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So You Say You Want to Know Where Your Food Comes From?

The Killing Floor

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

The other day we were forced to listen to an NPR interview, by Terry 
Gross, presumably, with some fellow talking about his garden, about which he had 
evidently written a silly-sounding book. After firing off some well-honed clichés 
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 soundalike, chewed that one over industriously for several minutes.

Why would you
 want to know where food comes from? Ignorance is probably preferable, if not
 morally desirable. Better to think that New York strip or T-bone 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 in 
Mexico, pay the pickers $6 a day, ship the veg 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 shit isn’t
 good for you.

Potatoes? We read an account not so long ago of the chemical conditions in which Idaho russets 
are raised, where the application of pesticides is so intense that when something
 screws up in the irrigation systems, they dare not send out maintenance 
workers right away because the air is too toxic.

Who would have
thought that eating broccoli or spinach was a high-risk event, an X-treme sport
 right there in your own kitchen or dining room? The big food chains such as 
Safeway are trying to figure out an inspection system that will spot toxic veg 
before it gets onto the shelf. Trouble is, the political economy of capitalist
 agriculture is structurally tilted toward the likelihood that your spinach will 
be shit-enhanced. 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. No chance of
that in the foreseeable in this country. Food will just get more dangerous, because the conditions 
in which veg is grown or cows are raised and killed become more noxious. The 
latest scare is a ferocious strain of E. coli (mostly benign), labelled E. coli 
O157:H7, which 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.

People are
probably a little too fussy about what they eat, though not always quite to the degree of Mrs. Deborah Wilkes, aged 44, of Pinellas County, FL, who forced her husband of six years, Eric,
 aged 31, to disrobe when he came home from his work (surveying), but not for
 the purpose of amorous diversion. He had to proceed directly to the shower, 
then re-attire in clean garments. She also forbade Eric use of the domestic 
phone or computer on the grounds that he might contaminate them. When visiting 
his parents for Christmas she would insist they sat with hands safely folded,
 then leave before the germ-laden perils of Christmas dinner.

Something snapped 
in Eric recently, and he choked and stabbed Deborah until she was good and dead. 
He tried to make it look like a burglary, but messed up. The cops didn’t 
take long to figure it out, and he’s now sitting in the Pinellas County 
jail, charged with first-degree murder. In the beginning, Deborah’s concern 
about cleanliness wasn’t so severe, Eric’s mother Barbara Wilkes told 
the Tampa Tribune. “He thought that was neat about her because she
was tidy, he wanted the perfect wife, and this was the perfect wife for him.”
 Some expert testimony about obsessive-compulsive disorder will get
the charges reduced.

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 Timothy  put to death.

Back in the 
19th 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 were completed in
1865) these two cities perfected the production-line slaughter of living creatures 
for the first time in the history of the world. At one end of the trail lay 
the prairies, the open range, the boisterous pastoral of the cattle drive, where 
the cowboys sometimes spared a longhorn. There’s a marvelous book by J.
Frank Dobie called The Longhorns that tells of Reed Anthony, a cowboy
 working for Andy Adams, telling “how he and other Confederate soldiers
 guarding a herd of Texas steers saved the life of one because he would always
 walk out and stand attentive to the notes of ‘Rock of Ages’ sung by 
his herders.” Thus spared were two or ten or a hundred or a thousand from 
among the millions and millions of creatures that plodded to rail heads like
 Abilene, and thence eastward, or to slaughterhouses nearer at hand, and then
 bought up by government agents to be sent to the reservations to feed Indians 
who no longer had buffalo to hunt.

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.”

A version of this essay appeared in the June 2001 print edition of CounterPunch. 

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.