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.
One small consolation is that turkey skin is delicious—no more so than the skin of other birds, but still, it gives you something to look forward to. Peel it off the bird, press it between two baking sheets, and bake it at 350 for twenty to thirty minutes, by which time it will crisp up like delicious crackers made out of meat.
It’s what to do with the white meat that’s the real ball-breaker. I would say feed it to your dog, but maybe your dog knows better than your friends and family? Ideally you’ll use this holiday to judge whether your family members are good people or not. Will they trust you to make Thanksgiving a way better holiday by dispensing with the Rockwell painting once and for all? Put them to the test.
One time I tried to go all Korean Pilgrim Hero, and I turned a gigantic stupid turkey into a couple of roulades, which is French for “delicious meat logs.” It went like this: I splayed the skin out. I pounded the breast meat into cutlets and laid them over the skin. Braised leg meat, stuffing (with lots of thyme and mirepoix), and some super-gelatinous turkey stock went in the middle. I used plastic wrap to torque these assemblages into roulades. Then I roasted them low and browned them in butter and bird fat to crisp the skin before serving. They were good, sure. But you know what I should have done? Gone to KFC and bought a shitload of chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, gravy, and corn. I can’t imagine any turkey tasting as good as KFC.
Dark meat chicken from KFC for me. I can make better mac and cheese though so that can be the homemade part of the meal.
Palm oil is a very efficient way of producing cooking oil and is thus in high demand around the world. One huge problem is that it is turning the incredibly diverse rain forests of southeast Asia into a region-wide monoculture. Deforestation for palm oil plantations is a major problem. Luckily, this has led to significant criticism of the food industry. So many of the big palm oil producers have recently signed agreements to limit or eliminate deforestation in the production of palm oil.
That’s great, I guess. Certainly it’s better than nothing. However, I want to stress that just like agreements to improve labor conditions in southeast Asian sweatshops, there is very little incentive for companies to actually follow through. There is no stick to go along with that carrot. Without a way to enforce that agreement, you are relying on corporate beneficence. From the corporation’s perspective, they are waiting for attention to be drawn to something else. Without a way for people to sue or prosecute the companies over violating these agreements, the long-term benefit may well be negligible.
There are a lot of labor stories in my blogging queue right now. Let’s just deal with them all at once.
1. Do we need a new legal framework for food workers? Jacob Gersen and Benjamin Sachs say we do and they are correct:
Take farm workers who witness the processing of infected (or “downer”) cows — an illegal but, unfortunately, not uncommon practice that risks spreading a host of diseases to humans. Or workers in poultry-processing facilities, where safety and hygiene regulations are flouted, thus increasing the risk of salmonella, which every year results in more than one million illnesses, more than 350 deaths and over $3 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Unless we offer specific legal protection for all food workers who come forward to expose such practices — something the law does not do now — we all are at risk.
We should also adjust many of our standard workplace rules to take account of the special nature of food production. To avoid the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which causes mad cow disease, workers involved in the processing of beef must fully and carefully remove the dorsal root ganglion, a part of the spinal nerve, from all cattle that are 30 months old or older. That’s because these dorsal root ganglia can contain the infective agent behind B.S.E.
Not sure what the Obama Administration can do on this in the face of certain Republican opposition but it should be a priority within American labor regulation.
2. San Francisco is considering an ordinance to force companies to provide a “predictable schedule” for part-time workers. This is absolutely a workplace justice issue that needs to be taken care of. Among the many problems with people stringing together multiple part-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads is the inability to know when they will need to work week-to-week at each job. Keeping workers’ lives unstable of course helps the company and so they will probably fight such a common-sense idea.
3. In the world of labor on our college campuses, administrators at Pensacola State College are telling faculty members they are violating state law by talking to student reporters about their stalled contract negotiations. The administration is trying to use a section of the state legal code already shot down by both state and federal courts. Absurd, but all too typical for one of the biggest union-busting industries in the U.S. right now–institutions of higher education.
4. I always like to highlight stories of student labor activism when I see them, so here is one on anti-sweatshop activism at Oregon State University.
5. Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman whose father worked in a sweatshop in India is pushing the City Council to pass an anti-sweatshop ordinance. Wonder what ol’Rahm thinks about that.
6. Finally, the chemical industry strikes again, with 4 dead workers at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas after a chemical leaked. I’d be real curious to see when the last time this plant was inspected by OSHA.
We’ve discussed the 1935 Idaho Potato Queen here in the past. But she didn’t exist in a vacuum. Food related royalty has long been a thing in the U.S. They still are too. I once attended the Yamboree in Gilmer, Texas. There was a Yam Queen. It was very exciting.
Sometimes, said food royalty poses with the food in somewhat odd ways. That is the subject of tonight’s Friday night open thread. Above is the Kearney, Nebraska Corn Goddess. Don’t know the year. Below, a Pork Queen.
When was the last time you thought about Totino’s frozen pizza? When you were 16 and hated good food? Me too. That’s some nasty “pizza.” And other frozen pizza-like products. But I have to give them credit–their tumblr is seriously amazeballs. Like there’s some great drugs floating around Totino’s corporate headquarters amazeballs. Whoever is running this thing is pretty good at their job. I mean, it’s sure as hell not going to make me buy their product. But I’ll probably keep checking the tumblr.
A friend altered me to this highlight of American culinary history.
The definition of everybody winning is hot cocktail sauce.
I know my trust in the quality of the chicken I eat (not that I eat very much) is really reinforced by the United States now accepting Chinese imports of cooked chicken products that come from chickens grown in “approved nations.” If there’s one thing, we can count on, it’s the safety and sanitation of imported Chinese goods.
China has been the given green light to start shipping chicken to America.
On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department told stakeholders it had certified four poultry processing plants in the Shandong province of China to export fully cooked, frozen and refrigerated chicken to the United States.
Though raw chicken must still come from countries approved by the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) — the U.S., Canada and Chile — consumer rights activists are calling the certifications for cooked chicken from China dangerous.
“China’s food safety system is a wreck,” D.C.-based Food & Water Watch said in a statement Thursday. The group has been fighting the USDA on the issue since November 2005.
“There have been scores of food safety scandals in China and the most recent ones have involved expired poultry products sold to U.S. fast food restaurants based in China,” the statement said. “Now, we have FSIS moving forward to implement this ill-conceived decision, and it has not even audited the Chinese food safety system in over 20 months.”
Taking raw American or Canadian chickens, sending them to China for processing, and then returning them to the United States also says a lot about the absurdity of the global food system.
Andrew Lawler provides an excellent history of chicken’s rise through the 20th century from minor part of the American diet to American companies feeding the world with it. The modern chicken is a technological marvel, with all the advantages and horrors that comes with it.
Also, I find it a little disturbing that the average American eats 100 lbs of chicken of year.