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Archive for the ‘food’ Category

It’s time to kill the USDA, before it kills us

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2008


We haven’t talked yet about last week’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

As the BBC and others reported at the time, “It comes from a company in California, which officials said allowed meat from cattle unable to stand at the time of slaughter to enter the food chain.”

Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the company, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., will almost certainly shut down for good.

The meatpacker voluntarily suspended operations in early February, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating how it treated animals.

What’s of particular interest, from a journalistic point of view, is the step before that – how the USDA came to investigate in the first place.

The USDA investigation began after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing workers at the Chino slaughterhouse trying to make sick or injured cows stand up with electrical-shock devices, fork lifts and high-pressure water hoses. State and federal animal-cruelty laws prohibit such activities.

Federal laws also prohibit the sale and distribution of so-called downer cattle because of the high risk of mad-cow disease. That risk isn’t taken seriously by consumers, in large part because they rely on the government to take it seriously. And the USDA doesn’t do the job its counterparts do in other countries, largely because it’s insufficiently independent of the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

In the days after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published, the need for government oversight must have seemed obvious, for the safety of the meat supply and of the meatpackers, if not for the short-lived well-being of the animals themselves. Unfortunately, if you read any of that book’s latter-day latter-day counterparts, like Fast Food Nation or Diet For a New America, it’s clear that, 102 years later, little if any progress has been made.

According to KCBS in Los Angeles and others, one-third of the recalled beef went to schools. (KCBS is also the source for the nice graphic at the top of this post.)

Basically, this was a bottom-of-the-market meatpacker that was probably on shaky ground until it got the federal contract to supply schools. Going back to the Wall Street Journal article for a moment,

Until the plant suspended operations, it was earning a modest profit on annual sales of roughly $100 million, he said. “It’s a low profit-margin business,” he said.

In the last government fiscal year, the Agriculture Department paid Hallmark/Westland about $39 million for ground beef for food nutrition programs, including the school-lunch program. Hallmark/Westland was honored by the department as its Supplier of the Year for the 2004-05 school year. It began supplying meat to the program in 2003 after a rigorous application process with the Agriculture Department, which has authorized about 10 meatpackers nationwide to compete for contracts to supply beef to the program.

Quite the rigorous testing if the Humane Society had to do the USDA’s job for them. It might be fair to paraphrase Groucho and say that we don’t want the schools to be supplied by any company that needs the work.

So maybe it’s time to think about the unintended consequences of having an agency like the USDA exist in the first place. Maybe it’s time to notice that inadequate oversight is in many ways worse than no oversight at all.

In a caveat-emptor world, consumers would be warier of what they let pass through their mouths. (The wording is deliberate there; even the most desparate hooker is more discriminating than the average hamburger consumer.) We would come to rely on brands, either of the distributor, or the restaurant or supermarket itself, and those brands would be on the line with every purchase. The A&Ps and Vons of the world would have to either police their food sources themselves or get out of the game. Perhaps third-party inspectors would emerge to do what the USDA can’t or won’t – rigorously examine the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

For as long as we’ve known about mad-cow disease, the USDA has done a poor job of protecting consumers from it. Take this summary report from 2006, for example:

USDA slammed for letting high-risk downer cattle reach consumers

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (Kyodo) U.S. beef inspectors have failed to fully comply with rules banning cattle that are unable to walk to safeguard consumers from mad cow disease, leading at least 29 such animals, including 20 high-risk “downers,” to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report.

The failure angered some activist groups in the United States, blasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for putting consumers at risk of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, despite a no-downer policy maintained for more than two years as a protective firewall against BSE.

The first benefit to ending the USDA’s miserable existence would probably be the inspection of each and every slaughtered animal for mad-cow disease.

Japan tests every animal, and in 2003 halted imports of U.S. beef over mad-cow concerns – $1.7 billion worth in 2003, according to an MSNBC editorial in 2006. That was the year that Japan lifted the ban, only to have to quickly reinstate it.

How pure is the U.S. beef supply, really?
By Phil Lempert
“Today” Food Editor
Tues., Jan. 24, 2006.

[….] Last week, just a month after the Japanese government decided to allow the import of U.S. beef into that country, it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country.

