This American Meal: A Tale of Two Dinners

Dishing up the facts—good and bad—behind one supper in Boston


| May/June 2002


Industrial Supper 

Factory farm chicken: Four companies produce 50 percent of the broiler chickens sold in the United States. One of them, Goldkist, made headlines two years ago when it processed diseased chicken into nuggets for school lunches. Industrial chickens are inhumanely crowded into cages and raised indoors. To keep disease levels down and promote growth, factory managers give the birds antibiotics, whether they’re sick or not. The result? Increasing numbers of bacteria such as salmonella that are resistant to antibiotics. When harmful bacteria slip onto your plate from an undercooked chicken breast, you can get sick—and the antibiotics you expect to cure you can’t always do the job. Right now, these bugs produce an estimated 3.3 million cases of foodborne illnesses and 652 deaths in the United States each year. But there’s some good news brewing: Recognizing these problems, the poultry industry is beginning to decrease its use of antibiotics.

Organic California lettuce: Can organics be industrial? You bet! In California, some large companies produce both organic and conventional lettuce. Consumers see the “organic” label and think it’s the same as “homegrown organic” lettuce. Far from it. California’s lettuce industry is built on exploited, low-wage migrant workers. The price in the store may be lower than local lettuce, but the social costs are much higher.

Conventional local potatoes: With their heavy reliance on soil fumigants, as well as herbicides and pesticides during the growing season, conventional potatoes might pose health concerns and are certainly costly to raise. Maine potato farmers lost money eight years in a row because of low produce prices and the high price of chemicals. Many don’t want to be on the chemical treadmill—but the low margins make it difficult to convert to organic, which takes three years.

Big dairy milk: Around 75 percent of the milk sold in southern New England comes from Dean Foods, a Dallas-based corporation—and there’s a good chance the cows producing the milk were treated with rBGH, a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. rBGH is injected twice monthly into 30 percent of the nation’s dairy herd to increase milk production. Banned in Canada and Europe, rBGH makes cows susceptible to health problems including infertility, infections, and diseases. It also generates the production of a powerful hormone, Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which we also produce in our bodies. Elevated levels of IGF-1 increase the risk of some cancers. Do our IGF-1 levels go up when we drink milk from rBGH-injected cows? No one knows.

Conventional strawberries from California: Big and red, but sometimes tasteless and hard, they’re bred to withstand long journeys and often are picked before they’re ripe to make the 3,200-mile trek to Boston. Tagging along are residues from the average of 142 pounds of pesticides applied per acre to California strawberry crops. These neurotoxins, carcinogens, and developmental toxins are not appealing additions to strawberry shortcake, and they’re even worse for the farmworkers exposed to them. Coming soon: a genetically modified strawberry that incorporates DNA from a flounder to make it frost-resistant.