SOC 401 – Survey of Research Methodologies: Week 8 – Research Paper – The Food Industry in America

You don’t have to look too hard to see that there are problems with the way our food has been industrialized. Unfortunately many people take the food they eat for granted and never stop to question what it is or where it comes from. Thus, they are putting their health and well-being in the hands of the companies who run the food industry. Sure the industrialization of food may have its advantages, but do these advantages outweigh the dangers? In the following paper I will explore how the industrialized foods system came to be and some of the things that I feel American’s should be aware of about it.

In order to understand the state of the food industry today, we have to start at the beginning. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, people ate mostly what was local to their area and culture. There were no supermarkets and there was no industrialized food system. In researching the history of our food, I discovered the website, The Food Timeline. According to this site, the modernization of food began in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Convenience foods were beginning to be seen more frequently, such as peanut butter, cold cereal, sliced bread, canned soup, and condensed milk. Amenities such as electricity, refrigerators, and stoves became the norm for the American household in and around the 1930’s. All of these new foods and conveniences made cooking and storing food easier and more affordable. (Olver, 2011) Frozen foods were also introduced during this time by Birdseye, which took Americans a little while to ‘warm up to’ but eventually they did. Now, the frozen foods section of the supermarket takes up an average of three isles. (Smithsonian Institute, 2003)  While there were still local farmers at this time, the competition from the budding food industry could already be felt.

The fast food era began in 1921 with the first White Castle. It wasn’t until 1948 however, when McDonalds opened the first drive-thru, that fast food really began to take off. The History of Fast Food Timeline shows the progress of this section of the industry and how fast it developed. KFC opened in 1952, Burger King in 1953, and Taco Bell in 1962. (Famento, 2008) This surge of popularity in fast food resulted in an increased need for beef and chicken production. The response to this need was the beginning of the meat packing industry. According to an article in the online edition of Scientific American, in 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food. This doesn’t come to much surprise when you think about the number of mothers who began entering the work field rather than staying home to raise families. Fast food and frozen dinners quickly became a staple of the American diet. A figure I found more startling was the $110 billion American’s spent on fast food in 2000, and that this figure was more than what we spent on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined. (D’Costa, 2011) This immediately led me to wonder how all this meat is processed.

When we walk into a grocery store to buy a steak, do most of us really stop to think about the process that meat went through to get to us? And how many of us do you think stop to think about the animal that slab of meat came from? My guess would be not many. I know I never did, not until I watched a presentation by Mark Bittman entitled, “What’s Wrong with What We Eat?” According to Mark, livestock is the second highest contributor to atmosphere altering gases and likens the meat packing process to that of a production line where animals are “churned out like wrenches”. He also points out that, “there is no way to treat animals well when you are killing 10 billion of them a year”, and that’s just in the United States. Think about that, ten billion a year. If we produced 50 pounds of meat from each cow that would be 500,000,000,000 pounds of beef produced each year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 311,591,917 people in the United States as of July 2011. If you figure that out, each person would have to consume 1,605 pounds of beef a year to consume what our country produces. And keep in mind that we are only talking about beef. The United States also produces a vast amount of chicken, turkey, lamb, and pork. Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface is directly or in-directly devoted to raising the animals that we eat. I just don’t see how it is necessary to produce so much meat for one country. Not to mention that all of these animals also have to eat while they are alive. In order to save money on feeding all these animals, ranchers feed them corn and soy because there is simply not enough grass to support the vast population of animals. One problem with this is that, cows in particular, were not meant to eat corn and soy and have trouble digesting it. In order to keep these cows able to eat and alive, drugs were created and administered to the cows. (Bittman, 2007) Just this notion alone should be enough for anyone to stop and take notice of what they are putting on their plates.

