Feeding Frenzy

From Celebrity Chefs to Gourmet Guerrillas, Americans Confront the Hazards of the Food World

More than 70 dapper people are sitting in a lecture hall stuffing their faces with ham. This isn't your garden-variety gluttony, though. The four kinds of ham arrayed on our plates are examples of food made in painstaking ways considered too cost-ineffective for commercial producers, and the people here consuming them are supporters of Slow Food, an international eco-gastronomic movement. These dietary dissidents reject generic fast food in favor of handmade "artisanal" products, all in the interest of preserving biodiversity and culinary tradition. Who would've thought pigging out could be a political gesture?

America is in the throes of a giant food fight. As a nation we're conflicted: We salivate over gastro-porn on the Food Channel or in books by sexy celebrity chefs like Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali. At the same time, a growing number of people are mobilizing against genetic modification, pesticide use, and the dubious practices of agribusiness. Once marginal ideas like veganism, biodiversity, and organic farming have now staked a permanent claim on the mainstream.

In the last few years, food studies has blossomed in the academy thanks to the discipline's first dedicated department at New York University, a journal called Gastronomica, and hundreds of books that present history, politics, race, and culture from a culinary perspective. Judging by the popularity of bestsellers like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation(an exposé of cattle factories and fast-food labor practices) and Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire (a meditation on the hazards of genetically modified vittles), Americans are getting suspicious about what's at the end of their forks.

This growing unease makes perfect sense to Marion Nestle. A petite woman wearing chunky modern jewelry, Nestle is the head of NYU's food studies program, which she founded in 1996. "Everybody has some kind of mishegoss about food," she says between bites of grilled eggplant at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants. "Anthropologists going back to Lévi-Strauss explain that because you take it into your body, like sex, it has a level of intimacy and primacy that can create a lot of free-floating anxiety. Is it safe, is it going to make you fat, is it going to make you healthy, is it going to keep you up at night?"

Nestle's controversial new book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press), dishes up many of the industry's dirtiest secrets: how multinational companies spend billions to convince us that unhealthy foods are good for us and lobby the government to sway dietary regulations and subsidies in their favor.

She says her political awakening coincided with a job at the Department of Health and Human Services in the '80s. A nutritionist with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, she was brought in to advise on the first (and last) Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition. On her first day, she explains, "The director told me flat out, this report will never say, 'Eat less meat,' because the Department of Agriculture was fiercely protective of food producers." This meant assuring the cattle and sugar companies that nothing in the report would damage their business. So instead of telling Americans they should ease up on meat and processed food, the report resorted to vague euphemisms (e.g., "eat less saturated fat" instead of "eat less beef") to keep the food industry off the department's back.

Food Politics exposes the incestuous relationships between food lobbyists and politicians (it's not unusual for someone to switch from a job as an industry lobbyist to one with the government agency that regulates that very industry, and vice versa). According to Eric Schlosser, the power of food lobbyists means that the government can recall baseball bats or strollers, "but it cannot order a meatpacking company to remove contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast food kitchens and supermarket shelves."

A string of food-related health scares—including mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease—prodded the European public into action. Witness the outcry over GMOs. (Genetically modified organisms generally refers to agricultural crops or animals in which genetic material has been altered—by incorporating pesticide genes into potatoes, for instance, or human growth hormone genes into fish.) In 1999, a French intellectual-turned-farmer named José Bové became a folk hero of the anti-globalization movement after he was jailed for destroying a half-built McDonald's in southwest France. In The World Is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food (Verso), Bové uses the term malbouffe to describe the bastardization of gastronomy and nutrition into fast food. "For me, the term means both the standardization of food like McDonald's—the same taste from one end of the world to the other—and the choice of food associated with the use of hormones and GMOs."

Most Americans aren't even aware GM foods exist, because the U.S. food industry and government have decided they don't need labeling. (The European Union requires all GM products to be labeled, and many major food producers there have stopped using GM ingredients.) "Even though research hasn't been done to prove the products are safe, they've found their way to the market, which is a decline in our power as consumers," says Anuradha Mittal of the California-based think tank Food First. "Part of being in a democracy is being able to decide for ourselves what we want to eat and how it's grown, instead of a few corporations deciding." Several years after the issue dominated European headlines, though, Americans are taking notice. Last week the Genetic Engineering Action Network organized a nationwide protest urging supermarkets like Safeway and Food Emporium to remove GM ingredients from their store-brand products—estimates suggest that 60 to 75 percent of foods in our supermarkets already contain GM ingredients.

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