Good ol’ regulatory capture: Department of Agriculture edition from Tom Philpott:
Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.
What’s more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That’s when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speed-up formula sounds familiar, it’s because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did greenlight turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).
All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: 1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; 2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and 3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of 1) and 2).
Good times. My only problem with Philpott’s piece is how much it underplays the effect of the speedup on workplace safety. It’s referenced in passing, but like so much when it comes to the food industry, consumers’ interests are privileged above that of workers, when in fact the two are so interconnected that any reasonable analysis can not really separate them. The meat industry is already incredibly dangerous labor and speed-ups always make labor more dangerous, while also of course making inspections less rigorous and with greater likelihood of tainted meat getting to the consumer. Both issues are equally important.
Really, it’s impossible to see what could go wrong with the meat industry regulating itself. That is, if you like killing workers.
It’s no surprise that longstanding nutritional guidelines are now being challenged.
In 2013, government advice to reduce salt intake (which remains in the current report) was contradicted by an authoritative Institute of Medicine study. And several recent meta-analyses have cast serious doubt on whether saturated fats are linked to heart disease, as the dietary guidelines continue to assert.
Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy. Indeed, cutting fat and cholesterol, as Americans have conscientiously done, may have even worsened our health. In clearing our plates of meat, eggs and cheese (fat and protein), we ate more grains, pasta and starchy vegetables (carbohydrates). Over the past 50 years, we cut fat intake by 25 percent and increased carbohydrates by more than 30 percent, according to a new analysis of government data. Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.
It seems to me there are a couple of issues at play here. First is the question of whether the government should be setting food guidelines. The answer is that of course it should–after all, public health is a massively important part of society. That said, government funding for this type of science is not nearly as high as it should be so it’s not surprising that the guidelines might not be based on the best science. Second, science does change. It is not static, nor will it ever be. So the idea that the government is going to create eating guidelines that will then exist for all time is a myth. Third, social and cultural factors affect science and affect society, which will continue to lead then to different standards of health and different ideologies around food production and consumption. Fourth, Teicholz calls for us to eat more meat, more eggs, and more full fat dairy products. But there is also a massive environmental cost to Americans committing to eat more meat, a cost which she evidently considers irrelevant. It is indeed relevant and must be part of the conversation about food consumption. That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the eating habits of modern Americans, but people aren’t downing bags of Cheetos for lunch because the government has discouraged the consumption of fats.
One of the oddest things I have found in my time in the northeast is the region’s ardor for diners. I have nothing per se against them. They provide certain services. The food is adequate if you are on the road. If you have children in your party, they offer an easy choice. The same with older people who might not be real into food. They are pretty cheap. If you want to do some work in public, you often can there.
In other words, diners serve a certain function in society. But having lived the first 37 years of my life in, well, pretty much every region of the country but the northeast, I certainly did not expect the dominance of diner culture up here. The nation has Denny’s and that’s, well, what it is. And the South has Waffle House which has a charm of sort. But the cultural impact here is just so different and to me strange given the relatively limited benefits the things offer. This is why I read Ed Levine’s essay about diners with such interest. Yet I remained unconvinced that they offer anything more than what I mentioned in the first paragraph. They aren’t about the food. I guess I don’t care about homey service from Flo so maybe that’s it. Or maybe it is my general indifference to breakfast and most of its traditional foods. I think the last time I had a craving for pancakes was in college. They are locally owned working-class businesses by and large and that’s cool from a political perspective, but it doesn’t per se make me want to go to them. Also, I don’t drink the vile brewed beverage known as coffee so a bottomless cup of that will never appeal.
So what I am missing here? Why am I a horrible human being for my indifference to the charms of diners?
El Vomito, which means exactly what you think it means, is a popular food chain in Santa Marta, Colombia. Its logo, as you see below, is a burger that looks like it is vomiting up ketchup. If I was a burger, I’d do the same if someone put ketchup on me.
I know The Economist has its roots in the British imperialist world. And I also know that the Chinese eat enough pork to play a not small role in global environmental degradation. However, an article on how Chinese pork consumption “is a danger to the world” that does not mention how European and European settler states consume meat (except for a quick mention of Americans liking beef) and how the people of these nations are and have long been the real driver of worldwide environmental degradation really follows that imperial legacy and is borderline offensive. That does not in any way downplay the point that global meat consumption is an environmental problem, but by pointing at THOSE (brown) people as the problem, this piece reinforces long histories in a variety of genres of writing–economic, environmental, foreign affairs–that worries about a foreign threat while ignoring the privilege of the publication’s own readership.
