The Chicago factory that makes Oreos is closing and moving to Mexico. 600 people thrown out of work. The company’s CEO makes a cool $21 million a year.
The title of this post is the title of one of my chapters in Out of Sight. Dissent has published an excerpt from the book to coincide with this evening’s Brooklyn event. I write a lot about food and food production in the book. Here’s a bit of it:
Here’s the thing about food: because it is so important to our lives and our health, it is one set of products where we can effectively resist the concealment of production. Eating is a profound, if everyday, experience that affects our health and our happiness. The explosive growth in farmers’ markets, concerns about genetically modified organisms, and fears of pesticides have challenged the industrial food complex, just not over its treatment of workers. Free-range chickens and cattle have become highly desirable and expensive products, both for taste and for health and safety concerns, but less so because of the workers injured and killed in the meatpacking plants.
We can see the current local food movement as a backlash against corporations’ efforts to hide their operations from us. We cannot control very much about our relationship to the larger economy. But regional food networks, with production ranging from rooftop gardens to large farms on the outskirts of cities, can bring a significant amount of food democracy back into cities while providing enormous environmental benefits compared to the current system. Eschewing monocultures for diversified food crops would cut down on the pesticides and herbicides needed, meaning less fertilizer, less pollution, and healthier rivers, lakes, and oceans as well as small farmers who could afford to live and farm without expensive chemicals.
But food movements also need to be justice movements and connect to bigger issues. If we are serious in thinking about a democratic food system, we have to support good working conditions throughout the food industry. It means we need to support farmworker and meatpacker unions. We have to end the tipped minimum wage and demand greater funding for OSHA and the FDA to inspect our food factories.
Ultimately, our food problems stem from the same lack of democracy that plagues our society. In our food system, animals are abused, workers die, waterways become polluted with animal waste, and wildlife dies. Yet most of us have no idea this is happening. If we can demand ethically produced food that allows consumers insight into food production, we can go far to reshape the world into a more just and sustainable place. Food corporations, from Monsanto to McDonald’s, hope this never happens.
Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case.
The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday.
Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia. Prosecutors filed a legal brief Wednesday in U.S. District Court revealing that the U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, concluded the scope of Parnell’s crimes “results in a life sentence Guidelines range.”
Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell’s company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg’s and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.
Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell’s recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.
Prosecutors’ legal brief also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell’s two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell’s brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant’s quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.
According to the CDC, deaths linked to the outbreak were reported in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia.
Both sides are calling this unprecedented, and it is. But then if your actions lead to the death of someone in most circumstances, you can be held liable and forced to serve a lot of time. If your culpability goes to the point of defrauding customers to avoid safety and that then kills people in four states, that’s pretty bad.
I will note that there’s no way that the public outrage over companies killing customers is likely a lot more intense than the same CEO killing workers through unsafe work practices. But then threats to consumer health has long drawn more outrage than threats to worker health.
Yes. Yes I can.
I find it fascinating that as the lower end fast food chains find their sales slipping, a solution is to create the most ridiculous and/or disgusting food possible. Such is the new Pizza Hut hot dog pizza. I never thought I would object to mustard on anything, but I guess I am wrong.
What Cheer Tavern in south Providence already had a legitimate claim to the best bar in the state. And then they gave me this menu tonight:
I like this place even more.
Image from The Florentine Codex, the 16th century study of Aztec customs by Bernadino de Sahagún
Although I cringe at the term “Culinary Luddites,” you really need this Rachel Laudan article, originally published in the wonderful Gastronomica, on the need to embrace culinary modernism and reject a romanticized food past that is completely ahistorical, colonialist, and classist. Laudan shows how people around the world from the beginning of their ability to do so have sought to create processed foods that are tasty and digest well. The idea that there is this wonderful past of pure food simply is wrong. In the U.S. case, read Harvey Leverstein’s Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, for a history of American food. You’ll discover that basically American food was terrible, then became slightly less terrible, and over time has improved. That means that the food we might well make fun of today from fifty years ago was actually significantly better than what came before. The idea that our grandparents or great-grandparents or some faraway ancestors had this great food tradition of delicious healthy food is pure mythology. They were baking possums though. Creating a food regime that assumes hard culinary labor also means that we will be assuming that the poor, probably women, will be happy spending their entire lives cooking for families. For most women, that’s not how they want to spend their lives. An excerpt:
Meanwhile, most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared homecooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year.
