A Partial Debunking of Pollanism

Even after reading Pollan’s two main books all the way through twice, for some reason I still had a hard time getting motivated to write this report.  However, for the perceived financial good of those that I hope value my opinion, I finally got some seemingly novel advice down in writing.  My pointed effort here pales in comparison to Pollan’s ability to spin miles long yarns, but it is better than continuing to let his many provocative assertions go largely unanswered.  I’m of the food industry experienced opinion that like Carl Marx  before him, Michael Pollan benefits from having the elite wherewithal to leisurely investigate a complex perceived problem (what to eat) and then offers a very lengthy, reasonable sounding solution to it.  The problem is, Mike like Carl before him, never worked in the fields that he advises on; nor does he reveal how to realistically achieve any of his visions.  Further, it’s been 12 years now since his vague Utopian recommendations were published and widely distributed in Omnivore’s Dilemma, but none of his suggested best practices have ever produced any lasting workable results; during a multitude of real-time test implementations.  Also kind of like Carl M., Michael seems to have a fairly strong dislike of both cost efficient capitalism and the agricultural technological advances that have made it possible to feed the Earth’s current record high human population.  He does however, quote and greatly expand upon tons of “junk science” studies; that are far from settled (widely peer accepted).

For several years now I have been baffled by the ever increasing number of voices that I have heard strongly condoning concepts like grass-farming livestock, fresh produce coops, urban agriculture and local farmer’s markets.  Amazingly, all this has been occurring during a very well established (nearly 60 years) long term American convenience food trend.  “The trend is your financial friend.”  I worked on a local fresh produce farm and at a large city farmer’s market as a youth.  Later, I watched meat industry consolidation and one-stop-shopping become the norm; so I know well why those things are as they are today.  My first impression of this current romantic sounding farming & food prep situation was that far too many people in modern society lack a clear concept of what all it takes to actually keep everyone fed at an affordable monetary cost.  After personally witnessing several young farmers and a few meat shop entrepreneurs lose their money from subscribing to “Pollanism,” I decided that I had to try and identify a few of the sources of their miss education.  I started by reading Mike’s two main books all the way through twice.  Admittedly, today’s wannabe food revolutionaries didn’t all start out solely from Pollan, but he was the gifted writer that successfully incorporated a lot of niche food marketing thought into books; then sold millions of copies.  Michael did tons of research and I actually do agree with some of his findings.  But, we are all only human; so Mike understandably presented only findings that meshed well with his program of “ethical” animal & human nourishment.  Besides being a very gifted writer, he is also adept at using phases such as might be, probably is and is thought to be; all to help convince readers of his visions of the anointed eating.  I don’t know about all sectors of the food industry, but will point out things that I consider to be troublesome about ever increasing food “Pollanism” in American society.

Drawing from my agricultural education and long term meat industry work background, large scale food production enterprises have almost always been termed “commercial” operations.  Mike rather successfully puts a negative spin on all big Ag by calling such enterprises “industrial agriculture.”  To me, that terminology immediately congers up visions of the durable goods manufacturing industry and so is not at all appetizing.   In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan acknowledges that there were once many isolated human populations that thrived on local diets that consisted of very limited food variety; including primarily meat diets.  But in the in Omnivore’s Dilemma he goes on a hundred page tirade about the over prevalence of corn in the modern Western diet.  What is wrong about having a highly successful corn-centric diet?  Testing for C4 carbohydrates is used as evidence that we are mainly corn (you are what you eat), but he fails to disclose that sorghum and millet are also C4 plants.  He does briefly mention that sugarcane is a C4 plant.  All 3 of the other C4 food crops are then assumed to indicate corn origin carbon during testing.  We western “corn people” are derided as being soaked in oil, but Mike apparently has no qualms about using fossil fuel for his own creature comforts or traveling extensively to do slanted research for his books.  Which brings me to another point: he figuratively crapped on a lot of hardworking food industry people that took their time to try and teach him about their particular sector of food production, processing or distribution.  Workable distribution and marketing are the biggest points missed in his theory’s.  I’m reminded of the story about a young boy that refused to eat his dinner and when pressured to do so, offered to mail it to the hungry people that would be glad to have it.  Perishable food products and mass feeding are not small distribution obstacles to overcome.  I do agree that we don’t need to be air-shipping any produce into the US from the Southern hemisphere during our winter months, but then again I’m more frugal than most people.  Mike waxes on about how long distance food truck shipping is very non eco-friendly, but free market business success has proven that the economies of scale practices of large food plants and 40,000 pound single item product shipments, most often consume less fossil fuel per retail sales unit, than the same foods produced and distributed by a multitude of small purveyors.

