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Food Controversies in Context

Friday, August 27, 2010
Introduction: Kinds of Controversies

Food scandals come in many flavors -- or off-flavors, if you prefer. Consumers get upset when the media tell them about price gouging. News about the combined issues of food quality and food safety (which could be about contamination by pathogens or adulterants, or the over-use of antibiotics and growth hormones) creates mass hysteria. Less intense reactions are generated by news of the environmental impacts of food-production -- such as pollution, over-harvesting, monoculture, genetic modification -- but, for concerned citizens, the outrage is just as real. Other politically active citizens, who may or may not be the same people concerned about environmental issues, take their social responsibility very seriously. The issues of animal rights, working conditions among food producers, exploitation of poor third-world farmers, and the loss of cultural distinctions -- caused by the globalization of mass-produced foods -- are of great concern to such people.

It might be useful to examine a number of these issues, to see what -- if anything -- we can make of them.

Fair Pricing

Is there anyone, anywhere, who likes being ripped off?

Of course not.

When we discover that our favorite candy bar has been diminished by half an ounce, but the price has remained the same -- or, worse, has increased, we are outraged, if only for a moment. We may say that we won't pay it, but -- in the end -- we always do. Every time we hear of price gouging, at every level of the economy, we moan and groan about it, but never really do anything about it.

Has anyone ever successfully boycotted his or her favorite candy bar?

No, in fact the only time anyone seriously complains about price gouging is when they're running for public office or trying to sell their newspapers and magazines. Those among us who are even vaguely savvy realize that this is just another effort to rip us off, so we ignore it. Consequently, we might conclude that fair pricing is not, properly, a scandal.

Depressing, perhaps, but not the kind of thing that gets the public all worked up.

What has roused the public to violence is the perception that the government doesn't care about the well-being of the public stomach. Statements such as Marie Antoinette's famous "Let them eat cake" -- which, by the way, she never said -- are just the sort of thing that leads to the toppling, sometimes literally, of heads of governments. Consequently, prudent governments have worked to prevent that perception from forming in the minds of the governed. The French baguette has long been standardized at 250 grams (just under nine ounces). The price used to be fixed as well, but with the adoption of the Euro, the price now fluctuates -- but at least the consumer knows that the weight of the bread is consistent.

Government standards for staple foods are older than that example -- and the French should have taken a lesson from England's thirteenth century King, Henry III, who signed into law the Assize of Bread and Ale. It standardized the quality, measurement, and pricing for bakers and brewers. Rather than setting uniform weights and prices for bread, the law established fixed ratios between grain prices and the price (and weight) of loaves. Many bakers, afraid of running afoul of the new laws, began giving their customers an extra loaf or roll for every dozen purchased -- giving rise to the practice known as "baker's dozen." The standards for bread were abandoned in the nineteenth century, but the baker's dozen survives as a sign of fair-play and good intentions.

The complicated rules of the Assize of Bread and Ale were, as you might suppose, also applied to brewed beverages. By the sixteenth century, the rules were changed to allow local magistrates to set pricing standards for ale. Of course, there are more ways to cheat a customer than through exorbitant pricing.

Melegueta pepper, or grains of paradise (Amomum Melegueta) -- was used, in the Renaissance, as a cheap substitute for black pepper (Piper nigrum). The adulteration of beer and wine with this spice increased their perceived warmth, and was intended to give the illusion of higher alcoholic strength. Elizabeth the First, in the sixteenth century, loved the taste of melegueta pepper in drinks -- but George the Third, in the eighteenth, banned its use by brewers. He was concerned that its use was disguising weak quaffs. The fines for its illicit use were so great that the spice virtually disappeared in England -- and, eventually, throughout Europe. Today it has reappeared, without larcenous intent, in Sam Adams Summer Ale.

Jan Whittaker, a food writer and consumer historian, summarized the situation: "Economic development …facilitates adulteration. Although it is as old as the history of trade, in its modern manifestations it is often the stepchild of science. Scientific development breeds sophisticated trickery via new preservatives, dyes, and fillers. The conditions that promote adulteration are clear: a rapidly expanding economy and lax government controls, combined with bargain-hungry consumers driving a market for cheap goods."

In a sense, we get what we pay for -- even when we don't know what we're buying.

