Food Perspectives – Take some personal responsibility


I walk into a local burger joint, place my order, and wait on my food. My plate is served and in front of me is a burger. I see a patty of ground beef, two slices of bacon, swiss cheese, pickles, lettuce, grilled onions, and mushrooms with a side of broccoli and cheese. Not everyone’s burger looks the same. What do you see on your plate?

Some folks imagine their burger looks like this…

food policy hamburgerI didn’t see those ingredients on the menu. Where did the bleach, ammonia, and sodium benzoate come from? Filler. “Cheese?” “Fresh.” What are those things supposed to mean? Not everyone has the same perspective on the food we eat.

The image above is from a Food Policy meeting I attended on campus last year. I had been talking about food education online for a few years, but needed to take more physical steps to educate myself on the opinions’ of folks on the other side of the table. I haven’t had the schedule to be able to attend meetings as often I had hoped, but it was still an eye-opening experience. This group of folks is dead set on having organic, local, natural foods brought to campus and honestly are not that engaging when it comes time for my questions.

There are groups of Americans who have lost faith, trust, and belief in our modern food systems. Many are skeptical about most things they hear and want to return to the good old days of ‘natural’ food. It’s a nostalgic perspective of times that likely weren’t as good as they seem. We are all guilty of grasping at story lines we want to be true. Sometimes it’s a matter of whether we decide to apply common sense or do a little investigation for ourselves.

The internet is a scary place. We can look up information on most any topic, most of which lacks validation for truth prior to posting. We have been let down so many times by false information, it’s human nature to cast a skeptical eye on what we’ve been told. Unfortunately, many do not take time to validate those facts, hoping that surely it must be true, and often times we can end up grasping at “bad science” to promote our beliefs. Sometimes folks want something to be true so badly, they will lash-out aggressively at others who are doing differently. Others literally block all those with opposing views. The internet seems to remove that filter on our comments the ability of civil conversations.

Should we take the news and media a reliable source of information? Surely, the media wouldn’t be biased in their coverage. Wait, do you remember the 2012 Election? Fox News wasn’t the only offender. Leaders within ABC News recently admitted they have portrayed news “in a slightly inaccurate way.” Should that statement expand beyond politics, maybe to their coverage of food and agriculture headlines like ‘pink slime’? Those lawsuits are still on-going.

Back to the image above. How should we learn more about what is really in our food? Should farmers alone be the authority? I grew up on a ranch and have spent the last several years of my life traveling the country and studying more about livestock production. But don’t take my word for it! According to the comments on my CNN articles, I am just a sell-out, a shill of corporate agriculture.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m excited about the extent to which highly processed foods take over the shelves in our grocery stores, but it’s my own personal responsibility to make my food choices. It’s my dollar that chooses which food goes on my plate. Farmers really shouldn’t be the ones to blame; they are the ones making the raw materials. The food markets, cash flow and government regulation are the driver of food processing. *Keep in mind, not all processing is bad. Some is for our food safety from naturally occurring germs.*

I read an article last month that claimed more folks die each day from obesity than undernourishment. Food and health is a matter of personal responsibility, not a blame game to be played at the expense of some news ratings.

I can’t tell you where to get credible information about your food sources. Farmers are a piece of that puzzle, but not the entire pie. If you have lost faith in those individuals, I can’t tell you where to turn, because sound, reviewed science probably doesn’t do it for you either.

don't believe what is on the internetAnd finally, please stop posting all of those memes and Facebook photos claiming the latest cure-all or home remedy. More often than not, someone was just bored and looking for attention.

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8 Comments

  1. I, too, attended a Food Policy meeting last fall. I really thought that by being on this taskforce I could help our community. It seemed that the voice of actual producers should be heard. We have produced food for a long time and I know what is involved and that much of the information bandied about on the internet is actually mis-information.
    I cannot tell you how dismayed (ok, mad) I was that the first “assignment” was to watch this video that totally bashed big farmers and ALL their practices. It was awful. The thing that bugged me the most was when I contacted the chairman about this video choice and the direction this group was taking, his only comment was “do you have a VIDEO from a different point of view?” No…but, I do have some personal experience here.
    The whole point of this group was to explore ways to get more local food to the populace. Seemed to me that all production methods should have been explored objectively, but they were dead-set on LOCAL, organic, sustainable…with no regard to cost. Needless to say, I quit the group out of sheer frustration (and the fact that I really didn’t think getting into a public yell-fest would have fixed anything). There is a level of close-mindedness among some groups within the “food movement” and I have yet to find a way to counter it.
    You are so right about the internet being scary. But, the reason it seems scary is because folks have no point of reference by which to judge these crazy claims. I really wish people would check a creditable source prior to re-posting on-line.
    All that to say this, keep plugging away…there are people listening!

