Politicians including, starting second-from-left, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels and Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, joined the fight over what became known as "pink slime." (AP)
I’ve done a bit of reporting for Harvest Public Media on the heated, ongoing cultural war over food – what we eat, how it’s made and who gets to define the terms. From “pink slime” to accusations of bullying, the rhetoric is quite astounding.
Perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in this battlefield of grub is Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” Pollan, who was named to the 2010 TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people, teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In a phone interview earlier this month, Pollan talked with me about the fallout over this year’s “pink slime” controversy.
“This was a major wake-up call to the meat industry” Pollan said, calling it an example of growing consumer interest — and concern—about how food gets made.
As you may recall, Beef Products Inc., or BPI, was forced to shut down some of its plants after consumers who had been eating its “lean finely textured beef” for 20 years found out how the stuff was made. Lots of American’s didn’t like what they saw — it’s not that it wasn’t safe and there’s even a conservationist argument to be made that it uses all of the cow — but in the end, the ick factor trumped all that.
As Pollan sees it, BPI’s collapse was a slap in the face for agribusiness and a reminder that customers have the power of the pocketbook.
That view would be no surprise to anyone in agriculture. Pollan acknowledges that his books have put him in the camp of “ag enemy.” He told me about times in which he gave lectures at Midwestern universities and farmers were bused in to protest. But, he said, he ended up having respectful conversations with the farmers, because the dividing lines aren’t really as clear as they appear—or as the ag industry wants them to appear.
People who work in agriculture — from the family farmer to the big producer —often rally for deregulation saying “the marketplace should decide,” Pollan said. But that only works for them if price is the deciding factor. And now people are raising questions beyond “how much?”
Erik Helland understands that challenge. Helland is a Republican member of the Iowa House of Representatives and a board member of Protect the Harvest, a pro-farmer group that’s spending money to fight back against criticism of the Humane Society of the United States, among others.
“Food production — it’s not pretty,” he told me. “There are words like ammonia and irradiation and lean finely textured beef — that’s what makes it a much bigger challenge and what makes ag production so vulnerable.”
Helland said that the marketplace can handle all sorts of different types of food — and that regulation should not get in the way of consumer choice. But Pollan’s point is that what happened to BPI kind of throws a monkey wrench into that argument, because consumers are beginning to decide against looking the other way.
When asked if labeling meat that includes what the industry calls lean finely textured beef would be something he was okay with, Helland paused and then said “if it’s done fairly.” But what does fairly mean? The industry wants the meat called lean finely textured beef, but the media flurry surrounding the product left it with the much less appetizing “pink slime” moniker. It can be argued that both of these names serve an agenda.
Helland said that whatever you call it, the public made the wrong decision, and he blames propaganda.
Certainly, in the end, a lot boils down to the way we talk and the words we use. Pink slime or lean finely textured beef. Agriculture as big bad ag or as protecting the freedom to farm. Conservation or vegan conspiracy.
And as Pollan noted, all sides have long used pastoral images of the American farmer—standing near a tractor on his sun drenched fields—to sell their products and their message. “I’m guilty of it too,” he said.
The strong imagery works because the average American is so far removed from food and the food system.
That distance is a space where language can creep in. And in that space meaning can be made, and it can shift, like the wheels on a clock. It is precisely our distance from food that makes a revelation like the way lean finely processed beef is handled, and has been handled for 20 years, a revelation at all. It is that space that allows people to argue over what freedom to farm means… does it mean farmers should be free to use best practices consumers might not understand, or does it mean those who eat the meat should be free to question what best practices mean in the first place?
This is what I am trying to explore in my reporting, the way we talk about food production, and the way we don’t talk about it. Next up? BPI is finally speaking up, giving their narrative about the beef trimmings —this after the company had for all intents and purposes shut down. I will be exploring the way in which agriculture is coming out of the shadows, and trying to reframe the debate.