Food Quality

In the past few years Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock's Super-size Me, have roused the public's concerns over the quality of hamburgers and, indeed, the whole hamburger-based culture in which we seem to live. People have been disgusted by what they've learned about the contents of their burgers. Their outrage has led some fast food chains to post the nutritional content of their products in their places of business (I almost said "restaurants," but the very word stuck in my throat). Needless to say, the information is not very accessible -- it's often hidden away in a corner, and printed in small-enough type to discourage casual readers. The fact, however, is that the nutritional content of the burgers is not the real issue.

What people really want to know, and what such informational posters fail to address, is "what's really in them?"

Every once in a while, rumors drift through the consuming public -- unsettling and unsubstantiated rumors -- that reveal the depth of people's worries about food quality. Urban legends circulate about Kentucky Fried Rat, the scarcity of cats near Chinese restaurants, the percentage of earthworm meat that is legally permissible in mass-produced hamburger meat, or rodent hairs in peanut butter. Most of these stories are either untrue, bigoted, or simply reflect the public's lack of mathematical sophistication. What they do tell us is that people are more than willing to believe the worst when it comes to the provenance of their food. When, not long ago, someone claimed to find a severed finger in a meal at Wendy's, the average American's first reaction was to believe it -- not question the motives of the claimant.

Such claims are indeed scandalous, but what makes them scandalous is our willingness to assume their accuracy. The reason we believe them is that we have been conditioned by factual reporting of such matters in the past. A You-Tube-featured video of diseased cattle being taken into a slaughterhouse in Southern California brought the public's attention to the fact that 143 million pounds of diseased beef had been recalled from the food markets -- the largest recall of beef in our history. The recent recall of millions of fresh eggs is but another example.

The tradition of muckraking journalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially that of Upton Sinclair, created a similar public awareness of the limits of food quality in the American marketplace.

Before the summer of 1905, the quality of American food was monitored by just two men -- the Department of Agriculture's entire Bureau of Chemistry. The Senate had contemplated a Pure Food and Drug bill for three years -- with little enthusiasm. In that year, the editor of Appeal to Reason, sent Upton Sinclair to the Chicago stockyards to chronicle their terrible working conditions -- just the sort of thing that a socialist magazine would want to publish. He spent most of November and December of that year interviewing workers. While there, Sinclair met a man who had worked in Armour's "killing beds." The man had, himself, written an exposé of what he had seen there, but he told Sinclair that "old P.D. Armour had paid him five thousand dollars not to publish it."

Sinclair's series of articles were republished in other magazines, then was then published in book form, in 1906, as The Jungle. The disturbingly squalid book was typical of the muckraking journalism of the day. Sinclair had been a student in New York City in the 1890s -- and his book was an emotionally charged and convincing extension of Jacob Riis's 1890 exposé, How the Other Half Lives.

In The Jungle, the packing plants in Chicago were called "Durham's," but readers all knew they were reading about Armour's plants. The book is ugly, dark and squalid -- and the slaughterhouse scenes were horrific.

The magazine articles and subsequent novel outraged the American public -- not as much about the worker's situation as the sanitary conditions in the plants, and of the plant's products. The popularity of The Jungle caused meat sales to decline so sharply, that President Theodore Roosevelt empowered the Neill-Reynolds Commission to investigate conditions in the nation's food industry.

For the preceding three years, the U.S. Senate had considered a Pure Food and Drug bill, but there had been little public support for it until Sinclair's book appeared. Suddenly it was pushed forward -- in part by the findings of the Neill-Reynolds Commission.

Roosevelt told Sinclair that the commission was able to confirm everything in the book except one particularly graphic scene, in which a worker falls into a vat used for rendering lard. Sinclair confirmed the story, explaining that, "the men who had fallen into lard vats had gone out to the world as Armour's Pure Leaf Lard… the families were paid off and shipped back to Lithuania, or whatever European land they had come from…"

Sinclair's investigation of conditions in Chicago's stockyards and packing plants aroused the wrath of the consuming public and forced the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Beef Inspection Act. The Pure Food and Drug Act, concerned primarily with adulteration, contained only one sentence about food quality (other than issues of undesirable additives). According to Section 7, a food was considered impure, "If it consists in whole or in part of a filthy, decomposed, or putrid animal or vegetable substance, or any portion of an animal unfit for food, whether manufactured or not, or if it is the product of a diseased animal, or one that has died otherwise than by slaughter."

