Would you like to pay a lot more for your food? Would you like to have fewer choices in the supermarket?
If you answered “Yes!” to either of those questions, the new movie Food, Inc., may be just for you.
Food, Inc., is a one-sided, negative, and misleading film about the way food is produced and sold in the United States. It is a documentary about the American food system the way Raiders of the Lost Ark was a documentary about archaeology.
The truth is:
- The modern American food industry is composed of many disparate industries, which together produce the world’s most abundant, diverse, safe, and economical supply of food for consumers in the United States and around the world.
- The system is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal, state and local agencies.
- American consumers are free to choose from a variety of food sources, ranging from their own gardens to community-supported agriculture to farmers’ markets to specialty stores to mainstream supermarkets, which themselves carry products from a wide variety of producers, processors, and manufacturers. Consumers’ choices have never been greater.
- The model favored by the makers of “Food, Inc.” – essentially local, small-scale production – is a viable niche in the overall food system, but a very small one. Small-scale farms and ranches simply could not provide sufficient food for 300 million Americans and millions of other people around the world. There is simply not enough land or labor available to make the model work.
- The cost to consumers would also be prohibitive. Products from small-scale producers are typically more expensive than products from mainstream producers. If a consumer wants to pay more, that is his or her business, but insisting that only expensive products from small-scale operations are worth eating is pure snobbery.
The film also advocates “local” production. That sounds fine until you remember that people in New York want orange juice. Oranges are not grown successfully, on a large scale, in New York. Not to mention rice, peanuts, peaches, pecans, avocados, apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, and many other crops. Long-distance transportation of fruit, produce, and many other products is a great advantage and allows people across the country to enjoy a varied diet. These days, perishable products can even be brought in from other countries, so that we can have fresh fruit in the winter. Are the makers of Food, Inc. against that?
No system is perfect, but American farmers, ranchers, producers of all kinds, processors, and manufacturers continue to meet the needs of consumers for safe, healthful, and nutritious foods that are convenient and affordable.
As for the Chicken Industry . . .
Food, Inc. covers a lot of territory, and it takes a swipe at the production of chickens by the mainstream industry. The truth is that the chicken industry produces, processes and markets chickens and chicken products in a safe, responsible manner that delivers wholesome, high-quality products to consumers at affordable prices. Here’s our response to specific points raised in the film about the broiler chicken business:
Health Care and Preventive Medicine for Broilers
Certain animal health products – some of them antibiotics, others not – are sometimes used in raising broilers. Any such usage is regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The purpose of these is to maintain good health in the flock or to treat outbreaks of illness. Because of steadily improving standards of poultry husbandry, the health of the flock nationwide has never been better, and the usage of antibiotics and other products has declined over the years.
When these products are used in live chickens, withdrawal periods are observed, as required by regulations, to ensure that no traces of the products are in the animals when they are processed for food.
Concern has sometimes been expressed over the possibility of “antibiotic resistance,” which theoretically could occur if animals are treated with antibiotics, which eliminate some but not all bacteria; the bacteria might then survive the processing of the birds and remain on food products, which are then not properly cooked before being consumed by humans. Through this lengthy chain of events, in theory a human could become ill with bacteria that have survived antibiotic treatment. However, the fact is that the most antimicrobials used in chickens are not actually used in humans, so the resistance problem would generally not occur. Even the antibiotics that have dual use (both animals and humans) are still highly effective in humans. Not a single case has ever been documented of a treatment failure in humans that stems from the usage of antibiotics in chickens.
Broilers (young meat chickens) are raised in large, open structures known as growout houses, where they have the run of a large growing area. These houses are equipped with mechanical systems to deliver feed and water to the birds and have environmental systems to provide a comfortable and productive environment, including ventilation systems and heaters that function as needed, most often with microprocessor controls. The earthen floor of the house is covered with bedding material consisting of organic matter such as wood chips, rice hulls, or peanut shells. Because dry bedding helps maintain flock health, the trend is towards enclosed watering systems rather than open troughs, because enclosed systems (“nipple drinkers”) reduce spillage and help keep the litter dry.
Keeping birds inside a house protects them from predators such as hawks and foxes. Some houses are equipped with curtain walls, which can be rolled up in good weather to admit natural light and fresh air. In that case, a fine mesh screen keeps rodents and wild birds out of the house and away from the broilers. Such biosecurity measures are critical to ensuring the health of the flock.
The lighting in a commercial broiler house is kept at levels commensurate with the needs and welfare of the animals. Higher levels are used early in the flock’s life to allow the birds to adjust to their surroundings. Dimmer levels are maintained much of the time to allow the birds to rest while still being able to find food and water. Feed and water are provided to the birds on a continual basis.
