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A Food Industry Profiting on Problems

by Talia Nicole 5 days ago in agriculture
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Should responsible food ethics come from the individual consumer, grassroots movements, or something bigger entirely?

A Food Industry Profiting on Problems
Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

Jonathan Safran Foer (2009) stared down a plate of freshly butchered ham. Inevitably refusing to eat it he writes, “Maybe there is nothing wrong with eating it. But something deep inside me — reasonable or unreasonable, aesthetic or ethical, selfish or compassionate — simply doesn’t want the meat inside my body” (p.159). Foer not wanting to consume meat is a common side effect of today’s society, where consumers grapple with the horrifying truth of some aspects of the food industry. It feels like what a person puts in the shopping cart is an individual choice, and suddenly happy meals aren’t so happy anymore.

Yet, how some families eat isn’t so much a choice—many of the animal abuses and environmental horror stories we hear are because of corporate economical gain. Additionally, the lack of healthy options (especially for low income and minoritized households) might have a little more to do with legislation than parenting style. Who is being held accountable for what we see on our dinner plates, in our elementary schools, on our TV screens? Should responsible food ethics come from the individual consumer, grassroots movements, or something bigger entirely? Our food industry is a part of a neoliberal, capitalist system, which benefits from its own negative externalities. Those profiting from the system should be held accountable for its consequences, yet that currently falls on the individual consumer.

A neoliberal, capitalist food industry treating negative externalities as spatial fix

The food industry exists in a Neoliberal Capitalist System. What does this mean? Any high school history class will teach you the basic principle of lassiez-faire, Adam Smith, pure free market capitalism—the idea that goods and services are best provided in a privatized system with little to no regulations and free trade. We live in what’s closer to a mixed-capitalist society, with a lot of freedom in the business world alongside a few regulations and government operated services. However, in looking at literature surrounding capitalism, there is the emergence of an increased promotion of capitalist ideals that gained momentum in the 1970s. There was a lot of fear that would be piggybacked by the compelling rhetoric of Ronald Reagan: threatening foreign competition, tax resentment, treacherous (and false) notions of a Welfare Queen, socialism. The atmosphere was right for an insurgence of neoliberalism, which is a political ideology favoring free-market capitalism. It touted the notion of freedom and financial security, redistributing (not creating wealth) through tax cuts, off shore banking, and lessened business restrictions. Guthman (2011) explains this phenomenon in the context of the food industry, how neoliberalism allowed right wing politics to lower wages and cut social welfare. Most notably, neoliberalism was able to steer food production away from the hands of the state, failing to accountably enforce health, safety, and environmental regulations. Guthman calls this the removal of regulations that were, “unfriendly to business.” The negative externalities that accrue as a result of lessened regulations actually benefit capitalism, becoming spatial fix.

Spatial fix is the idea that there needs to be a market to invest in. Our capitalist society has taken the negative externalities of the food industry, and further exploited the environment and public through making those consequences a market. Spatial fix is necessary because there are limits to capitalism, and capitalism will always need new sources of “accumulation of profit.” Guthman (2011) delineates the history of capital expansion, how spatial fix was satiated by imperialism and colonialism, globalization forming a market to physically expand into to gain profit. This was then replaced by industrialization. Now, something Guthman doesn’t focus on, but I have learned about in economics, is the financialization of the market. Now that we have stepped away from industrialization (even most technology is produced with cheap labor in other countries) we have moved to chunking up different financial assets (think private equity firms, Warren Buffet’s empire, where the Forbes 400 gain their fortunes). This explains how large business names get so big they veer on monopolies, but how is capitalism sustaining itself without a new market to expand into? The negative externalities of neoliberalism have become markets themselves, they have become a spatial fix.