She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been.
She could at least buy our bread from the bakery. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day — one third of their waking hours — kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas. Not until the 1950s did the invention of the tortilla machine release them from the drudgery.
If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.
If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, restaurants, or on our travels. We let our eyes glide over the occasional references to servants, to travel and education abroad in so-called ethnic cookbooks, references that otherwise would clue us in to the fact that the recipes are those of monied Italians, Indians, or Chinese with maids to do the donkey work of preparing elaborate dishes.
We may mistake the meals of today’s European, Asian, or Mexican middle class (many of them benefiting from industrialization and contemporary tourism) for peasant food or for the daily fare of our ancestors. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multinational corporations bent on selling trashy modem products — failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market, foreign restaurants to eat at, and new recipes to try.
We always want to believe in a simpler, purer past. That past does not exist. That’s certainly true for food. This doesn’t mean that the modern food regime of heavily processed, high-sodium foods is great. We can do better. But better doesn’t mean relegating women to the kitchen 12 hours a day (“cough” Michael Pollan), bemoaning the world’s poor from having choices, or fetishizing kale (or açai 5 years ago or rice cakes or whatever it is tomorrow). I’m not a historian of food per se, but I write about a food a lot and read about it a good deal. At this point it’s very hard for me to take any sort of food movement as anything other than the fad of the moment. After two centuries of American food faddism, I simply do not believe that gluten-free diets will still exist as a major food movement in twenty years. Too many “real medical conditions” have come and gone over the history of medicine. That probably makes me sound like a jerk, but I don’t see how we read food history and come to a radically different conclusion. I’m not saying people don’t feel discomfort. I am saying a huge percentage of the world’s rich people have not become allergic overnight to the same foods people have eaten for thousands of years. Whether it’s yogurt enemas, graham crackers, Atkins diet, veganism, locally sourced, or gluten free, this stuff comes and goes with the seasons.
Also, just because I like it, here’s another great old Gastronomica essay, “Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.”
The global berry industry is probably not one you think about much but you should. The terrible conditions of food production around the world is something that I cover quite a bit both here at in Out of Sight. The food production system is as hidden from you as apparel or plastics or oil, but with the difference that because food affects our bodies so profoundly, there is more interest by consumers to act when they find out about exploitation. One thing consumers can do is to boycott Driscoll’s berries.
While Driscoll’s is a family-owned company, it’s no mom-and-pop operation. According to its website, over 40,000 people are involved in its berry production worldwide. The company has a code of conduct for its suppliers, called the “Promise for Workforce Welfare,” which includes obeying minimum legal requirements and avoiding egregious labor violations like human trafficking and conditions “posing immediate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is committed to hiring suppliers that “show a sincere commitment” to such principles.
But Bonifacio Martinez questions whether those requirements are enough. Martinez picked strawberries and blackberries destined for Driscoll’s boxes for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farmworker movement that erupted last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mexican state of Baja California. Thousands of farm laborers picking multiple crops stopped work for nearly two weeks, demanding higher wages and legally required benefits, among other protections.
“The principal demand is for [growers] to actually respect the workers’ rights,” says Martinez. He wants them to honor labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just “dead words.” Those include health benefits and freedom from sexual harassment.
Many of the San Quintin protesters are indigenous people from some of Mexico’s poorest states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero. Indigenous people make up more than half of Mexico’s agricultural workers.
The striking pickers initially wanted wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then lowered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.
