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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.

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Hold the Fork! Do You Know What's in Your Food? TV Smart Talk

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | Apr 5, 2012 12:45 AM

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 the processing plant, and return to the farm to figure out where our food originates and 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" heightens concern about food safety and leads some companies to bankruptcy.  How can we discover what is in our food and, if necessary, find alternatives that are healthy, organic, and locally produced?  Check out TV Smart Talk, tonight at 8.

Our expert panel includes Phoebe Bitler of Vista Grande Farms in Berks County.  Phoebe's diversified dairy farm 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 even agriculture-tour services.  She's a busy lady!  Phoebe's family has been farming since 1937. Breeding, milking and selling Holsteins is the main business of Vista Grande Farms.  They also sell purebred breeding stock.  And it's a family affair:  son Jesse is a business partner and manages the cropping, custom harvesting and seed sales. Husband Dave manages the dairy cattle, freezer beef and cattle sales, while Phoebe milks, feeds calves, takes care of the record-keeping and conducts the educational tours.

The Bitlers say mechanization has had a transformative effect on their operation.  But, in a profile for The Reading Eagle, Phoebe insists their farm remains intensely personal.   "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," she notes. "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."

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 disparagingly as "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.  Several governors of major meat-processing states toured facilities this week and defended meat filler.  They noted that the plants' products are safe and that their closing will drive away jobs and boost the cost of beef.

Some of America's biggest meat-processing companies are struggling financially now that consumers are learning more about the industrialized food industry and demanding changes.  Mike Smucker, owner of Smucker's Meats in Mount Joy, will join our discussion.  His company specializes in custom processing of beef, bison and pork.  The USDA inspects the slaughter, fabrication and processing facilities at Smucker's Meats.  It's a family-owned enterprise that has weathered some rough times.  Their website touts, "Beef, bison and hogs are the species processed allowing farmers to market their own cattle across state lines.  Smucker's caters to the niche markets such as grass fed beef, heritage hogs, and no nitrate curing and smoking.  This allows customers to purchase products they feel confident in, from producers they can trust.  The goal is to add value to all of the meat processed whether it is fresh meat, jerky or hotdogs.  As in those first years at the small shop, creating quality products is priority."

Assistant professor Robert Valgenti, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Lebanon Valley College.  He studies how individuals and societies interact with their food.  He'll share his thoughts with us.  Dr. Valgenti says he personally tries to buy meat products that are locally grown and processed so he can talk with the people about their farming practices in the hopes of getting a better quality, healthier and safer product. 

"When we eat, the food actually becomes us, so it's this moment of appropriating food.  We make the food ourselves, it turns into ourselves.  It keeps us going.  But at the same time, that process of becoming a new self, becoming this nourished being, also strangely alienates us from all sorts of individuals up and down the production line," he comments.  "So we are less likely to know the chicken farmer who produced the chicken.  We're less likely to know the truck driver who transported it, and on and on down the line.  So the more complex and global our food system becomes, we are simultaneously connected to more people than ever before.  But the degree of that connection is smaller and smaller.  That's the sort of paradox that always interests me as a philosopher."     

Dr. Valgenti tries to impart to his students a philosophy that shines a different light on the meaning of food value.  "We tend to quantify that value in terms of the price of the food, and more often than not these days, the food I can afford to eat. But there are all sorts of other valuations that we might use when we encounter food," he explains.  "That value might be its impact on the environment.  It might be its impact on labor conditions and the quality of life for the workers who produce and transport that food.  It seems often times that there's a dizzying amount of information that could be out there that makes it difficult to make any choice at all, and unfortunately, we often go for the simple default of the value of price, or the value of taste and familiarity to the things we like."

Mike Brownback, owner of Spiral Path Farm in Perry County, also is a panelist on the show.  Spiral Path is a certified organic farm.  Mike will discuss organic farming and how consumers can find those food alternatives in Pennsylvania.  According to the Spiral Path website, "Becoming a certified organic farm requires that we eliminated the use of toxic chemicals and fertilizers. Every year the farm undergoes a rigorous inspection and organic certification process to insure that our produce is free of harmful chemicals. We believe that our stewardship of the land promotes a living soil, which grows healthy plants from which we harvest flavorful and nutritious food."

On April 11, witf TV will air "America Revealed: Food Machine," an examination of America's modern food-production industry.  As the 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" and its implications for society, the environment and the animals and fish we consume.  Join the conversation tonight at 8 by calling 1-800-729-7532, emailing, leaving a comment below this article, or posting to witf's Facebook page.


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