Roosevelt's concern -- combined with the fact that meat sales in the U.S. dropped by 50% in the weeks following The Jungle's release -- was more than enough to lead to the successful passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and its corollary the Beef Inspection Act. Superficially in the best interest of consumers, the act's penalties for industry violators were light. Industry lobbyists managed to make these acts relatively toothless (a maximum of one year's imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $500 per violation), these acts did lead to the restructuring of existing agencies, like the Bureau of Chemistry, into what has been known, since 1930, as the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA was created to restore the public's faith in the safety of its food supply systems, rather than force the companies to protect the public well-being.

A massive recall, in 2008, of tainted beef was oddly familiar -- including the USDA's official Recall Release (FSIS-RC-005-2008), which announced Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company's voluntary recall of two year's worth of tainted meat as a "Class II" situation. Here's how Class II is defined: "This is a health hazard situation where there is a remote possibility of adverse health consequences from the use of the product." The word "remote" is clearly intended to calm the public's fears about exactly what they've been eating for the last two years. For those who have seen the videos, the official pronouncement is small consolation.

Food Safety

In the fall of 2006, manure from nearby pastures contaminated the water used to irrigate a California spinach farm. Premium-grade, "pre-washed" spinach then found its way into grocery stores and into the salads of health-conscious consumers. Ironically, consumers were not aware that "organic" could mean that the crisp healthy greens on their table could be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 -- a particularly virulent stain of fecal bacteria that could lead to diarrhea, kidney failure, and even death. Before the month was out, three companies that obtained their spinach from Natural Selections Foods (the California grower and processor of the spinach) announced recalls of their products. According to a December 29th article in USA Today, "Demand for spinach fell to almost nothing in September after the FDA temporarily warned consumers not to eat fresh spinach." Four months later, sales were still down to 37% of what they had been the previous December.

Adulterants, like the grains of paradise mentioned earlier, have long been used to alter the public's perception of a food's quality. They are also used to reduce the cost of the product's manufacture. Pet foods from China have been found to be contaminated with melamine -- a toxic compound that is not only cheap, but causes nutritional analysis to indicate higher levels of protein than are actually in the pet food. The public was, naturally, very upset -- especially when some of their beloved pets sickened and died. The situation did not improve when it was discovered that some pigs raised in California were given the same kind of melamine-tainted feed, and had found their way into the human food chain.

Cases of willful adulteration or unintended contamination can lead to effects on the food industry that are way out of proportion to their initial causes, as consumers will go out of their way to avoid any product that has even a hint of a connection to such scandals.

British cookbook author Robert Kemp Philp wrote in 1861, "Those who desire to obtain good Cayenne Pepper, free from adulteration and poisonous colouring matter, should make it of English chilies." The adulteration he described was not at all unusual. One of the reasons that Absinthe was banned in most countries a few decades later (aside from its alleged hallucinogenic properties and the efforts of crusaders for prohibition) was its frequent adulteration with poisonous copper sulfate.

While we're discussing potent potables, consider the fact that Angostura Bitters no longer contain even traces of angostura bark (Cusparia trifoliata). They did, originally, but nineteenth-century rumors of contamination by strychnine (Strychnos nux-vomica) caused its manufacturers to abandon every part of the Angostura plant but its name.

The first legislation aimed at controlling the use of food additives was enacted in Britain, early in the 19th century, following the work of Frederick Accum. It was intended to prevent food adulteration. In the US, public concern about the safety of bread that was baked outside of the home led New York City to pass the New York Bakeshop Law, setting minimum standards for hygiene. Ironically (and oddly reminiscent of current efforts to limit government interference in business, at the expense of the public), the Supreme Court overturned that law in 1905 -- a year before Upton Sinclair's book came out.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Sylvester Graham -- and a little later, John Harvey Kellogg, sensed that something had gone wrong with American food, but they lacked our scientific perspective. The science of nutrition was still in its infancy. Frederick Hopkins first identified what he called "accessory factors" to nutrition in 1898 -- these compounds would later be called "vitamines" (short for "vital amines), and in 1920 became the "vitamins" we know today. Men like Kellogg and Graham were ready, if not truly able, to formulate nutritional regimens that they believed would lead to good health. They were convinced that the processed foods of the day were responsible for the poor health -- physical, spiritual and moral -- of the American populace. They preached that whole grains, processed as little as possible, were the key to good health.

