"Attention Shoppers": A New Line of Attack Against Antibiotics On the Farm (Plus A Little History. Of Course!)

Well, okay, so I lied about being on "hiatus." Yes, I am, but this is too good to pass up: A coalition of consumer groups has launched a campaign to persuade American grocery chains to sell only meats that are produced with out the use of antibiotics. This blog entry looks at the campaign and offers a bit of historical background and my usual Cranky Caveats. (This is, for me, a longish blog entry. I hope you'll indulge me this once.) (Mainly because I'm going out of town tomorrow and I don't want to do a two-parter.)

The immediate, and initial, target of the campaign is Trader Joe's, but presumably the project will also target other grocers.

The impetus for the campaign, says its "host" group, Consumers Union, is that

The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has become a major national public health crisis.

The CU blames this on agriculture:

The major user of antibiotics in the United States today is not the medical profession, however, but the meat and poultry business. Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used not on people but on animals, to make them grow faster or to prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that to preserve antibiotics for treatment of disease in people, use on animals must be drastically reduced or eliminated.

Those quotes are from the CU's 26-page report on the subject. The CU conducted polling, and sent secret shoppers to many grocery chains, and polled grocers to see if they carry non-antibiotic meats. The report is worth reading, if only because it's got a good summary of the various labels food processors use. (It points out what I hope all of you know: in the marketplace, the word "natural" has zero meaning. Zero.)

Background (I'll keep this brief and if you're up on the whole "food debate" thing, you can skip this part): There's a significant effort ongoing in the U. S. to end, or at least change, "industrial farming." Critics complain about every aspect of so-called "industrial" or "factory" farming, but one of the most contentious features is the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

The use of these drugs (and hormones) dates back to the late 1940s, early 1950s, when researchers were looking for ways to reduce the cost of livestock production. (I'm eliminating a ton of detail here, but it's a topic I cover in detail in the forthcoming book.) One way to do so was by reducing the cost of FEED for cattle, hogs, and chickens.

More or less by accident (again, long story and I'm keeping this brief), scientists discovered that adding antibiotics to conventional feed acted as a growth "stimulant": animals required less time to reach maturity and market weight. That meant farmers needed to use less feed and so they saved money.

The wisdom of using antibiotics as a growth stimulant was challenged early on. In the late 1950s, for example, a Japanese scientist discovered that bacteria quickly develop resistance to antibiotics. That, in turn, caused others to wonder if feeding antibiotics might lead to bacterial resistance in livestock or in humans.

Again, skipping lots of history and detail, over the years many "consumer" groups have lobbied Congress, the Department of Agriculture, or the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of antibiotics as stimulant. But here we are in 2012, and farmers still use them. What bothers the critics are two points: First, the fear that antibiotics might lead to bacterial resistance. Second, critics argue that farmers also are forced to use antibiotics because they raise animals in over-crowded conditions.

I won't go into the merits or demerits of the arguments on both sides --- trust me on this: it's a contentious issue, and both sides are working hard to "win."

Anyway,  yesterday the Consumers Union announced a new tactic in the war on antibiotics. Heretofore (how's that for a fancy word?), critics have lobbied for changes to laws or rules. But this new crusade takes a savvier approach: it bypasses lawmakers and federal officials, and goes straight to the main intermediary between our stomachs and our food: grocery stores.

Again, skipping lots of detail, grocery chains carry incredible clout in the world of food processing. I devote a great deal of attention to them in the meat book. Grocery chains have buying power and they, more than any other group, are sensitive to changes in consumer buying habits. Think of grocery chains as the canaries in the coal mine of food. (Which is probably a lousy analogy, but it's all I can think of at the moment.)

So bypassing the bureaucrats and appealing to the grocers is a smart move. Indeed, my first reaction on reading the CU's report (more on that in a moment) was: Why the hell did they wait so long? (*1)

And so this new plan might work, too. It's clear that appealing to bureaucrats and lawmakers won't. Activists have been trying that route since about 1972. Ain't gonna happen.

