Recalled Eggs and America’s Food Problems

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Follow-up post: “Debunking Organic Food Myths.”

Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point” program on National Public Radio several nights ago discussed the current nation-wide effort to recall half a billion eggs suspected of being tainted with salmonella. I’m usually skeptical of Ashbrook’s Chicken Little routine (grab attention by making a situation sound like the sky’s falling) but this time I agreed. The US industrial food system is in serious need of reform.

Take this latest recall for example. The Iowa egg company that first issued the recall on August 13, 2010 has since expanded it to 380 million eggs. Wright County Egg, the company behind the recall is one of the biggest egg producers in the US. It’s owned by a man named Jack DeCoster. I’ve heard he’s a guy without scruples. According to the Times, “DeCoster…has had run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers and the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around, of course. A news analysis piece by the Times, describes how the task of food safety regulation is split between the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration in such an absurd way that even government bureaucrats are calling for reform:

The responsibility for food safety remains split primarily between the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. But the way the responsibilities and resources are divided up can seem so illogical that some of the bureaucrats themselves have called for change.

There are few places where that is more evident than in the regulation of eggs. The F.D.A. oversees the safety of eggs still in their shells, but the Agriculture Department regulates liquid eggs that are used in industrial food production, while also being responsible for chickens and the grading of eggs for quality.

Eggs are not the only problem, however. Just look at this list of FDA recalls over the month of August. There’s almost one every other day. If you have a website, you can even install this widget that displays the most recent recall for all your web visitors’ comfort. I don’t know if the US food system was always like this. I suspect that as a result of the increasing market-share of a handful of corporate food producers, recalls have become bigger. Whether recalls have decreased or food safer is a more difficult question to answer. But when chicken shit does hit the fan, the problem is harder to track down and affects more people.

This brings me to the book I’m currently reading. Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates a good personal narrative, news junkies who can recognize quality investigative reporting, and anyone who gives a damn about what they put in their bodies. Pollan tells us how all our food is made from corn and soy; how the low cost of food to consumers doesn’t reflect the true cost to taxpayers, society, and our environment; and how the unnatural and unsustainable way we feed ourselves has disconnected us from nature with inevitable future consequences on the health of our bodies and our planet.

To measure the percentage of corn in his McDonald’s meal, Pollan used a mass spectrometer to measure the amount of carbon atoms originating from corn. Now that’s badass.

Corniness of McDonald’s
That’s a lot of corn!

Here’s Pollan’s critique of the inefficiencies of an industrial food system based on a monoculture of corn. It’s so good I cannot do it justice with a summary:

So what? Why should it matter that we have become a race of corn eaters such as the world has never seen? Is this necessarily a bad thing? The answer all depends on where you stand.

If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population. Supersized portions of cheap corn-fixed carbon solves the problem of the fixed stomach…Judith, Isaac, and I together consumed a total of 4,150 calories at our [McDonald’s] lunch…To grow and process those 4,510 food calories took at least ten times as many calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil.

If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, or cornified food chain offers real advantages…cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, type II diabetes, heat disease.

If where you stand is at the lower end of the world’s economic ladder, however, America’s corn-fed food chain looks like an unalloyed disaster…There’s a limit to how many calories the world’s arable land can produce each year, and an industrial meal of meat and processed food consumes – and wastes – an unconscionable amount of that energy. To eat corn directly…is to consume all the energy in that corn, but when you feed that corn to a steer or a chicken, 90 percent of its energy is lost – to bones or feathers or fur…What this means is that the amount of energy lost in the making of something like a Chicken McNugget could feed a great many more children than just mine, and that behind the 4,510 calories the three of us had for lunch stand tens of thousands of corn calories that could have fed a great many hungry people.

And how does this corn-fed food chain look if where you stand is in the middle of a field of corn?…For the corn farmer, you might think that the cornification of our food system would have redounded to his benefit, but it has not. Corn’s triumph is the direct result of its overproduction, and that has been a disaster for the people who grow it. Growing corn and nothing but corn has also exacted a toll on the farmer’s soil, the quality of the local water and the overall health of his community, the biodiversity of his landscape, and the heatlh of all the creatures living on or downstream from it. And not only those creatures, for cheap corn has also changed, and much for the worse, the lives of several billion food animals, animals that would not be living on factory farms if not for the ocean of corn on which these animal cities float.

These, at least, were my somewhat fevered speculations, as we sped down the highway putting away our fast-food lunch. What is it about fast food? Not only is it served in a flash, but more often that not it’s eaten that way too: We finished our meal in under ten minutes. Since we were in the convertible and teh sun was shining, I can’t blame the McDonald’s ambiance. Perhaps the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring. The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that  - something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat more and eat more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply regrettably full.

I’ll be posting more about Omnivore’s Dilemma and how reading this book has made me rethink what I eat. I come a family and a culture that places a high premium on food’s healthfulness, freshness, and authenticity. I’ve been to rural farming villages in China that serve produce and meats grown and hunted locally. The difference exists in the food’s taste, look, and feel.

Further reading for those with way too much time on their hands:

Pollan cites A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives to write how food processors, to “preserve freshness,” spray chicken McNuggets with a form of lighter fluid called TBHQ, five grams of which can kill. Also check out the Handbook of Food Additives.