Pollan’s war on corn, particularly corn-finished market beef animals, is very troubling.  He downplays the required role of grain feeding omnivorous swine and poultry; while also giving things like estrogen mimics in processed soy products a pass from scrutiny.  The current near cult of “grass-fed beef” in particular is squarely in need of debunking.  To start, when most people hear the words grass-fed they assume grass-finished market beef from younger (non-breeding stock) bovines.  But, as far as the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) is concerned beef can be labeled as grass-fed as long as the meat yielding beef animal in question spent 51% of its life solely on a forage diet.  If you want proof of this FSIS practice (Click Here), then listen closely starting at one hour and 10 minutes into this linked University Extension service webinar covering Meat Labels and Label Claims.   Since the average time in feedlots is 90 to 120 days, virtually every 14 month old (for a typical example) fattened steer or heifer spends well over half their short life consuming milk and forages.  But, Mr. Wolfer you are wrong, you say.  “My grass-fed beef is independently third-party certified to have never so much as smelled a single grain of corn.”  The conflict of interests in that scenario is: grass-fed cattle producers pay for the certification service and if they don’t like the results from one certifying firm they are free to shop for a more accepting certification service.  Also, those certifications are based largely off of producer affidavits, and at best a farm visit or two.  I once saw a cattle carcass that displayed C – bone maturity; that had an accompanying producer signed affidavit stating that it was under 30 months of age. The reasons retail market beeves are grain finished is to get cattle fat while they are still young & tender, to assure desirable white fat and to impart a mild flavor to the finished product.  Marginally higher omega 3 content in truly grass-finished beef is often touted as a major benefit over mainstream retail market beef.  But omega 3 content is naturally relatively low in all bovines, regardless of the finishing diet; so a few percent more of a small amount does not make a significant difference.  If you want more omega 3’s in your diet, eat some of the more fatty species of fish.  An environmental upside to grain-finishing market cattle is that they spend considerably less days farting and belching out greenhouse gasses.  Truly grass-finished retail market beef can be expected to be stronger flavored, darker colored with increasing age and be from somewhat older/tougher beef animals.  And, if such carcasses are then long term dry-aged in an effort to correct a few of those product defects, some potentially harmful substances (bio-genic amines and the end products of fat oxidation) can be produced.   Most American are used to enjoying truly high eating quality grain-finished beef, but since “grass-fed” currently demands a much higher price per pound, a lucrative marketing strategy could be to advertise grass-fed beef that was allowably grain-finished.  Since good eating “grass-fed” and grain-fed/finished beef are very similar in every way, a savvy consumer could save money and still act hip by saying it’s grass-fed (in essence do a double agent style trick on beef marketers).  Isn’t marketing interesting?  If you care to learn more about beef cattle color discrimination (Click Here).  One of Mike’s most repeated “facts” is that a grain diet always makes feeder cattle sick.  But he fails to disclose that his beloved legumes or even the rapid introduction to lush Spring grasses can also cause cattle rumen bloat.  In the real world, cattle feedlot operators lose a lot of money nursing sick animals; so they gradually and expertly change feeder calf diets.  Further, like mostly all other animals, cattle naturally crave nutrient dense food stuffs.  Evolution caused all foodstuff variety eating animals (this exclues koala bears etc.) to want to take in a lot of the richest food available.  Ironically when it comes to fast-food burgers, the origin of much of the lean component of those burgers is from culled beef brood cows (actual bovine, non-dairy females that have calved at least once or are over about 42 months of age); that most likely never received any measurable amount of grain throughout their entire long lives.  However, a small amount of trim-fat from grain-finished young market cattle is often ground & blended in with the cull cow grind in order to enhance the finished product palatability characteristics of flavor and juiciness.  Grain may be relatively cheap, but sending a pregnant cow out to thrive on complex carbohydrate range or pasture is much more cost efficient.  Still, Mike remains down on how cornified fast-food burgers are.  Like many high-sounding marketing phrases that came before it, the term grass-feed is premised upon a lot of empty promises.  I just don’t get his strong dislike of “capitalist corn”; that all us present day humans are so fortunate to have in abundance.

