These days, you've got to be about as big a twit as Dr. Frank Ryan, M.D. (pending the coroner's report) to not question where your food comes from.
I found out about the US egg recall the other day; I'm still not paying very close attention to the "bad news", but I find I'm slowly but surely getting sucked back in.
The reports are pretty damning: the factory farm at the source of this latest salmonella outbreak is Galt Iowa's Wright County Egg, whose owner, Jack DeCoster, is pretty high up on the FDA's bad boy list. Wright County Egg has been previously cited for infractions such as unsanitary worker conditions, raids by immigration officials, and improper disposal of hog and chicken manure into a creek near the farm. In fact, former Clinton administration Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, once referred to Wright County Egg as "an agricultural sweatshop".
Anyone who's driven the US Interstate highway system or the Trans Canada Highway has seen livestock transports; they don't look or smell too pleasant: cows standing for hundreds of miles or kilometres on end, pigs flopped together like sacks of flour, and chickens crammed into spaces no bigger than shoe boxes. The view doesn't get much prettier by time these animals reach their destinations; these factory farms aren't exactly Ritz Carltons. And let's not forget about the copious amounts of hormones and antibiotics these animals get shot up with, and the crappy gruel they eat; all in the name of upping production and lowering costs. How does this affect the consumer? Next time you're in your favourite local supermarket, do a little comparison shopping: check the difference in prices between conventional eggs, milk, and meats, and their organic counterparts. Any guess as to which is more expensive? Ding! Ding! Ding! the organic, of course. Now those animals are the ones living large on the Ritz Carlton farms with good food, no meds, and lots of room to roam free. Your average organic farming operation isn't going to produce nearly the yield of a place like Wright County Egg, where the roosters and the hens surely aren't treated like kings and queens.
When did the American food mantra become "cheap and convenient" as opposed to "healthy and nutritious"? This isn't one we can blame on bogus food shortages or overpopulation. This problem has two rather large and tenacious roots: money and government. The factory farms want to churn out as much product as possible to satisfy the hunger for low-quality prepared and fast foods. Where is all that juiced up beef and chicken destined for? Hooters, McDonalds, Burger King, TGI Fridays, Chili's, Wendy's...you name it.
Canada is no better. There are stronger regulations against the use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock, but remember the Mad Cow outbreak? Farmers here find ways around the restrictions, and sometimes, there are issues; and they are beginning to occur with increasing regularity. But the US seems to be churning out tainted food products at an alarming rate, with word leaking out that the offending producers have rap sheets as long as my arm.
Why is nothing being done about it? If you want to sit there oblivious to the many agricultural lobbying groups funding the re-elections of congresspeople and senators, then you go right ahead and tuck into your Grand Slam salmonella-e-coli-extravaganza breakfast. There's not a damn thing the FDA or the Labor Department can do to stop these monsters as long as the right wheels get greased and the money winds up in the right coffers. I'm no conspiracy theorist, nor am I a vegetarian, but this is just another example of, we won't learn our lesson until something really catastrophic happens, like an entire day care or pre-school getting wiped out by tainted chocolate milk. Or, millions of people struck down by some mutant, food-borne bacteria so resistant to antibiotics that an entire region must be incinerated in order to prevent the spread of devastation (remember the Dustin Hoffman movie, Outbreak?).
The availability of cheap and convenient foods notwithstanding, making healthy food choices can sometimes be difficult. Prices can be prohibitive, and interest in nutritional education is profoundly lacking. Gisele Bundchen can scream all she wants about mandatory breast-feeding, but how many new moms realistically have the time to devote to it when they only get a 16 week maternity leave? How many households can survive in 2010 with just one breadwinner? The statistics are staggering. And yes, much as we don't want to admit it, the diabetes and obesity epidemics are a direct result of millions of people eating bad food. I'm not saying I want to see things like salt and Big Macs, and Kentucky Fried Chicken made illegal (though, high fructose corn syrup should be banned!), but we do have to somehow get a handle on ourselves.
Next time you go to the supermarket, do me a favour: put down the feedbag of potato chips and the tub of ice cream, and go for that carton of organic eggs; I swear on all that is holy you won't regret it.