Netflix’s 'Rotten' Reveals the Perils of Global Food Production
By Katherine Wei
We all love to eat. And increasingly, our cultural conversation centers around food—the cultivation of refined taste buds, the methods of concocting the most delectable blends of flavors, the ways in which it can influence our health and longevity, and the countless TV shows and books that are borne of people's foodie fascinations. However, there's one aspect we as consumers pay perhaps too little heed: the production of food before it reaches markets and grocery store shelves. We don't directly experience this aspect of food, and as a result, it's shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.
Netflix's recent documentary series, Rotten, tells the true and sometimes gruesome story of what goes on behind the scenes of global food production—and the pitfalls that accompany the widespread lack of awareness of how and where commonly consumed foods are sourced. The docuseries is produced by Zero Point Zero, the production company behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown, and consists of six hour-long episodes, each of which centers around a specific type of food. They feature those at the frontlines of food production (beekeepers, garlic sources, peanut farmers, etc.); those laboring to reduce the dangers of food-induced allergies (restaurant owners and hospital researchers); as well as lawyers, detectives and prosecutors, who explain exactly how food production gets entangled with the law.
It is difficult to pin down a moral to the frankly appetite-suppressing series. While we recommend watching the show, know that it might trigger some panic around food consumption—episodes trigger dark queries (Should we stop dining out altogether considering restaurants lie about catering to food allergies? Are bottles of fake honey mixed in with the real ones at my grocery store? Am I aiding and abetting forced labor in Chinese prisons when I add garlic to my pasta sauce?). However, the experts and producers featured in this true crime-esque series leave many of the common and pressing questions unanswered. So, Sierra turned to food production experts. Read on to learn more about the issues presented in Rotten, and to glean some easy ways to stay informed, and combat potential food production pitfalls.
Rotten's first episode, Lawyers, Guns and Honey, digs deep into problems beyond the well-documented disappearance of bees and bee colonies. The crew visits honey importers throughout the United States, and a German lab, to discuss the history of cheap honey that's been diluted with sugar or artificial sweeteners before being shipped to the U.S. The crew talks to prosecutors who busted one nefarious German honey importer, and to importers about how they test samples for "honey adulteration."
The first solution for protecting oneself from such adulteration is a no-brainer: get in touch with your favorite honey production company and ask where their honey is imported from. Know that labels that claim origin in Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia are likely to be fake. These countries often act as middlemen to China, which "launders" its fake honey in nearby countries before shipping it on to the United States.
Too many brands to grill? Never fear, check out the National Honey Board, which educates consumers, chefs, honey retailers and honey farmers about the production of quality honey. NHB also has a locating service for local honey farms throughout the U.S., making it easy for consumers to find a farm that sells honey produced by its own bee colonies. Another quick tip? Look for a True Honey Source label on the jar you're about to buy. THS allows consumers to track their honey all the way back through the supply chain to its country of origin, and the beekeeper that harvested it.
Zero Point Zero
Episode Two, The Peanut Problem, discusses the precipitous rise in food allergy cases in the United States. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, food allergy prevalence among children increased 50 percent from 1997 to 2011, and the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology last October announced a 21 percent increase in peanut allergies in children since 2010. This episode is not about food production scandals so much as the plight that befalls America's peanut farmers as peanut sales drop. It also chronicles the perils that ensue when a restaurant ignores the needs of customers with peanut allergies (people have died from such negligence).
The Peanut Problem explains that while scientists have been unable to determine the cause of the skyrocketing numbers, restaurateurs are necessarily stepping up their game to allergen-proof their dishes, and schools and communities are educating one another on the complex and sometimes lethal nature of food allergies. The best resources to educate yourself on food allergies, locate your local immunologists and connect with fellow advocates for food allergy awareness? Food Allergy Research and Education and the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. These organizations also provide grants that fund allergy research projects. Seeking truly allergy-friendly restaurants in the U.S.? AllergyEats is essentially the Yelp of the food allergy community. Users can tweak the search filters according to specific allergies.
Zero Point Zero
Humans consume almost 50 billion pounds of garlic every year, and the global garlic industry rakes in $40 billion in annual revenue. Garlic Breath tells the story of how the world's garlic industry is monopolized by a small number of powerful companies—and serves as an especially prescient wake-up call for shoppers unaware of where their food comes from.
Most of the garlic we buy is from China, where many prisoners are forced to peel garlic behind bars, working up to 16 hours a day—often until their fingernails fall off. Also unsettling? The show reveals that many leading garlic companies have found out a way to game the system under the protection of the Fresh Garlic Producers' Association.
So what's a garlic lover to do? Start peeling your own cloves. Around 60 percent of the garlic Americans consume from China is pre-peeled, likely thanks to illegal forced labor, so it's best to buy unpeeled cloves directly from small garlic farms or farmers' markets. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains an up-to-date list of "goods believed to produced by child labor or forced labor and their source countries." It's a good place to start, but if you're concerned that the DOL's list may not always be current, you can always check this website to determine the whereabouts of your local farmer's market.
Zero Point Zero
Episode 4, Big Bird, might give you pause before buying another broiler chicken from your local grocery store chain outlet. The story begins with those behind America's massive chicken production operation: the chicken "growers," whose control over their farms has in recent years been largely stripped away thanks to corporate giants like Perdue, Pilgrim's Pride, Sanderson Farms and Tyson. These corporate poultry companies have growers sign contracts to raise birds supplied by "Big Chicken." While the companies provide feed and medication, the growers build their own farms and otherwise finance the whole operation.
