My first boss, and what she had in common with a cloned cow…or a mad one

Can I take a moment to tell you about my first boss? It was the early 90s, I was a recent college grad, an even more recent grad-school-dropout. There was a recession on, the job market had imploded, and I was knocking about Chicago with no practical experience and a liberal arts degree. I needed a job.

The job I snagged: an administrative assistant to a vice president of a health care software firm. If I recall correctly, my annual salary was $18,000. My boss was a tiny powerhouse of a woman in designer grey flannel suits. She didn’t interview me — she was too busy — so the first time we met, we realized that we had attended similar liberal arts colleges. She asked me what I majored in, and I thought this is good. We’re bonding. This is gonna’ be great!. “Anthropology,” I answered, excitedly. “How about you?”

She looked me right in the eye and answered, deadpan, “In my family, we were taught not to take the easy way out. I studied history.”

Another story: she had me drive to northern Michigan to pick up her family’s new puppy from a breeder, about 7 hours each way. To make the drive a little more pleasant, she let me take her Lexus, and she agreed to borrow my beloved car, a bright blue Acura Integra that I had bought, with the help of a tiny loan, for $2,500. When I returned after 14 hours of driving with her new family member, she handed me the keys to my car and said simply, “your car’s a piece of shit.”

But this boss of mine — this sometimes nasty, and (I suspect now) deeply unhappy little shark of a woman — did have an impressive, almost encylopedic knowledge of the health care system. She knew how many beds would be owned as a result of the Human-Galen merger, and she could speak fluently about CHAMPUS reimbursement at Columbia-HCA hospitals. I once asked her how she did it — how did she keep all of those facts in her frosted head at once — and she answered: it’s about trends. Paying attention to trends will give you the framework to digest what is happening in the world.

So I was thinking about her when I saw the news that the FDA determined that dairy and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat, and it probably won’t be labeled. I’ve talked about cloning before, and my stand today is basically the same as it’s been: I think there are valid animal welfare issues at stake, the whole notion makes me squeamish, and the word ‘clone’ never fails to make me giggle. I’d prefer to avoid cloned animals. So, by the way, would the majority of Americans. But, if they’re not labeled, I won’t be able to avoid them, and neither will you.

Which brings me to back to my boss, and her advice to look at trends. There’s a trend at work here, and I don’t like it. We have:

1. Dairy and meat from cloned animals, as described above. Bottom line: a majority of Americans don’t want it. But not only will we get it, it won’t be labeled, so you won’t be able to choose.

2. rBGH, also called rBST, also discussed in these pages. It’s illegal in virtually every developed country with the exception of the United States. Plenty of Americans, too, have preferred to avoid the stuff, and there has been a huge debate about whether and how dairy products can be labeled so that Americans can avoid it. A few years ago, the FDA brokered a fragile peace, wherein products could be labeled as rBGH-free, as long as they followed that label with a statement that the FDA finds no difference between milk from animals treated with rBGH vs. those not treated with rBGH). Since then, companies like Starbucks, Publics, Kroger, Dean Foods, and even Wal-Mart has chosen to buy their milk from dairies that are rBGH free. Now, ticked off that they’re losing the battle for milk-drinkers hearts and minds, Monsanto has tried to make even these labels illegal. Individual states — like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio — have recently considered making any labels illegal. Just yesterday, Pennsylvania lost this battle — the labeling can remain. But the bottom line? Concerted efforts remain to stop this labeling. If these labels are lost, then you won’t be able to choose.

3. Creekstone Farms and their mad cow battle: I haven’t talked about this one much, but after mad cow disease was found in the U.S., little ol’ Creekstone Farms, a meat processor, invested in equipment that could test every one of its cows for mad cow disease — so that you, the consumer, could be guaranteed, without a doubt, that your burger isn’t from a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (which, by the way, is a really horrible disease). But the USDA told Creekstone that they were not allowed to test their cows. Mind you, Creekstone paid for the testing equipment with their own money — they wanted nothing from the government. And, mind you, there are many consumers out there who would like to have this confidence. But, claiming that it would make non-tested meat seem unsafe, the goverment said they weren’t allowed. Creekstone sued and won, the USDA appealed, and President Bush himself has said that he’ll fight to block Creekstone from doing this testing. Bottom line: Creekstone Farms is being kept from providing information that at least some Americans want.

