I’m a fan of Mark Bittman’s writing in general–especially his writing for The New York Times.  Browsing his blog, though, is also rewarding, especially for me–since my cooking chops are fairly limited without recipes, etc. If you haven’t had a chance to read Bittman’s writing concerning food, check out his blog (since you can’t really browse much of The New York Times anymore without having to pay for a subscription. The food photography is sharp and always motivates me to get to my local farmer’s market–if I can just remember that the farmer’s market is back open!

Bittman’s blog & site: http://markbittman.com/

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Let’s chat for a second about the fact that Taco Bell had to do a recent media blitz and advertising campaign to deal with the exposure from a lawsuit against the company, alleging that their “ground beef mixture” was less than 36% actual beef. Just the thought of that makes me nauseous.

Yet Taco Bell, with the might of any fast-food joint that wants to keep its customers in the (faux) beef, responded with taco shells blazing:

“In response to the lawsuit, Taco Bell took out full-page ads in at least nine major newspapers, aired television spots and launched a YouTube campaign to proclaim its taco filling is 88 percent beef.”

As reported today, and in the CBS news article I quoted above, the Taco Bell lawsuit–originally filed by an Alabama law firm–has been withdrawn. Since the lawsuit happened, Taco Bell responded with the disclosure about its 88% beef. Also, Taco Bell states that it has made no changes in its recipes/ beef products.

Some may say “kudos!” to the law firm that prompted Taco Bell’s recent disclosure about what is in its beef mixture (beef nestled alongside fillers and binders. delicious!). Others may not care what they are eating, as long as it is cheap and tastes good. Yet at the heart of it is the simplicity of believing that meat is actually, well, meat. Consumers are not always aware that a simple order in a fast food restaurant isn’t simple–we don’t plan to order a ground beef taco laced with fillers, chemicals, preservatives, and binders. We expect ground beef to be just that: beef.

I’ll pass on the taco filling for now, thanks.

To read more about the dropped lawsuit, and the amazing amount of money Taco Bell spent to advertise after the “bad beef press,” click the link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/19/national/main20055193.shtml

Let’s talk about a reality that we all know is true: industrial farming leads to abused, neglected, filthy, inhumanely-treated animals. There is no way around that knowledge, no matter how much factory-farmed food we eat, or how many news articles we purposely avoid in order not to confront this truth. The $7.00 for two strip steaks (USDA choice!) at my local market may seem easy on my wallet–I can instead put the savings to one drip of gasoline for my car–but I know, as so many others do, that the price is much higher. The pollution, the animal welfare, the antibiotics, the health hazards–so much goes into that $7.00 package of meat.

But what really is striking is what The New York Times published this week about states attempting to ban people from publishing photographs or video footage conveying the horrid conditions inside of factory farms.

Journalist A. G. Sulzberger, author of the article “States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse” writes:

“A bill before the Iowa legislature would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.

Similar legislation is being considered in Florida and Minnesota, part of a broader effort by large agricultural companies to pre-emptively block the kind of investigations that have left their operations uncomfortably — and unpredictably — open to scrutiny.”

It’s not hard to imagine why “large agricultural companies” would spearhead a campaign to keep their hideous practices from being captured on film and published for the populace. What is disturbing is how easily they dismiss what has been published as “inaccurate” or “misrepresentations” of what is going on in a factory farm. Yet I can’t imagine why any consumer would–rather than exert our power of choice–knowingly purchase any animal products (meat, eggs, milk, etc.) from a business that would support such a Bill. I’m wondering–what is more criminal? The empl0yee who photographs heinous animal cruelty and publishes it, or the company that knowingly allows animal abuse to continue?

Personally, I am disgusted to think that states in this country are more interested in protecting the rights of agribusiness than they are concerned with human and animal welfare. Clearly, experts have proven the detrimental effects of industrial farming–the impact that it has in polluting our environment, decaying our civility and humanity (is it really “funny” to toss live chickens into bins and joke about how their legs “fall off in the process?”), and harming our health is staggering.

So here we are, America. Let’s consider the statement by John P. Kibbie, Democrat of Emmetsburg and president of the Iowa State Senate (also taken from the same article):

“Agriculture is what Iowa is all about,” Mr. Kibbie said. “Our economy would be in the tank, big time, if it wasn’t for agriculture.”

