The true cost of food

December 2, 2007 at 3:48 pm (books, environment, food)

Lately it seems that I have been trying to talk myself out of eating meat. Well, maybe not so much “talking” as “reading”. If you have any questions or doubts regarding the food production industry, and more specifically, the meat packing industry, I would highly recommend the following “suite” of books for you perusal. The books are “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclaire, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, and “The Ominvore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. They are all vastly different books and I have different reasons for recommending each one. And just as a side note, I actually was a strict ovo-lacto vegetarian for 5 years during highschool/early undergrad. I did it mainly for health reasons, but never really was committed for ethical reasons. That may change in the near future!

“The Jungle” I read back in high school (not as an assignment, but because I picked it out). Luckily, I actually was a vegetarian at the time I read this, otherwise I would have definitely lost my lunch at several points in this book. Unlike the other books, this one is a novel, although much of it is historically accurate. It tells the story of eastern European immigrants who move to Chicago in the very early 20th century and find work in the meat-packing industry. The book is filled with the horrors of not only how dangerous and vile the meat packing plants were, but also of the terrible lack of human rights prevalent in that industry. Unfortunately, as I read more books, I realized that this has changed very little. Even with my limited high school brain, I picked up on the heavy socialist leanings of Sinclaire. His writing is full of thinly veiled socialist preaching, but the rest of the book stands strongly enough on its own to overlook that if it bothers you.

I read the other three books more recently. Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is a book about the virtues of eating organically and locally. Especially in today’s culture of trying to live more “green”, it is crucial to be aware of how far our food must travel to reach our plates, because that all costs A LOT of gasoline. Kingsolver doesn’t really demonize any one industry, and certainly not the meat-packing industry. However, by reading her book, I really realized the importance of being fully conscience of the real “cost” of my food, and this applies to everything from beef to beets.

Perhaps the most disturbing of the books I’m recommending is Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation”, which most people have probably heard of. Although the title suggests that he targets the fast food industry, which he does in about half the book, he also reveals all the nasty little secrets of the meat packing industry. He gives a horrifying play-by-play of exactly how cows go from animals to pre-packaged beef portions. Perhaps what I found most enlightening was just how integrated politics is in this industry. The beef and fast food lobbies are very powerful and pretty much at every opportunity, they implement measure to maximize the production of cheap (and often dangerously contaminated meat) and to minimize the benefits of the under-privileged workers who keep this industry running. Meat packing plants primarily employ Hispanic immigrants (many illegal) and go to great lengths to avoid paying them health insurance or disability payments for their inevitable injuries. These exploited workers are not valued and therefore, no one tries to keep them safe from injury. As it turns out, the level of safety measures and precautions required by OSHA fluctuates depending on how Republican our government is. The beef and fast food lobbyists, as proponents of big industry, are by and large on the payrolls of powerful Republicans who care more about getting insanely cheap products to the masses than they do about maintaining any semblance of a safe work environment for its disposable work force.

The latest book that I’m reading (and have not yet completed) is “Ominvore’s Dilemma”. This is a unique book in that it explores our national addiction of cheap corn. What’s that? you may say…I don’t eat all that much corn! But yes, you do. Almost all of the meat we consume, from beef to chickens to salmon are fed diets of cheap, industrial grade corn. Some animals like chicken and pigs will readily and naturally eat grains like corn. Other animals, like cows and salmon, have to be bred and physically altered to tolerate this completely unnatural diet. Think about it. Cows (and other ruminants) are exquisitely evolved to turn grass, an otherwise indigestible energy source, into a rather tasty form of protein. But today, due to our insatiable appetite for cheap and fatty meat, cows are born and grass prairies, but then shipped to feedlots for the last few months of their short lives to gain hundreds of pounds on a daily regimen of corn, beef tallow (pure fat), hormones, antibiotics and a number of other unsavory items including “feather meal” and discarded feces/bedding from chicken coups. And salmon, natural carnivores in the wild, are now raised in fish farms being fed corn of all things, something they would not only never eat in the wild, but would never even encounter.

It seems to all go back to the American expectation of year-round availability of cheap food. We want to eat our asparagus and watermelons in December alongside our cheap piece of heavily marbled steak. For the most part, as long as our grocery bills aren’t affected, we don’t care how far our food has traveled, what atrocities the animals suffered, or how many workers were exploited. I am not advocating that everyone stop eating meat, I haven’t even quite done that yet. What I am hoping is that people will eat more consciously and be aware of the true cost of filling our plates.



  1. lynnel said,

    I became a vegetarian after starting my Animal Science major. I was not only totally grossed out by the lab we spent at the campus slaughter house, but also by what was being put into the food formulations for these animals. Yeck.
    Since the fast majority of my food intake is vegetables, I have discovered that the fresher it is the better it tastes (duh). Another argument for trying to buy as much as possible from local farmers, and buying in season. The nutrients are also higher when the produce is in season and hasn’t been flown halfway around the world
    Great post!

  2. mysterybea said,

    Lynnel- Thanks for the additional point about loss of nutrients. That’s the reason I don’t really go for the canned veggies (in addition to the fact that they just don’t taste very good!). The first part of your comment reminded me of a quote from “Ominvore’s Dilemma” – which the author wrote after his time spend in the feedlot – “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”

  3. lynnel said,

    Yup…believe me, you don’t want to know…

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