For example, the lack of environmental regulation and animal protection in the food industry has created multiple problems, and an entire market of environmental concern. The failure of the food industry to alter its negative impact on the environment and its abuse on animals is egregious and far from a secret. Foer (2009), in his book about the negative consequences of eating meat, emphasizes the different interests of the “farmer, consumer, and pig,” elaborating that, “it regularly happens that farmers breed animals that suffer more acutely because their bodies also display characteristics that the industry and consumers demand” (p. 153). Freeman (2007) echoes this concern in writing that breeding techniques have changed to tailor to the demand from fast food chains for chicken nuggets. Workers are allowed, and not persecuted, for abhorrent and perverse abuse to animals. The abuses Foer cites are disturbing—the lightest of which may be putting out cigarettes on pigs, urinating on animals, spitting chewing tobacco in their eyes, etc. The list only grows more odious. Treatment and regard for the land and general employee safety is not much better, if not worse.

Companies are allowed to pay government fines rather than follow environmental regulations—a common economical principle that wreaks environmental havoc yet “for large corporations like Smithfield, it is a cost-benefit analysis: paying fines for polluting is cheaper than giving up the entire factory farm system, which is what it would take to finally end the devastation” (Foer, 2009, p. 174). The side effects of the animal feces on factory farms are described as 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage, but there is “no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals … no sewage pipes, no one hauling it away for treatment, and almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it” (Foer, 2009, p. 170). Farmed animal toxins are the largest contributor to climate change perhaps, because, as Foer so eloquently writes, “they simply spray it straight up into the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage” (p. 172). This information seems abhorrent, it reminds us that in a capitalist system the cost of production must remain low, resulting in the cheap production of goods at high external costs. The negative externalities of the lack of regulation made me, personally, be a vegetarian for a year. Yet, the fear creates a whole new market! Think of the rise vegetarian/vegan goods, the “organic” movements that allow chains like Whole Foods to be wildly successful. The spatial fix is a market trying to save the environment the food industry destroys, a negative externality “can and does also provide opportunities for capitalism, whether by selling solar panels, recycled paper, or carbon offsets” (Guthman, 2011, p. 180).

Along similar lines, the negative externality of a surplus of cheap, unhealthy food ingredients has allowed for the proliferation of fast food and a consumer group of low wage workers for the industry to target. Americans spend more money on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and music combined. This is enabled by the corporate benefit made off of the government through subsidies for things like animal feed, sugar, rapeseed, soil oil, and large farms. Subsidies funnel cheap food into large corporations: the giants of the fast food industries, keeping prices low (Freeman, 2007). There is demand for cheap food because of the cheap wages being paid to workers. To summarize:

If anything, fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails the super-exploitation of the labor force in its production, it provides cheap food to support the low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agriculture economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable. (Guthman, 2011, p. 174)

This whole situation of overproducing unhealthy ingredients creates another spatial fix through setting up a market of inexpensive food in demand by low paid workers.

In turn, the externality of the fast food system is the unfortunate health consequences for people who regularly eat it. The consequences of unhealthy options that drive the food industry result in obesity. This obesity continues the capitalistic cycle, thus fueling the diet and healthy food industry. As Gutham (2011) so plainly reiterates, “contemporary US capitalism has helped create obesity, and has made obesity a moral problem that is solved in a way kind to capitalism” (p. 179). Even in 2007, in America, obesity caused more fatality than car accidents, drugs, alcohol, and guns combined (Freeman, p. 2229). In his book centering on sugar, Walvin explores obesity, disclosing that in 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that around 2 billion (almost one third!) of the world's population were classified as overweight. He says it is because of the sugar that is already manufactured into drinks and commercialized processed food from big companies. What is the public response to startling spikes in obesity? For starters, stadium, airplane and ferry seats, coffins, ambulances, and wheelchairs have all been widened to account for larger bottoms (Walvin 2018). However, there has also been a wave of dieting habits, another market to fuel capitalism. At the time of Guthman’s book (2011), there was a $100 billion boon to the economy from the weight loss industry. She focuses on how the neoliberal policies and desires for capitalist gain have preyed on women, encouraging weight loss, and fueling bulimia. Almost 10 years later, personally I would say this problem has only gotten worse. Body image issues have been shaped by ads, commercials, and social pressures that are concocted to sell something in a market, to breathe life into a capitalist economy as spatial fix. Further, this has become such a problem that there are “pro-ana” (‘ana’ as in anorexia) movements that crop up on the internet that promote weight loss, much like commercials, but use an eating disorder as the method (Knapton, 2013). This is unsettling to say the least. However, it is clear the consumer’s body has even become a business endeavor to keep capitalism alive, “if you’re really going to follow the money, you might find yourself taking a long, circuitous journey through the entire economy. And you might also discover how central bodies have become to making and resolving capitalism’s crises” (Guthman, 2011, p. 179).

