The Big Business of Food

Big Food is taking control of the food chain with major risks to health including diabetes, obesity and cancer
The Mexican American family of four, mum, dad and two attractive daughters, is sitting down to dinner - the same meal as virtually every other night - a burger, chips and cola gulped down in the car on the way home after another exhausting day. It costs US$11.38 to fill their stomachs for an hour or two - an equation that illustrates the crisis quietly engulfing the United States in an avalanche of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The scene, from the gripping, Academy Award nominated documentary Food Inc, is graphic simply because it is so recognisable, so everyday, and not so far removed from the experience of many Australian families caught in the same spiral into ill health.

As mother and eldest daughter weigh up the cost of buying a fresh lettuce and a few tomatoes - they put them back because they're too expensive - we hear that dad, a truck driver in his forties (or maybe it's thirties) already has diabetes and the younger daughter is suspected of having the same insidious disease. The terrible balancing act they face every month is to pay for his medication or to buy the fresh food that would lessen the impact of his disease and perhaps save his daughter from its predations. We hear the horrifying statistic that one in three children born in America since 2000 - 10 year olds and younger - will develop young onset diabetes. Among minority groups, including the new poor of Hispanic Americans, it's 50%. Forget nuclear weapons, even climate change - here's America's greatest crisis in a greasy paper bag!

The "industrialisation of food" is a term that's currently gaining more airplay as savvy Western consumers belatedly become aware of just what influences are at work to bring about this unpalatable reality. As we learn in this documentary, which has input from investigative authors Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), the food industry in the US is now a highly mechanised, highly secretive and hugely profitable enterprise that's been railroaded by a handful of corporations that seek to control every aspect of the food chain.

When US consumers go shopping in one or another monolithic supermarket, they can be confronted by up to 48,000 products on the shelves. But the Orwellian reality hidden from view behind the large posters of lean and healthy cattle ranchers on horseback, the all-American "pastoral fantasy", is that the profits are all being channelled back into the same, well manicured hands of a select few corporations. The narrator tells us that it's remarkable how many of the foods on display share the same origin, "a corn field in Ohio". High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) omnipresent in so much processed food, is a product devoid of nutrition and so cheap to produce that a Coke can sell for less than a bottle of water. There is now a heavy weight of evidence that its pervasiveness in the American diet is a telling factor in the obesity and diabetes epidemics. A study reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2009 showed for the first time that fructose can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis (1).

In Food Inc we learn that the tragedy for low income families in the US is that they are being deliberately targeted in the quest for profits; in the daily struggle to keep a roof over their heads, there's just no time and even less energy to cook a healthy meal. As the Mexican American family illustrates, it's much easier to eat in the car on the way home when you don't get home until 9 or 10 at night. It has uncomfortable parallels with the tobacco industry's deliberate targeting of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Big Food flexing its muscles
Food Inc came about when producer/director Robert Kenner, Schlosser and later Pollan, came to realise the same substandard food being deliberately marketed to the poor was now becoming the norm on US supermarket shelves. "The enormous buying power of the fast food industry helped to transform the entire food production system of the United States," says Schlosser. "So even when you purchase food at the supermarket, you're likely to be getting products that came from factories, feedlots and suppliers that emerged to serve the fast food chains."

A truly frightening side effect of animals being fed substances their systems are not biologically designed to digest is the proliferation of new strains of the E coli bacteria, some of them deadly. More than 70,000 Americans are struck down each year with new strains - in Food Inc we meet a mother who has dedicated her life to trying to make the US food system safer after her only son died from eating a hamburger riddled with virulent E coli.

Just as scarily, she won't tell the filmmakers something as simple as what she now eats for fear of being sued. Director Kenner calls it the "most shocking" discovery of all in his expose. "Our rights are being denied in ways that I had never imagined. And it was scary and shocking. And that was my biggest surprise."

Fast and cheap in Australia
It's tempting to think it's nowhere near as bad here in Australia, that the corporate tentacles haven't yet reached here to strangle our fresh food chain. And while that's probably true in the main, let's not fool ourselves into "she'll be right" complacency. While you can't yet buy a hamburger for a dollar (our Mexican American family got five in their $11 meal), we've all seen the TV ads here that focus on young guys and the "cheap eat".

With more people working longer hours here, too, in the wake of the GFC, which of course has affected Australia despite the political spin, how many people are succumbing to the easy choice of fast and cheap too often?