When the two-year-old ban was lifted late last year, it was with the expressed condition that imported U.S. beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.

There are those who argue that the risks just aren’t high enough for us to mimic the paranoid Japanese. Let’s leave aside a multi-billion-dollar export opportunity for American business, and focus on our own health and safety.

Back in 2005, a California State Senator, Jeff Denham, tried to make the case that universal testing was unnecessary.

Since the first cow tested positive in 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tested over 400,000 cows and only one other tested positive. To put this in perspective, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning this year than a neighborhood cow testing positive for Mad Cow disease.

the USDA is testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease – not just a random sampling. Cattle with the highest likelihood of contracting Mad Cow include “downer cows,” that are unable to stand-up, die unexpectedly, or have other signs of illness are the ones that are tested. So those cattle that are healthy are even less likely to have Mad Cow disease.

Obviously, though, the USDA is not testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease, even though they’re supposed to be.

The cattle industry, and guys like Denham, think it’s just too expensive to test every head as it comes to slaughter.

Some will still argue that those odds are not good enough and that every head of cattle should be tested. With more than 95.8 million cows nationwide, it simply is not feasible and not cost effective.

So how expensive would it be?

As it happens, that calculation has been done, for 10 million head per year, the same as Denham argued against. As it happens, that’s not for the Japanese standard of testing every slaughtered animal, but the European standard of testing those over 30 months. An article here quotes a Wall Street Journal article from 2004 in which the calculation is pretty straightforward.

Test kits cost about $10 a pop…. Add in salaries of lab technicians, the cost of grinding up and delivering cattle brain samples for testing, and the tab would be $30 to $50 per animal, industry experts say. The average U.S. cow slaughtered for food yields meat with a retail value of $1,636.

Each year in the U.S., about 35 million cattle are slaughtered. About 10 million of these animals — those over 30 months of age — would be tested for BSE if the U.S. were to adopt European standards, because age is associated with infection.

The grand total to test about 10 million cows in the U.S. would be $300 to $500 million a year. Considering that Americans spend more than $50 billion on beef annually, that would add between six cents and 10 cents per pound.

I’m not too crazy about the 6-10 cents/lb. calculation, since it’s hard to know what the $50 billion figure refers to. It might include $30 entrees at Morton’s Steakhouse. So let’s look instead at the per-head stats: $50 out of $1686. If spread out per-dollar, instead of per-pound, in round numbers the testing adds 3%. If chopped meat is roughly $3.00/lb, we’re still in the same range, another 9 cents.

So there you have it. The cost to be ensure against mad-cow disease is 10 cents/lb. or less. That still doesn’t do anything about the harmful antibiotics in meat, the other chemicals, the hazardous working conditions in slaughterhouses, the inhumane ways that animals are reared and killed, the befouling of the nations drinking water, the erosion of its land, or any of the other problems of factory farming. But it would solve, or start to solve, the mad-cow disease.

Is the industry really afraid of adding 10 cents a pound to meat prices? Hardly. It’s afraid to find out the extent of the mad-cow problem. And it’s afraid of the costs that might be engendered by the changes needed in the way animals are reared and slaughtered, once the extent of the problem is known.

Basically, the meat industry doesn’t want to find out how many animals are infected. And it doesn’t want the extra work of keeping brains and spines out of the hamburgers we eat. And until we get rid of the USDA, or truly empower it with resources and independence, no one is going to make the industry do anything it doesn’t want.

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Meat the enemy

Posted by metaphorical on 3 February 2008

The United States produces “nearly 10 billion farm animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.”

“An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production”

“livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation”

Now imagine if global meat production doubles between now and 2050. That’s the scary scenario posed by an article in last Sunday’s NY Times, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” by Mark Bittman.

The title comes from the idea that “Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.”

Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Environmental, political, health, and moral concerns have all been the main reasons I gave up meat 18 years ago. Bittman hits all cylinders:

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.

About two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption

Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams

Administration of antibiotics [in farm animals] is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people.