Pollan goes substantially gaga over Joel Salatin’s Plolyface Farms of Virginia, but I’m thinking that due to all the eager young interns lining up to do free hard labor there, the financial success of Polyface Farms is more the exception than the rule in the “grass-farming.” Another point that has to be made here is that if and when little entrepreneurs do lucratively establish a new niche market, Big, competitive Meat  will find some ways to obtain  their share.

 

Where I agree with Pollanism:

Chemurgy (a branch of chemistry that seeks to make industrial products from raw agricultural materials) has broken major grain crops down to the point where all sorts of food additives can also be made from them.  I’m not a fan of either over processing or the multitude of additives that are routinely used in making shelf-stable or otherwise more salable convenience food items.  We humans didn’t evolve eating such food additives; so it’s reasonable to assume that chronic ingestion of them could be a potentially unhealthy dietary practice.  All these modern day food sensitivities have to be coming from somewhere.

As earlier stated , I don’t agree at all with Pollan’s war on market cattle feedlots.  But do agree that commercial chicken egg production and gestation crate usage for brood sows are both cruel animal product production practices.  Due to those beliefs, I rarely eat whole eggs and thankfully gestation crates are reported to be widely falling out of favor.  However, I don’t agree with pastured pork production.  That method often leads to uncastrated male hogs (boar taint), the predation of newborn pigs by large birds, tends to add to the existing  feral hog explosion in some regions of the US, requires expensive hog-strong fences, wastes animal energy by rooting and walking distances to water, routinely causes Meat Inspection condemned livers from round worm infestation and greatly increases the odds that trichina (muscle worms) could once again become a worrisome health concern in humans.  As noted earlier, hogs and chickens are both omnivores that must be fed mainly grain based diets (both breeding stock and market animals).  In a pinch, grain crops can be used to solely feed humans; where forages/roughages are largely indigestible to all animals except ruminant species.

I believe Pollan also got the 1970’s and 80’s war on fat correct.  Through the grapevine I heard that it was the big US meat processors of the day that first funded the AMA to conduct and report on anti animal fat health studies; in order to try & save big bucks on feed costs and to reduce quantities of trim fat that were being rendered into beef tallow.  And, the once healthy lard market was already dead.  Most of the rest of the world’s consumers were already used to lower eating quality beef, so big US Beef wanted to get in on the dollar savings.  It was during that paradigm shift that a lot of big Continental European Beef Breed bulls were imported into the US and subsequently killed a good many of our existing British breed heifers, and even cows, due to too large of calves.  Then by 1978 The Certified Angus Beef brand recognized that Americans were hooked on high quality beef and initiated the first, of the later hundreds, of AMS certified beef carcass specifications.  The fact that mainstream boneless pork loins are now regularly less expensive per pound than bone-in pork butts is a hold over testament to the failed leaner meat is better years.  And more to the point, baby back ribs (about half bone) cut off pork loins, in-part to make the former boneless, demand around $1 more per pound and so 1/4 inch of the now less expensive loin meat is routinely left attached to baby backs.  The loin meat left on baby backs originates from the rib-end of the loin, so it doesn’t dry out too awful badly during the long BBQ overcooking that’s needed to gel collagen.  The financial hit pork packers are taking on mainstream modern type loins is apparently more than made up for by the consistently strong demand for comparatively lean bacon and lean hams.  About 3/4’s of the typical market hog carcass is further processed into value-added products (bacon, ham and all manner sausage products).

