Monday, November 16, 2009
We talk to a team of KPBS journalists about the work they've done over the last six weeks, research and reporting on the food we eat. Some of what they've found out might surprise you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Food is not supposed to be complicated. Many cultures celebrate it as a gift from the earth, the sustenance we need to maintain our health and delight our senses. But after weeks of tracing the path of the food on our dinner plate back to its source, reporters at KPBS have discovered that the modern food industry is complicated and for the sake of our health and our senses, it might be time to make some changes. Joining me is KPBS reporter and Project Envision host Joanne Faryon. Good morning, Joanne. Thanks for being here.
JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Project Envision Host): Hi, Maureen. Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Joanne, before we talk about the KPBS “Food” series as a whole and welcome our other guests, tell us what you’ve learned about where the chicken we eat comes from. That’s one very popular meat that we haven’t talked about yet. So tell us what you’ve learned about the broiler hen. What is it?
FARYON: Well, first of all, it’s a cross. The broiler, which is the most common grocery store chicken is actually a cross between two other chickens, a Cornish and a Plymouth Rock. We learned that chicken is, in fact, the most popular meat in America. The average American eats about 74 pounds per person per year of chicken. And one of – Actually, the question we had about chicken when we started this project was why does the chicken breast look so big and why is…
FARYON: …it so cheap? You can get chicken for a buck a pound and it just seemed to us, on the surface of things, that chicken – that the white meat was getting bigger. So that was one of the questions we attempted to answer.
CAVANAUGH: And did you find out why? It really is getting bigger, isn’t it?
FARYON: Yes, we did. And it’s all because of this cross. This broiler chicken is bred specifically for the – for more white meat, for the larger breast, and that’s why they mate the two. And, in fact, we learned that there’s so much white meat, the breast is so large, that this chicken can’t, in fact, mate on its own. That the way they produce these chickens or reproduce them is always to cross the other two, the Plymouth and the Cornish.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, this is – did this come about because consumers demanded?
FARYON: Yes. We want white meat and so that’s what the industry has bred, is a white meat chicken. And we actually met a man named Curtis Womack, who’s a chicken rancher. And he’s just outside of Julian so we went out to his ranch to find out how he raises chickens and sort of why he’s making the choices that he’s making. So his chickens don’t go to the grocery store. He sells them at farmers markets but he does raise these broilers. He has other types of chickens and he has broilers. So he showed us the broilers, which you could physically see the large breast and also with these chickens, because they grow so quickly—that’s the other thing about this breed, it grows quickly. In 45 days, this chicken is ready to slaughter. That’s about twice as fast as it used to be. So their breasts are so large that they have trouble walking. Also, these chickens tend to have more health problems, at least according to Curtis Womack. Some of them have heart attacks, and, in fact, if it has a heart attack, you can’t use them in – you can’t market them at all. We saw them, too. They just – they quite literally just sort of stand and sit. They can’t move about freely. In contrast, he raises another type of bird that are running around – they look like the chicken you think they’re supposed to look like. They’re running around, they’re making noise, they’re doing that sort of thing. So – And this has troubled Curtis Womack so much he’s not going to raise the broiler anymore. He’s only going to raise the other breed.
CAVANAUGH: Now when we go into the store, a regular supermarket, is the only type of chicken that we get, whether it’s cut up or full, you know, a full-sized chicken or a frozen brand, are we running in – constantly into these broiler chickens? Or are there other varieties?
FARYON: For the most part, you’re going to get a broiler. It’s not the only variety but, by and large, our research told us that the majority of grocery store chicken is going to be the broiler. There are other types. You might go into other small grocery stores that say – maybe they say ‘pasture raised’ and that would be more similar to the type of chicken that Curtis is raising. You – it doesn’t – we’ve done a lot of observation of these – of labels and chickens in the last several weeks and it doesn’t tell you what kind of chicken it is. You’re not going to see broil – well, you might see broiler but you’re not going to see Cornish or Plymouth or anything like that on your chicken. You might see on your label things like ‘no hormones added.’ This is one of the most surprising things that I discovered. Well, it’s illegal to add hormones in all chicken in the United States, so when you see ‘no hormones added,’ you’re not going to get hormones in any of your chicken. And, in fact, according to USDA regulations, if you advertise on your chicken ‘no hormones added,’ you have to have a line beneath it that says it’s against federal regulations to add hormones to chicken. So we did find that line on the label, way in the bottom corner in small print that said it’s against federal regulations. The other thing, if you see on your chicken ‘all natural,’ we discovered this, whether it comes to beef or chicken, most of the food you buy is all natural. It basically means that there’s nothing artificial injected into that food. So, by and large, most of your food is natural. You might also see on your label ‘fresh, not frozen,’ well, fresh, the legal definition of fresh means that the internal temperature of the chicken was never below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. So, yeah, do the math, right? 32 degrees is freezing.