Those grain-fed animals, in turn, are contributing to health problems among the world’s wealthier citizens — heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes

There’s some faint — and in my opinion false — hope at the article’s end (One academic is quoted as saying, “The good of people’s bodies and the good of the planet are more or less perfectly aligned”). More convincing are these depressing comments. One expert is quoted,

“I just don’t think we can count on market prices to reduce our meat consumption. There may be a temporary spike in food prices, but it will almost certainly be reversed and then some.”

Bittman says, if price spikes don’t change eating habits, perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Perhaps, but it’s been going one for a long time with few people caring at all. John Robbins’s Diet For A New America, the foundational book to which Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma all owe an acknowledged debt, was published 21 years ago. In that same time, meat consumption in the developing world has doubled. What will the planet look like when it doubles again?

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture, Times-watch | Leave a Comment »

The biggest boozer

Posted by digglahhh on 26 January 2008

The other day I joined my girlfriend while she caught up on some previous episodes of “The Biggest Loser.” Inadvertently, I’ve become a viewer, if not exactly a fan. The episode from three weeks ago (I think) flipped me out. For Entertainment Weekly, three weeks is long enough to make a show entirely irrelevant, but the readership of this website is probably not characterized by those who treat “The Biggest Loser” as must-see-TV (nor devoted readers of Entertainment Weekly, for that matter).

For those unfamiliar with the show, several teams of two grossly overweight individuals are made to live in a house that is like a fitness complex. The trainers, basically upper middle class white drill-sergeants, exude the superiority of their looks and conditioning, and condescendingly whip the fat asses into shape – sometimes engaging in various psychotherapies they are wholly unqualified for along the way. Teams weigh-in weekly, and one or the other of the two to lose the least combined weight is voted off by the other teams. Lame challenges and prizes along the way create artificial drama; because you are, after all, watching a show consisting of obese people struggling on treadmills, its humor wears thin even as the contestants do as well.

In the episode that irked me, what caused me to freak happened toward the end. There was a surprise challenge the night before the weekly weigh-in. The contestants were given some amount of time (maybe five minutes) alone in an area that was filled with. fried meats, corn dogs, cakes, candies— the worst possible shit one could eat. The teams were told that whichever team ate the most calories combined would split $5,000 – but would obviously be jeopardizing themselves at the weigh-in the following day, and thus their chance to win whatever the big payout is.

Should I eat? Will my partner eat? Holy shit – Hitchcock-like suspense…

What is that? If the show has any legitimate goal at all, it’s to help contestants lose weight and develop a healthy life style. How does that square with such a ridiculous and contrived situation? It’s just wrong on basically every possible level.

If pressed, maybe the show’s creators would give willpower development as the reason for the challenge. But, that’s total bullshit. The challenge does not accurately depict any realistic situation the contestants will ever encounter. Lacking the discipline to avoid impromptu eating contests for cash prizes is probably not the main reason the contestants have failed to develop a healthy relationship with food thus far.

Willpower is a valuable skill that anybody attempting to kick a habit or change a lifestyle should try to develop. But, consider that the unhealthy diets and eating routines these contestants have developed have been practiced over many years. Their behavior is a long established pathology similar to that of a drug addict. Would a show about (recovering) alcoholics throw them in a room with an open bar and offer a cash prize for the team that emptied the most bottles the quickest? Entertainment and plot twists are one thing; completely undermining the professed goals of the show and contestants is another.

Further, the cash prize interjects a new level of bias to the equation. How important five grand is to you directly influences your temptation factor. Shit, I’d eat a plate of bull penis, or whatever the Fear Factor special of the day is for a couple thousand bucks. But, I’m relatively broke! If I was pulling down A-Rod money, I wouldn’t take a single bite – well, maybe if it was imported and served in some sort of reduction… The point is, the more broke you are, the more likely you are going to eat. There’s no reason to introduce an extra, unrelated variable.

Basically, the show was willing to contradict its single concrete premise in the hopes of getting a couple of minutes of good, gross-out TV out of it. Fortunately, the joke was on the network as very few of the contestants ate anything at all. Still, the damage was done in my eyes. I’m under no delusions about the altruism of these sorts of self-help themed reality shows, but that was really jumping the shark as far as I’m concerned.

