Smart Talk

Smart Talk is a daily, live, interactive program featuring conversations with newsmakers and experts in a variety of fields and exploring a wide range of issues and ideas, including the economy, politics, health care, education, culture, and the environment.  Smart Talk airs live every week day at 9 a.m. on WITF’s 89.5 and 93.3.

Listen to Smart Talk live online from 9-10 a.m. weekdays and at 7 p.m. (Repeat of 9 a.m. program)

Host: Scott LaMar

America's Food Machine: What am I Eating?

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | Apr 3, 2012 4:29 PM

If we are what we eat, shouldn't we at least know what we are putting in our mouths?  This week on Smart Talk TV, we step away from the kitchen table, back through the supermarket and food processors, and return to the farm to figure out where our food originates and then what happens to it.  The 2011 Emmy-winning documentary Food, Inc. raised a lot of questions about modern farming practices in America.  The recent controversy over so-called "pink slime" heightened the concerns about food production, processing and safety.  How can you discover what is in your food and, if you so desire, find alternatives that are healthy, organic, and locally produced?  Check out  Smart Talk, Thursday night at 8 on witf TV.

Our expert panel includes Phoebe Bitler, of Vista Grande Farms in Berks County.  As her bio states, she owns "a diversified dairy farm that includes 200 head of registered Holsteins and Jerseys; 600 cropping acres and custom planting and harvesting; crop seed sales; cattle brokering; freezer beef sales and agriculture tour services."

Phoebe's family has been farming since 1937. Vista Grande Farm has been breeding registered Holsteins for 73 years, and breeding, milking and selling Holsteins remains its focus. The sale of purebred breeding stock has enabled the farm to expand. Their son, Jesse, is a business partner and manages the cropping, custom harvesting and seed sales. Phoebe's husband Dave manages the dairy cattle, freezer beef and cattle sales, while Phoebe milks, feeds calves, takes care of the record-keeping and conducts educational tours.

The biggest change they've seen in the industry: Technological advances have had dramatic influences on the industry. There is so much information and resources available for producers to use in agronomy, plant and animal genetics; the electronic capabilities of various pieces of production equipment are constantly increasing. Phoebe's father milked his 19 cows by hand and used horses to pull his equipment. Today, some dairies have robots milking their cows, and GPS systems steering their tractors and monitoring field applications and yields of crops.

The one thing people who have not been raised on a farm should know about your industry: Everything that we consume in our diets has its origin on some sort of farm. Someone, somewhere plants the seed, nurtures it, harvests and then markets a crop that makes its way to the consumer's plate. Many farmers keep more detailed records about their livestock than they do for their own children. Dairy farmers are constantly concerned about their cattle's health, comfort and environment. The Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence has found 85 percent of farm revenue stays in the community and changes hands at least 2.5 times. Thus, each cow in Berks County generates a significant economic impact.

Pennsylvania fares pretty well in a survey conducted by the farm-rights grou, Farm Sanctuary.  It rated the nation's worst-offedning farm states. 

Many consumers worry about food containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs.  Quite a bit of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. have been modified.   Many processed foods contain GMO ingredients.  The U.S. does not require or regulate GMO labeling, something food activists want the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue.

In recent weeks, a public backlash over finely textured beef, known by the pejorative "pink slime," caused at least one Pennsylvania company to declare bankruptcy.  AFA Foods, a King of Prussia-based beef-products company, said it planned to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and sell its assets.  The company has said it uses ammonia-treated, boneless, lean-beef trimmings as filler, but only based on "customer specifications."  AFA processes hundreds of millions of pounds of ground beef products a year and supplies retailers including BJ's, Safeway and Wal-Mart stores, and fast-food companies including Burger King and Wendy's.  Food experts say consumers will pay higher prices from ground beef and farmers will have to raise and slaughter more cattle to meet demand as "pink slime" leaves the marketplace.

Some of America's major meat-processing companies are struggling financially as consumers learn more about industrialized food production and demand a change in industry practices.  On April 11, witf TV will air "America Reveled: Food Machine," an examination of America's food-production industry.  As the PBS promotional materials exclaim, "For the first time in human history, less than 2% of the population can feed the other 98%."  Be sure to check out the series to learn how America has created "the biggest, most productive food machine the world has ever known."


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