Both men had enormous impact on American eating habits, in part because of the enthusiasm of their followers. Large numbers of influential people flocked to Kellogg's sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan -- Upton Sinclair among them. The Transcendentalist authors of Concord -- Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott -- were Graham converts who brought his ideas to a wider public than he could ever have achieved on his own. The theories of Kellogg and his competitors (including his own brother Will Keith Kellogg and former patient Charles William Post) led to the American attachment to breakfast cereals, while our notions about whole foods can be traced directly to the coarse whole-wheat flour -- named for its promoter -- that gives us Graham Crackers.

Over-use of Antibiotics and Growth Hormones

Since the first antibiotic -- penicillin -- was discovered in 1928, we have enjoyed a kind of immunity from diseases that have literally plagued us for milennia. However, antibiotics cannot solve all of our health problems; they cannot stop viruses, fungus infections, parasites or environmental illnesses caused by toxins. Even for those diseases that can be successfully treated with antibiotics, there are important concerns of a very different nature. When antibiotics are used improperly -- -either in ineffective dosages, or for too short a period to completely destroy the offending bacteria, the few that remain can develop a tolerance for the drug. Once that happens, the survivors become the dominant form and multiply rapidly, effectively eliminating the drug's usefulness.

This is bad enough when we use antibiotics to treat our own diseases, but it's even worse when we use them to treat the animals we use for food. There are a few reasons why this is so.
First, the public is -- for the most part -- unaware that it is eating small amounts of these antibiotics in the meats it consumes. This is significant because when low doses of the drugs are taken, it gives bacteria a better chance to mutate into drug-resistant forms, so when we do become ill, we have fewer choices of weapons to use against the disease.

Second, modern production involves over-crowding of meat animals in environments that foster the development of disease, so antibiotics are used routinely. Unfortunately, the most efficient way to deliver the drugs -- in the animals' feed -- is not the most effective way to control disease while preventing formation of disease-resistant strains. Part of the reason the industry prefers this seemingly foolish approach to medication is that, when antibiotics are combined with growth hormones, the effectiveness of the hormones is enhanced. Animals put on salable weight faster, so profits are greater. Time is, indeed, money -- and when it's a choice between definite profits now and possible disease later, profits always win.

The Environment

Many of today's consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of the foods they eat -- and they have good reason to be concerned. Pollution, over-harvesting, monoculture, genetic modification, and food miles/carbon footprints have become buzzwords on the lips of grocery shoppers. Of course, the reasons we have relatively inexpensive food -- and so many different foods from which to choose -- are also the same reasons we need to be worried.

Mass-production, ever-increasing efficiency of harvesting methods, scientific manipulation of food plants and animals, and a vast network of transportation systems fill our markets with goodies, but also poison our environment.

Consumer boycotts have targeted many of the companies that are the worst offenders -- at least when protesters can actually discover who the offending companies are. The intricacies of modern agribusiness and multinational food companies are sometimes very difficult to parse into their component parts. One method, that doesn't require such detailed analysis, is to simply avoid buying foods that come from big companies, or travel great distances. That's why "think globally, act locally" has become the mantra for many of us.

It is essentially the argument that Sylvester Graham advocated in the nineteenth century. Mishio Kushi, a century later, created macrobiotics for much the same reasons -- even if neither of them knew the science behind our modern concerns. They just knew, intuitively, that there was something wrong with the way that food production was moving.

The "think globally, act locally" approach has a great appeal, but may not be as effective as its practitioners may hope. For one thing, using many small trucks to move small amounts of food around locally may actually use more fuel and create more pollution than shipping huge amounts of food by train or tractor-trailer. Two recent studies of the carbon footprints of beef production provide some interesting insights.

David Tisch -- a professor at the College of Agriculture and Technology at the State University of New York at Cobleskill -- has calculated the differences between two environmental choices in beef production. He found that when cattle are raised on grain, 1.6 pounds of carbon dioxide is produced per 12-ounce steak of beef, while the same 12-ounce steak of grass-fed beef produces only .3 pounds of CO2 -- even though the grass-fed beef needs to be shipped 2,000 miles to consumers in the east.

This sounds like a great argument for free-range beef, right?

According to Jan Bertilsson -- at the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden -- grass-fed beef produces much more methane than does grain-fed beef -- and methane is twenty times more effective in causing global warming than carbon dioxide.

The conscientious consumer is forced to choose between two equally-bad choices. A truly conscientious consumer would have to choose to eat less beef -- or no beef at all.