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    1. Thanks Barbara. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has encountered such an experience. Try to help out and really feel excluded. I noticed from your blog you’re in the Shenandoah Valley. Are you familiar with Forrest Pritchard? He has a book coming out that this month that I’ve had the opportunity to review. Great narrative.

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  2. Well put Ryan! I’m not sure which is scarier – the things I see posted and shared on the internet, or the fact that there are people who believe them! You always do such a great job of sharing your thoughts on the food industry without bashing anyone. Kudos to you! And go beef!

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    1. Thanks for the compliment Samantha. I do always try to keep from being too critical of one group or the other because I believe many of these lessons apply to folks on both sides of the plate.

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  3. Just a note – I don’t know where the bleach in flour comes from. I have an idea that there isn’t the chemical we call bleach. Sometimes flour has other materials added in powdered form to make it whiter.

    The sodium benzoate would be from the pickles, it’s a common preservative in processed foods.

    As to your question about the cheese being in parentheses, they’re probably labeling it that way because it’s processed cheese food slices, which aren’t your typical cheese, such as the Swiss you had on your hamburger.

    And, to the “fresh” item, fresh is defined differently by different people in different industries. I define fresh as being just harvested. But often produce will be a week or more older, depending on the type of produce and particular distribution chain. I was talking to the produce manager of a local store a while back and he said that typically, something like lettuce would take 2 weeks to get from the field to the store, which explains the amount of culling they do. This was a large national chain grocery store. Shortly after being harvested, many types of produce (but not all) begin to loose nutrients. So the farther, temporally, those types get away from harvest, the less nutrition you’ll get. And that ain’t counting that most burgers are dressed with iceberg lettuce which is little but chlorophyll, water and cellulose.

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  4. Ryan,

    I understand your confusion of where the extra ingredients come from. I personally am a chef, so that puts me on the complete opposite side of the food chain from where you are. I have been food advocating for about 5 years now and promoting “local”, sustainable, organic practices. Mainly because of those added ingredients.
    Our food system has been hijacked and distorted in many was since around the end of WWII, the use of chemical fertilizers to produce more food which also lead to a larger separation of animals from farms to feedlots, which some people still call these ranches. But I am digressing…

    The additives in those foods are not from the farmers and I would never blame them for that. They (the additives) are however a necessity for large scale agriculture businesses to succeed. Since the “farms” and “ranches” produce food for a large distribution chain most everything needs to be processed. Meat gets ammonia “washed” (injected and treated) to kill any traces of e.coli from it, this is because companies want to increase products and use scraps and trimming that come off the floor of the processing facilities (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/us/31meat.html?pagewanted=all).

    The enriched bleached and brominate’d flour in the bun is because the US produces so much wheat that we cannot consume it all in a time frame where normal flour wouldn’t go bad. So the flour is processed down with mechanical and chemical means then the nutrients are put back in a process called enriching.

    Pickles are preserved with sodium benzoate as stated above which is a “common preservative” a type of salt basically. However yellow 5 is added to the pickles to give them that bright yellowish green color. Yellow 5 has been banned in many countries because it is a know carcinogen. This is also the product that makes your Mac-n-Cheese that bright orange “cheese” color.

    Which brings me to the “cheese” this is not considered nor acknowledged as a real cheese because it lacks all properties of cheese. Again it is colored with yellow 5 and is solidified milk with gelatin.

    Ethylene ripened tomatoes these are tomatoes that are grown until green and exactly the same size then “ripened” with forced ethylene gas. Ethylene is a gas that is produced natural by fruits (lets remember tomatoes are actually a fruit not a vegetable) as they begin to ripen. Now I wonder why they do this? Oh yes so the green tomatoes can be grown in another country then shipped to the US and ripened and sold for a huge profit. Yet these products lack the nutrition that tomatoes that are in season and local have.

    Now here are some products that you left out of your list

    Beef
    – Antibiotics
    – Growth Hormones
    – Traces of GMOs from the corn they are fed

    All of the above is the reason I have been advocating local, organic, sustainable agriculture in the cities I live and the restaurants I cook. Granted not everything can be local, but we have the technology, man power and need to make everything sustainable and organic. Yes it will take some major changes on a lot of levels to get there, but its something that needs to happen.

    I just found your blog and will continue to read as I have not found a way to communicate with people in agri business that down play the big issues that are associated with it. I hope we can learn from one another.

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