As I looked for more information about the meat packing industry, I came across a .pdf from the American Meat Institute. Now, before I share with you the details about what I found in the reading, let me point out the disclaimer found on the last page of the document. It reads, “The American Meat Institute (AMI) represents the interests of packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey products and their suppliers throughout North America. Together, AMI’s members produce 95 percent of the beef, pork, lamb and veal products and 70 percent of the turkey products in the United States. The Institute provides legislative, regulatory, public relations, technical, scientific and educational services to the meat and poultry packing and processing industry.” (American Meat Institute, 2010) This statement alone shows how much power is given to one entity over the entire meat packing process. On the third page of this document the ‘myth’ about feeding corn to livestock is addressed. I found the wording of the institute’s response to this ‘myth’ interesting. They attest that “most” beef produced in the U.S. comes from pasture-fed, grain-finished cattle. This to me is not a straight answer and only leads to more questions. For instance, how many is “most”? The article also states that, “Feeding cattle a grain-based ration for a small period of time helps improve meat quality and provides a more tender and juicy product for consumers.” How does this improve meat quality and what proof is there that it makes the meat more tender and juicy? Using these descriptive terms instead of facts seems like an attempt to distract the reader from the truth. An article I found from NPR actually supports what the AMI claims, but their wording is a bit more upfront. The article by Allison Aubrey explains that though corn fed cattle produces meat that is more tender and has a higher fat content (hence the juicy), grain fed cattle produces meat that is higher in the valuable nutrient, Omega-3s. In fact, grass-fed cows produce steak that has about twice as much of this nutrient as grain-fed cow’s produce. (Aubrey, 2010)

There is an old adage that we are what we eat. Well, according to an article by Josh Pollan at the center for Ecoliteracy, if we are what we eat then what we are is corn. I have already pointed out that the animals being raised for our food eat a majority of corn. But did you know that corn is also used as a major staple of most of the foods on our supermarket shelves as well? Corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, corn oil and many more fillers and additives in food come from corn. Look at the ingredients on almost any package of food in your kitchen right now and I bet the odds of there being some kind of corn in the list is nine out of ten. Josh point out, “There is a powerful industrial logic at work here, the logic of processing. We discovered that corn is this big, fat packet of starch that can be broken down into almost any basic organic molecules and reassembled as sweeteners and many other food additives. Of the 37 ingredients in chicken nuggets, something like 30 are made, directly or indirectly, from corn.” (Pollan, 2004) With the fast food industry ‘super-sizing’ their portion sizes, American’s are ingesting more corn than they could even imagine.

Fats are another large part of the problem with the foods we eat in America. In my interview about eating whole foods with Jennifer Bickford, she expressed to me how important it is to watch the fast content in the foods you eat. She told me that the worst kinds of fat you can eat are saturated fat and Trans fat. These kinds of fat are not easily broken down by the body and will build up within the main arteries leading to heart disease and heart attacks. (Bickford, 2012) I think one of the worst things about fat is how prevalent it is within the foods we eat. As with corn, you will have a hard time finding many foods that do not contain some sort of fat. The key is to stay away from Trans and Saturated fats especially and cut back on fat in general as much as possible. In the article, “Functional Foods for a Heart-Healthy Eating Plan”, ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats are explained. Bad fats are saturated fats and trans fats that are found in fired food, cakes, cookies, crackers, meat, and dairy products. Good fats are unsaturated fats like those found naturally in plants and fish. These good fats are essential to good health. (Jaet, 2010)

So, the question still remains, do the advantages of the food industry outweigh the dangers? In my search for supporters of the food industry I came across an article written by Josh Ozersky entitled, “In Defense of Industrialized Food”. I do not agree with everything that Josh says in his article but I do agree with one point he made. Josh states, “I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.” (Ozersky, 2011) I don’t believe that it is feasible to think that we could ever completely do away with the food industry. That is not what I am saying at all. But what I do want to point out with my research is that there is definitely a better way to go about feeding America. A way that is healthier and more beneficial to Americans than the one we have now.  Even though the industrialization of food has become something we rely on to help make our lives easier, we should not have to sacrifice our health to this end. It seems that the Federal Food and Drug Association also share this opinion. Since 2005 the government’s food pyramid has had two major facelifts, one in 2005 and the latest in 2011. The first change, in 2005, encouraged Americans to eat less meat and grains and more fruits and vegetables. The second change, made in 2011, did away with the old food ‘pyramid’ and reworked the design into a more user friendly ‘plate’ design. With the new design it is easier to determine how much of each food group we should be putting on our plates. (Mercola, 2011)

