I don’t agree with all of James McWilliams’ attack on localized agriculture, but it is useful correction to the fawning deification of Michael Pollan, backyard chickens, grass-fed beef, etc. All of those things have their very important qualities, but if we are really serious about creating more environmentally-sustainable food without cutting back on meat consumption (and let’s be honest, as a society we are not serious about this), we should be aware that these are complex questions without easy answers.
The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.–Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.
The Obama Administration has approved the expansion of a pilot program that allows poultry producers to hire their own regulators. It’s hard to see what could go wrong with that. Who has a greater interest in producing safe meat than the meatpackers themselves? Oh right, everybody.
The biggest problem with the government’s regulatory regime is too much private control. As historians and food writers have shown on topics ranging from meat production to the plastics industry to hormones, in theory government regulation can do a great deal to create healthy human bodies and non-polluted environments. But industry lobbying have weakened those regulations from the beginning. The hiring of former industry workers as inspectors create cozy ties between government and industry, not to mention the powerful friends these industries have on Capitol Hill and K Street.
And when private poultry inspectors do report diseased birds, they face reprimands from their employers, who I should not need to remind you, are usually gigantic corporations seeking to profit on squeezing as many birds through regulation as possible. Hard to see a conflict of interest here!
Thus the answer to our regulatory woes is certain not privatized regulation, allowing poultry companies or anyone else to choose their own regulators. This makes a joke of the FDA and makes the bodies of consumers far less safe.
Isn’t the next step to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration entirely. After all, if the Progressive Era is the time when big government began to destroy our freedom by regulating society, as both Karl Rove and Glenn Beck have stated, than reinstating the buyer beware policies for food must be a brilliant way to make us all free. No one is forcing you to eat that e-coli infected chicken!
When you combine industry (non) self-regulation, turning animals into industrialized products, and the terrible safety and working conditions within meatpacking plants, how far are we away from the world Upton Sinclair described over 100 years ago?
Forgive the absence, I was at a conference in Madison which was a great time made greater by an unexpected trip up to Stevens Point along the Wisconsin River yesterday. Note that the living hell that is Wisconsin Dells should be bombed into the Stone Age and then everyone involved in the bombing murdered so that memory of one of the most grotesque tourist towns in the nation can be forgotten.
Coming back, I was fortunate enough to be sent this glorious 1884 pig themed map of the United States, produced by H.W. Hill & Co., a pork manufacturing concern, with state nicknames acted out by pigs. A few particularly interesting points include absurd now forgotten nicknames (including Missouri as per the post title, but also Kentucky, the Corn Cracker State and Illinois, the Sucker State), the utter offensiveness of the portrayal of New Mexico, and the fact that Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming are too irrelevant as territories to get a nickname, but they still get pigs doing things.
A few food-related items for a tasty Saturday:
1. Jill Richardson has an interesting piece arguing that the U.S. is exporting its terrible diet and the health problems this causes to the developing world. That’s true enough. The explosion of fast food in southeast Asia led to shocking and obvious jumps in obesity rates among children from when I visited there in 1997 as compared to 2006. Mexicans have horrible diets of junk food and indeed, I’ve never been anywhere where I couldn’t find a Coke. I do want to suggest however that this isn’t an American problem so much as it is a condition of global capitalism. A lot of terrible food in Mexico is from American corporations, but Bimbo products are incredibly popular, so much so that this is a Mexican company now exporting to the U.S. to feed the growing market for its horrible food-like products here. It’s also important not to deny people’s agency in what they eat. I am the last person to underestimate the power of American cultural imperialism and advertising, but a lot of fast food satisfies our bodies in ways that may be unhealthy, but are also really geared to our taste receptors. If people actively want to eat KFC, I have a hard time telling them they should not be able to do so.
Of course, American economic expansion and capitalism can not be separated, but it’s also a lot easier to criticize the United States than to point at the real culprit of capitalism.
Nonetheless, Richardson does report on sensible policy proposals from Olivia de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, to help bring back more healthy diets:
So what should be done about the “obesogenic” global food system, according to De Schutter? He begins by endorsing taxing junk food, particularly soda, an idea that has been controversial in the United States but is already practiced in France, Denmark, Finland, and Hungary. To prevent a junk food tax from disproportionately harming the poor, De Schutter recommends using the tax revenues to make healthy foods less expensive.
De Schutter also calls for “revising” agricultural subsidies that are biased in favor of large grain and soybean producers and the livestock industry; “cracking down on junk food advertising;” growing local food systems by linking farmers with nearby urban consumers; and “regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.” He specifically calls out marketing of infant formula, a major problem in poor nations where dishonest advertising and predatory marketing such as handing out of free infant formula samples in hospitals influences mothers, often women who can ill afford the cost of infant formula let alone the health consequences they cause for their children later in life, to stop breast feeding prematurely.