Mind you, I think it's unlikely that the CU and its coalition will persuade EVERY grocery chain to carry ONLY antibiotic-free meat. But if they can persuade all of them to carry at least some AFM, well, that's good.

Me being the crank that I am, here are the caveats.

1. Consumers Union was founded in the 1930s. Most likely you've never heard of it, but I'm sure you've heard of its main outlet: Consumer Reports magazine. The CU is truly the grandfather of American consumer activist groups. (It gained clout and audience almost immediately. Back in the 1930s or 1940s, I can't remember which, it was accused of being a Communist front.)

2. The other members of this new crusade are groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group. Etc. The usual suspects. If you've spent any time at all around this blog, or read the beer book, you know that I am NOT a fan of the CSPI. I don't know much about the rest of the organizations, but here's hoping they're not quite as, um, sleazy, histrionic, or self-righteous at CSPI. In any case, these are watchdog-type groups; Birkenstock wearers in suits, if you will.

3. I read the report issued by CU, and noticed right away that it does not include the questions asked in the poll. If you know anything about politically motivated opinion polls, you know they're designed to produce a specific result. I think it's safe to assume that's the case here. Frankly, I doubt if 87% of shoppers even KNOW that antibiotics are used in livestock production. I think CU got exactly the response it wanted.

4. The CU's report opens with the usual tactic: 80% of antibiotics in the US are used on the farm!! Bacterial resistance is on the rise!! They must be connected!!

That stat keeps getting tossed around; I doubt it's accurate. Worse, the report then mentions that antibiotic resistance is on the upswing --- implying that there's a direct connection between antibiotics on the farm, and antibiotic resistance. The jury is still out on that one. There's tons of evidence on both sides; it's another of those "Who the hell are we supposed to believe?" situations. And, too, much of the resistance to antibiotics is showing up in so-called third world countries, where people rarely eat meat, let alone meat from animals raised on antibiotics.

The point is: the CU is using the conventional tactics of a campaign like this: leaps of logic, fear, lack of full disclosure, and so forth. And, yes, of course, the "other side" does exactly the same thing.

In any case, and Cranky Caveats aside, this is an exciting development. Again, I can't figure out why the anti-anti group waited so long to take a more direct route to the hearts and minds of consumers. But if they pull this off, and grocery chains either switch to "organic" meat only (and I just can't see that happening) or begin offering the option, well, that could accelerate changes in conventional livestock production.

We shall see.


*1: The CU's decision to go after grocers reminds me, for all the world, of the tactic employed by the anti-prohibitionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: they went after the saloons, because those were the most immediate and obvious "place" of alcohol consumption. Eliminate the saloons, and booze would go away. It worked.

Non-Hysterical Commentary About Pink Slime

Worth reading: Yesterday's opinion section of the New York Times included this surprisingly even-handed, non-hysterical commentary about Pink Slime. Most of it is a re-hash of the recent frenzy, and the author ends with a call for better food labeling. I'm pleased to see the Times run this, of course, but even more pleased that the writer didn't lean on the usual hysterics. It's the most neutral comment I've seen anywhere, and as far as I'm concerned, in this case "neutral" equals progress.

Meat Glue? It's All Good, Folks

So back to something more interesting than writerly, insider-baseball crap. Like meat glue! Because what's not to like about something called "meat glue." Meat Glue (MG to you and me) is the new Pink Slime (PS). Just about the time the PS ruckus was dying down, enter MG to take its place. (*1) MG is a perfectly safe (when used correctly), 100% "natural" substance that chefs use to bind foodstuffs together. You can read an excellent introduction to the stuff here.

But in the minds and eyes of those who spend their days critiquing the contemporary food system, MG is yet another example of the way Big Corporations are ripping off consumers and tainting our food supply. ( Nor, I might add, is the  controversy about MG anything new.  MG first came under attack about a year ago, ironically just at the same time that Jamie Oliver first lit into PS).