By the way, the winning team of the eat-off also wound up losing the second most weight. So bonus points for promoting irresponsible and contradictory messaging as well…

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture | 1 Comment »

Open season on idiots – at least in blogs

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

I don’t know how he hit a several-thousand-pound cow mistaking it for a coyote. — Rory Heckman, Benzie County undersheriff, UPI

According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, which broke the story,

Richard Buckner, 42, allegedly downed a neighbor’s pregnant, 1,400-pound breeding cow on Nov. 17 at about 8:30 a.m.

Buckner allegedly told sheriff’s officials he was poaching coyotes in the woods near his home on Wooden Bridge Road when he shot what he believed to be a coyote, Benzie Undersheriff Rory Heckman said.

The cow, named Hannah, wandered away from a nearby farm before Buckner shot the pregnant bovine and attempted to drag it to his home, said DeAnn Mosher, Hannah’s owner.

“That is the part of his story he his holding to is he shot at a coyote. I don’t know how he hit a several thousand pound cow mistaking it for a coyote,” Heckman said. “You can’t even shoot at a coyote during the firearm deer season.”

Hunting is a sport that connects us with some of the most fundamental facts about being human. It needs no defense in principle. The problems with it have to with finding a place for it in an increasingly urbanized culture. Hunting today, in many parts of the U.S., is about as natural as a golf course.

People without the proper skills or ethics can stand side by side with those who do, indistinguishable from them, until they go off and shoot a cow — or a coyote, equally off-limits and only marginally less stupid during the deer hunting season. If I were a hunter I would wish, if only for a fleeting moment, that we could have an open season on Buckner and the other idiots who make hunting problematic for responsible hunters and for everyone else.

Posted in animal-rights, food, language, pop culture, sports | 6 Comments »

Nathan could be worse

Posted by digglahhh on 14 July 2007

I’m not often at a loss for words, but certain things set off so many sociological censors at once that I get sent into overload and find it difficult to process and document my interpretation of what exactly is going on. I most recently had one of those moments on July 4th, watching the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. I can’t guarantee coherence as I try to express my feelings here, but I shall try my best.

First of all, it is aired on ESPN. What the fuck is that? I guess that’s the “E” for “Entertainment” portion of its abbreviation. If so, whatever. But then, somebody should tell the Sportscenter anchors that the network’s feeble entertainment attempts have been covered and they can kill the Last Comic Standing auditions and just let me know if J.J. Hardy is going to turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon. Still, even the “entertainment” must be required to be at least as close to a sport as poker is, right? How far removed is a hot dog eating contest from a farting contest? Would they air one of those on ESPN as well? The participants actually view themselves as athletes, as I understand. I’m really trying to limit how many times I say, “what the fuck?” in this piece, but that is asking a lot of restraint given this topic.

Okay, whew, that’s one rant down – the least important one. The subject of what is a sport, what is a game, and what is just a competition is an incredibly interesting discussion, but it’s not all that important sociologically. Let’s get to the more disturbing aspects of this event.

The hour of coverage began with an aerial shot of the crowd. There were thousands of people there. It was absolutely ridiculous. Why would somebody spend one of the few Federal holidays standing under the brutally hot sun, squinting to watch a crew of gastrointestinal anomalies cram their faces with cylindrical beef byproducts from two and a half blocks away?

Onto the depressing symbolism and deconstruction of the event. First, I want to preface this by saying that I’ve always found displays of decadence that use food to be particularly egregious, and, on a certain level, very offensive. Food is the basic unit of sustenance. I often think about how we use food as decorative garnish for other foods and find it quite curious. Last time Meta and I went for dinner, I posed the question of whether it is ethical, apart from being socially acceptable, to bring a child to a nice restaurant.

The hot dog eating contest on July 4th is ironic, or disturbingly a propos on many levels. For starters, according to the CDC, 65% of our population is overweight or obese. Our country clearly has a problem in this regard, and on a day on which we are supposed to be honoring our nation, we are indulging in its problems – in a far more grandiose and blatant fashion than simply stuffing yourself at a barbeque, which at least doesn’t have thousands of onlookers.

In a broader sense, this competition is reflective of so many more of our ugly values. Our disease of conspicuous consumption applies as much to dollar sign as to the waistline. The general international interpretation of American displays of wealth, power, and machismo is that they are crass and childish – two words that aptly describe a nationally televised hot dog eating contest, and a nation that watches it.