CAVANAUGH: Is freezing.
FARYON: So I did spend a lot of time trying to find out what’s the actual temperature at which chicken freezes.
FARYON: You know, is it 26 degrees? I did find one very old article. Actually, this regulation, I think, goes back five, six years before this regulation discussing the internal temperature of chicken, so I believe they might consider chicken frozen at 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, there wasn’t a lot out there in terms of research that we could find. But 26 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s the internal temperature of fresh chicken; it couldn’t have gone below that. The other thing we discovered, oh, young, and you see this a lot on poultry, right? Young chicken, young turkey, well, on average, the broiler, they’re slaughtered after 45 days. All poultry is basically going to be young because it doesn’t make sense for the rancher or the poultry company to raise these chickens for a long time. It costs more money. If you have to feed them, you know, longer than so many weeks, if you have to raise them for so many weeks, that’s more money that it costs. So the whole objective, we learned, of the entire food chain really is how do you produce this in the shortest amount of time?
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Joanne Faryon. She is a KPBS reporter and Project Envision host, and has been the lead reporter on this “Food” series that KPBS is doing. I want to ask you, Joanne, because I think this is the big question, okay, you get these enormous chickens now with these – their white breast meat is so enormous that they can’t even stand up. What are they feeding these chickens in order to make this possible?
FARYON: Well, a lot of it is corn, mostly corn, and also what we learned in our research for fish, funny enough, is that chickens can also be fed fish meal. They can be fed chicken feathers and just to clarify what that means, there are renderers and renderers basically take by products of whether it’s cattle or chicken and they cook it, they process it, and then it goes into other feed. So I spent some time speaking with the National Renderers Association and he said chicken feathers, there’s protein, so they basically pressurize it, cook it down, and they can feed that back to the chicken. But we did find a lot of corn. Curtis Womack, the chicken farmer we spoke about whose organic, pasture raised – the day that we went to speak with him, he was feeding his chickens organic fruit from the farmers market. So he changes their diet. It’s not the typical diet that you would see in the grocery store chicken.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we heard from your previous report that the cattle that are fed corn would naturally eat grass. What would chicken naturally eat?
FARYON: Well, you know, that’s a good question. I don’t know that corn is necessarily an unnatural part of their diet. We didn’t go back that far in terms of what were chickens eating, say, a hundred years ago. I think that the thing that we found in terms of feeding the chicken is that when the light is on, when it’s not dark, chickens eat. This kind of chicken will eat all the time if you leave the light on. So the idea of feeding the chicken is more how can you get the chicken to just keep eating and eating and eating. And so in term – what we discovered is, often you have chickens—grocery store chickens are raised on a factory floor and they’re inside and where the temperature is constant and the lights are on and they’ll just be constantly eating.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, you said that they’re – it’s illegal to add any hormones to chicken feed but what about antibiotics?
FARYON: You can use antibiotics and, again, what we had read in some of the research, sometimes the antibiotics is put in the chicken – in the water for the chicken. And, again, like any situation where you have a lot of animals in the more enclosed space, if one gets sick they can all get sick, so this is through the idea of how antibiotics kind of entered into our food chain as well because we started grouping all of these animals together.
CAVANAUGH: And what is the consensus of opinion about what adding antibiotics into – a chicken filled, basically, with some antibiotics and having that for dinner. Does that pose any kind of a risk?
FARYON: Well, when you – it’s interesting because what we discovered in this whole food debate, whether it be chicken or cattle or fish, that you do have this whole other layer of discussion that’s happening that’s not in the mainstream. And they’re talking about antibiotics, they’re talking about hormones, they’re talking about corn. Curtis Womack tells us, you know, I have a woman who buys only my chicken because she’s allergic to antibiotics and she blames it on the chicken. Well, it that true? I mean, I’m sure that the woman believes this is the case. Do we know that this is happening? I don’t know that there’s been a lot of mainstream reporting in terms of what’s happening because of the antibiotics that are in our food chain. I know that there’s statistics out there in terms of the use of antibiotics. It accounts for such a high percentage of all our antibiotic use in the country goes into our food chain. What are all of the effects? I think that’s such a controversial area where people are sort of battling that out right now in all these blogs and websites but I don’t know that we were able to sort of find out what the consensus was.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a phone call. We are inviting our listeners to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Rose is on the line from Kearny Mesa. Good morning, Rose. Welcome to These Days.
