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Food: A Project Envision Documentary

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JOANNE FARYON (Host): Hello everyone. I'm Joanne Faryon. Welcome to this Envision San Diego special "Food." It's something we take for granted. After all, California is the largest supplier of food for the country. Grocery store aisles are stocked with just about anything we care to buy. Chicken for less than a dollar a pound, steaks the size of a dinner plate, every species of fish and fruit and vegetables no matter the season. It may seem as though the cost of these groceries continue to rise, but we actually spend less money on our food then we did a couple generations ago. Just how all of this food makes its way to the grocery store and your dinner plate is the subject of tonight's investigation. We'll also tell you why it's relatively cheap to buy beef, chicken even fish. Some of it you may not want to know, but at the end of the program we hope you walk away a better informed consumer. 40 million pounds of San Diego oranges are on their way to countries as far away as China. 13,000 head of cattle are being fattened in Imperial Valley. One in five will be slaughtered for sale in Japan, the others distributed across the country. In Mission Bay, scientists are trying to figure out what to feed farmed fish. Those cattle you just saw, well, they could be on the menu. The food chain doesn't look like it use to. Fish no longer eat fish, cattle eat corn even though it can make them sick, chickens eat fish and fish are eating cows. Even chicken feathers become food. We grow oranges but send them away because they're too hard for us to peel; the ones we eat come from Australia. Just how did it get to be this way, and is it good for us? Tonight we look at the food we eat from the dinner plate to the farm, field and ocean. And how our demand for cheap food and more food has altered the food chain. A food chain that is motivated by making the greatest amount of food for the cheapest cost, in other words, efficiency. Americans consume nearly 20 percent of all the beef in the world but only make up about 5 percent of the world's population. In 2008, the U.S. slaughtered more than 34 million cattle, slightly more than the year before. So we followed the chain. And what we found was a fast-growing, corn-fed, hormone and antibiotic-injected animal that likely traveled thousands of miles before it ended up at your table. And most of the 1.4 million dairy cows are also destined for your table as hamburger. Let's start at the beginning. In southern California, most cattle start out like this, eating grass on a pasture. JIM DAVIS (President SD Imperial Valley Cattleman's Association): In the '40s and '50s when my grandfather was running cattle here he would basically sell his cattle as two or three-year-olds that would both be taken to market here in San Diego County and then distributed here in San Diego County. FARYON: It doesn't work that way anymore. Now, cattle are raised on grass for six months, then sold at auction to another rancher usually out of state. We don't have enough grass or rain to feed all our cattle year-round. Once they're sold they'll live another six months on grass. They'll be sold again. This time they go to a feedlot. Large pens where cattle are sent to be fattened before they're slaughtered. This one in Imperial Valley houses 13,000 animals. It's considered small. Some are home to more than 100,000 animals. Cattle spend four or five months here. They're fed mostly corn. The U.S. introduced cattle into feedlots and corn into their diets after World War II. Both had a dramatic effect. The animals grew faster and fatter. Broc Sandelin is an animal sciences professor at Cal Poly Pomona and a third generation cattle rancher. FARYON: Is there any research that says they have a tough time digesting corn? BROC SANDELIN: I'm not familiar with any I'm not a nutritionist so I don't really know for sure but I'm sure you could find something or I could find something for you. FARYON: Is it easier for them to digest grass rather then corn? SANDELIN: Yeah that's what they're naturally raised on is grass. FARYON: Studies have suggested corn-fed cattle may harbor more virulent strains of E. coli then grass fed beef, although a new study out of Kansas State University is now challenging that assertion. Feedlots have also led to wider use of antibiotics. And almost all the beef you buy in the grocery store comes from cattle injected with hormones. BILL BRANDENBERG: It is much more expensive to produce beef without hormones. FARYON: Corn makes cattle fat. Hormones give them more lean muscle tissue. Bill Brandenberg says the cattle can grow 10 percent bigger with hormones. BRANDENBERG: And without hormones the cattle is going to have a lot more fat in them and they're going to produce a lot more of those upper grades of beef. FARYON: Don't they have more fat in them because we're feeding them corn? BRANDENBERG: It's a combination of the corn and the fact that what the hormones actually do, the animal produces different ratios of estrogen and testosterone. The hormone doesn't actually go into the bloodstream per se but it causes the animal to produce its own different level so it maximizes the production of lean and minimizes the production of fat. FARYON: But if we didn't feed them corn, isn't it the corn fed that give them the fat? BRANDENBERG: Yes. FARYON: So if we didn't feed them corn they wouldn't necessarily need the hormones to make less fat? BRANDENBERG: Well you could do them grass fed without implants, you'd have a product too but it wouldn't taste near as good as corn-fed beef. That's what the consumer in the United States like is the flavor that goes along