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Newton’s Third Law of Food

November 12, 2015

Physics may not be your thing. But the synopsis of Newton’s third law of motion is, that for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. I remember learning about this in high school, and having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that when you push against the wall, the wall pushes back against you. Maybe I have that wrong. Surely, I don’t understand it fully. But go with me for a minute.

I was just reminded of this recently when reading through some of the national food stories of the week, one from The New York Times and the other from The Washington Post.

It would seem that consumer demand for better food is on the rise. But at the same time, the factors that drove consumers away from our industrialized, modernized, food-production system are actually getting worse. And for the the first time, I’m starting to wonder, if the profit pressures that national brands are feeling by the exodus of the “food-aware” are pushing them to cut costs and further weaken the supply chain.

Here’s what I mean.

This piece from The New York Times is incredibly encouraging. It paints a picture how the American change in eating habits isn’t just happening in our urban centers, but across the country. And more importantly, there is a huge generational shift in the mistrust of large food companies.

Good things are happening. Artificial colors and flavors are being removed from foods. Ingredient statements are being simplified. Antibiotic use is being reduced in meat production. And consumers are turning away from staples of the American diet. Orange juice has seen a drastic decline, soda is slipping, breakfast cereals are bottoming out, and McDonald’s has lost momentum.

Part of this is because people are cooking more. They are buying more raw fruits and vegetables. They are drinking water.

That’s the force moving in a positive direction. So what’s the push back?

Well, just yesterday The Washington Post published a story that’s all too familiar. Another activist got another job at another pork processing plant, and made another clandestine video. And while it’s clear that these activist organizations have an implicit all-meat-is-murder-mandate, that shouldn’t diminish the cruelty and abuses they uncover.

Especially when the USDA spokesman Adam Tarr goes on the record saying, “Had these actions been observed by the inspectors, they would have resulted in immediate regulatory action against the plant.”

The thing to note here is that the pork processor in question was part of a program to limit federal inspection. Here’s the blurb from the story:

The reduction in government inspectors dedicated to checking hogs on the line has allowed the government to save money by reducing its inspection force. It has also allowed plants to increase their line speed — on average, participants in the pilot program process roughly 120 extra hogs per hour, according to the USDA.

My first thought was, 120 extra hogs per hour? If they are able to squeeze in two more pigs per minute, how fast is this thing going?

Well, in round numbers they’re processing just over 21 pigs per minute. About 1,300 an hour. Eight hours of work, would crank through 10,400 carcasses. For a sense of scale, that’s a little more than the entire population of Watervliet.

All of this is done in the name of increased efficiency, which is a shorthand for lower costs. At least in theory, that means higher profits. However, when sales are declining, cutting costs could mean the difference between breaking even and being in the red.  Regardless, the farmers almost always get screwed.

At the supermarket, people who care about food can seek out the bacon that seems to be a little bit better. You know, like the ones at Whole Foods with the heart-warming words that make you think the pig you’ll be eating lived a wonderful life out in the open, living on pasture, and routing with its snout. Maybe it has, and maybe it hasn’t.

However, even at restaurants that will tell you where they get the beef for the burgers, all too often the bacon doesn’t get similar attention. And all of those lovely and delicious meals at my favorite ethnic restaurants involve this commodity pork that I would never consider buying myself at the store.

It feels like as public opinion on food is changing, the moneyed interests of big food are engaging in a race to the bottom. Some big brands are making small changes, and those are good. But the answer to declining profits in food production these days isn’t the old model of trying to make food cheaper. People are finally starting to wake up to the shenanigans of cheap food. The answer is to make it better.

From the looks of it though, we haven’t quite bottomed out yet. And the food system may require some drastic problem before we start seeing real change. Hopefully I’m wrong. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2015 10:52 am

    The only change that needs to occur is that Americans have to stop expecting/demanding such cheap food. A much lower percentage of our incomes goes towards food purchases then in other parts of the world. I am sort of OK with a giant slab of protein costing 100 dollars. But this is a mental leap that will be difficult for many Americans.

    • November 12, 2015 3:57 pm

      And if we actually limit our meat consumption to what would be healthy–the equivalent of a deck of cards per day–we wouldn’t actually be affected by the higher price tag on proteins. Of course, minimizing meat consumption is nice in theory, but likely very hard for most of us in practice.

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