4. Genetically Modified Foods: okay, this issue is deep, and huge, and too much to cover in a paragraph. But: 70% of the foods on your grocery store shelves have genetically modified ingredients. According to the most recent survey by the Pew initiative, only 27% of people actually support having these ingredients in the food supply. The same survey suggests that most people are unaware that they’re eating these foods daily. Why? Because they’re not labeled. Bottom line: although many consumers would like these products labeled, they’re not. So you can’t choose.

So what’s the trend? The trend is about information, and whether or not we as consumers can have it.Now, it’s true that some people like to pay more for things, just because it makes them feel like they’re getting more value. And perhaps those who are trying to limit testing and labeling are legitimately concerned about protecting us from ourselves. But there are compelling reasons that people might want all of the above information. Some people — like one recent Pope, for example — take issue with GMOs for religious reasons. Religion might also prompt people to be troubled by animal cloning. Some might be concerned about rBGH’s impact on animal welfare. Others may learned that although mad cow disease has been found in this country, the USDA tests fewer than one percent of slaughtered cattle for mad cow disease and decided, “Whoa Nelly. I want to be sure my burger doesn’t have any of them nasty science-fictiony mad cow prions.”

Whatever the reason people want information about how their food was produced, let’s give it to them. I mean, it’s information. Information about food, this thing that they’re putting into their bodies, and that through all of human history has had tremendous religious and family meaning. I’m not alone in my thinking; at least one bioethicist has said that society has a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that people aren’t forced by the marketplace to eat foods that they are opposed to.

The interesting thing here is the role that organic food has taken in all of this. The organic label has become a de facto clear-cut way of avoiding things like cloned food, GMOs, and rBGH — under organic labeling rules, these things simply aren’t allowed (there’s no hope for the mad-cow-testing issue short of legal victories).

But I will remind you that consumers can win this battle. They just did in Pennsylvania. It’s a huge victory, one that caused Lustybit to post a picture of Kool and the Gang, claiming that “this really is a stinging rebuke to what I still contend was some highly dubious and downright slimy actions.” So, yes. Consumers can win.

Anyhow, I’m thinking about this trend on a Friday afternoon, which is making me think about that boss of mine…. Are you out there, Ann? How did that puppy work out for you? Do you still making cutting comments to your employees? And most important, do you want your cloned meat labeled?

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16 Responses to “My first boss, and what she had in common with a cloned cow…or a mad one”

  1. 1 Pamelotta January 18, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Wow. So much to digest. That is a disturbing trend.

    What to do?

  2. 2 greg January 18, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    I had that boss, too – which might explain why I chose to toss my bachelors’ degree and cook for a living.

    That said, can a trend be defined if the data is hidden? We know very little about the food we eat. Even here at the co-op we sell “certified organic” products that are made in China. How are we supposed to trust a system that is inherently opaque?

    I am nervous for the future of food.

  3. 3 Liss January 18, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Horrifying, all of it. Especially given the scientifically-unproven but accepted-as-fact-in-our-house relationship between food additives and behavior, and the current school of thought surrounding GM foods and allergies, and I am still naive enough to be shocked that the government is apparently dead-set on ensuring that it’s difficult to feed my family the way I want to.

    Infuriating AND horrifying, I guess I’d call it.

  4. 4 nyjlm January 19, 2008 at 12:30 am

    I wish I could understand how it is that the US gov’t doesn’t grasp this in the same way that the European gov’ts do. sigh

  5. 5 Green Bean January 19, 2008 at 4:44 am

    All we really want is more transparency into what we ingest. It seems to be more and more of a battle but one we really need to win. I’ve turned to farmer’s markets where at least I can look in the face of the person who grew it and hope for an honest answer.

    Thank you for the information – however frightening it may be.

  6. 6 Wendy January 22, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Good Lord, I may have to rework our budget and get all organic meats and dairy. I was feeling a little better, because even though I had to cut out the organic milk I found one that was hormone free. Now, I need to figure out the gas situation considering that we only have 2 Whole Foods in our area and neither one are near me. *sigh* It never ends.