with tenderness that goes along with corn fed. FARYON: American beef is banned in Europe because of the use of hormones. Shelton Murinda is an animal sciences professor at Cal Poly Pomona. SHELTON MURINDA: The Europeans were using what I would call the precautionary principal which simply indicates when there is not enough scientific evidence it is better to be on the safe side. FARYON: Isn't it? MURINDA: It is always better to be on the safe side when you do not have sufficient scientific evidence. FARYON: Well then why do we still use hormones in beef in the United States? MURINDA:The situation is rather different here. There are pros and cons that have been thrown about. Some of them what I indicated: the potential side affects. From as far as I know, there has not been enough risk assessment that has been done with relevance to the side effects of those hormones with respect to the human population. Not enough research has been to gather that sort of information so there has been no risk assessment that has been done. FARYON: So why not go on the side of caution like the Europeans? MURINDA: We'd rather think differently here. We'd rather think differently. FARYON: So will any of these cattle end up on your plate? MURINDA: The chances of getting beef that's from California is rather slim in other words, most of it comes from outside California. FARYON: The average American eats about 17 pounds of fish per year. Half the fish we eat is farmed fish. That means the fish was born, raised and fed in a net not far off the coast. We wanted to know whether farmed fish was as healthy as wild-caught fish. The answer? It all depends on what farmed fish eat. And just wait until you hear what we're feeding them. DON KENT: I grew up in San Diego when San Diego was the tuna capitol of the world you do down to the embarcadero and tuna sainers were tied up next to each other three deep at the embarcadero and that's gone now. FARYON: Don Kent is President of Hubbs-Seaworld research Institute. Here they're developing new ways to farm fish, from the hatchery and now to your table. Hubbs-Seaworld wants to establish the largest fish farm off U.S. coastal waters five miles west of Mission Bay. Kent sees it as a boon to the local economy and a way to take pressure of depleting fish stocks. The debate over fish farming has traditionally been about how to do it in a way that doesn't contaminate local waters. Hubbs believes by establishing nets five miles off the coast where the water is deep and the current swift, it can minimize contamination concerns. But there's another issue. Fish also eat other fish. If farmed fish are fed fish, the practice could deplete dwindling stocks. So the challenge is to find other sources of fish food and fish oil to feed farmed fish. JEFFREY GRAHAM: For every pound of growth for a salmon it takes about five pounds of fish that are caught and ground up and turned into pellets or some kind of feeding mechanism to give to these fish. So five to one, that's a very stiff ratio. What you're essentially doing doing then is you're – and part of the two-way street argument that's given about acqueculture is well, take pressure off the natural populations. However, if you have to catch five pounds of fish from the natural environment to rear one pound of salmon, for high-end table consumption the arithmetic doesn't work out in terms of the long-term benefits to the ocean. KENT: There's a lot of experimentation going on and we do it here on our species that's looking to replace that fish meal in the diet with soy protein or other processing byproducts like beef or chicken byproducts. Basically waste in processing that can be turned around and used as a protein supplement to replace the fish meal. FARYON: According to the National Renderers Association cow and chicken by products, including cattle blood and bone, and poultry feathers, have been fed to farmed fish for decades. The association told KPBS cattle fat, blood and bone meal are being increasingly used in fish diets as an alternatives to fish oil and other proteins. So by now you might be asking what we asked when we learned fish were eating cattle by-products: Can fish get mad cow disease? Mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, is a neurodegenarative disease in cattle that can be passed onto humans. Eurpean countries have banned cattle by products in fish feed because if fish eat contaminated cattle and cattle eat contaminated fish, the disease in theory, can be transmitted to the food chain. Here in the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of most cow by-products as feed to other cows in 1997. But the same rules do not apply to fish feed. However, a new regulation does ban the use of cattle brains and spines in fish feed; both contain the highest concentrations of infected material in diseased cattle. There has never been a case of humans contracting mad cow by eating farmed fish. Meanwhile, there continues to be an ongoing debate over the omega-3 content of farmed versus wild fish. Omega-3s are the healthy fats that can help prevent heart disease and Alzheimer's. One large grocery chain claims on its Web site, farmed salmon actually has more omega-3 than wild salmon. KPBS put their claim to the test and sent fish samples, wild and farmed, to a lab in Oregon. The tests results confirmed that farmed salmon did have nearly twice the amount of healthy omega-3s as wild salmon but you had to eat nearly four times the amount of fat to get those nutrients. Americans eat more chicken than any other meat, about 74 pounds per person each year, and most of it is white meat. Consumers like white meat and so the industry has found a way to give us what we want. CURTIS WOMACH: These are my fast-growing Cornish cross and