Following on the heels of pink slime, mad cow disease (AKA bovine spongiform encephalopathy—or BSE) is back this week after a California dairy cow destined for a rendering plant that makes pet food was found to have the disease. So far, it looks like the beef industry is playing down the finding, hoping to dodge a loss in sales at home and abroad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was quick to tell Americans that our food supply is entirely safe.

But the re-emergence of mad cow and the conversation around pink slime has re-opened questions about our food system. It has exposed how food safety falls inevitably through the cracks in a country where over 9 billion animals are being slaughtered per year and budgets for the departments that oversee these processes are being slashed. The incredible media coverage of both issues reflects a growing consumer interest in more transparency in what we’re eating and how it’s being produced.

While this is only the fourth case of mad cow in the U.S. to date, experts argue that finding it this time was a stroke of luck. Of the 34 million cows we slaughter annually in the U.S., 40,000 are being tested by USDA for the disease, down from nearly 500,000 in 2005—about one tenth of one percent. Read more

More Americans are demanding higher quality meat–animals fed appropriate, antibiotic-free diets on small farms and slaughtered humanely–and they are choosing to eat less of it, too. Whether turned off by endless recalls, or turned on by the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat, growth in campaigns like Meatless Monday show a powerful shift in the Zeitgeist.

Meanwhile Big Meat is taking on the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain its right to let manure run into our waterways, as it defends the excess antibiotic use (80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock), inhumane practices, and consolidation of the industry as the only way to feed the world. The beef industry has even invested in a communications degree that aims to revitalize the consumer image of industrial beef.

The conversation around how we bring meat to the table is multifaceted and is the subject of a lively discussion on April 14 at New York University entitled “What’s the Matter With Mass-Produced Meat?” Read more

On Monday, domestic policy wonk Ezra Klein published a short piece over at his Washington Post blog entitled “Industrial Farms are the Future,” in which he challenged the idea that the local food movement is doing anything but informing the big players in their marketing strategy. Further, he wondered aloud whether there was ever a major industry that “went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production–and then back again.”

Tom Philpott over at Grist took down the evidence Klein quotes in the piece, and which inspired its title. Klein bit back, addressing the issue again and pointing to the growth of industrial agriculture in China, India, and particularly Brazil as a case in point about the inevitability of growth in agriculture. I thought I would attempt to challenge Klein’s assumptions once again. Read more

Ever feel like you were playing checkers and the other guy was playing chess?

That’s the sort of feeling I get often when I watch many of the recent spate of food documentaries to be released.  Activists announce that this or that is wrong with the food system, and on the rare occasion when something appears to be getting done about it, the folks who are doing things badly simply change their tactics, but not their strategy.

It happened again while watching the British documentary film Pig Business. Read more

When I moved to the country this past spring, I breathed a sigh of relief for the natural environment and abundant animal life surrounding me. Gophers are everywhere—supposedly they ran the Russians out of Sonoma County—their wild escapades are evident across the dimpled landscape of the 80-acre organic farm I call home. Jack rabbits run through the olive groves and coyotes cry their lonely songs at night.

Dozens of birds encircle the farm: owls, hawks, crows, blue birds, hummingbirds, robins. Their songs and dances endlessly entertain. I’ve been graced by fox, deer, badgers, skunk, and raccoons, not to mention the neighbors’ chicken, ducks, sheep, goats, horses, llamas, and ostrich. And, I’ve fallen madly for the cows in the grassy field across the way. The glossy girls do a little jig when they see me coming with my bucket of kitchen leftovers and garden waste, which I should be saving for compost.

Nothing prepared me, though, for the wild turkey who planted herself firmly in my front yard the first week I arrived. Read more

Recently, Michael Pollan, author and local food guru, has been the target of attacks from local food naysayers. One, by Missouri Farm Bureau official Blake Hurst in the American Enterprise Institute’s Reason Magazine has gotten a lot of attention.

The article, entitled Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals, goes after the whole local food movement as a kind of effete endeavor by people who don’t know what they are talking about. And since the New York Times alerted its online readers to the article without digging much deeper, I will attempt to do so here. Read more