John Harvey Kellogg, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was convinced that beef was a terrible pollutant -- but he believed it was polluting the bodies of beef-eaters. Had he known that it was polluting the planet, his self-satisfaction would have been complete.

Social Responsibility

In recent years, we have witnessed events that are strangely reminiscent of those described by Upton Sinclair a century ago. An article in The New York Times (February 5, 2008) reported the appearance of a strange new disease among workers in two plants that processed pigs into various food products. The affliction was first noted among workers at Quality Pork Processors, a meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota that is next to the Hormel plant that it serves. Three workers suffered odd neurological problems, such as "heavy legs," fatigue, pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in the legs and feet. What the victims had in common was their job. They used high-pressure air-hoses to literally blow the brains out of pigs' heads. While doing their job, they were often covered with a fine aerosol mist of raw brains and spinal fluid. Doctors are not sure about the exact cause of the illness, but they know that it manifests itself as an inflammation of the nerves where they emerge from the patients' spinal columns. The same illnesses have been seen at a plant in Indiana that also uses the high-pressure air hoses.

Both plants have stopped harvesting brains using that technique. This is, in part, because Minnesota has one of the best health departments (and the Mayo Clinic runs Austin's medical center). This quick response is very different from what would have been seen just one century before.

The workers in today's packing plants are not from central Europe; they are much more likely to be from Mexico and Central America. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation paints a picture of the beef industry that is different from Sinclair's vision of the pork industry only in only two details: the species being disassembled, and the scale of the undertaking. It's the latter that terrifies environmentalists and health-conscious consumers. Too many "average Americans" are less bothered by the fact that second-class citizens -- immigrants -- are the ones who are suffering in the plants. A hundred years ago they were Slavs and Poles, today they are Hispanics, but their plight barely enters the consciousness of the hamburger-eating public. What worries them is the risks they might be taking while shoveling burgers into their mouths.

To the end of his life, Sinclair Lewis complained that, while he had written The Jungle in an attempt to improve the working conditions in the stockyards, he wound up improving the quality of the foods served on tables across the country. He joked, sadly, that he had "…aimed at the public's heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach."


As we have seen, most of the kinds of food scandals that are making news today have arisen, again and again, throughout history. Many of the ones we see today are the result of increased mass-production (and the short-cuts and substitution of ingredients that such production permits) -- but they are not, in principle, different from the cheating in which pre-industrial food producers were likely to engage. What has changed is the scale, the societal and environmental impact of the activity, and the rapid dissemination of news about the cheating and its effects. As a result, food consumers are often shocked and puzzled about alternative options -- which often results in bad decisions at the market and in the kitchen.

One example is the current interest in food miles. While the notion of reducing the carbon footprints of food, and supporting local producers of food, is admirable, it may not actually yield the intended results. Sometimes transporting small amounts of produce short distances in many small trucks generates larger amounts of greenhouse gases than one large truck. Some small farms, producing "organic" produce have unwittingly been contaminated with waste that is beyond their control -- and therefore unreported to consumers. Large producers may -- or may not -- be subject to greater government oversight. The issue is not as clear as consumers would like, and media over-attention to individual cases only adds to their confusion.

Food scandals, clearly, will continue to rouse the populace. Sometimes, as with the public outrage that followed the publication of The Jungle, they lead to government regulation -- like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Sometimes, as with the public outrage that followed the publication, and subsequent movie version of Fast Food Nation, very little change results. A few people decided not to eat hamburgers anymore -- but the vast majority of American consumers still salivate at the sight of golden arches.


Allen, Gary. "Upton Sinclair." In Arndt, Alice (ed.). Culinary Biographies. Houston, TX: Yes Press, 2006.

Allen, Gary and Ken Albala (eds.). The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

"Belching Cows," (interview with Jan Bertilsson, professor at the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala). Living on Earth, NPR, 8 February 2008

"California Firm Recalls Beef Products Derived from Non-Ambulatory Cattle Without the Benefit of Proper Inspection." USDA Recall Notice FSIS-RC-005-2008, 17 February 2008.

Grady. Denise. "A Medical Mystery Unfolds in Minnesota," The New York Times, February 5, 2008.

"Math on the Range," (interview with David Tisch, professor at the College of Agriculture and Technology at the State University of New York at Cobleskill). Living on Earth, NPR, 8 February 2008

Whitaker, Jan. "America's History of Tainted Consumer Goods." Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2007, p. 9.


This is a somewhat revised version of a talk given at the New School, 20 February 2008.


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