Who’s eating whom?

Well, it hasn’t been a boring winter break, ranging from the capture of a ragtag Saddam Hussein to mad cow breaking out in our own backyard to Libya opening up to weapons inspectors to the seasonal fearfest hype about, well, maybe we might see some Real Terrorist action sometime soon. Oh yeah, it looks like we’re having a Real Winter here for the first time in ten years or so. The stock market is roaring back at pre 9-11 levels and, judging from the crowds on Christmas Day, the final installment of the Lord of the Rings is the most popular one yet.

Having fun yet?

Annoyingly, the reactions to these stories verge on the predictable, and the mad cow disease story has all the knees jerking in unison. Vegetarians and vegans wax prolific about how mad cow proves that we should not be eating meat. The government holds to a defensive profile while trying to track down the origination of the cows involved in that particular shipment from Canada. Beef producers fret about embargoes on American beef products. Hard-core carnivores blather on about low risk factors. The easily scared and panicked return suspect beef to the supermarkets and talk about giving it up for an indefinite period.

What’s the reality here?

The reality is that we as Americans are behind the eight-ball on this issue. For those who are easily scared by the prospect of mad cow disease, the odds are very good that this is not the first animal with this prion disease which made it into the food supply here in America. As one British farmer I know commented recently on Usenet, it is very possible that early stage cases went to slaughter without being recognized, simply because American producers are not sufficiently familiar with what early stage mad cow looks like. The cow in question was not suspected of having mad cow but was tested because another cow was suspect. Of course, then, instead of holding the carcass out of the meat supply to wait for test results, the processor ran the carcass through. Hence the meat recalls.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. But totally predictable, given the lousy nature of food inspection and regulation in this country.

I’m a former farm girl, married to a former dairy farmer. My spouse is appalled by the idea that downer cows are sent to slaughter. When his family ran their dairy, they tried to nurse their downers through whatever caused the cow to go down, and if that didn’t work, they shot the cow and buried it rather than stick it in the food supply. You just plain didn’t eat the sick and injured animals because infection tainted the meat.

But that apparently doesn’t fit in the bottom line of today’s large-scale farming methodologies. And that, my friends, is an issue which should concern everyone, not just meat-eaters. Today it’s beef. What about issues which affect vegetarians and vegans when it comes to food quality? I don’t think that non-meat-eaters can afford to adopt a moral high ground on this issue, because the underlying issues that drive the problems with the American food system affect all parts of the system, not just the parts that relate to meat consumption. Irradiated food, anyone? Genetically modified food? Pesticide and herbicides on your veggies, fruit and grains? Corporate bottom lines affect all aspects of the food system, unless you manage to buy all food you consume directly from the producer-and not enough of us do that.

Too damn many people out there have no real awareness of where their food comes from or what it takes to produce their food. For too many people, low food prices are more important than quality-and I’m not talking about poor or working class people here, either, but the affluent middle-class consumer. If more people gave a hoot about the quality of their food, farming would be a more productive profession than the knife-edge gamble it is today.

Food production is too damn important to turn into a corporate assembly line, and I think mad cow is but one of the first harbingers of problems with our current attitudes toward food and farming. Things need to change, and it doesn’t take much for broke college students to take small steps to cause these changes. Think about what you eat and where it comes from. Look for quality instead of quantity. Grow a little food garden if you can, even if it’s only a little patio box of lettuces in the summertime. Buy organic, or better yet, buy at the farmer’s markets and support your local food producers.

Most importantly, be aware that, despite your persuasion with regard to meat consumption, it doesn’t do much good to be vegetarian or vegan if all your food consumption comes from big corporate producers.

Think before you eat.