  7. 7 pam January 22, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    This is THE most disturbing post I’ve read this week (meaning their are a LOT of disturbing posts out there). But HOW DARE OUR ILLUSTRIOUS PRESIDENT, HOW DARE HE, prevent a private company from testing their very own product. I’m livid!!!!!! How in the world will we survive another 12 months with him at the helm. GOD HELP US, WE BEG………. What in the world can an ordinary citizen do the right this horrid injustice??????

  8. 8 Tom January 22, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    With regards to Creekstone Farms, the USDA will fight tooth and nail to win simply because they don’t want to appear weak anymore.

    The book, Fast Food Nation describes in disturbing detail how the Meat Processing/Packing industry had the USDA by the throat. If there is a breakout of mad cow or some other disease, the industry isn’t required to report it to the public. Basically the USDA has to sweet talk them into recalling the food and admitting that there is a problem. Unfortunately, that only happens after a hand full of people get sick and complain.

    The USDA doesn’t have much authority so they are going to try and prove a point with Creekstone.

    If any of my facts are incorrect, please let me know.


  9. 9 bob January 23, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    why doesn’t anyone understand that the administration is TOTALLY about protecting US businesses and that they are willing to go to absurd lengths to prevent anything that interferes with their ability to make a buck?

    The USDA, the EPA, etc. are all agencies run by Bush appointees who are doing all they can to remove government regulations from businesses. In the case of the meat testing – allowing Creekstone to test ALL animals for BSE would lead the public to expect ALL beef processors to do the same and THAT would clearly cost too much. Not to mention that if Creekstone advertises that they test all beef, then the public might have an elevated awareness of BSE and demand that all beef be inspected, yada, yada, yada.

    The current administration is not interested in our health except when it could mean a profit for someone.

  10. 10 Kate January 23, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Hmm. I probably went to a similar liberal arts college. It was near Chicago. I certainly majored in anthropology. I wonder if your boss has ever actually had to read anthropological theory (Clifford Geertz, the easy way out? I don’t think so.).

    But I digress. The systematic inaccessability of information about what makes our food “food” is distressing. Thanks for the post.

  11. 11 Jenny January 23, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    To keep from getting depressed, I keep telling myself that it HAS to get better in the next administration.

  12. 12 cleanerplateclub January 24, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Sad to say, it’s not just this administration. I think a good part of it stems from the dual role of the USDA. They are charged with both the healthy eating of the U.S. Citizenry AND promotion of agricultural products grown in the U.S. So they are in charge of both (1) making sure that people eat less saturated fats, for example, AND (2) ensuring a market for all that grain fed U.S. beef. It’s a totally whack system, probably worth a post in itself. Marion Nestle covers it very well in her books. But the problem with the USDA, and its conflict with us as consumers, won’t likely go away on January 20 of 2009. Oy.

  13. 13 Expat Chef February 12, 2008 at 4:03 am

    It’s a solid list, but add to it how CAFO animals are raised and what they are fed. Example: ruminants being fed chicken crap, pigs being fed cow, cow being fed cow all as feed additives. Arsenic in chicken feed … the list goes on. You are what you eat eats, too. They just don’t have to list it in the ingredients label.

    Also, add COOL (Country of Origin) labeling that has been on the books since 2002 but mysteriously delayed by the food industry lobbyists. And more, too many more.

  14. 14 JT May 10, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    That is so scary! This is why my mom put so much pressure on me shopping at the more expensive but healthier stores and I followed her advice with more then a bitchy word or 2. I watched my children over the last year or so tho’, and I have seen a remarkable difference in how they’ve acted. This now makes me feel perfectly validated in dragging the fam over there and dealing with insane crowds so I can feel more comfortable in what they eat. Guess I’m stuck with it, since I would rather them not turn up with any brain cells twisted by anything but their own genetics.

  1. 1 Woulda Coulda Shoulda » Food, frightening food Trackback on January 22, 2008 at 5:48 pm
  2. 2 Food, Glorious Food « Bonnie Blythe Trackback on June 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm
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