Nothing could be further from the truth, but as I've learned over the past six years, "truth" is a flexible concept when it comes to critiques. (*2) MG is a legitimate culinary tool that takes advantage of the natural properties of natural products.

I could go on in this fashion, making the same points I've already made about PS (click the "Pink Slime" tag in the right sidebar for the blog entries I wrote about it). But I'd rather turn this blog entry over to the experts, namely people who make their living thinking, studying, reading, and writing about food science.

So let me direct your attention to two blogs that addressed the issue a year ago. First is this marvelous piece posted at Cooking Issues, a blog run by two guys affiliated with The French Culinary Institute.

The second piece aired a couple of weeks later at the blog operated by the late, and much missed, Chris Raines. (*3) Mercifully, his blog in all its wonder and glory is still available despite his death last December. In the piece, he, too, takes on the reality of meat glue. The video link in his blog entry is dead, but the piece to which he refers can be seen in its entirety in the blog entry at Cooking Issues.

These guys are experts and scientists, and I can add nothing to what they have to say except to reiterate a couple of points. As Chris noted:

It is interesting how people speak so positively about Turducken but are somehow “shocked” by the culinary tool that is TG.

Both blogs also emphasize the point that I made when I commented on PS a few weeks back: Meat glue is nothing more than another way to do two things: use every. last. bit. of the carcass.

Chris also makes a crucial point, one I make over and over in my meat book (which, yes, will see life eventually): Using meat glue is a way to give American consumers what they want: cheap meat. As Chris wrote:

Products made using “meat glue” might include “value brand” steaks (this is how $2/lb ‘filets’ are possible, folks), imitation crab, fish sticks, and others.

Never, and I mean NEVER, underestimate the American appetite for cheap, abundant food. There ain't no. way. in. hell. all those steakhouse chains can sell what they sell as cheaply as they do without a) mass production methods of feeding; b) tools like meat glue; and c) an insatiable demand for such stuff from the public.

If you don't like stuff like MG or PS, I repeat my advice: either stop eating meat (and, in the case of "glue," other foods as well; OR pony up serious money for stuff that doesn't use either (which will, in turn, likely lead you to eat less meat, or to eat meat as an accompaniment rather than a main dish).

My thanks to Jesse R. Bussard for reminding me about Chris' meat glue blog post.


*1: Why, you may ask, have I not gotten to this sooner? Because I've been swamped to the max with a bunch of other, work-related matters (blogging being only one small part of my work), and because I was out of town when the story got hot and I still believe --- dinosaur that I am --- that vacations with family should be just that: vacations with family, rather than hanging with family and carrying on as if I were at home.

*2: This weekend I re-read James McWilliams' superb assessment of the "food critique," his book Just Food. Among the many points he makes is that much of the current food critique has less to do with food than with a loathing of corporations and globalization. In the name of that loathing, otherwise sensible people are willing to ignore facts and, worse, to ignore valuable tools that could be used to feed everyone, not just Americans with their mania for cheap food.

*3: I thought the world of Chris and am so glad I wrote this blog entry about him long before his death. (He died in a car accident.) Chris was the model of what I think of as the "new" intellectual, and I miss him and his work and his humor every day.

No Neutrality Allowed

This is am image of Kyle David Kipp The meat book is still about ten months away from publication, and already, thanks to Pink Slime, it's another version of the beer book. Not that I'm surprised. Disheartened, but not surprised.

Let me explain: When the beer book came out, I was criticized by many in the craft beer community because I had not written an all-out attack on the "big" brewers. Critics assumed that I MUST be on the big brewers' "side." (As if there were sides to be taken....) And, worse, that I'd been paid by a big brewer to write the book. (Nothing could have been further from the truth.)

I didn't write Ambitious Brew in order to "take sides." I wrote the book because I thought the history of beer in America would enrich my understanding of what it means to be an American. Period. End of story. It never occurred to me to "take sides."

