Sunday Forum: The Bacon Bomb
Among my fondest childhood memories is savoring a strip of perfectly cooked bacon that had just been dragged through a puddle of maple syrup. It was an illicit pleasure: How could such simple ingredients produce such riotous flavors?
That was then. Today, you don't need to tax yourself applying syrup to bacon -- McDonald's does it for you with the McGriddle. It takes the filling for an Egg McMuffin -- an egg, American cheese and pork product -- and nestles it in a pancake-like biscuit suffused with genuine fake-maple syrup flavor.
The McGriddle marks just one moment in an era of extreme food combinations -- a moment in which bacon plays a starring role from high cuisine to low.
There's bacon ice cream; bacon-infused vodka; deep-fried bacon; chocolate-dipped bacon; bacon salt; "baconnaise," which Jon Stewart described as "for people who want to get heart disease but [are] too lazy to actually make bacon"; Wendy's "Baconator" -- six strips of bacon mounded atop a half-pound cheeseburger, which sold 25 million in its first eight weeks; and the outlandish bacon explosion, a barbecued meat brick composed of 2 pounds of bacon wrapped around 2 pounds of sausage.
It's easy to dismiss this gonzo gastronomy as typical American excess best followed with a Lipitor chaser. Behind the proliferation of bacon offerings, however, is a confluence of government policy, factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste that has turned bacon into a weapon of mass destruction.
While bacon's harmful effects were once limited to individual consumers, its production in vast porcine cities has become an environmental disaster. The system of industrialized hog (and beef and poultry) farming that has developed over the last 40 years turns out to be ideal for breeding novel strains of deadly pathogens, such as the current pandemic of swine flu.
Factory farms churn out cheap but flavorless meat. That's where chains like McDonald's, Chili's, Taco Bell, Applebee's and Pizza Hut come in. They approach the tasteless, limp factory beef, pork and chicken as a blank canvas with which to create highly enticing, even addictive, foods by pumping it full of fat, salt, sugar, chemicals and flavorings.
The chains lard on bacon in particular as a high-profit method of adding an item that has a "high flavor profile," a "one-of-a-kind product that has no taste substitute."
We know our industrial food system is killing the planet and killing us with heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but how can we resist when it tastes oh-so-good?
Our current food system has its roots in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. With thousands of farming families fleeing the land, the Roosevelt administration dispensed credit and established price supports to stabilize the agricultural sector. The policy worked, but inadvertently created large grain surpluses. The solution, after World War II, was to dump the surpluses, first on a devastated Europe, then during the Korean War and finally as "humanitarian aid" to Third World countries.
But managing overproduction was more effective if the farm sector was reduced and subsidies targeted at large-scale monoculture producers rather than farmers who produced a variety of goods or had small plots of land.
In 1940, on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, some 18 percent of Americans were still farmers. By 1970 farmers accounted for only 4.6 percent of the population in part because small farms could not compete with government-subsidized agribusiness.
Government regulation of land, labor and finance created the conditions for factory farming. Over the past few decades, global meat production has increased by more than 500 percent.
In "Fast Food Nation," Eric Schlosser recounted the rise in the 1960s of Iowa Beef Packers, which revolutionized the beef industry. IBP came into being because it was able to exploit heavily subsidized water, fuel, land and grain for cattle feed; a national transportation infrastructure; and anti-union laws.
In the 1970s Smithfield Foods revolutionized hog production. According to a 2006 expose in Rolling Stone, Smithfield "controls every stage of production, from the moment a hog is born until the day it passes through the slaughterhouse. [It] imposed a new kind of contract on farmers: The company would own the living hogs; the contractors would raise the pigs and be responsible for managing the hog [waste] and disposing of dead hogs. The system made it impossible for small hog farmers to survive -- those who could not handle thousands and thousands of pigs were driven out of business."
In the 1950s there were 2.1 million hog farmers in the United States with an average of 31 hogs each. As of 2007 there were just 79,000 hog farmers left, averaging more than 1,000 hogs each.
The government exempts these operations from regulations on air pollution, water pollution and solid-waste disposal. They are also largely free from proper bio-surveillance to detect, track and report on the outbreak of diseases.
Mike Davis, author of "The Monster at Our Door," writes that scrutiny of the interface between human and animal diseases is "primitive, often nonexistent" because companies such as Smithfield, IBP and Tyson would have to spend money on surveillance and upgrade conditions at their hellish animal factories.
Factory farms are a hotspot of new infectious diseases. According to one disease specialist, "Intensive agricultural methods often mean that a single, genetically homogeneous species is raised in a limited area, creating a perfect target for emerging diseases, which proliferate happily among a large number of like animals in close proximity."
To compound the problem, "the raising of swine is increasingly centralized in huge operations, often adjacent to poultry farms and migratory bird habitats," writes Mr. Davis. These operations often abut cities, meaning the "superurbanization of the human population ... has been paralleled by an equally dense urbanization of its meat supply." This combination has produced an interspecies blender that is spitting out new viruses at an alarming rate, such as swine flu.
Just as factory farms depend on government policies to exist, the processed food industry depends on industrial farming. In 1966 McDonald's switched from using about 175 different suppliers of fresh potatoes to J.R. Simplot Co.'s frozen french fry. Within a decade, McDonald's went from 725 outlets nationwide to more than 3,000.
Tyson Foods did the same by teaming up with McDonald's to launch the Chicken McNugget nationwide in 1983. Within one month McDonald's became the No. 2 chicken buyer in the country, behind KFC.
The entire food industry has refined the science of processing the cheap commodities pumped out by agribusiness into addictive foods that represent far more than sustenance. Food is marketed as a salve for our emotional and psychological ills, and dining out as a social activity, a cultural outlet and entertainment.
To get us in the door, food companies stoke our gustatory senses. The food has to be visually appealing, have the right feel, texture and smell. And most of all, it has to taste good. To that end, writes David Kessler in "The End of Overeating," the food industry has homed in on the "three points of the compass" -- fat, salt and sugar.
One anonymous food-industry executive told Dr. Kessler, "Higher sugar, fat and salt make you want to eat more." The executive admitted food is designed to be "highly hedonic," and that the food industry is "the manipulator of the consumers' minds and desires."
Dr. Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the Clinton years, deconstructs numerous restaurant chain foods as nothing more than layers of fat, salt and sugar. Take the McGriddle: It starts with a "cake" of refined wheat flour (essentially a sugar), pumped with vegetable shortening and three kinds of sugar and salt. Next is fat and salt in the egg, then fat and salt in the cheese, fat and salt in the bacon, finished off with fat, salt and sugar in another cake.
The success of the McGriddle and the Baconator has inspired an arms-race-like escalation among chain restaurants. Burger King's French Toast Sandwich is nearly identical to the McGriddle. In 2004 Hardee's went thermonuclear with its 1,420-calorie "Monster Thickburger," laden with 107 grams of fat. And people are gobbling them up.
We know this food is killing us slowly with diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But we cannot stop, because we are addicts, and the food industry is the pusher. Even if we could opt out entirely as individuals (which is almost impossible), our land still would be ravaged, our water and air would be poisoned, our dollars would be subsidizing the destruction and our health would be at risk from virulent new pathogens.
First Published August 2, 2009 12:00 am