Harvey Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ohio. He has published a number of books on American history, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. His newest book, Fear of Food, provides the history of germs, milk, the beef industry, vitamania, organic food, processed food, and fats to show the growth of a national eating disorder, and the media’s role in propagating a culture of fear surrounding food. Since we are so interested in this topic, we asked the author to answer a few questions.
The Coffin Factory: In addition to Fear of Food, you’ve written several books, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. How did you initially become interested in the American diet and food industry?
Harvey Levenstein: I began my career as a labor historian, writing about the politics of American trade unions. After writing one book on unions and Mexican immigration and another on unions and Communism, in the late 1970’s I was invited to spend two years at the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick, England. There I was exposed to what was called “the new social history,” an approach to labor history that emphasized the more mundane aspects of workers’ daily lives that often underlay their politics. In those days, most professional historians were men, who were intimidated about exploring what went on household kitchens, which, for the most part, were still regarded as woman’s domain. Unlike them, thanks in large part to Julia Child’s cook books, I had become a rather accomplished home cook, and was not afraid to write about how people prepared food. At the same time, as a labor historian, I was comfortable dealing with politics, economics, and particularly how industrialization impacted the lives of ordinary people. This helped me to take a different path from the usual histories of cookery, with their emphasis on recipes, and to relate changes in the Americans diet to economic, social and political developments. I might add that the high point of this turn in my career came with my being able to interview Julia Child in her home, where she prepared an excellent lunch for me.
The Coffin Factory: Fear of Food focuses on conceptions of food which you prove to be “groundless or at best unduly exaggerated” by the media, corporations, and our government. Do you see this authoritative manipulation as a trend in America that extends beyond the food industry?
Harvey Levenstein: To see that, sadly, this is indeed the case, you don’t have to look any further than Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times, which regularly show how the ridiculous ideas propounded by the media, corporations, and all-too-many politicians are not only taken seriously, but often become the basis of government policy.
The Coffin Factory: Has your research for this book affected the way you eat, and the way your family eats? For example, have the discoveries of “pink slime” deterred you from trips to McDonalds with your grandchildren, or have you stopped eating American meat after learning that the sloppy practices on the kill floor facilitate fatal bacteria like E. coli.?
Harvey Levenstein: When I wrote about “pink slime” (before it was labelled that) in my book, I remarked on how unappetizing it looked. I also wrote about hot dogs, whose slimy, gray, extruded ingredients look even worse. However, since neither of these pose a health risk, I rarely allow myself to think of this. Indeed, I enjoy a good hot dog (particularly in Pittsburgh and Chicago), and I still eat hamburgers when I travel in the States (“pink slime” is not allowed here in Canada.) E Coli. is, of course, a much more serious threat, and although I also enjoy a good hamburger (including, occasionally, a not-so-good one at McDonalds) I no longer buy ground beef, or any other meat, in supermarkets. I am lucky enough to have a reputable local butcher whose meat comes from identifiable farms and is not processed in the huge “finishing” and slaughtering operations where the problem originates. As for my grandchildren, not to put too fine a point on it: my daughter would kill me if I ever took them to McDonalds.
The Coffin Factory: Advocates for the Pharmaceutical industry have argued that the rise of obesity in America is a new “disease,” which they are hoping to cure with a pill. There are other arguments that obesity is a result of irresponsible parenting, or lack of self awareness, or the processing of food (particularly corn), or the privatizing of government responsibility. What do you think is the major cause of obesity in America?
Harvey Levenstein: One thing I find interesting about the obesity scare is how it parallels our reaction to hearing that someone has contracted a serious illness. It is hard not to blame it on their doing something that we don’t do—smoking, of course, being the best example. So, exercise enthusiasts blame obesity on lack of exercise, habitual dieters blame it on overeating, leftists blame the giant food processors, right-wingers blame the lack of self-control of the poor, and so on. My wife, who is fiercely anti-smoking, likes to point out that Americans’ weight rose at the same time that smoking decreased, something that I, as an ex-smoker who put on the 8 pounds after quitting, cannot readily dismiss. Obviously, there is no single major “cause.” One must also be suspicious of those who have exaggerated the extent of the “disease.” As with the heart disease “epidemic,” those with a stake in scaring us about it lowered the BMI for “overweight” so that it would include all kinds of people (such as me) whose weight would seem to pose no health risk at all. Yet, in order to gain support for whatever solution they are pushing, they normally confound us with the minority who are truly scarily-obese to conclude that a huge percentage of Americans are “overweight or obese.”
The Coffin Factory: The USDA says they have recently implemented new rules to increase the nutritional quality of schools lunches, including an increase in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and a decrease in fat and sodium. At the same time, the main meat source for schools—now commonly referred to as Pink Slime—is, as you’ve described, created from “discarded fatty trimmings from slaughterhouses,” that has been “treated with ammonia gas.” What do you think of the USDA publicly making an effort to increase the health of American children, while simultaneously approving the production and distribution of this “ground beef-like substance”?
Harvey Levenstein: As I said above, the rap on “pink slime” is that it sounds unappetizing. There is no evidence that it is unsafe. One wonders about the consequences of the USDA not allowing schools to serve all foods that look awful while they’re being processed. The outcry over Starbucks’ use of ground beetles to color a drink raises a similar question. Some of us would say, “What’s wrong with ground insects?” I’ve eaten and enjoyed fried and chocolate-covered grasshoppers in Mexico. Not only do they taste good, they’re an excellent source of protein. That said, there’s no denying that foods can disgust people once they’ve learned that they contain unappetizing things, so perhaps now that that slimy cat is out of the bag, the best course would be for the government to require the labeling of food containing the “slime,” which would effectively be the same as banning it.
The Coffin Factory: Many argue for the impartial accuracy of peer reviewed journals. However, in Fear of Food, you quote a scientist who says, “to be a dissenter is to be unfunded because the peer-review system rewards conformity and excludes criticism.” If this is the case, that even peer-reviewed journals are swayed by funding, where are we to look to for accuracy and truth?
Harvey Levenstein: I don’t wholly agree with the scientist, whose statement is an exaggeration. The fact is that the peer-review system is, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, a very flawed system, but far preferable to any of the alternatives. My research on food has exposed me to too many cockamamie books and articles based on non-peer-reviewed sources to shake my basic respect for the system. That said, it is true that there are reigning paradigms in every field, and those who challenge them find it difficult to gain approval (and funding) for their work. In the situation that prompted the quote above, those who believed in the “diet-heart theory,” that blamed saturated fat for the “epidemic” of heart disease, did dominate the scientific journals, and managed have those who challenged it dismissed as quacks. This happens in all fields, but it is probably worse with regard to food research than, say, Renaissance Studies, because of the billions of dollars that are ultimately at stake in research on the healthfulness of food. Just think of the enormous amounts that were made (and lost) out the “diet-heart theory’s” conclusions that margarine and vegetable oil would prevent heart attacks and butter and eggs would probably kill you.