Welcome to the Food Fight, Nick Kristof. Beware the Chicken
I stop just shy of being a full-on paranoiac when it comes to industrially-produced meat. As I’ve written here before, I avoid fast food. My kids, to their great irritation, are banned from eating hamburgers in restaurants that serve industrial meat. We used to keep chickens for eggs, but after the foxes and hawks picked them off, we switched to a local, cage-free producer. I buy most of the meat we consume at home from farmers in my area who are also friends or neighbors. The bone-in shoulder marinating in the fridge for our roast pork dinner? We met that pig in his short youth. (You might argue that I could end my worries by going vegetarian. You might be right, but I am happy and healthy as a picky omnivore, at least for now.)
Last week, I was thrilled when the fight for safe food gained a powerful new voice: New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof. Kristof is a hero of mine for his exemplary work on behalf of human rights -- and particularly women’s rights -- in some of the most difficult, dangerous places around the globe. Over the last week, he has shifted his focus to our food supply.
Kristof’s first food piece addressed a recent study conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona. Researchers analyzed the chemical contamination of feather meal, a by-product of the industrialized production of chicken, which is frequently added to commercial feed for cattle, pork, fish, and poultry. (Yes, industrially-produced chicken eats ... chicken.) The scientists found a vast array of chemicals, including caffeine, over-the-counter meds like Benadryl and Tylenol, prescription antidepressants like Prozac, and, most alarming, a class of antibiotics that are banned in poultry production. A second Hopkins study also detected arsenic in feather meal. An unappetizing list, to be sure.
The real problem, as the study authors asserted, is twofold. First, the presence of the forbidden antibiotics (which include Cipro, for example) suggests that poultry producers are not abiding by the federal ban. Said David Love, lead author of the study: “The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA. The public health community has long been frustrated with the unwillingness of FDA to effectively address what antibiotics are fed to food animals.”
Why does it matter if chickens are illegally dosed with antibiotics? That gets us to the larger problem. The overuse of these drugs contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Campylobacter, a spiral bacteria that is one of the leading culprits behind food poisoning in the United States, is often treated with the class of antibiotics banned from poultry, but strains resistant to the drugs are becoming more common. (For more on the concerns about antibiotics in livestock and our food supply, read OnEarth's previous coverage.)
Kristof's latest piece, published yesterday, takes on the treatment of chickens kept for egg production. Kristof was given an advance look at a report about to be released by The Humane Society of the United States about its undercover investigation of Kreider Farms, a major producer of eggs for supermarket chains such as ShopRite. Toxic ammonia fumes, chickens crammed in a 2-by-2-foot cage, animals decapitated by automatic feeding equipment -- these are some of the lowlights. It's a gory, grim story, and Kristof uses it to make a persuasive argument that, as our society has evolved to reject brutality as entertainment, we ought also to reject brutality as means of production.
This isn't the first time Kristof has taken on food issues (a 2010 column also dealt with problems in egg production) but twice in a week? I'm hoping it's a trend. Kristof wrote in last week's column that in the past he has been skeptical about the case for eating organic, but as he reports more on the food system, his view is changing. He was clearly surprised by the feather studies and the video of the egg-production facility. Here's where I differ from him: I’m no less disappointed in the facts his columns illuminate, but I’m not at all surprised. As a regular reader of writers like Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and my OnEarth colleague Barry Estabrook, I assume the worst about mass-produced food -- and naively, I tend to assume everyone is as wary about food safety as I am.
With Kristof’s admission that reporting on studies like these is opening his (already far-seeing) eyes, I’m aware that there is still much work to be done, but also hopeful that food issues are beginning to receive wider attention. I’d like to know that everyone can feel safe about what they feed their kids.