The following transcript is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY
Nelson, B.C. Canada
May 20, 2010
Title: Whole Foods Market Targeted by Organic Advocates / Local Food System Development in Kingston / Carnivore Chic
Producer/Host: Jon Steinman
Transcript: Pat Yama
Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated radio show out of Kootenay Co-op Radio, CJLY in Nelson, B.C. Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations around the world including CHRY, York University in Toronto. I'm Jon Steinman and on today's episode - a collage of topics to share including a segment from Vancouver Co-op Radio's Redeye program featuring Ronnie Cummins of the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association. The organization has taken a strong stance against grocery giant Whole Foods Market, calling upon them to walk their talk and increase their support for organic products which as Cummins describes exists in the shadows of the majority of the company's products which are conventionally produced and disguised as "natural" foods.
We'll also hear more recordings from the annual convention of the National Farmers Union - this one featuring farmer, entrepreneur and local food advocate Kim Perry from the community of Harrowsmith, Ontario. Kim shares the work of the National Farmers Union Local 316 operating in the area and how over the past few years they've successfully been building a strong local food movement.
And in the last third of today's show, a revisiting of an interview we aired with Toronto author, Susan Bourette of the book "Carnivore Chic: From Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meat."
increase music and fade out
An update to first share from our May 5th episode on the crack down that took place here in the City of Nelson on backyard chicken advocate Monica Nissen's flock of chickens.
That episode left off with some important questions still needing to be answered. If you haven't heard that show, Monica Nissen who had been raising chickens in her urban backyard between June and December 2010 was doing so knowing all along that within the City of Nelson, raising any animal other than a dog or cat within city limits is prohibited by a city bylaw. But because most bylaws within municipalities are only enforced when a complaint is received, Monica proceeded without much concern, similar to many residents around North America doing just the same. But come December, she received a visit from a City of Nelson bylaw enforcement officer, threatening her with fines and possible confiscation of her chickens if they were not removed from the property within four days. She later received a letter confirming the visit and stating that two complaints about her chickens had been received by phone months earlier in October. The complaints came as a shock to Monica because no one had approached her first - none of her neighbours.
And so, Deconstructing Dinner took on the task of speaking with all of Monica's immediate neighbours - those who can see or hear the chickens. From that effort, we concluded that none of Monica's immediate neighbours had any problem with the chickens and instead were quite enthusiastic about their presence in the neighbourhood, leading Deconstructing Dinner to wonder just what could the nature of the complaint been, and if the person complaining was not affected by the issue, what then constitutes a valid complaint worthy of local taxpayers footing the bill to be followed up on.
Now when we first aired our May 5th episode, we had not successfully gotten in touch with Nelson Police Department but have since received a response from Inspector Henry Paivarinta, who heads up the bylaw enforcement team working for the City. Our first question sent to him via email asks what the nature of the complaint was, a seemingly important question in light of the Nelson's City Council having just undergone a long process of deciding whether to overturn the city's prohibiting of raising poultry within City limits. Inspector Paivarinta stated that that information is protected and cannot be released. And so our next question lead off stating our finding that none of Monica's neighbours had a problem with the chickens and so we posed the question "what then constitutes a valid complaint that the City would invest resources into following up on if the complaint came from a resident assumed to not be affected by the violation?" In his response, "Complaints are not the sole justification for enforcement. Contravention of municipal by-laws, provincial statutes and federal laws occur everyday with complaints never received. Does the absence of a complainant then justify the contravention or offence?"
Now clearly the answer did not address the question and within our question, never once did we suggest there to be a "absence of a complainant" as was suggested by Inspector Paivarinta's answer, leaving Deconstructing Dinner to question, did these two phone-call complaints quoted in the letter to Monica Nissen ever take place. Deconstructing Dinner will now undergo the process of filing an access to information request to determine what the nature of the supposed complaints were because we believe that information to be in the public interest. We'll determine if these complaints were ever received, and we'll also be looking into the process through which these supposed complaints were handled and if they were handled in accordance with City policies and bylaw enforcement mandates. Now that process might take a bit of time, but of course stay tuned to Deconstructing Dinner for more on how this crack down on backyard chickens in Nelson unfolds.
It's a recurring subject of discussion here on Deconstructing Dinner how concentrated the ownership within our food system has and continues to become. For supporters of alternatives to the industrial food system, even those options are too becoming questionable. The distribution of organic and so-called natural foods have become concentrated into the hands of only a few major suppliers. And on May 11th of this year that North American concentration became even greater when the largest American distributor United Natural Foods of Providence Rhode Island announced the purchase of Canada's largest distributor of "natural foods" the SunOpta Distribution Group. Also known as UNFI, United Natural Foods sells to 17,000 stores throughout the U.S. from only 12 distribution locations. They also operate Albert's Organics, Blue Marble Brands, Woodstock Farms Manufacturing and they own the Natural Retail Group NRG - a chain of 12 grocery stores throughout the eastern United States. SunOpta is one of the larger North American businesses operating in the lucrative "natural" food sector and their distribution division operates four distribution centres across Canada in the Vancouver area, Toronto, Montreal and another in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Now with such concentration within the many sectors of the food system, one of the many concerns that gets raised with such concentration of ownership among distributors is the influence that their customers can have on determining what foods are available to North American eaters. UNFI's largest customer is Whole Foods Markets, one of the most well-known names in the "natural" food business. And with Whole Foods operating over 270 stores and another 38 in development, this is a company that wields tremendous power on suppliers - which, for independent and chain Canadian stores seeking to access organic and "natural" foods, are now further restricted to accessing those foods from only a handful of suppliers - with UNFI being by far the largest.