Converse to the now discredited lean meat is better trend, quite a few Pollanites now tend to take meat fat levels all the way to the other extreme.

 

What Mike overlooks:

For all his dislike of petroleum, he failed to report on the universal usage of petroleum based plastic primary food packaging containers.  In plastic’s case also, humans did not evolve ingesting plastic packaging & food container (plastic lined paper hot cups etc.) residue on a continuous basis.  A prime example of marketing foolishness is where “filtered” tap water is plastic bottled.  Why pay more then the cost of gasoline per gallon to drink otherwise free potable water out of soft “factory-fresh” plastic bottles?  Billions of disposable plastic bottles are not good in the oceans either.  Glass is the only chemically inert (non-reactive) food packaging material.

 

One real-world solution to eating more healthy and ecologically:

As we humans evolved, we didn’t have the modern day luxury of eating different foods at every meal.  Today a large variety of food, on a meal to meal basis, is taken for granted.  Western society is comparatively “soft.”  Besides advocating most ivory tower favored food sources, Mike was also easily disgusted by animal slaughter,  eluded to the fact that he never had to do physical labor for a living and loves his “creature comforts.”  Contrary to Pollan’s lengthily recommendations, I believe that rapid healthy eating gains can be obtained simply by people working diligently towards becoming more in control eaters.  As Mr. Pollan advocates, it’s essential that we retake our food preparation in order to gain much more control of what all we are ingesting.   However, that food prep necessarily has to be done in a way that’s compatible with life in modern society.  “No one takes care of your business like you can.”

As a young man in an introductory college nutrition course, I learned on the first day of class that the secret to a wise diet is to “consume a good variety of food in moderation and to burn-off as many calories as you take in.”  But if you think about it, food variety does not have to be practiced on a meal to meal basis.  Throughout much of human history food variety was by necessity practiced on a seasonal basis.  Interestingly, seasonal local food consumption is also a tenant of Pollanism.  I do advocate some seasonal eating, but do not see any reason in this day and age to carry it to an extreme.

Food variety on a weekly basis offers an optimal compromise; where weekends are used to leisurely prepare a big batch or two that can be kept in refrigeration for the upcoming week’s microwave reheated lunches.  In such practice there are no leftovers, just an ongoing meal source until it is all consumed.  But, before I put batches in the refrigerator I first put-up semi-convenience type meat items in home freezer storage; that most often come from wholesale size cartons of boxed meats.  No matter the type of starting ingredients, I try to start with truly whole foods.  Buying large bags of nuts and dehydrated fruit at wholesale clubs stores to make big batches of trail mix is another favorite practice of mine.  It’s fashionable now days for some chefs to talk about whole animal butchery, but for many very good reasons that practice does not seem to be helping their bottom-lines.  The long-term success of boxed meat was founded upon the principles of giving retail level processors (they are exempt from Meat Inspection) exactly what cuts they can best market in their particular geographic regions and the accumulation of trimmings etc. in high volumes that work  well for commercial further processors.  When a small retail processor buys a whole, non-standardized/officially graded meat animal carcass from a local hobby farm producer, they can often be making other people’s problem their problem.  Repeat food customers mainly buy based on cost, quality level and consistency of quality from purchase to purchase.

 

Some ideas sound good and work.  While other ideas sound good but don’t work; such is the case with both strict economic Marxism & and strict food Pollanism.

 

If you care to read two similar opinions from other writers (Click Here) and (Click Here).

 

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

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