ROSE (Caller, Kearny Mesa): Well, good morning. And here we go again with another Pandora’s box. When did the young lady – is her name Jane?
ROSE: Joanne, when did you decide to become a vegetarian?
CAVANAUGH: Rose, are you a vegetarian?
ROSE: No, but I’m thinking about it. My daughter’s a vegan. She doesn’t eat eggs.
ROSE: She doesn’t eat – You know, she’s safe because people who think, you know, that they shouldn’t eat meat and will eat fish, when they find out their fish is full of meat, what are they going to do? And what’s the perspective for the economy if we all start – well, you’re not really worried about these fast food restaurants closing down, are you?
CAVANAUGH: Well, Rose, let me ask you…
ROSE: I’m kind of cynical.
CAVANAUGH: Rose, thank you for your question. And let me ask you a question. Based on what Rose was saying, Joanne, if people do not want the chicken – the chickens who have been altered in this way and have the antibiotics in them and are these large giant chicken things that we wouldn’t recognize as chicken, did you find that there’s any place that people can go?
FARYON: Absolutely. And, Rose, I’m glad you asked this question because I think this brings up a number of issues. First of all, there are other options, right? You can buy chicken from people like Curtis at farmers markets. You can also go to stores like Jimbo’s where they offer chicken. If you see ‘pasture raised,’ that should indicate that this is a chicken that was likely raised more on a farm and not on a factory floor. If you read the labels on your chicken, if you ask the people at the grocery store, the butcher, you know, tell me about where this comes from – And I have to tell you, we did. All of us were asking those questions and, for the most part, our butcher couldn’t tell us, couldn’t answer these questions. But I think if more people ask more often, they’ll have to educate themselves. So I think there are options. This whole idea is, you know, after learning all this, do you stop eating chicken? Do you stop eating meat? And we’ve had this discussion in my family for the last, you know, several weeks. And I think it’s a matter of ultimately we, the consumer, really have the power. I think we really do. It’s how do we spend our money? Where do we spend our money? Are we demanding more answers? Are we writing to the USDA and the FDA and asking them more questions? And even this whole idea of labeling, the USDA is in charge of this. They regulate this. If we don’t like it, if we feel like in some way we might be misled, shouldn’t we be contacting the USDA and letting them know that? And so we do have the power as consumers.
CAVANAUGH: One final quick question about chicken. When you do go to another source and you don’t buy one of these grocery store chickens, how much can it cost you?
FARYON: Oh, see, that’s the thing. I did that this past weekend. So if you go to the grocery store, you can buy one of those broiler chickens, maybe seven or eight dollars for a chicken. If you buy the other type, it’s about $20.00 a chicken. It can be $22.00 dollars a chicken, depending on the weight. So it’s expensive. I keep bringing up Curtis Womack just because he – you know, he was such a wealth of information. He said, look, maybe we should eat one chicken a week. Maybe we should consider this food to be more precious. Maybe when we buy a chicken, we ought to make chicken stock and not just throw it away because it was so cheap it doesn’t matter anyway.
CAVANAUGH: Joanne Faryon is talking with us and we’re going to be joined by Amita Sharma and Wendy Fry as we continue our talk about the KPBS “Food” series. That KPBS documentary is airing tonight at nine on KPBS TV. You’re listening to These Days. We’ll be back in just a few minutes.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about the KPBS Project Envision “Food” series that’s broadcasting tonight. And we’re talking about all the research that’s gone into producing this “Food” series, tracing the food on our dinner plate back to its source. I’d like to welcome back Project Envision host Joanne Faryon, and welcome KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma. Hi, Amita.
AMITA SHARMA (KPBS Reporter): Hi, Maureen. It’s good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And KPBS web producer Wendy Fry. Welcome, Wendy.
WENDY FRY (KPBS Web Producer): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you eating differently because you’ve learned where your food comes from? Has your food shopping changed? Give us a call with your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Amita, we’ve heard from you during this food series but remind us about your work, about the oranges and the avocados and the major highlights of your investigative work on that subject.
SHARMA: Well, I think what I found out about oranges and avocados, actually more so oranges, was quite fascinating. It turns out that the oranges that we grow here are highly respected abroad and they are considered to be very delicious and they’re being exported to countries in Asia, India, China, Japan, Taiwan and countries in the Middle East. The oranges that we’re eating here, depending on the season, the ones that we buy in the supermarket, are coming from Australia, South Africa, Peru. Why, you ask?
SHARMA: It’s because of us. It’s because…
SHARMA: …of the consumers. Apparently, we like our oranges to be bright orange. We don’t want them to have seeds. And we like them to be easy to peel. Well, San Diego oranges don’t fit that bill. They’re a little bit green, which doesn’t mean they’re not sweet. They’re actually quite sweet. They have a thinner skin so they’re more challenging to peel, and they have seeds.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. And, Wendy, you did some testing of some salmon.