Absurd gender identities are at play as well. There is no doubt that a contributing factor to our ballooning of men’s waistlines is the conflation of a (destructively) large appetite with “manliness.” This unrefined image of savage, pseudo-manhood is celebrated as the competitors (all male, except one) gorge themselves.

This event is the apotheosis of our reverence for tasteless and destructive celebrations of excess. The fact that an event like this can gain the traction to solidify itself as an Independence Day tradition is disgusting and disappointing.

I’m hoping that the readership can advance these ideas, or contribute their own, as I find it difficult to fully express why the relationship between Independence Day and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is so disturbing. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Before I officially solicit any responses, allow me to make two disclaimers. One, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. Admittedly, a fruit salad eating contest would be less disgusting to me, but much of that is due to how much less symbolic value it has than the malt liquor of meat, the hot dog.

Two, I am not opposed to low culture, or even to unhealthy behavior in a competitive form. Most of my friends are in their late twenties to early thirties, well removed from college, and we still routinely play drinking games. Full disclosure: about three months ago, a long night of drinking and cards turned into a three-way White Castle eat-off. (I was not involved in the contest.) My offense is taken at the nexus of the hot dog eating contest, Fourth of July, avid bystanders, and a national television network. This is not a homemade video of a keg stand posted on You Tube. This is competitive artery clogging, recognized and promoted as sport, broadcast on ESPN and marketed as all-American.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture, sports | 8 Comments »

Smoke em if you got ’em

Posted by digglahhh on 26 May 2007

In the latest installment of the imitation cycle between life and art, the MPAA announced that it will include a film’s depictions of smoking as part of the “criteria” when assigning ratings. Could the movies have made a more complete reversal? As facetiously portrayed in “Thank You for Smoking,” the movies have been the cigarette’s greatest marketeers for decades, and the sexiness of cigarettes clung to the movies like smoke to a sports jacket. In an odd way, of course, there’s no reversal at all. The new rating system is a frank, if tacit, acknowledgement that smoking still has all the sex appeal it ever had.

In his craven concession to anti-tobacco advocates, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman off-loaded his decision-making to the public at large, “Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society,” he was quoted as saying.

Really, Dan? The Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris, is the ranked by Forbes (on the basis of sales, market value, assets and profits) as 27th biggest company in the world. Nearly 70 percent of its profits (almost $70 billion in 2006) come from tobacco. Altria is also the second most active sponsor of Congressional lobbying. It seems a little disingenuous to refer to an industry that does hundreds of billions of dollars worth of business and from which hundreds of millions of dollars flow into Washington as selling a product that is becoming “unacceptable” in society, however unpleasant it is to get stuck in an elevator with someone coming back from their twice-an-hour cigarette break.

I have a friend who worked for a public relations company that represented several drug companies and medical innovators. Part of his job was to negotiate product placement packages with television and film production companies. These companies pay, as part of their marketing campaigns, for specific drugs or elective surgeries to be written into shows like ER. So we are pressuring writers to write smoking out of the same scripts they write rhinoplasty and OxyContin into.

It’s not as if I have a soft spot in my heart for big tobacco. In fact, I’m glad that the MPAA is taking a moral stand on the content of movies and what it deems appropriate for children to see. After all, it’s not like children ever see R-rated movies. And this sets an important precedent. We live in an unhealthy and dysfunctional culture, so let’s bring it on, and address America’s bad habits. I herewith offer a short list of other behaviors for the MPAA consideration when determining the ratings of movies.

1. Excessive consumption of red meat, fast food, soft drink, chocolate, potato chips, or any other generally unhealthful food or beverage products:

The favorable placement of the products merits a PG-13 rating. Moreover, scenes that sexualize chocolate should get an automatic NC-17 rating. If there are any objections from the Screen Actors Guild, I personally volunteer to set the example by licking wheat germ off of Scarlett Johansson’s breasts. Scale back one rating level for the substitution of organic soybeans in any scenes involving ice cream or “comfort food.”

