Food, Romance, History

February 11, 2009

There’s something powerful about the romantic allure of a lost golden age of food. Evidently there was a time when Americans ate well, ate locally, ate fresh, ate communally, and ate with moderation.  The professional historian in me finds this hard to believe. But, among food writers at least, I appear to be all alone in my skepticism.

Mark Bittman, whom I respect as much as any food writer alive, falls prey to the myth of a culinary Eden in his latest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. The book is generally wonderful, and Bittman is to be given much credit for having the guts to come out and tell his many sybaritic followers that they must reduce meat consumption.  But still, he cannot help but call for a “focus away from the twentieth-century style of eating and back to something saner, more traditional, and less manufactured.” (emphasis added) Michael Pollan, whose work has also been a great inspiration to me (not that I agree with him all the time), practically wallows in the myth, describing Joel Salatin’s operation in these terms: “The farm and the family comprised a remarkably self contained world, in the way I imagined all American life once did.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

But here’s the deal: you don’t have to imagine anything.

The history of pre-industrial agriculture is laid bare, much of it in published sources like Experiment Station reports, almanacs, agriculture newspapers, diaries, account books, USDA brochures, and the like.  I can assure these stumpers for the long lost Golden Age that, should they take the time to consult the actual rather than the imagined past, the rose tinted lenses would quickly go clear.  

Here are a few things the romantics assuredly would not find: subsistence agriculture (no farm was self sufficient), a quest to eat local (everyone was after surplus production and foreign trade), healthy food (everyone cooked with lard), safe food (insecticide of choice was arsenic), and recycled manure (fertilizer often came from afar, often in the form of guano from Chile and Peru).  There’s your lost Golden Age.

I guess I wouldn’t bother bringing the matter up if all that was at stake was the accuracy of the historical record. Too often, though, people seduced by the romantics make dietary changes that conform to the myth’s psychic appeal. One area where I see this happening with potentially dangerous consequences is the quest to eat wild food rather than “industrial” food.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, eating free range pigs and chicken has been determined to be more dangerous than eating pigs raised conventionally.

And now this: A San Antonio company has recalled wild elk that it distributed because the elk was found to have Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)–a fatal brain and nervous system disease. Officials are alarmed by the finding because an outbreak of CWD can easily spread from elk to wild deer, which humans consume much more of than elk. The prospect of CWD transmitting to humans is theoretical, but given that another prion-mediated disease–bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)–does spread to humans, it is not out of the question. BSE is also known as Mad Cow Disease.  

Who knows what else lurks in the gut mucosa of the wild kingdom. But before we start becoming hunter-gatherers again, or even talk about its supposed health benefits, we’d be wise to recall that, as those historical documents reveal, one reason why we started domesticating meat in the first place was that it was easier to control contamination.


elk recall:

From Melamine to Mercury

January 29, 2009

After two years of hearing about melamine in pet food and baby formula, watchful consumers have learned that the industrial inputs into our food supply are depressingly unregulated. With so much of the world’s food dependent on bulk amounts of gluten and milk powder, the opportunity for fraud (as in spiking milk powder with melamine to enhance the appearance of protein) or just cutting economic corners (and thus compromising safety) are endless. It is into this latter category that the recent bad news about mercury falls.

Here is the essence of what scientists writing in the January 26 issue of Environmental Health have reported: high fructose corn syrup produced with mercury grade caustic soda led to mercury contamination in over 50 percent of the common commercial foods they tested. Mercury is toxic. It should never be in our food. The scientists wrote, 

We sent several dozen products to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

Before we rush to judgment and condemn Quaker Oats, however, do keep in mind that the HFCS was never labeled “mercury grade.” There was no way for Manwich or Hunt’s or Hershey’s to know that HFCS manufactures used caustic soda made in chlorine plants equipped with mercury cells, which is evidently the source of the contamination.  Critics of our globalized and industrialized food system are rightly calling for a wider embrace of alternative food systems. But that is not enough.  

Our food systems are vast. Supply chains are seemingly eternal. And they are not going away–no matter how loudly we beat the drum for small-scale agriculture, they are not going away. The vast majority of consumers will always —always–buy industrialized food. Fortunately, mercury contamination, like melamine contamination, is not necessarily a reflection of a super-sized food system. It is, though, necessarily a sign of a super-sized political failure.  Recall how the FDA handled the melamine scandal [] and you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s dragging it bureaucratic feet on the mercury news. Again, the scientists: 

Through this public scientist’s initiative, the FDA learned that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury. The agency has apparently done nothing to inform consumers of this fact, however, or to help change industry practice.

While I generally support the move toward alternative systems, I am fearful of at least two things. One, I fear that our unfounded assumption that smaller is safer will prevent us from subjecting alternative agriculture to stringent safety and environmental regulations.  Two, and more importantly, I fear that the many benefits of alternative agriculture will obscure the fact that conventional food production can, with political reform, be reliably safe. (Look at what has happened to cars since Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965). After all, several years ago, a young and ambitious Senator introduced legislation to force chlorine plants to upgrade their old mercury cells.  The legislation went nowhere, but the Senator did. He’s now our President.

Link to the study: