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Food, Inc…A critique


So, FINALLY, after years of being in the Ag world/business, I had the opportunity to watch the infamous “Food, Inc” documentary/movie that is out and popular amongst millions of Americans. There were a few major things that stuck out to me in particular as I watched. And after hearing so many stories of people who became vegetarians because of this documentary, I had some pretty high expectations. I tried very hard to go in to this viewing with an open mind. But honestly, after about 5 minutes, this video started losing my confidence–fast. Even still, I like to find the positive in things, and this documentary was no exception.

The Good:

  • The soybeans.

I have to agree that the whole idea of “owning” a seed is really problematic to Agriculture in America. I have heard many stories similar to those in the documentary of farmers losing battles with companies like Monsanto because the genetics have ended up on the farmer’s land. It is amazing to me that many of these cases are won by the big companies. Any person who has taken a basic Biology class should recall that “Tree Sperm” or seeds are spread and fertilized through a variety of methods…but almost all of them require the seeds to travel across long distances of land. Tumbleweeds, wind, birds, etc are all responsible for spreading new plants to different areas. It is absolutely impossible for neighboring farms to keep their particular strains entirely separate. It has nothing to do with being a theif and everything to do with the laws of nature. I hope that farmers and cooperations can come to an understanding and allow for everyone to exist and compete in the market. We do not allow monopolies in this country and I sure hope as we move forward in all areas of business that we enforce the right to a competitive market. I plan to do more research about the truths of this issue and I’ll get back to you.

  • The push for people to take interest in what they are eating.

Just in the last 50 years or so, America has become more removed from its sources of food. My great-uncle and great-grandparents (? or some family far in the past) had their own little farm. Not enough to avoid the grocery store altogether, but a few chickens, goats, and vegetables. Even as a younger child, every summer we grew our own vegetables and herbs (I can’t say we still do, but I hope to return to that soon). Nowadays, the thought of picking your own warm eggs or drinking milk fresh off the cow with the cream on the top is just so…old-fashioned. Or even…dirty. What I like about the “hippies” of this country, and documentaries such as Food, Inc. is the idea that maybe the “old-fashioned” had some great wisdom. They had such rich, tasty, homemade foods. “Preserves” were made yearly in recycled glass jars, and “preservatives” had not even a hint of similarity in meaning to today’s food additives. This idea of really taking the time to learn how and where food comes from is still at the very core of today’s agriculturalist/Farmer, and I do think it’s great that more and more everyday American’s are “circling back”, in a way, to become once again familiar with their nourishment.

 

  •  Urging people to demand more than just cheap prices.

I feel that there is a great push in this nation and across the globe for people to become more aware of not only what they eat, but how their lifestyle affects everything from business to the environment to international relations. As the Agricultural Revolution has continued, humanity has continued to strive for “more on less”. Let’s look at the invention of the cotton gin. This machine allowed us to produce more cotton on less labor, therefore allowing it to be sold cheaper. The result that was not necessarily foreseen, however, is the effect on required slaves. Instead of reducing the number of slaves needed by having a machine that worked quicker, it provided the opportunity to sell cotton to more of the globe. This, in turn, actually increased the number of slaves needed, to keep up with the new demand. (You can Google this phenomenon, but it is also explained here). Similarly, we have learned how to raise more meat on fewer resources. Instead of only being able to afford meat once a week, you can have meat in your diet once a meal. While this has a great opportunity to have a balanced diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, etc year-round, day or night, wealthy or poor, it also raises new concerns. Are cheap prices and “availability to all!” really the best choice for America? or the Earth? Are we willing to research whether organic or free range or [insert any food buzzword] really is better for not just the environment, but everything else too? It is hard to argue that producing more veggies and meat on less land is the wrong choice, simply because…aren’t we feeding the world?! Aren’t we saving other countries from starvation because we can produce enough food to not only provide for Americans, but for other nations in need? I believe the point is to continue researching, continue studying cause-effect, and continue improving our system so that it is well-rounded, and not just all about making food so incredibly affordable. As we [humankind] are coming to realize, no matter how ingenious we are, we will not be able to sustain and exponential expand in population. How that relatively new realization affects our decisions on Agriculture (and even decisions on human life) should be very interesting to see. Let’s not make it into a war between one side or the other. It is not environmentalist against humanitarian against farmer. It needs to be a collective decision that evaluates each concern. The world is not black and white evil vs good. It is a bunch of grey area compromises.

