Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Confinement in Crates Animal Torture? California to Decide

When I think about how most farm animals spend their lives confined in crates, never seeing the sun, having the ground under their feet or breathing open air, I can't help but compare the situation to the debate over torture of human beings.

When writing about water boarding or sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, news reporters feel constrained to add that some people regard these practices as torture. This is convenient for those who ordered their use--read Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush--because they otherwise would be unequivocally regarded as criminals. And I do hope some day to see all of them indicted by international courts for these and other crimes.

The same can be said of defenders of factory farming, although they face no such possible accountability for the suffering they have caused. Can anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a calf, heard the squeals of a pig, or watched chickens pecking at each other, sincerely believe that they don't suffer when confined in crates? 

On this, as on so many other issues these days, action to stop this suffering isn't coming from the federal government but from the states. Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado have banned the use of gestation crates by pig producers, who confine pregnant sows to crates so small they can not move around normally. Arizona and Colorado also ban use of veal crates. These are tiny pens to which baby calves are tethered after they are taken from their mothers when only a few days old. Here they stay until they are slaughtered to be served up to Americans as high-priced veal.

Now, thanks to efforts of advocates for humane animal treatment, Californians will have the chance this November to vote on a measure that would require that farm animals be given sufficient room just to turn around and stretch their limbs!

No doubt the measure will be fought fiercely by agribusinesses who will raise alarms about the impact this would have on food prices and the poor. One pro-agribusiness group that masquerades as pro-consumer contends that such measures are designed to "cripple meat and dairy producers" and calls groups like the humane society radical. To the contrary, factory farming is a radical concept of the 20th century, designed to drive family farmers out of business and concentrate food profits in the hands of a small number of giant corporations. Concerns about humane raising of food animals has helped keep in business small, family farmers who actually care about their animals. Periodically I buy meat from one such farmer from upstate New York, who would otherwise be out of business, like so many other family farmers. 

Furthermore, not many poor folks can afford veal these days, no matter how it's raised. More important, I think if most people  actually saw or heard the distress of factory-farmed animals they would opt not to eat them--if they had a choice. And they do have a choice.

This, of course, is the crux of the problem: the disconnect between the food we eat and our awareness of the conditions under which it is raised or grown.

So what choices do we have? We can vote with our pocketbooks. Although I love veal, I think I've eaten it twice in the past 10 years. In states like my own, New York, which have not yet taken action against farm animal cruelty, we can find sources of humanely raised animals. Sure, there's a price to pay for an animal living a life without suffering. But the food budget can be kept under control by eating less meat, cutting out a meat meal or two every week and substituting grains, beans and vegetables. 

Animals suffer when confined in factory buildings and handled like live but unfeeling objects on an assembly line. There's no more doubt about that than whether water boarding is, indeed, torture. 


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Help a Farmer, Help Yourself To Safe Veggies!

 Prompted, I guess, by the repeated fruit and vegetable scares, The NY Times finally got around today to reporting on Community Supported Agriculture, the awkward name for what is essentially a coop of consumers who band together in advance of the growing season to buy shares of a local farmer's produce. (Click here for more information and to locate one near you.)

I've belonged to one for at least 5 years now, and my reasons are both political and personal--and spiritual. 

Political in that I don't want giant agribusinesses to ever gain control over all food production. They've got an iron grip around most of it, from controlling seed production to ownership of way too much land. Instead, I'm pleased to know that I'm helping keep in business Green Thumb farm, a family-owned enterprise on Long Island's gorgeous North Fork.

From a personal perspective, this means I don't have to worry about being poisoned by a vegetable.  The folks at Green Thumb follow strict organic methods, and plant heirloom varieties of great-tasting fruits and vegetables. Agribusinesses grow varieties that lend themselves to mechanical picking and repeated handling. That's why, for example, you need a super-sharp knife to cut into a supermarket tomato grown for its tough skin, not taste.

