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Sorting through fast food fact and fiction
Food & Farm File
By Alan Guebert
America’s food industry, like the nation’s church leaders, spent much of May wringing its hands over, by all accounts, pieces of poorly written, poorly acted fiction.

For the churches, the concern was the premiere of “The Da Vinci Code,” the movie based on Dan Brown’s flight-of-religious-fantasy novel. The churches worried that their faithful would take a fictional version of the Gospel by Dan over the factual versions by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Similarly, the food industry got knotted up over the not-yet-released “Fast Food Nation,” a fictionalized film version of Eric Schlosser’s 2001 nonfiction book by the same name. (The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival May 19 but won’t hit American screens and stomachs for another four months.)

In truth, the farm and food groups are not as worried about Schlosser’s film as its timing. In mid-May, Schlosser’s second anti-burger book, Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food, was released. Its targeted audience is the McDrive-thru generation, teenagers.

Initial reviews of the book suggest the farm groups’ worries are well-placed.

Writing on Amazon.com, a Kansan librarian recommends it “as an important addition to most libraries... that covers the history of the fast-food industry and delves into the agribusiness and animal husbandry methods that support it.”

A second Amazon review, this one from the American Library Association, reports the book offers “vivid tours through feedlots, abattoirs, and a chicken-processing plant... Readers may not lose their appetites for McFood from this compelling study, but they will definitely come away... more aware of the diet’s attendant McMedical problems.”

So buzzed over Chew on This are the farm and food folks that many of their organizations have poured membership and checkoff money into an opposition website - www.bestfoodnation.com - to chew on Schlosser. The farm funders include the American Farm Bureau, the beef checkoff, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the pork checkoff and the National Pork Producers Council. Corporate cash comes from meatpackers, snack food makers and corn refiners.

The site’s homepage features the “happy faces” of 12 food producers and users: one farmer, two ranchers, a dietician, a couple of food execs, two Cargill employees and three Tyson employees. Most are “proud” of their firms, coworkers and products. Accompanying links relate information on 10 subsets of the food sector - beef, pork, eggs, dairy, meat processing, potatoes, beverages and the like. Most of the copy will give any ag savvy reader a sugar high.

For example, under the poultry link readers discover that today’s vertically integrated, totally-captive poultry “system provides many farmers an additional source of income outside crop farming. For 40 years, the system has kept tens of thousands of families on small farms who otherwise would have had to leave agriculture altogether.”

And, praise be, “the system works so well, most companies have waiting lists of people who want to become growers and lists of existing farmers who want to add capacity by building more houses.” Right. The same people also are on the list to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

Under the meat processing link, carnivores will learn that not only does “The U.S. meat industry pay good wages” but “(h)ourly workers in meat packing plants on average earned $12.03 per hour or roughly $25,200 a year.”

While that isn’t rib eye wages, “By comparison, in Iowa - the nation’s largest pork state - preschool teachers in 2004 earned $20,490; paramedics earned $24,680; reporters and correspondents earned $29,300 and kindergarten teachers earned $34,670.”

Golly, meat-eating parents across the nation can now advise career-planning kids that, hey, meat processing pays as well as journalism and you don’t even have to able to speak or write English. Sweet.

Of course, the farm groups feel compelled to fight any book, newspaper story or movie that offers a less-than-bucolic rendition of where America’s food comes from.

Hooking up with Cargill, Tyson, the meatpackers and Coke to do so, however, only proves Schlosser’s “Fast Food” point: most of today’s farms and feedlots have far more ties to agribusiness than to agriculture.

And every day brings more links between America’s dwindling farmers and fattening food giants.

This farm news was published in the May 31, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

5/31/2006