Pink slime in beef. Feces on chicken. Cantaloupe laced with listeria. E. coli on spinach.
The consuming public must wonder if there is any one commodity that is unimpeachable, untouchable from disillusionment and a fall from grace.
If you felt good about avoiding burgers because of the pink slime debacle, you may feel ill with the media hype only days later about the presence of feces on chicken. That oft-cited report said that nearly half the chicken products marketed by national brands and sold in supermarket are contaminated with feces.
Animal agriculture in particular is taking it in the chops in recent weeks. This column by David Kirby looks to hype his book by raising an issue that most of us are probably unaware of. As he puts it, “One of the most revolting things I learned while researching my new book "Animal Factory" is that some cattle are fattened on rations that include chicken manure.”
Kirby’s book is titled “"Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment" so don’t expect an industry friendly, “thank a farmer today” take on large-scale feeding operations.
Kirby hones in on the fact that poultry feed contains bits of rendered beef byproducts. He said the spilling of that feed into their litter, which is then fed to cattle for its high urea content, raises the specter of “cows eating cows.”
“And, as everyone knows, cows that eat cows can go "mad" with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or spongy cow-brain disease),” he offers.
Whatever challenges the fresh produce industry faces in the court of public opinion, animal agriculture faces a much tougher battle.
USA Today recently published an editorial that said that while the pink slime issue effected a profound change in consumer behavior, other priorities remain undone – perhaps in search of winning wordplay.
As the editorial put it, "What's unsatisfying about the episode is that so many other aspects of food production are crying out for change, including problems that have sickened and killed tens of thousands of people over the past decade. Powerful special interests, aided by a compliant Congress and slow-footed bureaucrats, have deftly stood in the way. Without yucky names to gin up public attention, though, the problems go begging for solutions that never come.”
The editorial centers on yet another thorn in the side of animal agriculture, the “rampant overuse of antibiotics in animal feed.” The piece also mentions the need for labeling on pork and beef that have been mechanically tenderized.
And, more central to the produce industry’s concern, the USA Today editorial chides the FDA for failing to meet a deadline in setting down new rules to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The produce industry hasn’t escaped the scrutiny from the media and activist groups regarding negative consumer perceptions. Sales of melons swooned last year in the weeks after the listeria outbreak linked to Colorado cantaloupes.
The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list is an annual if diminishing reminder of unwanted attention. The fickle finger of fate and fuzzy science can put a particular commodity in the cross-hairs of a righteous campaign of alliteration purporting to keep moms and their kids safe from pesticide residues.
Still, through no effort or new merit of its own, the fresh produce industry may have much to gain from increasing consumer doubts regarding “animal factory” agriculture.
Who can find anything bad to say about an orange? Who writes an expose on honeycrisp apples? And who disses blueberries or broccoli, when you get right down to it?
It is not the job of the fruit and vegetable marketers to refuse the halo of consumer preference, but only to be worthy of it. Creating a well-funded national generic promotion campaign to address health benefits of fresh produce should be pursued. Attention to produce safety should not falter.
After all, it is not inconceivable that the next unappetizing word play may be directed at fruits and vegetables.