September 2004

Gordon McAlpin

nonfiction

The Meat You Eat by Ken Midkiff

Clearly riding the coattails of Eric Schlosser's best-selling Fast Food Nation, Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign director Ken Midkiff's The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America's Food Supply, is a vitally important, though imperfect, addition to the available literature on the American food supply. The Meat You Eat covers the methods of corporate production of pork, beef and milk, chicken, eggs and salmon, the repercussions of those methods, and the political maneuvering that has ensured that this status quo will remain largely unchanged in the coming years. Unlike some books on the meatpacking industry, however, Midkiff doesn't get up on a pulpit for vegetarian or vegan diets and in doing so neglect those consumers who don't have any ethical hang-ups about eating meat in the general sense.

Sure, Midkiff has a problem with packing roughly 22,000 chicks into a single boiler house, resulting in hundreds of crushed or suffocated little baby birds. The image of men throwing dead or injured baby chicks into piles for disposal like so many Tribbles, is only funny when you ignore that it occurs daily. And sure, he has a problem with the fact that the kings of the pig business gauge how many thousands of pigs to keep in a concentration building by the number of. not the lack of, bite marks on the pigs' backs. But the problems Midkiff has with eating meat are the specific ways that meat is produced and distributed in America, not with eating meat itself. And in the past sixty years, the immense growth of the big agribusiness corporations like ConAgra and Tyson has resulted in a food supply that is not only inhumane towards its animals (or "units") but laced with disease, harmful to the environment, abusive of its workers and devoid of taste.

When we read about meat recalls due to E. coli, we simply fret over the possible health concerns and fail to question an industry that sees no problems with having fecal matter mixed in with the ground beef. One recall, for instance, of 18.6 pounds of contaminated beef resulted in 12,000 pounds being returned to the ConAgra plant. The returned meat was heat-treated to kill the bacteria, then resold for use in value-added products such as spaghetti sauce, canned chili and ravioli. Moral: never buy canned products that include meat ever again.

The Meat You Eat also examines the environmental damage wreaked by agribusiness companies, as well as political climate that often rewards big business for polluting the country. For instance, Sanderson Farms, ranked 24th on the EPA's list of the largest polluters in the country, released 2,195,343 pounds of toxic wastes into its home state's waters, some of which goes into the Navasota River. The Navasota is on the "impaired water body" list, meaning it is unsafe for 'whole body contact recreation." Conveniently, the government stepped in and awarded representatives of the polluters a half million dollar grant, nominally to clean up the river. This clean-up has never taken place; as recent water-quality monitoring tests show that no improvement. The funds for the clean-up were used mainly to create storage sheds for housing the wastes until they could be disposed of, the same way as before, at a later date.

Lacking Eric Schlosser's sparkling, journalistic prose, Midkiff's book still succeeds admirably as a collection of facts, but it is not without its shortcomings. The division of the book into Big Pig, Big Chicken and Big Egg, Big Milk, Big Beef and Big Fish is helpful, as it makes each section into a conveniently self-contained database about each industry. But it gets in the way of the book providing a coherent history for the development of the agriculture corporations whose methods it condemns. Based on other examples throughout the book, I'm certainly inclined to believe that the EPA "has yielded to pressure by representatives of the National Pork Producers" to no longer enforce actions against hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, but I would have appreciated some examples backing up that specific claim. Failing to provide specifics on such claims such as these only serves to weaken his case and to hide the blame for the weakening of the EPA from the Bush and Clinton administrations.

Still, the book partially remedies a dilemma I've had since reading Eric Schlosser's book. My sole complaint about Fast Food Nation was its lack of information on what to do with all the knowledge it provided. I was left wondering, “Now that I can't eat fast food ever again, what can I eat?” The Meet You Eat's $23.95 price tag is steep for a too-thin volume that falls far short of a comprehensive treatment of both the history of its subject matter, as well as the argument itself, that the American food supply hasn't been like this for very long, and it doesn't need to be like this any longer. Those swayed by Midkiff's point that a "sustainable and socially just" food supply is not an unrealistic pipe dream are given plenty of resources for following through besides simply not eating meat. A bibliography provides further reading on the subject and an appendix provides contact information for each state's farmer's market representative, who can provide you with information about local producers. By making ourselves aware of what it is we're really buying from Tyson, Smithfield, Cal-Maine Foods and other giant agribusiness companies, and by supporting small, independent, sustainable producers and the stores that sell their products, we can ensure that the meat, eggs and milk on our tables are safe, healthy and flavorful ... to say nothing of shit-free.

The Meat You Eat by Ken Midkiff
St. Martin's Press
ISBN 0312325355
240 pages