FRY: We did.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
FRY: Well, when we were researching the omega-3s, we, you know, found out it’s pretty undeniable that fish is very healthy for you. The omega-3s are very good for your heart and for, you know, it could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease but there’s a big debate going on about whether there are the same amount of omega-3s in farm fish as there are in wild fish. And, you know, just each scientific journal that we read had a totally different take on what the amounts were. So what we did is we just went to the grocery store. On one particular day we bought one wild salmon, we bought one farmed salmon, and we packed them up and we shipped them off. And what we found out was that the farmed salmon did have a lot of omega-3s. It had, you know, a lot, really high, but you had to eat four times the total fat to get those omega-3 nutrients.
CAVANAUGH: And what – I think what we learned from our fish program was the reason that there was more fat was because of the diet the fish – the farmed fish was eating.
FRY: Right. So, you know, way back, 2004, the history on it is that there were a lot of studies saying, hey, this farmed salmon, it does not have the same amount of omega-3s. So what some of the people in the aquacultural centers did was start feeding the fish more fat. They started feeding them cow pellets, fish products, more fish oil to fatten them up. And it’s healthy fat but, you know, you know, avocados have healthy fat, too, but that doesn’t mean we should go around eating four times the avocados.
FRY: That’s not going to be healthy.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right. All of these very surprising things about both oranges and farmed fish and where we actually get those omega-3s from that farmed fish. And, Joanne, I’m wondering, how did you decide to focus on the specific food items that you chose? First of all, run them down for us and then tell us why you chose them.
FARYON: Sure. We went with beef, chicken, fish, oranges, avocados and tomatoes. And, first of all, San Diego is a huge agricultural producer, California, the largest agricultural economy in the country. We produce, here in this state, the most food, and San Diego County contributes to that. And, surprisingly, we actually were either number five or number six when it comes to cattle production despite the fact not having enough water and grass in our county to feed our cattle year round, we’re still, you know, way up there on the list. So that was one of the reasons we picked beef, and it’s popular. We eat a lot of hamburgers. The other thing, we produce the most dairy in the country. We didn’t talk about dairy really in our show. It just – I mean, it would’ve been too much but we have about 1.4 million dairy cows in this state. We produce the most milk. And dairy cows end up in the food production – they end up in our meat production. They account for about 18% of all hamburger, so that’s why we picked beef. Chicken, it’s the most popular meat among Americans. We don’t have a lot of chicken farms necessarily in the county. Foster Farms is in California, they’re in northern California. A lot of the chicken that you see in the grocery store likely is from Foster Farms. Fish, because we are on the coast. And we went in with – well, I don’t think all of us necessarily believed that, oh, the fish we’re buying is coming, you know, locally, right off our coast, but we wanted to find out if any of it was, really. In terms of oranges and avocados, I’m going to hand that off to you, Amita, because I know we didn’t know what fruits and vegetables to focus on.
SHARMA: Yeah, we, you know, we had a couple of discussions with the San Diego County Farm Bureau to find out what the top crops are and it turns out that our top crop is avocados. We grow 59,000 tons of them each year. And we actually supply 40% of the country’s avocados. In terms of citrus, we focused on oranges because our oranges are so popular abroad. So that was the other reason. And the interesting thing about oranges is because they’re not held in such high esteem locally, orange growers are actually scaling back their orchards. And, for instance, in 1999, we had 7,000 acres of oranges in the county and today we only have 5,000 and that number is shrinking not just because of consumer preference but also because of the growing cost of water.
CAVANAUGH: And tomatoes, I guess, just because everybody loves them.
FARYON: Well, actually Ed Joyce looked into tomatoes and there were a couple of reasons. Again, California produces the highest number of vine-ripened tomatoes although 90% of our tomatoes in California end up in a can. They’re a much larger market than the fresh tomatoes. There’s also a study that says that even though tomatoes are the most popular fruit among Americans, it is the produce we’re least happy with when we buy it in a grocery store.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.
FARYON: We’re least happy with its taste. So Ed Joyce had the task to find out, first of all, you know, what’s with the taste? Why is that? And he introduced the whole idea, again, about being organic and not organic and pesticides and how does that influence, really, the – ultimately, the product. And so he looked into that.
CAVANAUGH: There’s so many people want to join the conversation. Let me remind our listeners we are taking your calls. The number is 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call from Alan in San Marcos. Good morning, Alan. Welcome to These Days.
