Studies have shown that many people all over the world are unaware of where their food comes from. When an individual goes to consume a food product, he or she could be completely oblivious to the methods of manufacture, processing, packaging or transportation gone into the production of the food item. It is often said that ‘ignorance is bliss’ – perhaps this rings true in the case of food, its origins and its consumption as well. In such a scenario, eating well could seem like an unlikely prospect. The definition of ‘eating well’ in modern times seems to have gone from eating healthily, to eating ethically.
The manner in which food is produced and consumed has changed more rapidly in the past fifty years than it has in the previous ten thousand years (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008). With this swift transformation, various ethical issues came to the fore. Food production is now done large scale in factories, rather than in farms. Mass production of various types of food, from crops and vegetables to seafood and meat, is very much the norm. The fact that food is mass produced nowadays is already something that a lot of people do not know about. The reason behind this is that food producing firms do not want the consumers – their customers – to know too much about the food manufacturing industry (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008), in the fear that customer loyalty could be lost upon their finding out various truths. To retain their customer base, according to documentary film ‘Food, Inc.’, narrated by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, the image associated with food in the United States of America is that of an American farmer. Various motifs plastered all over food packaging and advertisements for food products, such as green pastures for grazing cattle, picket fences, the typical farmhouse, vast meadows and, most importantly, the farmer, lead consumers to believe that their food still comes from farms, or at least a pastoral version of small time cottage industries. With these motifs constantly pervading the sensibilities of the average American consumer, it is little wonder that the consumer continues to ‘eat unethically’ – they are simply in the dark. Because what these motifs represent could not be further from the reality. The apparent crop central to all mass food production, as shown on ‘Food Inc’ (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008) and alluded to in Pollan’s book, ‘In The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ (2006), is corn. Corn is used in a vast assortment of ways in the food manufacturing industry. Besides, of course, being a food crop for direct consumption by humans, it is used to make a range of additives in processed food too, such as high fructose corn syrup, ascorbic acid, xanthan gum, et cetera. Corn is also a significant constituent of animal fodder, and is fed to almost all kinds of livestock.
These include animals that are not meant, by evolution, to eat corn, such as cattle and fish (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008). The massive demand for corn is only counterbalanced by the massive supply of corn in the United States. This is due to the American government subsidising the cost of production of corn, encouraging corn farmers to produce more than the amount is truly required. Because of such heavy subsidies, corn becomes extremely cheap, produced at merely a fraction of its cost of production, and results in an enormous scale of production of corn. This manner of overproduction and consumption of corn alone raises a few ethical issues. First of all, the feeding of corn to cows and fish – not the natural food of such animals – causes immense problems to these animals, which could bring about serious repercussions to humankind as well. Take for instance, the feeding of corn to cows. Because corn is produced extremely cheaply, meat manufacturers are inclined to use corn as their choice of feed for their livestock, in order to cut down on the selling price of meat. Studies have shown that feeding corn to cows has brought about the emergence of a new, acid resistant strain of E.coli bacteria (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008). This, coupled with the terrible rearing conditions of the cows, causes the new strain of E.coli to get into the meat meant to be eventually sold. This strain of bacteria has proven to be dangerous, having claimed the lives of many people. Knowing this, the expected public reaction would be an outcry against the food manufacturing industry, demanding answers and greater, better checks of food producing companies. However, even such reactions may not yield any permanent solutions. According to ‘Food Inc.’, food regulatory bodies are being led by people from the very firms they are meant to regulate. This has appeared to cause certain food monitoring measures to become relaxed, such as a sharp decline in number of checks conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States, from 50 000 in 1972, to 9164 in 2006. One woman’s constant lobbying for better checks and regulation after her son, Kevin, passed away due to contaminated food brought about a ‘Kevin’s Law’, which, six years into her efforts, still had not been passed (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008).
There is little surprise that the food produced nowadays is getting more and more dangerous for consumption. Given these circumstances, ‘eating well’ has become even more unlikely – the general public’s efforts to control the quality of their food gets constantly thwarted by powerful corporate and political institutions. Still, all does not seem to be lost. Some farmers are recognising the need to ‘de-industrialise’ the production of foodstuff. Michael Pollan’s ‘All Flesh is Grass’ talks about a ‘grass farmer’, Joel Salatin, who is a non industrial producer of food, and whose methods of production revolve around grass. (2006). ‘Big Organic’, another article by the same author, describes how food products in the whole foods aisle are properly farmed, as opposed to mass manufactured, therefore being processed or refined as little as possible. There are two downsides to be noted in both instances. For one, Joel Salatin produces foodstuff only for the local population, and expressly refuses to supply meat and other animal by-products from his relatively healthier farm animals all over the country. As a result, his ideas of rearing animals, as opposed to manufacturing them, by feeding them what they are meant to instead of cheaply obtained corn, are restricted to the borders of Swoope, Virginia (Pollan, 2008). On the other hand, to supply such products to various parts of the country, or the world, would fly in the face of the idea of sustainable food production practices. This presents quite a paradox. Another downside would be the added expense of consuming whole foods in the place of processed and mass produced food.
One of the core reasons for choosing to malnourish animals by blanket feeding them corn, despite the negative implications, was the resultant driving down of cost of production of meat. This is how the average American consumer is able to put away two hundred pounds of meat every year (Pollan and Schlosser, 2008), otherwise such large quantities of meat may not be as easily produced. People nowadays have the option of buying meat and animal by-products derived from ‘freerange animals’ – referring to animals that are left to roam freely to feed, instead of restricting their movement in enclosures – for slightly more money. In economic terms, consumers seek products that minimises costs while maximising benefit. In this case, consumers are ostensibly unmoved by the prospect of consuming meat and other products from ethically raised animals, favouring instead, the cheaper, corn fed, mass produced alternatives. With this mentality to begin with, ethical eating habits would be difficult to foster. Completely giving up consumption of animal products and by-products entirely (i.e. becoming vegan) has becoming a rising phenomenon all over the world. It seems, to many vegan converts, to be the move that could galvanise the promotion of sustainable agriculture and animal welfare into action. However, according to an article on The Conversation, ‘Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands’, turning vegan, or even simply vegetarian, could be more detrimental than helpful (The Conversation, 2011). To provide the extra plants required to feed the changing diets of Australians alone would mean clearing native flora and fauna off arable land ‘the size of Victoria plus Tasmania’ (The Conversation, 2011) – already killing off a vast amount of animals and native plants to make way for plant based food. The above scenarios only serve to confuse the consumer even further. Most consumers do not have any way around purchasing food off the supermarket shelves that are, more often than not, tainted by ethical quandaries such as animal welfare issues etc. They also don’t exactly have the option of changing their diets to spare the lives of animals, as the result could be more damaging that the current situation. As such, an ostensible impasse seems to present itself regarding this issue. In my opinion, ‘eating well’ – ethically, and with as little animal blood on consumers’ hands – will never truly be viable in modern society.
Bibliography: Pollan, M. (2006), ‘All Flesh is Grass’, In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Press: New York, pp. 123-133 Pollan, M., Schlosser, E., 2008, ‘Food Inc.’,
Available at: [Accessed 19th May, 2013] Pollan, M. (2006) ‘Big Organic’, In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Press: New York, pp. 134-184. The Conversation, 2011, ‘Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands’ [online] Available at: [Accessed 19th May, 2013]
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