Our own rates of childhood diabetes are alarming, childhood allergies unknown in previous generations are baffling the experts, our kids are fat and getting fatter. According to the NSW Department of Public Health commenting on childhood obesity, "the rate of increase in Australia appears to be accelerating sharply when viewed in a historical perspective". (2)

Pollan's comment that the industrialised food system in the US "says we value cheap, fast and easy when it comes to food like so many other things, and we have lost any connection to where our food comes from", speaks just as eloquently to Australia. There are so many kids who have never seen a cow in a paddock or a chicken scratching in the backyard, let alone can make the connection to the packet of mince or a chicken nugget. It just doesn't equate.

My husband and I were struck on a visit to New Zealand last year - our first - at how lean and healthy these Kiwis looked. These tall, rangy, handsome men (well maybe it was me who paid most attention!) looked so much better than the average overweight Aussie guy. And woman too, mea culpa! And just a week or so in this beautiful country makes you realise just how close to the land they still are - and I really think that's the difference. New Zealanders eat real food that comes from animals grazing beautiful paddocks - you actually see cows and sheep driving into the country, an increasingly rare sight in Australia. Restaurant food is superb quality - it's a wake up call to us, their big - and getting bigger - brother.

A Father's Choice
Nutrition has always been one of my keenest interests, but it was the appearance on ABC's Lateline a month or so ago of another American investigative writer and food activist Jonathan Safran Foer that has made me give serious thought to the food I put into my own family's mouths. Foer was discussing his own book Eating Animals written after the birth of his son. As a new father, he wanted to be able to justify eating meat to his son. As a result of his research he's become a vegetarian.

His basic premise is just how much suffering are we as humans entitled to inflict on our animal companions on this earth. A vegan would say none, while "the utterly unselective omnivore" of the 'I'm easy; I'll eat anything' variety prefers not to entertain such uncomfortable thoughts at all. And, as Foer points out, our relationship with meat "cuts to something deep .... It raises significant philosophical questions and is a $140 billion plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of the earth's climate."

What we choose, or not, to put on our plate is enormously important. Any reader of Foer's book will now know it's not acceptable to say, "I'm easy; I'll eat anything." Such social niceties are well past their use-by date.

The vision Foer paints of eating meat in the US is nightmarish with more than 99% of all animals eaten coming from "factory farms". His descriptions of conditions inside intensive poultry sheds, hog sheds and cattle feedlots, often disguised under the acronym CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are often stomach churning in their cruelty, to both beast and farm worker forced to subject another sentient being to such living and dying conditions.

The images that emerge from this book are magnified on the screen in Food Inc. I still can't rid my mind of one scene of a cow forced to hobble on its front knees as it was weeded out of a CAFO where it had endured the miserable months of its entire life standing knee deep in excrement. Its legs couldn't cope without the sludge to support its weight. Even then, it was shoved out of the way by a man with a forklift.

We read of similar atrocities in Foer's damningly detailed book, together with his expose of industrial scale fishing operations where he uses the analogy of war. And it fits! He quotes research scientists from the University of British Colombia's Fisheries Centre who argue that "our interactions with fisheries resources [also known as fish] have come to resemble. ...wars of extermination." At the present rate of plundering the world's oceans, 80 to 90% of the sea animals caught in the average trawling operation are thrown overboard dead as "bycatch". In less efficient operations, the figure can be more than 98%. With the scale of fishing now underway, our oceans will be devoid of fish in the next few years. The only alternative will be the "factory farmed" variety.

Foer himself argues that the radical transformation fishing has undergone in the past 50 years is representative of a new war "against all the animals we eat."

Here's one telling paragraph from his book: "Like pornography, factory farming is hard to define but easy to identify. In a narrow sense it is a system of industrialised and intensive agriculture in which animals - often housed by their tens or even hundreds of thousands - are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility and fed unnatural diets which almost always include various drugs, like antimicrobials). Globally, roughly 450 billion land animals are now factory farmed every year. (There is no tally of fish.) Ninety nine percent of all land animals eaten or used to produce milk and eggs in the United States are factory farmed. So although there are important exceptions, to speak about eating animals today is to speak about factory farming."