Here in Canada, Whole Foods Markets operates six stores, four in the Vancouver area, and two in Ontario.
But the operations of Whole Foods are under fire from groups like the Organic Consumers Association, OCA based in the United States. OCA recognizes that companies like Whole Foods hold a lot of power to influence their suppliers like UNFI. OCA is focusing their attention on the majority of products on Whole Foods shelves which are not organic and instead labelled or categorized as "natural" - a word that carries no legal weight or restrictions and no guidelines on its use. In other words, there are many foods on grocery store shelves that one might perceive to be an alternative to industrial foods, but behind the label are as conventional as their conventional counterparts.
In March 2010, OCA's Executive Director Ronnie Cummins was interviewed by Jane Williams of Redeye, a weekly news program produced at Vancouver Co-op Radio, CFRO. Jane spoke to Ronnie about OCA's campaign challenging the practices of Whole Foods Markets.
Jane Williams: Last September, the Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association, the United States wrote this in an open letter to Whole Foods Market. He said "the big difference today in the organic community is our growing understanding that organics and fair trade are not just lifestyle or health options, nor matters of elemental human rights or justice, but rather questions of literal survival. This past Monday, a coalition of food activists, environmentalists and labour unionists were active inside and outside the Whole Foods Market shareholders meeting in Vancouver. They were there to confront Whole Foods on a range of practices that they say includes climate change denial, greenwashing and violations of workers rights." Ronnie Cummins is the Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association and he joins me this morning from Anaheim, California. Hello Ronnie.
Ronnie Cummins: Well, good to be with you.
Jane: Good to have you. What is the intent of the sustainable food pledge that you want Whole Foods Market to commit to?
Ronnie: Well the goal is to push the industry leaders and the natural foods sector to prioritize selling certified organic food, not this so-called natural food which actually turns out to be a conventional chemical food that's just greenwashed and called natural. There are not laws regulating natural, there's no monitoring. Basically we need Whole Foods and their major supplier United Natural Foods to get all their suppliers that call their selves natural to sign a contract with organics certifiers and begin to make the transition to organic. Otherwise we're not dealing with the health crisis, with the climate crisis that is getting worse by day and we're confusing consumers who increasingly don't know the difference between products labelled as natural and those labelled as organic.
Jane: Well, actually interestingly I went shopping yesterday, not at Whole Foods. And I picked up some rolled oats and they had 100% natural emblazoned in very big letters all the way across the front of them. So that means nothing then.
Ronnie: No, those oats were grown with chemical fertilizer that is releasing nitrous oxide which is the worst of the greenhouse gases. They could have been grown with sewage sludge. Certainly the wholesaler and distribution chain of that product is probably routinely allowing the exploitation of the farm workers at the bottom and certainly not guaranteeing that the farmers get paid a fair price as is the case under fair trade or labour rights.
Jane: What kind of percentage does Whole Foods sell of organic versus not?
Ronnie: They sell about $9 billion a year worth of product and unfortunately only about one-third or $3 billion are certified organic. The other two-thirds are essentially conventional products that are marked up, whole pay cheque style and called natural. We've been testing some of Whole Foods who bought out Capers - they're in Vancouver. We've been testing some of their products and we're finding that the so-called natural products are riddled with GMOs and other toxic chemicals like leeching BPA out of the cans that they're in. And when we walk by a Capers store in Vancouver the other day we saw what appeared to be sewerage sludge bagged up as fertilizer with a bio label on it - certainly would confuse backyard gardeners who thought that they were possibly buying organic compost.
Jane: Now Whole Foods prides itself on its treatment of its own staff saying that they're like family, yet you're very critical of Whole Foods around issues of violation of workers' rights. Can you explain that?
Ronnie: Yes, I mean we're telling Whole Foods, we're telling every supermarket chain that you are responsible for the working conditions of workers throughout that chain. If you have a contract with a wholesaler and that wholesaler has a contract with a producer and the workers are being exploited, it is your responsibility to speak out on that, to pressure that, to clear up the labour violations. I stood up inside the shareholders meeting on March 8th in there in Vancouver and I pointed out there why do you keep talking to Whole Foods about how well you treat your employees and your family, your team, I said - but does your team extend all the way to the farm workers who are doing the hard work of picking the food? Does it extend to the food processing workers who are toiling usually in substandard conditions processing food? Does it include truck drivers and warehouse people and the actual clerks in your stores? And they don't like to hear that because they know that they're just operating on a "business as usual" practices where they pay enough attention to their workers from their standpoint hopefully head off trading and organizing drives but they could care less about how the wholesalers are treating the workers down the supply chain.
