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The High Price of Cheap Food

From the Los Angeles Times 1/21/04

COMMENTARY

The High Price of Cheap Food
By Emily Green, Times Staff Writer

When we picture a farm, we picture scenes from Old MacDonald and
"Charlotte's Web," not warehouses with 10,000 chickens, or dairy cows ankle
deep in ordure, clustered under tin sheds in blazing Central Valley heat.
When we picture the cows, they're grazing on grass, not eating carefully
formulated mixes of poultry waste and orange peels. Our understanding of the
way our food is produced is so out of date that it takes a mad cow for
Christmas to force our gaze to the farming world beyond the refrigerator
case.

When we look, it's shocking. Our rural idylls have been transformed into
stinking factories.

It seems like a ghastly conspiracy. Yet factory farming isn't someone else's
fault. It's not only of our making, but it also made us. More than any other
factor, cheap food accounts for American prosperity. We spend less of our
annual incomes on food than any other nation. Our first case of mad cow
disease isn't the result of some evil plot. It's the price of our way of
life and it may be telling us that it's time to change.

Read beyond the headlines and one finds that the practice that wrought the
disease, recycling ruminant slaughter waste back into cattle feed, was the
work of social idealists. Meat and bone meal, which in 1988 was revealed as
the source of the disease, was put in the dairy feed in ever greater
proportions after World War II to boost the protein content. Feeding cows
protein, it was believed, would increase output and enrich milk. The dairy
technologists behind it were not out to kill people, just to nourish them.

What's more, it worked. We've all seen the ravages of mad cow disease,
officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, since it
erupted in British dairy herds in the mid-1980s. Few remember that rickets
was the scourge of Britain in World War I. Now, in part because of the very
technologies that wrought BSE, Britons are so well fed that the average
Londoner may never have heard of rickets, much less had them.

Even more than the U.K., we in the U.S. have been transformed by cheap and
plentiful food. To appreciate just how deeply ingrained the urge for
agricultural innovation is in this country, it merits remembering that the
United States was born at the peak of the 18th century agricultural
revolution, called the era of "improvement." Our founding, farming
presidents envisioned the nation as a place of better cows, better plants,
better farming tools. The result: bigger cows, bigger plants, bigger yields,
bigger farms.

It worked so well, we ourselves grew bigger. We outgrew our kitchen
counters, doorways and beds. How could our grandparents have been soshort?

The technology brought a social revolution. In the last 50 years, with the
advent of postwar fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, intensive livestock
methods, power feeding formulas, antibiotics and hormones, factory farms
have replaced traditional methods. When the 20th century began, half the
population lived on family-owned farms. Now, less than 1% of Americans do.

Food is so plentiful, rickets isn't the problem. Obesity is. Children are
diabetic. Even a teen devotee of the television show "Access Hollywood" can
explain how gastric-bypass surgery works. Mayors declare entire cities on
diets. Texas' new year honor was laying claim to three of the country's five
"fattest" cities.

Behind the public health crisis brought on by how much food we eat, a larger
ecological crisis is looming because of the way we produce it. Pesticide
pollution is so high in the Midwestern waterways of corn country that
amphibian populations are collapsing. Endocrinologists are warning of
sweeping human infertility in Midwestern farming states caused by
weedkillers. Most of these weedkillers go on corn for livestock feed.

The economics of livestock feed are a study in risk. We mix so much
antibiotics into pork, beef and chicken feed, both to suppress disease and
to kill gut bacteria that would compete for the calories from feed, that
according to reports in the scientific journal Nature, 50% of the world's
antibiotic supply goes into farm animals. The practice brings animals to
market a few days faster than organic methods, but also has created a new
generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The latest warnings, this time from Science magazine, are that we shouldn't
eat farmed salmon more than once a month because of the high concentrations
of PCBs and dioxins in fish feed.

The drive for cheap food has gone beyond a brave experiment into a
potentially catastrophic gamble. The stakes: the environment and public
health. But none of the government officials charged with overseeing
agriculture and environment is publicly suggesting the obvious fix: slowing
down our intensive food production, treating the land and animals with more
respect, producing less food, better food, more carefully.

Instead, they all too often leap to the defense of the industry and the
safety of every bite of food provided by it. When news of the first U.S.
case of mad cow disease came out just before Christmas, the instant response
of Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was to reassure us that the 200,000
"downer cows" consumed by Americans in 2003 hadn't necessarily been
diseased. They just couldn't walk.

Except, of course, the one infected with mad cow disease.

It was enough to make a reporter nostalgic. How reminiscent Veneman was of
her British counterparts. During the early years of the U.K. epidemic, the
succession of Conservative agriculture ministers and the country's chief
veterinary officer couldn't endorse British beef heartily enough.

According to them, in 1988, just as BSE was appearing simultaneously in
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the cattle disease posed "no
implications for human health." The following year, there was "no risk" from
BSE; in 1990, "no cause for alarm at all;" in 1992, "no risk at all." By
1994, British beef wasn't just safe, it was "totally safe."

In March 1996, after more than 100,000 confirmed cases and an estimated 1
million unconfirmed ones in the U.K., it fell to the Conservative health
secretary, Stephen Dorrell, to go before Parliament to announce that the
first 10 people had died or were dying of a human form of the disease. They
couldn't be sure how many more might succumb. Outside Westminster,
government scientists told reporters that it could be hundreds, that it
could be hundreds of thousands.

