Articles in Politics

Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the New York Times this summer about the controversial Polish ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. I was just arriving in London, en route to Paris, and thought to myself, “Isn’t this what happened in the 1930s when Hitler came to power and began dismantling Jewish culture in Europe?”

As described in Dan Bilefsky’s article, “Polish Jews Fight Ban on Religious Slaughter of Animals,” the warring factions in the dispute compose the oddest collection of bedfellows one can imagine. At least in the 1930s you had relatively clear-cut sides in Poland: fascists vs. Jews.

Defending religious ritual slaughter that uses a special razor-sharp knife for the task, you have, according to Bilefsky’s article, Polish Jews and Muslims (halal slaughter is similar to kosher) teamed up with the Catholic church — in fact, Pope Francis himself is involved. Hard to imagine the West’s three major, and often feuding, religions getting together on the same side of anything.

Supporting the ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the name of so-called “humane slaughter” — using a special “captive bolt” gun that stuns the animal into unconsciousness before slaughter — you have Polish animal welfare advocates, assorted leftists and right-wing nationalists (read neo-fascists). This latter group is, of course, happy to see Jews and other minorities in Poland lose out again.

Here’s the wrinkle: Ritual slaughter in Europe is legally exempt from the requirement of pre-slaughter stunning. The exemption, agreed to by the European Union in 1979, acknowledges the human right of religious minorities to carry out animal slaughter according to ancient traditions.

So the ban in Poland actually violates a legal exemption that appears to trump Poland’s ban. A pending ruling from Poland’s highest constitutional court will seek to resolve this dispute. In the meantime, the two sides are fighting it out in the court of public opinion, if not in the streets of Warsaw.

Déjà vu all over again

After reading the Times’ piece and an update on the ban in the Wall Street Journal, I began looking more deeply into the question of humane animal slaughter and its complex and eerie history.

In the early 1930s, efforts were made in Europe, especially in Germany to restrict ritual slaughter, at least ostensibly, in the name of animal welfare. In Great Britain, The Slaughter of Animals Act of 1933 required the electrical stunning of animals before slaughter. The exemption for religious slaughter that existed at that time was challenged by fascists, including British veterinarian Arnold S. Leese. In his 1938 paper “The Legalised Cruelty of Shechita: The Jewish Method of Cattle-Slaughter,” Leese states:

The Aryan or Christian has decided that his cattle shall be stunned first so that they will not feel the anguish of the cut and the awful struggle against death which follows it. The Jew and the Mahomedan claim and receive exemption by British law from following the Briton’s example.

Leese goes on to say that in a future fascist Britain, the exemption would be overturned.

The anguish of the cut

Going further back in history, one is reminded that the invention of the guillotine was considered humane in its day, a revolutionary technology designed to limit suffering in beheadings. The French Revolution’s bloody Terror was “revolutionary” in more ways than one.

And a razor-sharp metal knife must have been considered revolutionary (and humane) in ancient times. In Jewish dietary code, it is required that the blade of the shochet’s knife (the chalef) be extremely sharp and long enough to sever both carotid arteries with one smooth and decisive cut, thus causing near instantaneous unconsciousness, or “insensibility” as science likes to describe the loss of awareness (and pain) of animals being slaughtered.

Temple Grandin to the rescue

In all the recent coverage of the Polish ban on ritual slaughter, the one perspective curiously missing is that of science. Science is not my usual default position, but in this case, it’s the essential “objective” dimension in the debate over animal welfare and pain-free slaughter.

Who better, then, to provide the science than Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority on humane slaughter and, it must be noted, an unrepentant meat eater. Her personal story, including her triumph over autism, is well-known by now, following the recent release of the film “Temple Grandin.”

Grandin’s disability seems to be her virtue: objectivity. Typical of autism, Grandin has had difficulties with social interaction with humans, but her empathy for animals is uncanny and poignant. For much of her life, she hugged cows, not humans.

While her idiosyncratic personality may raise some eyebrows, no one can challenge Grandin’s credentials as a scientist — she has revolutionized the meat processing industry with her cattle management systems that keep the animals as comfortable as possible as they approach the inevitable. Her innovations are based on the insight that happy (stress-free) animals and pain-free slaughter guarantees better tasting meat for the consumer and more profits for the meat industry.

So when Grandin studied properly managed traditional ritual slaughter and compared it to modern technological slaughter she came to the following conclusion in a 1994 paper, “Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists”:

Kosher slaughter performed with the long, straight, razor-sharp knife does not appear to be painful … One can conclude that it is probably less distressful than poorly performed captive-bolt or electrical stunning methods, which release large amounts of epinephrine …

Elsewhere she has noted that properly handled cattle appear not to be aware during ritual slaughter that their throats have been cut. Grandin appears to be constitutionally incapable of anthropomorphism.