Who is blamed for the collateral damage of the endless cycle of capitalism?

Due to the false narratives of meritocracy (essentially hard work) and personal responsibility, we still blame the victim of our systems. Even though the food industry exists in a system, many individual consumers feel personal responsibility to avoid eating factory farmed meat, sugar, and feed their kids only “organic.” However, some families do not have this choice, and through the idea of meritocracy we are taught to blame them rather than the system. The idea of meritocracy has structured Americans to believe that each individual is “equally placed at the starting line of the race to social and economic success.” Due to this hallmark American value of meritocracy, “a language of cultural attribution has evolved that links traits such as laziness, criminality, and a lack of intelligence to certain groups, providing a moral basis for their exclusion from the upper echelons of society” (Freeman, 2007, p.2247). Additionally, when it comes to obesity, Walvin (2018) talks about the scorn we hold, as a society for obese individuals. We blame them, think of them as lazy, name-call and poke fun at them on recess yards, in popular culture, and even great literature. It is this type of thinking, this obliviousness to larger structural and systemic pressures that allows for legislation like the “Hamburger Bill” to be passed. Nothing hammers in the idea of individual, consumer responsibility like this piece of legislation that was passed in the House of Representatives in the early 2000s. Also called the Personal Responsibility Consumption Act, this bill takes away the right of consumers to file lawsuits against companies for health conditions or death due to being overweight. This was likely in response to lawsuits filed against McDonalds for misleading nutrition information leading to obesity (Freeman, 2007). The Hamburger Bill sets the precedent that consumers are to blame rather than the corporations providing unhealthy food. This thought was not only introduced but passed in the United States House of Representatives. The Bill was not passed in the senate, but it is still enforced in almost half of the states in the US.

The individual consumer should not be to blame for food choice, because of food oppression. Foer (2009) on the subject of factory farming argues, “How has the eating public responded? In general, we make a bit of noise when pollution reaches near-biblical proportions, then Smithfield (or whatever corporation) responds with an ‘oops,’ and, accepting their apology, we go on eating our factory-farmed animals” (p. 175). Though Foer’s ideas are not wrong, they are also without recognition of the limitations of food oppression, and the greater powers of both corporations and government. Many families have to succumb to eating foods that can be considered unethical or unhealthy because they simply have no choice. The people who often don’t have a choice are statistically the unhealthiest, and come from low income and minoritized populations. There is simply a lot more going on, “though some social and cultural factors account for fast food's overwhelming popularity, targeted marketing, infiltration into schools, government subsidies, and federal food policy each play a significant role in denying inner-city people of color access to healthy food” (Freeman, 2007, p. 221). Freeman lists some more detailed reasons for the entrenchment of fast food and the lack of healthy options in these low-income neighborhoods. This list includes a sense of equality in fast food service that is appealing to those historically treated with inequity in food service, there is targeted marketing to minoritized children (more unhealthy food ads on black prime time), and there is less time outside for exercise and more billboards for unhealthy food in low income areas. In addition, low income schools cannot turn down partnerships with large corporations (like Coke/Pepsi that fight to be represented in low income schools), there is an overall decline of agriculture, especially black agriculture, and there was supermarket flight from inner cities, replaced with smaller owned businesses that have no choice but to inflate the price of healthy foods. Further, due to neoliberal ideas, there was an attack on welfare and food stamps, tightening qualifications. As a result, people relied more heavily on charity (food banks full of processed food) and cheap options to survive. The need for increased tax revenue in low income areas (due to tax cuts) allows strip malls and fast food restaurants to pop-up (Guthman, 2011). Above all else, the government avoids interventionist issues regarding race, so has done little to help the oppression of healthy foods, and especially the disproportionate effect on minoritized populations. This term “food oppression” is, perhaps, the most compelling reason why the negative externalities of the system cannot be left to individual responsibility:

Food oppression is structural because it is not the product of individual acts of discrimination, but stems rather from the institutionalized practices and policies of government and the fast food industry. Government policies engendering food oppression range from providing public assistance insufficient to cover the cost of fresh food to collaboration with the fast food giants to ensure that their products dominate lunch-room counters and dinner tables. This state-sponsored racial inequality is obscured by the distinction between public and private spheres of action and is perpetuated by the myth of personal choice, even where a lack of options and resources severely limits the ability to exercise choice. (Freeman, 2007, p. 2222)

It is valuable to note the last sentence, emphasizing the myth of personal choice.