Jane: I understand that certain members higher up in the organization are quite anti-union.
Ronnie: Yes, John Mackey's infamous description of labour unions, he said they're like herpes, they're very unpleasant and labour unions are hard to get rid of once you've got them.
Jane: And John Mackey is who?
Ronnie: He's the CEO, founder of the company. He's the infamous Whole Foods spokesperson, who is recently - he talked about in the New Yorker magazine how he didn't really believe there's such a thing as climate change, so there's no problem there. He doesn't believe that workers deserve access to universal health care. He's basically said, you know that people are fat and unhealthy because they're not buying enough food from Whole Foods. And he has spoken out his entire career against labour unions and when workers have tried to organize labour unions in places at Whole Foods stores like in Madison, Wisconsin, they're classic union breakers, as is their main wholesaler - United Natural Foods and another billion dollar corporation.
Jane: So is all the talk about organic and treating the workers like family then, are you saying that's all just positioning in a sense of positioning themselves in the market?
Ronnie: Yes, well if you don't think there's such a thing as a climate crisis then you're not really concerned about the difference between a so-called natural food which is actually just conventional food and organic. I mean organically managed soil is one of our best hopes to cool off the atmosphere and buy ourselves enough time to retrofit our societies and switch to renewable energy. So the rampant overuse and use of chemical fertilizers, the use of factory farm style production which causes methane contamination in the environment, these are very important issues. Organically managed soil can sequester 7,000 pounds of C02 every year and store it safely in the soil for a hundred years. If we can convert the $50 billion natural products industry in Canada and the U.S. to organic, we're going to be able to sequester a large part of the gases that are now overheating the atmosphere. But of course they're looking at the bottom line. They're looking at the fact that if you take conventional food and you magically call it natural and then mark the price up just about as high as organic, you make a lot more money than organic. Where when you buy organic food from producers, you know you typically have to pay a decent price because there's a great demand for it. So this bait and switch of natural and organic has got to stop. It's not just food, we're talking across the board green products. Consumers need to be aware, natural means nothing in legal terms and that we need to tell our retailers, we need to tell these companies that natural means that you're in transition to organic or else it's consumer fraud.
Jane: What specific demands are you making of the Whole Foods market and their major supplier?
Ronnie: Oh we're telling them - okay only one-third of your food and your products, body care and so on, are certified organic and now we want to see that be two-thirds by the year 2013. We want you to stop speaking out against unions and universal health care. We want you to acknowledge that the country's health crisis and our climate crisis are severe and getting worse. We want you to walk your talk.
Fair trade, at the shareholders meeting in Vancouver at the Westin Hotel on March 8th, one of their executives got up and talked about their overseas fair-trade program but had nothing to say when B.C. labour activist and Sierra Club asked them about - well what about domestic fair trade. What about workers' rights all the way through the supply chain.
The other thing we're telling them is that we want you to reject the price discrimination that exists in the natural food sector whereby the big chains like Whole Foods get a much better discount than the smaller independently owned natural food stores that often do a much better job in promoting organics and fair-trade. So the sustainable food pledge means organic first and foremost and fair-trade and labour rights practices completely integrated into that.
Jane: And what response did you get from shareholders in Vancouver?
Ronnie: Well, they didn't call the police on us which is what they sometimes do. They did call the police the night before on us when we were projecting our message onto the wall of the Westin Hotel. But they are clearly concerned about the fact that they're corporate image is being tarnished. We hear rumours that people at the top are unhappy with John Mackey's shooting off his mouth about things like unions and health care and how there's no such thing as climate change. But it remains to be seen. We're going to have a meeting this morning here with some of their executives. They're are a little bit angry because we've been protesting and leafleting here the last couple of days in Anaheim, California, the Natural Products Expo, the largest natural and organic exposition in North America. But the message we're going to deliver to them today is we're going to step up the pressure. We're going to oppose ranks with our allies in the environmental movement and the labour movement and we're going to force you to deal with this sustainable food pledge. And we're not going away.
Jane: What would you like consumers to do?
Ronnie: Consumers should think twice every time you pull out your wallet. Make sure you're purchasing something that you really believe in. Look for the organic label. That's the gold standard for health and sustainability. Try whenever possible to buy not only organic food but food that's produced right there in B.C. or in the region. Of course try to cook from scratch as much as possible. Buy in bulk. You can afford to eat an all organic diet for the same price as conventional chemical food if you will cook at home, buy in bulk, cook from scratch, look for the sales, buy it through farmers markets whenever possible, and simplify your diet. We can improve our health and the health of our planet and create the preconditions for a massive grassroots consumer farmer work alliance we're going to need throughout North America if we're going to stop this train that appears to be going full throttle toward disaster.
Jane: Thank you so much for talking to us this morning, Ronnie.
Ronnie: Thank you.