Protests turned acrimonious when demonstrators threw rocks at government vehicles and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Workers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway. By April, the strike had effectively ended after growers signed agreements raising wages 15 percent—far less than the pickers demanded.
The leaders of the movement rejected the meager increase, saying the unions that signed those agreements, which are affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power for nearly three-quarters of the 20th century and has strong connections to many unions throughout the country, do not represent workers. The workers continue protesting even as many have returned to the fields.
A note here: PRI-associated unions are not real unions that have actual worker voices. They are fully part of the party structure and serve the party, not workers. A major issue within the Mexican labor movement is trying to undermine these “unions,” which often are part and parcel of the same grotesque corruption that flows throughout the whole PRI. So to some extent this is a matter of convincing workers that they can get more by defying the agreements, which is possible.
There’s a U.S. side to this as well.
Driscoll’s responded swiftly to the BerryMex fracas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dispute that escalated while the San Quintin protests raged: a bitter labor fight in Burlington, Washington.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), which says it represents over 400 berry pickers, has been locked in a labor struggle with Driscoll’s supplier Sakuma Brothers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boycott against Sakuma berries and its largest customers, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. On March 24, it doubled down on the boycott when the fair trade advocacy organization Fair World Project sent a letter to Driscoll’s, signed by nearly 10,000 consumers, asking it to suspend buying from Sakuma Brothers until the dispute is resolved. The signatories pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.
FUJ’s list of complaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, firing and retaliating against workers for organizing and hiring guestworkers from Mexico to replace FUJ’s members. The H-2A guestworker program Sakuma Brothers participated in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough workers domestically. FUJ says it had plenty of willing workers, but that Sakuma Brothers used guestworkers to avoid hiring back FUJ’s members.
“The only thing we want is a fair contract for both of us,” says FUJ president Ramon Torres.
Sakuma Brothers denies that FUJ represents the berry pickers, calling them “outside agitators” who “have attempted to fabricate the impression that this is a worker movement.” Danny Weeden began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s campaign is hard to understand.
Outside agitators. Can we just assume that anyone who uses that term has just declared themselves a bad human being? And hard to understand? Workers are poor, live in terrible camps, and don’t like being fired for organizing. This does not seem hard to understand.
Notably, these workers in both Washington and Baja California are largely indigenous people from southern Mexico. We usually think of Mexicans as a homogenous group of people, but that’s really untrue. Indigenous people are routinely exploited within Mexico including at the workplace, where they are paid less and toil at the hardest and most dangerous jobs. That gets repeated in the United States, as large number of poorly paid field workers are not only not native English speakers but also not native Spanish speakers. There are cases of indigenous Mexican children in U.S. schools being labeled as developmentally disabled because they don’t respond to their Spanish speaking teachers. But they don’t speak Spanish so why would they? They speak Zapotec or Mixtec or languages with even smaller number of speakers.
This also passes my boycott test, which is that it is called by workers and their representatives (in both Mexico and the U.S.) as opposed to consumers personally boycotting to feel good about themselves by, say, buying second-hand clothing and then saying they have done something about sweatshops (a position rejected by the Bangladeshi workers movement among others). Driscoll needs to take responsibility for its suppliers. Like we need to hold Walmart and Gap responsible for its suppliers in the apparel industry (as well as food for the former), we need to hold Driscoll responsible as well. Ultimately that has to happen by a number of ways, including reforms to U.S. labor law making unionization easier, greater inspections of farms in the U.S., and international labor standards that would not allow berries produced under the awful labor conditions so common for fruit and vegetables for the American market. Oaxacan indigenous peoples in Baja California and Washington, Bangladeshi workers in sweatshops, slave labor on shrimp boats in southeast Asia–all of these workers are part of a system of global exploitation for western companies, all of which happens far away from the eyes of consumers. And that’s how the companies want to keep it.