It’s still unclear how the Polish brouhaha (moohaha?) will be resolved in the courts, though a decision is expected soon. The forces arrayed in this story are ideological and emotional and tied to very old prejudices. But I’d like to think that Grandin’s approach, call it scientific empathy, will contribute once and for all to an end to these provocative bans on ritual slaughter and, at the same time, lead to increasingly well-managed ritual slaughter practices that guarantee animals the best of both worlds, here and in transition to the other.

Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

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“An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace,” by Tamar Adler, doesn’t contain a single glossy page or picture, but it will fill your head with hundreds of colorful recipes. Adler’s book contains recipes that call for dried-out meat, burnt vegetables and overcooked rice; and I promise you that it will make you want to rush to the kitchen and cook all night. Patterned after M.F.K. Fisher’s classic, “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Everlasting Meal” makes such an eloquent appeal for how to eat well while still being a responsible consumer, that you will want to read it four times over just to hear the beauty of Adler’s words.

At its heart, “An Everlasting Meal” is a practical manual, devoid of chef-y pretenses and attempts at glamour. Within its pages, Adler deftly debunks myths and hands out utilitarian, no-nonsense advice about how to prepare and eat food with ease and economy. Informed by her years cooking in famed restaurants such as Prune and Chez Panisse, she has laid out a handbook for having an honest relationship with food, a book that is equally useful to people possessing all levels of kitchen skills.

Perhaps its most quintessential chapter is entitled “How to Catch Your Tail.” This chapter sets out a plan to use all of the “tail ends” of cooking, from parsley stems to onion skins to bones to scraps of bread. For example, mint stems can be soaked in vinegar, which can then be used to make a seasoned vinaigrette. The olive oil used to pack anchovies can be utilized to cook vegetables. Droopy wilted vegetables can be boiled and transformed into puréed soup. Most leftovers meals and sides work well in the next day’s frittata.

Adler calls to mind the vision of Plato’s snake, eating its own tail as a means to eternity and implores, “When we leave our tails trailing behind us we lose what is left of the thought we put into eating well today. Then we slither along, straight, linear things that we can be, wondering what we will make for dinner tomorrow. So we must spot our tails when we can, and gather them up, so that when we get hungry next, and our minds turn to the question of what to eat, the answer will be there waiting.”

Methods over measurements

Don’t count on seeing a lot of traditional recipes in this book, although there are enough to satisfy those who desire exact instructions. Adler has decided to focus less on measurements and ingredient lists, and more upon ideas in cooking. This means that there are hundreds of recipe ideas contained within “An Everlasting Meal.” She spins up eight ways to serve simply cooked beans in just a few paragraphs — including beans and rice, beans on toast, beans with an egg, cassoulet, sausage and bean soup, and herbed bean gratin. She adroitly shows how to transform an entire week’s purchase of vegetables in one hour, so that they will be ready to use for quick-cook meals throughout the week.

You might be shocked to see so many ideas for correcting mistakes in the kitchen, and how to use food that might otherwise be considered ruined. But this plays perfectly well with Adler’s call for resourcefulness and achieving a comfortable relationship with food in the kitchen. After all, if you know how to correct a dish that is too salty, or repurpose an overcooked grain, you are much more likely to return to the kitchen to cook again, rather than feel defeated and order out.

An intimate conversation

This probably isn’t the right book for someone who needs a full-color picture to accompany each recipe. However, this book will be a delight for those who adore well-turned phrases in food writing. For the most part, “An Everlasting Meal” reads like an intimate conversation with a treasured food buddy.

The most poignant parts of this book come when Adler speaks about one’s relationship to food. When describing what to do if one should fall out of love with cooking, she advises, “My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love … Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate when you loved it … Tug your memories back into the kitchen with you and you’ll find yourself less separate from the idea of making food.”

This is just part of the passionate call of “An Everlasting Meal” to return to a deep-seated relationship to cooking, which in turn, will help return us all to better eating.

Whether you are looking for stellar food writing, pragmatic recipes for eating well, or tidbits of wisdom on how to eat with grace, “An Everlasting Meal” will deliver.

Buy Tamara Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.

 

Photo: “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler. Credit: Wendy Petty

 

 

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Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, is the author of the new release “The End of Cheap China,” which addresses, among other things, food safety and food supply issues in China.

