On meat, dairy, and the industrialized organic world

It may seem like I go from one fad to the next, but really I am on a constant search to be the healthiest version of myself. Which is why I get so infuriated when I find that some of the things that I have believed may not be completely true. The 'real food challenge' did wonders for me because I was already beginning to notice that by eliminating processed foods, yes even 'organic', I felt alive again. I had more energy, was able to focus better, and did not crave junk like I usually did when I would eat sugar, white flour, etc. While I was packing for school and preparing a list of food to get at the grocery store so I can continue to eat healthy: tuna, almonds, olive oil for cooking, rolled oats, apples, etc.; I picked up my book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and began reading the section "Big Organic". In the chapter he talks about how he, like many consumers, walks through Whole Foods feeling a comfort because he believes that he is buying food that is good for the environment, for animals, for his health. The gallon of milk he picks up tells a story "these cows soak up sunlight and graze on pastures eating only certified organic feed" etc.;..

Taken as a whole, the story on offer in Whole Foods is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow in well-composted soils on small farms much like Joel Salatin's. 'Organic' on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I've come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too simple story, but notmuch better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief. (Pollan, 137).

Huge organic names like Stonyfield Farms, Cascadian Farms, Earthbound Organic make you wonder though, with these major industries, what do the farms actually look like? We have completely transformed our food system in America and organic is now an 11 billion dollar industry that makes consumers feel at ease with what they are buying. But, when Michael Pollan actually decided to go back to the farms and see what exactly these farms were like, he was just as surprised as most of us would be if we saw it too.

As I tossed a plastic box of Earthbound prewashed spring mix salad into my Whole Foods cart, I realized that I was venturing deep into the belly of the industrial beast Joel Salatin had called "the organic empire." (Speaking of my salad mix, another small, beyond organic farmer, a friend of Joel's had told me he "wouldn't use that stuff to make compost"-- the organic purist's stock insult.) But I'm not prepared to accept the premise that industrial organic is necessarily a bad thing, not if the goal is to reform a half-trillion food system based on chain supermarkets and the consumer's expectations that food can be convenient and cheap. ....The question is, has that point been reached, as Joel Salatin suggests? Just how well does Supermarket Pastoral hold up under close reading and journalistic scrutiny?

About as well as you would expect anything genuinely pastoral to hold up in the belly of an $11 billion dollar industry, which is to say not very well at all. At least that's what I discovered when I traced a few of the items in my Whole Foods cart back to the farms where they were grown. I learned, for example, that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot", eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultra-pasteurized (a high-heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in "organic feedlots" and organic high-fructorse corn syrup-- more words I never expected to see combined. And I learned about the making of the aforementioned organic TV dinner, a microwavable bowl of "rice, vegetables, and grilled chicken breast with a savory herb sauce." Country Herb, as the entree is called, turns out to be a highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of thirty-one ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories, and processing plants scattered over a half-dozen states and two countries, and containing such mysteries of modern food technology as high-oleic safflower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lechithin, carrageenan, and "natural grill flavor." Several of these ingredients are synthetic additives permitted under federal organic rules. So much for "whole" foods. The manufacturer of Country Herb is Cascadian Farm, a pioneering organic farm turned processor in Washington State that is now a wholly owned subsidary of General Mills. (The Country Herb chicken entree has since been discounted.)

I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live little to different from that of any other organic industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the "free-range" lifestyle promised on the label? True, there's a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard. But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old-- for fear they'll catch something outside-- and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later. (Pollan, 139-140).

Besides the whole 'Organic' deal, (and I am talking about mainly industrialized organic foods that travel long distances, in other words processed organic foods) it may be certain food groups that we should stay away from in general. If you've read CNN online lately, you may have heard about the "heart attack proof diet", which Bill Clinton famously stands by. 82% of the people who have been on this plant-based diet have transformed their health and prevented heart attacks in the future. The diet entails eating no meat, dairy, or eggs. You eat only vegetables, fruits, grains, and no added oils, nuts, seeds, or avocado. Now heres where I can't see myself strictly following this diet; I LOVE avocado, almonds, seeds and nuts. And I think they are good for you. But for those of you looking to change your cholesterol out there maybe this is the solution. One person's decision to go on the heart attack proof diet: success. 

My main point is that it just seems like the overall theme of the past day of research I've  done is that it might be smart to strictly limit, or even stay away from dairy and meat altogether. Since I know most of us aren't likely to go cold turkey (no pun intended), maybe you could join me in becoming a flexitarian, which Michael Pollan suggests. http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2010/05/19/becoming-a-“flexitarian”/#more-407 On 100daysofrealfood blog the author talks about her having read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food and how she has now transitioned to become a flexitarian and her family has as well! It just makes sense. She writes,

So becoming a vegetarian doesn’t exactly fit into your lifestyle? Not to worry, because you can still reap the same health benefits as a vegetarian if you, as Thomas Jefferson once said, treat meat as a “condiment for the vegetables.” If you cut back to less than one serving of meat per day you can consider yourself a “flexitarian” with a risk of heart disease and cancer that is equally as low as a vegetarian. (100daysofrealfood.com)

Ellen Degeneres started out as a vegetarian, and then decided to become vegan because she read books like Skinny Bitch and saw documentaries like Food Inc, and Earthlings. Natalie Portman is a vegan after having read the book "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer. The reality is that approximately 50 billion + animals die per year to feed America and meat may not be that great for you. Hormones, antibiotics, are all injected into these diseased animals and then shipped to your grocery store in pretty cellophane wrappers, little do you know what those animals had to go through before they ended up on your plate.


I recommend that if you are going to eat meat, buy LOCAL, humanely raised meat that is certified organic. Stay away from meat that travels thousands of miles to be transported to you, even if it is "organic".


Finally, if you're just as frustrated as I am in learning that even though things are labeled "organic" they actually have a much grimmer history, go by this simple rule: In his simplest form, Michael Pollan recommends: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.



Bonne Santé!