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Food And Forgetfulness

by Alexander Cockburn

Better to think that that New York strip or T-bone steak was put together in a lab
Driving to town the other day, I got stuck behind a livestock trailer that was taking calves to auction. Bumbling along at 30 mph I was forced to listen to an NPR interview, by Terry Gross, I assume, with some fellow talking about his garden, about which he had evidently written a silly sounding book.

After firing off some well-honed cliches about the importance of the garden in making us consider the role of culture in man's relationship to nature, the interviewee said ponderously that these days, most people don't know where food comes from.

He and Gross, or a Gross sound-alike, chewed that one over industriously for several minutes, while the truck ahead of me bumped up and down the road to the Fortuna auction yards, where the densely packed calves would be offloaded and bid for at auction. These are 1-year-old creatures, raised on the Humboldt county hills here on California's North Coast and then usually sent up to feedlots in Washington, prior to being killed and cut up (in that order, if they're lucky) by underpaid Hispanics, many of them with fingers missing, at IBP's abattoir in Pasco, Wash.

Why would you want to know where food comes from? Ignorance is probably preferable, if not morally desirable. Better to think that that New York strip or T-bone steak was put together in a lab, which is the way we're headed anyway. Why be curious about where your broccoli comes from? In the old days, a lot of it came from the Pajaro Valley, just south of Santa Cruz on California's central coast. The fellows picking it were undocumented workers, mostly from Michoacan, earning $6 an hour. Then the growers figured it was more profitable to relocate the broccoli down to Mexico, pay the pickers $6 a day, ship the vegetables up to the border, relabel it as natural-born American and ship it east. One trouble with this is that the broccoli or spinach is often laced with raw sewage. Uncomposted excrement isn't good for you.

Who would have thought that eating broccoli or spinach is a high risk event, an X-treme sport right there in your own kitchen or dining room. The big food chains, Safeway and the others, are trying to figure out a voluntary inspection system (i.e. one with their rules and not the feds') that will spot toxic vegetables before they get onto shelves. Trouble is, the political economy of capitalist agriculture is structurally tilted toward the likelihood that your spinach will be toxic. It's become part of the price for cheap food.

The alternative is a different system of land ownership and farm production that would give you a better class of spinach at a higher price for the farmer. But there's no chance of that in the foreseeable future. Food will just get more dangerous because the conditions in which vegetables are grown or cows are raised and killed has become more noxious. The latest scare is a ferocious strain of E. coli (which is mostly benign and essential to our health) labeled E. coli O157:H7 that first became notorious in the Jack In the Box food deaths back in 1993. It's a strain that has apparently flourished because of the intensive fattening methods of the modern feedlot.

Maybe every child should be taken on a tour of a slaughterhouse as a reality check. In Holland they have pig "facilities" -- let's call them condos -- where an elevator takes the doomed creatures from the sixth floor down to the basement, where they're killed and processed. There could be a viewing window, just like the one through which the Oklahoma families and some journalists watched Tim McVeigh being killed last Monday morning.

Back in the nineteenth century, a trip to the killing floor at the Cincinnati or Chicago stockyards was a standard item on the itinerary of cultured folk exploring America's hinterland. In the 1850s and 1860s (the Chicago stockyards opened in 1867), these two cities perfected the production-line slaughter of living creatures for the first time in the history of the world.

William Cronon has a good chapter on the stockyards in his book on Chicago, "Nature's Metropolis": "In a world of farms and small towns, the ties between field, pasture, butcher shop and dinner table were everywhere apparent, constant reminders of the relationships that sustained one's own life. In a world of ranches, packing plants and refrigerator cars, most such connections vanished from easy view. In the packers' world, it was easy not to remember that eating is a moral act inextricably bound to killing. Such was the second nature that a corporate order had imposed on the American landscape. Forgetfulness was among the least noticed and most important of its by-products."

© Creators Synicate

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2001 (

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