Jane: I've been speaking with Ronnie Cummins. He's the Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association in the United States. You can check out their website at organicconsumers.org.
Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. A thanks to Vancouver Co-op Radio's Redeye for making that interview accessible.
You can learn more about this topic including the latest takeover of Canada's largest distributor of organic and "natural" foods, by visiting the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca and our May 20th, 2010 broadcast. Located there are links to a letter OCA received from Whole Foods attorneys threatening them with legal action unless OCA stops placing the Whole Foods logo on their handouts. A detailed response from OCA addressed to Whole Foods is also posted alongside the link.
Now it's always important when deconstructing the food system to recognize that without a full deconstructing of our dinners, responses to the irresponsible nature of that system might very well get trapped within the same box that might have led to that irresponsibility in the first place. It leaves us here at Deconstructing Dinner feeling the need to identify that as much power as encouraging retailers like Whole Foods to change their practices might have, by simply making that effort, the very corporate concentration within the food system is indirectly supported when that concentration itself has so often been demonstrated here on the show to be at a root of the problems that we find in the food system. Unsustainable production practices, environmental harm from those practices, unfair prices paid to farmers, or wages to farm workers, it seems that many of these symptoms might very well be essential to support this type of concentration, leaving a further deconstructing of the system. That further deconstructing can lead us to arriving at a place that we often do here on the show, creating food systems from scratch instead of replicating the patterns that have led to the type of dysfunction that we find in the food system today.
One area of Canada that has been featured on a few occasions here on the show who are too seeking to respond to the many concerns identified in that last segment but are doing so from a more ground-up approach, is the region in and around Kingston, Ontario. In November 2008, Kingston-area farmer Kim Perry shared the work of farmers and eaters in the area of encouraging the growth of a more vibrant local food system. She spoke to the annual convention of the National Farmers Union in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Kim was born and raised in New Brunswick and in 2001 became a member of the National Farmers Union and their Local 316. Her and her husband Dave operate Perry Maine-Anjou Farms in the community of Harrowsmith and they own a small local food store called Local Family Farms in the community of Verona. Kim's presentation spoke to the diverse approaches that appear to be necessary for any community seeking to build a more resilient local food system. From culinary celebrations featuring local chefs, to building strong relationships with local media, developing local food directories and mobilizing letter-writing campaigns, local food system efforts can carry a lot of weight and help inspire communities to take part. Here's Kim Perry speaking in November 2008.
Natural Farmers Union Convention
Kim Perry: Basically, I've been involved with the NFU since about 2003. And I was new to farming in 2001, so I was kind of thrown into farming and the NFU is really the first organized farm group that I've belonged to, by choice of my husband I guess. So I haven't really had any other experiences with other farm groups and right away we began working on the local movement, talking about the sustainability of family farms. The first feeders that I was in farming was when I got my first shock as to why people continue to farm. I was in sales, I was in business before that and no other business would continue the way that farming does. I was shocked that people continued to do this year after year. I was in business, financial business where we would do tax returns amongst other things for people and when I first got to look at the tax returns for farmers, I had to go share them with my colleagues and say this can't be right. This can't be right, year after year after year. And they said - yeah, that's the way it works, just get over it. That's the way they appear. I thought if that was any other business it would probed into for one thing. I know the three year, the four year, the five year rule, after five years you continue to claim your losses and someone's going to tell you you can't operate anymore.
So, I got into that just before farming and I was in that just before farming so I got into farming and got to really feel what that felt like. So I guess, what we worked on when I first joined was promoting the local venue. Sat around on the floor and Andrea Cumsum's farm who I didn't realize at the time was a fairly new President of our local and try to figure out how we were going to get the attention of the Kingston people. From where I was sitting we were probably only about ten kilometres from Kingston City limits but it felt like a lot further because the limits are further outside the City. And how would we get the attention of the media and why should they care. Why should they care anymore about what farmers are saying. What is it that we can do to get their attention. And that's when we came up with the idea that the Feast of Fields where we had something like 16 restaurants come out. There's this picture of the first Feast of Fields where restaurants came out and they cooked products that were supplied by local farmers. And we sold out. We oversold at 700 tickets. We did that again 2005 and 2006 and people are still talking and wishing, those who weren't able to attend, wishing that they had gone and wondering why we couldn't continue to do that. In so doing we educated the public. We got the attention of the media. Pretty much every newspaper in the region working on television is coming around as well. As well as radio that call us for any information that's available on farming and activities that are coming up. You can bet when I go home, I have a fairly big relationship with a reporter who usually makes the front page of the Kingston Wake Standard. When she talks about local food, I haven't noticed it as much in other subjects but we certainly gained credibility. And through these Feast of Fields, by doing so we've reached out other members of the general public, people in the health professions, health and nutrition and academics, and teachers, a lot of educational professionals who were very interested in what we had to say. Those are typically the people who have the closest strings to people's hearts, the children and grandchildren and grandparents.
