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Safe, But Do We Want to Eat It?

by DAN NAGENGAST

When I found out that our industrialized food system considers chicken manure an acceptable source of protein in cattle feed, it was clear to me that consumers and corporate agriculture have very different ideas about how we should produce food.

When I was a youngster, there was a different standard, the wholesomeness standard. I was raised on a farm where the thought of feeding chicken manure to our cattle would have been considered outlandish. Consumers then sought food produced with a reliance on nature’s ways and hard work. We had milk from the contented cows of nearby farms and truly farm fresh eggs.

Food marketers today know how seductive the romantic family farm image is to consumers. It is used all the time in food packaging and advertising.

Prior to industrialization there was a reliance on husbandry techniques to keep animals healthy. Rapid weight gain in meat animals was important, but it didn’t trump wholesomeness and healthy living conditions. Keeping production costs down was important, but only poor producers would use poor feed. No one dreamed of using manure or animal by-products as feed sources. No one dreamed of implanting beef cattle with growth hormones to speed them to market.

The consumer reaction to the makes-you-squeamish-but-it’s-safe standard has been building for years. It can be seen in the surging demand for organic food and food produced using traditional and artisan methods.

Market demand in Europe and Japan for dairy products from cattle that are hormone free and for beef tested for mad cow disease is not just a trade tactic. Neither is foreign demand for biotech-free grain. It is a manifestation of consumer sovereignty — customers getting what they want. Forcing these consumers to accept food produced in a manner they consider unwholesome, just because the food industry says it is “safe,” misses the point of putting the consumer first.

Some have argued that we are headed for an elitist food system, in which wholesome food is available only to those who can afford its higher sticker price. There is some truth to this, as anyone who has visited a gourmet grocery or restaurant lately knows. Such labels as “free-range,” “hormone free,” “natural” and “organic” are common at the high end of the food marketplace.

But increasingly, companies that target less rarefied customers are promoting wholesomeness. McDonalds has new policies that shun the most industrial forms of food production.

McDonalds requires beef producers to certify their cattle are fed according to FDA requirements designed to prevent mad cow disease.

And the company on its own stopped buying poultry treated with fluoroquinolones, a group of antibiotics that includes Cipro, which is used to treat anthrax. In June 2003, McDonalds established a global policy phasing out antibiotics used to promote growth in beef cattle. These moves encourage the entire livestock industry to reduce antibiotic use.

McDonalds now audits its processing facilities worldwide to ensure humane treatment of farm animals. In Britain this is done in partnership with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the U.S. the corporation has established an Animal Welfare Council. During 2002, the company performed 500 audits of its beef, pork and poultry processing facilities.

McDonalds uses more than 2.5 billion pounds of beef, chicken and pork annually. As consumer-driven retailers the size of McDonalds provide feedback like this to the world’s producers, we should see a trend toward food that is not just “safe,” but also safe and wholesome. This can be an open market door for any farmer who responds, not just agribusiness.

Food safety is a requirement for everyone. Fortunately, we also are seeing a revival of a wholesomeness standard, one that reflects growing concern among consumers about how food is produced. Consumers increasingly want freshness, humane treatment of animals, minimal use of drugs and hormones and, yes, even locally grown food. Wholesomeness has become a powerful, and positive, marketing tool.

DAN NAGENGAST is a Lawrence, Kan., farmer and executive director of the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

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