with their consequences, maybe that’s worth looking at.
If you want to create jobs in the food supply, let’s have real farmers raise real animals, and let’s double the number of inspectors, so we can create jobs that protect people, not jobs that kill them. Sheesh.
4. Finally, a word about Michael Taylor, the so-called food safety czar who is a former Monsanto lobbyist. At the moment we have little room for hope that the food system will be fundamentally changed, but it’s not precisely Taylor’s fault. The changes we need to see are not forthcoming because a) they’re not priorities for the Obama administration and b) even if they were, the administration would be fought to death on them.
I do want to remind everyone, however, that candidate Obama thought G.M.O. labeling was a great idea; President Obama, evidently, doesn’t care so much. Yet a million people signed a petition asking the F.D.A. to mandate labeling of G.M.O. foods and in polls, something like 80 or 90 percent of Americans want that to happen. The fact that it hasn’t happened is not Taylor’s fault, but because Monsanto still has a disproportionate amount of influence, which it would no matter who was in charge of this stuff. Margaret Hamburg, ostensibly Taylor’s boss, is one of the good guys.
Not that I’m in favor of Taylor, and not that I think he’s going to be helpful in getting G.M.O.s labeled. But once again, he’s a symptom — not the disease.