ALAN (Caller, San Marcos): Hi. Good morning. Thanks for taking my call, Maureen.
ALAN: Hi. I just wanted to first of all thank KPBS very much for putting this type of programming out there for San Diego listeners because there’s a lot of us out there that feel that this is an extremely important issue for many people to learn about. Basically, I’ll keep my comments short but about a year ago I read a book by Michael Pollan called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” And it’s not one of these super doom and gloom books. I’m not sure. Hopefully, some of you guys have read it. But it talks about everything, the good, the bad and the ugly of our food system, and it’s really opened up my eyes and my wife’s eyes on the food that we’re eating in our household. And since we have read that book and seen movies like “Food, Inc.” it’s – we’ve started to buy a lot more food locally, organically at farmers markets, and something that a lot of my friends and maybe our listeners don’t know about are something called CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture. And I just encourage all of our listeners to learn more about CSAs and our national food system because it really is sometimes horrible to think that these companies are thinking way more about the bottom line than the healthy products that they should be putting out there.
CAVANAUGH: Alan, let me – since you know, tell us just briefly about CSAs.
ALAN: Sure. Yes, Community Supported Agriculture, it’s a fantastic idea that basically like for my wife and I, it was difficult for us to go to farmers markets on the weekends because of our schedule with our family. So what a CSA does is actually it’s a local farm that produces organic food, mostly fruits and vegetables, produce, and brings that food in boxes to somebody’s house in your neighborhood. So I live here in San Marcos, and we belong to a CSA called Be Wise Ranch and so they deliver all these boxes of local, fresh picked produce at very reasonable prices and then you pick up – once a week, you pick up those produce from somebody’s house and then you bring it home. And it’s – I couldn’t believe the difference in taste and quality from what I was buying at the grocery store. It was amazing.
CAVANAUGH: Alan, thanks so much for your information and for your call. And there’s some reactions here, yeah.
SHARMA: And I have to say what Alan has described is what we have experienced while researching this project because I think our eating habits maybe have changed a little bit. Our shopping habits for food have changed dramatically. I mean, I’m only picking up my produce from farmers markets or I go to stores like Jimbo’s where they’ve got big signs saying ‘locally grown,’ and so I know, you know, that what I’m getting was actually grown in San Diego County. And – But I have to say, there’s a little bit of a downside. If I’m buying stuff that’s locally grown or organic, the produce does not last that long. I mean, my God, my broccoli will go bad within three days.
CAVANAUGH: We’re not used to that, are we, Joanne?
FARYON: No, we’re not. I’m finding that, too, with the oranges because we’re doing that as well. We’re trying to buy county grown oranges and they taste amazing, they are harder to peel, right? You’re going to end up with really sticky hands, but you have to eat them within the week. They’re – You can’t have them sitting out there for a long time.
SHARMA: Right, so it forces you to follow through on that commitment of eating more fruits and vegetables and you have to do it on a daily basis, otherwise what you buy will go to waste.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Have you changed your eating habits at all, Wendy?
FRY: You know, I was under the impression that all that sushi was just fat-free. It’s really good for me and so I’m definitely, you know, cutting back. I think the take home message that we’ve all gotten from this is we need to start consuming less. We start paying more attention to how much we’re consuming and what the waste by products of that consumption is.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Nancy is calling from El Cajon. Good morning, Nancy. Welcome to These Days.
NANCY (Caller, El Cajon): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: What’s your question or comment, Nancy?
NANCY: I was just going to say I found out all about this when I was diagnosed with cancer and I started looking into the food I ate and what a difference it was to buy organic. I go out of my way now. I’ll shop – I shop totally different. I hardly go to the grocery store. I go to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and Henry’s and buy everything I can organic because once you learn about all the stuff they add to the foods, it’s just horrifying.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Nancy. Thank you very much, and I want to let everyone know we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727.
FARYON: There is a cost associated with changing your eating habits as well and Sharon Heilbrunn reported on this early on in the series as well, that when you do sort of look for those other types of food or you go to other grocery stores, often you might be spending more money. I mean, that’s one of the issues. And I think there’s also a perception that if you buy a lot of fresh produce, you’re going to spend more money. What we’re seeing now, we’re seeing more farmers markets accepting food stamps. There is a movement out there to say, okay, how do we make good, fresh, locally grown food accessible. Not everyone can spend twenty bucks on a chicken, right? And just this morning, I’m listening to NPR and we’re hearing about the food shortage and a billion people who are hungry and how do we make sure we feed them all? So there is also this other end that says, you know, we’re trying to mass produce foods so we can feed a lot of people and so food doesn’t cost a lot of money when you go to the store. There’s got to be this balance, right. How you balance that though with providing food that is at least closer to its origin or we think it should be and have it affordable to people. So I – My husband and I were talking about this yesterday, you think about all of the money you spend on food in a year, and we probably spend $12,000 a year, you know, if you think you spend $1,000 a month and I’m sure a lot of people spend more, some people spend less. All that money that you’re handing over, you do feel like you ought to have more answers, you ought to know what you’re getting. Is what you’re getting quality? Is it nutritious? And are you wasting it? And that – Wendy talks about consuming less, our consumption has nearly doubled per capita in terms of our food. We ate about half the amount of meat a hundred years ago than we do eat now. During the Depression, we ate about 95 pounds total per person of all the meat. We eat almost 200 pounds of meat per person now. So we have to think about our eating habits and what that’s doing to us.
