Call Me a Food Snob
BY BARRY ESTABROOK
I’m often accused of being an elitist. And I am—at least when it comes to what I eat.
You’re likely to run into me toting a pair of overflowing bags (reusable, of course) Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. The hens that lay my eggs roam about freely. My pork comes from pastured pigs. Grass-fed cattle provide me with beef. Artisans produce the cheese and bread I eat. My salmon is wild, not farmed. My coffee is Fair Trade.
Sure, it costs more than the industrial fare at the local supermarket, but what I eat and serve to friends and family is a personal priority. I’m happy to pay the price for food that is good in all senses of the word: good for the environment, good for farmers and farm workers, good for my health and really good tasting. I shamelessly advocate that more Americans should be doing the same thing.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a disgrace that in a nation as wealthy as ours, more than 17 million households—14% of the country—suffer from food insecurity. But the flip side to that figure is that almost 86% of families in the United States can afford to feed themselves well. Yet many choose not to. Organic products, to take just one example, account for less than 5% of our nation’s total food market. That gap suggests that a lot of consumers can afford to buy sustainably produced food but choose not to. I’m talking about folks who grumble about the outrageous price of a quart of organic milk, but happily shell out for designer jeans, wear expensive running shoes and wouldn’t be caught dead without the latest electronic gizmo.
What makes this more inexcusable is that we Americans pay a lower percentage of our incomes to feed ourselves than do residents of any other country in the world—about 7% versus 9% in the United Kingdom and 13% in France, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And food keeps getting more affordable. The percentage of our earnings that goes to what we eat has fallen by half since the 1950s. But this cornucopia of cheap food comes to us at great cost to the land and to those whose labor produces it.
Consider pork chops. During a recent morning of errands, I saw that factory-farmed commodity pork chops at the supermarket were selling for $2.28 a pound. I’d just picked up a couple of pasture-raised local chops at a small butcher shop a few miles away for $7.99 a pound—more than three times what the industrial pig meat cost. But I feel I got a good deal.
The hog that produced the $2.28 meat was born in a warehouse-like building and undoubtedly never saw sunlight or drew a breath of uncontaminated air. For its entire six-month life, it existed in a 10- by 20-foot pen shoulder to shoulder with about 20 peers. The pig could not run, root or move around freely. Its feces and urine fell through hard, slatted flooring and built up in a pit directly below, which got emptied about once a year. Toxic ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes emanated from the pit and would have asphyxiated the animals had it not been for a series of jet-engine-sized exhaust fans on one end of the building that blew the stench outside, wrecking the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity.
To assure that the hogs would not sicken and die in the fetid enclosure, they received low-dose rations of antibiotic drugs in their food, a process that leads to the evolution of drug-resistant “super bugs” that leave the barns on the animals, on workers or on the wind and kill 23,000 Americans a year with infections that until recently could have been stopped by a 10-day prescription of pills.
When the manure below the buildings is removed, it is spread on open fields, polluting the air and running off into streams and rivers, killing literally billions of fish, polluting municipal water supplies and contributing to a lifeless “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
That pig was trucked off to a huge slaughterhouse, which killed and cut up tens of thousands of animals a day at a rate of one every four seconds. The pig wasn’t even assured a humane death. USDA inspectors repeatedly report that hogs are dipped into tanks of scalding water to remove their bristles while they are still alive and fully conscious. Harried meat inspectors do not have time to examine carcasses, meaning that meat covered in feces, hair and pus gets packed and dispatched to restaurants and grocery stores. Little wonder that Consumer Reports found traces of harmful bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in 70% of the pork samples it tested from supermarkets. Many of the samples also tested positive for a growth promoter called ractopamine, which is prohibited in Europe and even China—not exactly a paragon of food safety.
As for eating quality, well, I passed on the industrial chops, thank you, but the meat was pale and anemic looking. The label said that it had been “enhanced,” an industry euphemism for injecting salty water into pork to make the sawdust-like meat palatable
It’s hard to believe the $7.99 chop came from the same species. That pig was raised on pasture and had the run of 20 acres of fields and forests, which it shared with about 50 other hogs. It felt the sun on its back and could root and roll in mud — in short, exercise all of its piggy instincts. Instead of being a toxic pollutant, its manure was a valuable fertilizer, assuring that the land would be even more lush for future generations of animals. It never received an antibiotic and never needed one.
When the time came, it went to a small slaughterhouse, where workers dispatched it painlessly and a federal inspector gave each carcass a lengthy, thorough inspection. Far from being “the other white meat,” the chop I took home was a deep, rosy pink and crisscrossed with flavorful marbling.
I once challenged a small farmer who raised heritage pigs on pasture to justify charging his customers three or four times what factory farmers did. He explained that in every step of production, the real cost of raising pork humanely and sustainably far outstripped the costs of producing industrial meat. Female heritage pigs have smaller litters than the super sows favored by agribusiness, so the price of their piglets was nearly three times that of confined sows. Pigs allowed to move about freely burn more calories than those that can’t take a step forward or backward and therefore pastured animals fatten more slowly than caged ones. Tending these hogs requires more workers. The experienced employees of the small abattoir in which the animals were processed earned nearly twice as much as those working in large facilities. In the end, the farmer was barely making enough cover his costs, pay three hired hands and earn a modest living himself.
Although it is often pointed out that cheap food benefits poor people, it creates poverty at the same time. Battling incessant downward price pressure from huge grocery retailers, farmers have to slash their own costs to stay in business. They cannot ask petroleum companies to reduce fuel prices or chemical companies to lower the cost of fertilizers, but they can and do cut what they pay their employees. According to the labor rights group Student Action with Farmworkers, the average wage of the two to three million people who work in agriculture in this country is only $11,000 a year, well below the poverty line.
Salary trends in some food production sectors are in free-fall. In real terms, slaughterhouse workers earn 40% less than they did in 1980. Fully two-thirds of the farmworkers in California’s Salinas Valley, nicknamed the “salad bowl of the nation” because of the amount of vegetables it grows, report that their families are food insecure. For some it’s much worse than that. In the first decade of this century more than 1,000 slaves were freed who have been harvesting cheap winter tomatoes in Florida fields. It’s a cruel irony that the people who raise our inexpensive food are so poor that they can’t afford to properly feed themselves.
Hunger is a huge problem. Perhaps one place to start addressing it is to divert a portion of the billions of dollars spent by the government to subsidize the cheap commodity crops grown by well-to-do large farmers into projects like food stamps, inner-city farmers’ markets and urban food hubs to get better—but not cheaper—food to those who need it most.