WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad - October 15

Macomb, IL – It's called a food chain for a reason. Just as in a physical chain, all the links are connected. The health - mind, body, & soul - of the humans at the top of the chain are linked to the health of the plants and animals we consume. The plants and animals we eat are linked to the health of the soil, water, and air. And guess what? We are all sick.

The movie "Food Inc," which is being shown today (October 15) at the Rialto Cinemas in Macomb, takes a critical look at our nation's food industry. The film uncovers our highly mechanized industrialized food system that is concealed from the American consumer with the approval of our government's regulatory agencies, the USDA and FDA.

Our nation's food supply is controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the health of our environment, the safety of the workers who process our food, and the livelihood of the American farmer.

There is no doubt that science has given us huge advances in food production. We now have bigger-breasted chickens, herbicide-resistant soybeans, and even tomatoes that can travel thousands of miles and don't go bad. At the same time, we are plagued by new strains of E. coli the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans each year. Why should we care? Because this epidemic hits us straight on.

According to a July 2009 report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, Illinois has the 27th highest rate of adult obesity in the nation, at 25.9% and the 10th highest of overweight youths (ages 10-17) at 34.9%.

On October 10, 2007 Cargill, one of the major meat processers in the United States, recalled over 840,000 pounds of ground beef patties after they were linked to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened more than 900 people in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Virginia. The problem was discovered through an investigation into two illnesses that was initiated by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

According to the New York Times, despite being called "Angus" on the label, the ground beef patties were, "made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin." Some of the ingredients came from several slaughterhouses in the U.S., as well as one in Uruguay.

Industry research shows that low-grade ingredients are often cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli. Some of the processing facilities where some ingredients were obtained often treat the mash-like products with ammonia to kill bacteria. Did you know this? I didn't. Using low-grade ingredients rather than whole cuts of beef costs saves Cargill 25% on their bottom line.

Most of us are suckers for marketing. We see the pretty red barns and the pigs in the pasture on the bacon packages and think that this is the way in which our meat is raised. In reality most animals in the United States are raised in CAFOS or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, aka, industrial farms. CAFOS have a detrimental impact on the physical environment. Did you know that:

*The quantity of urine and feces from even the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans?

*Or that a CAFO can house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals?

*CAFO animals are confined at least 45 days or more per year in an area without vegetation.

*CAFOs include open feedlots, as well as massive, windowless buildings where livestock are confined in boxes or stalls.

*And CAFO waste is usually not treated to reduce disease-causing pathogens, nor to remove chemicals, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or other pollutants.

We are all connected and we are all either sick or well on our way there. So what is to be done? Be mindful of what you eat.

Wendell Berry famously said, "Eating is an agricultural act." But it is also an ecological and political act.

Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma, "Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world."

If this is you, then "Food Inc." is probably not the film for you.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. She is a member of the Food Initiatives Group in Macomb.