So we just reached out to people and at the same time, we had the issue about seeds and saving our seeds. And I think someone mentioned earlier in a convention, with over a 1,000 letters sent to Parliament Hill, I know for a fact 300 of those came out of our local. And they came from people who knew nothing about the Natural Farmers Union before se started to bring attention in this area. So we just had a conference where we educated people on the issue and it was just amazing the response that we got. The people out there are just drooling to get the information from us. If we only knew that in a more confident way that people really want the information that we have and not just to spread it amongst ourselves but to spread the information amongst the general public.
So I guess this was just our point. This was a picture of Peter at a seed rally. At this point is where we really realized that we were wanting to be proactive instead of reactive, where we were always put in a bind to respond quickly enough to have an effect on government policy. So all of the activities that we do, not all of them but a lot of them have to do with being proactive.
This was a project that we undertook to brand products in our area. We really felt in trying to get the attention of the Kingston people there was a disconnect. People in the City of Kingston generally did not realize that they could eat products that were grown in their countryside. So we used a couple of words here. "Nourish Our Community" being the farmers and the urban people and that Kingston has a countryside and that the people who eat in Kingston should take some form on interest in the well-being of the countryside. So, there was a project that was initiative called Food Down The Road. It was a four part sneaker series where we had people come in and talk over March, April and May of 2007 and that project was to culminate a food summit in the fall. I believe there were about close to 200 people at each session and over 200 that was held at City Hall in Kingston at the final speaker. Helped people to identify who the market players are in our system at a very basic level for laymen, I guess. And just to define that we're really no match for that 100 kilometre radius. Personally I deal in my business in a 100 kilometre radius and in my mind I kind of draw it on a map that was intended for travellers. But just to keep it really simple, where exactly how far is that and what's a reasonable distance that we think is to go for food. So, I just drew up this map representing where that area would include. So we're up near Perth area, east of Brockville. The Prince Edward county on the bottom left has quite a dominant presence - the agricultural industry.
So again this was a slide just saying that we had our four-part seeker series, local food and farm network. We have a network of people that are not just farmers but people who are interested in the overall well-being of others who eat and that their health is related to those issues. We have a website set up that anyone can visit and a primer which I'll show you - there's a slide a little bit later that just gives people an idea of where to start, where can they go to look. Not just consumers but if you're a farmer in our area, there's a lot of information that we've put out there. Or if you're looking to be a farmer and you're looking to grow and you're just don't know where to start. People are really starting to know that our website and our projects are likely where you would start. We would likely be the people to go to if you are interested in starting to farm.
So we've had several projects on the go. All of them somewhat government funded and that they are aimed at a long-term vision for our region and our country and I'm sure it can be extended to international issues or international farmers' unions. So this is a copy of the primer that we've created. And a copy of the - was that the first local harvest? - the second local harvest. So those newspapers are available. They drop them off and keep them in my store for people to pick-up. In the centre of them there is where to find local producers. So people in the area can pick that up. And they're all people who do sell at farm gate and if they don't it tells you if it's by appointment, if it's by chance. If people can't find whatever they're looking for it certainly gives them a start and gives them the idea that this community that we live in is already on the bandwagon of the local. This is just to give you an idea of the volunteer hours that go in it. We couldn't do it, we couldn't do it as farmers. Our energies in those projects were running very short so it's really good to have a lot of partners. You don't want to run out of steam halfway through.
So this is our most recent project. We're basically coming out of the Food Down The Road project. A new farm project towards sustainable local food system, local sustainable farms and this is a project that we've entered into with Heifer International where there's some funding available. We found that with all of the information that we've been able to disburse in the Kingston area, we had so much response the trouble was to meet the capacity. So this project is intended to build capacity. There's funding available for farms who want to have an intern, to teach someone how to do what they're doing. There's funding available for people who want to be those interns. Also for new farmers who've just started out that might need a hand and in training or finance or also for the revisionary farmer, I guess we call it. For those who perhaps want to work to change some of their methods and to protect say organic or grass-fed animals and how to make some of those transitions.
Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner, and that was Kim Perry a farmer, entrepreneur and member of the National Farmers Union from the community of Harrowsmith, Ontario. Kim farms with her husband and they own a small local food store called Local Family Farms and she spoke to the annual convention of the National Farmers Union in November 2008 in Saskatoon. Saskatchewan. You can learn more about the efforts of the National Farmers Union's Local 316 in the Kingston, Ontario area by visiting the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca and the May 20th 2010 broadcast.
This is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly radio show and podcast produced at Nelson British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I'm Jon Steinman.
In the last third of today's episode, we'll revisit with an interview that first aired here on the show in July 2008. The interview became part of our Livestock Lost series and featured Toronto author of "Carnivore Chic" - Susan Bourette. While working for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business magazine, Susan went undercover at the largest slaughterhouse for hogs in Canada located in Brandon, Manitoba and owned by Maple Leaf Foods. Susan's subsequent article for the magazine, her eventual book "Carnivore Chic" and this interview, all aired before the nation-wide listeria contamination of Maple Leaf food products was discovered that led to the death of 22 people and left many more ill. While working inside the plant, Susan became disturbed at the state in which animals and workers are treated within the industry, leading her to wonder if meat had any cultural significance at all because clearly to her, the dominant system for producing meat was void of any culture or reverence of animals, people and food.
