The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest part 2: The Feedlot, Grocer, and McD’s

A Digest of  The Omnivore’s Dilemma Part 2: The Feedlot,  Grocery Store, and the McD’s
“We’re Not in Kansas Anymore”

“Processed food has become largely a supply-driven business—the business of figuring out clever ways to package and market the glut of commodities coming off the farm and out of the wet mills[..]The underlying reductionist premise—that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients—remains undisturbed.”—Michael Pollan

The Cow Factory
It’s not a secret to anybody that most of the beef you buy at grocery stores is from cows squeezed into CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  That’s not new information.  It’s just that we’re not reminded of it enough, and when we are, it’s still a distant fact.  It’s also not usually woven into a story and set against a more natural story of raising animals.

[go here for part 1: Corn-flation]
But Pollan’s book helps put it all in perspective, relating it to the corn these cows are fed and the place we buy the cows at.  Cows and chickens.  According to Pollan, the advent of cheap corn is what is most responsible for the way we do the meat industry.  “When animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist,” he says, because the plant waste is fed to the animals and the animal waste fertilizes the plants.  And God saw that it was good.  Factory farming livestock may end up making meat cheaper, but it creates much more waste, toxic waste, and nowhere for it to go.  Wendell Berry points out that factory farming creates two huge problems: fertility problems caused by artificial fertilizer, and waste problems, created by a system that disconnects the “closed loop” of waste management that exists on traditional farms.

Since, as we saw before, corn=cheap calories, we decided that cows and other livestock should be given corn instead of grass.  It saves money on real estate too (who needs pasture?).  So that just makes modern farmers smarter, right?  I mean, aren’t we blessed with the intelligence to find out a smarter way to feed livestock?  Well, as we covered before, the heavy reliance on corn-only farming damages the land.  Even more so, this corn-only diet hurts the livestock as well as the consumers (that’s us).

Cows on Drugs
On traditional/independent beef farms, the beeves graze on grass just as God made them to.  As they feed their hooves spread the seed and aerate the soil.  As they poop, nitrogen is added in the form of natural fertilizer.  Mankind has yet to come up with a better, more sustainable system.  What we have come up with is a more…”efficient” one.  See, God’s (nature’s)  way of giving cows long, healthy lives, keeping pastures fervent, and providing eaters with healthy beef takes too long.  Cows have to chew the grass slowly for years to be ready to slaughter as a plump, prime specimen of meat.  When your great grandfather farmed, cows might have lived five years before slaughter.  Now most cows live barely over a year.  What’s the secret?  Corn, corn, corn, supplements, and drugs.  It takes a lot of drugs to train a cow to eat something it wasn’t designed for.  That and weaning it off it’s mother’s milk super early.

Pollan draws out the repercussions for us:
“This corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass.  A growing body of research suggests that many of the healthy problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.”

But the USDA has turned its focused away from the nutrients in meat to how nice the meat looks and how much fat is in it (much fat being a good thing).  The logic is that calories are calories, and so corn is just as good as grass, only cheaper.  Pollan reminds us that this attitude applied to protein is what led us to feed cow parts to cows and led to mad cow disease.  Apparently, science forgot that cows were herbivores, not cannibals.  At least we fixed that problem (sort of—although the FDA bans feeding cow parts to cows, this ban does not include the cow’s blood.  Yes, the next hamburger you eat could be a vampire cow).  But now it’s as if we can’t tell an organ that digests grass from one that digests corn.  Well, we can, we just don’t care.

Here is a 10-minute speech on the CAFO issue by a small livestock farmer

Back to the corn.  The corn actually hurts the cows themselves, bloating their stomachs.  Imagine if every one of us was lactose intolerant but were made to drink milk every day.  That would take a toll.  What kind of toll does the corn diet take on cows?  Many cows get acidosis, and their livers blow out.  Since their poop just sits there on the floor, they breathe poop dust.  Other poop sticks to their hides.  Rest assured, that poop sometimes winds up in your meat.  But lucky for you, that meat is treated with good ol’ fashion radiation to assure the e coli is mostly killed.

Are we having fun yet?

Why would we choose to do it this way?  Because it’s cheap.  Until you factor in the cost to public through health issues (heart disease, etc.), environmental poison (cheap corn), and taxation (subsidies).  It takes about 35 gallons of petrol to raise the average CAFO cow, a cow that barely lives a year.  We cannot sustain this practice for long.