So, too, the meat book: I wrote it because I didn't know anything about meat, its place in American society, how it's made or why. I spent researching the book, and, no surprise, I learned a great deal about meat and its place in American history and society.

When the Pink Slime uproar began, I thought that  knowledge could add to our understanding of Pink Slime. In my mind, the PS uproar smacked of conclusion-jumping and fear-mongering, and I hoped that if people had some facts, they might slow down and rethink the conclusions to which they'd jumped.

Silly me. (Stupid me?) The pro-PS crowd immediately concluded I was "one of them," and the anti-PS crowd concluded that I was a shill for Big Ag and Corporate America.

Neither is true --- but the food "debate" is so mired in hostility that neutrality is (apparently) not an option.

Live. Learn.

Making Meat, the Writer's Pitfall, and Online Interaction With Readers

Finally, a good example of the way website/online interaction can inform a writer's work! (*1)

A couple of days ago, I commented on a New York Times op-ed piece about land use and meat supply. You can read my comment here, but what’s relevant is the point I made about farm land: Farmers compete with city folks for land. What’s farmland now may, in ten years, contain houses or office buildings, a shift in land use typically identified as “urban sprawl.”

A person identifying herself as Louisa commented on that blog entry. Here is her comment:

Not quite…it’s not land vs. urban spaces, which are actually pretty efficient, but land vs. SUBurban spaces, with all the sprawl that entails. I live in a small town surrounded by farmland. Every year, more farmland is bought up by developers to turn into another grossly oversized subdivision filled with 4,000 sq ft houses- whose owners then turn around and lobby for nuisance laws that are aimed at, among other things, farm smells and sounds. After moving out into the country because it’s “so picturesque.” So yes, we do need to have the conversation about what kind of agricultural system we want. But we also need to have a conversation about what kind of living space we want, and whether we want to do more to protect farmland from becoming suburban sprawl.

I am grateful that Louisa took the time to read and comment (more grateful than she probably knows!), but as important, her comment reminded me that I need to beware of the writer’s pitfall: Don’t assume readers know what you mean. I’ve spent so many years working on the meat book that I tend to write/think in shorthand and make assumptions about what readers know and don’t know. In this case, I should have been more clear about the relationship between farming methods and urban societies.

First to her comment: She’s correct: The more houses, office buildings, and gas stations we build, the more likely we are to use what was once farmland. As I type this, I’m sitting in a house that is sitting on land that was part of a farm just twenty years ago. So, yes, I’m aware of the “urban sprawl” part of the equation. (And, because I live in Iowa, I’m also aware that, as Louisa points out, when people move to houses like mine, they often complain about rural smells and sounds.) (*2)

But I failed to make a more subtle distinction. Americans have chosen to live “in town” rather than “in the country.” Nearly 80% of us live in “municipalities” of one kind or another. Only two percent of us work as “farmers.” So that two percent has to figure out how to make food as efficiently as possible. If we shut down all the Ames, Iowas, razed the “sprawl,” and forced everyone to move to, say, Manhattan or Brooklyn, we’d still have the same equation: Nearly all of us would rely on a tiny minority to make our food.

But even if the agricultural two percent suddenly had access to farmland once devoted to houses and office buildings, it’s unlikely they would decide to send their cattle, hogs, and chickens out into the “pasture” to range freely.

Why? Because those are labor-intensive forms of agricultural production, and we’d still have just 2% of the population making the food. That’s a primary reason that farmers back in the 1950s embraced confinement as a way to raise livestock: they faced a serious labor shortage. They didn’t have enough “hands” to raise livestock the “old-fashioned” way. If they wanted to keep farming, they had to figure out how to do it without additional labor.

Why was there a labor shortage? Because after World War II, farmers’ sons and daughters decided they wanted to live in town, not on the farm. So --- as those sons and daughters left the farms, they became part of the “urban majority” who relied on farmers to produce food for them. But those farmers, in turn, were left short-handed and in need of ways to make their operations more efficient. (*3)

So when I write about the connection between life in an “urban” society and systems of farming, I need to be more clear about what I mean. City folks are not farmers. They rely on others to grow food for them. In an urban society like ours, most people have CHOSEN not to be food producers. The people who do produce the food are then faced with a quandary: How to make enough food for everyone?