I’ll tell you what is in the tank, Mr. Kibbie. Dead, dying, and injured animals. More animal fecal matter and its methane than can ever be productive. People eating meat that is polluted with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A respect for nature. A respect for animal welfare.

Perhaps if the government weren’t so entwined with agribusiness, we would have nothing to hide in our factory farms, or our slaughterhouses. In the meantime, Bills like this –which are designed ONLY to perpetuate bad business practices, and keep the money flowing to the agribusiness elite–reveal to consumers that there is something to hide.  And what is behind the factory farm curtain, photographed or not, is still a reality.

You can read the New York Times article HERE: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/us/14video.html?_r=2&ref=us

There’s no one I know who makes a concerted effort to remain ignorant. And by ignorant, I mean “not knowing” or “unaware.” While people may “not care” about certain things, like what is in our food for example, it become a different story when people remain unaware because our government doesn’t regulate or publish what is in our food.

Genetically Modified Organisms, or G.M.O’s, are here to stay in our food supply–and yet, people who are concerned with their health attempt to avoid G.M.O’s in our food. H0wever, it is becoming more difficult to avoid eating G.M.O’s or eating animals that ate G.M.O’s–etc.

As reported in The New York Times on February 15th, “In the last three weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved three new kinds of genetically engineered (G.E.) foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and  sugar beets. And the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of a super-fast-growing salmon — the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last — may not be far behind.” –Mark Bittman, food columnist for The Times, shares his thoughts about G.M.O’s in his recent editorial entitled, “Why Aren’t G.M.O Foods Labeled?”  It’s hard to consider the concept that G.M.O foods are becoming more prevalent and “accepted” in the United States of Agribusiness, to be sure–but what is even more disconcerting is that “the  F.D.A.and the U.S.D.A. will not require any of these products, or foods containing them, to be labeled as genetically engineered, because they don’t want to ‘suggest or imply’ that these foods are ‘different.'”

Hmmm.

As far as I can tell, creating a genetically-modified organism, for the express purpose of resisting pesticides, for example–is “different” than the simple crops that my father plants in his backyard garden. Dad has to deal with ground hogs, chipmunks, tomato blights–and he hasn’t ventured into his workshop to scientifically manufacture a seed to deter nature from being nature. Obviously, my father’s labor of love–his bountiful personal garden–cannot be compared to the overflowing G.M.O soybean field or the Frankensalmon (farm) that Bittman mentions in his editorial. Yet there is something fundamentally wrong with withholding information from a consumer.

I want to know what is in my food, and I want to know why the labels won’t keep up with what is being done scientifically to our food sources. And I’m not alone. Bittman reveals that 87% of Americans want G.M.O foods labeled accordingly.

What used to be simple–growing food, buying food–has become a convoluted permuation of avoidance and deceptive marketing. When will there be some clear and direct legislation to manage the vaguery of product labels? Why should I remain ignorant to whether the salmon I purchase is factory farmed or a G.M.O product?  If the labels don’t exist, I will be buying my food “blind.”

The Bittman article is informative, interesting, and disturbing. Take a read of it and while you do, I’ll get to learning how to create a container garden this spring/ summer, so as to avoid as much G.M.O “bounty” as I can.

Why Aren’t G.M.O. Foods Labeled? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/why-arent-g-m-o-foods-labeled/

As an omnivore with a family that likes to eat meat, I’ve been on the prowl for over a year to revamp our family’s diet and eat meat that has been more consciously raised and finished. Factory farmed meat=not for me. My toddler loves hot dogs, but I was skeptical about serving him something that I typically associated with nitrites, unsavory animal parts, and general “yuck” factor. In my local supermarket, I came across Applegate Farms Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs and I decided to give them a try. I had been buying Applegate Farms cold cuts for some time, as I appreciate the company’s dedication to humane treatment of animals. I am happy to report that Applegate Farms Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs are now my family’s go-to hot dog. They are delicious!

My little guy really enjoyed these hot dogs. I gave it a try, eating a little bit and finding a pleasurable beef flavor that didn’t have any chemical or acidic aftertaste. They are plump and they aren’t greasy like some other hot dogs I’ve had in the past.