2. Environmentally irresponsible behavior with automobiles:

Is there any reason Spiderman and Venom can’t carpool to work? They may be arch enemies, but the planet is everybody’s friend. Not to mention, what’s the point of saving/exploiting the world if it’s all going to hell anwyay? That’s a shitty prize at the bottom of the cereal box, no? Remember most movies depicting cereals that offer prizes are now PG- 13 rated, at least. (see rule #1).

3. Shopping scenes and the depiction of luxury items in general:

Private debt in this country is out of control. Not to mention the fact that if terrorists didn’t find out, through movies, that we had things like plasma TVs and La Perla lingerie, a certain pair of towers in downtown Manhattan might still exist. This rule, like the biographical considerations for the smoking depictions, can be adapted for context, such as glorifying college study and denigrating trades such as plumbing and carpentry. After all, if we don’t reinforce lives of glamour and glitz as the reward for hard study at the best colleges, millions of young girls may cease working toward their dreams of living the life of Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” What’s that?… Oh, well, I’m sure she worked hard at being the best damn whore she could be. Anyway, it is all this living beyond their means that lead these characters to have to skip out of restaurants without paying the check.

Smoking, after all, is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harmful behaviors glorified by Hollywood. From deriving self-esteem from physical appearance and material possessions to binary gender roles to environmentally destructive behavior, Hollywood, and its step-sister, Madison Avenue, exploit our insecurities, offer material surrogates for psychological and emotional injury, and laugh their way to the bank, entirely divorced from any real ethical concerns for the healthy development of our nation.

But don’t worry kids, though you can’t see an actor lighting up because it might encourage you to make some poor choices about your health, you can always redeem your ticket stub at the local McDonalds for a small piece of plastic crap manufactured by kids half your age in a dank Indonesian basement, provided you purchase an e. coli burger, enough fries to feed a Thai orphanage for a week, and a 77 oz. Coca Cola.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Random acts of kindness

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine. — L. J. Taylor, Wall’s Meat Company, Ltd., 2002

There’s been some good news on the animal front. What’s not clear is just how good the news is.

For example, what are we to make of the news that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant empire has decided to reduce its contribution to the gross cruelty quotient of animal husbandry? That’s an awkward way of putting things, but I don’t know how else to represent the nebulous commitment that Puck is making.

The NY Times thinks it knows, but it’s wrong. Either through gullibility or extreme guile, did its best to misrepresent the commitment at every turn in an editorial on 26 March.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food – a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.  

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

Let’s look at that phrase again: Puck’s culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards. It’s hard to assign a truth-value to that statement other than “false” when you learn, in looking at the fine print, that Puck’s commitment is only to meat, and not dairy, even though in point of fact the treatment of dairy cattle is abysmal, often worse than that of animals raised strictly for their meat. And if you go to one of Puck’s typical restaurants, such as the one outside American Airline’s enormous H and K wings of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, as I did back in January, it’s a lot easier to avoid meat than dairy. Not a single salad, for example, didn’t have cheese as its focal point.

Then there’s the question of what Puck actually is doing. Not only does the Times’s first paragraph make you think the commitment involves dairy, which it doesn’t, it uses the word “organic,” though the actual commitment does not. Worse, the phrase used to represent the actual commitment, “forgo factory-farmed meat and eggs,” might be essentially meaningless. For example, free-range meat and eggs seem to be by definition not factory-farmed, yet “free-range” is a phrase without any real meaning, legal or otherwise, let alone a term that ensures an absence of cruelty.

As “Compassion Over Cruelty” reports,

In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once. 

Both battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.

The Times concluded its editorial by saying, “Mr. Puck’s gift for showmanship will help advance Americans’ knowledge that they can eat well and do right all at the same time.” Actually, Mr Puck’s gift for showmanship will help the gullible Times and its readers feel good about what they do, and there’s a downside to that. While the changes being made are probably meaningful, the danger is that Puck’s diners will think that all the needed changes have now been made, making it even harder to insist on the big changes that are still needed.

Still, there’s no question that animal confinement is a big issue, maybe the biggest, and lately there’s been a lot more good news, however nebulous, along those lines.