One of the reasons I vastly prefer Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan among famous food writers is that Bittman gets that injustice is a major issue whereas Pollan is mostly happy to talk about the glories of foraging for mushrooms and longing for women to go back into the kitchens, blissfully ignoring most issues of poverty and food. Bittman has his own blind spots, no doubt. But at least he tries. Bittman’s good side has come out again. In the wake of the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Bittman notes how racism and food access intersect:
And — since I’m the food guy, it’s worth pointing out — without access to good food or nutrition education. This is murder by a thousand cuts. The rate of hunger among black households: 10.1 percent. Among white households: 4.6 percent. The age-adjusted rate of obesity among black Americans: 47.8 percent. Among white Americans: 32.6 percent. The rate of diabetes among black adults aged 20 or older: 13.2 percent. Among white adults: 7.6 percent. Black Americans’ life expectancy, compared to white Americans: four years less. (The life expectancy of black men with some high school compared to white men with some college: minus 14 years.)
These numbers are not a result of a lack of food access but of an abundance of poverty. Lack of education is not a result of a culture of victimhood but of lack of funding for schools. And rather than continuing to allow these realities to divide us, we should do the American thing, which is to fix things. Which we can do, together.
Not long ago African-Americans were enslaved; until recently they were lynched. Isolated racist murders still occur, but they are no longer sanctioned or tolerated, and we’re seeing the vestiges of that as both national and local attention is paid to violence by the police against black people.
But oppression and inequality are violence in another form. When people are undereducated, impoverished, malnourished, un- or under-employed, or underpaid and working three jobs, their lives are diminished, as are their opportunities. As are the opportunities of their children.
This is unjust and intolerable. The bad news is that we should be ashamed of ourselves: As long as these things are true, this is not the country we say it is or the country we want it to be.
The good news is that it’s fixable, not by “market forces” but by policies that fund equal education, good-paying jobs, and a good food, health and well-being program for all Americans.
He doesn’t pretend that food access is going to solve larger problems, which is an issue among many food writers who see food as a mystical experience. But he notes that we can solve the interconnected issues of poverty, injustice, and food access through good policy. Which is absolutely true and the position that the entire food movement should be taking on the recent uptick in protest against racism.
Willard Scott as Ronald McDonald
McDonald’s constant gimmicks to reinvent itself are ridiculous and hilarious. Yes, I’m sure breakfast bowls with kale are totally going to revolutionize the chain, bringing it back to the glories of decades past! And I know, what if we reinvent the Hamburglar! This is a brilliant idea because I just learned about Poochie and thought it was a model for how I could totally leverage remaking one of our characters for a corporate synergy!
Now, I admit I am not a corporate hack with a talent for meaningless mumbo-jumbo so what do I know. But if McDonald’s wants to reinvent itself, why not, oh I don’t know, produce a burger that’s not disgusting? I mean, call me crazy. But if you are getting killed by Five Guys, Chipotle, and many other upstarts, maybe you should realize what Five Guys does better than you, which is to produce a burger that is not disgusting. Keep the fries–they’re great! And then combine them with a burger that is not grey and with toppings that have even modicum of character.
Is this that hard to figure out? With all of McDonald’s other advantages either gone or mitigated by changing times–a lack of competition from higher end fast food changes, the decline of the car culture that fueled its early years combined with every other chain having driving through windows, that it is no longer a destination for children, etc–doesn’t it have to compete with its actual product? I suppose it could pull a rabbit from the hat like it did with chicken nuggets in the 80s or like Taco Bell with its Doritos tacos, but one can hardly count on that. And said miracle product is surely not going to be a kale breakfast bowl. Given the incredibly low standards of the product at McDonald’s (again, outside of the fries), it’s not surprising it is becoming the K-Mart of the food industry.
I confess I knew nothing about 19th century hog drives, which were like cattle drives except with much more independent minded animals and generally took place in Appalachia and not the Great Plains. Pork was the staple meat of the nation before the rise of packaged beef in refrigerated rail cars. So I guess such events are not surprising. Anyway, this is your historical read of the day.