SHARMA: And at the same time, though, we’re also spending a smaller percentage of our overall income than we were, you know, 50, 60 years ago. And I think the point that Joanne touched on earlier, that’s something I take away from this project, and that is that how much power we, as the consumers, have. You know, we can determine if we want our food to be tasty, nutritious, and fresh. Then we get to go to these farmers markets and here in San Diego County we’re very lucky, we’ve got 45, 46 farmers markets here. But it doesn’t stop there. You know, who’s to say that we can’t step into our supermarket and say, you know what, where were these oranges, you know, brought in from? Where did this broccoli come from? We get to ask them to, you know – where did this come from? And we get to request that the food be grown locally that’s sold there.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We have to take a break but let’s take this one beforehand. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Derek is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, Derek, and welcome to These Days.
DEREK (Caller, La Jolla): Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to say that I buy my organic food from the Ocean Beach People’s Food Co-op in Ocean Beach, which is a co-op owned by twelve – 14,000 families and they have really good prices. And the second thing I wanted to say was we’re concerned about the genetically engineered food that’s on the market that’s not labeled and we hope people will support the labeling of genetically engineered food so that people will know what they’re buying when they get – right now, you can’t tell when you buy genetically engineered food off the shelf, you don’t know what you’re getting because it’s not labeled.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Derek. There’s a number of – it’s called GMO or something…
CAVANAUGH: …is that what it is? Genetically…
FARYON: And, well, they do that even with things like fruits and vegetables and if you breed a tomato or cross seeds that you’re going to end up with a tomato that maybe has a longer shelf life or maybe, you know, looks different, is firmer, and I think that’s been a fairly common thing in terms of produce for a number of years. We didn’t get so much into that. I know Ed reported a little bit on that because in terms of why your tomatoes might be lasting so long in the grocery store, he touched on the fact that they’re – they might be engineered in such a way so that they can last the long truck ride to the grocery store.
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion about where the food we eat comes from, part of the KPBS “Food” TV show that’s coming up tonight. And we will continue to take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Project Envision host and KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon, KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma, and KPBS web producer Wendy Fry. We’re talking about the investigation that went into tonight’s TV documentary for Project Envision called “Food.” And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. There are so many people who want to talk to us. I want to get to the phones and sort of really take a lot of calls. But before we do, I want to ask you first, Joanne, you know, all of this information that you’ve garnered about the fact that, you know, chickens are being bred for their size and the cows are not eating what they would normally do and so forth and so on, you know, and then you look, however, at the world’s population and how it continues to grow and the whole concept of factory farming and factory agriculture is to produce as much possible food to feed the people on the Earth. And I’m wondering where we get this balance if we all go back to growing our own little herbs, how do these mushrooming populations in other corners of the world, where are they going to get their food if things so south, if they have a drought or something like that?
FARYON: I think you hit it really, balance, right? And what – I think what we learned is when did all of this happen and how did we not know about it? I think the first step is educating ourselves about the food system. And I don’t want to use the word ‘mainstream media’ but I’m going to use it; I don’t know how else to phrase it. I don’t think we’ve been doing our job reporting on food, reporting on this industry. I don’t think we’ve been asking enough questions, so let’s educate ourselves and then let’s make a decision in terms of the direction we want to go in. I don’t think you can suddenly go back to the way it was 100 years ago. We can’t. Food, it would be so expensive. I asked Curtis Womack, the chicken farmer, okay, could all of us buy our chicken from you? Well, no, he could only raise enough chicken for the little community where he lives, right? And even when he raises those chickens, it’s going to cost $20.00 to buy that chicken, and a lot of people aren’t going to be able to spend that kind of money. So if we think everybody should be able to eat chicken once a week, we’ve got to have some $8.00 chickens in the grocery store. But I think that we’re entitled to ask questions. I think we’re entitled to have labeling that is up front with us, and to make those choices. And just because we report that there are hormones in beef or that there are antibiotics used in chicken, we don’t necessarily say, well, this is bad. We’re not in a position to tell you this is bad for you but we should tell you this is how it’s being raised.