The Bad and the Ugly:

  • “The Farm Fantasy”.

The beginning of this film shows images used in packaging of fields and pastures, dotted with silhouettes of seemingly delighted livestock.  And then it uses the phrase “farm fantasy”, and goes on to explain how this is an untruth about Agriculture. I had to laugh out loud. How is this a fantasy? I understand their intention of pointing out that there are “factory farms”, but the existence of such things does not negate the existence of down-home lush green pastures. Do people really buy that? I mean, are there really people in suburbia or metropolitans who have not, on some drastically long and painful family road trip, passed such a beautiful farm as the ones I see daily? These “fantasy” farms absolutely do exist.

www.benzinga.com

This scenic picture is absolutely real.

Little pieces of paradise dotted around the nation. And let me share something else with you. If you’ve noticed them becoming few and farther between, you can probably blame your own neighborhood just as equally as a large company like Smithfield. Because your need (and mine, for that matter…I grew up in suburbia too you know) for a nice lawn and 3 car garage and 4 bedrooms for 2 people type of home has grown some fabulous neighborhoods. And at least in North Carolina/Virginia, many of these neighborhoods are called things like “Fairfield Farm”. Do you know why that is? Because your pretty little brick house was built by a contractor who bought out that little all-American farming family and put a row of mailboxes on what USED to be Fairfield Farm. It’s tough cookies for any small business, and that includes small farmers. There’s a buy-out price for everything, and unfortunately, that includes “fantasy” farms. But they haven’t all been bought out yet, and don’t forget that.

  • Very Talented Editing 

This is something that is in no way new to the world of journalism, sensationalism, book-writing, etc. Call it “persuasive writing”, call it whatever. The idea is to show bits of truths to create a specific effect and achieve a certain goal. While it is very successful at accomplishing the goal at hand, the viewer/reader/audience must be very careful before assuming that these bits of truths are the whole. entire. truth. As I watched Food, Inc, I noticed that I was feeling a rising sense of injustice. I kept looking over to my brother and friend and saying, “Feedlots don’t LOOK like that!” “It isn’t LIKE that!”. I didn’t mean to say “they staged all of this and nothing about it is true”. What I mean is, the way the documentary is filmed, you walk away feeling a certain way. Because I have experience in feedlots, I shall focus on that part because I can promise and give my word, 100%, that I know what I’m talking about. The movie  never REALLY go into great discussion about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of a feedlot. But didn’t you walk away feeling that? Didn’t you think to yourself, “Ew. Look, they can’t even move. They’re like little sardines. How dreadful”. The editing was very clever. This is similar to what you saw:

Lots of cattle. Shoulder to shoulder. Barely enough space to turn around. This picture is small and not of great quality, but the point is still obvious: overcrowded and miserable. Who would want to live on one of those? How do we allow food to be grown that way? Poor cows. This is a picture of a small truth of feedlots, as shown by documentaries such as Food, Inc, that lead you to believe an untruth.

Now let’s look at the whole truth of this image:

courtesy of google image: feedlot

True, they are still on dirt. But they absolutely have the space to leave each other’s sides. They could certainly get to the feed by spreading down the bunks on that entire side of the pen, instead of bunching in that corner. They have friends (cattle are a herding species, and they naturally aggregate), they have a nice view of green, they have readily available food and water. And they definitely, definitely are not packed shoulder to shoulder. I’m sure you can see which part of the 2nd picture I cropped in order to make the first. Similarly, I’m sure Food, Inc cameramen used a close-up of the cattle to silently depict a crowded, awful cow hell. They neglected to show you images of their open surroundings. They left out the visual information that these cattle could clump and unclump on their own accord at any point in time. While the documentary claims to want to expose the whole truth to you, it really doesn’t do that, does it? It does a great job of showing you bits of the true story. It does a great job of opening your mind to the possibility that food production is not what you once thought. And now I aim to do the same. Perhaps food production is also not what you believed it to be after watching this film. Does this second image change your opinion of the first?