2. Speaking of capitalism and food, it’s great that the actor Wendell Pierce is working so hard to bring fresh food to African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans. And it’s a crime that an actor has to do this. We need a food equity law in this country, forcing large grocery chains to open stores in low-income areas. As part of this law, we need food regulators checking the produce and comparing it store to store, with large fines if stores in rich areas have significantly better access to fresh food and significantly better quality and freshness of the fruits and vegetables.
Healthy food is a right and should not be solely left to the profit motive.
3. Of course, fighting for decent food makes you hated on the right, as Tracie McMillan found out this week when Rush Limbaugh, looking for a new young woman to attack while he fantasizes about her, turned his guns on her and her new book (which is at the top of my reading list) The American Way of Eating. Of course, all Limbaugh is doing is helping McMillan sell thousands of copies of her book, so that’s great. I hope Rush attacks me when my book comes out. But then I’m not a woman so Rush doesn’t automatically hate me for stepping out of the domestic sphere.
4. And let us not forget food workers fighting for themselves, as Sarah Jaffe reminds us in her piece on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the tomato workers’ union in Florida who are fighting against horrible conditions and low wages for workers who are not as far as away from near-slavery as you’d like to think.
“Ketchup is a vegetable” is sounding pretty good right about now:
Sarah Seltzer has a good overview of what is in school lunches–pink slime turned into meat. Technically, it is meat product injected with ammonia that is processed into something theoretically edible. And the meat industry has lobbied heavily for it to be the product children eat in their school lunches. The USDA has approved this. There are major questions about the product’s safety, not to mention its desirability. But since the USDA subsidizes industrial agriculture and buys millions of pounds of “lean beef trimmings” from cattle growers every year, it has incentive to approve it. What one can legitimately question is whether the same government department that controls agricultural policy should also decide what kids eat.
The Republican war on labor is reaching a fevered pitch in Georgia, where the Constitution is being shredded in order to protect employers from inconvenient protestors. This effort is supported by Waffle House Vice President and Georgia State Senator Don Balfour, in case connections between large corporations that pay very low wages and the Republican Party were not clear enough to you. As Zaid Jilani notes, the bill would ban the actions of the Founding Fathers in protesting against the British:
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Sam Adams and other Founding Fathers formed a group called the Sons of Liberty to protest the Stamp Act and similar oppressive legislation. The Sons of Liberty regularly protested outside of the homes of British colonial officials, including the homes of tax collectors. If Balfour and Georgia’s Big Business titans have their way, these protests would be illegal, and Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers would’ve been arrested.
Think about that next time you dig into those delicious Waffle House waffles.
I was always more a fan of the eggs and hash browns myself, but the point stands.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about tipping culture and the awfulness of it all. It gives customers tremendous power over the people who wait on them, often dooming waitstaff to lives of poverty. It’s another way to steal wages from the paychecks of workers, helping employers while leaving workers desperate and customers often confused or hostile. Moreover, restaurants often steal tips from the waitstaff, through taking a cut off the top. Here in Rhode Island, Rep. Christopher Blazejewski has introduced a bill that cracks down on the “service fees” at facilities. People assume this goes to workers and it is theoretically supposed to but employers often take a big percentage.
“It’s an issue I’ve been hearing about for some time from my constituents,” said Blazejewski, noting that his neighborhood in Providence includes many restaurant and hotel workers. “For one, it’s about fairness for the wait staff that relies on tips. Secondly, I think it’s a consumer fraud issue where patrons have a reasonable expectation that the tip is to reward good service.”
Employers would still be able to add administrative fees to checks; they just couldn’t describe them as tips or gratuities, Blazejewski said. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association, a trade group for hotels, contacted Blazejewski with concerns about the bill but were unavailable on Tuesday for comment on the legislation.
The exploitative nature of tipping culture has created some interesting responses. Among them is the creation of restaurant cooperatives. I spent last weekend in Austin and San Antonio. In Austin, I visited Black Star Co-op. This is a very cool pub/restaurant that helps fill the surprisingly weak spot in Austin’s hipster culture–a lack of microbrews. It was pretty good. I recommend the really tasty kimchi fries if they are on the menu that day (though the melted cheese on top didn’t add much. I just took it off). The beer was quite tasty as well.
More interesting is the business model. It truly is a co-op. People become members and part-owners, able to vote on co-op business and receiving special benefits. The workers don’t have a union per se, but there is a Workers’ Assembly that elects a liaison to the Board of Directors. Seniority matters within the Workers’ Assembly, with full rights granted after a year of employment. Given the restaurant’s recent opening, 5 of the 17 workers are full members (or at least were the last time the site was updated), but no doubt that will go up over time. This may not be a union, but it does a lot of what unions do.
