Monday, July 17, 2006

hide the salami

I'm reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book about how we eat, by Michael Pollan. The first chunk of it details what I mainly already knew about American industrial production of corn and beef, which is a harrowing and disgusting tale. Basically, in order to deal with the overproduction of second-grade corn, a practice of agriculture virtually demanded by government policy and industry profiteering, every single commercially produced piece of beef you buy anywhere in the United States is the result of cows being trained to eat a diet that would, without massive ingestion of drugs, kill them. (I remember vividly, not to say viscerally, reading The Jungle. This isn't quite that sort of thing, but it's awful in an entirely more realistic way. It's journalism, after all.)

Some people would, I suppose, simply dismiss what Pollan says about the industry, but he's not making this up. In fact, his information comes from the industry. For instance, the FDA tells the beef industry that they can't use antibiotics on animals that aren't sick (just to increase growth, for instance). Beef in feedlots, however, are practically by definition sick, because eating corn will make their rumens acidic, and this will lead to infection. The reasons they're fed corn are that we grow an enormous surplus of corn every year in the United States, which makes corn the cheapest commmodity to feed steers, and we can control corn feeding on a factory model to increase "efficiency" of the production of meat - i.e., in order to increase growth. One of the most astounding ironies of it all is that the meat produced is less healthy and less nutritious.

By engaging in this charming practice, we also expose ourselves to the risk of E. coli infection (since the feedlot cattle literally live on enormous piles of feces, and are generally contaminated at slaughter), and the development of new strains of antibiotic-resistance bacteria. This is a simple evolutionary process: by constant use of antibiotics, we act in ways that select for resistant strains, since they're more likely to reproduce. And voila! Cheap beef makes us sicker, and will continue to make us sicker. But damn, it's profitable.

I especially dig a remark Pollan makes at the end of the section: "Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting." This isn't literally true, of course: most of us have no idea how meat is produced, since meat, for almost all of us, simply comes from the grocery store or the butcher. You can't, you are simply prevented, from choosing the source of meat you buy commercially from these kinds of outlets. That choice is made by an industrial capitalist machine seeking to maximize profit, regardless of health, environmental, or other costs to third parties.

For myself, personally (and this is the limit of my argument: I'm not about to proselytize), this amounts to an overwhelmingly convincing argument that I would be much wiser to avoid industrial meat. In any case, this is a book people who eat should read.


Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

But I thought happy cows came from Coliformia?

Doc Nagel said...

It's more like, happy cows most expressly don't come from high-density feedlots.

But more to the point, since when do you pronounce the name of our state like the Gubernator?

Green Living Radio said...

Hello Everyone:

If interested Organically Speaking a Seattle base website has released a podcast (audio conversation) with Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

We our introducing a new audio comment system today, you can now leave an audio comment on any of our posts. You will find an "Insert Audio Comment" link at the bottom of the usual "Add Comment" space. All you need is a microphone.

Try it out and let Michael and John know what you think about the show!

All the best,

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