Rein’s research shows that China is having an increasing impact on global food supply and that the Chinese taste for imported Western food is growing as is demand for a reliable and safe food system in that country.

Based in Shanghai, he writes for Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek. I spoke recently to Rein about his book chapter dedicated to food safety issues in China.

How is the consumer power of the average Chinese changing?

The book is meant to dispel a lot of myths about China’s economy. The first is that Chinese consumers are price-sensitive and cheap. I have a chapter on food safety, where I explain that they’re willing to spend money on healthy and safe food, so if you’re a producer, it’s worth selling into China. For example, Yum! Brands makes over 40 percent of its global revenue in China. So the Chinese consumer is a great consumer for Yum!, McDonald’s, Kraft and any company trying to sell finished products into the country.

It’s also a great country for the agricultural sector: sales of pork and soy are going up 300 to 400 percent a year.

How is this affecting the way the Chinese eat? How has that changed in recent years?

Meat consumption was very low. Meat consumption in China is only about 35 percent that of the United States, So, Americans eat a lot more meat, but that is changing. Chinese doubled (their average per person) meat consumption in the last 30 years. As Chinese consumers are getting wealthier, they’re eating more meats, and (the country’s wealthiest consumers) are actually willing to spend more per capita on meat than (their counterparts do) in the United States.

Are they domestically producing different kinds of foods to meet those demands?

Yeah, what you’re seeing now is massive investment on the domestic side when it comes to beef, when it comes to wine … all kinds of things. But the reality is that China’s food system has a problem: There’s not enough arable land, and the water is heavily polluted. So China is actually going to have to rely on food imports, from the United States especially, and they’re becoming a massive importer of pork, chicken feet, soybeans, pistachios, all kinds of products. These consumers trust American-produced food products more than they do stuff from China. So it’s really a boom for all different industries involved in the food sector. On the lower end and higher end.

Arable land is only 7 percent (of that available around the world), so it’s a serious problem, and it’s only going to get worse going forward.

What are you noticing in terms of the impact on health in the way Chinese are changing their food consumption behaviors?

Right now, consumers are not worried that much about food when it comes to “is it healthy?” towards their overall diet. They’re eating meat, they’re eating fatty food, and they’re not overly concerned about long-term illnesses, which is why you’re seeing rates of heart disease and diabetes skyrocketing.

But people are worried about being healthy from a toxicity standpoint. We interviewed 2,000 consumers in eight cities last year, and the majority said they feel that KFC, for instance, is healthy. They know it’s not healthy in the traditional sense, but people are worried about eating cooking swill oil [that is old, used oil which is filtered of solids and then re-used for cooking] on the streets, and dying right away.

What are the food safety concerns Chinese have, beyond swill oil?

We interviewed 5,000 consumers in 15 cities last year, and their biggest concern in life, ahead of being able to pay for their kid’s education or for medical costs for the family, is actually food and product safety. People are really worried. That’s why brands like Mengniu Dairy are winning, because they’re positioned as higher priced over Nestlé, they’re about 20-30 percent more (expensive), and consumers are willing to fork out the money because they think it’s going to be safe. So Dannon and Nestlé had to shut their factories in Shanghai this year, because they were competing on price and consumers didn’t want their cheap stuff anymore. Consumers find a correlation between safety and price, and feel higher price will be safe. Now I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in reality, but that’s how they equate it.

In your opinion, how are China’s consumption trends affecting the world beyond?

[They are affecting the world] in a few areas. First, China’s become the market to sell into, so a lot of brands need to think about how they’re going to sell to Chinese consumers, especially women, because women are the decision-makers when it comes to food purchases, predominantly, in families.

It’s also going to mean that there’s going to be inflation. In the last three decades, China has really been a deflationary force on the global economy. But because everyone’s getting fat, and wanting to eat more, better quality foods, you’re going to see a pricing strain on global commodity markets. So the world needs to be prepared for global inflation. American consumers better get used to higher prices at Shaw’s, or Tesco or Carrefour or Walmart, around the world.

Will the Chinese agricultural and food production systems have to change?

They absolutely will have to change. It’s an absolute mess, it’s a disaster, and an embarrassment for China to have such a poor food supply system. Though it’s being changed by two things.

The first is, the government understands it needs to do a better job of oversight. So what they’ve done is shut 50 percent of the nation’s dairies last year, for example.

The real change is going to take place by people willing to spend money when they feel that they’re safe. So brands are going to fix their supply chain and cater to these consumers and make money. The scope of the problem is enormous.

Buy Shaun Rein’s “The End of Cheap China” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.