The “Super” Market
The modern supermarket, where the cow ends up, isn’t about selling quality food.  It’s about selling a convenient food-like experiences.   Because we have plenty, and we’ve found how to make it cheap, we’re stupid and eat more of it, and we get fat and we die early.  As we mentioned, HFCS (hi fruct corn syrup) plays a huge role in this, because it’s cheaper than sugar (thanks to tariffs on imported sugarcane brought by the corn syrup lobby).

It’s a political absurdity, Pollan concludes.  “We subsidize HFCS in this country, but not carrots.  While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”

The McD’s

I’m not lovin’ it

Pollan’s adventure begins with the industrial meal, so he get’s MacDonald’s.  1/5 of our meals are eaten in the car, and so he eats his in the car also.  Our industrial food industry also contributes to the splitting up of family meals.  It’s also no secret that it’s not healthy, especially not healthy for kids, considering that chicken nuggets may be the worst food product McD’s has.  One has to wonder, is MacDonald’s anti-family?
A judge once called the McNugget “a McFrankensteinian creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook.”  It’s not a breaded piece of chicken.  13/38 ingredients come from GMO corn, and are used to glue the meat together, give it color, give it flavoring (chicken broth is used to restore the chicken flavor lost in the process of processing—it’s sad when you have to use restore a food’s flavor to that very food), act as filler, and preserve the meat, create the batter, and fry the nugget.  And if you’re worried there’s not enough diversity in your nugget, rest assured.  There is also petrol, and other toxic chemicals, including “anti-foaming agents“, dimethylpolysiloxene (a flammable mutagen), and TBHQ butane, five grams of which can kill you.  How does the FDA allow this?  To put it simply, they allow it very small doses, enough not to make a child immediately sick upon digestion of a sour-piece nugget meal.


Signifying Comfort Food

So what?  The food is cheap, the children are fed, and everybody’s happy.  As we’ve reviewed, each meal may be cheap—a “Happy Meal” is like, what, 4 dollars?  Poor people can afford this food and that’s a great blessing.  Only it’s not, because it’s poisonous.  If you have to call it a “happy” meal, it’s not a happy meal.  In other ways this industry actually hurts the poor, who are more likely to contract diabetes, cancer and heart disease at an early age, and are less likely to afford health care.  Meals like this are cheap and provide enough protein, yet poor Americans are very malnourished.  And if you’re wondering how we could feed all the poor people in the world without fast food, I beg you to tell me how many people are starving right now with the existence of fast food.  Many of the world’s people are starving because America has exported her own cheap corn and destroyed the farming economies of other people, making them too poor to afford anything but our corn, which we only have so much of despite our efforts.  It all goes back to the corn, Pollan concludes:

The government did everything it could to help wean cattle off grass and onto corn, by subsidizing  and building of feedlots (through tax breaks) and promoting a grading system based on marbling that flavored corn-fed over grass-fed beef[…] Growing corn and nothing but corn has also exacted a toll on the farmer’s soil, the quality of the local water and overall health of his community, the biodiversity of his landscape, and the health 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.”

He goes on:
The ninety-nine percent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true cost—to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etcl., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illness and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution)[…] The reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring.  The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less lke anything it tastes.”  Fast food restaurants sell “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 can’t disagree.  If you eat a fast food meal slowly, you find yourself not enjoying it at all.  In the child’s case, that’s what the toy is for.  In the adult’s case, that’s what the advertisements promising you a pleasurable and healthy experience are for.  I mean, really, how likely are you to get the “healthy” salad option once you get in line, and if you do, how likely are you to not empty the whole dressing pouch?

The Morgan Spurlock documentary Supersize Me in 7 minutes—What 30 days of McDonald’s does to your body

[Complete documentary is now on YouTube at this link]
It’s been a decade since I saw Supersize Me, my first big wake up call to healthy eating.  Since then, I’ve lost a gall bladder and watched a loved one undergo a quadruple bypass.  Is information not enough to spur us to change?  Do we have to contract a disease to start on a healthy diet?

Christian perspective:
They didn’t have fast food in Bible times.  But they did have poisoned food, meals eaten ungratefully, and ways to exploit the poor.  What does the Bible say about the raising and slaughtering of animals?  (In a later post, we will examine whether it is right to kill and eat them in the first place, even though it seems like going backwards order to do that later, but let’s all assume we’ve all arrived at the conclusion that it is, which I imagine most readers have).