SHARMA: And it should be taken a step further. It should be studied whether it’s good or bad.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take some calls. Marcy is calling from Hillcrest. Good morning, Marcy, and welcome to These Days.
MARCY (Caller, Hillcrest): Thank you for taking my call. You guys were discussing Curtis Womack, the chicken farmer.
MARCY: And about his not using antibiotics and about a lady who buys from him.
MARCY: I’m that lady.
MARCY: I am very, very allergic to antibiotics. Deathly allergic. Death is on the line.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.
MARCY: I have to carry an Epi pen because if you go eat anywhere, chicken stock and broth, they use it in everything, and it’s very, very dangerous for me. And so I’m allergic to both chicken and turkey and it is the antibiotics because when I take regular antibiotics, I have another allergic reaction that’s a little bit less. It’s not anaphylactic but it is just as miserable where my – I get like rashes and I break out so…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. Thank you.
MARCY: I’m sorry?
CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Marcy, thanks so much for calling in. Yeah, we were talking about you and we appreciate you listening to us. And I think Marcy has anecdotal evidence there. I mean, as you say, it’s not been fully studied but as far as she’s concerned, if she stays away from the turkey and the chicken that has the antibiotics in it, she’s going to be okay.
SHARMA: A point I want to make is, you know, we’ve been a little bit critical about this food distribution system that we have. That, gosh, it doesn’t make sense that our oranges are traveling so far away and that the oranges we’re eating are coming from so far away. But, you know, again it comes back to the consumer. It’s consumer demand. We, as consumers, we want to eat oranges year round. We want to eat strawberries year round. We want to eat peaches year round. So, you know, back in the olden days, we would, what, we would make jam out of strawberries and so that’s – those were our strawberries in the wintertime. But that has changed.
CAVANAUGH: It certainly has. When you go into a grocery store, you don’t know what time of year it is…
CAVANAUGH: …except if it’s close to Christmas.
FRY: And getting back to the decisions that we make…
FRY: …the commercial fishing and the recreational fishing has almost completely depleted our wild fish stock so we have no other choice but to raise these fish so that we have enough, you know, it’s recommended that you eat fish two to three times a week, well, for that to be possible we’re going to have to think of some other ideas than depleting our oceans even more.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. You can’t get fish if they’re not living there anymore. Yep. Let’s take another call. Jeff is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, Jeff, and welcome to These Days.
JEFF (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call, ladies. I just wanted to say that the whole thing about food has changed quite a bit since I was born. I’m 58. I was too young to go to Vietnam. With the change, the consciousness of change and the consciousness of knowledge was in the air and all I wanted to call about was to give everyone this morning a very heartfelt gesture of encouragement, to just keep carrying the torch.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Jeff. Thanks so much. We’ll do our best. Let’s speak to Carrie in Rancho Penasquitos. Good morning, Carrie. Welcome to These Days.
CARRIE (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Good morning. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.
CARRIE: Well, I was just calling because I have this thing about the tomatoes at Costco. I really like how they taste but someone told me she thought they were genetically modified and I don’t know. I don’t know what that does to me and my family. So, you know, it’s a matter of I don’t like the taste of them at the grocery store. I do get some at farmers markets that I like but they tend to be very expensive. So I don’t know, I want to know how do I find out about these tomatoes that I’m getting at Costco?
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Carrie. Do we know anything to tell Carrie?
FARYON: I don’t know about Costco tomatoes but, you know, I’d start with Costco. I’d start with – and they might not be able to tell you anything but they – but I think what I would do is, I would go in and I would ask, you know, can I speak with the head of Produce or the manager. I want to know where my tomatoes are coming from and can you get me some information about it? Really, it is up to them to provide that information to you, and it goes back to all of us, we keep repeating our mantra, you know, ask those questions. The consumer has the power. But I would start asking those questions.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the experience you had with the USDA when you contacted them for this report, this “Food” report.