The chickens are contractually raised in ways these corporations deem efficient (but not necessarily humane), and the process is also fashioned into a tournament system that pits growers against one another for bonuses awarded to those who manage to raise the heaviest birds using the least feed. Chickens never see the light of day (this keeps them inactive and plump), and growers at the bottom of the competitive pack wind up losing money as a form of punishment. This is a system curved to solely benefit the corporations.
In 2012, chicken surpassed beef as the most consumed meat in the United States, due to its cheaper price point and mass production efficiency. Not only has chicken production moved beyond traditional poultry farms, but it's now in the reins of a few major corporations in Brazil, the U.S., Thailand and China—some of which have been bribing their local governments to look the other way as they expand their less-than-humane operations to multiply bird reproduction, and then slaughter them, assembly-line style. The result of such mass production? Broiler chickens come cheap at supermarkets—around $7 each.
Some farmers have ducked out of this system to raise chickens on their own terms, in hopes of keeping the corporate giants from dominating the global chicken market. But one should be prepared to spend much more on ethically raised chicken. Chickens from one farm featured on Rotten (where they're shown enjoying free space to roam freely) are sold for three times the aforementioned supermarket price. Concerned consumers might start by learning more about the industry lingo decorating meat and egg labels in the grocery store, and learning to tell the marketing terms (neither "natural" nor "cage-free," for instance, means chickens had humane living conditions) apart from standardized, informational labels (Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved).
You could also reach out to farms that sell their own poultry through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a local foods directory through which consumers can seek out farms that offer "regular deliveries of locally-grown farm products." LocalHarvest and EatWild are other websites that provide growing databases for local farms in every state, and even other countries.
In Milk Money, dairy farmers inform viewers that small American family-owned dairy farms might disappear from the market in just 10 years. In the last 40 years, Americans' milk consumption has decreased by about 33 percent. Since 2000, around 30,000 dairy farms in the U.S. have sold their cows and closed down. Rotten explains that the government no longer invests money to keep dairy prices stable, and that U.S. dairy farms have had to adapt to fluctuating global milk prices and exporting standards ever since the World Trade Organization opened American dairy markets up to the world. As a result, today's milk prices are set by a government-created formula that fluctuates along with commodity markets, and is impossible for farmers to predict.
Farmers are trying to remedy their losses by focusing on products that bring higher profits than "table milk," aka pasteurized milk. Organic milk from cows that are raised according to USDA Organic standards and graze freely rakes in twice the revenue of table milk, but it's a pricey transition for small traditional farmers. Instead, some are turning to raw, unpasteurized milk, a controversial product sold at nearly three times the price of regular milk.
Milk Money covers the heated debate between supporters and naysayers of raw milk. Studies have shown that raw milk reduces chances of asthma, eczema, allergies and nasal infections in children, but many public health officials consider milk straight from the cow a vector for disease. This episode examines the notorious history of raw milk consumption, which can lead to illness and death, and introduces those advocating for farmers to stop selling unpasteurized milk for the profit.
While there is no conclusive crime-solving in Milk Money, it highlights one common consumer mistake: the belief that one should "try everything once" in a quest to cure children's health problems. The best course of action? Seeking doctors and immunologists who are familiar with their health conditions and can give well-reasoned advice regarding raw milk remedies. Concerned milk drinkers should also get in the habit of checking dairy products' labels; if the word "pasteurized" is missing, it's possible that raw milk is an ingredient. And while it's generally safe to buy from local sources, you might want to confirm with your farmers' market milk sellers that their products are pasteurized. They should have proof of this. Here's a list of states that ban the sale and consumption of raw milk.
America's fish consumption has doubled in the past five decades. While fishermen have long extolled the ocean as the perfect food source (it grows your food, and the supply seems endless) the series' finale, Cod Is Dead, exposes a phenomenon with which Rotten viewers have become familiar: the crash of a food production industry caused by dwindling supplies, or corrupted exploitation. In short, domestic fisheries are suffering because the ocean's fish population has been dropping over the past few decades. We're specifically talking about "groundfish"—including cod, halibut and flounder—which dwell near the ocean's bottom, and which have long been popular catches with domestic fisheries on the East Coast.
This episode also moves beyond the dangers of overfishing by exposing fishing tycoon Carlos Rafael, who is infamous for selling fish under the table to dealers, falsifying fish quota, consolidating fishing permits, and exploiting the catch share system. Designed by the Environmental Defense Fund, the catch share system exists to ensure that fishermen get a fixed percentage of the fish they catch (to reduce overfishing). Because the system is not monitored, Rafael has been able to get more than his share of fish and profits. With Rafael currently sentenced to 46 months in jail, however, the imbalance within New England's fishing scene might bounce back to normal. But what should continue to concern consumers is the question of whether or not we are eating more fish than we can afford to.
Scientists have been saying the ocean supply will crash, while fishermen are arguing that they cannot afford to fish less. So, the government has stepped in to regulate seafood prices, and has begun importing more fish to keep pace with the rise in the country's seafood consumption. As of now, 94 percent of Americans eat fish from foreign countries. These are shipments that have been frozen, thawed for cheap processing, and frozen again for shipping. Many such products do not come with labels detailing the travels seafood has made before landing in your grocery basket. If this is of concern, try to shop at stores that clearly label their seafood, indicating origins and where the fish was processed, or buy your fish directly from fish markets that source seafood from the nearest fisheries. Seafood processors and government regulators commonly use QR codes and barcodes to trace seafood. Look for such stickers on your supermarket salmon fillets—they'll help you figure out whether your grocery store keeps track of where its seafood is sourced.
As Rotten repeatedly shows, food is intimately tied to trade, politics, power—susceptible to both market forces and criminal subterfuge. And the global corporate food industry relies, at least in part, on consumers' ignorance. The overarching moral of the series? Check your food labels carefully, and whenever possible, buy locally.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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