What can we tell about organic farms from the air? These aerial photos are intended to show the problems with large organic animal farms. They convey an image of industrial farming that the organic movement was intended to reject. A couple of key points missing here:
1. I’m far from the first person to note the problems with the term “organic,” as defined by the government. Those who care about this issue far more than I have long noted how it was co-opted by industrial farms. However, one can also legitimately question if it is possible to have organic farming on an industrial scale that will feed the people who want to eat this way without some industrial farming methods. If everyone wants organic milk, can farmers provide that without the mega-farms the movement does not want? With eggs at least one can see how raising your own chickens is possible for many, but for other products, it really isn’t.
2. It’s quite clear that there’s a strong correlation between the organic and local food movements and a romanticization of a certain type of work and certain type of relationship to the land. It’s not just that when people think organic, they think of a little local farm with chickens running around happy. It’s that they can’t imagine anything other than that because that, I think, more than the quality of the food or the happiness of the animals, is really what a lot of consumers want here. So any reality of large-scale farming is going to upset them.
3. The fact that such a survey had to be done in the air does get at major problems in our production system, not only in food but in apparel and everything else. It is out of sight. Everyday citizens can’t really go into these places. The regulatory system is captured by industry and vastly underfunded. The reality is that people want to know what is happening on farms. They want to know what is being put in their bodies. And they largely can’t. That’s why food is such a powerful way to indict the entire production system. Maybe people can’t see how their clothes are made in Bangladesh. That’s just too hard to imagine. But they do know food is being produced all around them and food is such a personal thing because it affects the inside of your body and not just your fashion. Thus, if demands around a meaningful inspection and regulatory system are going to succeed, food is probably where it happens. And it indeed needs to happen in food, as I write in my book.
4. I would also like to note that there is real room for alliance here between the labor and food movements if the food movement cares about workers. That’s one thing this article lacks. If we can’t tell what is happening to the animals, we can’t tell what is happening to the workers. When animals are abused, often so are workers. So if we can’t tell whether a farm is really organic, we also can’t tell whether it is treating its workers with dignity. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that organic farms treat workers better than conventional farms. Food justice cannot exist without justice for workers as well.
The food industry, along with the apparel industry, has long led the way in labor exploitation. Throughout the 20th century, agricultural interests went to extreme lengths to keep labor costs down, which meant paying them as close to nothing as possible, crushing any organizing efforts through violence, winning exemptions from labor law, and creating arrangements to bring in immigrant workers who lacked all rights. In the era of capital mobility and subcontracting agreements, food companies can now use the same types of arrangements that allow Walmart and Gap to get clothes made at factories that burn or collapse without any corporate consequence to acquire the food we buy. All the corporations care about is one thing–keeping costs down. How that is done is up to the contractor. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But make sure you do what is necessary to keep those costs low.
The Los Angeles Times published an outstanding piece of journalism yesterday investigating the labor conditions of huge vegetable farms in Mexico that export produce to the United States. It will not surprise most readers here that the conditions are nothing more than rank labor exploitation, on par with the worst working conditions in the history of the United States and those today of Honduras, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. You obviously need to read it all, but just real quick:
The Times found:
Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.
Basically, big American vegetable sellers contract with farms in Mexico. Those companies might claim they care about labor sourcing but we all know that’s a lie. Those farms then recruit poor Mexicans, largely indigenous people from southern Mexico, with promises of payment. They then house those workers in hovels, refuse to pay them, underfeed them, don’t provide them with bathing facilities, etc. All so you can eat tomatoes for cheap in January. See that image above? This is the “housing” of the people who grow the produce you eat from Mexico. Which is a lot of your produce, especially this time of the year.
The only way the companies care about this is when all their efforts to hide production from American consumers fails. Then they develop strategies to avoid culpability and stall reporters long enough for everyone’s attention to be turned to some other issue. It’s quite effective, even when their documents on how to do this are leaked.
As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell.
This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue. One month it is protesting war, the next it is sweatshops, the next it is police violence. There are too many injustices in this world to rely on mass movements. People only have so much time. Only through a legal framework can those people who do devote themselves to this issue full time have a framework to enforce worker rights in the long term.
With soda sales sagging, Coca-Cola is moving into the dairy business. It plans to offer milk with some big differences to the stuff now on supermarket shelves: For starters, it will cost twice as much.
A Coke exec told a conference last week that the company’s Fairlife will be “a milk that’s premiumized and tastes better and we’ll charge twice as much for it as the milk we’re used to buying,” the Guardian reports. Chief Customer Officer Sandy Douglas said the milk, which is being produced in venture involving 92 family-owned farms and will launch next month, will contain 50% more protein and 30% less sugar than regular milk.
A filtering process will also make it lactose-free.
Why, yes, I would love to pay twice as much for my milk! And I know that if there’s one company I trust to produce milk that is lower in sugar and higher in good things for you, it’s Coca-Cola.
I’m not lactose-intolerant so I can’t speak to this, but is there a real appeal to a lactose-free milk that would convince people to pay twice as much as regular milk? I know dairy-free faux dairy products, such as the unfortunate “cheese,” are not great, but there are lots of other ways to cook as well. Just curious here.