Here again is that July 2008 interview featuring Toronto's Susan Bourette, author of "Carnivore Chic: From Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meat."
July 2008 Interview
Jon Steinman: She did something that is not so common in the world of commercial media and she went and applied for a job at Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba. This is the company's largest facility producing a significant amount of the pork products found on Canadian grocery store shelves. In fact over 77,000 hogs enter into this facility each week - a staggering amount. And it was this experience working in the facility that led Susan to embark on a North American-wide journey to seek out different meat cultures so to speak. And in doing so, she discovered that there is a growing movement of conscientious eaters who are consuming meat in a way that is far more reminiscent of the culture of meat that existed before this dietary staple became so industrialized. Again the title is "Carnivore Chic: From Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meat." The book was released by the Viking Imprint of Penguin Books in March of this year and Susan spoke to me over the phone from Toronto. Our conversation began on the topic of why she chose to apply for a job at one of the largest slaughterhouses in the country.
Susan Bourette: Well, at the time I'd been seeing these little snippets in the Winnipeg Free Press about workers from one of largest slaughterhouses in Canada, Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon, Manitoba. I've been seeing these little squibs about workers trying to escape across the border into the United States. And these were workers that were brought in from Mexico. And this is a few years ago, really before the whole temporary form worker program got under way and in fact, Maple Leaf Foods was one of the sort of architects of this, I believe, in that they were one of the first companies in Canada that was really using temporary form workers. And I guess what really peaked my interest was I wondered why they had to bring workers in from outside of the country from places like Mexico and China to do a job that they couldn't recruit anyone in Canada to do. And so that was really how this all started. I was just so curious as to what was going on in the slaughterhouse.
Jon: While working at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Brandon, Susan learned firsthand exactly why it's so hard to recruit people to work there.
Susan: So, I went to work undercover at Maple Leaf Foods. You know it took me a couple of weeks. I actually had to go through quite a process to even get the job at Maple Leaf Foods. They did some co-ordination tests. And anyway, eventually I did get a job working in the part of the plant called By-Products and this is where most of the more junior workers go to start to learn the slaughterhouse trade. And so it was my job to chop the cheeks out of hogs heads and they were coming down the assembly line, dozens and dozens at a time. And it was my job to pick up the hog's head by the esophagus and to pull it over to my work station and then cut the cheeks out. So there I was in the slaughterhouse uniform, I had pig's blood seeping into my bra. It was just exhausting, horrible, horrible work. And there was an unexpected upshot which was that I walked off the factory floor vowing I was never going to eat meat again.
Jon: While the details of her job were certainly graphic and warranted some more indepth questioning, I opted to instead to first ask her the question that was begging to be asked and that was "did Maple Leaf Foods have any idea that she was researching an article for the Globe and Mail?"
Susan: This book started as a magazine story for Report on Business magazine and I guess the intent was, it was to find out really what goes on in a slaughterhouse and there's no way that Maple Leaf was ever going to agree to let me go and work on the slaughterhouse floor. So, we had decided, you know the editors and I that the best way to really sort of see it firsthand was to go undercover. So, yes, they were not aware of what I was doing. I did come clean, so to speak, at the end of the week and told them that I had done that. And let's just say they weren't very happy with me. They did in effect did try to get the story killed. But luckily in their wisdom, Report on Business magazine stuck by their guns and decided we really should run this story, that it was important for people to know how we get cheap meat on our dinner plate.
Jon: The article Susan was researching was again for the Globe and Mail's November 2003 issue of Report on Business magazine. And I do have an excerpt of that writing that I'll just quickly share with you to give you a taste of her experience. The wording is rather graphic but if you eat anything containing pork from bacon all the way to jelly beans to marshmallows or the glue you just used to make some repairs, hearings such details are in many ways a responsibility so long as we are supporting such conditions. So here's what Susan wrote.
"I worked on the kill floor of Maple Leaf Pork in Brandon, Manitoba drenched in blood and guts, drowning in the nauseating stench. I was part of a new workforce moving briskly through the carcasses. This is world class? We're deep in the shadows, in the bowels of a building with walls that sweat gristle and blood. A modern day plant more like Fritz Lang's Metropolis than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We're standing in a semi-circle on the kill floor of Maple Leaf Pork in Brandon, Manitoba. Twenty-five fresh recruits, our mouths a gap. Mike, a short squat factory floor veteran stuffed into a bloody lab coat is leading our tour. Hundreds of hogs swing by on a conveyor line, flayed and shackled up by their hind legs, their heads dangling by a flap of skin. They smack together like bowling pins. We stare at the blank faces of the men who thrust in and out of the hog's bellies with knives, yanking out glistening tubes of red and gray entrails, bowels, hearts, and livers that will eventually be chopped, packaged and shipped off for the dinner table."