There is no way the individual consumer could change the system of capitalism that perpetuates its own consequences. For starters, many consumers don’t even know they are operating in a system with so many negative externalities. For example, consumers fall for buzzwords indicating ethical farming, “for nearly all farmed animals, regardless of the conditions they are given to live in — “free-range,” “free-roaming,” “organic” — their design destines them for pain” ( Foer, 2009, p. 153). Packages that capitalize on the condition the animal lived in are misleading about how healthy products are, and how ethically they are farmed, leading to consumer confusion. Restaurants, especially Fast Food restaurants, profit off of the sale of supersizes and their lower unit costs of production. Additionally, ironically enough, larger sizes are associated with high social status, encouraging people to buy them (Chandon, 2013). I also touched earlier on the targeted marketing that persuades customers into buying unhealthy food. The industry does not make it easy to recognize the inherent faults of the system.

With the flip of a coin, when consumers are aware of the consequences of their food choice, there is still little they can do to change the system of the food industry. Freeman (2007) lists ways the individual can fight the wrongdoings of the food industry. She discusses strategies that worked for the fall of the tobacco industry, things like litigation, legislation, pop-culture, and community organizing. In looking at litigation, cases like Pelman v. McDonalds (2003) prompted McDonald’s to take a small amount of accountability by posting nutrition information online. What did this really do, though? Freeman acknowledges the inaccessibility of this information to those who may have needed it most. Further, the aforementioned Hamburger Bill now prevents litigation against food corporations in half of the country. Freeman also mentions the power of lobbying for legislation and voting for politicians who advocate for positive legislation. Unfortunately, alongside well-intended fights for legislation, stands the larger, more influential and lucrative corporate lobbying.

Expanding on that, in the discussion of the negatives of sugar permeating everyday foods like ketchup and apple juice it is clear that public outcry and interest group lobbying can still be lacking: “Sugar had become so central to ‘Big Food’— in effect it has become the lifeblood of a massive, multi-million-dollar industry—that it was not about to be staunched by the reasonable but ineffectual pronouncements of the medical lobby” (Walvin, 2018, p.203). In addressing pop-culture, Freeman talks about documentaries like Supersize Me, igniting some public outcry. She notes, still, the fact that these movements are only, “directed at and marketed to a predominantly white, liberal audience in the United States.” The targeted audience of healthy food movements not only creates a pedestal for the majority, it fails to educate the minority (the ones suffering in the first place), and it also preaches to the political choir. Lastly, there is community organizing, the grassroots projects in low income, food insecure, areas that promote individual agriculture and education. Yet, though these efforts are making impacts, “Community-organized programs will have only a limited impact on the problem of food oppression unless the government provides support comparable to that it bestows on the fast food industry” (p. 2256).

Who is benefitting?

Large corporations and those at the top of the capitalist food chain benefit from the negative externalities of the food system. As previously discussed, it is almost like every problem becomes a market of shining new business opportunity. The regulations that create the problems also obviously benefit corporations. Clearly, large restaurant chains and corporations are benefitting from the perks of market control, most likely because the government subsidizes those same corporations and produces feeble regulation. The animals that turn into fast food are monopolized by only a few companies. For big corporations like Smithfield (the largest pork producer in the world), without the public and environmental consequences, the company would go bankrupt due to loss of “efficiency.” Additionally, lack of corporate regulations has allowed independent slaughtering to go basically extinct in the Midwest. The majority of the meat in the US is factory farmed, and factory farming is controlled by a handful of companies. Corporations bought out most farmers, and farmers remaining outside the corporate bubble of factory farming have to pay high premiums when the food is processed (Foer, 2009). The FDA also allows the use of hormones/antibiotics to quickly raise animals, immigrant workers are deported without company crack downs, and the government provides companies with special tax breaks (Freeman, 2009). All of these practices are harmful to the public, but support the neoliberal values that benefit those heading large corporations.