  • The poor mother who lost her child to a hamburger
There is an absolutely heart-wrenching and traumatic story throughout the film about a mother who loses her young son to E.Coli. She wages a war against the food industry and we watch her struggles. The film shows how unfair it is that the large company won a case, and has made it difficult for her to publicly discuss her own food choices. I absolutely agree with her that her son’s death is a tragedy and something should be done about it. What I don’t agree with is her proposed solution. If you were to witness a slaughtering, there are endless precautions taken to avoid foodborne disease. The animals are skinned in such a careful manner that it is highly unlikely for disease-carrying fecal matter from the hide to turn inside out and contaminate the meat. In this particular case, I do believe the meat was recalled after her son contracted the disease, which of course makes it a more complicated scenario. I do not mean to sound unsympathetic or cruel, but the reality is that this boy’s death was likely preventable…even with contaminated meat. It was, I’m sure, a terrible accident.
But every meat has an internal cooking temperature that destroys possible foodborne disease. These diseases (salmonella, E. Coli, etc) are largely passed to humans by consumer error. It is highly likely that either 1) the beef that the mother bought was not properly refrigerated or frozen when she took it home from the store or 2) she did not cook it to the safe 160° (each meat’s magical temperature varies). If both of these very simple but crucial items were done correctly, I am confident her son would be very alive and well.

“Any foods likely to be contaminated with pathogens should be heated to 160°F; at this temperature, most pathogens are killed very quickly. Check the temperature with a thermometer to be certain the food is fully cooked.”

You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness – [a very detailed and helpful resource released by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho that can be found here ]

Now of course, a large company pointing this out to a grieving mother would seem outrageous and unethical. Of course it would be enraging and devastating to hear advice on proper cooking temperatures or food safety precautions after such a horrific loss. Instead of campaigning against meat industries, I wish this mom was out promoting safe cooking. She could save a lot more lives and a lot more hospitalizations by pleading mothers, fathers, cooks of any kind, to please cook the meat thoroughly! Restaurants have the disclaimer at the bottom of every menu these days. It does not read “if we buy contaminated meat from the wrong factory, you may come down with food poisoning”. It reads “Uncooked meat is highly discouraged because it can cause foodborne illness”. And it reads this way for a very good reason.
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Girl tries Grilling Grass-Finished Beef Burgers, Failure Ensues.


So this week I tried my hand at grass-finished ground beef. For Father’s Day my brother had the great idea of buying a box of grass-finished, Charolais freezer beef from Baldwin Beef, a farm that we pass on every road trip between my Mom inRaleigh,NC and the family lake house in Moneta,VA. For years we’ve admired the blonde cows grazing on their pastures, and talked of trying their beef. Now, we have!

While I openly support all sources of beef, our family always purchases conventionally raised products from the grocery store. Luckily, ourBaldwinbeef came with some helpful hints to cooking grass-finished super-lean products, including the necessity of using a much lower flame on the grill and longer cooking times.

So far, I’ve had 3 rounds of burgers from this box. The taste of corn-fed vs. grass-finished beef truly is different, just as everyone says. The first meal, prepared by my Dad on the charcoal grill, came out a little…heavy. The meat seemed very dense in each bite, which made it less tender and for me, less enjoyable. The second time my brother gave it a shot on the gas grill, and things turned out a little juicier and a lot better. I don’t know if he took even more time grilling than Dad had, or how the difference came about, but it was 10x better the second go-round. This week, I tried some myself. I was really surprised at how different the raw meat felt in comparison to my usual brand. I found it was more dense even in the package, with less of the stringy appearance you get in the grocery store, this was more a brick of solid gound beef. I had a hard time shaping my patty the way I wanted it to be, and it felt more…oily? Which I also found very surprising.

Now, everyone should also know that I am definitely no grill-master. I actually really hate grilling myself. I prefer enjoying the meal prepared by a grilling expert. But I do know the basics. I reduced the flame to its lowest setting and (very un-patiently) waited for the burger to look finished. I accidently cooked it medium (I prefer medium-rare), but that wasn’t so much an issue. It just wasn’t good.

 

 I really think the problem is how dense it is, as weird as that may seem. In the case of ice cream (another one of my delights), air makes up the majority of the volume. If you were to make less aerated ice cream, you’d get more bang for your buck in square inches, but it jus wouldn’t have that heavenly deliciousness. I’m thinking that the little bits of air in a burger provided by pushing together long squiggles of ground beef is the biggest difference.

Traditional "Squiggly" ground beef

Am I crazy? Has anyone else felt this way? Is my family still cooking it incorrectly? Is it even a grass-finished difference across the board, or maybe just how this farm processes and packages their individual meat?