The good shepherd

The Life of Your Beast
Sure, it’s only one small verse, and a little proverb at that, but Proverbs 12:10 tells us in great wisdom that a righteous man looks after the welfare of his livestock.  You’d think it wouldn’t have to be said, but it does.  Proverbs 27:23 instructs us to “be sure to know the condition of your flocks, and give careful attention to your herds.”  Animals weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, which was made for man (Exodus 20:10).

Industrial farming says “To Hell with livestock welfare and the condition of our flocks and herds.  As long as they’re not dead til I say so and they make cheap meat that doesn’t kill you.”  It simply says that.  Promoting this kind of farming is unrighteous.  I won’t judge you for buying factory-farmed meat, and I’ve done it too, but I will challenge industrial farming.  If you’re Godly, you don’t put animals in needless pain, and you don’t justify it because it makes you more money.

Priestly slaughter
Slaughtering animals can take a toll on you.  The Levite priests drew lots every month to decide who would slaughter the sacrifice.  One priest alone was not stuck with the task of killing the animal at the alter every time.  The killing of animals, regardless of whether its for food, should not be so senseless that we forget that we are doing it or—perhaps even worse—begin to enjoy the shedding of the blood.  It should be done with a spirit of thankfulness.  It’s hard to do that with an assembly line approach.

According to the law of Leviticus (17:3-4), if someone slaughtered an ox or sheep or goat without bringing it to the Tabernacle and following the ceremonial offering procedures was “cut off from the midst of his people” for having shed blood on their hands.  That animal blood, instead of given to God in thankfulness, was inhumanely spilled and on the hands of the slaughterer.  The slaughter of animals for food must be done in a way that is thankful to God and shows good stewardship of his creation.

Honoring the Body as a Vessel
Several passages speak of the body as a vessel of the spirit, of how we must honor our bodies before God and take care of them.  We are to do this with pure sexuality, with modest (tasteful) choices of adornment (or “mods”), and with what we take in to our bodies.  Intoxicants and fattening food can be taken in moderation and on special days, but discipline and fasting are central to practicing good faith.  Poor dieting is poor stewardship.  Unfortunately, a lot of poor body stewardship is not done out of disregard for the body, but out of ignorance of what is good and bad.  So we must encourage one another.  Wisdom seeks and finds discretion (Prov. 8:12), and so we must learn discretion in choosing our diet.  There is no such thing as “I’m on a diet”.  We are always on a diet.  Our diet is what and how we eat.  Does our diet say that we are eating according to the flesh, or according to the spirit?  The spirit guides us in wisdom.

In the part 3, we  ask what an ideal environment should be for raising cattle and other animals for food.

5 responses to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest part 2: The Feedlot, Grocer, and McD’s

  1. Further thoughts to consider, questions to ruminate on:
    Why do some fast food chains print Bible verses on their wrappers? Is this atoning for factory farming? No matter what their owners believe otherwise, their view of food production and sale certainly doesn’t reflect the Bible’s teaching.

    MacDonald’s may be the epitome of this industrial food plague, but she’s not alone. I mean, even Chick-fil-a, considered by many to be a paradigm of “Christian food”, is guilty of serving food that is only barely healthier than most fast food joints. It’s been over a decade since I’ve eaten a Big Mac, but I’ve had a several spicy chicken sandwiches in the last year. I frequent Subway when I travel, and my wife still has to buy most of our groceries at Wal-Mart because we can afford it, so I shouldn’t kid myself. If I take what I have learned to heart, is not a bigger change demanded from me?

    I am convinced that we should not judge one another for our food consumption, especially since the poor are the most vulnerable when it comes to being pressured to buying cheap, bad food to sustain one’s household. If we are to take on these journeys, how can we encourage others to do so? How can we prevent this from being an enterprise of exclusivity, judgement, elitism, and moral policing?

    Or should we take advantage of these convenient, cheap food chains? Some have argued that it’s wiser in God’s eyes to save money and use it better by buying more cheap food in bulk to feed people. After all, we’re going to die anyway of something, so we might as well eat food to keep us alive until we die, and serve God with full bellies until congestive heart failure takes us all at 55. I know, I’m building a straw man here, but if you want to defend this argument, I respect you and give you a space to do so. Is it better that all these poor people can afford to buy a cheap meal even if those meals slowly kill them?

  2. Pingback: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest part 3: All Flesh is Grass | CALEB COY

  3. Pingback: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest part 5: Eating Animals | CALEB COY

  4. Pingback: Introducing: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest | CALEB COY

  5. Pingback: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest part 1: “Corn-flation” | CALEB COY

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