they're what's in the supermarkets, all the restaurants sell this kind of chicken. FARYON: Most of the chickens we buy in a grocery store are called broilers -- a cross between two other chickens, a Cornish and Plymouth Rock. WOMACH: They're bred to grow really fast and have lots of white meat, see how wide it is, see the big breast? FARYON: But none of these chickens will end up in a grocery store. Curtis Womach raises these chickens on a farm just outside Julian. Most chickens in a grocery store are raised on a factory floor. Womach sells his chickens at a farmers market. He's decided he will no longer raise this type of chicken. WOMACH: Tthey can't physically mate because of the white meat gets in the way. They're still chickens and they want to be like chickens but they can't move; they would like to go under the trees in the shade but it's too hard for them to walk over there. FARYON: The breasts are so big these chickens can barely walk. Look at these, a different breed and able to run away from our camera. Chickens are raised mostly on corn. Fish meal can be added to their feed – even chicken feathers. Antibiotics are used, but it's illegal to use hormones in chickens in the U.S. So when you see labels like this, "no hormones added," well, it's illegal to add hormones to all chicken. In fact, it's against USDA regulations to say no hormones have been added unless this line follows. See that line in small print? And "natural"? Well, just about all the food you buy is natural unless something artificial has been injected. And "fresh never been frozen"? The legal definition according to the USDA of fresh chicken means the internal temperature of the chicken has never been below 26 degrees farenheit. "Free range"? It doesn't mean your chicken was raised like this. It means the chicken had access to the outdoors. But land to roam, time to grow, and feed like this – organic fruit – comes with a price. Womach's chickens cost about 20 dollars each compared to seven or eight dollars for a grocery store chicken. WOMACH: I think a lot of chicken is wasted. If you're paying 60 cents a pound what does it matter if you're not making stock from the bones but I think there is an American culture where it's like we deserve all the meat we want everyday. FARYON: Americans drink more orange juice than any other fruit juice. As KPBS reporter Amita Sharma tells us, orange groves are part of our history for the past 100 years. AMITA SHARMA: San Diego County groves produce 95,000 tons of oranges each year. Local growers are sending these oranges to India, China, Japan. All countries willing to pay premium rates for San Diego oranges viewed as some of the tastiest in the world. JOHN DEMSHKY: The color and taste of San Diego fruit is quite popular overseas so most of our San Diego fruit we actually send to a foreign country. SHARMA: Since we export most of our oranges, thousands of miles away as far as Japan, where do the oranges we eat come from? It turns out, depending on the season, the fruit we consume here is shipped from thousands of miles away from countries like Australia, South Africa and Peru. It is we, the consumer, who've determined that our oranges trot the globe. American shoppers like their oranges to be seedless and easy to peel. But San Diego oranges have seeds and their thinner skin is tougher to remove. We also like our oranges to be orange. DEMSHKY: Consumers buy with their eyes. You can't buy an orange that's unpeeled. But ultimately, that bright orange color is really a factor of the climate and temperatures they were grown in. But clearly your San Diego fruit might have had a little green on the top of it. It's something "regreening" in the industry. That's really just a cosmetic issue. It's not an indication of the flavor of the orange at all. SHARMA: In fact, says 79-year-old Ben Hillebrecht… HILLEBRECHT: They're sweet, juicy and just an excellent orange. SHARMA: Hillebrecht's family has grown oranges for generations in Escondido. HILLEBRECHT: All my life I've been right here. If I live until December, I'll be 80 years old. SHARMA: Hillebrecht would prefer to sell his fruit to San Diegans. HILLEBRECHT: But you can't make people eat them just because they're grown here. You buy them much cheaper from some place else. Food in America is cheap. You only spend 10 cents out of your dollar or 11 cents as an average American. SHARMA: But escalating water prices are making it difficult for orange farmers like Hillibrecht to keep on growing especially with oranges coming from Australia or Brazil. In fact, the Hillebrechts are turning off the tap on some of their orange trees because keeping them alive is no longer profitable. ERIC LARSON: Here in San Diego County, it's tough for farmers to compete. The land is expensive, labor is expensive, and water is very expensive because we import the water from a great distance so it makes a very, very difficult to compete. SHARMA: The Hillebrecht family has diversified what it grows and its fallback crop is San Diego top food crop. Last year the county produced 59,000 tons of this fruit. Forty percent of the avocados sold in the United States come from San Diego County groves like this one in Escondido. When avocados aren't in season here, chances are the ones you're buying in the store came from Mexico or Chile. MIKE HILLEBRECHT: In some ways that's beneficial because the consumer can buy avocadoes year around. SHARMA: But Ben's son Mike Hillebrecht says there are downsides to importing avocadoes for San Diego growers, again because of labor costs. Local growers pay workers $8 an hour. In Mexico, workers earn $4 dollars a day. LARSON: Consumers really have a lot of control, it's just they just don't tend to exercise it. If the consumer truly wants to buy