that we share his weepiness, will likely alienate moderate animal rights supporters who were legitimately horrified by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. The fact that chickens are treated like, well, animals, or that “a piglet never gets to snuggle up to its mother” will pluck the emotional heartstrings of only the most anthropomorphically inclined. You know, the kind of folks who take their pets to spas, and the like. Midkiff taps a more productive vein when it comes to the environmental consequences of factory farming. In order to process 300,000 birds a day, a Tyson plant in Noel, Missouri, spits out 800,000 gallons of wastewater into the Elk River every day. Down the highway to hell a slaughterhouse discharges the same amount into the Cave Creek, although this slurry contains the “blood, intestinal contents, fat, grease, and cleaning solvents” that the factory did not recycle into, disgustingly enough, chicken feed. Healthwise, none of this news is encouraging. When commercially processed chicken finds a temporary home at the local supermarket “[some] contaminants from the intestinal contents and from the feathers in the whirring rubber brush remain on the chicken parts:’ Would you like some salmonella with that? This question has a bit more resonance than whether Piggly Wiggly gets to snuggle with his mother before he’s hacked into bacon slabs. Governmental oversight of these factories, as Midkiff amply demonstrates, is laughable. “No federal agencies are willing to take on an industry with as much clout as agribusiness;’ especially when the USDA is currently staffed with ex-industry executives genetically predisposed to deregulation. The EPA has .been emasculated by lobbyists who realized that the vast majority of Americans don’t walk around wondering how much hydrogen sulfide is in the air. Sto ries of EPA complicity with agribusiness have in fact appeared in the press, but somewhere around page G9 \(right next to elected officials in the U.S. House and Senate, Midkiff explains that they’ve actually supported the factory farms’ polluting ways in direct contradiction to their constituents’ desires. “[T]he inclination of U.S. representatives and senators has been to accede to the companies’ demands,” he writes. I doubt that it’s a coincidence that factory farms are located in regions where, if the constituents get restless over the matter, the troubled elected official can always regain his support by finding a gay to bash or a book to burn. sentimentality for the mythical golden age of the family farm is just plain silly, almost to the point of undermining his analysis. “Simple pleasures once associated with the farming life;’ he writes in a typically misty passage, “such as sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, are no longer possible.” Or: “farmwives are no longer baking pies and setting them on window ledges to cool:’ What’s with all this pie business? Perhaps if Midkiff watched less “Little House the Prairie” and spent a few days on an actual family farm he’d understand the limits to this pandering nostalgia. Second, Midkiff feigns astonishment that our food comes from corporations whose “only interest is profit.” One need not be an expert in the history of American business to reach the conclu sion that this has always been the case. His expectation that factory farmsor any corporation for that mattershould be responsible for our safety is, to say the least, quixotic. His corresponding presentation of the consumer as a helpless victim of, god-forbid, profit-driven enterprises undermines what very well might be the most compelling power we have to change the factory farm: consumer choice. “The market for the food thus produced,” writes Wendell Berry in the introduction, “depends… on the ignorance of consumers:’ Midkiff”s book goes a long way toward diminishing that ignorance. Ironically, he doesn’t always see it that way. Perhaps, on occasion, he should trade his pen for the pitchfork. James E. McWilliams covers the hamburger-chicken-and-Mad Cow beat for the Observer. wo problems stand out in Midkiff’s otherwise sound analysis of an increasingly popular public concern. First, Midkiff’s 11/5/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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