Photo: Author Shaun Rein. Credit: Courtesy of Shaun Rein

 

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Before you dig into your next meal, consider a few of the things Ben Hewitt has to say in his new book, “Making Supper Safe: One Man’s Quest to Learn the Truth About Food Safety”: 

  • More than 200,000 Americans are sickened by food every day.
  • Each year, 325,000 of us will be hospitalized and 5,194 of us will die because we ate contaminated food.
  • We now eat hamburgers made from the fleshy bits of hundreds of cows and adulterated with an ammoniated slurry intended to protect us from the real possibility that any one of those cows, which may have come from different continents, was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
  • The curtain that hangs between you and where your nourishment originates is thick and dark, and doesn’t come with draw cords.

Hewitt is on a mission to draw back that dark curtain. To that end, he takes readers on an idiosyncratic journey from dumpster diving to President Obama’s food czar. The book begins and ends with peripherally relevant (albeit entertaining) chapters on the “freegan” lifestyle. In between those bookends, “Supper” covers a broad range of important food safety and food system issues, including food-borne illness statistics (more Americans die every year from eating contaminated food than have been killed in Iraq since the outset of the war) and the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies charged with ensuring safe food.

Corporate irresponsibility revealed

Some of the most engaging chapters are those that profile individuals, such as the world’s premier personal injury lawyer specializing in food-borne illness, Bill Marler; the country’s largest producer and most evangelical proponent of raw (unpasteurized) milk, Mark McAfee; the family of a young girl who came close to dying after drinking contaminated raw milk; and the founder of Fedco Seeds, C.R. Lawn, who stopped carrying many favorite vegetable varieties after their owner, Seminis Seeds, was acquired by Monsanto.

Hewitt devotes an entire chapter to multi-antibiotic resistant bacteria, MRSA, which he explains have evolved rapidly in response to the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. This irresponsible use of antibiotics is ushering in what one microbiologist calls “the post-antibiotic era,” when antibiotics will be useless, and what used to be a mild, treatable infection can now kill you.

Another chapter is devoted to the recall of 550 million eggs in August 2010, some four months after the CDC noticed a huge uptick in Salmonella enteridis cases. It took that long to determine that all the people getting sick had eaten eggs and that all those eggs (packaged under 16 brand names and distributed to14 states) had come from the huge salmonella-ridden facilities in Iowa owned by Jack DeCoster.

Near the end of his book, Hewitt points out that, bad as it is that 5,000 people die annually from food-borne illnesses, the figure pales in comparison to the 300,000 people who die each year from food-related health problems other than those caused by bacteria or viruses. He traces the insidious chronic diseases related to obesity and diabetes directly to U.S. agricultural policies of the 1970s. Those policies, along with massive taxpayer subsidies of a few crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, have brought us to the nonsensical world where a carrot straight out of the ground costs more than highly processed food items that go through many stages of manufacturing and many stages of packaging and transportation. Ubiquitous “cheap” food is the culprit in 300,000 deaths a year, and so leads Hewitt to conclude “the unspoken truth about food safety in the United States. Our food doesn’t even need pathogenic bacteria to sicken. It does just fine on its own.”

Consumers are on our own

Making supper safe, then, is a DIY job. When we can’t trust food companies to put consumers’ health over corporate profits and when we can’t trust government to put public health over ties to industry, then people have no choice but to take things into their own hands. And more and more people are growing some of their own food and/or buying from producers operating on a scale and with an ethos that provides a clear view of what, where, how and why that food is produced and processed.

The 16 short, unnamed chapters in Hewitt’s book barely scratch the surface of the complexities of our unsafe food system, but they are a good primer. Taken together with his first book, “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food,” Hewitt has joined the growing cadre of journalists examining food production and consumption, industrial and local. These books run from bestsellers such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” to cult classics such as Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” to genuine classics in the “what corporations are forcing us to eat, drink, and breathe” genre such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation” and Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream.”

I did have a couple of quibbles with the book. I  found the juxtaposition of Hewitt’s glib, folksy commentary and earnest, hard-hitting reporting odd, even jarring at times. Also, I was dismayed to find no footnotes and no bibliography. Food safety is a serious topic and demands serious attribution to give the book credibility, and to point readers to where the author found his facts and where they might go for more in-depth information.

But as it stands, the book is a good introduction to our dangerously opaque food system. It also provides readers with more than a few draw cords to tug on to part those heavy curtains separating us from our food. Only when we insist on transparency can we begin to take back our food system and make supper safe again.

 


Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Images: Ben Hewitt and “Making Supper Safe.”  Credit: Courtesy of Rodale.


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