The government, which enables the system, benefits from capitalist contributions.

For starters, there exists "revolving door politics.” This is the constant flitting of politicians between roles as lawmakers (especially regulators), and members of the industries affected by the laws and regulations. Revolving door politics are alive in the food industry, considering members of the USDA advisory board are also members the National Dairy Council, the American Egg Board, the Cattlemen's Beef Association, the American Meat Institute, and similar groups (Freeman, 2007). This could help explain many things as well as the resistance to changing the food pyramid which encourages meat and dairy despite those food group’s negative impact on minority groups who are primarily lactose intolerant and suffer other health impairments from eating red meat. Additionally, “through generous political donations, fast food receives a number of political perks, including subsidies, official food guidelines that support the production of cheap, low-quality fast food products, and endorsements by politicians” (p. 2245). It is my understanding that money being funneled and bundled for political campaigns props up Washington, allowing lucrative special interests to have a heavy hand in the policy process.

How can we change?

Governments and Corporations should be held responsible for the consequences of capitalism, the consumer cannot change the system only implementation of regulation and an economy of ethical business. If governments and corporations were accountable to uphold the public good and business ethics, there could be a world where eating meat would not prompt consumer guilt. Businesses do not need to benefit from corporate gain, Foer (2009) writes about another way: a hog farmer named Paul Willis who maintains an honest company. He says, “they do not give antibiotics or hormones to animals unless there is a medical condition that makes this advisable. There are no pits or containers filled with dead pigs. There is no stench, largely because there are no animal waste lagoons” (p. 167). They let Foer see their animals and there was no secrecy, because there was no shame in what was happening. “This is important to say because most humane-farming standards are merely industry attempts to cash in on the public’s growing concern” (p. 167). This farm is an example of what could be, and Foer’s experience reiterates the unwillingness of corporations to accept accountability. Some of Freeman’s ideas on how to change the capitalist system focus more on government accountability. She writes about a potential junk food tax (revenue must be flooded back into community to educate and provide healthy options), age requirements on unhealthy foods, land use restrictions for companies (no playgrounds outside Burger King), FDA lawsuits against harmful large corporations, and advertising restrictions. Many of these efforts would overlap with efforts put forth to successfully regulate the tobacco industry. The initiatives Freeman talks about are encouraging the government to act on behalf of the public good, something the government should be doing anyway.

Conclusion

Pork is still sold in practically every supermarket and restaurant. The pork is factory farmed, the method that provides 95 percent of America’s pork (Foer, 2009). In high crime areas, diseases resulting from obesity are still the biggest killers (Freeman, 2007). The government is not being held accountable. Companies are not being held accountable. Instead, working together, companies and the government are perpetuating neoliberal capitalism, profiting off of environmental/animal harm and deteriorating public health. If we could shift a system of neoliberal, capitalist ideals to one with slightly more control and accountability, it might be possible to prevent consequences instead of profiting off of them.

References

Chandon, P. (2013). “How Package Design and Packaged-Based Marketing Claims Lead to

Overeating.” Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 7–31.

JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23356419.

Foer, J.S. (2009). Slices of Paradise/Pieces of Shit. Eating Animals (pp. 146-). Little, Brown, and

Company. Kindle Edition.

Freeman, A. (2007). Fast Food: Oppression through poor nutrition. California Law Review, Vol.

95 (6), pp. 221-2259. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20439143.

Guthman, J. (2011). What’s Capitalism Got to Do with It? In Weighing In: Obesity, Food

Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (pp. 163-184). University of California Press.

Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp061.11

Knapton, O. (2013). “Pro-Anorexia: Extensions of Ingrained Concepts.” Discourse & Society,

vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 461–477. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24441481.

Walvin, J. (2018). “Obesity Matters.” Sugar (pp. 189-215). Pegasus Books.

agriculture

About the author

Talia Nicole

Freelance writer and JD candidate in early twenties.

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