WARNING: This hamburger may be hazardous to your health. Why the American food system is bad for our bodies, our economy and our environment — and what some visionaries are trying to do about it.
That’s just a taste of what awaited readers as they turned the page to an ominous article titled “The Real Cost of Cheap Food” in the Aug. 31, issue of TIME magazine. The magazine cover featured a stark white background with a nicely colored pound of hamburger on a blue tray that looked good enough to place in your shopping cart, which underscored the threatening nature of the message.
Not only was it the cover story, it was an eight-page cover story. Now, I know that August is a slow news month, due to the congressional recess, but the article seemed excessive by any measure.
Inside, the lead pages featured a lone Angus beef cow (one of Bill Niman’s) standing in a brown, apparently water-stressed California pasture. As the editor of our sister publication, Drovers, reacted: “This is an example of how cattle should be raised?”
In large type, the caption reads, “He’s raised on grass and hay and lives happily on a pasture by the ocean...” There’s more, but first and foremost I want to know how the author knows that the animal is “happy.” Also, the animal is not a “he.” But that sort of detail, and factualness, will be lost on 99 percent of readers. It is, however, a snapshot of how the author thinks he knows more than he actually does.
Don’t fret, beef doesn’t steal the show; hogs are featured in the story’s lead paragraph. “Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics...” Oh yes, it goes on, and it includes a photo of “Stuffed pigs” with the caption: “On a factory farm, 10,000 or more swine are kept in tight conditions — torture for the animals and risky for us.”
Perhaps by now you’ve seen the TIME article. If not, you certainly know that I’m going to tell you it’s a “must read.” Honestly, there’s no way to grasp the depth and breadth of what I can only describe as an opinion piece masquerading as a news feature. Check your library for a copy or go to porkmag. com/news to access an online version.
The author is Bryan Walsh, and a Google search offered a bit of insight into him. Walsh is identified as an “energy and climate writer,” which constitutes his other TIME-published writings that I found. It also be came evident that agriculture isn’t the only sector that has a beef with his reporting style and accuracy. It’s also worth noting that, AgriTalk, secured an inteview with Walsh, only for it to switch between on-again, off-again. (Check porkmag.com/news to see what happened.)
Parts of the Aug. 31, TIME article read like they were pulled from an anti-modern-agriculture activist’s handbook or a draft script for the movie Food, Inc. The author’s sources read like a who’s who of the anti-modern-agriculture world. He cites Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, the Pew Commission, Union for Concerned Scientists (an animal-rights group), Niman and Chipotle representatives. Most concerning was Rep. Louise Slaughter, sponsor of a bill to limit antibiotic use in farm animals. “It’s a preventative measure,” she says, regarding antibiotic use, “because they are kept in pretty unspeakable conditions.”
The only industry group called upon to comment and represented in the article was the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. It received a token reference in relating antibiotic resistance to human use, not veterinary use.
Again, corn, meat, milk and egg produc- tion got the harshest treatment. Pay attention to the author’s emotional language — it will play well with an agriculturally naïve public. Statements suggest that not only is our food “bad” for us, it’s “dangerous.” Like Food, Inc. its semi-accurate nature offers just enough whiff of legitimacy that it will make readers wonder, and today, planting that seed of doubt deeper is good enough.
That’s what other efforts like Death on a Factory Farm and Food, Inc. worked to do. That’s what the Humane Society of the United States intends to do in more states with actions like California’s Proposition 2. There are currently bills awaiting action in Congress to address food safety, climate change, antibiotic use and more. Some are better than others. This is not the time to sit on the sidelines. You need to be informed, and if you haven’t written to or called your congressmen, don’t wait.
Don’t kid yourself, the TIME article will reach millions of Americans — as they walk through the airport, peruse bookstores’ news stands, pick up their mail or check out at the grocery store. These efforts do add up and they will — no, make that are having an impact.
What’s the real cost of misinformation? I shudder to think, but you and American consumers, especially those in the low- and middle-income brackets, will pay the steepest price.