Now coming back to the impetus for her decision to work at the plant, Susan Bourrette's experience did indeed shed more light into answering her question of why migrant workers are so common place at Canada's major slaughterhouses.
Susan: Well I think what I really didn't understand and I think what most people don't know is that these use to be very good paying jobs. They're very difficult jobs. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. The injury rate is very high. People, you know, they suffer from repetitive strain injury which is one of the biggest injuries in the slaughterhouse but people get killed. They are maimed. They suffer from just horrible psychological damage from working in these factories and they use to be very good paying jobs. They use to be the equivalent of working on the assembly line in a car plant. And what has happened over the last twenty years and it really started in the United States with union contracts beginning to disappear and Canada really followed the U.S. in trying to compete to put cheap meat on the dinner plate. So workers starting in a plant like the slaughterhouse in Brandon, Manitoba earn the equivalent of what people make down the street at McDonald's. And the speeds on these assembly lines have also been sped up, it makes the work that much more dangerous. It also means that the pathogens that get into the meat occur at a much higher frequency rate. The inspectors can't keep up with the pace of production either.
So, I think we should be horrified by what's happened in meat production.
Jon: And this is Deconstructing Dinner where we're listening to clips from my conversation with the author of the recently released "Carnivore Chic." While Toronto's Susan Bourette learned first-hand of the questionable working conditions of the meat packing industry, she was also impacted by the conditions in which the animals are being processed. While she wasn't working on the kill floor itself, her job as a By-Products Clerk did nevertheless get her reconsidering the role of meat, within her diet.
Susan: I think it got me thinking a lot more about what it is that we're doing, you know when we try to get meat on our dinner plates. I wasn't in that part of the slaughterhouse where we actually killed the animals so I only know what I read about how animals are treated. But the whole experience really did get me thinking very deeply about just sort of how crazy it is - what we do with meat and not only in terms of animal welfare. Well yes, I did start thinking I think for the very first time, not just how people are treated but how the animals are treated in the great industrial meat complex. And morally it wasn't something that I felt that I could countenance.
Jon: The plant in Brandon, Manitoba is the largest pork processing facility in the country. When you hear of the number of animals processed each day it becomes somewhat possible to fathom just how big this slaughterhouse really is. This is nothing short of a factory. And just as cheap meat is demanded every day by Canadians at drive-through windows, restaurant tables and grocery store checkout counters, this demand for cheap food is very much an influence on the speed at which these plants operate.
Susan: At that time, there were 10,000 hogs a day were slaughtered and I know that they were pushing to, I'm not sure if they've actually succeeded, they wanted to double production by now and by adding a second shift at the plant. Part of the problem was just finding enough workers to do this but they also needed to get - they wanted some provincial funding for water treatment and that sort of stuff, so, they had been waiting on that. But it was heralded as a state-of-the-art plant and having worked there and seen actually how little training people get, it's actually quite frightening.
Jon: Since Susan worked at the plant, Maple Leaf Foods has added the second shift mentioned in that last clip and they have also shut down some of their other Canadian operations and consolidated them in to the Brandon facility. Today the plant is processing an average of 10,700 hogs per day and by 2009, they plan to expand to an average of 12,300 hogs per day. Now while listening to these numbers and these conditions and perhaps realizing that these animals are making their way into countless products, it all may be rather traumatizing. Well for Susan Bourette, working in the facility itself was just that - traumatizing. And following her time at the plant, she refers what she went through as PST, and that is post slaughterhouse trauma.
Susan: Well, I guess I did experience some post traumatic stress and to tell you the truth, I think in my university days, I mean I've flirted with vegetarianism. I had been a vegetarian for about a year although, you know, I wasn't eating a very healthy diet at the time and I think certainly a vegetarian diet is healthy. But that's not what I was eating. I was eating muffins and 12 cups of coffee day - that kind of thing. And it was really just the absence of meat in my diet, it wasn't really a vegetarian diet. But I think I really started to grapple with the whole notion of what it was I was eating for the first time and you know it was a visceral experience. I really thought I never wanted to eat meat again and it got me thinking just removing meat from my diet again. It got me thinking very deeply about what it is that we're consuming when we eat meat and it's not just from a health point of view but why it's so important to our culture. And so it set me off on a journey and I really wanted to experience a bunch of different meat cultures. I went from whaling in Beryl, Alaska to a Texas cattle ranch to a raw meat potluck. And essentially, this book that I've written, it's really a love letter. It's a love letter to all of the chefs and the butchers and the hunters and farmers and ranchers who do bring meat to our dinner plates.
Jon: Following her five weeks as a vegetarian, Susan did arrive at a point of wanting to explore if, as the subtitle of the book suggests, there was such as thing as the perfect meat. And that is a meat that did not originate from the industrial systems of raising and processing animals. It was this journey throughout North America that led her to recognize that there is indeed a culture of meat eating and it's this culture that she suggests is so fundamental to what it is to be human.