When I was ready to leave the bar, I went up to pay my tab. I got the receipt and there was no line for the tip. I asked the bartender where I leave the tip. He basically lectured me that they don’t accept tips because everyone gets paid a living wage. He then told me I should be become a member and make the business stronger.
I thought this was pretty fantastic. In a rarely unionized industry with a lot of exploitation and workers squeezed between employers and customers, here is a business that combines the cooperative nature of a 1970s natural food market with high wages and the goods modern consumers like, such as beer and kimchi fries. Sure, it’d be great if the United Food and Commercial Workers union could organize restaurant workers around the nation, but the small and transient workforces make this very difficult. This model of cooperative ownership and living wages provides an interesting model for work that could grow. There may be problems with the model I don’t anticipate, but it’s certainly a step up from restaurant labor as it currently stands.
I don’t agree with all of Yglesias’ analysis here on cities regulating food trucks out of business, but the overall point is fairly sound. In the comment section for my post on Cleveland the other day, I suggested that cities trying to revitalize themselves need to spend more time creating the infrastructure that would allow people to create exciting urban life organically rather than try to find the next gigantic project that will save the city. In Cleveland’s case, this is the baseball stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both of which have their charms but have not revolutionized Cleveland’s downtown as promised. Rather, the happening places in Cleveland are away from downtown, in Ohio City and Tremont, where people are creating very fun neighborhoods without significant municipal assistance.
Food trucks are an excellent example of how a city can create this infrastructure. The food truck phenomenon is overrated in terms of the quality of food and the experience of standing around eating, but it does have real benefits. Food trucks are cheap, fast, often good, and create eating experiences for people on the go. This can be workers catching a quick lunch or people leaving the clubs at 2 a.m. Restaurants are not nor should be the only eating out experience we can have. In Portland and Austin, where the food carts have taken off, they have become central to the urban landscape, reinforcing what makes those cities some of the nation’s most vibrant urban spaces in the early 21st century. But as Yglesias points out, the restaurant industry is outraged and has lobbied city councils to eliminate the threat. That is suboptimal.
At the same time, I do have some sympathy for the restauranteurs. That’s often a low-profit business with a high chance of failing. Yglesias notes that “Space is scarce and rents are high in the centers of major American cities. If new competition can bring prices down, we’ll all be better off in the long run.” Well, lower prices mean lower wages for workers. It’s not as if most waiters are getting rich. I like a cheap piece of pizza or a taco as much as anyone, but workers’ wages and overall employment numbers are worth studying in the food truck-restaurant debate.
Given that wait staff is one of the most visible labor forces and that we are made to feel good about ourselves by tipping them whatever we think is appropriate, it might be surprising (unless you know people who work in the industry) that they are often extremely poorly paid. Moreover, for women workers at lower-end establishments, working conditions can be poor and wages, even including tips, below the federal minimum wage.
Laura Clawson has an excellent essay up about the poor treatment of female waiters, including discussions of sexual harassment, pay disparity with male waiters, and restaurant managers pressuring workers to accept sub-minimum wages if their tips don’t bring them up to the federal minimum wage.
Great story, if an infuriating subject.
A little morning deliciousness for you, from 1950 and via the American Gas Association. America’s finest food from America’s finest era of cooking.
A few years ago, hog farmers throughout the Midwest noticed foam building on top of their manure pits. Soon after, barns began exploding, killing thousands of hogs while farmers lost millions of dollars.
And you thought Santorum was gross.
But seriously, what gives? First, it helps to have an idea of how manure is handled at industrial hog facilities. In his classic 2005 Rolling Stone exposé of the industrial pork giant Smithfield, Jeff Tietz provided a vivid description:
The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.
The manure itself is pretty nasty, too. Pigs on factory farms are given daily doses of antibiotics and growth-promoting additives like ractopamine, much of which ends up in their waste. So what you get in those cesspools, the ones now exploding in the Midwest, is kind of a stew of bacteria, antibacterial agents, and novel antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains, all mixed with the random detritus described by Tietz.
Flammable feces foam that can cause entire hog houses to explode. It’s really hard to see any problems with our system of factory farming…..
And while not on the level of modified pig manure, when squirrels are turning purple, it’s unlikely humans aren’t at fault.
Scientists don’t know how a squirrel could turn purple. While I have no doubt our lovely environmental skeptics will come up with some kind of dissembling quasi-explanation, you’d have to go a long way to convince me humans aren’t somehow responsible for this.