It is hard to describe the sense of betrayal felt by 59 million Britons.
Would the fruit pastille made with beef gelatin be the end of them, or the
Cornish pasty, or the steak and kidney pie? Cattle brains were a
time-honored ingredient in pablum. What about the baby food? After a decade
of government assurances, a nation felt poisoned by its farmers. To date,
139 Britons have died. As tragic as this is, Britain is still lucky. The
number of deaths every year seems to be falling. It looks as though the U.K.
has dodged the wholesale public health disaster.

This was luck, not judgment. The only regulators whose standards were
actually safe were not government officials. They came from the organic
movement. Two years before anyone had heard of mad cow disease, in 1984, the
Soil Assn., one of the leading certifiers of organic food in the United
Kingdom, banned inclusion of meat and bone meal from rations for dairy cows.

By contrast, the scientists advising the then-British Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on standards for livestock feed not only
didn't ban it until 1988, after the cattle epidemic erupted, but they also
later claimed that the disaster was unforeseeable.

The U.S. waited until 1997 to ban the practice, saying it did not have mad
cow disease in the first place. Last month, as Veneman and industry
officials sought to allay American fears by insisting on the safety of
downer meat (then, on Dec. 30, reacting to scandal, quickly banning it),
again only the organic standard, and not government regulations, offered
significant protection against BSE. Meat and bone meal had never been an
acceptable constituent of certified organic cattle feed. Downers weren't an
issue. Organic regulations require that sick animals be given veterinary
treatment, not slaughtered for food.

The moral: Cheap food isn't cheap. In Britain, the milk that ended rickets
stopped looking like a bargain when the taxpayers added the cleanup cost for
mad cow alone. This included compensation to farmers for the hundreds of
thousands of infected cattle, the preventive culling of 4 million additional
healthy animals, the failure of almost 30,000 dairy farms during the BSE
years, damages to the families of human victims, the near collapse of the
British beef industry and a sweeping two-year public inquiry.

In the U.S., the overnight loss of the beef export market is only the
beginning of our mini-BSE crisis.

While the mainstream domestic industry braces for hard times, it should be a
good year for farmers in New Zealand, a country widely considered to be free
of livestock spongy-brain diseases. It also is a good year to be an American
organic meat producer < of chicken, pork or beef. The California Certified
Organic Farmers trade association reports that since 1996, sales of organic
meat in the U.S. have risen 28% a year.

In Europe, the response to the BSE crisis has been an even sharper rise in
organics and sweeping reforms in its food safety agencies. After the crisis
over mad cow disease, the organic milk market expanded in Britain by a third
every year throughout the late 1990s. Atrazine, our No. 1 agricultural
weedkiller, has been banned by the European Union. Our controversial
milk-boosting cattle hormone bovine somatotrophin, or BST? Never licensed
there. Downer cows? Unthinkable for food.

Europeans also pay more for food. While according to Canadian government
surveys, Americans spend an average of 5.49% of their disposable income on
food each year, the British spend 6.9%, the Germans 7.73%, the French 9.21%
and the Italians 10.58%. It's interesting that this percentage climbs in
direct proportion to the splendor of the national cuisines.

Great food has always been a matter of quality, not quantity. Organic meat
is far more expensive than conventional < often twice and three times the
cost of conventional. That gap will surely narrow as more farmers convert to
organic, but organic will always cost more. It has to by definition. It
costs more to produce. That does not necessarily mean we must double what we
pay.

Imagine how much longer we would live, and live to eat well, if instead of
gorging on 16-ounce factory-farmed steaks we ate 8-ounce organic ones?

Cheap food made us wealthy. Now is the time to be wise. In the past,
conventional producers dismissed organics as a niche market and credited
themselves with feeding a hungry nation. That argument has become obsolete.
The environment, public health and safe food are no longer niche concerns.
If we heed the lesson of our first case of mad cow disease, it may just
prove our salvation.

Decoding the label

Specially grown beef, poultry and salmon are found as premium items at
better grocery stores. Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's offer the best
prices, but for variety and selection, Whole Foods stands alone. Forget
finding these items at the giant grocery store chains such as Vons or
Ralphs.

The term "organic" is governed by strict USDA regulations. Organic meat,
poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no
antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most
conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or
sewage sludge; also without bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

"Natural" is an increasingly popular term used to stake out a middle ground
between "organic" and "conventional." It refers only to processing and means
no artificial ingredients or added colors were used and that the product was
"minimally processed."

It has nothing, however, to do with how meat and poultry are raised, whether
hormones or antibiotics were used or whether the beef was fed the byproducts
of other animals, which is allowed under conventional growing regulations.
Since 1997, the USDA has banned the use of ruminant bone meal in all cattle
food.

Claims such as "no antibiotic residues" or "antibiotic-free" does not mean
the cattle or poultry wasn't treated with antibiotics, rather that the meat
was tested during processing and was shown to be free of antibiotics. And
any claims that poultry and hogs are hormone-free are just restating
existing regulations governing conventional farming practices, not an extra
step that should be rewarded with a premium price.

Salmon labeling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has
no standards for "organic." Salmon does not have to be labeled
"farm-raised." Stores that carry wild salmon, however, tend to label it as
such, since the fish commands premium pricing.

Increasingly, grocery stores are providing brochures at the meat and fish
counters to help consumers sort through the verbiage, some detailing the
exact feed formula for their beef and poultry.

< Corie Brown



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