Monday, August 30, 2010

Broken food chains

I wrote in late May about industrial food production, as an exemplar of a general thesis that complexity breeds collapse. And here we go again: news in the U.S. press this week skews heavily toward eggs contaminated with salmonella. Not just one or two eggs. We're talking "recall of a half-billion eggs from two mega-farms in Iowa" according to Friday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Who are the culprits? You guessed it, factory farmers using "battery cages," that strangle, deform, and mummify laying hens in massive operations like Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the Iowa farms whose product is making people sick. Many argue that battery cages also contribute to diseased food products.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg, and it turns out he's been branded a "habitual violator" of Iowa's environmental laws.
'He's been trouble ever since he came here from Maine,' said former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who said the 75-year-old DeCoster had unfairly hurt the reputation of Iowa farmers.

That's from Saturday's SF Chron. Congress will ask DeCoster and the owner of Hillandale
to explain how eggs from their facilities were linked to more than 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning.

Inquiring minds want to know.

But here's what you'd really, really rather not know. Associated Press reports, by way of the Dallas Morning News, that
Millions of eggs from the Iowa farms at the heart of a massive salmonella recall are not destined for the garbage but for a table near you.

The recalled eggs that were already shipped to grocery stores and restaurants are being dumped by the truckload. But the eggs still being laid by potentially infected chickens will be pasteurized to kill any bacteria. Then they can be sold as liquid eggs or put in other products such as mayonnaise or ice cream. It's a common if little-known practice in the food industry – salvaging and selling products that may have been tainted with disease.

Mmmmmmmmm ... ice cream.

Californians passed Proposition 2 in 2008, which will ban "battery cages" for egg-laying hens in the state by 2015. In a recent move to broaden the effect of the law and protect California's egg producers, California's Governator signed a law
that will ban all eggs coming from outside the state that fail to comply with the battery-cage ban.

Sorry 'bout that Iowa.

Why the seven year delay? Because the food production economy is a very very big ship. It turns very very slowly.

Americans might be relieved to know that it's not only the biggest economy in the world that can't handle food production and distribution safely. The second biggest economy -- China's -- is similarly broken. It's not just melamine contaminated milk, as I wrote about in Digging Deeper Holes. Now it's crayfish.

Dozens poisoned after eating 'washed' crayfish says the Global Times.
Dozens of people in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, suffered from food poisoning after eating crayfish suspected of being contaminated by a type of powder used to wash them, according to local hospitals.

The powder, says my local translator of Chinese-language news sources (People's Daily), is a melange of citric acid and sodium sulfite.

According to Wikipedia, sodium sulfite has the following applications:
Sodium sulfite is primarily used in the pulp and paper industry. It is used in water treatment as an oxygen scavenger agent, in the photographic industry to protect developer solutions from oxidation and (as hypo clear solution) to wash fixer (sodium thiosulfate) from film and photo-paper emulsions, in the textile industry as a bleaching, desulfurizing and dechlorinating agent and in the leather trade for the sulfitization of tanning extracts. It is used in the purification of TNT for military use. It is used in chemical manufacturing as a sulfonation and sulfomethylation agent. It is used in the production of sodium thiosulfate. It is used in other applications, including froth flotation of ores, oil recovery, food preservatives, making dyes.

In China, they use sodium sulfite to wash crayfish, it seems. This, though it seems to fall someplace near the "food preservatives" category called out above, apparently causes a certain sort of collateral damage. To wit, muscle pain and kidney failure, diagnosed by doctors as "rhabdomyolysis, the rapid destruction of skeletal muscle."

Word to the wise: if you see crayfish omlettes on the menu when visiting Nanjing, order something else. In the U.S., if you look at a menu and see mayonnaise, ice cream, cake, cookies, certain kinds of noodles and bread, or -- of course -- eggs whether they are hard boiled, scrambled, fried, or poached ... either run screaming from the restaurant or buckle your salmonella seatbelt.

Seriously, though, what's a person to do?

UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan has written a book titled Food Rules: An Eater's Manual aimed at helping people avoid the peril of product when what's really wanted is nourishment. The book contains sixty-four rules organized into three categories. The three categories come from Pollan's simple, seven-word formulation that he initially presented on the cover of his previous book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Kinda basic. Fewer words in the rules than in the book's title. William Strunk would have been proud...

At the same time, it's clear that a few hundred thousand, or a few million people following three rules, or sixty-four, isn't going to solve the problems complexity imposes on food production and distribution. The food chain is badly fractured, and as fun and delicious as this weekend's Eat Real Festival might have been here in the East Bay, it ain't enough. In fact, the 'incidents' that get reported as news -- salmonella poisoning, melamine contamination, crayfish that'll do a number on your kidneys -- are blips on a much larger radar. Here's more from a piece about Michael Pollan and the excellent, Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary, Food, Inc., in which Pollan is featured, from an article on
Michael says experiments have found that $1 can buy you 1,250 calories worth of food in processed food aisles. "Take the same dollar to the produce aisle? You will get only 250 calories of broccoli or carrots," he says. "We've made it rational to eat badly."

Of course, "rational" is a relative term, as it were. Pollan says:
"We spend less on our food than any people who have ever lived, than any people anywhere on earth—9.5 percent of our income."
And the piece goes on to explain how this oddity is subsidized:

Although "real" food is often more expensive, Michael says you either pay for real food now—or pay the doctor later. In 1960, Michael says 18 percent of our national income was spent on food, and only 5 percent on healthcare. Today, he says 9 percent of our income is spent on food and a whopping 17 percent on healthcare. "The less we spend on food, the more we spend on healthcare," he says.

This is not very different from the subsidized cost of coal and oil (for which future generations will make up the difference by 'paying' for the wreckage left in oceans, deserts, mountains, forests, melted glaciers, and climate change caused by the sum of these); or the investment in roads at the expense of public transit that has subsidized suburban growth and car-culture.

These are colossal problems, and if they're going to be solved they will have to be solved collectively. Give individuals a chance to buy stuff more cheaply, and they will -- hidden costs, subsidized by future generations, be damned.

By "collectively" I mean democratic (small-d) government regulation. Letting 'the market' and profit-driven politics take its course has given us modernity as we know it. Killer.

If we don't pay now, we (and our grandchildren) will pay later.

Hard as it might be to get that ship to turn, the alternative is shipwreck.

Thanks to Farm Sanctuary via Flickr for the photo of hens in battery cages.

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