Growth Patterns in Broilers
Chickens have always grown quickly to market weight, which these days averages around five pounds. The broiler chicken today is larger and sturdier than in years past, thanks to continuous advancements in the science of poultry nutrition and selective breeding for desirable characteristics. However, breeding is done in the traditional manner; there is no “genetic modification” or “genetic engineering” in the broiler industry.
Economics of Broiler Production
The broiler chicken business is highly competitive, with relatively low prices for the products at retail and increasing costs of production due to factors such as the ethanol industry’s competing demand for corn, which is the principal component of chicken feed (the largest part of the cost of raising a chicken). As a result, raising chickens is not considered a lucrative business, but it can be a relatively steady one. This is because the integrated chicken company takes the bulk of the market risk while maintaining payments to its contract growers at a relatively stable level.
Growing chickens is usually a portion of a family’s income but not the principal income. In most cases, there is income from jobs off the farm or from other aspects of a diversified farming operation. There is simply not enough income from one or two chicken houses to support a family.
According to a University of Georgia researcher who has followed the subject closely for many years:
“The raising of broilers via contractual arrangements with integrated companies has been a primary component of the poultry meat industry for more than 50 years and has been a contributing factor in the growth and success of this business for both integrators and growers. Contract production has played a significant role in continuing the tradition of the family owned and operated farm for poultry growers. While poultry contracts offer benefits to growers such as reduced market risk, reduction of production responsibilities, lower operating capital, and relatively predictable incomes, broiler production operations require substantial investments for growers. Because poultry houses represent long term investments (30 years or more), individuals need to understand the long term business potential of these commitments before building.”
Dan L. Cunningham, Ph.D., “Broiler Production System in Georgia, Costs and Returns Analysis, 2007-2008”
Raising Chickens the Joel Salatin Way
Food, Inc. holds up an unconventional Virginia farmer named Joel Salatin as a model of sustainable, small-scale production. Mr. Salatin’s methods are very interesting but are simply impractical from the point of view of feeding 300 million Americans and millions of other consumers around the world.
Mr. Salatin practices “pastured poultry.” He uses 50 portable wooden pens that hold about 70 chickens each, and his helpers move them ten feet each day — by hand — to a new patch of grass, for the 56 days it takes to grow them to market weight. The chickens nibble on grass and eat insects, although they still get commercial feed because chickens have limited ability to metabolize nutrients from grass. Their manure fertilizes the pasture. Nothing wrong with that. But this system produces only 10,000 broilers a year on 100 acres, in flocks of 3,500 birds. If the mainstream commercial chicken industry tried to raise its annual production of nine billion birds in a similar fashion, it would need 45 million acres! That’s more than all the farmland in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas – combined. There is simply no way that much land would be available, not to mention the labor involved in moving the pens. If tractors were used, the “carbon footprint” would be enormous.
Mr. Salatin makes money from raising chickens to help supplement his income as an author and speaker. But to suggest that small-scale farmers could feed millions of people in America and around the world based on such methods is not realistic. “Pastured poultry” is suitable for a niche market, but not the vast mainstream market.
According to Dr. Cunningham, the cost of building a modern, four-house contract broiler production unit with tunnel ventilation, solid walls and cool pads, from scratch would be $700,000, or $8.75 per square foot. If 100 percent of the cost was financed at 8.5 percent for 15 years, the annual cost would be $82,718.
The grower would expect gross income of $170,170 based on payments from the integrator of 5.25 cents per pound plus a small fuel payment. After paying the mortgage and expenses such as utilities, the grower would have about $30,000 net cash income. The cash income would increase significantly when the mortgage is paid off. As noted, the $30,000 would be a supplement to the family’s income and not the principal income itself.
Michael Pollan’s Point of View
Food, Inc. is based largely on the writings of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books. While Pollan’s writing is widely praised, some see a certain attitude at work. Here are excerpts from one review:
“What Pollan fails to explicitly acknowledge, or perhaps even to concede at all, is that his brand of boutique eating is a luxury good. He’s rich (not that there’s anything wrong with that), so he can afford to refuse beef when he isn’t sure the cows have been allowed to graze on grass their entire lives. He has time to keep a vegetable garden . . . .
“Pollan’s positions are shaped by his exquisitely refined political and gastronomical sensibilities, to be sure, but a huge aesthetic component seems to be lurking beneath the surface, mostly unacknowledged by Pollan himself. Food, like other cultural artifacts, is freighted with symbolism, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma could easily serve as a how-to guide for elite eating. . . You get the sense that we’re moving toward a world where the only really refined cuisine will be turnips, pulled from our own gardens in front of our dinner guests and cooked on the spot in butter churned at home earlier that day.”
From “How the Upper Crust Eats: Food as a status symbol,” by Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason Magazine, November 2006
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Washington, DC 20005