What really appeals to me is that Applegate Farms is a company that is forthright with its customers concerning its practices and products. Its new “Promise Tracker” allows the consumer to track the product (in my case, the hot dogs) back to the farm from which it originated.

Simply, the hot dogs taste good because the beef is derived from grass-fed, free-roaming animals. These are cows that haven’t been sick or fed antibiotics. The meat that goes into Applegate Farms hot dogs is quality meat–it’s not a mish-mash of grade Z meat that would frighten a customer. The ingredients list is short and clear: “Organic Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Contains Less Than 2% Of The Following: Sea Salt, Celery Powder, Organic Onion Powder, Organic Spices, Organic Paprika.” It’s that simple. There’s nothing on the ingredients list that is a mystery or that I can’t pronounce. There’s nothing like “natural flavors” that are typically synthetic. Applegate Farms is clear and straightforward with what goes into its products and why the final product is superior.

What also appeals to me is that the organic uncured beef hot dog is also lower in fat than its counterparts in my supermarket. Weighing in with 6 grams of fat (as opposed to 14 grams in other brands) per serving makes me feel better about what I’m serving.

It means a lot to me to be able to make a conscious decision about what my family eats–and I have to say, Applegate Farms makes it a bit easier for me. I’ve stood in supermarkets, staring at factory farmed meat and felt frozen in place, wondering what I should/could buy without putting my family at risk for e. coli, omega-6 fat, etc. I’ve wondered if the labels I’ve been reading that say “cage free” or “organic” actually mean what they say. When I buy Applegate Farms products, I’m not worried. I appreciate having that peace of mind when I buy food for my family.

My favorite products are currently these hot dogs, the ham, the cheese, the uncured bacon, and the sausages. Delicious!

Hotdogs

Recently, I purchased some air-chilled chicken wings for my family to eat for dinner @ Whole Foods. The cost was very comparable to what I would have paid for factory farmed chickens in my local supermarket. What I noticed, however, on the Whole Foods packaging, was a label of “Step 3 Animal Welfare” which I thought was interesting.

Now, I learned that Whole Foods has partnered with the Global Animal Partnership to label Whole Foods’ meat with a five step rating that takes “humanely raised” labels to a new level. Instead of vague descriptors, the five steps are clearly delineated, from Step 1 (“No crates or cages: Animals live their lives with space to move around and stretch their legs”) through Step 5 (“Animals raised to Step 5+ standards must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.”)

If you’ve tried to purchase meat with a conscious effort to buy a product that was from a humane source, you’ve probably noticed how many labels are deceptively vague. I appreciate the fact that I can go into Whole Foods and purchase meat that now has a more clear label/ rating system.

 If you visit the website, you’ll see more detail about how Whole Foods is using this system to certify their meat producers’ animal welfare practices. I found this not only very informative, but really progressive. I would love to see this commitment become a standard on all meats that consumers can by (wishful thinking, I get it!).

Off to Whole Foods tomorrow!

Read more here: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/5step.php

So it’s disturbing to teach freshmen English when I am using Chew on This, Food Inc, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a myriad of other sources to teach persuasive writing–and my students say things like “who cares if the chickens are factory farmed?” or “I would eat @ (insert a fast food restaurant name here) anyway.” It seems as though there’s an apathy that can’t be shaken because it’s not “cool” to care about treating animals humanely, or to learn about how genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are not always regulated  by our government.

But then I encounter this article– http://news.change.org/stories/food-fight-college-students-demand-cage-free-eggs-on-campus

So 10,000 Penn State students are advocating for cage-free eggs in the university’s dining halls. I’m encouraged that the apathetic attitude I see from fourteen year-old students transforms into a call-to-action only a few years later.

It’s hard to live in this era without realizing the detrimental after-effects of factory farming–especially the current method of farming chickens. The manure alone pollutes our water supply, our soil, and the billions of tons have nowhere to go. Chickens–social, intelligent creatures, deserve respect–even if they are being bred to be our meal. The challenge remains to enlighten without preaching, and remove a veil of ignorance perpetuated by deceptive marketing and clever labeling. It’s great to see our collegiate generation responding to the current issues. It gives me hope that the nonfiction unit I am doing with my students will resonate with them long and hard enough to truly affect change.