Sunday, August 03, 2008

Winning the independent vote...

Like the election landscape, the current struggle for the hearts and minds - or at least, the stomachs - of American consumers could be determined by the votes in the middle.  Rather than the vegans or the meat-and-potatoes crowd, it may be attitudes on food will gently slide toward the direction people of no faction point out.

I think I am beginning to see folks who are easy to label as relatively unbiased, or at least formerly indifferent to food issues take some mild interest, and more importantly, this signals to me where the market could possibly trend for food consumption and, more significantly for farming, food production.
We eventually grew so impressed with our geese — they had virtually become family friends — that we gave the remaining ones to a local park. (Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial thief took advantage of their friendliness by kidnapping them all — just before the next Thanksgiving.)
So, yes, I eat meat (even, hesitantly, goose). But I draw the line at animals being raised in cruel conditions. The law punishes teenage boys who tie up and abuse a stray cat. So why allow industrialists to run factory farms that keep pigs almost all their lives in tiny pens that are barely bigger than they are?
Defining what is cruel is, of course, extraordinarily difficult. But penning pigs or veal calves so tightly that they cannot turn around seems to cross that line.
More broadly, the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights, and the brutal conditions in which they are sometimes now raised will eventually be banned. Someday, vegetarianism may even be the norm.
Perhaps it seems like soggy sentimentality as well as hypocrisy to stand up for animal rights, particularly when I enjoy dining on these same animals. But my view was shaped by those days in the barn as a kid, scrambling after geese I gradually came to admire.
So I’ll enjoy the barbecues this summer, but I’ll also know that every hamburger patty has a back story, and that every tin of goose liver pâté could tell its own rich tale of love and loyalty. [More]
This inclination  - to think a bit before eating meat - is only one of several influences shaping a livestock industry under pressure.  Food production has matured as a political issue to the point that even within our own farm press, you can read about surprisingly mainstream dietary commentary embracing less meat consumption. Cheryl Tevis writes in the latest issue of Successful Farming (not on-line yet)
"The poor economy and higher gas prices may be fueling a new vegetable boomlet." 
Left unsaid is what this boomlet offsets - meat consumption. Now couple that mood shift with the demise of generic food palaces like Bennigan's.
The U.S. economic downturn has claimed another victim: Bennigan's Grill & Tavern, the 32-year-old chain of casual-dining fern bars. Amid sky-high gas and food prices and tightening consumer spending, the chain's Texas-based parent company declared bankruptcy July 29, saying it would shutter 150 eateries. While the franchise outlets remain open for now, Americans who want to peruse oversize menus for oversize portions of unremarkable food in unremarkable settings may soon have to check out Applebee's or Chili's. Or Ruby Tuesday or T.G.I. Friday's. Or the scores of other family-style restaurants serving deep-fried mozzarella sticks beneath hypnotically rotating ceiling fans. [More]

We forget that our prodigious protein consumption habits were formed partially as a way of displaying newly acquired wealth.  Steak was a status statement. Since those heady days of economic ascent, our hyper-efficient meat industry made sure almost all Americans could climb on board the gravy train (heh). But I'm not too sure conspicuous meat-eating carries the same cache today. 

To add to the problem for our livestock industry, is the cost push from well, corn growers like me. Heaven knows, $6 corn (let alone $8 corn!) is frustrating meat expansion plans. Or even survival plans. But further up the value chain, other problems are now exploding.
A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develops an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate for years, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. A videotape by an animal-rights group shows workers pulling the windpipes out of living cows. A woman with a deformed hand tells a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor experts call the lowest in the industry. This year, federal investigators amass evidence of rampant illegal hiring at the plant, which has been called “a kosher ‘Jungle.’ ” [More]
Even after translating the overwrought prose, it is clear that the immigrastion issue will clobber meatpacking in the US. From my point of view, fairly so.  If you live by illegal labor, you will perish by illegal labor.  Moreover, I think Americans should bear the true costs of their food.

Subsidies can be overt, like my DCP (which barely affects food prices, to be fair) or they can be obscure, like lackadaisical immigration and labor enforcement. What is happening to the workers is shameful and balantantly feeding the xenophobia of the right, but even that faction deserves to pay the full freight of their Big Mac.  And they soon will.

The next two years (my guess) in the livestock industry will produce the most capable leadership and efficient producers the world has ever seen.  The downside is this will only be accomplished by a refiner's fire, and even fewer will withstand the process.

For the rest of us, the act of eating will take on new meaning as well.

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