In Australia we can be thankful that degradations of this scale haven't yet reached our shores, certainly not in the case of beef farming where most animals are still grass fed. But while there is considerable evidence that beef raised on "forage only" diets has higher concentrations of Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamins A and E, the pressure is on here, too, to maximise the farming dollar. Animals raised in feedlots grow fatter faster, with a daily infusion of antibiotics and growth "promotants" to ensure any illnesses and losses are minimised, and of course, handling costs are a fraction of those involved in a conventional range breeding model.

But while we can still rest reasonably easy at the origins of our steak here in Australia, we are fooling ourselves if we think our chicken has led a charmed life before it became our roast or certainly our nugget.

Anything other than "free range" or "organic" in this country has to be viewed with suspicion, knowing what we are finding out now about how chicken factory farms operate in the US. In both Eating Animals and Food Inc, scenes of these farms send a shudder down the spine.

It's not as if these operations are open to public scrutiny - exactly the opposite. In Food Inc we meet one ingenuous farmer who rethinks his invitation to open his shed doors to the film crew after several visits from his client's lawyers. Even if he doesn't realise it, we know his livelihood is now at risk and the sad reality we learn is that the average chicken farmer in the US has a debt of $500,000 and an annual income of just $18,000 to sustain it. Farmers incur such a large debt simply to meet the demands of the food corporations who will only buy factory farmed birds or eggs because they can get them cheaper. It gives them complete control of the food chain; it's not just the chickens that are the victims here.

We meet another woman farmer who's decided to chuck it all in because she can no longer stand the cruelty she is forced to inflict under the terms of her contract. As she removes dead birds, a daily practice, we see the pain this degradation has inflicted on her, a once proud farmer. She faces financial ruin, but we sense her relief.

It's no wonder the shutters are permanently down and firmly bolted. Foer describes a late night incursion into one factory farm, which consisted of 20 sheds, each 14 metres wide and 150 metres long, each holding around 33,000 birds. The dimensions, he tells us are typical of the industry: "it's hard to get one's head around the magnitude of 33,000 birds in one room."

How do we react in the face of cruelty inflicted daily on such a scale that it almost defies our ability to grasp its magnitude? Surely all these stories can't be true? We don't treat our dogs or cats like this, so how could we be so heartless to a chicken, a turkey, a cow, a pig?
It is tempting to turn away and say, "What the heck, I'm hungry. Let's eat!" I was struck at the poor turnout for the media preview of Food Inc - a bit indigestible this one compared to an edgy thriller or romantic comedy.

Like everything else, I think it starts with the individual. Whatever way you or I choose, perhaps to become vegetarian or, more likely, to buy the very best meat we can find, we should do it with intent. Even if it means eating less, with obvious exceptions surely that's a good thing? We have so much to learn from other cultures, from the French through to the Japanese, that quality is so much more important than sheer quantity. And when enough people care about the food they put on the table for family or friends, farmers will find a way to produce the sort of food that nurtures their souls, too.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is published by Penguin Books

1. In the 10 week study conducted by the University of California at Davis, 16 volunteers on a strictly controlled diet that included high levels of fructose, produced new fat cells around their heart, liver and other digestive organs. They also showed signs of food processing abnormalities linked to diabetes and heart disease. Study leader Kimber L. Stanhope said, "This is the first evidence we have that fructose increases diabetes and heart disease independently from causing simple weight gain. We didn't see any of these changes in the people eating glucose." While fructose is found in fruits, honey and table sugar, its highest percentage is in HFCS, hence the name high fructose corn syrup. (http://www.fooducate.com/blog/2009/12/15/for-the-first-time-scientists-link-hfcs-to-obesity-diabetes-in-humans/)

2. Over the past 20 years, rates of obesity in children have risen greatly in many countries around the world, leading some researchers to speak of an "international epidemic of childhood/obesity". In the ten year period from 1985 to 1995 the level of combined overweight/obesity in Australian children more than doubled, whilst the level, of obesity tripled in all age groups and for both sexes. In 1995, the proportion of overweight or obese children and adolescents aged 2-17 years was 21% for boys and 23% for girls. The proportion of obese girls aged 7-15 years increased dramatically from 1.2% in 1985 to 5.5% in 1995, and the proportion of obese boys increased from 1.4% to 4.7%. The rate of increase in Australia appears to be accelerating sharply when viewed in a historical perspective. http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/publichealth/healthpromotion/obesity/background.asp