Monday, April 19, 2010

Pop Culture References to the Food Industry

The relationship between the organic food market, commercial food industry and the consumer is a growingly complex and meaningful relationship. Intrigue in these topics is indicated by a growing number of popular culture references to the food industry. Following is a critique of one particular pop culture reference. Despite the fact of being a simple cartoon, this episode speaks inherent truths of the food industry, particularly its connection to the consumer.

“With great meat, son, comes great responsibility.”

The gravity of these words uttered by Hank Hill of King of the Hill (KOTH) as he gingerly grilled his steak rings truer than he originally intended. I was very surprised to be watching television last night, and a KOTH episode entitled “Raise the Steaks” was aired. In this episode 6 of season 12 from 2007, Hank is grilling some steaks from the local Mega-Lo Mart (similar to Walmart) only to discover they are tough and inedible. He then ventures to the nearby Co-Op for the first time and discovers the delicious, organic, locally produced food the store has to offer, despite his initial adversity to the hippie-like, earth-hugger atmosphere.

Hank then becomes enamored with the Co-Op after visiting the free-range farm where the meat cows are raised, and helps the store earn profit and attract new customers. When the store makes it first profit, the hippie store owners are appalled since they are a non-profit organization and believe money is evil. Hank then reminds the Co-Op members that they can use the money to improve the store and provide their quality food to more people. Due to the newly improved store, more members of the “establishment” come into the store which causes the hippie store volunteers to “lose their vibe.” Hank assumes the voice of reason by reminding them that these people simply want the good, wholesome, non-industrialized food they have to offer.

The new-age store owners then take Hank’s advice to the extreme and decide to sell the store to Mega-Lo Mart. As soon as the new ownership takes effect, the Co-Op’s food quality immediately plummets to that of industrialized food. Appalled by the food condition, Hank takes the animals from the Co-Op farm, and they are sent off to live permanently on a free-range farm.

“If this is food, what have we been eating?”

Peggy Hill, Hank’s wife, utters this statement after eating food from the Co-Op for the first time. Due to the heavy emphasis on livestock in this episode, the FAO-Livestock’s Long Shadow reading has a direct correlation to the condition in which cows are treated. The industrial food production process is rife with environmental concerns and problems. The sheer number of livestock that must be supported is confined to amicable climates, which causes severe environmental strain, degradation, and resource depletion. In addition to this, cows are substantial producers of several green house gases. These problems among many others plague industrial food production.

On the other hand, organic and free-range food production does not have these significant negative impacts. As mentioned in Food Inc., food produced in more natural ways do not have as many harmful microbes and do not have negative environmental effects. The episode focuses on the food industry’s relationship with the consumer, but scientific data and research confirms that free-range and organic food production is healthier for ourselves and the earth.

“It’s not a crime to be a cow”

After seeing photos of the dreadful conditions and prison-like cells to which Mega-Lo Mart cows are subjected, one of the Co-Op volunteers gives this poignant statement and then helps Hank kidnap the livestock. Though the cartoon gives a comical insight to a small corner of the food industry, the episode speaks essential truths that industrial meats are of a lower quality than free-range, organic meats. The fact that cows are subjected to abominable conditions, and then we eat them is absolutely atrocious. As a result and as detailed in Fast Food Nation, food-borne illness outbreaks have become a part of society, enormous amounts of processed foods are produced in unethical ways and, in general, industrialized food production produces lower quality food.

It is documented knowledge that livestock production is not environmentally sound as mentioned in the FAO reading above, and the livestock trapped in the butchering process are treated inhumanely. The next question is, why don’t more people rebel against this unsound, unsafe, inhumane process? Small sects such as the volunteers running the Co-Op begin the process, and through their dedication, their wholesome products can become available to more people, as exemplified by Hank’s role in improving the Co-Op. The episode touched on all sects of food consumers. The volunteers were the organic/free-range proponents, Hank’s friends were the skeptical industrial consumers, and Hank was the undecided consumer who does not completely agree with the hippie-lifestyle but can appreciate good food made from well-treated animals.

The episode delved even deeper into the relationship between food production and consumer then just characterizing the various types of consumers. In the episode, the store volunteers are actually corrupted by money and greed. The Co-Op workers sold their humble store to Mega-Lo Mart since they would all receive a cut of the purchase money. The volunteers justified their actions by convincing themselves that their quality food will now be available to more people. The Co-Op suppliers then became subject to Mega-Lo Mart’s large-scale industrial process, causing the food quality to plummet. This situation brings to light the problem that simply consuming foods labeled as organic or free-range is not sufficient to be a responsible consumer. Actually going to the farm and seeing the animals, like Hank did in the episode, is the only definitive way to ensure food quality. The sheer scale of our current food industry makes such personal visitations impossible, but the example of the Co-Op is a viable place to start the process.

I was genuinely surprised to find such a thorough expose of the food industry in a cartoon show. The episode characterized the majority of consumers and their responses to free-range, organic food and typical industrial food. The episode then delved into the unacceptable conditions of the industrial food process and one honest man’s decision to not accept such atrocities. The episode also explored the fallacies of the organic food market and its susceptibilities to large chains and alluring profits. The fact that all of these complexities could be presented in a short show is a testament to the dynamic relationship between the food industry and consumers.


Example of livestock abuse

The organic, free-range option

Grass-fed beef standards