It’s perhaps worth repeating the point I made in that blog entry: When a people choose to live in an urban society rather than an agrarian one, they also enjoy the benefit (luxury) of time for intellectual work. The farming two percent make it possible for the rest of us to sit around and invent iPads and smart phones, blog, write critiques of the food system, or whatever. We can engage in "other" work because we don't spend time growing or preserving food.

Again, the physical form of the urban setting is irrelevant. Sure, if we all moved to Manhattan, we'd free up land for farming. But it's unlikely we'd have more FARMERS. We'd still have 98% of the population living in an urban setting, and two percent making the food.

So. Memo to self: in the manuscript of what is becoming a “real” book, I need to be wary of skipping A so I can get to B.

Again, many thanks to Louisa for her help. __________________ *1: We writers hear this all the time: We can engage with readers! (Yes, of course.) We can use feedback from readers to shape our work! Umm. Okay? Maybe? Not sure. And I've been one of the doubters. But now I "get" how interaction can, in fact, shape my work.

*2: Indeed, that conflict was one of the first ideas that came to me when I decided to write this book. See this blog entry I wrote for Powell’s Books six years ago.

*3: Another point is worth mentioning: Even those “young” people who chose to stay on the farm were no longer willing to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They were even more willing than their fathers and mothers to embrace labor-saving tools and systems of production, including livestock confinement.

James McWilliams, Meat, History, the "Contrarian" View, and Land Supply

[UPDATE: Joel Salatin responded to McWilliams' essay with this post. It appeared first on Salatin's Facebook page, and then at Grist.] (How's THAT for a kitchen sink title?)

I'm a fan of James McWilliams, a historian whose last book was about our contemporary food system, but who has also written a brilliant book about the history of food in "early" America (that's the fancy term for the colonial era). He also writes op-ed pieces about contemporary food politics and system, and he's almost always on the "wrong" side --- so he's often referred to as a contrarian. (*1)

In any case, here he is in today's New York Times, pointing out that the more "natural" system of making meat isn't necessarily better than the existing "factory" system. In particular, he points out that it requires more land.

 If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

He's right, of course. And that's one of the aspects of our food system that critics rarely, perhaps never, mention: Where are the acres to raise all that livestock going to come from?

As I point out in my forthcoming book, one reason that the "factory" system of livestock production took hold, especially in the 1950s, was because of rising demand for what had been agricultural land. And, too, the demand for meat, especially beef, proved more than the existing western range could handle. (Commercial feedlots were the solution to both problems.)

Put another way: We Americans wanted cities more than we wanted "natural" farms. As a result, farmers could no longer enjoy the luxury of grazing stock on very expensive land. They had to farm "intensively" rather than "extensively."

That's an important point. And as I'm fond of pointing out, one reason that we have so many critics tapping away on their keyboards today is because the vast majority of us (nearly 80 percent) live in cities. And one fact about city folks so obvious that it's easy to overlook is this: They're city folks, not farmers. They rely on others (farmers) to produce  food. Because we city people aren't out toiling in the fields, we enjoy the luxury of time --- time to think, to criticize, to write.

So. Land for urban places? Or land for happy cattle and pigs? We can't "fix" the food system until we decide which is more important.

Which is one reason that I say: the only realistic way to solve the "problem" of the current food system is by re-thinking how, when, and why we eat meat.

And, yes, ohmygod, but I've missed blogging.................. SO happy to have some time to indulge!


*1: A beautiful example of what Orwell had in mind about language and politics: when McWilliams is defined as a contrarian, the implication, of course, is that there's a received, "correct" view -- in this case that the existing "food system" is evil and that we should return to a "natural" system of making food. (*2)

*2: Which itself implies that somehow there used to be a more "natural" way of making food. Oh, if only people knew....