Susan: Pretty much every experience I've had, after the slaughterhouse which really in a small community, participating in the culture of their meat eating whether it was in Beryl, Alaska which we can't help but to think, I think in our culture outside of the north that whale hunting is wrong. But I think I learned more about the culture of meat eating across North America by going whale hunting in Beryl, Alaska. I think it was there I really learned that what we're really doing when we sit down for dinner whether it's around a prime rib or around a steak or roast chicken or around a celebration of muktuk, it's something so fundamental to what it is almost to be human.
Jon: During one of our previous shows on the topic of dairy, we did spend quite a bit of time discussing the environmental impacts of dairy production. Referred to during that show was a report that was released by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture organization, the FAO titled "Livestock's Long Shadow." Now it's been quite shocking how little attention this report has received and I'm sure we could spend a few hours listing off the reasons why this report has gone so unnoticed. But Susan Bourette did come across this report while researching her book "Carnivore Chic" and it did have quite an impact on her own personal choices.
Susan: I stumbled upon this UN report when I was doing my research and I think it was shocking to find out that the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production contributes more to harmful emissions than planes, trains and automobiles all put together. And I think we do have to think very seriously about the environmental footprint of what we're doing especially knowing that the way things are going it's estimated that global meat production will double, I think it's by 2050 or 2040. And I don't think we can continue consuming meat the way that we do. And so I have found a solution for myself and I don't think my book is a polemic as much as it is an adventure, a meditation and as I said a love letter but I have found a solution for myself which is I need to eat less meat. And so not only do I go to a local butcher shop where I can feel comfortable with knowing how the animal was raised and what's in it but I've also cut back my own meat consumption to a couple of times a week.
Jon: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. A reminder that you can catch an archived version of today's broadcast by visiting our website at deconstructingdinner.ca. And located under the page for this part 1 of the Livestock Lost series will be additional resources on today's topic should you wish to explore some of what's discussed today in more depth.
Now one thing we haven't yet gotten to is this word "chic" that makes up the title for Susan's book "Carnivore Chic" because chic of course refers to something that is trendy, something cool. And really meat has only up until recent times been a pretty uncool food. The industrialization of animals has led us so astray from what meat really represents starting of course with meat being the product of an animal that it really has become so commonplace, so cheap and so benign as part of the North American diet that today, meat is branded and labelled with slogans, mascots, animated cartoon characters. It's packaged in boxes with labels of what your meat could look like if you cook it as part of a manipulated photo shoot.
But Susan on the other hand has come to observe that meat is now becoming cooler and receiving more attention in a cultural sense by those who are becoming more conscientious of where their meat is coming from.
Susan: Well I think that there's something fundamental has shifted in our culture and the fact that you can take knife skills courses in Vancouver and you can take butchering classes in Toronto and we've got sort of new meat temples cropping up everywhere. I think it does say something about a shift in our culture and I think what's happened is that I think the vegetarian movement made carnivores feel guilty. Maybe not all carnivores but I know it made me feel guilty and I think what's happened is that we've actually learned a lot from the vegetarian movement. They were the first people to question sort of the whole food industry and to question sourcing and traceability and I think in fact even though they may not like this, we as carnivores have learned a lot from them. And I think now we feel that we can eat meat in good conscience.
Jon: One of the most well-known authors on the topic of food, where our food is coming from and what's in our food is Michael Pollan. And Susan quotes Michael in her book. And the quote she included was this. "More than any other institution, the American industrial farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint." Now Susan herself saw firsthand what the end-product of this system looks like along with observing some of the alternatives to this system. I asked her if she also believes this to be true.
Susan: Absolutely. From all that we know about how animals are raised in filthy, crowded conditions, how they are pumped full of toxins, things that are toxins to their bodies, things that are toxins to our own bodies, how workers are exploited just so that we can have dinner. I think it's horrifying and I think increasingly consumers don't want to participate in that industrial complex.
Jon: In closing out my conversation with author Susan Bourette, I asked her to expand on a comment that she writes in her book that reads this, "What we are really celebrating when we gather for a meat meal is our reconnection to the earth, to our communities and our collective history."
Susan: What I learned in my years spent travelling across North America to witness and participate in different meat cultures was that really what we were all doing was the same thing which was celebrating around the kill. And there are historians who have argued that North America was really settled because poor peasants in Europe wanted to have more meat on our dinner plates. There are anthropologists who have argued that there's something called meat hunger and that it's just a fundamental part of being human. And I really believe that's true. I believe that there is something no matter what culture you go into, whether it's eating guinea pig or bush meat in Africa, there's something that's so fundamental to all of us that can only be sated with a meat dinner.
Jon: And that was Susan Bourette, the author of the recently released book "Carnivore Chic" from Penguin books. Susan spoke to me over the phone from Toronto.
Jon Steinman: And that interview was first aired here on Deconstructing Dinner in July 2008 as part of our Livestock Lost series. You can revisit that series and our many other episodes on the subject at deconstructingdinner.ca.
And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant, John Ryan.
The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident, Adham Shaikh.
This radio show is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country and relies on the financial support from you, the listener. Support for the program can be donated through our website at deconstructingdinner.ca or by dialing 250-352-9600.