Got a white mustache? If you need proof that the farm-and-food cycle is screwed up, you need look no farther than the dairy case at your grocery store. While the universities get research money for cloning the most productive holstein cows, and university PR departments bugle the wonderful similarities between Annie, Betty, Carol and Daisy, each with an identical star on her forehead and each with identical and udderly huge milk bags dragging on the ground, the USDA is paying storage on a billion dollars worth of surplus milk powder.
But wait -- it gets worse. At the same time the USDA is paying $20 million per year storage costs for the powder, Kraft (the largest US cheese company, and a one-time subsidiary of Philip Morris) uses an imported powdered milk product from overseas for its popular products -- Macaroni and Cheese, Velveeta, and Kraft "singles," or slices.
But wait -- it gets worse. The product Kraft uses, called "Milk Protein Concentrate," or MPC, is "an unregulated, untested substance" according to Wisconsin's Family Farm Defenders. "MPC is what is left after processing to remove more valuable components of milk." In 2000, Kraft and other processors imported enough MPC to use the USDA surplus in just a year.
If they wanted to, Kraft or other processors could break down the dried US milk in storage and make US dried protein products, such as casein and MPC. But it's cheaper to use imported MPC.
MPC, which is not classified as a food ingredient by the FDA, comes from many parts of the world. Because it is not a food, Kraft can import it with lower tariffs. But that doesn't give you much protection, Dear Consumer. In fact, you have no way of knowing what countries you're patronizing when you buy Kraft cheese products, and you have no way of knowing what standards of sanitation, animal health, environmental protection, human rights for farm workers, and so forth, have been applied. You might be paying for crops sprayed with DDT, animals confined and abused, workers in conditions of indentured servitude.
From the industrial American dairy's point of view, there's money in overproduction and selling the surplus dried milk to the government. The industrial dairies keep thousands of animals crammed in confined animals feeding operations, or CAFOs, their waste fouling the air and water. Between overproduction and price supports, the industrial giants like Dean's sell 20 to 25 million pounds of dried milk every week to the government, storing it in more than 100,000 square feet of space in a Kansas City warehouse cave.
Before we trash the price support system, however, we need to be clear that the system is in place because Americans can't compete with cheap food from third-world "trading partners." And, America needs its own food supply. On 9/11 -- and I mean THE 9/11 -- 2001, our borders were closed for 48 hours. Fresh foods rotted on the shipping docks, and we would have experienced severe shortages if the transportation shutdown had continued. While price supports are a bad answer, they're now the only answer against cheap importers that don't care about standards. In characteristic corporate business style, however, rather than apply standards or regulations, Kraft wants to give the whole industry another black eye by re-defining MPC. Under their definition, MPC would be listed as "milk" on product labels.
As I was writing this column, I had a real life "Got Milk?" experience.
One of our sheep had just given birth to twins and accepted one while the other got nothing but head butts when it hobbled over to nurse. That is, Mom kept the baby away from her udders by heading it off and butting it. This is bad, because if the babies don't nurse early and often they'll die. So, to keep both lambs, I was looking at days and nights of sheep milking and bottle feeding. Even if my husband took on all the other chores, it was an exhausting proposition!
We gathered a few implements -- collar, lead rope, milk bottle, disinfectant and milk pail, and went to the barn. Then, just to give Mama one more chance, I got down on my knees and leaned all my weight against her, pinning her to the wall. Within a few minutes, the lamb had found a nipple and started to suck. Mama shook it off, the baby tried again, and so forth. That lamb was persistent, and so was I. After this success, I relaxed my grip, grabbing tighter when she seemed ready to get mean. I had asked my husband to stand by and watch the time. Did we stay there an hour? Two? Finally, the baby got a good grip and mama relaxed. I let go and stood up, using only my voice to moderate her behavior -- a soothing "Good mama" when she let it nurse and an angry "No!" when she turned to butt.
I've never read that sheep respond to voices, but they do, just like dogs, horses, and other animals. In fact, I've never come up against an animal that didn't respond to a voice. How long did that take? I asked my husband. "Fifteen minutes total" was the response. It had seemed like hours.
So, will corporations respond to voices? Family Farm Defenders hopes so. They're urging us to call the FDA at 1-888-463-6332 or write Dr. Lester Crawford, Deputy Commissioner, FDA, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857 and tell them to enforce the laws against using MPC. And they want us to throw Kraft against the wall by boycotting Kraft products that contain MPC. This will take persistence, and might feel like it takes forever, but the reality is that we consumers built Kraft. We can build an alternative.
Independent dairies and cheese producers are popping up in every state, using sustainable grass-fed methods and small-scale production. Here in mid-Missouri, we even have one that delivers to households in town, and to all the small grocery stores. To find the dairymen near you, ask your favorite grocer or get on the internet and type in the name of your state plus dairy. Then read through the descriptions until you find one that has standards you like. Do the cows get to go outside? Is there grazing space for them? How are the fields treated? How do the farmers control pests?
Then, buy some and try it. The dairies I like best use rotational grazing so the animals get fresh pasture on a regular basis. Can you tell the difference in the cheese? I think you can.
When you've found a favorite brand, give them a call and say thanks. Maybe they have a day when public is invited to the farm -- or maybe they'll welcome you any time. Find out! You owe it to yourself to learn where your food comes from.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.