Olympic Food Fight
Fast Food Nation vs. the People’s Republic of Mystery Meat
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Athletes testing positive for steroids, however, isn’t the only scenario the USOC hopes to avoid by packing its own lunch. There are safety concerns based on recent news about tainted Chinese food – dumplings laced with the toxic insecticide methamidophos that hospitalized scores of people and put a 10-year-old girl in a coma, for example; or reports of Australian athletes falling ill in China.
Atop ancient stereotypes about what goes on in Chinese kitchens, these incidents helped convince the USOC that the food in China isn’t worth the risk.
I agree with China: That’s a pity. Much of the food China plans to serve has been contracted from farms near Beijing, making this a snub to locally grown food.
I mean, maybe if the USOC decided to supply America’s Olympians with free-range, organic chicken or a similar level of certifiably high-quality food, an honorable statement would’ve been made.
Unfortunately, the USOC chose Tyson Foods to provide animal protein for the 600 athletes in America’s Olympic delegation, ordering 25,000 pounds of lean beef, chicken and pork from the largest meat company in the world.
Tyson, which supplies meat to KFC, Taco Bell, and most other major fast-food joints, is a surprising choice.
Last year an employee at a Tyson chicken processing plant shot a video and gave it to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It shows workers urinating on the assembly line of dead and dying chickens, while other chickens are smashed around, hooked, and cursed at while their heads are yanked off.
This video supports claims of such activity in multiple Tyson plants. Tyson workers don’t fare much better – the company has been implicated in multiple labor violations as well. Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Against that backdrop, Tyson’s alleged actions include the dismissal of workers who develop work-related injuries, denial of worker’s compensation, union busting, and smuggling illegal immigrants to work for sub-standard wages.
Meanwhile, Tyson regularly earns headlines for pollution problems; the company pled guilty, for example, to 20 felony violations of the federal Clean Water Act at a Missouri poultry plant, where it dumped untreated wastewater into a stream.
All told, I think it’s a stretch to assume that Tyson meat is any more wholesome, safe, and karmically pure than what you’ll find in China.
And the scary thing is, of course, that Tyson isn’t even the lowest-grade meat available in the United States. That’d be the meat in public school lunches.
Another film, taken by a Humane Society operative at the Hallmark/Westland meatpacking plant in Chino, Calif., and released last month, shows cattle that are too sick and weak to stand up being prodded, shocked, and jabbed toward slaughter. While the abuse was obvious, the food-safety concerns related to the killing of the so-called downer cattle were what compelled the USDA to recall 143 million pounds of meat from the plant – the largest beef recall in history.
Westland/Hallmark supplies 20 percent of the nation’s school lunchmeat, making it the second-largest supplier of meat to American schools. The marketing of such meat to schools is facilitated by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which purchases USDA surplus agricultural products, gives public schools yearly purchasing credits, and then sells them the food dirt-cheap. Turns out, public school kitchens were getting what they’d paid for.
Maria Stover, a food service director for public schools that I know from my days in Montana, told me, “You’d open a tub of ground beef and there’d be chunks of, I don’t know what, something, mixed in with it. The students would complain that the chicken patties smelled like charred beaks and burned feathers.”
For Stover, the timing of the recall couldn’t have been better. She already had secured the school committee blessing to quit ordering USDA surplus meat. They gave her the green light to find as many sources of local food as possible, especially meat, and funds to expand her kitchen facilities to create more cooking space, as well as options for preserving local fruits and veggies when they’re in season, fresh, and cheap.
Meanwhile, back in SoCal, the only arrests in the Westland/Hallmark affair have been two Hispanic workers charged with animal cruelty. How fair is that? They might as well have arrested the cows for being sick and weak. Perhaps if it were our Olympic dreams, and not our children, that were on the line, different heads would be rolling. Or maybe if it went down in China.