local fruits and vegetables -- number one farmer's markets -- you can't sell at a farmer's market unless you're a California grower or a San Diego County grower so right there, you know instantly, you're buying locally. If a farmer ships out of the area, it goes through an additional packing house, they're only going to get 19 cents of the food dollar. If it stays local and takes some of those middlemen out of the equation, they might be able to get a better price for the product they sell. FARYON: Tomatoes are the number one favorite fruit among Americans. As Reporter Ed Joyce tells us, San Diego County grow the nation's largest vine-ripened crop. ED JOYCE: San Diego County is home to the largest community of organic tomato growers in the state and nation, with 343 farms growing more than 150 crops. We wanted to find out what the difference was between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes. And whether the way they were grown affected taste. While tomatoes might be American's favorite, they're also the fruit we're least satisfied with when it comes to grocery store produce. So we went to the People's Organic Foods Market to talk with the coop's marketing director Amber McHale to find out why the store only buys and sells organic tomatoes. As a disclaimer, I'm a member of the coop. AMBER MCHALE: Some crops have been proven, organically, to have a higher yield, of certain vitamins, not all, that's a study that's still ongoing. But again, for me and for most of these shoppers it's not the extra-added nutrition, although again, when you have healthier soil, you're going to have a healthier product. It's the lack of what's not in there, those synthetic toxic pesticides, those fertilizers. JOYCE: Organic growers say residue from pesticides can be harmful, especially to children. The EPA recently announced it will begin a series of tests on pesticides and their affects on human endocrine systems, which regulate growth, metabolism and reproduction. An environmental group in Washington D.C. ranked 43 fruits and vegetables based on the amount of pesticides, but not the toxicity of each pesticide, found on them. Tomatoes ranked halfway down the list with 47 percent of the tomatoes containing pesticide. Peaches were the worst offender, with 97 peaches. JOYCE: Where do these tomatoes come from, do they come from San Diego County, do they come from California? MCHALE: Right now all our tomatoes are coming from California. The jumbo's, the cherry and the heirloom are coming locally from Be Wise ranch, and the roma's are coming from the central valley so it's regional, not local. JOYCE: Casey Anderson is an organic grower. He and his mother grow 13 varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes in Valley Center. It's late in the season so Anderson's crop is winding down, but buying locally-grown organic tomatoes at a farmer's market is as direct and fresh as they come. But do they taste better?  ANDERSON: They all have different tastes. I mean these, the green zebra's, these are um, this is fully ripe, this is what they look like, and they are really sweet, but they taste like they got lime drizzled over the top, they're really tangy. JOYCE: When it comes to flavor, it may just be matter of taste. However, most tomatoes bought in a grocery store have been picked when they're green so they can survive long trips across the country. They're ripened artificially with ethylene gas. Temperature also play a role. Tomatoes won't ripen in temperatures below 50 degrees. Some varieties are also bred for shape, color and shelf life – not necessarily taste. In California, most tomatoes are destined for cans. The state produces 90 percent of the country's processed tomatoes. FARYON: Americans eat more per capita then ever before. And according to government statistics, one third of us are obese. We buy 99-cent hamburgers and chicken that costs less than a dollar a pound. Producers in the food chain tell us we want cheaper food and we want more of it. DAVIS: Obviously the consumer votes and tells you what's it's going to do. If you're raising something the consumer doesn't want and you don't sell it, you're not going to raise it again. So you will vote. FARYON: And we've voted with our money. We don't have enough time to peel our own oranges and we're too busy to find out what's in our food. GRAHAM: If the soccer mom's got enough time to do everything else she does and then worry about the quality or the source of the fish sticks she's feeding her kids then she could look at these Web sites and figure out how to do this. FARYON: Can we actually track our food from the dinner plate the farm field and ocean? Most of it, we can't. And what happens when that search leads us here? The video you're about to see is graphic and disturbing. Last year, a California meat company issued the largest meat recall in history. 143 million pounds of beef was recalled after humane society video revealed sick cows dragged to slaughter. It's illegal to use sick animals in the meat supply because of the risk of disease. We had several questions for the USDA when we began our investigation into food. They didn't respond to most of our emails or our request for an interview. We did learn however, that so much of this information is available to the public on government and trade association websites, and in the scientific literature. Maybe we just stopped paying attention because the new mass-produced food chain has made life easy and the food we eat cheap. Or maybe, we just don't want to know where our food comes from. You can find out more about our food investigation by going to our Web site: You can also leave a comment; we'd love to hear from you. For KPBS and Envision San Diego, I'm Joanne Faryon. Thanks for watching.