Not only have there been changes in the government’s food guidelines, but I have also noticed a new trend emerging in the form of eating ‘organic’. What is eating organic? Is this just a ploy to sell consumers food at higher prices because it claims to be ‘organic’? These were questions I asked myself as I began to delve deeper into my research. According to Organic.org the term organic, when in relation to food means, “Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.”  The USDA National Organic Program defines organic as, “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” Alright, so at least we know there are guidelines and requirements for food intending to be labeled as organic, but is it any more nutritious? According to Organic.org this is not such an easy question to answer. Because of the many variables involved in researching this question, the results are not definitive. However, there have been studies done in California which found organically grown tomatoes to be higher in phytochemicals and vitamin C than conventionally grown tomatoes. There is also a concern with organic food and its cost. Many people believe that to eat organic food you have to spend a lot more money. While certain items will be slightly more expensive, for the most part the costs are pretty much the same. Some of the reasons why organic food can be more costly were outlined in the frequently asked questions page of the Organic.org website;

  • Organic farmers don’t receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers do. Therefore, the price of organic food reflects the true cost of growing.
  • The price of conventional food does not reflect the cost of environmental cleanups that we pay for through our tax dollars.
  • Organic farming is more labor and management intensive.
  • Organic farms are usually smaller than conventional farms and so do not benefit from the economies of scale that larger growers get.

So as you can see, the extra expenses’ are justified and the benefits are encouraging. Another myth about organic food is that it is the equivalent to eating natural foods. Natural foods are foods that contain additives or preservatives, but they may contain ingredients that have been grown with pesticides or are genetically modified. In other words, the ingredients in the ingredient panel will look familiar, but they have not been produced organically. Natural foods are not regulated and do not meet the same criteria that organic foods do. There are many benefits to switching to organically grown foods such as, reducing toxins in the air, water, soil and our bodies, reducing off farm pollution, build healthy soil, and promoting biodiversity. (Organic.org, 2010)

What all of this information boils down to is American’s need to pay attention n to what they are putting on their plates. However, no matter how much information is produced on this subject the changes need to start in our homes. Before the food and drug administration will put forth effort to make the food we eat safer for everyone, American’s need to put their foot down and demand nutritional food and honest regulations.  I could research till I was blue in the face, but if we don’t act on the finding of research such as tis, no changes will be made. Our future depends on our health and we need to make a conscious effort to eat healthier for the sake of ourselves and future generations.

The food industry in America leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s not broken. We can right our wrongs in the country and make a change for the better. The first step is knowing what is wrong with our system so we can make the necessary changes to improve the current conditions.

Works Cited

American Meat Institute. (2010, March 5). Myths and Facts About Meat Production. Retrieved from American Meat Institute: http://meatami.com/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/55910

Aubrey, A. (2010, April 8). The Truth About Grass-Fed Beef. Retrieved from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2010/04/08/125722082/the-truth-about-grass-fed-beef

Bickford, J. (2012, February). What it means to eat healthy. (J. Peloquin, Interviewer)

Bittman, M. (2007, December). Mark Bittman on what’s wrong with what we eat. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from TED Ideas Worth Spreading: http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_bittman_on_what_s_wrong_with_what_we_eat.html

D’Costa, K. (2011, July 26). Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Will Industrialized Foods Be the End of Us? Retrieved from Scientific American: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2011/07/26/separating-the-wheat-from-the-chaff-will-industrialized-foods-be-the-end-of-us/#_ednref2

Famento. (2008). The History of Fast Food. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from timeline beta: http://www.xtimeline.com/timeline/The-History-of-Fast-Food

Jaet, P. (2010, January 26). Functional Foods for a Heart-Healthy Eating Plan. Retrieved from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/diet/functional-foods-8/good-fats-oils

Mercola, D. (2011, June 23). Please – Don’t Make These Mistakes with Governments New “Food Pyramid” . Retrieved from Mercola.com: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/06/23/new-food-pyramid-changes-to-less-grains-more-veggies.aspx

Olver, L. (2011, September 22). FAQs: popular 20th century American foods. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from The Food Timeline: http://www.foodtimeline.org/fooddecades.html#1950s

Ozersky, J. (2011, October 26). Taste Of America: In Defense of Industrial Food. Retrieved from Time Ideas: http://ideas.time.com/2011/10/26/in-defense-of-industrial-food/

Pollan, M. (2004). We Are What We Eat. Retrieved January 21, 2012, from Center for Ecoliteracy: http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/we-are-what-we-eat

Smithsonian Institute. (2003). 500 Years of American Food. Retrieved from Key Ingrediants – America by Food: http://www.keyingredients.org/001_timeline/001_timeline_01.asp

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