Back in 2002, PETA went after Burger King, and Farm Sanctuary took on the big pork producers. In both cases, the issue was animal confinement. As Farm Sanctuary wrote back then,

It is not only breeding pigs that are confined. Their piglets, in a system that fattens them for meat, are crammed into small pens on hard, slatted floors, and this is where they spend their six months of life before slaughter. As with their mothers, the lack of movement ensures the calories from the pigs’ feed will not be used up during exercise, but converted into weight gain. The intensive confinement and unsuitable flooring of pig farms often leads to crippling deformities of these intelligent animals. This didn’t bother the editors of Farmer and Stockbreeder who stated, “The slatted floor of the hog factory farm seems to have more merit than disadvantage. The animal will usually be slaughtered before serious deformity sets in.”

So it was a big deal recently when both organizations were able to claim some success.

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Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and a porcine plague

Posted by metaphorical on 12 February 2007

No news is bad news, and there’s lots of bad news regarding the health of animals raised to be food for humans. There’s also plenty of bad news in the no-news sense—the mainstream U.S. media resolutely refuses to write about this stuff.

I wrote the other day that overreporting bad news gives people a skewed impression of reality and risk. In this case, underreporting does the same thing, leaving people free to believe that the food supply is healthy and healthful, and that those who worry about this sort of thing are fringe cranks, the sort of people you see wearing hospital masks whenever they walk down a city street.

But first, the good news. “Kansas State study finds new vaccine effective against deadly viral disease affecting swine,” according to a press release from the school.

(PressZoom) – MANHATTAN, KAN. — Researchers from Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have completed a study showing that a newly-developed vaccine is effective against a deadly viral disease that is affecting swine herds in Kansas.

The disease, most widely known as porcine circovirus associated disease, was first recognized in Kansas swine herds in November 2005. The disease complex is an immunosuppressive condition associated with porcine circovirus type 2 or PCV2.

That’s particularly good news, because it seems the same plague has made its way into Iowa pig herds, via Canada.

Circovirus takes hold in Iowa 

By Kristin Danley-Greiner, Farm News staff

DES MOINES — Pork producers learned at the Iowa Pork Congress last week that a common swine disease plaguing Canada since the 1990s has reared its head in Iowa herds.

That’s not the only animal disease coming down from Canada, there’s our old friend, mad cow disease, as the Canada Press reports.

EDMONTON (CP) – Canada has confirmed its ninth case of mad cow disease since 2003, in an Alberta bull.  

… Eight previous cases of BSE have been detected in Canadian cattle since May 2003, when the discovery of an Alberta cow with the disease caused the United States to slam the border shut to cattle exports entirely.

The border reopened for Canadian beef from younger cattle within months of the original ban. But live cattle have only been allowed to move across the border since July 2005.

Five new cases were discovered in Canada in 2006, including one in a cow born five years after safeguards were adopted to prevent the spread of the disease.

And (to use the same segue twice in a row) that’s not all that’s plaguing cattle these days, according to this Associated Press story:

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Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists

Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007

What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?

Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.

Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?

Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”

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Posted in animal-rights, food, language, philosophy, politics | 24 Comments »

What do 200 calories look like?

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Wisegeek has a sobering page for anyone who cares about what they eat or how much they weigh. It shows pictures of 90 foods that are 200 calories, giving their weights in grams and ounces.


One-half of a rather plain-looking Jack In The Box cheeseburger, just about two and a half ounces, makes the list. So does bacon, at a measly 34 g (1.2 oz).

It takes a whopping 3 lbs of celery to get to 200 calories, or a pound and half of either broccoli or carrots. But the news isn’t all good for vegetarians.

Peanut butter weighs in at exactly the same, um, weight, as bacon—1.2 oz, about a single finger-scoop. If you order french fries instead of that half-burger, you only get about two and a half ounces of them for your 200 calories.

The news is worst of all for the sweet-toothed. Less than a single glazed donut tips the scale; so does just 8 chocolate kisses.

Sites like these are important, if only because your government won’t help you, at least not when it comes to food labeling. In fact, in this case the libertarians may be right about government. By overseeing labeling poorly, we’re worse off then if it didn’t exercise any oversight at all.

On 12 January 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a modification to the definition of the term “lean.” The motive, as explained by petitioner and noted health-food manufacturer Nestle Prepared Foods Co., isn’t crazy—it was to provide for prepared foods or, in agency parlance, “mixed dishes not measurable with a cup”.

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