FARYON: Yes, so the USDA is a huge, huge organization and they have all of these various departments depending on what part of the food system you’re talking about or what part of agriculture. And initially, I finally got in touch with a PR person who was going to be like my lead contact, all of these questions I would go through him because they all involve different departments. So we had phone conversations and e-mail discussions back and forth for several weeks. And journalists don’t really—at least in the beginning when I studied journalism—the rule was you don’t really tell people your questions ahead of time. But now in the day and age of e-mail, we’re like, okay, we’ll e-mail you our questions. So I e-mailed a number of these questions all along the way to the USDA, we want to know what does organic really mean, what does natural really mean, and so on and so on. Got a few answers back. But then I think as the questions got a little bit more precise, we didn’t get answers, had several phone conversations. In fact, we requested an on camera interview as well and then they told me, well, it would have to be out of Washington, D.C. And I thought, well, this is great. I’m going to be in New York City, I’ll take the bus to Washington, D.C., and gave them a couple of dates. So we were really – wanted their involvement in this. And then I don’t even think I got an official response back in terms of them not doing that interview. They just stopped responding to me. And the last couple of e-mails were, look, we’re going to report all of this, we would really like your response, and then they just stopped responding.
CAVANAUGH: Isn’t that interesting? Let’s go to John in San Diego. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.
JOHN (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. A couple of comments only quickly regarding, for example, antibiotics in beef or chicken. It seems to me that if antibiotics have been used early enough before the chicken went for preparation to market, it means that they have gotten out of the system and, therefore, there is no residual antibiotic. The FDA is supposed to control this. I think they do. So just because antibiotic has been used in beef or chicken, I don’t think that there is a health problem. I think the scientists, the FDA, should make the decision of whether this is fit to eat or not. Similarly, regarding the genetically engineered, the genetically engineered is fine as far as I can see. I think, again, it is a scientific rather than an emotional issue and if it is determined that it is okay scientifically, that is okay. Now the consumer ought to know, yes, however most of the time it is, for example, to make the tomatoes or similar food last a long truck ride. If this is all it does, that’s fine. It can last a long truck ride. However, if it makes the surface of the tomato look and taste like a piece of leather, then that is not acceptable…
CAVANAUGH: John, I have to…
JOHN: …and the consumer should be able to tell that.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, and that’s, I think, the whole point of this is that consumers should – it’s not necessarily that we’re saying one thing or the other is bad, it’s just that people have a right to know.
FARYON: You’re absolutely right, and I think you’re right about the emotional response. What does the science say? And that, you know, that’s what we were trying to find out, right, Wendy?
FRY: There’s all different things, that’s the problem.
FARYON: They’re saying different things.
FRY: And then you kind of have to look into who’s funding the grants of the scientists because there’s one study coming out saying one thing and one saying the complete opposite. It’s really confusing to the consumer and so there seems to be no consensus on some of this stuff.
FARYON: And I admit, going into this, I’m not a person who is, oh, I don’t – I wasn’t necessarily someone who buys organic and still not necessarily someone who buys organic, you know, and I don’t eat a lot of red meat. My family does. And I kind of knew there were hormones in red meat; it didn’t really bother me because I thought, well, maybe we need hormones in red meat. You know, maybe it’s fine. I’m still buying meat that has hormones in it. But what we learned was, first of all, the European Union bans North American beef because of the use of hormones. There’s a couple of reasons going on there. One of them is a marketing issue, right? If you can keep out competition, that may be a good thing. And the second thing that we’ve learned is that the European Union isn’t so convinced that the use of hormones in red meat is not necessarily a bad thing. They don’t know. So they’re being cautious and saying we’re not going to use this in our beef. We don’t know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing, and we’re not in a position to tell you whether it is. But shouldn’t we keep – this should be an ongoing discussion. I think ultimately that’s what we walk away with. It’s like the omega-3, Wendy, when we were look – we were finding so many studies.
FRY: Right, all the scientific studies just going back and forth, and I think part of the problem is there’s just – there’s no clear national regulatory system for some of these aquaculture centers. If any center is more than three miles off the coast, there’s nothing in place. There’s a proposed legislation, the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, but it hasn’t passed yet so they’re all operating under different rules.
CAVANAUGH: Joanne, let me ask you a kind of a closing question because we’re running out of time. What is the purpose of Project Envision? And I know that you’re focused on food now but what is the larger goal of Project Envision?
FARYON: Well, we really do feel, as a public broadcaster, we want to represent the people and ask questions about issues that affect our daily lives and go into detail and really get down to this level of, you know, tell us why this is the way it is. For example, we’re going to – we’re likely looking at prisons as our next issue. And they’re crowded, right? And so many have to be released. Well, let’s find out why exactly and not just sort of discuss the periphery or the headline but as a team, in this building, on your behalf—the public—ask all those detailed questions.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the Project Envision documentary called “Food” is on tonight at nine on KPBS Television. And I want to thank you so much, Joanne and Wendy and Amita, thank you so much.
SHARMA: Thanks for having us.
FRY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: So many people wanted to join the conversation we weren’t able to get them all on. Please, post your comments, KPBS.org/TheseDays. And watch tonight at nine on KPBS Television.