Thursday, February 12, 2009

128. True cost of burger not on menu

Ever wonder how they do it? Ever wonder how McDonald's and other companies can sell their double cheeseburgers for one dollar. When I was in college, and struggling to make ends meets, I nearly lived on one dollar double cheeseburgers. Where else could I get a meal of two burgers, fries and soft drink for fewer than five dollars? It carried me through several semesters, and, secretly, I always feared that what I thought was a temporary promotion would end.

But even then I wondered: How was it profitable, except of course from the money made off of all other products like the soft drinks, to sell a double cheeseburger so cheaply? Consider all of the people that need to be compensated to make a double cheeseburger. There is the farmer that raises the cow, and all of his overhead-such as feed, water, antibiotics, equipment. There are the people in the slaughterhouse that must kill the cow and process the meat. The meat must then be packaged and sent to McDonald's (or their suppliers) who certainly does their thing to it-such as apportion, season and freeze it in preparation to send it to its outlets. Then the meat must be transported to those outlets, which assumes all of the costs of McDonald's management and transportation. Next, after getting to McDonald's, the meat must be cooked and served, so we need to toss in the overhead of running a McDonald's and the salaries of their employees. I am sure I missed a few steps, and I know there are economies of scale when it comes to a corporation as large as McDonald's, but it seems like one dollar is a heck of a deal.

I might be slow, but I figured it out, and it comes down to a single word: Corn. Michael Polland's book, entitled The Omnivore's Dilemma, has a shocking and insightful section on the agricultural background and economic influence of America's largest crop. Inspired by the book, some filmmakers developed the idea in a documentary entitled "King Corn," in which they grew an acre of Iowa corn and followed its process from beginning to end. Here is just a bit of the story.

Corn cannot be grown profitably by most farmers and in order to encourage its development, it is subsidized by the federal government. The days of the small ranch in which farmers grew corn in their fields and raised animals in their pastures are long gone. It is a business in which the only criterion is profit. Welcome to factory farming.

Much of the corn grown is not readily edible, it must be processed-and the truth is that a large percentage of it is grown strictly for feed. Farmers grow more and more corn, and enhanced by technology and fertilizer, and unhindered by a demand curve, the amount of corn grown far exceeds its consumption. The technological breakthrough has come largely in developing strains of corn that can be grown very closely together-yet maintain its military-like posture. Today, 30,000 plants can grow per acre whereas one generation ago it was closer to 8,000. It is a genetically-engineered hybrid whose offspring are not nearly as productive-which means that seeds must be purchased new each year.

This cheap corn, and here is what those that sell cheap hamburgers are interested in, is sold as feed to cattle-in differing capacities and blends, including the addition of antibiotics. If you know your cows, you are probably thinking, I thought cows ate grass. Well not much anymore, we have forced-fed cows corn in order to grow them more quickly. That is where the antibiotics come in. Cows did not evolve to eat corn and the large amounts fed to them give their stomachs painful ulcers-acidosis. If they were not taken to slaughter at such a young age, their diet would kill them. Another problem is bloat, which is the fermentation in the rumen that produces "copious amounts of gas." And when the diet contains too much starch and not enough roughage, the rumen can trap the gas, pressing against the animal's lungs and suffocate the animal.

Polland notes, "Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us-at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters-to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories and the great pile (of corn) must be consumed." It gets worse, and the truth is not only do the cattle gorge on corn, they also, as Pollan reports, eat other cattle, "The FDA ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants makes an exception for blood products and fat, (the cattle) will probably dine on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse they're headed to."

One farmer noted that on his grandfather's farm, where cattle were still permitted to graze, it took four to five years to get to slaughter. In the fifties it was two to three years. Today, cattle are slaughtered in fourteen to sixteen months going from 80 pounds to 1,100 in that time. One farmer in the "King Corn" documentary noted in part that that is why they are not permitted to move around-it would burn off calories and take longer to reach slaughter weight. It is sick manipulation of economics and science-all to feed Americans more inexpensively than any other time in history. Any suggestion of a "happy cow" is a bold face lie.

That's not the end of the corn story-not even close. Some of the corn that does not end up as cattle food is then processed into high-fructose corn syrup-a dirty word these days. This corn syrup, which was developed in the 1970s, is in much of our food and beverages, including the soft drinks at McDonald's. That, however, is a story for another day.

The American diet is out of control and as the 20-something year-old film makers note, their generation might be the first to have a life expectancy less than their parents.

I recently visited McDonald's. I still love their Big Macs, though now I replace their hamburgers with a veggie patty, making a tasty "Veggie Mac." On my last trip, I got the meat on the sides for my dogs (something I should not, and only rarely, do). However, I now look at the small hamburger patties as a disgusting blend of meat and fat-grown on corn, to the detriment of every moral value I endorse.

Though I am now a vegetarian, my diet still leaves a lot to be desired, so I am not necessarily the right person to lecture people on what they eat. However, I have spent some time recently learning about how our food is processed and the increased danger of the American diet-not only its effects on our bodies, but also our economy, environment and ethics. It is truly in a pitiful state, and Americans need to learn more about where our food comes from.

My vegetarian diet is kinder to the animals, healthier and more eco-friendly. Even as I struggle with my own fitness, from the damage done by the years in which I ate fast foods, I have a moral and ethical sense of contentment that I am doing the right thing. Michael Pollan sums it up perfectly in his book, "To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of the industrial food chain, without a thought in the world."

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