Green Thumb picks my veggies the day before they deliver them to a local church, where we pick them up. As a result, even if I can't use them immediately, they stay fresh in my refrigerator for much longer than supermarket produce, which often travels thousands of miles before landing at the local market. Distribution of fruit and vegetables has become really insane, with tomatoes picked in Florida getting shipped to Mexico for sorting and boxing before being shipped back to the U.S.  

Sometimes Green Thumb delivers  veggies I've never seen before, like salsify, which looked to me like just a bunch of twigs. (Actually, it's a root that can be cooked and mashed.) Once I even had to go on line to try to identify some of the veggies I received.  They had been labeled at the pick-up point, but they looked alike to me! But I appreciate having to stretch  my culinary skills as I try to move away from meals centered around meat.

All this costs me about $20 a week for things like strawberries (in season only!) that are really sweet and free of pesticides; sugar snap peas; beets, various kinds of lettuce, arugula, etc. 

The spiritual part has to do with being in rhythm with the earth and the seasons, knowing as the summer progresses that the lettuce has gone to seed, and won't be good again until the weather cools, but the tomatoes--ah, the tomatoes, will be wonderful--while in fall I'll see amazing varieties of cauliflower and other wonders. For me, this is all about the mystery of life and living on planet Earth.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What's In Those Bread Crumbs? Surprise: Corn Syrup

I'm one of those people you see standing in the supermarket aisle reading ingredients lists. It's a habit born of my many years writing stories about dangerous food additives and sweeteners as well as concern about my own health and need to avoid too much sugar and salt. 

But until recently I had never bothered to read the ingredients of packaged bread crumbs. Down the list--which is always arranged, by federal regulation, from most used ingredient to least--was high fructose corn syrup. Sweetener in my bread crumbs? Yes--and in the plain versions as well as the seasoned ones. 

High fructose corn syrup is not a natural product. It's created in food labs, has supplanted cane sugar as the dominant sweetener in American food, and reportedly has adverse effects on the human body, while contributing to the epidemic of obesity. Now, I've not evaluated these reports, but I've long held a firm belief in the health benefits of natural foods on the grounds that our bodies have evolved to deal with them. Not so for high fructose corn syrup, which was invented in the early 70s. (Here's a link to one site that discusses its health effects.)

I found the presence of corn syrup in the bread crumbs surprising until my old friend, Arthur Schwartz, prolific cook book author and radio personality, reminded me that the crumbs are made from standard American bread, which itself is sweetened to cater to American palates. That includes "good" brands like Pepperidge Farm whole-grain breads.

But Arthur being Arthur, it got him to thinking about how that corn syrup affected recipes calling for bread crumbs. So when my husband and I visited him recently and sat down to an eggplant appetizer, he told me that he had breaded the thick-sliced eggplant with homemade crumbs made from unsweetened bread. This had made it possible to bake the eggplant long enough to be tender without over-browning the crumbs. Had there been sweetener in the crumbs, they would have  caramelized quickly and been black by the time the eggplant was done. 

It's a small matter compared to so many larger issues. But if you, like me, try to avoid sweeteners in food that shouldn't have any, and high fructose corn syrup in particular, you'll need to make your own crumbs from bread you're sure hasn't been sweetened or find a source of unsweetened crumbs.  One choice is to get crumbs from a local bakery after asking whether they use sweetener in their bread.

Another is to make crumbs from crunchy-crusted long loaves of Italian or French bread that, if made according to traditional recipes, should be free of sweetener. But it's not always possible to be sure. The loaf of Italian bread in my kitchen right now came in a long paper bag that has no ingredients list. It should have one--again by federal regulation--but it doesn't. 

This, unfortunately, is the result of lax enforcement of basic consumer protection laws. City and local consumer protection agencies used to enforce a host of laws intended to help food shoppers know what they are buying and to pick the most economical brands. It seems almost quaint now, as we mostly ignore the small, everyday ways we get cheated in the marketplace. 

Coming back to the bread crumbs, they provide an example of how hard it is to avoid the ubiquitous presence of high fructose corn syrup in processed food. Our only defense is the ingredients list. So keep on reading!