Despite being one of the most grotesquely overfed populations in recent memory, Americans remain preoccupied only with the quantity, and not the quality of their food. They don't mind if scientists inject their French fries with High-Fructose Corn Syrup as long as McDonald's Super-sizes their order for a nickel.
Yet, the attitude toward Vegetarianism is changing in the United States. While it's difficult to quantify how many vegetarians live within the borders, it's easier to observe the attitude towards vegetarians. Twenty years ago, "What're you, a Commie?" was a more typical response to a confession of Veggie brotherhood. Nowadays, despite the occasional stink eye, meat-eaters at least understand that Vegetarianism is healthy, if not a lifestyle particularly suited for them.
Even though the U.S. is more Veggie-friendly these days, it's still difficult to avoid crappy food even if one chooses to become a vegan (vegetarian, minus the dairy) as I did six years ago. Despite my decision, I found myself projectile vomiting into my toilet last week. Diagnosis: food-poisoning. Suspect: tomatoes. Unfortunately, becoming a vegetarian or a vegan doesn't ensure healthiness. Sure, vegetarians enjoy many health perks (low rates of: heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, etc.,) but we're still at the mercy of the meat industry in many ways.
For starters, the meat industry poisons the environment. A 2006 United Nations report described the devastation caused by the meat industry as "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." Aside from global warming, meat production is a large factor in overexploited natural resources, deforestation, wasted land, and air and water contamination.
The water contamination may play a large part in increasing reports of vegetable and fruit contamination. In 2007, a California produce company recalled bagged fresh spinach after a sample tested positive for Salmonella. Nearly a year before, an outbreak of E. coli, in fresh spinach killed 3 people and sickened 200. This week, the tomato Salmonella outbreak has affected at least 145 people, resulting in 23 hospitalizations, and many believe water contamination is the cause of the infected tomatoes.
It's not the veggies that are to blame. The problem is the meat. Salmonella is an animal pathogen so it doesn't originate from tomatoes. Most experts agree that the bacteria probably come from groundwater contaminated with animal feces.
You read that right: Cow shit is in your tomatoes. Actually, cow shit is in everything: the water, hamburgers, other plant life, and if one ascribes to the the hippy, New Age belief that we are all one pulsating organism upon Mother Earth, then cow shit is in all of us.
But in a realer, more concrete sense, frenzied production lines coupled with lax management have resulted in a dramatic increase in food-poisoning. The shitty (literally) food is so prevalent that it's affecting non-meat-eaters. While Salmonella prefers fleshy fruit like tomatoes, our friend E. Coli prefers leafy greens like spinach.
The problem is prevalent. A recent census of produce outbreaks between 1996 and 2007 counted no fewer than 33 epidemics from Salmonella-contaminated fruits and vegetables.
Some scientists claim the cure for Salmonella and E.coli contamination isn't scrubbing clean the fruits and vegetables because doing so could remove the good bacteria humans rely upon for survival. The solution will come from the government and outraged citizens demanding that the meat industry clean up its practices so fresh produce doesn't suffer at the hands of hasty slaughter and over-crowded holding pens.
The outrage has already exploded in other parts of the world. While irresponsible butchers poison ground water and otherwise healthy plant life here at home, Americans remain mute about the diseased slabs of meat they're consistently forced to choose between at their grocery stores. Meanwhile, angry mobs took to the streets of South Korea when their government resumed importing beef from the United States. This wasn't some kind of fervent anti-American protest, but rather concerned citizens protecting themselves from potential Mad Cow disease.
In America, the only way citizens can protect themselves is to grow their own food or to buy their food from local, trusted farmers, who don't use chemicals or unethical farming practices. But many poorer, urban citizens have no choice but to buy whatever food is cheap and readily available.
Still, all of this isn't cause for concern. Unless, of course, citizens are worried about the expanding legion of rotund American children, who despise vegetables, binge-eat bagged chips, and walk only if the landscape slopes down hill. The obesity rate is so wildly out of control that Americans collectively celebrated this year -- not when the child population began to lose weight -- but when they ceased to get fatter and obesity rates finally plateaued for the first time in 20 years.
Unfortunately, Americans can't fix their unhealthy eating until supposedly "healthy" food is clean of bacteria originating in diseased cows. Of course, the crazy practices of the meat industry shouldn't concern citizens... unless they're worried about global warming. The Environmental Defense reports that if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted it with vegetarian foods, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads.
In fact, the crazy practices of the meat industry probably won't rock citizens at all until they find themselves knelt over their toilets, hurling. Right about then, they'll understand how cow shit affects them all.