Friends, we interrupt our regularly scheduled light and fluffy travel programming to bring you a brief interlude on cows. Cows and Skittles, to be precise. If you are here just for fun travel adventures, please feel free to tune out now – this one is about food politics.
Perhaps some of you noticed a little story that a couple of papers ran recently about a Skittles spill on a Wisconsin highway (although I’m painfully aware that there are one or two more significant American news stories to focus on right now). To summarize, a truckload of red Skittles missing their signature “S” spilled onto the road thanks to a rain-saturated cardboard box. When the local sheriff’s department came out to investigate, they discovered that the candy was on its way to be used as cattle feed. Maybe it’s fake news? Now that so much of what we read contains “alternative facts,” it’s hard to know what to believe. (You can read versions of the article here, here and here, and I’m sure there are plenty more.) Feeding food waste to cattle is apparently common practice in the U.S.
Bessie here actually prefers M&Ms to Skittles, if you want to know the truth.
Back in 2012, the severe drought that swept across the country caused corn prices to skyrocket, and that’s reportedly when the trend of feeding excess food to cattle really accelerated. In some cases, cows were even fed candy that was still wrapped, although a professor of animal nutrition seemed mostly convinced that the wrappers would pass through the cow without issue. I’m in no way a vet or other animal expert, but I imagine that plastic really can’t be good for an animal’s insides – even one as large and tough as a cow.
But wait, you might say. Skittles are mostly just corn syrup, which is just corn, right? And that’s what the cow would be eating if corn prices hadn’t risen so much, so really, what’s the big deal? It’s actually not the Skittles that bother me – it’s all the other stuff we don’t know about. Consider that the only reason we now know that these Skittles were intended for cattle feed is because they spilled. Had they not spilled, we’d still be shoveling our CAFO hamburgers in, none the wiser. This story indicates that a lot of other mysterious food waste goes to our cows, including but not limited to stale baked goods, peanut and almond shells, and orange rinds. Probably harmless, yes, but do these ingredients affect the integrity (what little there is) of the meat? Could a severely peanut-allergic person have a reaction to beef from a cow fed on peanut meal? I have no idea. And I also have no idea what is in our food.
My point is not that the Skittles themselves that are inherently bad (although they are). It’s that you didn’t know they were there. How can anyone make an informed decision about what they eat when they don’t have all the information? How can I implore my cooking students to read the label of every food item they buy when I know full well that label is inherently misleading? I also resent the implication that feeding Skittles to cows saves them from the landfill and is therefore virtuous. In a country that wastes over 40% of all edible food produced, I’m fairly certain that the quantity of Skittles we’re talking about here is negligible enough that the landfill excuse doesn’t hold up – greenwashing at its finest.
Some time ago, a friend who shops very consciously received a recall notice at the bottom of her grocery store receipt indicating that the big-brand chicken she’d purchased weeks earlier had been recalled. Since she deliberately never purchased big-brand chicken, she knew this had to be a mistake – yet when she contacted store management, she received a boilerplate customer service response that didn’t address the issue. Follow-up calls and emails went ignored, leaving her to assume that of course she had purchased that chicken – labeled as organic and packaged under a “clean” name – even while trying so hard not to. Plus, organic and conventional chicken were both part of the same recall, so how can one trust that the organic product really is? And that leaves us here, stumbling around the grocery store in a panic, reading labels frantically and generally feeling like a failure all the time because we no longer have any faith in a system designed to protect us from fraud and mislabeling.
These stories are compelling on many levels, but my takeaway is this: unless we’ve grown, raised and processed food ourselves from start to finish, we no longer can have any faith that we’re buying what we think we’re buying. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t feed their kid Skittles (concerns over Red 40 high on the list) but would certainly offer a lean beef stir-fry with plenty of supposedly organic vegetables and arsenic-free brown rice. Yet these same people, who are working so hard to get it right, are getting it wrong. Again and again, because they cannot trust that they’re buying and consuming what they think they are.
I’d love to end on a positive note, so I’ll leave you with this – if you want to trust your food, grow your own. Start a small garden. (If you’re in the Denver area, support a locally-owned business and go here for everything you need to get growing.) Raise backyard chickens. Get a beehive. Join a CSA. Know what you’re eating and where it came from, and be willing to ask questions. Also: eat less meat, and spend more money on it, and know who raised and processed it. And please, let us know your thoughts on this story. We’d specifically like to hear if you feel confident about label honesty and accuracy (including organic vs. conventional) and what exactly is in the food you buy.